Befriending Time

I stood up from my seat in the pew, ready to carry a heavy weight. Could I take a punch? I guess this was as good a time as any to find out. Only it would have to be a wet one, like a kiss, because it was starting to rain.

***

When someone dies, you still need to do the normal things. Like shave, make sure your shirt is wrinkle-free, help your kids get ready for the events of the day. There’s fixing up the daughter’s hair, helping the son with his tie, and you eat a little bit if you’re hungry or you know you’ve been forgetting. Then there are the abnormal things, the new things. Trying to find a way to comfort your mother, who’s just lost her Father. Remembering the last time you saw someone, how they looked. How they looked compared to what you remember them as.

The first time we found out my Grandfather had cancer, we quickly gathered plans to race down and see him. It always amazes me how our small family can create chaos out of quiet, when given the sliver of a chance. This was more than a sliver. It was just after Easter, the time of year that Connecticut is in the full bloom of spring while northern New England is still going rounds with winter, hoping at best for a draw. We escaped the dirty snow banks to flowers on the trees and something like blue in the skies. We were told, rightly or wrongly, that we needed to visit Grandpa because things did not look good. The kids ran around the back yard, we setup lawn chairs, the aunts and uncles gathered. You talk about work when you don’t want to talk about the future.

Four years later, he died. Four years of ups and downs, long nights we could only imagine with all the distance of 300 miles and a half a climate between us and my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors. What did my mother go through in those four years that I could learn from? Not just the fear of driving to the hospital, but the loneliness of driving home, to go to bed, to wake up and go on with their lives the next day, waiting for news.

What about my Grandfather, at the center of it? You’ll need to change your eating habits, try to like new things, have patience forced on you like an icy sidewalk when you fall. The patience of waiting rooms, test results, the patience of waiting to see if a new treatment works or what else it will do to you while you’re trying to battle the larger of two evils.

When I think about those four years, I imagine the patience is tempered by the vast uncertainty of length, like how driving somewhere the first time always seems so long. Do you lose sense of time wondering if today will be a good day, or if this month will bring setbacks, or this season will be filled with promise as the enemy retreats? And come to think of it, did the enemy retreat, or are they regrouping? When you’re a child, time alternates between enemy and friend at different times. Growing up means understanding time, befriending it, ultimately controlling it. The cancer takes that, returns days to weeks, hours to months, removes your ability to predict and balance your present with your future.

Secretly, I didn’t think he’d get well, only manage, with bouts of triumph and resolve, while a steady decline walked on, ignoring his will.

***

He died in February, yet another time of year when Maine is consumed by the darkness and the whiteness of winter, while Connecticut turns the corner. There weren’t quite flowering trees, but the snow had given way to rain and the immeasurable dark skies were now just gray, with a hint of blue.

Me with my Grandfather Gerald Dowd, Christmas 1984.

We were ready. I had a haircut and bought a larger wedding band to fit over my broken finger. My family would immediately notice if I wasn’t wearing a ring, and even a swollen and purple knuckle would not excuse the adoscelent arrogance of not wearing it to such an occasion. Death is one of the reasons we maintain traditions in the first place.

Saturday morning, we were groups of dark suits and dresses, piling into dark cars under deep gray skies. They weren’t showing clear signs of lightening; that took the promise out of our small talk about the weather. Some of those gathered  were handed umbrellas by the funeral attendants, until the umbrellas ran out. My own children had never been to a funeral; never seen my wife and I at our most vulnerable. We would need to expose them to the power of grief and still hold them close enough to not feel alone.

A traditional Catholic mass anchored the solemnity. Even for those people who grew up outside of the church, it provided meaning to our dress and united our quiet solitude. The sermon reminded us that my Grandfather received comfort as dramatically and as surely in the other world as he had been plagued by pain and decline in ours. This peace was possible in his new place because, the priest assured us, “Only the father knows the son,” and “only the son knows the father.” This was religious in intent. Then my uncle got up to deliver the eulogy for his father, gone after a lifetime, and those words meant something even more to me.

***

After a short drive from the church, we gathered at the gravesite. The rain clacked on umbrellas above us, and below the somber quiet followed us from the church. They’d erected a canopy over the grave for the service. My grandmother and aunts and uncles and friends gathered in seats for the military ceremony, honoring my Grandfather’s service in Korea. I stood outside the canopy, listening.

Approaching middle age, I realized I had been wondering, for nearly 30 years, how my Grandfather felt on the long boat ride from Korea back to the United States. I know from stories that he and his friends played cards to relax and pass the time, but what else? What mix of confidence and relief showed itself on the faces and in the words of him and the men next to him? Did he dwell much on the choices that lay before him, as impossibly wide as the ocean? Did he plan out the universe he would co-create, that now stood gathered around him in the cold and wet world he left? You rarely think of something when you’re in the middle of it, even as long as a life.

My wife pulled my daughter closer under her umbrella. Men in uniform moved through traditions. My Grandfather had never been as far away from that boat and its possibilities. No harm could come to him anymore as he stood with the Father, in rest following a lifetime of choices and sentences, lucky and smart, fair and cruel.

My son looked up at me, and I looked back at him. I don’t think you learn how to act at funerals, any more than you learn how to control life. You befriend time, and you carry an umbrella, and when you escape one battlefield, you take a moment to laugh and play cards and maybe you catch a glimpse of the next adventure you’ll have a hand in creating. Then you go towards it, with fear and confidence, invincibility and fragility. Peace and loss.

As my son stared at me standing in the rain, his face moved for a second. I think it was recognition. Then he lifted up his umbrella, stretching to the limits of his reach to place it over my head. I took it from him and held it over both of us. We were out of the rain for the time being, but it was still loud as hell and inches above our heads. He stood close to me to keep out of the cold.

Only the father knows the son, and only the son knows the father.

Apple’s software problems are worse than flat vs. glossy

Leading up to the expected release of iOS7, there’s been much speculation online about whether or not Apple will adopt a more “flat” design aesthetic for its aging mobile operating system. The company’s skeumorphic, or natural, designs have come under fire from fans and foes alike, who charge it’s overkill now that users are aware of how to use touch interfaces and competitors are rolling out fresher designs.

Screenshot of i0S icons

It will be interesting to see how iOS7 addresses these challenges (if it does), but I think Apple has a bigger problem on its hands: The company’s mobile software apps themselves are stagnant– not only in design, but more importantly, in functionality and interoperability.

Take a look at the image: It’s a screenshot of my iPhone’s final screen, which contains only two folders: The “Newstand” folder which sits perpetually empty, but Apple won’t let me delete, and then an entire folder titled “Unused”.

Why would I need a folder labeled “Unused”, if I can simply delete apps I no longer want or need? It’s because I can’t delete them – all of the apps (eight total) in my “Unused” folder are there because they’re stock apps provided by Apple as part of i0S6. Forget the fact that it’s spammy to force me to keep apps I don’t want – the real problem is why those apps sit unused in the first place. Quite simply, it’s because they’re outdone by better, faster, and/or more integrated apps provided by third-parties- many of them Apple’s competitors.

  • If I want the weather, I use Yahoo or Weather.com’s fantastic apps, which are both much better in terms of the data they provide and the design they wrap it in.
  • My default iOS calendar is replaced by Sunrise, a largely unknown startup that has nevertheless succeeded in producing a much more useful and integrated calendar than Apple has been able to in the six years since iOS debuted.
  • For Maps, I use Google’s outstanding Google Maps app, which is (subjectively) nicer, but more importantly, significantly more accurate and data-rich.
  • Finally, there’s the browser- arguably the second or third-most-important app on a smartphone after the Twitter or texting apps. Here, Apple’s stock Safari browser app is beaten by Google Chrome, which despite being slower than Safari, still gets the call for me based on having full integration with my bookmarks and browser history on my desktop version of Chrome. Typing URLs is one of the biggest pains on a phone, and Chrome makes that problem virtually non-existent by syncing my history across devices.
  • The list goes on: That list doesn’t even address Compass, Notepad, and Voice Memos, which I’ve used two or three times ever. While Passbook may become interesting in the future, right now it’s a an app that serves no purpose due to its limited options. It’s sad that I can’t just remove it until it becomes interesting to me.

So what can Apple do to ensure that its mobile OS stays the world’s most popular – or at least most-loved?

  • Allow non-standard apps to be set as defaults. This is the #1 must-have feature of any next version of iOS.
  • Allow non-standard apps to be deleted, or at least hidden in some meaningful way. This move would give Apple more insight into how users feel about their native apps; it also provides a clear interface
  • Improve and modernize not just the UI of their OS, but the functionality of the apps as well.

These long-overdue changes don’t signal the “Android-ification” of Apple’s mobile OS- rather, they show that the company slowly losing its lead to Samsung, Google, and whoever’s next should make some obvious enhancements that will make users far happier than any aesthetic trend.

10 years of blogging at jasonclarke.org

Today marks 10 years since the first blog post on this site. I’ve owned the domain name for about 2 years prior to that – Archive.org lists October 2001 as the first recorded date– but used it mostly as a testing ground until 2003.

When I started this site, it was built on my own homemade content management system, which ran until 2005, when I finally switched over to WordPress. Over 500+ posts, here are a few of my favorites:

In 2003, I recommended people check out ESPN’s up and coming sportswriter Bill Simmons. In 2004, I announced the launch of my book. In 2006, I covered a Maine-centric blogging/media scandal; in 2007, I declared Twitter to be a “fad”. Later in 2007, I got press credentials for a presidential debate.

I’ve covered my home state of Maine’s media and politics, followed the evolution of blogging, and made a lot of lists! Finally, here’s a category that collects my favorite writing over the last 10 years.

Thank you for visting my site these past ten years – I hope you’ll stay tuned for the next 10!

 

Trying out a public revision process

"revision/procrastination" by Flickr user wenday

“revision/procrastination” by Flickr user wenday

With the launch of this latest version of my site (roughly my fifth iteration since 2006), I’m experimenting with two new features I’d love to see on other blogs: a changelog and a roadmap.

Yes, it might seem strange to have these two software and/or enterprise-oriented features on a tiny personal site, but why not? If a changelog can show users the progress of software, why not a website? And the same with a roadmap: It might not matter what’s ahead for this particular blog, but what if bigger sites like ESPN or Zeldman.com published public roadmaps, giving visitors a peek into their plans and their processes?

As a developer, and as a reader, I’d love to see more of these types of transparent peeks into the past and future of websites – both large and small.

Update: Nice! The Verge publishes a Version History.

Why the gdgt+AOL union is a rallying cry for the WordPress community

In my latest article on WP Daily, I talk about why the recent acquisition of tech site gdgt by AOL’s tech publishing arm might be bad news for WordPress in the enterprise:

I’m suggesting that old, tired, and unfair “WordPress is for traditionally-formatted blogs” trope may still be a factor when online media properties choose their technology platforms.

If that misconception is a factor when enterprises choose platforms, it can be particularly troubling as media companies (such as AOL, Vox, and Buzzfeed before them) choose and promote in-house platforms.

If it’s true – that WordPress is passed over, at least in part, because of the outdated and incorrect notion that it’s too generic and not customizable enough for enterprise – what can we do as developers?

Read the whole thing, and share your take in the comments! Thank you to WP Daily for publishing the article – check them out for all kinds of great news and commentary on WordPress.

 

Local banks should hire a “startup advocate”

Photo "Vault" by Flickr user ostrograd

Photo by Flickr user ostrograd

A recent crowdsource-driven funding contest promoted by a local bank in my area got me thinking about how banks in particular can find themselves on the sidelines of the entrepreneurship/startup movement as the costs to starting a business drop and as new and creative fundraising options become available.

One way that banks can become more active participants in the startup communities in their area is by hiring a startup advocate.

What would a startup advocate do?

A startup advocate would provide the bank with a personal, human presence within the startup community, including:

  • Attending local startup meetups;
  • Speaking at local incubators and other programs (similar to the TopGun Maine program I participated in last year) – not as a pitch for the bank, but as a resource for info about the complicated world of funding;
  • Blogging/posting videos/podcasting with an eye on the local startup scene;
  • Be available for “office hours”, where entrepreneurs can call, Skype, or meet for Q&A or just talking;
  • Connect entrepreneurs with other people in their network where appropriate.

Who would make the best startup advocate?

Loosely defined, the role of a startup advocate would be filled by an entrepreneur at heart: Somebody with personal, hands-on experience inside a startup, ideally having co-founded or led one. That person would work for and represent the bank, but they should be known within the community and/or trusted as a personality unto themselves, not just as a mouthpiece for the bank.

It’s about adding value, not advertising.

Besides the obvious resource of capital (short and longer term), banks have other intangibles to offer startups: Advice and connections on the money side of the game can be immensely helpful to people who are more focused on bringing their ideas to life than learning the intricacies of funding.

Hiring a startup advocate whose mission is to actually know, understand, and help startups could be more effective and less costly for banks than simply dumping more money into traditional advertising or transparent gimmicks.

Yes on Question One

Next week, Mainers heading to the polls to vote for president, senator, representative, and local leaders also have the chance to legalize same-sex marriage in a ballot measure commonly known as “Question One”. A similar measure passed in 2009, but was overturned by Maine’s People’s Veto process just seven months later.

Three years later, with a second chance, it’s time that Maine people approve question one and finally make it legal for same-sex couples to marry in our great state.

It’s easy and popular to call same-sex marriage a “complicated” issue, but I disagree. Both for individual liberty, and for the good of society as a whole, I think it’s quite simple and essential to support the expansion of the marriage contract to include same-sex couples.

Separate from its religious overtones, and along side the rule of law, money, and freedom, marriage is an essential, foundational element of a civilized society. At its most basic, it is a contract between two willing participants that provides both individuals, as well as society in general, with widespread security, stability, and, yes, occasional happiness.

Opponents of the law have little ground to stand on. I see two primary arguments levied against allowing same-sex couples the right to marry. The first is that religious institutions will be unfairly harmed – in Maine’s case, that concern is respected and mitigated by the language of the law, which as written protects religious organizations from legal retribution should they choose not to perform same-sex ceremonies.

The second most common opposition comes in the form of a vague “threat” to marriage, citing “studies” and claiming that marriage will actually decline if more couples are granted the right to the marriage contract. The leading organization opposing the law, “Protect Maine Marriage”, goes so far as to claim that “When marriage no longer has its historic meaning and understanding, over time fewer and fewer people will marry.”

The lunacy and desperation of that argument is staggering. The institution of marriage is more, not less necessary in a society fighting war and economic decline; in that context marriage is as important today as ever. In its time of need, welcoming more consenting adult couples into the institution will strengthen, not weaken, marriage’s position in general by expanding it to include a class of people devoted enough to fight for the right to participate in it. It will also strengthen, not weaken, families as children see their family unit validated by society on symbolic (and many) practical levels.

You can often tell when an argument on any topic is on its last legs: it’s when fear will be grandiosely unveiled, a last-ditch effort to confuse and deter people from doing what they know is simple and just. In that spirit, Protect Marriage Maine writes on their website that the law, if passed, would “result in profound consequences for society.”

They are absolutely correct.

It would mean more people have the legal access that they deserve to one of our society’s most important elements. It would mean children’s lives enhanced by stability. It would mean our fellow citizens would be treated more humanely in the eyes of the law and as they go about their daily lives. It would mean a little, maybe a lot, more happiness in this world.

Those are indeed some profound consequences.

Why I don’t like the political conventions

Note: I originally posted this on my WordPress.com blog.

Against my better judgement, I’ve found myself tweeting about the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past week. My tweets on the subject are usually sarcastic and/or attempts to be humorous, so I want to explain in a bit more detail why I think these are inane and even poisonous events.

2008 Republican convention

2008 Republican convention – Courtesy PBS NewsHour

Conventions are a shining example of the broken political system

Political conventions are a blatant reminder that most of American politics is not about governing, or innovating, or moving our society forward, but rather is about the two parties grappling for power, or attempting to hold onto power. As somebody who is not a member of either party, I find this shameless acknowledgement of the endless power struggle to be incredibly depressing.

Gary Vaynerchuck once said that one of the problems with America is that people put more effort into their weddings than their marriages. The same is true for politics: Governing is hard, messy, and wrought with failure; campaigning brings the glow of attention and the ability to say anything without consequence. Conventions celebrate the former excessively while completely ignoring the latter.

Conventions are insanely self-centered

No other segment of American life – not sports, not celebrity, not even business – spends as much time explicitly celebrating itself as the two main political parties (and their politicians) do during their conventions. As citizens, many of us are gleefully complicit, praising the days of empty rhetoric, self-serving video productions and ignoring the complete lack of substance or self-reflection. If you doubt that, watch as pontificating speeches about personal experiences are praised – and then the praise is praised!

Conventions bring out the worst in spectators

Like a YouTube video of bystanders idly filming a crime instead of attempting to intervene, I feel like people are at their most viciously partisan during conventions, whether it be predictably attacking every scrap of their opponents’ convention, or blindly celebrating every aspect of their own party’s event. The denial of reality and the refusal to be honest is established as a tone by the conventions, and then perpetuated by partisans.

What to do

To start, the conventions should no longer be given airtime on major networks. It’s ridiculous that major broadcast networks continue to provide prime-time air to the conventions In a time of hundreds of news and entertainment sources available across every possible medium and device providing years of coverage of every detail of the campaign.

Parties have the resources and the technology available to broadcast the conventions on their own – they no longer need or deserve the media frenzy supported by prime time air time.

In an ideal world, I’d love it if both parties retired the outdated and increasingly absurd tradition and replaced it with a new kind of event that placed integrity above pageantry. Give up the meaningless (and sometimes corrupt) nomination process and replace at least some of the endless cavalcade of speeches with honest assessments of the candidates’ records, plans, and promises.

Mike Daisey and this American denial

Image from Public Theater website

Two things are really bothering me about today’s news that monolougist Mike Daisey fabricated portions of his hit performance piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Let me get something out of the way out front: I’ve known Mike since about 1996. He was an advisor/supporter of my high school’s speech & debate team, of which I was a member. I got to know him and I considered him a mentor. Critics can easily point to that fact as an invalidation of what I have to say – go ahead; I don’t really care. In fact, this whole thing is about critics and how they use the weapons of rhetorical misdirection to further their cause (or in this case, obscure the cause of the other).

The first thing that bothers me is the terrible news that by making up portions of his theatrical piece — and then letting, and helping, that theatrical piece spread to the media, where he reported it and let it be reported as individual facts — Mike has undermined the essential, and incredibly relevant, truth of the situation. No, not the truth that Apple is evil, or the people of China are being subjicaded by an industrial complex that places profit value over human rights.

I’m talking about the truth that as our craving for an ever-increasing schedule of cheap gadgets increases, we go into deeper and deeper denial about exactly how those gadgets arrive here so quickly and so cheaply.

Why are we in so much denial about our insatiable desire for the next? Why does our pride flow so freely at the release cycle of electronics, but ebb so violently at the simple truth about the conditions under which those electronics are produced? That, folks, is the world’s finest example of shame. It’s shame on a grand, hypocritical, American scale. The irony is that it would be even more American to own up to the reality and, for lack of a better word, embrace it. No, it’s the absolutely insane cycle of cover-ups, denials, misdirections, and attacks that really has me baffled.

Predictably, widely-respected Apple blogger John Gruber is the one of the loudest of all Daisey’s critics today. Mr. Gruber remained comparatively silent on the topic of Apple’s supply chain even as it blew up into a two-month-long major national news story and ensuing conversation about an essential element of the company that is his sole beat. As he notes himself, he wrote only one piece – all of one paragraph – about Daisey’s appearance on This American Life; I can find only two other mentions on his site of the conversation around Apple’s manufacturing processes since the story broke in January. In one, Mr. Gruber calls the story “Apple’s biggest challenge.” Note the choice of words: This isn’t an issue for us to face as a nation of consumers; this is a “challenge” for Apple to overcome.

With that perspective, it’s no wonder Mr. Gruber came out swinging today. Since the news broke this afternoon that NPR’s This American Life program is retracting its “Agony and the Ecstacy” themed episdode, Mr. Gruber has now run five six items (to date — it’s only 8:15pm EST as I write this) condemning Daisey.

In one item, Mr. Gruber declares that the only reason he’d been quiet on this issue (prior to today, obviously) is because he credits his “spidey sense” for alerting him to the fact that Daisey lied. Mr. Gruber didn’t share this insight at any point as the story exploded; he was so busy keeping his mouth shut, he couldn’t even be bothered to publicize his suspicions about the #1 critic of the company he works so admirably to defend and promote. That’s not shame; that’s shameless.

The other thing that bothers me about this news isn’t about the universal implications of a society that can’t be honest with itself. It’s about Mike. What a shame for a thinker and performer so incredibly gifted with the ability to see into us and come up with some simple truths, present them in a compelling way, and move onto something entirely different just as we wanted more.

I truly hope Mike can, unlike so many other people who fail notably and publicly, actually learn from this experience to create a message that is tighter and more trustworthy. Every artist makes a pact with his audience; Mike’s pact is that he helps us question and understand the hard truth about ourselves. If he wants to regain our trust as an entertainer, he should keep up his end of that bargain.

In the meantime, our appetite for gadgets spins madly on. Apple’s latest iPad became available last night at midnight, with the corresponding (and by accounts deserving) adulations following dutifully.

Along with that product launch comes the news that Apple’s stock price is over $600 per share. As a proud capitalist through and through, I couldn’t be happier for them, for our economy, and for the positive outlook made possible by their success. But at least I’m damn fine with the truth about why, and how, they earned it.

Critics like Mr. Gruber — and there are many others — are celebrating today’s news not because it proves Apple is right and Mike Daisey is wrong. Rather, they’re insanely relieved that the painful, potentially embarrassing journey to the truth — not about Apple, but about ourselves — might actually, finally, be cut short. Once we do stop, it will be much harder to get back on that path.

Mike, you almost brought us there. I’m just sorry it will be your fault if we don’t quite make it.