At peace with the news

At peace with the news – dove and olive branch

My father had a reputation as a very smart guy who, at the same time, was notoriously bad at taking care of his own health. He never exercised, he worked himself ragged, drank a fair bit, and smoked right up to the day the doctors put him on oxygen. Nevertheless, he also did a lot of things right, and – like any father’s son I suppose – I owe a great deal of who I am, to who he was.

As a kid I was lucky enough to be smart enough to appreciate Dad’s virtues as virtues, while understanding his vices were just vices. Any kid who’s paying attention has an opportunity to learn twofold from their parents, once by mimicking their strengths, and once again by seeing what doesn’t work, what not to do.

And so I grew into a man with my father’s appreciation of beauty, his love for nature and science, his decency and honesty, his eye for a good design and his love for anything that simply works. And an ability to tie a fast bowline. Conversely, I never smoked, I kept work and play in balance, I ate healthy, and I got outside for a run every day. These are all things I owe to my dad.

What’s this got to do with news? (more…)

“What did I just do?”

"What did I just do?"

(Progress update, November/December)

Looking back over timecards, I see that the last two months of 2012 were singularly unproductive for Transrio. In particular, I never got around to following up the leads I had from the Farm Progress trip. Truth be told, I bogged down badly in gadgetry.

That happens sometimes. When it does, I always go easy on myself. Just like a chicken or a lobster in molt, any modern person needs to go through yet-another ugly duckling phase while they re-organize hardware and software for themselves. (Much as I would like to call it metamorphosis, it’s molting.) I recently read an interview with Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine; he was talking about his new book "What Technology Wants." I like him; I always enjoy hearing what he has to say. The one new thought that stayed with me from the interview was (and I’m paraphrasing here, because Kelly talks English, the article was Spanish, and this is back to English) he said (more…)

KML – a little goes a long way!

A little KML goes a long way

At the end of my last post I signed off saying "What’s next for me? … KML." In my mind I pictured learning KML to be like learning HTML, i.e. quite a project. To my happy surprise though, KML is easy. It’s a friendly little critter!

Here’s what transpired. I was thinking about this new route up this mountain, then suddenly I thought "Why don’t I give it just ten minutes and see what happens? Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky." Well big surprise, in ten minutes I was done! I drew the route on my big computer Joe, moved it onto my little tablet Flaco, and got it to open in all three of my Android map apps. It being the weekend, we packed along the little path with our candy bars etc, and took the hike. That’s all there was to it. Hiking on the real mountain the route was anything but obvious, but following the little pre-made path and the blue dot, we stayed on track easily.

KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language. Keyhole was originally the company Google bought in 2004 so that they could own the knowhow which quickly became Google Earth and Google Maps. (more…)

The Blue Dot

Screenshot from Google Earth, Blue Dot beside Juniper

Last week, in a fit of simplifying and a leap of faith, I threw away my topo maps. Maps that had been carefully selected and bought, one by one across the many years; each one lovingly trimmed by my own hand, labeled in ballpoint around the margins, individually indexed – representing 30 years of precious family memories in Montana and elsewhere. Every one of my 7.5-minute quads for Beaverhead County, all my 30×60′s, the old 15-minutes, and every 1:250,000-series covering the state. I couldn’t help but count them: 440 maps in all! To buy them again would cost 440 x $6 = $2,640. Not mentioning the work of labeling, folding, and filing. Needless to say, I was aswirl with emotions – nostalgia of course, the sadness of saying goodbye to friends, but also mixed up with that an excitement of jettisoning weight. Freedom. Often it’s true, it’s the things we used to love the most, which need to go.

Last July I wrote a long post titled "Topo maps: what’s now and what’s next." In that article I said:

"Right now, in standard orienteering, you hold your GPS in one hand, about the size of a smartphone, and your map in the other hand. The devices are too cramped for map reading. That’s why GPS people are so fascinated by gridlines on maps, they sync their gadget with their paper, by brute force. When the map and the GPS merge and become inseparable in one device, that’s going to be fundamentally different. (more…)

Things that Just Work

Handwritten drawing: Things that just work

The world is made up of things that work, mixed together with things that don’t work. The busted and dysfunctional, tripping against beauty and perfection. The yin and the yang as it were. It’s human nature to think that things should work all the time. We get bummed, when they don’t. Oddly, we do this day in, day out, like it’s an everyday predictable recurring surprise. Since we are designed by nature to be problem-solving animals, it’s hard not to transfixate on the broken.

I think happy people train themselves, by hard work, to continually notice the many little things that are actually working. It’s incredible, if you look around, how many things, on any given day, really work well.

But this post is not about the singing birds. It’s about computer stuff. My daughter Sally and I were talking about this, how some things are just so easy to use, and it’s hard to appreciate the achievement behind that surface simplicity, the sophistication that must be going on in the background. So this is an Ode to Things that Work:

OneNote & Evernote. First on my list. Unless I’m walking through a swamp someplace, (more…)

In love with Kindle

KINDLE (heart). Where have you been all my life?

A year ago I wrote an article about traveling light without a computer, even in a business setting, by using a cloud drive along with public computers instead. I had just returned from Argentina, and the method worked great. This year I was packing for the same trip again, and planning on doing the exact same thing. The technique involves a small amount of printing to paper. In the original article I said this:

"Every trip is different. When packing data, I think about the trip, I think about the things I’ll need, I think in terms of a toolkit at my disposal which includes 1. Paper, 2. Computer, 3. Mobile devices, and 4. Thumb Drive. (Paper, by the way, should never be underestimated. Instant-on, infinite battery life, and who cares if it’s stolen. So thin-and-light that it vanishes when viewed on-edge. There’s a reason it’s popular.) To this list I can now add #5: Cloud drive."

So there I was, packing for the same trip a year later, and thinking as usual of the few things it would be nice to have printed ahead for paper reference. (more…)

Language tools — a quick revisit

Language tools — a quick revisit

Awhile back Natalia pushed me out of the nest, saying it was finally time for me to start writing to her in Spanish. For years we have been writing back and forth bilingually, my e-mails in English, hers in Spanish. Which was super pleasant. But it was laziness on my part, and in fact unbecoming of a person whose goal is to do business in Latin America.

Writing in Spanish was hard for me at first but it’s getting easier with practice. I read well, but speak poorly, and I had zero experience with writing. To my surprise though, just having everyday language tools readily at hand makes it much, much easier now than it would have been, say, 5 years ago. It isn’t cheating to use these things. In fact writing simple e-mails with the support of spell-checkers and grammar-checkers, conjugators and dictionaries, and of course machine translation, is just a great way to get continual correcting feedback while learning any language.

Over the years I’ve written several posts about language learning and language tools, so today I decided to make a new category called Language — it’s apparently a theme on this blog. If you click Language on the sidebar, you’ll see some of these prior posts. Always they have a special focus on free or nearly-free computer applications. I just finished sending an e-mail to Natalia and I thought it might be worth describing the tools I like best for anybody else who’s struggling with a second language. (more…)

Topo maps: what’s Now, and what’s Next

Topo maps: what's Now, and what's Next

When I was a tyke they gave us map-reading aptitude tests. I loved those tests. Ever since, I’ve tried to stay one jump ahead of the rest of the class. Now I’m an old guy. Anybody who knows me knows I get stuck in a good map, like anybody else might get stuck in a good book. In fact, on trips, I no longer bring a book to read. It can be a camping trip, a foreign trip, no matter where I go I know I’ll just be reading maps. It’s relaxing for me. Sometimes after staring at a good map for a really long time, suddenly there it is: the perfect route, the perfect camping spot. Or in a city, something fun beyond the bridge, that I would have totally missed.

On any trip, I’d rather have the perfect map than the perfect guidebook — or even the perfect guide. It’s fun having that freedom to just explore on your own. Maps let you do that. It’s not uncommon to know things even most locals don’t know, based on serious perusal of a good map. Come to think of it, in our house, we even decorate with maps. The maps get the premium wallspace. They are our art.

This article is about how I’m doing topos now. So it’s about topos specifically. Much of what I say though is equally applicable to city maps or road maps, like you’d use on other kinds of trips. (more…)

A fresh new toy for language learning

A fresh new toy for language learning

Recently a good friend called me and asked my recommendation for the best way to learn Spanish. This post is not about language learning generally, it’s about one single, wonderful toy I recently discovered, which I’m using every day now in my own language practice. But first, as background, I would like to talk more generally about learning languages, from a bird’s eye view.

If you want to skip over the "Tricks" section right below, feel free. The new technique I found is at the end, under "Toy." (more…)

Packing Light: My Travels with a Cloud Drive

Packing Light: Travels with Cloud Drive

If you love your gadgets — and I think we all love, and hate, our gadgets — you may recognize that feeling of bliss, so rare, when all of your gadgets are working. I had one of those moments, oddly enough, passing through security and customs back into the United States. I set my shoes in the tray, pushed my roll-aboard and daypack onto the belt, and… they stopped me. "Sir, do you have a computer?" No… "A cell phone?" No…

Just in that moment, I felt that little wave of bliss. A successful three-week trip, partly business, and all of my gadgets were working — in fact even better, I had no gadgets, to NOT work.

On the cell phone, I cheated — Natalia gave me one to use while in Córdoba. On the computer, though, I was trying something new, and I have to say the reviews are in. I have proof-of-concept now, and it’s great.

Some background. On any trip, of any length, no matter who you are, (more…)

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