To Do or to Pay, That Is the Question

Once again, technology is getting away from me, and it is my own fault, if anyone’s. Software is something I’m interested in and like to understand, but it isn’t my work, paid or otherwise. Which makes it just so hard to keep up. And that’s frustrating.

The immediate problem is a slightly ill-thought-out attempt to “redesign” a couple of my websites. And the scare quotes are there because I didn’t actually do much thinking about the design. Just looked at a bunch of templates and saw one that looked kind of what I wanted. So I paid for it, and it was indeed almost what I wanted. But not quite. I poked about under the hood, because I have a tiny bit of ability in that department, made a couple of adjustments and then, realising wearily that my abilities have once again been left in the dust, gave it up and resolved to make do with almost. For a while.

This has been happening to me with monotonous regularity, since the early 1980s, when, I swear, I wrote a word counter in assembler because Apple Writer couldn’t do that simple thing. (It couldn’t do word wrap or lowercase either, but a friend had already solved those problems, so I didn’t need to). It took me two days, one to go up the road to find a book about 8086, the other to write the code. And I had to do it because a publisher, unused to the somewhat spaced-out typescript produced by a Radio Shack daisywheel printer, had said I needed to cut 20% from my book. I didn’t need to do that, but I did need to build a word counter to find out.

And so it went, learning about the web and how to make a table deliver crude interactivity, about content management systems, about CSS, about hosting, driven only because I wanted to be just slightly ahead of the curve, wanted something just a teeny bit cooler. I don’t think I had that much more time. Things were just a bit simpler, and so it didn’t take forever to get to the point where I could start tinkering without the fear of breaking everything. I built my own templates in nucleuscms and later in the first incarnations of WordPress. Then that became too complex, so I tinkered with other people’s themes and played around with their CSS and eventually child themes. Then I got fed up with the hassles of trying to make WordPress work quickly, so I switched to a static system with Octopress, and got that looking the way I wanted, although I confess I still don’t really understand how it works, and I know that I blog here less often precisely because the workflow is more complicated.

Anyway, you think I’d be used to this sort of thing by now. So what to do? Listening to Horace Dediu talk about open source software, I was struck by the not entirely novel idea that when something is good enough, you can’t make much money by selling it. You can, however, make money by being better than someone else at doing something. So, I’m faced with a choice. I could attempt to get back up to speed with the nuts and bolts that display those two sites and bend them to my will. Or I could pay someone else to do it. To do that, however, I have to admit that this technology has indeed got away from me, which is hard indeed.

Sharp Words

Would you give a three-year old child a knife to play with? Well, maybe not to play with, but to work with? Definitely. Nathanael Johnson at Grist rounds up the arguments in favour of teaching children knife skills, as part of cookery skills, which, of course, are survival skills. Johnson thinks that the lack of overt hostility to an article by Sarah Elton advocating just that “signifies a tipping point in American culture” (conveniently annexing Canada for the sake of his argument).

We still may be unreasonably risk-averse, but the fact that Elton wasn’t trolled by protective parents is a promising data point. It suggests that we’re coming around to the realization that the risk of julienning a pinky is far outweighed by the risks that come from failing to teach kids about food.

I think he has a point. And so do knives. So if you’re going to get your child her own knife for a forthcoming birthday, what kind of knife? There’s scads of information around; here’s a recent article rounding up some of the options.

The knife to look for is one with a blade made from a simultaneously heated and compressed (aka precision-forged) bar of high-carbon stainless steel. A full-length tang—the extension of the blade—that runs to the end of the handle will help extend the life of the knife. A plain, as opposed to serrated, edge will make it easy to sharpen, and a deep blade will protect your knuckles while you chop.

All of which had me wondering whether Peter Hertzmann, a guest on Eat This Podcast last summer, teaches knife skills to children.

Spreading the Word

The insoluble mystery – is one home on the internet better than several – continues to puzzle me. It came up in discussion on ADN, without any resolution. The reason I have several homes is that perhaps people who are interested in bread aren’t interested in podcasts, and vice versa, while maybe people who come here aren’t interested in either.

So a while ago I resolved to maintain those separate presences, and to use this place as the kind of mother ship, where I can do things that are neither bread nor podcasting and also briefly things I’ve done elsewhere. But I have also neglected to do that last thing. I am resolved to change that.

So, over at Fornacalia, there’s a recipe for a kalonji and raisin bread that I invented last week to try and jounce me out of my current bread-baking rut.

And at Eat This Podcast, a week ago I interviewed Colin Khoury about the The Global Standard Diet.

I’ve also changed what both those sites look like, with more or less success.

Am I Supposed to Keep My Glasses On?

This morning I went for a dawdling walk to play with my new toy: an adapter that lets me put my old, manual Minolta lenses on my shiny, automatic Sony camera. (There’s a set on Flickr, completely unprocessed, if you want to see more). It was fun, for all sorts of reasons. Like, having to fiddle with aperture, shutter speed and focus. The camera does a brilliant job automatically, but it is also gratifying to make decisions.

Of the three, focus is far and away the hardest. The viewfinder provides a perfect preview of exposure, and you can even bring up a histogram if you’re keen to shoot to the right. But focus, especially when the lens is from a different camera, is a different matter entirely. No little split image to align. No help but your own eyes.

And that, frankly, is where I admit I am totally ignorant. And confused.

I wear glasses. Out and about, they are varifocals. And I get that looking through the viewfinder using different parts of the spectacle lens is going to affect the focus of what I see. What I don’t get is why I need to wear spectacles at all. So I don’t, and some people say I’ll never get a proper focus.

I’m looking through the viewfinder at a screen, and the screen is some distance from my eye. But as long as my eye can focus on the screen, and it can, why would the focus on the sensor be any different from the focus on the viewfinder screen? The camera has a dioptre adjustment, and as I move that, I see the grid lines go in and out of focus. So too does the image. And when the grid lines are out of focus, I can’t bring the image into focus. But I really do not understand why.

With its own lens, the camera has a neat little trick when you set it to manual focus. Touch the focus ring, and it zooms the image in the viewfinder, making it that much easier to see whether the bit you are interested in is sharp. Touch the shutter button and it zooms out, allowing you to compose the picture. So helpful. If it can do the same when there’s a manual focus lens on, I have not yet discovered how. You can see how it would help on a picture like this one, where I thought I had focussed on her eyes, but it is her nose that is sharp. Was that me, or did she move?

It’s Complicated – but Why?

Is there really no market for simplicity?

I’ve always hated a certain word-processing package, because it is is just too complicated and powerful for most people. Would you let a kid play with an automatic assault weapon? 1 And yet people daily do untold harm by their uninformed use of this particular tool. That’s just one example though. There are lots of others, in software and in real things, although many of the overcomplicated real things have software at their heart, I suspect.

My new digital recorder brought this home to me forcefully. It is a beaut, and does all sorts of things that, frankly, I am unlikely ever to want to do. I know this because I am one of the few people I know who reads the manual. I like the new recorder a lot, but the reason I bought it was that it proved impossible to find a digital recorder that just did high-quality recording from an external microphone.

I have a video camera that takes pretty good stills, and a still camera that takes even better videos. My phone does both, and records good sound, which neither of the cameras is capable of. All the things do everything. My feeling, often, is that this sort of feature-creep reflects not what the average consumer wants or needs but a kind of let’s give it to them anyway, it hardly costs any more attitude on the part of engineers or, more likely, marketing executives.

On the word processor front there is, of course, a plethora of lovely, simple, stripped down writing tools, one of which I’m using right now precisely because it doesn’t process the words, it just records them. And, perhaps because they aren’t very complicated and don’t require small armies of engineers to maintain and “improve,” these tools aren’t very expensive either. I can’t get my clients or colleagues to use them, but at least they do exist.

When it comes to physical objects, though, simple high-quality is impossible to find, probably because the market is too small.

Unless you know better.

  1. No, wait …

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