What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Blogging

This month marks four years I’ve been blogging. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it.

First off, the first two years of this blog were terrible. Like many people, I started under the stupid assumption that people cared what I thought about things like politics, pop culture, and world events. They don’t. My traffic numbers prove it. Sure, the odd post here and there is still about those things, but I was posting daily my feeble, half-baked rants about the Bush administration and the lead-up to the war in Iraq. That is, I had the same opinions as roughly 48% of the US and no substantial difference in my thoughts. My posts could have been written by any one of tens of thousands of people.

There were some posts that I did in a more personal voice, like my 9/11 Year Two entry, that I felt good about and pointed the way for how I should have been–and everyone should be–blogging: to share things that only the blogger can: thoughts, information, details that are either unique to the blogger or else told in a unique way. No One Cares What You Had for Lunch unless you are a food critic. The best blogs are those that contain focused information on topics of interest that you won’t find elsewhere, told in a singular voice.

And that, along with remembering to post semi-regularly, is what I’ve learned.

Oh, and spell check.

Does Place Still Matter?

Of course it does.

For the last, oh, eight or so years, journalists and prognosticators have repeatedly tried to sell us the fantasy that where you live and work (read: cities) doesn’t matter. You can telecommute! Broadband puts you instantly in touch! Fed Ex your stuff way out into the wilderness.


The latest of this is Forbes’ 150 Cheap Places to Live, which suggests we should move from our cities to Bend, OR.

Now, this might work during good times. When there is demand for work, businesses are less picky about who and where they hire. But when times get tight, I’m not sure this is the case. There’s still something about a physical connection between people that is very important. Even full video broadcasting is not the same as being in the room with someone. (This is why I fly a lot.) “Out of sight, out of mind” as the saying goes.

Cities also provide chance (and deliberate) connections. Someone you meet at a party or in the park or waiting in line could be your next client or employer or business partner. As lovely as it probably is, you simply aren’t going to get the density of people (and thus the higher chance of connections) remote from your business.

Cities also provide fail-safes. If your business/industry goes bottom up, unless it’s a one-industry town, you’ll have a better chance of finding new work. When the bubble burst, I was able to move from interactive agencies to financial services because I was around New York City. (In systems design, this is called requisite variety: an assortment of responses to deal with a range of situations.) Cities, because of the variety of resources they have and can employ, have more requisite variety.

Cities also carry with them collective learning. If one person doesn’t know how to do something, someone else down the street might.

So anyway, don’t believe the hype. Moving out to the exurbs in the middle of nowhere might save you some money–at the cost of your career.

MUNI: Unofficial Fight Club

Today is the 100th anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake here in San Francisco. Our public transportation system, MUNI, decided to celebrate by not collecting fares today. So, this being San Francisco, every mentally-ill, crack-addled, drunken, shoeless inebriate took advantage of this and was on MUNI today.

I had the pleasure of several of these citizens on my bus going home, including one who decided to go crazy right as I was getting off at my stop at Haight and Baker. After insulting and threatening several passengers, he got it started by punching an elderly man in the face, breaking the man’s glasses, then trying to steal his bag. Several passengers and I proceeded to literally kick him off the bus, down the back stairwell and into the street. He then, since I was standing in the stairwell, tried to grab my laptop bag, pulling me off the bus.

I landed on the street and scraped my finger, but it didn’t notice it until someone later pointed it out. As an adult male, you occasionally wonder what you will do if you ever find yourself in these sorts of situations, facing someone coming at you, fists cocked and out of their mind. I now know how I’m likely to respond. Like an idiot:

Despite taking a few boxing lessons about five years ago, I haven’t been in a fight since like sixth grade. But I got up quickly, made my own hands into fists and swung them at him, aiming at his face. I missed. Somewhere, my boxing trainer is very disappointed in me. The drunk fighter took a swing at me and missed. “Come on motherfucker, I will kick the shit out of you, motherfucker!” I heard myself yelling. He was screaming something equally threatening back at me, but I can’t remember what it was. Passengers were calling out behind me on the bus. I picked up my laptop bag from the street and put it next to a fire hydrant and from that position stupidly resumed taunting my opponent, who eventually shuffled down the side street.

After that, the incident dissolved into taking care of the poor guy who had been punched, his nose bleeding a little. The police eventually showed up (the station is all of three blocks from the scene) and a little later an ambulance arrived. The crazy/drunk assailant walked away and, to my knowledge, wasn’t apprehended, even though he lingered around for at least ten minutes after the fight, watching from half a block away.

I’d spent the day quietly at work in front of my computer designing and thinking and listening to music. But you never know what can happen during the course of a day: an earthquake, a fistfight, whathaveyou. Just another day in San Francisco.

My Fours

I can’t resist a good internet meme.

Four jobs I’ve had
Security guard at a women’s catholic college (the wolf guarding the sheep as it were)
Archery instructor, kids’ summer camp
Copywriter, TV Guide
Marketing assistant, women’s lingerie company

Four movies I can watch over and over
Office Space
The Last of the Mohicans
Star Wars
Lost in Translation

Four places I’ve lived
Baltimore, MD
Los Angeles, CA
Hoboken, NJ
Pittsburgh, PA

Four TV shows I love
Twin Peaks
Homicide: Life on the Street
Sports Night

Four places I’ve vacationed
Savannah, Georgia
Cannes, France
Florence, Italy
Death Valley, CA

Four of my favorite dishes
Yellow curry chicken
Rice gelato
Caprese salads
Grape leaves

Four sites I visit daily
Yahoo News

Four places I would rather be now
A pub in Dublin
Anywhere in the South of France
At a dinner with friends
Sydney, Australia (because I’ve always wanted to visit)

Four things in my pocket right now
A crumpled Hamilton
Mobile Phone
Credit cards
A handful of receipts

Final Thought: 2005

While doing some end-of-the-year archiving of old emails, I was startled when I came across some from Jef Raskin, one of the designers of the original Macintosh and author of The Humane Interface. I was surprised because Jef died this February and, although I was sad at the time, I had sort of forgotten about it.

Although I never met Jef, The Humane Interface was the first interaction design book I ever read, and it changed the way I thought about computers. Although I still don’t agree with everything he said/wrote, he made me (and many others) believe that interfaces could be better, that we can think differently about our relationship with the computer. I still believe that, and although Jef is now gone, the work goes on.

See you in 2006.

A Stranger in My Own City

The last time I really lived in San Francisco was in 1988, when I was 18. Quite a bit has happened since then, to both me and the city. It’s strangely familiar, but more strange than familiar. I remember the general areas of the city, but not the street names or how to get there. Some shops and restaurants I knew years ago are still here, but in some cases, entire blocks have literally vanished, buried under new condos or malls.

As with anything new–or renewed–everything makes an impression, sometimes false, sometimes true. I’m hyperaware of things that long-term residents probably don’t even think about: the numerous chains of grocery stores; the amazing proliferation of yoga studios–almost one per block, or so it seems; the staggering number of homeless on the streets; the multicultural stew of a population; the great food at even modest restaurants; and the dogs! dogs everywhere, and welcomed. We went to open a bank account today and even the bank had a dog bowl and doggie treats.

While I hate the disorientation and awkwardness that comes with not knowing where the drugstore is, say, there is something exciting about the exploration of a place I sort of know, but don’t. I’m looking forward to relearning my city.


It’s my last few days in Pittsburgh, after being here for two years while I went to grad school. My stuff is half in boxes, and I’m frantically ripping CDs for my cross-country drive to my new home in San Francisco. I’m desperate to get to my new place and start my new job, but since I’m a reflective kind of guy, I thought I’d note some of the things I’ll miss, aside from my friends and teachers, about Steel City:

  • the smoke-filled loft at The Cage
  • tattooed girls on mopeds on the South Side
  • Dave and Andy’s Ice Cream
  • the baby elephants at the Pittsburgh Zoo
  • the view as you come out of the Fort Pitt tunnel
  • sitting on my front steps on humid summer nights, smoking cheap cigars and drinking even cheaper beer
  • the jukebox at Gooski’s, which miraculously always plays “Teenage Riot” by Sonic Youth every time I’m there
  • movies on Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park
  • the interactive art installations at the Children’s Museum
  • the bridges. With more bridges than any city except Venice, Pittsburgh has a tremendous variety of impressive bridges and their resulting vistas. You can often see several of them at once.

Pittsburgh itself was a bridge for me: a link between where I was and where I wanted to go. And while I’ve enjoyed living here, I need to cross to the other side.

Spiritual Interfaces

It would be difficult, I think, to argue that humans are simply biological machines, although certainly many have tried. There are things about being human that aren’t easily reducible; we seem to be more than the sum of our parts. Some call this extra something the spirit or the soul. Similarly, life itself seems to either be run by rules that are so complicated as to be incomprehensible or else filled with inexplicable things: chance encounters, falling in love, the beginning and end of life. Human existence also suggests the great mysteries: Is there a God? Why are we here? Is there a purpose to all this? There may not be an answer to any of these, but the questions remain.

We don’t tend to think of religions as products, as things created by humans. In fact, to those who believe their religion is divinely created or inspired, this is probably heresy. But I think this is the case: that religions are, along with some other human products, interfaces to the spiritual or mystical part of human existence.

We need ways of comprehending and reasoning about the unknown. We seem to be wired for this; our brains try to grasp the unknown by comparing it to the known and making a pattern. Cognitive scientists call this schemas, linguists “cross-domain mapping.” We use metaphor to take the abstract (time) and make it concrete (money, thus Time is Money). We take the difficult and abstract digital computer and put a desktop on it so that we can use and think about it.

We do the same thing with the otherwise mystical part of life: we use interfaces to try to comprehend them. Religion is one such interface, although there are many others certainly: music, art, literature, dance, gardening, storytelling, theatre, to name a few. And yes, maybe even design. What are Christian crosses or Jewish stars of Davids or the Unitarian flaming chalices except icons?

All those things are ways of making the ineffable tangible, through things our senses can deal with: sights, sounds, action, words. It is hard to think about death, but it is easier to go to a funeral. It is hard to describe loneliness, but looking at one of Hopper’s lighthouses connects you to it. A few bars of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will give you a language to talk about terror and despair. A visit to your church, mosque, temple, or synagogue will give you a way to think about the divine and/or the sublime. Or to think about thinking about the divine. It’s what we humans do.