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Open Letter to the Jerks at Adobe

August 18th, 2014
Just because you CAN disrupt my work to force advertising down my throat, doesn't mean you SHOULD.

Dear Adobe:

First, if you would let me file a bug report without first getting an “Adobe ID”, I would have chosen the quieter route. But you don’t.

While I find it amusing that I periodically get alerts that say, (more or less) “Hey! Guess what? You DON’T need an update!” which is, I admit, a surprising bit of news these days, today I got the message that indeed I needed to update Flash. I take these notices seriously because Flash is notorious for security issues, and I don’t want a gaping hole torn in my Web security. So I went through the update process.

Now, before I updated I had several browser windows open. Some to reference materials, some to sites I’m building and maintaining, some to communications and tracking tools, and so forth. You get the idea. I’ve come to trust that when I shut down my browser it will remember the previous state when it starts back up, reconstructing my workspace.

Unless, that is, I run the Flash Player installer. In THAT case, after the install my browser relaunches, but instead of my workspace, I get advertising for Adobe. And that’s all I get. Needless to say, when you just cost me a difficult-to-estimate amount of time getting things back the way they were (some tabs open for days or weeks, not practically recoverable from history), that is not the time to be splashing your logo in my face.

So stop doing that. There was a time I was a big fan of Flash, but now I look forward to the day I don’t need it at all. And that day is coming soon.

P.S. You’re a big company that presumably reviews your public-facing copy. Someone over there needs to learn the difference between “setup” and “set up”.

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The Riddle of the Man who Passed Me Twice

August 16th, 2014
A challenge met.

It is not uncommon for me to be passed by faster cyclists on my way to and from work. I try to make it easier for them, moving over to the right as far as I am comfortable. Often I will toss a “good morning!” or “afternoon!” at their receding backs.

Good mornings are more frequent than good afternoons, actually. Not sure why that is. Maybe I’m fresher. Maybe it’s the cooler temperatures in the morning. Maybe I’m just an asshole after 2 p.m.

Anyway, this story happens in the afternoon. I was rolling down Park street, which is a very pleasant part of my homeward ride, and doing pretty well. You know, for me. A rider passed me easily, an I noticed that he had some sort of fin attached to his helmet, like the dorsal fin of a long fish, presumably as decoration. He was past me before I could summon the breath for a greeting.

Because I have a Y-chromosome, and because Y-chromosomes are demonstrated to have a negative effect on intelligence in competitive situations — even situations that aren’t actually even remotely competitive — I started pedaling a little bit harder, to keep the guy in view and maybe catch a moral victory if he got stopped by an unlucky traffic light. Thus I knew as I rounded the bend in the road to head due east that he and I were still on the same track. After that, however, I lost sight of him.

I went under the tracks, took a right, and followed Bird street over the freeway. Not my favorite bit of riding, as there are ramps on and off, flanked by side streets, that make the whole situation bike-unfriendly. I’ve never had a close encounter along there, but there really are people coming at me from every direction.

The overpass safely negotiated for another day, I continued south on Bird. That’s when the guy passed me again. This time, he gave me the four-finger hand-still-on-handlebar wave as he went by. “Hey,” he said. To an outside observer, that might be all that happened. But he really said much more.

He wanted me to recognize him. He wanted me to remember that he had already passed me. I know a better way, he told me. Not a faster way, obviously, but a safer one.

“Thank you, mysterious stranger!” I called to him as he sped away. “I will solve the riddle!”

OK, actually I didn’t say that. I wheezed “Good afternoon”, trying to disguise how winded I was. By the time I got home, however, my brain was fizzing. I would solve the riddle of the man who passed me twice.

Just as in the days of Blackbeard, when one is searching for something of great worth, nothing beats a good map. I pulled the Goog up onto my screen and pored over the maps, based on my recollection of where I’d last seen the mysterious man after he had passed me the first time.

The maps let me down. I zoomed in closer and closer, but all there was was a jumble of ramps for the freeway interchange just to the east. Not a bike path, not a foot path, nada. Had the man who passed me twice merely paused on his trip, then followed the same course I had? Had I merely imagined the weight of significance in his “Hey”?

Impossible!

The next day was a Saturday, so rather than ride to work I rode to the awesome neighborhood bike shop to give them more of my money (this time for gloves — holy crap who knew what a difference they would make?). Before I left I checked out ye olde mappe to see if I could find a more scenic way home.

And there it was. The very northernmost part of Los Gatos Creek Trail, running along the railroad tracks as they passed under the freeway. The trail flirts with surface roads, making it hard to spot, but the real reason I hadn’t found it in my previous searches was that I’d assumed I’d seen the man who passed me twice after he’s passed that turnoff. But at that time I hadn’t known how significant that one data point would be.

Monday: homeward bound. A right turn before diving under the tracks, a spin through an industrial area, then onto the trail, tricky to spot if you don’t know where to look. A winding path, crossing a few streets (mostly quiet dead-ends), and blissfully under the freeway.

I had solved the riddle.

Another day will come, a day when the man who passed me twice passes me for a third time. Only this time, it will be on that hidden path, and when he says “hey”, he will really be saying “congratulations.” I’ll probably just wheeze “Good afternoon” again, and spoil the moment.

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Get-Poor-Quick Schemes Get-Poor-Quick Schemes

Money for Nothin’ and Watts for Free

August 15th, 2014
Suddenly those sprawling parking lots are looking more attractive...

Think about your average solar collector. Even if you have no idea how the dang things work, you know that:

  • They are flat
  • They are black
  • They don’t work in the shade.

What else fits that description? With a few exceptions on the shade angle, the world has a lot of asphalt baking in the sun. A lot. Anyone who’s gone barefoot in the summer knows how hot a street can get. With that much surface area, you would only have to convert a tiny fraction of the solar flux into useable energy to make a huge difference.

So, come on, science (or maybe this is one for the engineers), give us a way to turn all those square miles of asphalt into cheap, low-efficiency solar collectors.

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An Esoteric Physics Question

August 13th, 2014
I'm leaning 'yes'. Except now I'm leaning 'no'. Wait...

So we’ve all heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even if most of us are pretty vague on what it actually is. It’s a twist of quantum mechanics that says that you can’t know exactly both the location and the momentum of any object. The more certain you are of the momentum of a particle, the more the particle is smeared in a blur of probability.

A very cool side effect: Let’s say you have a cup of chicken soup, and you cool it way down. Colder, colder, colder… until your soup is almost to absolute zero. Absolute zero is when all the soup particles have zero momentum – they’re at a dead stop.

That’s exactly zero.

Do you know where your absolute-zero chicken soup is? No, you do not. It is quite literally everywhere.

Let’s back up a bit. As you get close to absolute zero, the soup particles start to smear out and blend with each other, until the entire cup of chicken soup behaves (in some ways) as a single, wacky chicken soup particle. I was trying to remember the name for this state of matter, but ‘wacky particle when supercooled chicken soup particles’ waveforms merge’ didn’t come up with anything useful. Maybe I should have tried Bing.

Anyway, here’s my question for the physics geeks among you. If you take a very small cup of chicken soup, and cool it down until it’s starting to smear out, then (somehow) cool it down some more really fast, so that suddenly the soup is spread over a volume the size of our solar system (it’s not a linear smear, more of a bell curve), is that change bound by the speed of light?

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The Great Adventure The Great Adventure

A Fine Meal

August 7th, 2014
The Old is New Again

There are few things better than fresh tomatoes straight from the garden. One of those better things is several different kinds of fresh tomatoes gracing your summertime entrée, all fresh-picked from within thirty feet of where your dinner plate is.

I didn’t count how many different kinds of tomato we had tonight; there are ten different varieties growing out in the back 40, but they’ve never all had ripe tomatoes at the same time. But tonight there were definitely several types represented, and they were all delicious.

When I was a kid I didn’t even know there were ten different kinds of tomato. The growing interest in pre-industrial versions of the food we eat is definitely a happy thing. And healthy, too.

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Skewed Perspective

August 1st, 2014
Silicon Valley is not the place to judge automotive trends.

On the way home from work today I got to hear what the V12 Mercedes SL 65 AMG sounds like. It’s a quarter-million dollar car that, despite impressive numbers for power and whatnot, and an equally impressive string of unnecessary letters and numbers in its name, “only” goes 155 mph. (The sound: imagine a hive of bees, except instead of bees it’s full of bears who don’t want to wake up but have to.)

The Santa Clara Valley (aka Silicon Valley) is not the place to get a good cross-section of what America’s driving. Based on a survey here, you might think that Tesla is preparing to challenge Volvo. (Tesla is the government-subsidized overpowered electric vehicle that allows wealthy people to be profligate while fooling themselves into believing they are environmentalists. I call it a watt-guzzler — but I wouldn’t turn one down). Tesla’s sound at a traffic light: sweet blissful silence.

In my time commuting in this area, I’ve stopped saying “Hey! a Maserati!” or “Holy Shit! A Lamborghini!” Top-end BMW’s and Audis are a dime a dozen. I got to check out the new Jaguar F-Type because there’s one that parks at my building. (It sounds… magnificent.) Other Jags, a Lotus or two… you know, the usual.

I’ve only seen one of those million-buck-and-then-some Bugattis, in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. It wasn’t that impressive.

Not a single damn Viper. Other modern muscle is represented, but not the top shark in the tank. The lack of creature comforts doesn’t play well here, I suppose — although a brief look at the Viper Web site indicates that the interior has been upgraded quite a bit from the old days. Race-inspired my ass. (Although, of the sites I flitted past for ‘research’ on this episode, give Viper credit for having a section dedicated to braking. That’s a huge part of performance.)

Which brings me to wonder: How much of the awesome of these cars is ever experienced? How often are drivers inconvenienced because their V12 wonder-engine can only get their buggy up to 155 mph? I haven’t even taken my Miata up to top speed. In everyday driving, what benefit is that massive motor?

Answer: the sound. Once, walking down the street in a quiet Prague suburb, I heard the unmistakeable sound of an American muscle car, purring like a tiger kitten choking on shots of testosterone. Rubmble-rumble chaka-huh rumble… I turned to see a Coke-bottle Corvette with a vent in the hood, idling down the main street of Strašnice. The driver gently stroked the accelerator and the neighborhood shook with a sound not often heard in Europe. There’s anger in that sound. In Europe they ask “why?” “Because fuck you,” this car answered. I love that sound.

Jaguar has mastered a more civilized version of that sound, and the twelve cylinders under the hood of the Mercedes SL 65 AMG PDQ BYPFD 0I812 produce a pretty satisfying note. You may never drive 160 mph, but your car will tell the rabble around you that you could if you wanted to.

Unless, of course, you’re trapped in traffic with a Bugatti.

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Observations Observations

Git ‘er DONE!

July 31st, 2014
With power tools!

While I’m skeptical of the necessity of scraping the top off what appeared to be a perfectly good street and then laying down a nice new layer of asphalt, I do have to admire the efficiency of the crew working outside my office. The scrapers scrape, the haulers haul, and right behind them come the pavers. There is definitely a sense of urgency as they work.

It’s like they’re in a race with the Evil Russian Road Crew that wants to pave over the orphanage. Will they get there in time?

Pave! Pave like the wind!

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1 mile into my ride this morning…

July 30th, 2014
All systems 'go'!

Legs: Well, all right, if you insist, let’s do this.
Stomach: How ’bout a snack?
Pizza with crushed red pepper I ate last night: I want out. Like, now.

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1,000 Miles

July 21st, 2014

I’ve had the new bike for a little less than three months, and thanks to modern technology I know that I’ve now pushed it along for one thousand miles. I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve (re-)learned during all those miles in the saddle. Some of them might even be mildly interesting.

  • When approaching a stop, think about what gear you want to be in when you start again. Once you’re not moving it’s too late to change.
  • The last ten feet of a climb can kill your momentum just as quickly as the first ten. Don’t let up your effort when you’re “almost there”.
  • Around here at least, if you demonstrate that you’re fully prepared to stop at the 4-way, most motorists will wave you through.
  • There’s something about BMW drivers, and it’s not something good.
  • Songs that match your pedaling cadence can get really stuck in your head.
  • Fatigue + excited little dog + speed bump = road rash
  • Combining the previous two: If you’re riding for an hour, and you have the “stuck on Band-Aids” jingle stuck in your head, there’s nothing to do but pray for the salvation of an ice cream truck playing ‘Little Brown Jug’
  • On flat terrain, 14 miles per hour isn’t measurably harder than 13, after the first few pumps. Knock it up a gear!
  • I’m getting callouses on my palms.
  • Go ahead, we’ll wait. Done? Good.
  • The two worst things: headwinds and garbage trucks. It is likely that at some point I will go on at length about these scourges.
  • On the way to work, I have the sun at my back and (usually) the wind in my face. On the way home, I have the sun at my back and (usually)… the wind in my face. I call shenanigans!
  • Tomorrow marks two months since I put gas in my car. I have biked to work rather than drive 47 times this summer. By the time you read this, it will probably be 48.
  • I’m lobbying for Apple to relocate its headquarters to Australia for the winter. Already not looking forward to short days and dark rides.
  • Biggest snub from a member of the Spandex Crowd: outside my building, by a guy who works at my company. Ignored me completely. I didn’t think we were allowed to hire jerks here.
  • While riding, I’ve been composing the BOMB manifesto. It was “Bearded Overweight Men on Bikes, but I think I’m changing it to Bearded Older Men on Bikes, because I might not always be the former, but there’s not much one can do about the latter. We will be a legion based on the ideals of Courtesy, Friendliness, and Brotherhood. We Are BOMB!
  • I get a lot of stupid ideas while riding.
  • I’ve lost about twelve pounds, but I suspect several pounds more of fat. My legs are still skinny, but there’s definitely more muscle on them now.
  • By next summer, I might be ready for that Kilimanjaro trip Buggy invited me on fifteen years ago.
  • Mondays aren’t so bad when you have a good ride on rested legs.

One thousand miles! Holy crap! I suspect the next thousand will go more quickly; my stamina is greatly improved. 150 miles in a week is no longer as crazy as it once seemed. Today I actually began to wonder how many miles I could expect on my tires before they were worn out. That’s not something I’ve had to worry about before.

As the novelty wears off, I might not write so many episodes about bicycling, but then again that’s when I have time to think about blog episodes. So, sorry in advance.

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Rethinking Apertures

July 17th, 2014
For a century and more, lenses have controlled light the same way. It's time to shake things up!

This is filed under the long-neglected ‘Get Poor Quick’ category, but the means of getting poor follows a discussion of camera lenses in general, with an emphasis on bokeh. Follow me and we’ll turn the whole industry on its head!

I was futzing around with the ol’ camera today, playing with my MIR-24, an older lens in which the Russians one-upped the prestigious German lens they were copying. It’s a fun lens when one has the time to manually get the focus just right. Here’s one of the shots I took (click to biggerize):

FR5A3546

One of they things I like about this shot is the way the fore- and background are interesting without being distracting. I took the shot with the lens wide open, which narrows the range that is in focus, and makes the foreground and background nicely blurry.

Different lenses will blur things differently; the quality of the blur is referred to with a word bastardized from Japanese, “bokeh”. Good bokeh is often described as “smooth”, while “jittery” is often used to describe bad bokeh.

But neither of those words actually describes what qualities make bokeh good or bad, just how it makes us feel. There is one generally-accepted reason bokeh is good or bad, and two others that are just as important but are not mentioned nearly often enough. I’m here to straighten that all out. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

So let’s think for a moment about what blur actually is. An image is blurred when light from one point in the subject covers more than one point in the image. Think about pictures where lights in the background turn into little circles. Or, if you don’t want to take the trouble to think, here’s an example:

FR5A0060

Note that points of light in the background of the above image are turned into circles. This is a projection of the aperture onto the camera sensor. If you look really closely, in fact, you will see that they are not quite perfect circles, but rounded octagons. The lens I was using has an eight-blade aperture control.

[Side note: When I'm watching TV now, I always take an interest in the shape of distant lights during night scenes. I bet an experienced cinematographer could tell you exactly what lens is being used just by that shape.]

Everyone agrees: the rounder the aperture, the smoother the bokeh. This is mostly true, but it’s far from the whole story. Here’s a look down the barrel of my MIR-24:

FR5A3574

The aperture is a hexagon, and not a terribly symmetric one at that. So, as the lens is stopped down (the aperture is closed) the bokeh will start to look edgy, and the dots from distant lights will be hexagonal. (The shot of the critters above was with the aperture all the way open; the blades are pulled out of the way entirely and the aperture is a nice perfect circle.)

Before we go on, let’s have some fun with aperture shapes!

Just because there’s an aperture control inside the lens, doesn’t mean we have to use it! Here I shoot with my beloved 85mm f/1.2, wide open in all these shots. But in the second shot, I’ve added my own homemade aperture in the shape of a triangle. (I wanted to do a fancier shape, but I’m not that good with the x-acto.)

You can get kits with all sorts of fun shapes, or you can get a camera lens with my new idea built right in. (Well, you might have to wait a while for option b.) Read on!

Back to bokeh. We have the generally-agreed-upon axiom that round apertures make better bokeh. But there’s another factor: The structure of the dots themselves. Some lenses produce nice, even dots, while others produce dots with a bright rim around the outside. And you can see that my homemade triangle aperture produced pretty significant ghosting. Both those things will add to the general unpleasantness of the blurry parts of your photos. So don’t assume that that old lens with the 20-blade aperture that’s nearly a perfect circle at any f-stop will automatically give you good bokeh.

Then there’s the one factor that no lens can compensate for (yet…). Sometimes the subject matter just doesn’t blur well. Here’s a picture I like overall, but there are a couple of things about the bokeh that bug me.

FR5A1629

The first annoyance is the fungus in the background. It is very structural, but the way it blurs just doesn’t feel natural. Behind the fungus things get muddled but also don’t feel quite natural. To see why the blur came out the way it did, consider the blade of grass that goes diagonally behind the flower. It is blurred into a perfect, straight, well-defined, sharp-edged area of doubt and uncertainty. All the things that go into a traditional aperture to create “good” bokeh sometimes produce a result that doesn’t feel natural. Lines get exaggerated rather than softened. The line of the grass becomes a line of circles, the light evenly distributed.

The big distracting leaf in the foreground cannot be blamed on the lens, alas. You have no idea how many different crops I tried to get that MF-er out of there.

OK, we’ve finally made it to the get-poor-quick part of this episode. You see, I have come up with a way to control the aperture of the lens that solves ALL the above problems: the aperture can be perfectly circular at any f-stop, or it can have any shape the photographer wants.

The blur in a traditional lens has hard edges because the aperture has hard edges. Metal blades close and open to allow more or less light into the lens. But what if the aperture were not hard-edged? What if the hole that let light through tapered off in opacity toward the edges? Those circles projected onto the sensor would taper as well, softening the edges of the circles, and therefore softening the bokeh. It would look fantastic.

All we have to do is get rid of those dang metal blades and replace them with a ridiculously high-resolution grid of pixels that can be set on a continuum from completely transparent to utterly opaque. The rest is software.

I know that is easier said than done, but think about how fast this technology is moving these days. Before long a system like this will be far cheaper to manufacture than a mechanism with servos and metal blades, and it will add a softness to pictures that can only be dreamt of today.

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Revenge of the Hoobajoob

July 17th, 2014
The topic is delicate, the procedure was not.

This is likely to be a short episode, for a couple of reasons: one, my memory of the procedure gets fuzzier as the amount of sedatives in my bloodstream was steadily increased, and two, because there are some details that I simply will not share.

About a month ago I went in for a happy-50th-birthday colonoscopy. It was mildly unpleasant, but not terrible. During this probing the doctor found two polyps. Polyps are growths that, if allowed to run amok, can turn in to cancer. Best just to get those bad boys out of there. In the words of the NIH:

Colon polyps can be raised or flat. Raised colon polyps are growths shaped like mushrooms. They look as though they are on a stem or stalk. Flat colon polyps look like a bed of moss.

I had one of the flat sorts, way up at the very end (or beginning) of my large intestine. My doctor didn’t have the proper tools on hand to deal with it, so we set up another appointment at an actual hospital to take care of it. Yesterday was that day.

It turns out, they barely had the proper tools at the hospital. When the alternative is surgery, however, you do everything you possibly can to get the job done using the colonoscopes. Picture three grim-faced auto mechanics trying to get a wrench into a tight spot in a car to free up a seized bolt. If they can’t get it free, they’re going to have to pull the engine to get at the failing part. An expensive and invasive procedure. The mechanics will do whatever it takes to avoid pulling the engine. Now replace the car in that image with me.

“Whatever it takes” in this case includes contorting the patient and mashing down on his gut to push the intestine closer to the business end of the scope. After the third time being rearranged on the table for another go at the just-out-of-reach polyp, all thought of dignity was lost in a haze of discomfort and a feeling of terrible bloatedness as the air displaced by all the equipment up there looked for a place to go. Things got messy.

In the end, they got the damn thing. Probably. I’ll be going back for a followup in a few months. Hopefully there will be nothing to write home about.

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Here’s Something I can be Proud Of

July 14th, 2014
I also got an award for not falling over.

I use MapMyRide to track the miles I cover on my bike. It gives me a pretty decent breakdown of how I did, and for certain segments of my rides it compares me to other riders and to my past performance. MMR seems to believe that no accomplishment should go uncelebrated, no matter how minor.

Here’s the lowdown on one of those segments this evening:

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 6.15.47 PM

To save you some squinting, here’s the part of the above I find most amusing:

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 6.18.28 PM

Those colored circles are badges of honor, telling me how awesome my ride was. The blue one with the “G” means I’m the Guru of that stretch of road; I’ve ridden it more times this month than any other MMR rider. Then there’s the other badge, the one that says “5 PR”, meaning this ride was my fifth personal record — my fifth-best time ever on that course. Woo hoo!

Except, well, that would be considerably more impressive were it not for the “Times Completed” number: 5. My fifth-best time ever on that stretch of road is also my worst time ever. Now there’s something to celebrate!

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Writing Writing

Coming Home

July 11th, 2014
Lebron takes his talents to Northeast Ohio

I’ve often stated that the NBA is more like Championship Wrestling than an actual sport. It’s more about the personalities than the actual games. And today, the NBA script writers earned their Emmy. Lebron James is returning to Cleveland.

Cleveland management had to scurry to take down the comical comic-sans screed posted by ownership when Lebron left town four years ago. In that manifesto, ownership guaranteed a championship for their slighted city before Lebron got one in Miami. Two championships later, on his return Lebron is saying he’s not guaranteeing anything, but that there’s nothing he wants more than to bring a trophy home to the place he grew up.

His letter to Sports Illustrated has been carefully crafted, vetted by lawyers, agents, PR experts, sycophants, and Lebron’s mom, but you know what? I actually believe it. I think that’s where he wants to raise his kids. I think it’s where he wants to end his career. It doesn’t hurt that no major sports team from Cleveland has won a championship in 50 years; he brings them a title, he’s God in that town. By my reckoning, he has four years.

Meanwhile, in Miami, the Heat will be determined to prove that they can be good without Lebron, that the other highly-paid superstars can carry the team, that Lebron was just a cog in the machine. They will fail. This past year management put the team on Lebron’s shoulders through the grind of the season to rest their other stars, and then in the finals the well-rested other stars vanished and Lebron ran out of gas. I’m no expert on sports, and certainly not on sorta-sports like professional basketball, but I won’t be putting any money on the boys from South Beach this year.

But as a fellow writer, I have to tip my hat to the NBA. Here’s a story that even non-fans in the offseason are talking about. That’s a good script.

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Observations Observations

Miles Per

July 10th, 2014

As my bicycle miles per week go up, my miles per hour are going down.

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Observations Observations

Actually, You’re Not

July 3rd, 2014
And shame on you for thinking you were.

I just saw an ad for an insurance agency whose tagline was “because you’re different”. Bullshit. The entire industry is predicated on you NOT being different; they profit from the statistical norm. The tagline may as well be “because you’re more attractive than your coworkers”. Blind-ass flattery.