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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Zuckerberg: The Musical!

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Facebook users, this one’s for you! Enjoy!


In Praise of Unitaskers

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Much has been written in recent years about the benefits of multitasking. Why do just one thing when you could be juggling two or three? It’s much more efficient that way, isn’t it?

Maybe not. Recent studies have shown that multitasking often leads to decreased productivity. Simply put, the brain isn’t wired for doing several unrelated tasks at the same time. Trying to do so leads to mediocre performance and tasks that need to be redone.

By the same token, many people think why buy a single purpose device when you can get a Swiss Army knife, a Leatherman tool or something else that will do many different things? Some cooks even claim that single purpose tools do nothing more than clutter up a kitchen.

But they’re wrong. Duct tape notwithstanding, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to design a single device to do multiple tasks well.

That’s not to say that multitaskers don’t have their place. The aforementioned Leatherman tools and Swiss Army knives are a lot easier to carry on a camping trip than a toolbox. But if you’re working under the hood of your car, would you rather use a Swiss Army knife screwdriver or a real, single purpose screwdriver with a proper handle? If you’re cutting wrapping paper, would you rather use a Leatherman scissors or a real pair of shears you can get a proper grip on?

For the most part,  the same holds true for machinery. Take for example a certain high-priced vacuum cleaner sold door to door. It’s pitched as a total home solution useful for everything from cleaning the rugs to spraying paint and sanding wood.

Here’s the little secret the sales reps don’t mention. The machine’s basic configuration is that of an upright carpet vacuum. Changing that takes time and a little bit of effort. It’s a pain in the neck to change the attachments and some functions don’t work nearly as well as a dedicated device would. The bottom line — it’s a fantastic machine for cleaning carpets. For everything else, it’s kind of frustrating.

Another example is a popular 5-in-1 woodworking machine. It’s touted as a way to have a complete woodshop in a fraction of the space, and a fraction of the cost of separate equipment. But once again, it does some tasks well, some not so well.

It all comes down to a matter of compromise. To be able to do some tasks at all, the multitasker must compromise its functions to a greater or lesser degree.

Now compare those to a particular kitchen machine — a rice cooker. Unlike the previous two devices, it is dedicated to only one purpose — cooking rice perfectly.  It doesn’t make coffee, it doesn’t heat soup, it doesn’t open cans. No compromise necessary. It does its one task superbly.

Yes, it takes up space. No, it doesn’t do anything a common pot of water couldn’t do. But if you want perfect rice, frequently, it’s an ideal single purpose machine.

Having said that, does the world really need THIS ?

Probably not.

The key is to choose your multitaskers — and your unitaskers — wisely.  For many things, in many places, compromise isn’t a problem. But for some jobs, only the right tool will do.

Anonymity and Free Speech on the Web

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I think we can all agree, the World Wide Web is a wonderful thing. After all, if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be reading my ramblings right now. And I do appreciate all my readers.

More importantly, the sharing of ideas and information around the world helps promote both knowledge and democracy. It demolishes stereotypes, diminishes ignorance and reduces fear.

But I fear the rise of instantaneous, worldwide communication, coupled with the anonymity of the Web, is also contributing to the decline of civil discourse.

It’s easy to hide behind our online identities. That makes it easy to say things we might not say if we were identified by name.  Normally, that’s a good thing (the Walrus said). It contributes to a free-spirited discussion. In nations with repressive governments, anonymity can be a matter of life or death for activists trying to change things.

But that very level of anonymous commenting also breeds a certain level of nastiness, one that I fear is becoming more prevalent.

Check out the comments on just about any news source website. It’s becoming exceptionally rare to find a story, any story, on any subject, that someone hasn’t seen fit to make partisan political comments about. And not just typical politics, but really angry screeds that disintegrate into name-calling and insults.

More and more commenters are getting personal with their slurs. They often reject the idea that people who disagree with them are even human, let alone entitled to a different opinion.

And that leads to a reaction, but probably not the one that the posters intend. Instead of agreement, such arguments tend to turn people off, leading to a cynical sense of “a pox on both your houses.”

There are darker corners as well. While searching for something entirely unrelated the other day, I stumbled across a vicious, angry, misogynist site whose posters clearly view women as something less than human. I felt like I needed a shower after reading such trash. Other sites promote racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against those defined as “others.” It’s enough to discourage even the most ardent free speech absolutist.

But here’s the thing — I pretty much AM that First Amendment absolutist. As much as I’d like to see the slime disappear, I am compelled to fight to protect it. I firmly believe the antidote to hate speech is more speech, not less. If we try to suppress hate speech, we give it power and mystery. Better to hash it out in the open, no matter how repugnant we may find it. Free speech is not always pretty, but it is necessary.

Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword knew what they were talking about. Words are powerful. Choose them wisely.

Of Good Coffee, Bad Coffee and Mom

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I never liked coffee when I was younger. Didn’t really have much use for the stuff. It kind of made me an anomaly in my family. My parents and grandparents drank coffee by the gallon. Perked at first, later drip brewed, always with milk or, if need be, non-dairy creamer.

Mom was the real fanatic. She was a caffeine fiend of the highest order, and would stop at nothing to get her fix. But it had to be brewed coffee, never espresso or anything like that. She was somewhat nonplussed when we took a family vacation to London. A true daughter of the American South, she had no use for tea unless it was A.) iced, and B.) sweet.

But she carried on — she dragged Dad and me all over the city searching for her beloved coffee. She finally found it, not far from Piccadilly Circus — at a Burger King.

Not for me. I just didn’t like coffee. Even in college, when I needed a pick-me-up for an all-nighter, I’d walk to a nearby convenience store and pick up a can of (shudder) instant iced tea with artificial lemon flavor. That stuff bore a closer resemblance to battery acid than anything someone would actually drink. But it was caffeinated, and the nasty taste helped keep me awake for a few more hours of cramming for an accounting test.

Strangely, I always enjoyed coffee flavors in other foods, such as candy, ice cream, even liqueurs. But I didn’t like coffee.

Then came the ’90s. Coffee shops blossomed everywhere. My wife and I were out shopping one day with Mom, and stopped at a coffee shop. I tried a cappuccino.

With the first sip, I had a revelation. A light went on. It wasn’t that I didn’t like coffee. I just didn’t like BAD coffee. It wasn’t the coffee that was terrible, it was my family’s low expectations for it. The truck stops, drive-ins and Waffle Huts were to blame, not my taste buds! Begone, Maxwell House of Horrors! Farewell, foul Folgers!

I started having the occasional latte. True enlightenment came when I discovered a working pump espresso machine in a thrift shop. Despite her trepidations about allowing me anywhere near a combination of hot water, electricity and pressurized steam, my lovely wife bought it for me.

I began enjoying a daily latte before work. Before long, I was up to two a day. I couldn’t help noticing a tinge of pride in my Mom’s voice when she told Dad “he drinks coffee now.”

The thrift shop espresso machine served my needs for a couple of years. But I knew I could do better. I soon got a real espresso machine from a serious coffee provider, and a proper grinder to match. (I got both as Christmas presents from my lovely bride. Mom was beaming as I opened the grinder box.)

I drank more coffee. I became a coffee snob, able to discern fruity notes, a hint of chocolate. I looked down my nose at drip brewed pre-ground beans.

Yet the seductive siren song of the caffeine monster called my name. My habit grew. My workplace added one of those handy little pod machines. I rationalized it by saying, “it’s not great, but it’s better than drip.” And with a serious lack of coffee shops of any kind in Walruslandia, I had little choice but to drink drip brewed coffee (or in my preferred term, “swill.” ) whenever I visited Mom and Dad.

A lot has changed in the last few years. Mom’s gone. I’ve changed jobs. My job no longer has a pod coffeemaker. There’s no grinder. Instead there’s the usual suspect — an industrial strength drip brewer, complete with its own plumbing. And pre-ground coffee filter packs.

Of Folgers.

And I drink the stuff. Several cups a day.

I’m still a coffee snob. But somewhere up there, Mom’s looking down, watching me pour the dreaded swill into my cup. And getting the last laugh.

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