Tuesday, December 16, 2008


The iPhone 3G has been unlocked! All praise and honor due to the iPhone-dev-team!

That said, there is a cost to living on the technological frontier. You can't always do everything you want because not everything is available—or even known to be possible. So for us early adopters, we buy on faith.

Five months and five days ago, I stood in line for 7 1/2 hours to get a new iPhone 3G. My move to Spain was still planned then, and I knew the consequences. I can't take it abroad…as is. So I stepped out on a limb and bought the godPhone in hopes that faithful hackers would pwn it in time.

Six weeks and three days ago, I bought a plane ticket bound for Europe. The schedule is such that I'll land on The Continent on December 29th. As it stood when confirming my flight, I will be iPhone-less.

One week and five days ago, I cancelled my AT&T service, effective December 29th. I'm stepping into the great unknown world of a cell-phoneless existence. There was still only the veiled hope of a 3G unlock so I could use my iPhone when I get abroad. But my cell plan was cancelled on faith. (Without the fabled early termination fee, by the way. Just move out of AT&T's coverage area.)

But today dawns a new era of hope: 
A new star is seen in the eastern sky!
Unto us a hack is born.
Unto us a pwn is giving.
And the overnment will be hot upon his trail. 
His name shall be called Wonderful Communicator, Mighty iPod, Everlasting Battery (sic), Prince of Pwns. 
And you are to give him the name, yellowsn0w, because he will save people from their cell-provider.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Different Google Reader

Google recently added the ability to read scanned PDF documents. This is impressive because it's one thing to show a picture of text and another thing for a computer to understand what letters and words are represented there. As mentioned in this article, this provides a poor man's way to get high-end OCR (optical character recognition) done on a scanned PDF one has. So this is my test of the effectiveness of that technique on a document I would love to have in text-form.

I'll update this post if/when the Google bot gets here and indexes the PDF. Thanks Google!

11/28/2008  EDIT: It took a couple weeks, but Google came through with it's Optical Character Recognition flag waving high. Here's a copy of the Google Cache which OCRed this scan of Bluspels and Flalansferes (1939) by C. S. Lewis. But oddly, the OCR/Cache ends mysteriously at just a paragraph (in each column) into page 14. What happened to the rest? Is the Google bot in the process of recognizing this as I type? Time might tell…

Friday, October 10, 2008

Pavlov's Ringtone

How To Hate Music:

1.)  Get a phone with programable ringtones.
2.)  Set the beginning of your favorite song as the default ringtone.
3.)  Use this phone for work.
4.)  Work a lot. (Make sure your work includes people you don't like or want to talk to.)
5.)  Begin to hate getting phone calls.
6.)  Begin to hate the beginning of your favorite song.
7.)  Instinctively cringe X% of the time when shuffling through your favorite playlist.
8.)  Choose second favorite song and repeat from step 2.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The New Reading

It's a well-respected virtue of educated society to be "well read." At the crux of this value is the "pleasure of allusion." When a vague reference to some ancient Greek hero or a madeleine is caught, there is a telepathic wink made between reader and writer. Obviously, the more you read—books of the right sort, that is—the more references you will recognize, increasing your pleasure of allusion… and the snowball of pretension goes barreling down the slope.

Being well read is also heralded for its liberal virtue of introducing new ideas and new perspectives. The premise here is that a person is incomplete to the degree which they haven't judged the ways and beliefs of others according to their own rational faculties. Thus, even if one goes around and around the library to ultimately find oneself back at their original ideological foundation, at least now it's "well grounded."

I suggest there is another sort of human experience which accomplishes the same thing as reading: traveling.

In a coffee shop yesterday, I saw on TV from the corner of my eye a building. It instantly and mysteriously grabbed my attention from other matters because I recognized this building! The volume was off and I didn't know what the program was about, but I knew it was about something familiar. A near-instantaneous process of memory began searching my archives of experience and presented me a picture. This picture-->    Flooded with memories of sights and sounds and sensations and adventures, I remembered my travels in Portland, Oregon. That is where I took this picture, a picture of the building that was just on the television. And now I know where this TV program was filmed. As it continued showing a coffee cup, sack of beans, and latte art, I know what it's about. Even more, I understand it because I know the coffee culture of the Pacific Northwest quite well. Fond memories of happy days! Caught from a peripheral image of a place long left: The pleasure of allusion.

Along with the familiar places, a traveler reads foreign ideas. People in other places simply do things differently. Not all are created equal nor worthy of adoption by every wayfarer who wanders them by, but these concepts mid-westerners find so strange start to take a new form when considered in their native environment. I still sit sandaled sans-socks, but on cold and wet October mornings in Seattle, I admit that my toes were happy to wear SmartWool secured with straps.

So it seems we value traveling for the very same reasons we value reading: Each stretches us beyond our confines, broadens our horizons, and in the end, gives us something of which only we will ever know its value. T. S. Eliot said it so well: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

So a telepathic wink I send to you, dear reader:

Friday, August 22, 2008


For Immediate Release

Ryan Wright
[this blog]
that email address --->

Ryan Wright, literati and blogger extraordinaire, invents an emoticon for eye-rolling.

I, Ryan Wright, hereby invent (actually, I invented it in December of 2006) an emoticon for eye-rolling:


This is long overdue! How many times have we all been in an IM or writing a forum post and needed to express sarcastic underwhelmment, but been stuck without an eye-rolling button on the keyboard? This problem has plagued mankind for far too long and I am happy to share my innovative solution with you, dear blog reader, right now. Go forth, dot your I's, cross your T's, mind your P's and roll your QQ.

To Do: Less

I blame it on a particular college professor I had, that ever since I have shared his obsession with über-high levels of productivity. The formula/mantra goes like this:

Your Time = Your Life
-- therefore --
Wasting Your Time = Wasting Your Life

I don't disagree with this; and I still have nothing but the highest respect and fondest affection for my professor and friend. But, some lessons from Ancient Philosophy take longer to set in than others.

For a time, not wasting my time meant always having something to do and making sure that something was productive. So I armed myself with the latest gadgets and other tools to keep productivity and learning close-at-hand. Then I found better ways to organize these things so that they were even more efficient. I cut out the seconds it took to access an item and kept that thing close at hand so I could get to it instantly and waste no small iota of my time/life.

But something happened along the way. Now that I had all these things closer at hand, they were easier to access; so I would. I would access them very quickly. In between answering emails, my efficient system allows me to pop over to Google Reader and see what new articles are posted on my favorite news sites or friends' blogs. Reading an article from there, it prompts me to make a quick lookup on Wikipedia. And before I know it, the half-second it takes for the software to send an email which I was trying to fill productively has degenerated into an hour and a half of research into posthumously awarded Oscars or the latest developments in invisibility cloaks. This would not do.

My goal is increased productivity by decreased time wasting. For me, this meant eliminating some of the "productivity tools" which seduce my attention during those nanoseconds I had to kill. The result has been drastically increased productivity by means of self-imposed sensory underload.

Here's how I'm doing it: I'm starting with the goal of using my time intentionally. So this means eliminating multiple choice from my computing experience. I know where I want to go and don't need my computer reminding me of the other places I could go. 
The links in my bookmarks bar and the programs in my Dock (I use a Mac), like Google Earth, cry out to me to come while away hours in their soft embrace.

No more! I removed the Bookmarks Toolbar from my web browser and set my home page to a blank page. Then I removed all icons from my dock (can't remove Finder or Trash; I wish!). A Mac user who follows me might ask 
how I open documents, programs and websites. My answer: the old fashioned way. I use something of a command line interface. I actually type the address (or start it since Safari will autocomplete it) to the website I want to visit. This forces me to double-consider if that's where I should be going now, not be distracted by other places I could go, and keeps me from instinctively opening up the time-wasting can-of-worms that is Google Reader—unless I really want to spend my time reading news.

For programs and documents, I use Spotlight. This is brilliant! Spotlight is a faster application launcher than almost anything! With a "Command + Space" keypress, I get the prompt. It takes only the typing of a few letters for Spotlight to highlight exactly what I'm looking for. I open it and am off to the productivity races. This also results in instant access to what I need without the distractions of multiple choice along the way.1

Observers of my screenshot examples in this post will notice that I've also set my desktop background to black and the OS X theme to a monochromatic one. What's more, I am writing this post in complete black-and-white. I find these choices help with productivity, but also aide in creativity—a subject for an entirely separate post soon to come.

1 For my friends suffering on Windows computer who might want a similar experience, Google provides Desktop Search which will deliver almost the same experience as Spotlight.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Features of Habit

It's amazing to me how much of life is directed by habit!

I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule—being self employed—so I am acutely aware of and masochistically guilt-ridden by how unproductive I can be. It goes deeper than that, however. Since moving out of my parents house, I have been my own man. I do what I want when I want. My life is ruled by my desires.

A great example of this is with food. I always eat exactly what seems most desirable to me at that moment. When faced with the perennial question, "Where should we eat lunch?" I quickly take stock of my mood and my options, then choose exactly the dish that will best suit my fancy. (In my mind: a restaurant = my favorite dish there) Missing from this description is any outside will. I might capitulate slightly to a friend who strongly prefers a certain place, but even then, only if I have good reason to think that location will satisfy my momentary urges. But all in all, every culinary experience is preceded by this internal taking-of-stock of the whims of that moment.

I thought this was where it ended. I thought that I was just rather picky and self-centered and that I wanted what I wanted, every time. Recent experiments have modified this perception.

I have recently started a self-directed program I am calling "A Week Without." In this experiment, I choose a certain feature of my life's experience and simply go without it for a week. The purpose of this exercise is to challenge the behavior directed by my desires and hopefully grow as a person. What I have discovered is that there is force behind my desires: habit.

Let's continue the example of eating. Almost without exception, following a meal, I wanted something sweet to finish it off. This is the "dessert" my health-teacher mother never let me have as a child. (Since moving out, I've hardly missed an opportunity.) I didn't think this was that complex. I finished dinner; I want dessert. But after further reflection, I noticed some other patterns behind this. After what was generally a salty dinner, I wanted something sweet. Then after something sweet, I would often want something salty again—to be followed again by the urge for something sweet. (This is a viciously American cycle, I'm afraid.) There was a recurring pattern of post-salty desire for sweet, and post-sweet desire for salty.

Enter: A Week Without. I decided to take a week without sugar. Even more, I wanted a week without anything sweet! This meant no artificial sweetner: no Splenda, no Nutra-Sweet, no polysyntheticsianoacrisugarate. Take it a step further: no natural sugar either. Nothing that tastes sweet. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life!

It was one of the most enlightening weeks of my life! I made it. I did a whole week without anything sweet and I learned several important lessons: First of all, sugar is everywhere! It is really hard to find a weeks worth of food that doesn't include sweet morsels—especially in the bachelor's lifestyle—but it is possible. Second, I learned that some foods are very sweet which I never noticed, like bananas and beer and Saint Louis City water (ok, maybe I was a little delirious).

I also learned that behind my momentary culinary cravings were years of accumulated habits—in particular, this salty/sweet pattern. I had never before stopped to ask myself, "Why do I want that bowl of ice cream?" or "Why do I want that candy bar?" The craving goes back further than just a desire, it goes back to habit. In the last 10 years, I've built the habit of alternating between the two. When I took a week to break the cycle, I found that I didn't want sweet things any more. At the start, I expected to finish my Week Without on the couch with a half-gallon of ice cream, a spoon, and no bowl. The opposite happened. I went more than a week without. Day 8 was sans-sugar. So was day 9. I just didn't want it very badly, and the experiment was more interesting to continue than re-establishing my high-caloric carbohydrate intake.

By Day 10, I started back in with sugar in my coffee (coffee without sugar was really tough!), but not my usual dose of 4-packs-per-six-ounce-cup. I took a single pack-per-cup and it was really sweet! Almost too sweet. Since this experiment, I've gone back to eating sweet foods, but to this day, I don't have but 1/10 the amount of sugar I used to; and I don't miss it. I don't desire it. I don't crave it.

My desires were shaped by the habits I had built, and this week taught me that overcoming those desires was mostly an issue of breaking the habits. I think this is true across the board. Our lives are determined by our habits in great degree! Why is it hard to wake up early? Habit. Why don't I read more? Habit. Why do I waste so much time on the computer? Habit. Why are my social interactions always the same? Habit.

Therefore, I'm continuing my Week Without programs and applying it across the board. I've done a Week Without Music and a Week Without Video. I'm currently in the middle of a Week Without Skipping a Workout (with only moderate success. This may take a few tries.). Each one tells me more about myself and works wonders for growing as a person. And what's behind each of these behaviors that I wish would change is some deep-seated long-standing habit. Want to change a behavior? Challenge the habit.

POSTSCRIPT:  On a side-note, a side effect that I've found from my Weeks Without is that, depending on what I'm going without, it often feels like traveling. When you take a vacation, the whole idea is to get away from your normal routine. A Week Without gets you away from your routine. For example, when I did a Week Without Video, I had all this extra time. It was time I couldn't while away with movies or TV (by self-determined fiat), so I had to find other ways to relax. I read more. I went out more. I called old friends. I explored things around my city that I always wanted to, but never took the time. I went to the Art Museum. I drove through unexplored neighborhoods. I walked around my neighborhood for entertainment. And it all felt new and adventurous, like I was a stranger in this new land.

My! How much we miss when shackled to our own habits!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Metaphorically Doing Nothing

I am reading an absolutely captivating book (for the linguistic nerds) called Metaphors We Live By, written by Lakoff and Johnson. The insights gained from a careful examination of how we use language are legion! Language both represents what we believe and shapes how we think. As an example, here is an excerpt:

In viewing labor as a kind of activity, the metaphor assumes that labor can be clearly identified and distinguished from things that are not labor. It makes the assumptions that we can tell work from play and productive activity from nonproductive activity. These assumptions obviously fail to fit reality much of the time, except perhaps on assembly lines, chain gangs, etc. The view of labor as merely a kind of activity, independent of who performs it, how he experiences it, and what it means in his life, hides the issues of whether the work is personally meaningful, satisfying, and humane.

The quantification of labor in terms of time, together with the view of time as serving a purposeful end, induces a notion of LEISURE TIME, which is parallel to the concept LABOR TIME. In a society like ours, where inactivity is not considered a purposeful end, a whole industry devoted to leisure activity has evolved. As a result, LEISURE TIME becomes a resource too—to be spent productively, used wisely, saved up, budgeted, wasted, lost, etc. What is hidden by the RESOURCE metaphors for labor and time is the way our concepts of LABOR and TIME affect our concept of LEISURE, turning it into something remarkably like LABOR.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pistols at Dawn!

A Couchsurfing friend recently emailed me asking for a place to stay for the weekend. When I saw that she was a freelance writer by trade, I challenged her to a duel: My city vs. Hers in prose of 500 words. What follows is after twenty paces, turn, and fire!

Gateway to Saint Louis

Once positioned third behind New York and Chicago as one of America’s greatest cities,1 the tragic decline of Saint Louis in the 1960s and its recent re-emergence have reforged this since-forgotten jewel of America’s heartland. In its wake, the renewal of Saint Louis has left a legacy of rich history, vibrant society, and utterly breathtaking architecture.

Striking to the eye, Saint Louis presents an architectural richness which eastern cities like Boston and Philadelphia covet and western cities left behind. Neighborhood after neighborhood parades elegant Victorian Tudor brick homes whether housing the social elites or common Joes. The streets are filled with green and the city boasts the country’s second largest city park, Forest Park, which is home to world-class art and history museums, an award winning zoo, and science center—all of which are free and open to the public. For 8 months in 1904, Forest Park was the focus of the entire world as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (a.k.a. “World’s Fair”) showcased the finest creations of mankind’s genius, be it architectural, technological, social, or artistic. The remnants of that magical era are still accessible today for the inquisitive visitor ready to be transported to where and when “The American Century” began.

Modern-day Saint Louis charms unsuspecting travelers with neighborhoods brimming with character and boiling with a vibrant social life. A myriad of fine restaurants line the main streets and out-of-the-way spots in each of Saint Louis’ unique neighborhoods. The Loft District of Washington Avenue sports a trendy strip of bars, clubs, and avant-guard restaurants among the historic buildings of the turn-of-the-century Garment District. The City Museum is just around the corner and defies all explanation but guarantees an unbelievable time! The Loop in University City is another sure-stop for any would-be visitor. This strip—named “One of the 10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association—nourishes an eclectic mix of artistry, society, and history. Grab a root beer from Fitz’s and a table on the sidewalk and be ready to meet some friendly, loquacious passers-by. Or catch a concert across the street in Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room—the very place that Chuck Berry invented Rock and Roll and still performs every month.

No comment on Saint Louis can ignore its most significant visual feature: The Gateway Arch, commemorating the role this city played as the last enclave of civilization before a pioneer reached the Wild West. Saint Louis was the hub of westward expansion linking the old civilizations of the East coast to the new frontiers in the West. This legacy is breathtakingly commemorated in the Arch, an elegant historic form cast in modern stainless steel, which stands at 630 feet to greet all travelers as they cross the Mighty Mississippi. The Arch stands therefore not just as a gateway between East and West, but like Saint Louis itself, a bridge between our past and the bright future.

1 Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 1961

Friday, April 11, 2008

Chasing Windmills

Having arrived back home, I haven't been so moved to post on the old blog for reasons of general hum-drummery. But as of yesterday, I heard unofficial news from one of the professors on the admissions committee that may application has been approved. So in the forthcoming weeks I should hear final word, and then if my house can sell in time (here's hoping!), I will be off to study English Literature in Madrid, Spain this October. Yes, you read that right. It will be English literature in Spain. Let's all just enjoy the irony together, now shall we?

Among the many things that I learned on my travels in the last few months of 2007 is that I want to teach, and to do it at the college level. So this means back to school for me. Truth be told, I've been wanting to be back in school since I got out back in the day. So having amassed vast quantities of life experience, I figure it is now high-time to hide it all back in the classroom. The good news is that if everything goes according to plan, I'll graduate in a decade or less and continue on with the whole "working" thing as a college professor.

For those of you wondering how English Literature fits into the picture, I will take 2 years to get 2 masters degrees in it and use the time also to decide on a course of study for my PhD. At the moment, it's a toss-up between Literature, Religious Studies, and Philosophy. Anyone caring to weigh with an opinion will be given odds accordingly.

If you are the sort with an affinity for details, the program's website (through Saint Louis University--yes, in Spain. I know, it's even more confusing) can be found here. The location of the campus can be found here. And the good news about specialized school supplies can be found here.

Viva la España!

Friday, February 8, 2008

iWitness: The Kirkwood City Hall Shooting

Inside my second favorite coffee shop, I was working on my computer when a bald man burst through the doors right in front of me and yelled to the entire room, "You better lock the doors, someone just shot some people across the street!"

At first nothing happened. No one really knew what to make of this guy. He said it again and explained a little more, "You'd better lock the doors! A man just shot the mayor and a bunch of other people in a city council meeting across the street." Now it started to sink in. Everyone in Kaldi's Coffee Shop scurried to the back as a barista locked the doors. The view out the large front windows was an eery quiet, but picturesque view of Kirkwood City Hall.

Some people ran out the back door and left, but most people huddled together in the back corner, each talking on a cell phone held in trembling hands. Books, computers, coats and purses were all left sitting on the front tables as we watched the first flashing red and blue lights come on the scene.

By this time a few other people had straggled in, quivering and telling of a man named "Cookie" who walked in to the council meeting and said he wanted justice before opening fire. No one knew what happened after that because the people who were in the City Hall meeting hit the ground and scrambled out to save their lives. But someone remembered seeing a police officer, the mayor and several others get shot. A woman in a red sweater said she was sitting right next to one of the victims in the meeting.

Feeling a little braver with the minutes that had passed, myself and a few others ventured toward the front windows. Police cars were everywhere. Police officers were everywhere--many of them with large rifles, laying prone and trained on the building. The first ambulance arrived but parked a short ways down the block; no one got out.

Inside the coffee shop, several people with computers started checking various news websites for more information. Only campaign headlines and other media knick-knack. A man in a bullet-proof vest approached the door and I let him in. "Keep the door locked, stay inside and don't let anyone in," he commanded. We all scurried into the back corner again.

More cell phone calls. More web scouring. More nervous waiting. Police now had yellow tape around City Hall. They seemed a bit more relaxed. The rifles were casually pointed in the air or dangling at their sides now. A barista turned on a television hanging in the corner. After a few minutes of reality TV, two news anchors interrupted the regularly scheduled broadcast to inform us of a developing story out the front door.

Information was scarce and generic. We waited inside with doors locked and watched as local news updated their websites with increasing information. Meanwhile, someone is telling of how someone told them that someone heard the gunman was still loose. Another heard he was dead. Another heard the mayor was dead. Another heard two police officers were dead. Someone mentioned something about Imo's Pizza and a collapsed man with a bullet wound. The voice of the barista came over the speakers and said that no one was allowed to leave.

As reporters were seen strolling and ambulances leaving, we all assumed the drama might be coming to an end. The two news anchors now had a bit more information, as did their respective websites: the gunman was dead. Just then the barista spoke again to the room. "We have just received word from the police that you all may now leave. You are welcome to stay until you feel safe, but if you do leave, please do not go out alone. Go in pairs and please be careful.

Some people started gathering their things, others traded rumors. The regularly scheduled broadcast remained obscured by the increasing faces of on-site reporters repeating all the same information. I looked out the front windows and saw them standing in front of cameras and holding microphones.

As I left, the scene in the plaza was surreal. I've never seen so many police cars. I've never seen so many reporters. I've never seen so many news vans, their network logo emblazoned on the side and little transmitting dish atop the 50-foot mast. Photographers with backpacks, long hair and long lenses stopped every three steps for another shot. More reporters stood in front of powerless cameras as technicians rushed to get everything plugged in. Everyone was being interviewed. Everyone was interviewing.

The tragedy that gave way to terror now gave way to a media torrent. Most of us who spent that last two hours locked behind glass doors for safety just wanted to go home. Some opinionated residents had come out on the street to voice their perspective on local politics and this or that public official who caused this tragedy. The voice of a nearby boisterous local grinding his axe is grating and hollow.

Driving home--and glad to do it--I have to wonder what drives a man to kill like this. Why so angry and why so violent? Why in this community again? And is there even anything anyone could have done?