Thursday, August 31, 2006

Thoughts on America

Having been living here for a little over three months now, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts about America...

As Lindsay remarks, Americans (in America) are great people. I've met some really kind, smart and wonderfully warm people throughout my travels in America. Because there are so many people here, most Americans aren't easily surprised - so they tend to be pretty direct and open, which is a little different to people back home. I find myself much more inclined to make smalltalk with strangers, which is something I've always found awkward. Of course, there's always that element of being a zillion miles away from home, and extremely low chance of ever running into the same person twice...

America is kind of a selfish place. There's a real 'hands-off' approach to government here. In many ways, its seems that Americans would rather 'Do-It-Yourself' than let the government help you. For instance, there's no Garbage Collection where I live - No local government services to help me with urban services at all. No snow removal, or mowing of grass in public areas. My house has it's own septic tank, and it's own well. If I want any of these services, I have to organise and fund them. If I get sick, the government doesn't care - that's entirely my own problem. I have to pay for everything out of my own pocket.

In a weird way, the American's triumph over the British and everything they stood for, seems to have cast out that element of 'government for the people' that means you get something for your taxes. In fact, other than using the roads and sending my kids to school, I haven't had any interaction with whatever exactly it is that my taxes pay for. So, America is the land of the free. Nobody is telling me what to do. But nobody is helping me, either.

Americans like to get stuff done. They tend not to mess around and have endless meetings about things - it seems that people aren't as focused on efficiency, as much as with action. You know - 'A Half-Formed Plan Today...' The end result of this is that I never find myself feeling ineffective - just busy! Of course, it also means there are a lot of half-thought out processes in place... which means there are lots of fun things to pick on. Maybe that's why The Simpsons has been running for so long...

The commercial opportunity here is unbelievably huge. Because there are so many people, and because nearly everything is left up to the private sector, whatever crazy thing it is that you want to sell, there is almost certainly someone eager to buy it. No matter how stupid or weird or obscure the thing you want to sell is, it's all here!

Perhaps that's the reason people like Seth Godin can talk about marketing all day long - Over here, there is no shortage of inspiration. Seth has also started, which is also full of wonderful things to pick on, and you should check it out.

So, it can be crazy, busy and broken sometimes, and it's certainly nothing like Australia (despite appearing really similar in so many ways). But it's always entertaining, and though some days are still a little head-scratchy, I'm glad I came.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Trolls and Fanboys

I was poring over Slashdot today (as nerds are want to do when they procrastinate),
where I found an interesting article about Microsoft working with Mozilla to make firefox work better with Windows Vista.

In between all the usual rantings and zealotry, there was an interesting idea raised -

"Are Microsoft planning to ship Firefox with Vista?"

Initially, I just Auto-Snorted and read on... But then later I came back to think about it...

You know, if Microsoft (MSFT) is really serious about being seen as a company that's about innovation - one that is about embracing great ideas, this would be the perfect way to leave all those crazy slashdotters gaping slackjawed in their tracks. To regain a bit of the market trust that they lost. To get people to like the company more - maybe the way they feel about other giant companies...

All that anti-trust stuff, lock-in and lock down stuff would just be blown away if they would include, on equal footing, the open-source browser as an option to users of Vista. It's not anti-competitive. No competitor could possibly gain from it (the mozilla foundation is a not-for-profit organisation) and it couldn't possibly harm any user, who was free to choose which browser they liked best. And what a great way to prove that you support web standards, instead of trying to mangle them for your own advantage...

Oh, and it could make the lives of web-developers the world over so much easier. Like this guy.

So, you know, maybe it's not such a crazy idea after all. Come on then Microsoft, lets see you step up and prove it to us once and for all that you really do support innovation, and you're not just trying to lock us all into Internet Explorer - ship Firefox with Vista.

Hey, It might happen...

Monday, August 21, 2006


I decided it was time for a new HTML template - thanks to the folk over at, makers of fine xhtml chicanery, I managed to piece together this kind of web 2.0 something or other thing using the magic of the blogger markup language. Nothing says 'web 2.0' like those wacky diagonal stripes in the header...

I decided I wanted less "busy-ness", and then I decided I had too much whitespace (can you have 'too much' whitespace?) so I added my random coloured squares down the left.

Interestingly, through some awesome mind-reading javascript programming, if you click one of the squares that best matches your mood, it will take you to a web page that allows you some insight into your true self.

Anyway, I'll leave this in place for a while, and see how things go. There's a brand new version of blogger in beta now, so when that arrives, things will probably get shaken up some more...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Friday, August 18, 2006


Well, It's official. Not content with being Australian, American and British, I'm now also an honorary Newfoundlander.

In addition to being some of the friendliest and most fun people I've ever met, Newfoundlanders have a ritual that allows us mere CFA's (Come-From-Aways) to join their ranks as honorary Newfies. The process is called 'The Screech-In' and as far as I can tell, it usually takes place in a bar. George Street, in St John's is the proud holder of the Guinness world record for the highest ratio of bars to street - there are around 45 bars in about 500 feet of road.

The aim of the Screech-In is to prove you can eat, talk and drink like a Newfie. This involves scoffing something horrible ( I had to eat a chunk of Bologna), drinking a shot of 'Screech' - which is a pretty rough Jamaican rum (in earlier times, Newfoundlanders would trade saltfish with the Jamaicans for it) and when asked the tradtiional question: "IsyouaNewfunLanderCock?" You must reply with a brash "IndeedIismefineoldson, and longmayerbigjibdraw!" Then, you need to either kiss a fish, or, if available, kiss a puffin's arse. In my case, it was a slimy cod. Strangely, I already knew for a fact that cods have tongues, because we had just eaten a plate of them...

Mildly embarrassed, (but secretly overjoyed to be a Newfie) I slunk my way back to our table, all the way being congratulated and "Welcomed Home!" by the locals and staff at the bar, and by my colleagues from TOWER Software here in Newfoundland.

Truly, at the end of my short stay in Newfoundland, something about the people dawned on me - these people are happy to be where they are. They don't brag about their place being "the greatest country in the world", or try to convince you to stay there - because it's not often great - sometimes it's downright horrible. And yet, they're not leaving. They're part of the the place. Being the summertime, I met lots of Newfoundlanders who were on vacation - at home. And that there, is a sort of a greatness all it's own.

Its such a stark contrast to the US, where everyone seems mobile in some way - always working on going somewhere else, be it for business, or vacation, or on a perpetual metaphorical journey to improve their current social status. Or maybe it's just that the megalopolis on the east coast is so heavily developed, that people aren't quite sure exactly where their place is. Whatever it is, I was definitely a little melancholy to fly out of St Johns tonight.

If you ever get the chance, make sure you come to Newfoundland in the summertime.

But uh, Just make sure there aren't any puffins aboot when you come for that bar, eh?...

Thursday, August 17, 2006


On those languid hot summer days, I’d listen to the children shriek with mock annoyance, recalling the delightful pangs of irritated adults carried from my own childhood. The sun was hot, and it beat down on the tin roof of the Dalmeny House known to us as ‘Sea Eagles’.

This place was as defining for me as holidays themselves. Sand in floorboard cracks, abandoned hand-me-down china and an expanse of green lawn strewn with eucalypt twigs that splayed awkwardly, giving way to the gravel that would hurt your toes on the way to the ever present even blue of the Pacific ocean.

My major focus should probably have been on re-capturing the exuberance of a forgotten summertime with my children. In truth, it was on surfing.

My mind was filled with transient snapshots of waves, frozen toppling into clear blue crystal arcs, or foaming lash-like streaks of spray blown up from the perfect off-shore winds. My mission that week was to catch another wave. It didn’t matter how big it was, or what shape it was – I just wanted to get out there and play with them, to capture more and more of these transcendent beautiful moments where geometry and wind and power and water were part of me. Paddling out, arms aching, chafed, burnt. Just one more…

Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that all day. The Australian sun was relentless, so I retreated back to the house. I picked up a book and collapsed into the couch in one motion. At some point in my life, books just disappeared. I’d forgotten the lure of a good book. The busy, chaotic, pseudo bureaucratic process of building a family, coupled with a demanding job had left me with so little time, that it wasn’t a very common occurrence to find myself holding a book of any kind, unless I was in the process of cleaning up someone else’s mess.

Almost reflexively, I began to read. The book was called ‘The Shipping News’, and it was written by a lady called E.Annie Proulx. The tale that unfolded from between my wet hands was intriguing, and frostbitten and sea-faring. It was Salty and Cold, and foul and enamoring and it captured my attention for nearly all the non surfing time I could find that week.

At one point, halfway through the novel, as I flopped down onto the ugly purple single bed in the blue bedroom, I distinctly remember exclaiming aloud:

“Seriously - Who in their right mind would ever go to Newfoundland?”

You know, sometimes the universe just sees you coming.

I’m writing these words from a Bed and Breakfast in St John’s, the largest city in Newfoundland.

I think today may be one of those days that are properly termed by locals to be ‘Sucker Days’ – The sun was toasty warm and shining beautifully off the harbor, the air was crisp and clear, and amidst it all, the strangest thing happened to me – I became completely smitten with the place.

Having spent the day at work, I spent the evening wandering around, cursing my broken camera, and trying to retain in my mind pictures of tiny boats streaming through the narrows, returning laden with cod, and ramshackle fishing huts, that look like ancient storks rising out of the water, fading paint revealing layers of fading paint. The hokey, cozy multicoloured townhouses of the streets of St John’s stretched out along the background of Signal Hill, and the haze from the Atlantic.

People who live in Newfoundland really live here. Sure they love to complain, and they’ll bitch and moan incessantly about it being too hot, like today (20 degrees), or having to shovel 4 feet of snow for a freezing hour in the dark at five in the morning, but only very rarely do they actually leave. As one local told me –

“I think we’re a bit like weeds growing on the rock – we have to put down really deep roots.”

But that’s not to say the people here are some kind of sheltered yokel-halfwits – they’re excellent, smart, well educated folk, who are really part of the natural place they live in. The entire attitude of the people here is different – honest. Coming from DC, it’s as refreshing as the sea spray that blows in on the west wind.

And in a way, there are a lot of parallels between that day and this one – Both of them have reminded me that living in the moment, as a creature of your surroundings – in harmony with the habitat in which you find yourself - is frequently the key to finding those golden little moments of serenity.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Harsher than thou...

I don't know about you. But when I read my web fiction, I'm looking for one thing.

And that one thing is neo-gothic post modern thriller, mystery action stories with undertones of historical religious zealotry, and slight Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy twinges that collide with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a very Frank Miller, existential, harsh metropolitan, red, black, white and steel kind of way.

So naturally, I'm pretty glad that Simon started writing Harsher Light: The Story of Dante Harsher.

I wonder if Tornado Glory will get to make an appearance...

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Could you, would you, with a goat?

I think that Mikal's post on 'A day at the shooting range' might have angered my Inner Hippy.

Not that I want to prolong any talk of politics, but...

You know how people often come out as 'politically opposed' to things, when in reality, they're frightened of them?

(Of course, I'm generalizing, but most of the prejudiced xenophobic or pro-life or otherwise moralising politics seems to always stem from a fear of strangers, or homos, or God, or whatever...)

Most of the time I can recognise that. And I'm able to set whatever personal prejudices I have aside and try to deal with the facts alone. But on the gun front, I'm just like the Fred Niles and Rush Limbaughs of the world, in the sense that my fear overcomes my judgment. Truth be told, I find the concept of applying human ingenuity and brilliance in engineering towards the 'science' of killing people to be absolutely terrifying.

I'm afraid of guns. I'm also afraid of Death Adders. (To be honest, I'm less afraid of Death Adders, because they haven't been engineered by people specifically for the purpose of killing.) I'm afraid of these things because I don't like things that can kill me. I don't want to be shot, nor do I want my friends or family, or, come to think of it, anyone to be shot.

Any argument you may have with me on guns, or gun control needs to take into account that:
"I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. I do not LIKE things that go Blam!"
And as a result, I simply can't have a rational, academic discussion about the topic, any more than the Pope could have a truly subjective argument about atheism.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Free Wiki: The Director's Cut

Dean over at Thrasherville has been chronicling the story of TOWER Software's SDK wiki, which has, as of today, returned to the fold as being available to all (and more importantly, indexed by everyone's second brain.)

The underlying principle of a wiki is that it is quick to publish. The word "Wiki-wiki", for which the modern wiki is named, means 'hurry-quick' in Hawaiian. (Not surprisingly, wikipedia has a great article on the subject...)

When you create or edit a wiki article, there are no approvals, no hoops or editors involved - any change made is immediately visible to all visitors to the site. This very feature is what makes a wiki so scary, and so extremely valuable.

You see, despite the fact that people invented bureaucracy, most people hate it. If I have to fill in a form just so, and then wait for a human to approve/edit/reject my article, chances are high that I just won't bother. Which means that everyone misses out on the knowledge I keep in my head. On the other hand, if I make it too easy to publish something, there's a risk that my valuable content could be vandalised, or plain wrong.

From a corporate perspective, having a publicly available wiki is also a double edged sword. Current and accurate information provided on demand is a must for any modern technology business - and yet misinformation, deliberate or otherwise could serve to do more harm than good. These were precisely the challenges that TOWER's management team were faced with in developing the SDK wiki. You can read more about those challenges, and how they were handled over at Dean and Paula's blog. (Although I may have spoiled the ending, I can't tell it anywhere near as well..)

Meanwhile, if you'd like to explore the world of wiki without fear of humiliation, you should check out Tiddlywiki.

Tiddlywiki is a self contained, indexed, searchable, taggable and portable personal wiki that fits in a single HTML file. You can even set up your own one-folk folksonomy!

I use it for tracking my projects, recording meetings and contacts, and it's incredibly useful.
You can download your own copy right here by right clicking this link and choosing "Save Link as".

Now that's about as quick as you can get.