Wednesday, March 29, 2006


I work three different shifts on a rotating basis, roughly a week of each. We refer to them as Days (6am to 2pm), Swings (2pm to 10pm) and Mids (10pm to 6am). Just to make things a little more complicated we occasionally throw in twelve hour shifts on weekends. So which shift do people like the least? Generally Day shift. Honestly.

They all have pluses and minuses. Swing shift definitely makes it difficult to socialize outside of work (after college it’s very difficult to get together with friends on a week night when you can’t start until 10:30). In terms of my body’s sleep clock, however, there’s no more pleasant shift. I go to sleep when I get tired, wake up when I want to, and go to work somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to get anything useful done on such a schedule, but I certainly do feel refreshed.

Day shift, however is absolutely brutal on my sleep and this is largely the reason I dread it. I have to get up at 4:30 am and SHOULD be in bed by 8:30 pm. The former is jarring and vicious, largely because the latter simply does not happen. I tend to spend Day shift with a sleep deficit that just gets worse as the week progresses.

Mids has its own sleep complications, of course. Sleeping during the day is not an easy thing – especially if your downstairs neighbor is trying to learn the trombone and your next-door neighbor plays the guitar. My girlfriend has it worse. She lives above a puppy that does not like being left alone during the day, next to a four year old who does not seem to like anything, and across the street from a parking garage that, if the alarms are any indication, must be the crime capital of the world. Also when the neighbor with the puppy IS home, he throws loud parties just to show off his subwoofer. My girlfriend sleeps with earplugs.

Besides that, however, there are lots of reasons to enjoy Mids:

Atmosphere: There’s a certain other worldly feel to being awake while everyone else is asleep. Everything is emptier, the pace is slower, and the atmosphere is more relaxed.

Clothing: Jeans and a t-shirt. Also sneakers. Ahhhhh.

MidsFeast: Saturday night we hold a massive potluck dinner. We select a theme and everyone brings a dish. The food tends to last all night long. Glorious. Fattening, but glorious.

Fiona Ritchie: She’s the host of “Thistle” on NPR – an hour of Scottish and Irish music. I’m not entirely sure what a “brogue” is, but if I were to use it in a sentence that sentence would describe Fiona Ritchie’s voice. It would probably also contain the word “lilting” and it might mention that I am a sucker for a Scottish accent (which is not too surprising, considering how many of my father’s ancestors were Scottish and Welsh). Also, I love the music. My Sunday evening commute never fails to leave me in a happy mood (which is good, because the return trip occurs in Monday morning traffic after twelve hours of work).

Sunday, March 19, 2006

::A Few of the "Thoughts " that have Occurred to Me Recently (but which are not fully fleshed ideas worthy of an entire post)::

Traveling - I feel sorry for the security officer who had to search my bag on the way back from Denver. It is ostensibly a snowboard bag, but I stuff it full of everything it will take. This serves two purposes: 1) it protects my board from rough handling and 2) it makes it much easier for me to stick to the "two checked bags" rule. This means that the person who searched my bag (and left that helpful little note to tell me that this had happened) had to go through not just a snowboard, but the boots, jacket, snowpants, sneakers, slippers, helmet, goggles, scarf, face mask, socks, pants (two pairs), ice skates (my girlfriend's), boot warmers, camelbak, gloves, long johns, overshirt (two), sweater, and the knee-brace I brought just in case (never used, I wrenched my ankle, not my knee) - all of which were tightly rolled, packed, stuffed, and arranged like pieces in a puzzle to get the most use of a small space. Poor guy. He got his revenge, though, my bags returned two days after I did.

Bodily Functions - The average person farts fourteen times a day. Why do I know this? Because I learned it in the seventh grade when such information was vitally important to me. Apparently it stuck with me. Why did it occur to me now? Because I attended Dave's 4th Annual SXSW Chili Cookoff last night. Good food, good times.

Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously - I think one of the most important attributes a person can have is the ability to not take themselves too seriously. I also think that the best way to get people to listen to you is not to sound Important but to sound Interesting - these are two different things (related, but not identical). It's easy to say things that are important and which should be interesting, it's not as easy to convince other people that they are. This is where a little bit of humor can help. On that note, our pilot for the return from Chicago to Dulles earned high marks (and our continued attention) for making the following announcement: "Once the seatbelt sign is turned off you will be free to move about the cabin, although we recommend that you remain inside the aircraft at all times."

Endurance and Obstinacy - The last day of our ski trip the temperature hovered in the single digits with a windchill that was in the negative double-digits (around -30 to be more precise). Rather than stop skiing, we bought hand and toe warmers and went on with our day. Those temperatures would kill a naked man pretty quickly. Yet we stayed out in it because we were having too much fun to go inside. Clothing technology (with some assistance from the warmers) has reached a point where we could stay outside in such weather with very little impact to our mobility and not because we NEED to be out in such weather but because we wanted to have fun. Amazing. If recreational skiing isn't a sign our culture appreciates luxury, I do not know what is.

Congratulations - To Bruce and Colleen. If you don't know why, ask them.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


This Tuesday, after what amounts to five years of procrastination, I went to the gym.

I think part of the reason I waited so long is that on some level, I did not really believe I needed to go. In high school and college I hit a level of fitness I was pretty happy with and never felt the need to bulk up further. I had a six pack. I could run and swim long distances. I could lift heavy objects and hold them for long periods of time. I was proud of my ability to surprise people by doing so. That's all I wanted. Okay, that's not true, I wanted to attract women, but I settled for taking pride in myself (which, as it turns out is in itself an attractive feature).

After I left college, I worked on a construction site and grew even more fit carrying all sorts of equipment up and down four stories worth of ladders and, later, twelve flights worth of stairs. Then I got a desk job, but I think I refused to acknowledge what that might do to my general health (I also started drinking soda to stay awake at my desk job and that probably did not help either). Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I still didn't really believe I needed to work out. I was pretty sure I still had my six pack (I just figured it was, you know, covered). In the back of my mind I've always felt that I could just walk into a gym and pick up where I left off and so felt no sense of urgency about doing so. There's also a good chance that, deeper down, I had no desire to actually test this theory.

Well, I went and tested it Tuesday. See, I'm going on a long hike (no, Dave, my version of a long hike) with my family in the Summer and I don't want to embarass myself in front of them. My brother, as part of our preparation for this hike, has convinced me to sign up for a triathlon in May and I don't want to embarass myself in front of all those strangers. Also, my girlfriend has started going to the gym and I really don't want to embarass myself in front of her. So Tuesday I went with her.

As it turns out I don't have that six pack anymore. It's not cleverly concealed, it's gone. Nor can I just start where I left off. It was a painful discovery, both mentally and physically. I was smart enough not to actually try the weights I used to do, but I may have underestimated my decline. I have always considered myself fit and now I have proof that I'm not. Not at the moment, at least. Well, it's time to change things.

I went back on Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Some time ago, when I was applying for my first job, an interviewer asked me the following question: "Completely blue sky, that is ignoring any monetary or technical constraints, describe for me the perfect shower controls." Up until then, things had been going very well. It took me a long time to realize exactly how badly I screwed up the answer to this question. The only way I could have made more certain that I did not get the job would have been to mention the interviewer's daughter in my answer.

The short version of what I did wrong? I forgot about the "blue sky" part of the question. You're not getting the long version, I don't want to talk about it. As someone who prides himself on creativity and intelligence, I'm still intensely embarrased at my incredible failure to use either of those traits to answer the question.

Since the day I realized what I had done, I have spent some time thinking about how to properly answer such a question. For lack of anything better to do today, I'm going to share some of these thoughts with you.

First, one must consider: what is the ultimate purpose of a shower? If you do not understand what people intend to get out of the experience, you will not be able to give them the means to get it. So, what DO people want from a shower?

Well, to get clean, for one. Well if that's the case (and I'm going to argue in a moment that it's not the only case), and we take "without constraints" to mean "without constraints" why do we even need the shower, let alone the controls? Why not assume a device that is capable of cleaning a person in a much less intrusive and less time intensive manner? Assume, instead, we could build a device into a doorframe that automatically (and unobtrusively) removes dirt and oils from you and your clothes every time you walk through it; or assume a piece of jewelry that acts to prevent you from ever getting dirty in the first place. Think of all the time such a device would save. Think about how inconvenient the shower-as-cleaning-device really is and get rid of it. In other words, if we're assuming our point is cleanliness and we have a blue sky to do it in, we're assuming a world that doesn't bother with showers.

But... if we take a closer look, cleaning ourselves isn't really the only use we have for showers. Humans, as I'm fond of pointing out, have never limited themselves to using a thing solely for its original purpose (some would argue that this tendency is exactly what makes us human). Some people instead use showers to warm up on a cold day, to cool off after a hard workout. Some people use them to wake up (slowly or suddenly). Some people simply enjoy the sensation of standing beneath a stream of water (with or without company). In other words, besides cleanliness, we also simply enjoy the feel of a shower and will use one for that purpose alone.

A tiny device, in a blue sky world, might be capable of providing the same sensations without the extra room or, say, the skin drying effects, but even so, controls would be required.

Now that I've demonstrated that I really can think "blue sky," I'll get around to answering the actual question. Not that the previous discussion was useless, it serves to point us towards the purpose of showers (or the simulation thereof) in a "blue sky" world: sensation.

Actually, I'm not going to get around to that question quite yet. After we figure out WHY we're controlling a thing, we need to understand WHAT we can control about it. What dimensions exist within the context of the shower that we would wish to have under our control?

Your typical shower today gives you control over temperature and flow (although these are not usually independent). Some shower heads then give you further control over the
force of the water, the shape, and the output pattern (massaging or steady) - again, not usually independent. The shower-head-on-a-hose attachment, although not often considered a control does act as onel; it is a means of controlling the direction of water flow. What else is there we could control about the shower? How about the size of the droplets? If we really have complete control, we could provide a full range from atomized mist to a solid stream (my personal favorite).

Here, then, is a quick list of the various factors we might possibly wish to control if it was in our power to do so (and keeping in mind that sensation is our goal): water temperature, water volume, water pressure, pressure pattern over time, droplet size, direction, coverage, air temperature (yes, air temperature - ever stepped from a warm shower into a cold bathroom? Then you know why you might want to integrate air temperature into shower controls). I'm sure there are others.

That's a lot for one person to worry about. In a pure "blue sky" world, however, the user shouldn't have to worry at all. The shower would be able to read the user's neurological activity and manipulate the environment from there. Step into the shower, think to yourself "today I feel like a warm, misty kind of shower" and it will take care of itself. Too warm? The shower will adjust based on your preferred comfort level (keeping in mind that some people prefer showers to be just short of painful). There would need to be some indication for first time users that this is how the shower operates or they will spend a long time looking for a knob before they step in. Although such a notification would become less and less necessary as such a shower gained wider adoptance.

On top of the mind reading, designers would probably also want to install an emergency cutoff just in case something malfunctioned (assuming everything will always work as planned is a quick and easy way to get into serious trouble - even in a blue sky world). Such a cutoff would have to be easy to find with your eyes closed, reachable from a prone position (in case of a fall), and not blocked by the source of water.

Now if mind reading is a little too-blue-bordering-on-the-black-of-space, there are other options. Voice control would be my next choice (assuming, of course, that this blue sky world has technology that can handle conversational style voice commands in such an accoustically hostile environment), namely because it's incredibly versatile, and fits all the requirements listed above for the emergency cut off: accessible with water in your eyes, accessible in case of accident, and not blocked by the source of water (to be safe, you'd probably still want a physical cut off option). The only thing it does not do, that mind reading would not require, is remind the user what adjustments are actually possible. If it never occurs to the user that they can adjust the droplet size, they will never make an attempt to do so. One way to address that concern would be a list of features that displays when you first perpare for the shower (and which can be told not to after you've owned the shower long enough) and could be redisplayed (or spoken out loud) during the shower at the user's request.

There are plenty of other considerations such as individual defaults ("Hey shower, it's Bob, I think I'd like my 'Workout Cooldown' preset this time.") and additional non-shower-specific features ("Turn the radio on to DC 101, and remind me I've been in here too long after about ten minutes."). Physical controls, or even reduced functionality voice controls (that is, predefined instead of conversational), would be a whole new issue but this post is already long enough. I think you get the picture.

Next time I get a blue sky question, I'll do better (it would be hard not to).