Thursday, December 3, 2009

The snow is falling and other evolutions

Looking out my office window on North Ave. in Milwaukee, I have an unobstructed view of Whole Foods. But more importantly, on this day, I have a perfect view of the current level of precipitation: the flurries are falling.

This transition is both wonderful and slightly depressing. The wonder comes in the form of beauty, change, and the excitement that my dog Lafayette experiences when he jumps into the first fallen snow. The depression exists, unfortunately, because the first snow of the season is indicative of several every long months of cold and hibernation.

But let's look at the positive aspect of this whole if I direct my energy to the work at hand maybe I'll actually get something quite interesting done. The website, although not a failure, is not exactly a resounding success. It is functional, it tells the basic story, and it is easy to update and modify. It runs on the Joomla CMS system with which I've become somewhat proficient. I'm also following several Joomla experts on Twitter and that has been eye-opening in many ways. The politics of Open Source CMS systems is amusing to behold. Another CMS system, Drupal, appears to be the leading CMS system giving joomla a run for their Open Source money. When I first got into CMS systems, about four years ago, I looked at Joomla versus Drupal and selected joomla as my CMS of choice; not so much because Joomla was more powerful but because it was easier to understand to me personally.

All that is really a prelude to the point I'm trying to make about the website. That is, it could use a facelift and, I believe, the ability for visitors to interact with each other as well as with us. We now have quite a few videos available for viewing and said videos are viewed regularly. But the feedback we've received on the website has been virtually nil so it's difficult to know if were on the right track or not. Additionally the enthusiasm that we feel for the project comes from our inner selves and not a resounding "wow" all from the community that were trying to reach.

So what does this mean? I think that a reasonable first step would be to add some sort of social networking component to the current website. I've had some experience with product called JomSocial and it can be added to our current website without too much difficulty. Whether our visitors will read this networking tool by the forums and interact with each other remains to be seen: not sure what I can do to incent this but what I do know is that what we have is not working.

Ideas welcome.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Levels of satisfaction

There's something incredibly soothing about working in a closed pottery studio by yourself. With the exception of Lucky the parrot giving an occasional screech and the gas furnace kicking in every so often, the only sound you hear is the rotating of the pottery wheel.

When I began this hobby about 10 months ago, the creation of a coffee mug that was more or less cylindrical was an accomplishment for which I was proud. Never mind the fact that it was too small, too short, and not exactly round; if I was able to finish said cup, it usually found a home in my cupboard.

But now that I've been at it for a while, I've been informed by the owner of the pottery studio that it's time to put childish things aside. According to her, you've arrived at a new plateau, if you're able to discard (or at least recycle) the clay forms that don't turn out at least close to the original vision. Certainly there are exceptions. If you start out going in one direction and through some deformity y
ou arrive at a totally different piece, but one that has some level of excellence in its own right: mission accomplished. But if you start out throwing a mug or a coffee cup and after 15 minutes you know that you are just having an off day, it's okay to slice off a mutated form that's developed on your wheel and start anew.

It's a new level of satisfaction you've attained when you can screw up, discard your current piece, and take something positive away from the experience. Each small incremental step-up that you've taken helps to build your overall expertise. The mug you started which morphed into a poorly fashioned bowl which just wasn't right, goes back into the used clay bag for subsequent drying out and wedging.

Being an engineer, I find myself thinking in percentages. What percentage of the items I'm fashioning on the pottery wheel are discarded versus those I retain. My ability to increase the retention versus discarded percentage will be a clever indicator of my advancement in this craft.
I have no desire to keep a running total on paper but it's not too difficult to gauge percentages on a
day-to-day basis. Whether other potters do this or not I do not know; I hope not. One of the things that I enjoy about pottery is the escapism factor. I can take off my engineers cap for just a couple of hours and regress: I'm a young boy who's allowed to get dirty again and whose mother just rolls her eyes and smiles. That's what little boys do; they get dirty.

I've been known to start a hobby, get all excited and busy with it, and then discard it after giving it a halfhearted try. This is not unlike my father whose short term excursions into painting, breadmaking, or basketball lasted for a short lengths of time. I have discovered that my attention will last longer if the hobby is designed with convenience in mind. That is, it must be easy to get to and easy to get out of; it won't hurt if the overall energy of the place is positive.

So far so good. Want me to make you a bowl?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The approach of winter

We who live in Milwaukee love to talk about the weather. Good, bad it's all the same but I definitely feel that the trajectory of the discussion is different than in many other American cities.

I'm not at all sure that citizens of other non-Midwestern cities are so intent on taking "the glass is half empty"he approach to the onset of winter. I doubt very much that the people in Dallas, Los Angeles, or Asheville, North Carolina takes such a delight in commiserating that the snow is ready to fly. Or could it be that a different type of precipitation or the relative level of humidity is the discussion du jour in those cities? Do their morning conversations go like this: "hey Harry, it's going to be 90 today and it's gonna be 90 for the rest of the week too. What say we head up north somewhere to take a break from this overbearing humidity".

But I live in Milwaukee so I interact with people who live in that city. It's never exactly that "the sky is falling" unless you're listening to the local weather reports, but it does sometimes seem that the main topic of conversation is what poor weather we have. And, unfortunately, it's contagious. Like the flu that goes around every year which keeps the students and their parents locked up in their houses drinking plenty of fluids, when the first words out of somebody's mouth have to do with the amount of snow that fell last night or how many degrees below zero current lead is outside, it's not too difficult to breathe a sigh of submission and agree with the negative aspects of our geographical home turf.

Let me be clear about one point. I love Milwaukee! I've lived here for about the last 20 years; there's lots of things to see and do, it's close to a really big city (Chicago), which is pretty easy to get to, has almost no traffic and real estate prices are nowhere close to what they are on both coasts.

But I do sometimes have to admit that I'd rather be somewhere else during the months of January, February, and March. The analogy to our fellow mammals, the bear, is not too far off the mark. It seems that we bulk up our insulation starting at about Thanksgiving. Shortly thereafter, we start thinking about hibernation and planning all the things that we can do comfortably indoors. Sure, we venture out a bit to socialize with our friends or to go to a day job but it's not unusual to drive down a Milwaukee Street on a cold winters day only to find nobody visible to the naked eye. Upon further review, you may be able to locate some unhappy motorists kneeling down next to the site of their cars shoveling snow away from the tires. And of course you're going to see the die-hard dog walkers or crazy joggers who have more important fish to fry than just throwing in the towel, staying in and watching a video.

My parents have been snowbirds for about the last 10 years; spending spring, summer, and fall in a small city in lovely Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River while retreating to the eastern shore of Florida to wait out the harsh four months of winter time. The stroke that my father experienced two years ago put the kibosh on that situation. My mother, who would describe herself as petite, doesn't have the energy nor the attitude necessary to assist my father in Florida by herself. She reminds me regularly that Vero Beach (the next city over from the city where they own a condo) is full of life, youth, the arts, and is a damn nice place in which to live. She does acknowledge a bit of selfishness in her suggestion but tries to convince me that once my wife, dog, and I get down there will absolutely love it. Ain't going to happen! I've been to Vero Beach and although it's not a bad place, it's not the place for me. As our friends George and Angela suggested "you should always have friends younger than yourselves. That will help keep you young.". Vero Beach doesn't meet that criteria.

So my wife and I (and our dog to a lesser extent) keep looking for our own winter retreat. Last year was our first exploratory mission; this year we boldly go in the same general direction. It seems like we've put a virtual thumbtack in North Carolina as a place which possesses many of the geothermal and geographical charms that we might just be looking for.

But, at least for the time being, Milwaukee is definitely home. Sometimes my wife and I look at each other and say "what the hell are we doing here". But then the sun comes out, the winter jackets come off, and spring is in the air.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wanting something bad enough

I am an on-again, off-again smoker. I'm not particularly proud of it, but it's the truth. I know it's bad for me; I know it makes me feel horribly; and I know it's a bad example to the people I know and love. So, should I just throw up my hands and say "hey it's my life" and let the chips fall where they may?

I think my main problem with giving up smoking is that, all things considered, my health is pretty good. I'm a bit overweight but only by a few pounds; I don't really exercise but I walk our dog and I walk up and down five flights of stairs virtually every day. My diet is not perfect because I eat out virtually every day for lunch but I rarely have "real" junk food. Last time I checked, my blood pressure was pretty good. Except for a few aches and pains now and then and for pulling out my back maybe once a year and for the occasional attack of sciatica, I feel okay.

So the main problem is: I don't feel bad enough to quit smoking. How ironic it is that I feel compelled to wait for my body to give up the ghost before taking direct action. If only I could extrapolate five, 10, or 15 years down the road to the point where a doctor or my spouse would truly convinced me that giving up tobacco is a wise and necessary thing to do. But the enjoyment I received from my five or 10 cigarettes a day, especially those enjoyed with my coffee in the morning, cause my brain to look the other way while my nostrils in my mouth inhale the tobacco smoke.

It's always been somewhat of a pet peeve for me that "the powers that be" refused to acknowledge that there's actually enjoyment derived from the inhalation of tobacco smoke. They are so consumed with describing what happens to your body: your lungs, your heart, your throat, your respiratory system that they fail to remember that smoking is a fun thing to do. I suggested to my wife, the filmmaker, that a documentary showing the positive aspects of smoking might be well-received and might even assist her and me in giving up the death sticks. But no: it's not to be. Some of the filmmaker might need to take up the task.

And the fact that smokers have been virtually ostracized from the public indoors causes said smokers to bandy together and form their own clique. Non-smokers sometimes feel awkward or even ostracized themselves trying to join said clique because those guys are having so much fun puffing away. It's undeniable that the five or 10 minutes one spends smoking and socializing in a smokers circle is enjoyable and relaxing and something to look forward to even as the nicotine urges one on. If only non-smokers formed a different clique whose main rule would be that tobacco is forbidden; that might eliminate one of the main reasons to smoke; perhaps the main one.

So we stumble through, trying to figure out small methodologies to either cut back or eliminate this dreadful habit. The problem is that once you've been smoking for a while, some of your good friends may very well be added and heavy smokers and to eliminate some of the time that you spend with them almost feels like punishment. What to do? Find new non-smoking friends? Grin and bear it and just continue to go out for a smoke and not partake. Continue hacking away until you literally cough up a lung or dropped dead of a heart attack?

I choose not to give up hope, but I also choose not to give up cigarettes... just yet!

Friday, November 13, 2009

why pottery is good for me

I am not a patient man.

Given a choice between having it next week or next year, I'll take it last week and thank you very much. This aspect of my personality can be irritating to my friends and family and exasperating to me. I tend to paint pictures with broad strokes and I think one of the reasons of that approach is because the smaller stroke seems to slow down the overall process.

More times than I'd like to admit, I've started a project only to have it end never coming to fruition. It's an annoying trait and I'm working on it.

So it's all the more surprising that I've found I'm quite enjoying a new hobby: ceramics.

When Brooke and I spent January and February of this year in Asheville North Carolina, one of the people that we interviewed for our next thing was Lori T. Lori is an experienced potter and has her own pottery studio where she throws pots, trains potter wannabes, and brews a mean cup of tea. Her faithful dog Lesa, generally stands guard from her corner next to her foot powered Potter's wheel and I found that working in Laurie's studio was both engaging and soothing.

My wife, Brooke, was happy that I discovered this new hobby and so, when we got back to Milwaukee in March, she gifted me a class in ceramics at a local pottery studio: Murray Hill Pottery located on the fashionable east side of Milwaukee.

Unlike the Laurie's studio which tended to be a little slow since she was just getting it off the ground, Murray Hill Pottery often is a bustling, energetic place to get your hands dirty. At the time that I started my adventure with Murray Hill, I hadn't really made the decision that pottery was a hobby that I was going to embrace. I knew that I enjoyed getting my hands filthy, but I certainly wanted to learn how to throw mugs and bowls on the wheel before possibly exiting a hobby that might turn out to be only temporary.

When one works in pottery not only is patience a virtue, it's a necessity. Unless you own your own potters wheel, kiln, glazes is, and all the other accoutrements necessary to indulge in this hobby, the time it takes to go from soft clay to drinking coffee out of your cup is going to take at least a week and may take up to a month. Let's go through the various steps:

First, you have to take a pound and a half of your favorite clay and turn it into something that looks at least, mostly, like a coffee cup. In this regard, experience is going to play a major part. If you're just starting out on the wheel, it may take you 10 or 20 near misses before something that resembles a coffee cup is produced. And now the fun really starts:

It's rare that you're going to have a mug that doesn't require some sort of trimming. This often involves letting the mug set out exposed to the air or wrapped loosely with some plastic until it's what's called "leather dry". This can take anywhere from hours to days to weeks, depending on the temperature of the studio and the humidity of the air but it's typical that a piece of pottery will be ready to trim 1 to 3 days after it's thrown. This is a somewhat subjective state of dryness for the clay where much of the water that was mixed with the clay has evaporated. The piece of pottery is referred to as greenware. It's still soft enough to be manipulated, cut and trimmed but it's dry enough so that it's easy to handle. This is the state in which trimming generally occurs. So, trim your mug, will you?

So now you have something that looks kind of like a coffee cup without a handle. Got to put the handle on. This can be done in several different ways: 1) if your studio has some sort of extruder, you can produced the handle that way. It generally involves selecting a die, filling up some sort of tube with soft clay, and forcing that soft clay through the hole in the die creating a ribbon of clay that can be tried and molded to look like a handle. 2) You can a handle out of a slab of flattened clay. It's quite easy to do actually. Take some clay and flattened it between two flat objects until it's about a quarter of an inch in thickness. Then use a sharp tool of some sort to cut out the handle of your dreams. 3) The last method of creating a handle is more than a little pornographic. It starts by molding your clay into the form of a large carrot. Using your hand and a small amount of water you pull a handle out of the carrot. The actions that you used to do this are humorous, embarrassing, and quite fun to watch. After spending 15 minutes or so creating a very functional handle for your mug, you might need to go outside for a cigarette.

At this point, we have an object that looks like a mug but it's a bit on the soft side. Sometimes you want to let this sit around a little to let it get a little harder by being exposed to the air, at which point you can you can present it very ceremoniously to the kiln.

Ceramic objects are generally fired twice. The first time, it's called bisque firing; the second firing is glaze firing. The bisque firing prepares the object to accept glazes, which color the object and often provide a smooth, food-friendly coating.

Pottery studios usually don't have kilns running day and night; it's too costly. A typical kiln firing is going to last upwards of 12 to 15 hours and use mass quantities of electricity. To make this as economical as possible, kilns are often loaded only when the studio has a load of earthenware that fills up the kiln. Depending on how busy your studio is, the firing might be every week, every couple of weeks, or even just once a month. Murray Hill Pottery usually does a bisque firing and a glaze firing about once a week.

So the item comes out of the bisque firing. After it cools down for a day or so, it is ready to be glazed. Careful application of the glaze is important for the item to come out looking professional. To ensure that excess glaze does not roll off the item and damage the kiln, wax is applied strategically to your ceramic items. The wax tends to resist the glaze and allow a small foot on which the item can sit in the kiln. Application of this wax is a careful procedure and counts as one more small step in your creation of the ultimate ceramic object.

After the item is waxed, glazing can begin. Many pottery studios have a multitude of glazes and each glaze gives you a color and/or intensity for your finished product. Glazes are chemical mixtures that are applied in liquid form to the object by by accurately painting or dipping the item in the glaze.

Once the item is glazed, time for the second firing or time to wait again.

Finally, the finished piece of pottery emerges from the glaze kiln and announces its presence to the world. Time to take it home, show your spouse or kids of your newest triumph, then make a pot of coffee to ensure that the item can hold your favorite beverage.

Total time elapsed: 1 to 4 weeks pending if you catch the kilns at the right time.

As I remember, the reason that I started writing this blog entry was to show you why pottery is good for me. After viewing all the steps necessary to create the finished object, it doesn't really make sense that an impatient person like me would find the creation of said pottery satisfying. To get around some of the time constraints, I've developed small tricks: always having several pieces of pottery in any given stage can help. But I've also found that my very presence in the studio tends to lower my stress levels; regressing to my younger self by allowing myself to play with mud, finding the inner artist in me when I really didn't think existed, and watching my progress in this hobby by comparing the evolution of mugs from barely usable to pretty darn reasonable has been very satisfying for me.

I've experimented with several hobbies in my life and not all of them have stayed with me. Ceramics, I hope, will not be one on that list.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

how good is your personal service?

I'm really not that green, but about two years ago I went out and purchased a scooter.The scooter wasn't really anything special; it was shiny and red and ran adequately without using too much gas.I used it quite a bit the first year and quite a bit less the second year, and here it is November 1 and my little scooter is in storage for the winter. The Milwaukee winter.

But let me take you back to my experience of buying this scooter.

My day-to-day travels in Milwaukee take me down Water Street frequently. Along the curve where Water Street turns into Brady Street, there's a little store called MotoScoot. If you know the curve you may know the store.

Prior to purchasing my scooter, I passed the store many times and would see employees and potential customers milling about outside looking at their future methods of transportation. So after I convinced my wife that a scooter was a reasonable thing to own, I had a good idea where I was going to make this purchase. I showed up unannounced one quiet, summer afternoon and was greeted by a friendly but busy store owner. He certainly seemed to be juggling quite a few balls and, from the looks of it, he was keeping all of them up in the air. He identified me as a potential sale and did, indeed, spend some time letting me know why his was the store from which I should purchase my scooter.

Personal service was his motto: he stressed this and tried to convince me that personal service was the best service. In hindsight, I should have been more quizzical about what he exactly meant by personal service. I had no doubt that he was sincere in his offer of the aforementioned service, but shortly, and after the sale was finalized, it did seem clear that, as far as I was concerned, his personal service was a pipe dream. Now I'm not saying that he did anything illegal or even immoral, but my hopes were that personal service might actually have some sort of follow-up to it. In the two years since I've owned my scooter I've not had a single call asking me how my scooter was operating or if I needed anything to make my scooter riding safer or more enjoyable.

The one thing that my wife will tell you is that I'm a big mouth. I often exceed an acceptable decibel range. But I also let people know what I'm thinking about stores and service providers; both positive and negative. I've been known to take up pen and paper to let a restaurant owner know exactly what I thought of their service. I'm also quite vocal with my friends and associates about wonderful food experiences or if a auto dealership has let me down. As an aside, Acura of Brookfield has always treated me wonderfully and I often use them as the gold standard as to how to treat customers. My point of all this is: treat me well am going to tell people about; treat me poorly and I'm going to tell even more people about it.

So what does personal service mean to the people at MotoScoot? I'm not sure, but to me it certainly doesn't mean good service.

But more importantly, in this economic time, good service is good for business. If the storeowner had followed up with me after the sale, I would've had a much warmer feeling about him and his store and when it came time to put some money into my scooter, he would have been a shoe-in to get my business. But now he has let that relationship degrade and I feel absolutely no personal loyalty toward him or his organization. Earlier last month, I noticed a new scooter store in Riverwest. It's more convenient for me anyway and I have no negative feelings toward them like I do with the other business so when it comes time to fix my light or get a tune up, I'll probably send my business their way.

It strikes me as being very Darwinian at its core but that's okay. Perhaps, companies that don't know how to support their customers should go away.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I see firewood

I take lots of walks with my dog. After the initial block, Lafayette doesn't struggle so much. He realizes that resistance is futile and so, I sense, he starts to relax and enjoy it.

Often, during these walks, and especially at this time of year we pass the remnants of garden work. Occasionally it's just the small pile of leaves that has been raked into the gutter but often, it's a goodly collection of twigs, branches, and even small, wooden logs.

Some people pass these collections of organic material and dismiss them as unsightly rubbish, or at best somebody else's problem. I see firewood. Whether it's to burn in a fire place, or an outdoor fire I see this flammable material as energy to bring me joy and in some cases roasted marshmallows. I don't hold it against these other people that they don't see firewood, in our current moments of life I may require firewood to either keep my home warm or heat my person and so it's of some interest to me. My neighbors probably just want it removed.

The metaphor doesn't escape me either.

I think the whole social media craze is apropos to this as well. Some people see firewood and some people see rubbish. I'm not sure what I see: I have a Facebook account and I have a Twitter account. I've had a LinkIn account for about five years now. Some people look at these tools and dismiss them as time wasting nonsense that reduces productivity and changes us from efficient worker drones into imbeciles constantly checking our e-mail and updating their status in Mafia wars. Other people have turned these tools into useful work related devices which allow their companies to either support their customers better or to get additional information about what they're doing wrong.

I believe most of us are somewhere in the middle; utilizing some of these tools for benefit but realizing that time can easily be wasted frittering away time playing Facebook games. sometimes I feel that there is a small minority out there that has figured out these tools and has efficiently integrated them into their business lives. They're making the most of the time they have in a single day; they've discovered how to utilize the hoot suites and tweak decks so as not to tempted to play Farkle. The education needed to change into one of these mythical beings is out there and it's not too difficult to acquire. I'm on that path now and I'm hoping it doesn't take too long.

Lately, I've tried to change my outlook on other people's projects. I'm much more likely to say yes when asked to devote some free time and effort to a project on which I would have passed, previously. The reason that I've been doing this is that I think I may have been walking away from some projects before I really understood them well enough to make an informed decision. I've decided that spending a few hours here and there might be time well spent and would, at the very least, introduce me to some people who I would not have met otherwise. Although my goal is not to get additional employment, some more consulting work would not go by unappreciated. Although I've not made any additional money from my new mental mindset, I've had some unsolicited requests for consulting quotes and I'm willing to chalk them up to this new technique.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Review of Dragon Naturally Speaking 10

A review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking by Nuance

It's easy to be amazed by voice recognition that is even reasonably accurate. It brings us humans one small step closer to being the master over our computer slave. To have the machine perform even the basic tasks that we need performed by using a voice command can be simultaneously frightening and astounding. Visions of Colossus, the Forbin Project might just be right around the corner and voice recognition brings us one step closer to the corner.

This is all a prelude to my review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10.

I purchased an earlier version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking many years ago, installed it on my Windows machine, quickly grew tired of its inaccuracies although I was still somewhat amazed that it could perform at all. The newer, faster computers can put to rest many of the power issues the previous computers had. I purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 on sale from for about $30 including shipping and have been playing with it for the last month or so.

The accuracy of the software is amazing especially considering the low entry price. My initial intent wasn't to review this product. It was to turn a somewhat daunting typing task into a less daunting dictation task.

The product comes in the small cardboard box, most of which packages the included microphone and headset. Herein lies, possibly, the most distasteful part of this product and that is the uncomfortable headset that is included with it. Granted, I have a pretty big head but not so big that an adjustable headset shouldn't accommodate me. If I'm going to be wearing this product for hours on end I need to be able to do it comfortably and without leaving an impression in the side of my head where the microphone and earpiece are stationed. Aside from the comfort factor, the sound quality and the microphone seemed to work quite well. However after wearing it for 20 minutes or so I reverted to my old trusty Plantronics headset and microphone which I can easily keep on my noggin for hours on end.

I installed the software on three different computers; two desktops and a laptop. One of the desktops and the laptop were running windows XP the other desktop was running Vista. All computers have at least four gigs of RAM and plenty of disk space. The first installation was on the Vista machine and this is where I experienced the most trouble installing the product. I attempted installation and it errored out. I re-attempted installation on the Vista machine and it was successful the second time: total installation time was about 30 minutes or so. The installation on the XP desktop and the XP laptop were much easier and installed on the first try without any hiccupping.

Next was the training. I was presented with six or seven 10-minute passages to read; all of them from books of some sort. I chose Dave Barry, Lewis Carroll, and Dilbert on each one of the different machines (I needed to train them all individually) and proceeded to spend approximately 10 or 15 minutes teaching my computer to understand my voice commands. It was actually a rather soothing experience and each computer easily kept up with me.

A usage tutorial is included in the product it's worthwhile going through it. Simple voice commands are presented in the context of creating a test document and spending 15 minutes working with the voice recognition system is time well spent to avoid frustration later on.

I found the most difficult mindset change to be the necessity to think before you speak. This includes usually enunciating punctuation. It strikes me that since your fingers can't really keep up with your brain, for the most part, transferring intelligent thought through a keyboard to the computer tends to be like downshifting a car. Alternatively, the voice recognition system appears to have no problem keeping up with a steady stream of speech and therefore mentally composing your thoughts before you verbally enunciate them can save plenty of time later on where you might need to go back to correct words, phrases, or entire sentences. I suspect this mindset change will be the crux of the matter. Whether I continue to use this product are not will rest on whether I ultimately feel comfortable composing my thoughts mentally well before I enunciate them.

Considering the fact that the product eliminates me pounding on my keyboard for extended periods of time I hope I am able to make this mindset change.

In closing, I'll demonstrate the accuracy of the product by verbalizing a paragraph that I grabbed off the Internet. From Wikipedia I grabbed the following paragraph and will now proceed to verbalize it so that you can compare it to word-for-word:

"The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" is an English-language pangram (a phrase that contains all of the letters of the alphabet). It has been used to test typewriters and computer keyboards, and in other applications involving all of the letters in the English alphabet. Due to its shortness and coherence, it has become widely known and is often used in visual arts.

And here's my verbalization:

The quick brown jumps over the lazy dog is an English-language pangram open parentheses a phrase that contains all the letters of the alphabet). It has been used to test typewriters and computer keyboards, and other applications involving all of the letters in the English alphabet. Due to its shortness and coherence, it has become widely known and is often used in visual arts.

Just so you know, I didn't verbalize the quotation marks so I won't hold it against the program. Not so with the parentheses statement so I'm not sure why it didn't get (like it did just now).

In summary: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 is accurate, easy to install and fun to use. If you're at all curious about voice recognition in its current incantation, price should not be the obstacle that keeps you away from this product.

And, yes, I did create this blog entry using the product.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Twitter and customer service

Ppeople who spend any kind of time on the Internet are aware of the social networking system called Twitter. It's become a full part of the acknowledging that many people use on a day-to-day basis while it's a temporary annoyance for other people who haven't figured out how to integrate it into their business lives yet.

Twitter is sometimes difficult to understand until you've used it for a while. Since it's structured 140 characters, you have to think carefully before you add a tweet sincemany if not most things that you'd like to say would take more than 140 characters.

Some companies are openly embracing this technology and it can be pretty easy to find out which companies those are. I recently had a war experience with CitiMortgage. Their monthly envelopes have been hammering me to move my statements to paperless as it turns out I was speaking with a CitiMortgage on the telephone and asked the very pleasant customer service person if she wouldn't mind moving moving me to a paper of a statement. She informed me that although she would like to do this, she was unable to and I needed to log into my account on in order to turn my statements paperless.

It certainly seems ironic that, on one hand this enormous company has a desire to stop cutting down trees for their statements and giving me my information in bits as opposed to physical atoms. Technology is such a part of my life, that it would actually be easier for me to read my statements online. Therefore, I did have something to gain by going paperless. But at the same time CitiMortgage with its thousands of employees has something to gain also: there is physical labor involved in printing my statement however slight it may be. It cost them a small amount of money for the paper, the ink, and the labor involved in printing and delivering said statement to me every month so there's something that they can gain by switching that to a simple e-mail.

There's another company that I'd like to mention that seems to be doing the exact opposite. For the last several weeks I've been using with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 by Nuance. As a matter of fact, I'm dictating this blog entry with that exact product. I could list off some of the pluses and minuses of the Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 later, but for right now I'd like to mention how they're using Twitter to support their customer base.

Upon receiving Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 a few weeks ago, and after playing with it for a few days,I tweeted that I was enjoying the product and was amazed at its accuracy. Within approximately one hour I received a private tweet from Nuance customer service requesting that I alert them to any problems I may have with the product from that point on. I've not experienced any problems that I would need to bring up with customer service, but it's nice to know that there are looking over the shoulder of America to see if people are using their products and making sure that all was going well with them.

This all came about because I went to the local Milwaukee chapter of LikeMinded: a monthly networking group meets at the Rochambeau coffee shop in Milwaukee. One of the attendees was Jamie, an IT geek from Aurora Healthcare in Milwaukee. Jamie related a story about how his company handles problem reports that they find via twitter and I was duly impressed. It's easy to brush off the fact that a healthcare organization might be concerned about customer support but the fact is there a lease trying to understand social networking and have allocated the necessary resources in their organization to respond accordingly. Whether this remains a long-term part of their offerings certainly remains to be seen because some of these social networking systems may eventually dissolve into the ether, but it's encouraging to know that they get it now and feel that it's a communication system important enough to monitor regularly.

Now, if only CitiMortgage would get it,too.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What's going on with Our Next Thing

The Our Next Thing project has been slow-moving as of late. You know it. We know it.

Yes, we've been busy but we've also realized some of our priorities and the Our Next Thing project doesn't always go into the top priority pile. Generally, that is because it's not making money for us so if a moneymaking endeavor comes our way, we often have to put our personal projects on the back burner. That's okay, as long as we're dedicated to coming back to this project, which is definitely still near and dear to our hearts.

We've done a few more interviews in the Milwaukee area, and are now finishing up on the planning for our winter escape from Wisconsin. We will again, be spending two months of our next winter in Asheville North Carolina. Or more accurately, will be spending a month in Asheville and a month in Black Mountain, North Carolina. the two cities are about 15 minutes apart. So we can bounce back-and-forth between the two. We have some friends and acquaintances in both of those cities and are looking forward to seeing them again. We've spent a couple of pleasant days in Black Mountain, so we know basically what we're getting into, but the prospect of spending a month they are is actually starting to get a little exciting. Whereas Asheville tends to be a progressive, liberally oriented city, Black Mountain is a sort of artist colony and the population as probably about a fifth the size of Asheville.

Will be looking for people to interview in both of those cities so if you know of anybody who would like to go under our camera lens, please send them our way. We're looking for people who have made dramatic career changes in their lives and age is quite unimportant. We'll take anybody from their 20s to their 90s as long as their career paths have been diverse.

We also hope to catch up with some of the people that we interviewed at our last trip and see what they've been up to since that time.

I created this blog posting using my new voice recognition system based on Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I'm enjoying the writing ability of this device, but have not totally integrated into my business life. It may be that I need to just work at this thing until it's second nature.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tough Decisions

I attended my mother's 80th birthday party. Happy Birthday, Mom! I love you!

Both of my parents are alive and, for the most part, doing pretty well; my mother especially. My father is doing ok relative to other 82 year olds. Some are better; some are worse...I think my dad's probably in the middle.

Like many of us, my dad abused his body during his heretofore life. He drank a bit too much, he ate a bit too much and he smoked a bit too much. Some of those things are now, I'm afraid, catching up to him. He did give up smoking some 20 years ago but his drinking took a toll that may be be recoverable. Oh, and he has that "crappy Irish skin" that many in our clan was born with.

I'm one of seven kids; 2nd oldest child and oldest male. Basically, it meant I didn't need to do the dishes while we were growing up (sorry sibs!). So the day before this party, we decided to have a sibling get-together. My sister Amy has a house a town away from the folks and generously offered to host the event (my other sister Bridget lives a few houses away from the folks and was going to host the main party).

So we started eating and drinking and carrying on...until I figured we were all feeling well enough to talk about "where the folks were". This was one of those conversations that nobody really wanted to start but many of us knew we should.

My folks live in the middle of Pennsylvania right on the Susquahanna River. Since flooding is a regular occurance there, they built their house on stilts so that if the water comes up, the stilts will, hopefully, save move of their belongings (and themselves, if needbe). The downside of the stilt system is that a rather steep set of stairs is the only way into the house. Since this part of Pennsylvania sees a goodly amount of snow, my fear is that entering or exiting the house during the winter months could be dangerous.

I stated as much to my siblings and opened the floor for discussion. Several of my sibs shared my fears but, surprisingly, not all of them. Some of them thought that it could be handled safely and my folks could live though the winter without too much difficulty. Others disagreed and thought we (the kids) should act. I do have 2 siblings that live within the same small town as the folks. I'm sure my folks will call them if they need assistance. What to do, what to do?

I'm sharing these details, not so much for the answers that we came up with but for the question: If the folks are fairly coherent, is it the kids responsibility to come up with solutions whether the folks want to abide by them or not? Since it's very reasonable to assume that some of my siblings will be alerted to said difficulties (and since I'm 1200 miles away it won't be me), is it appropriate to ask my folks to let us in on their thoughts and keep us advised on things that could affect any of us?

I had a discussion with my mom about some of these issues and I came away with some new understanding. One, my mom has actually thought some of these issues through. Whereas we were assuming that she was taking a "wait and see" attitude, she has, at least, thought through the "what do I have to do to make this work" thought process and has a grasp on a solution. It might very well impact one or more of my siblings but at least she's not waiting until the snow flies before coming up with ideas.

I'm still nervous but less so than when I went.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A tale of two Madison Restaurants

A difference in Customer Service

This is a story of two Madison, WI restaurants and how they treat their customers.

Chapter One

I went to Madison yesterday for a gallery event. My friend, Richard Knight, has a wonderful galley exhibit at the Overture Center in the Watrous gallery. Check it out. So my wife, Brooke and I decided to make a night of it. We love Madison and only get there once or twice a year. But it has some fantastic places to dine and Brooke found her choice for that night.

Our friends Josh and Sandy were going to be in Madison for the evening, too! So we booked a party of six at the Harvest Restaurant right on the Captial Square. Big mistake.

We arrived at 8:15 and were seated quickly outside. It was a glorious July evening and we settled in for a wonderful experience. Madison has hundreds of restaurants and the Capital boasts a good number of them all within walking distance from each other. I mention this because we had a choice. We made a reservation beforehand and chose this single place to spend our time and spend our money. Six persons at an somewhat pricey restaurant was going run us a few bucks but that's ok. We don't do it that often and I am a believer in spending hard earned money and getting an experience, not just a dinner.

The waiter was a young man and greeted us in short order. Seemed personable and friendly. Took our drink orders and didn't come back for quite some time. I had a view into the restaurant's bar from my location and it appeared that our waiter was mixing the drinks himself. In any event, in about 25 minutes he returned with our drinks and then took our order.

This is when the real waiting started.

We were in a pretty chipper mood. We hadn't seen Josh and Sandy for a while and were catching up. Kay and Rick were in fine form after Rick's gallery event which went well.

But shortly it became apparent that something was amiss. There seemed to be quite a few waitstaff running around but food was coming out slowly if at all and our visits from our friendly waiter were few and far between. After about 45 minutes of this, we started to get a grumpy. We're closing in on 9:30pm and most places stop serving at 10:00. Some of our party needed to hit the road and get back to Milwaukee, too.

After a while, our friends who needed to get on the road simple couldn't wait any longer and decided to close out their check. He walked inside was confronted by the manager who informed him that our dinners were being set out on the table as they were speaking. Not true, though we did receive our appetizers while he was inside. Unfortunately, he hadn't ordered one.

We were talking amongst ourselves and the manager heard us and came to see what was the matter. We explained the situation and she curtly informed us that a larger party was in the back room and that was probably the issue. This is our problem? She then asked us "what direction we wanted to take our grievances?". We were certainly getting irritated at this point and said that we needed only to get our drinks and our dinners. She told us she'd check with the kitchen staff and left.

We were getting fed up quickly but not with a nice dinner. Josh went after her to see if we could just pay our bill. He caught up with her at the door to the kitchen where she was explaining to the staff that "another 5 minutes and she was going to ask our table to leave". Perhaps we were complaining too much? Josh said we didn't need 5 minutes and could we just have our bill.

We were unhappy and incredulous that such a supposedly nice restaurant would treat us like this. We are not unreasonable. An explanation at the beginning might have made it better, but at least we could have made a decision to go elsewhere. Instead, the manager was rude and unpleasant and unnecessarily brash. We'll certainly never eat there again. (or, perhaps I should say, we'll never be back since we didn't eat there the first time)

Chapter two

Peppinos on Capital Square is a city block away from the Harvest. At 10 after 10:00 we walked in and it was apparent that they were just about settled for the evening but we asked for a table. An older fellow behind the kitchen counter space thought for a second, and said, "sure, no problem".

We proceeded to have a fantastic dining experience. We were still unsettled from the previous experience but drinks were ordered and our lovely waitress presented them with a smile on her face and a bounce in her step. We had a leisurely dinner, never wanting for anything and always delivered cheerfully.

The food was great. The company was great. The restaurant (Peppinos) was great. The experience was great.

Shortly before we called it a night, Peppino himself showed up. He was the fellow that gave us entry before.

He was born in Sicily and came to Wisconsin as a young man. We found out many other interesting fact because he took the time to meet us personally and engage us in some history and drama, all from his life's story. By the time the night was coming to a end, we had received a complementary Citronella (lemon liquor; appropriate since Pepino had grown up on a lemon farm) and a bunch of smiles back on our faces. The waitress received a nice, fat tip, too.

I've been involved in customer service for many years. Some would say that we're all customer service representatives no matter what we do for a living. What I've discovered is that the customer isn't always right, but they're always the customer and there is never a reason to be rude or insulting to somebody who's funding your business. My friends and I were treated poorly and left the first establishment unhappy. We finished the evening quite happy because a second establishment knew what their priorities were.

It's unfortunate that some people need to be reminded but it's not surprising.

Harvest: Consider yourself reminded.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Back in for some video!

After spending a couple of months in the Carolinas, we've returned to the great state of Wisconsin and have gotten right to work.

Heretofore, we have focused mainly on the interviews: identifying appropriate candiadates, gathering the necessary equipment, going on location.

We've now performed about 20 interviews and the video is burning a hole in our website. We're anxious to get excerpts and full videos done.

Some of the videos almost edit themselves. Perhaps, they're concise or we just remember them well enough that we can go right to the juicy stuff. In some cases, we bonded to the people to whom we were talking. We may have become friendly with them or we may just have enjoyed the interview ourselves. In any case, editing them can seem almost easy.

Other videos will require some intense study and, in some cases, we may need to watch the entire videos again: reliving our time at the shoot. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is time consuming and it slows us down.

We're using Final Cut Pro for the editing although we have Sony Vegas as a back up...just in case. We have plenty of hard disk space, but even a Terabyte fills up fast when you're dumping hours and hours of video on it. We're evaluating upgrading our disk drives, but haven't made that decision just yet.

We have two Mac systems on which we can edit. Brooke does the vast majority of the editing; she's a pro! I've been going through some Final Cut tutorials and may take a whack at some of the'll be good for me to get this ability so we both can crank out the videos.

The website is being updated daily but we're still searching for a good look and feel. We're using a content management software system called Joomla. It's pretty easy to add pages and change the look and feel of the entire system but this may turn out to be phase one of the site. Phase two may just require a professional designer to be involved.

It's exciting to be home but it was equally sad to leave Asheville. We really fell in love with the city and have already spoken about making a return visit either in the Summer or next Winter (or both!)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Asheville Interviews

Greg, Toni, Brooke and Greg Flys with Eagles, Black Mountain, NC

Bob White, Lucia Daugherty and kids, Asheville

RegJamyl, Asheville, NC

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This and that...and the other thing

I'll cover a few different issues in this entry. Might be all over but please
bear with my "stream of conscientiousness"

Shortly after my arrival in Asheville, my new Canon Powershot camera went belly up on me. It's just a cheap, digital camera but it did an adequate job and we were depending on it for website pictures. New batteries, mess with the contacts, connect the USB (that part actually worked) wouldn't take pictures reliably. So off to Best Buy, I go.

Came back with a cute, little portable Panasonic and I'm loving it so far. The camera takes 8 Meg pictures and it's easy and fast. It uses somewhat expensive rechargables, but I'm hopeful that the battery will last a while. I'll add some of its' results to this blog posting. As a matter of's a picture that I took at one of interviews. We were interviewing Lori Theriault, a local potter. Lori has a beautiful studio over in West Asheville (somewhat of a hipster section of Asheville) and this is her favorite pottery wheel. As you might see on the final video, I was able to take a turn throwing a pot on that wheel. Definitely good energy.

Our first interview was with Lori Theriault, a delightful ceramics creator based in West Asheville. She came to this city by way of Chicago, Washington DC and Atlanta and has really settled into the area and the artist's community.

Lori creates a multitude of ceramic items and teaches pottery students the way of the potters wheel. She's designed a small studio in a sort of artists enclave where artisans of different materials practice their craft. She's connected to a local artists guild and hopes to have a weekly art tailgate where all of the vendors can display and sell their creations.

Black Mountain

Fifteen minutes away is a small village called Black Mountain. I had previously contacted Tori de Lisa, another potter originally from Miami. She's married to Gregory Dunn aka Greg Flies with Eagles. He springs from Cherokee roots and is creating authentic tribal headdresses as well as Native American masks. He uses all authentic materials and relies on some of his mountain friends to supply him with feathers and other materials.

Our first attempt to meet Toni and Greg met with some slight disappointment on our part. They live near the top of one of Black Mountain's local mountain tops and when we drove up in our Rav4 we didn't think we could make it. The snow starting to fall helped us chicken out as well. After trying to raise Toni on our cell phones and discovering no service, we headed back down the mountain where we were able to call her and explain the situation. We were a bit freaked out by the experience but when Toni invited us to lunch on a future date, our excitement overruled our fear of falling and we promised to come back.

Today we met with Bob White, an organic food grower and socially conscience activist. Bob's past includes stints as a carpenter, a painter, a framer, a book store owner and a Black Panther.

My next entry will detail our second trip up the mountain to meet Toni and Greg as well as our wonderful meeting with Bob and his wife Lucia.

Discovering Asheville has been a real joy. We find the people wonderful and friendly, the restaurants eclectic and interesting and the surrounding landscapes absolutely breathtaking. The mountains tower in the distance from every vantage point of Asheville and day trips into the mountains are literally 15 minutes away.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In progress in NC and SC

We made it to Asheville and are actively meeting and recruiting persons for our project. We have met some already and they look promising.

Mike and Jill are a musician and a photographer in the current life. Past lives include computer geek for a financial company and social worker type. Very cool and loving Asheville when they're here: She is and he's travels here when able.

Lori, a pottery maker and pottery instructor. She was involved in the theatre (production) in both Washington DC and Chicago. Great ceramics studio and very much connected to the artist community in Asheville, which is quite active.

Other persons on the horizon include an organic vegetable farmer (or, at least, grower) originally a carpenter and a painter. Tomorrow, we're off to see a ceramics person whose spouse is involved in Tribal art in the Black Mountain area.

Our trip to Asheville was uneventful and not as bad as I thought a 13 hour drive was going to be. I've gone on longer drives before but haven't been on one for many years. For this one, I was accompanied by my favorite canine companion, Lafayette.

Asheville is a pretty city in the Smokie Mountains and we're having fun exploring it as we figure out the layout. My GPS has come in pretty handy so far (though it can be annoying sometimes: it doesn't always know if a street is one-way or even connected to adjoining streets so you CAN'T follow its' directions all the time.

Friday, January 2, 2009

On the road, with a dog

Left the home court (Milwaukee) yesterday for our adventure. Figured I'd try for Lexington, KY but I wasn't sweating it since we can't get into the place until Saturday so I needed to "kill" a day anyway. Main reason I left early was to avoid any bad weather...turns out there wasn't anything to worry about and I could have just left today.

Gives me a couple of days to bond with our dog.

I made Louisville, KY yesterday and bedded down at the local La of the dog friendly hotels I found when searching . Pretty nice place and dogs are common...Lafayette (our cockapoo) seems right at home. I went to get the lugguage and he barked for 30 seconds and then calmed down...I guess I'm coming back after all.

The 7-8 hour drive was, for the most part, uneventful. I had purchased a GPS from and was a bit excited to try it out (the geek in me never dies). Has an FM transmitter and can show videos and play audio, so before I left I went to the library and got a few books on tape and then ripped them to some spare SD chips I had.

About an hour into the trip, I went to switch SD chips and somehow clobbered the GPS chip so it wouldn't load up the GPS system at all...nuts! Luckily, I had printed out my entire trip with maps but I had hoped for some extra geekiness on the way. So I have my laptop but it doesn't have an SD reader so I couldn't re-init the chip (the GPS system came with a map cd so you can create new map SD's if necessary).

Now, I do have a micro-SD with an adaptor (the micro SD fits into my phone for my pictures and ringtones)..and I have a cable to configure my phone/SD as a drive. Cool. The map disk found the drive and created the GPS map stuff on the micro SD.I installed it into the adapter and plugged it in.I'm in business once again! Today or tomorrow, I'll see if I can find an adapter so I can program my SD's directly but it's low priority.

The GPS is my first and it's a Plenio VXA-3000 (does the VXA really mean anything?). My opinion so far is that it gets you close but it's not totally accurate. For example, it instructed me to enter the freeway when there wasn't an entrance close by (though I was driving next to the freeway). I tried to go to a POI about 4 miles away in Louisville (Thomas Edison's House) and it got me close but then kinda 'lost it'. It did get me there eventually though and I would have had much difficulty finding it without its' aid.

The books on tape thing is working well. I'm just about through my first book (a Dan Brown novel). The clarity is ok: it does transmit to the FM radio but if/when I get close to a real FM station that shares that frequency, I get distortion. In that case, I can go into the GPS's setting and change the frequency so it can play undisturbed again.

Started smoking again but those days are numbered. I'll give it up as in early January. 2 years being good and then off the wagon! I just have to remember that I can't smoke ONE cigarette without going back to Potter (as my dear wife might say).

Lafayette slept the entire way...popping his head up briefly as we'd go through a toll booth (in Illinois) and then settling back down immediately afterwards. The La Quinta has a small 'park' in the back with some cement tables and a large yard. Dog shit all over the place but it did the job.

I've been communicating with some people in Asheville who are interested in the project. One guy, a musician, is leaving on Sunday and I hope to meet him before he goes. I believe he'll be back before we leave Asheville so it might work well.