Only NFL legend Rosey Grier will tell you how to sew a box pillow.

A Flickr photo of my NERD-lepoint pillow project got picked up on BoingBoing this morning, thanks to Wonderland and Craftzine. Yay, thanks Cory!

On Christmas, Kate’s grandmother gave me a copy of Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men, which is a real book published in the seventies featuring football star Rosey Grier, who apparently was a man of parts. Or he had a ghost-writer, but I’d prefer to think the former.

I already have a copy of the standard needlepoint book called “The Black Bible“, but only Rosey Grier’s book has instructions on how to sew a box pillow with piping. Because, I guess, a box pillow is more manly than a knife-edge pillow. In any case, that’s what I’m going for. Thanks, Rosey! (And thanks, mommygam! You rock!)

The book is totally worth looking at — click on the cover to see some scans of the book that Flickr user “Extreme Craft” put up:

UPDATE: Oh man, Rosey Grier is the one that sings It’s Alright to Cry” on “Free to be You and Me”. Rosey Grier is the REAL THING, baby.

Only NFL legend Rosey Grier will tell you how to sew a box pillow.

Goodbye, Digitas!

IMG_0226.JPG In eight happy years at Digitas, I’ve been: a programmer analyst, a senior programmer analyst, a senior technology analyst, a technology manager, an associate director, and finally a vice president.
I’ve been through rich years, when the Technology department filled two buses for a team outing to Bowlmor Lanes. And I’ve been through lean years, when I was the only technology staffer in the New York office. The technology itself has grown and changed immensely. During my own job interview, I was asked to identify what an <li> tag was. That, and a professorial bow tie, got me in the door. Now, we routinely ask candidates to write a thousand lines of object-oriented code while simultaneously fighting an electrical fire, annotating a PowerPoint deck, and soothing a noisy pack of spaniels. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and Digitas has been a wonderful place to constantly learn while the interactive industry has been busy inventing itself.
I’ve also been commuting five hours a day for five years. In 2002, I cleaned out my apartment in Little Italy and bought my first of many Amtrak monthly tickets. I’ve spent the equivalent of 260 full days inside a blue Amtrak coach, with a laptop on my knees.
And now, that chapter is coming to an end. Yesterday, David Nie, my boss and colleague at Digitas, took the technology team out for dim sum at 88 Palace, so I could say goodbye. I’m venturing out on my own, starting a small interactive practice with an office just a mile from my house. I’ll be blogging plenty more about what I’m doing, but for right now I just want to say that I’ve been tremendously, wonderfully fortunate both in finding a company that truly values its staff, and finding people that are smart, inquisitive, and care deeply about doing the job right. Digitas and I were a perfect match, and I’m sorry to leave. Goodbye, Digitas team!
I won’t miss the commute, but I sure will miss you folks. Good luck, and I wish you continued success as you go from strength to strength.
PS. New York held up its end of the bargain: it’s always at its most captivating when you’re about to leave. I had never been to a dim sum restaurant before — at least, not the real-deal kind where you sit down and immediately start grabbing interesting, delicious food off of carts that are constantly circulating around the room. All in a secret location literally crammed under the girders of the Manhattan Bridge. I’m on to you, NYC. Nice try. Thanks for the sendoff.

Goodbye, Digitas!

Moments of grace through chicken hackle and bits of yarn

My mom says that my grandfather’s fly fishing and fly-tying hobby was “a pastime for men with exacting professions”, since it demanded precision, patience, and careful attention to detail. That care and patience would then be rewarded, at rare, fleeting, and magnificent intervals by the presence of the ineffable.

The rest of the time, you’re just trying to tie a piece of chicken hackle to a tiny hook with an invisible bit of plastic, and you can’t see any of it, and it’s all a huge pain in the ass.

But those moments of transcendence transform all the rest, retroactively filling them with grace. One of those moments makes a year of tying Royal Coachman flies that look like the cat barfed them up worth it. Well, almost. My Royal Coachmen were pretty bad.

I was talking to my friend and colleague Rem Reynolds a while ago about blogging in the Epic Mode — that is, when you write about your daily cavils as if you were a hero in a Frazetta painting. My contention is that normal life really is epic, at least most of the time, and that the epic is built from thousands of small, inconsequential details. Those details are baby steps on the way to rare, fleeting, and shining moments of transcendence. Which I will call, without sarcasm or irony, the “Dude, I ROCK!!!” moments. I’m completely and totally serious, and YES, I do make the air guitar motion.

Anyhow, Rem’s point was “Yes, John, but not everything is epic, when you get down to it. Some stuff, there’s no payoff at the end, and there’s no meaning behind it.” Which is an excellent, excellent point, and I suppose (here comes the Blinding Flash of the Obvious) that the hard part is to tell two kinds of things apart. Maybe that’s why we have hobbies that are like our jobs — like any job, a hobby can be filled with details, even with tedium, but a hobby rewards you more reliably with cathartic moments of grace. With fly fishing, the moment of getting a fish on the line is magical (not that I’d know too much about that.) Or the moment of stepping out from between the rhododendrons, into the stream, feeling the cold press of water on your waders, and seeing mist on the rocks.

Anyhow, this started out as a post about needlepoint, because needlepoint, like fly fishing, is a pastime for people with exacting professions. Plus, needlepoint is friggin’ PERFECT for computer artists, because it is both like computer art (tiny picture elements assembled into a coherent whole), and unlike computer art (the thing you make actually, you know, exists, has a pleasing, wooly texture, and has every chance of lasting longer than you do.) My big question is whether or not needlepoint is going to provide a big I ROCK moment after many hours invested in the details. Is needlepoint epic? I’m going to hope that it is, and the first time I slap down my finished mono canvas, throw a double deuce at the sky, and shout “YEAH! I ROCK!”, I will be sure to let you know.


Meanwhile, this seems like an excellent time to link to some pictures of the Pohoqualine Fishing Association that my mom took (and developed, and printed in her darkroom) in 1979. Pohoqualine is a private fishing club in Stroudsburg, PA that my great-grandfather and grandfather, and father all belonged to — a Fitzgeraldian bulwark where captains of industry would go to master tiny, niggling details in the hope of catching a moment of grace. Plus, there’s a sock wringer that I always thought was AWESOME.

More to come on the needlepoint later.

Moments of grace through chicken hackle and bits of yarn


I run all my tikaro web stuff (blog, Jira, Confluence) off a single dedicated server that’s somewhere in, I don’t know… Tampa? Or something?

It took me a while to get used to the fact that my server might be anywhere, and that I don’t know what it physically looks like. Actually, back in 1999, when I first had a dedicated server, I explicitly chose a host located in Kuala Lumpur, because I thought it was so awesome that my packets were going ALL THAT WAY to reach me. I liked to imagine that half the packets were going east, and half going west, because the server was as far away from me as it’s possible to be. Since I was losing half my packets (stuck in the Khyber pass?) I ended up moving the box to the States, but it’s still more of an idea to me than a machine. But it is a machine somewhere.

Anyhow, enthusiastic young programmer Dustin Whitney at [my current employer] (ha! ha! newbie blogger!) send around a coders-list email extolling the benefits of the Amazon Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2). Which works like this:

  • You make a “virtual machine”, which is a computer that thinks it’s a computer, but really it’s a piece of software that thinks it’s a computer.
    Okay, so far so good. My copy of Windows XP running on my MacBook thinks it’s a beige Dell box, but really it’s software. This is futuristic, but I’m used to it.
  • You package up this virtual machine, and you upload it to the formless, massive grey mist of Amazon S3, the Simple Storage Service.
    This is where my head starts to hurt, imagining a global mist of, you know, files and stuff. “S3 was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.”
  • You issue a web-service command, and lo! The virtual machine living in the mist comes to life, and becomes AN ACTUAL COMPUTER THAT YOU CAN MAKE DO THINGS.
    And the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters, and OH MY GOD IT’S A SHELL PROMPT! (crack of lightning)

  • You pay by the hour during the time your “machine” actually “exists” (from ten cents to fifty cents per hour, depending on how “powerful” your “computer” is.)
    See how I’m having to use scare quotes everywhere? Because nothing’s REAL, man!

  • Your EC2-hosted application got Slashdotted? Issue some magical web-service incantations, and your virtual computer clones itself.
    Like marching brooms! Like a magical pasta pot that makes pasta until you say the magic word! Like an army of unstoppable homunculi! And they’re all real — but not real — they’re AMAZON EC2 CLOUD GOLEMS!
  • Your web application can even be configured to do this itself — if it sees that demand is exceeding capacity, it can summon more instances of itself, becoming more and more powerful!
    See? Do you see why I’m foaming at the mouth here? Jesus H. Montgomery Christ!!! Voltron! Skynet! The first chapter of the Gospel of John ALL ROLLED INTO ONE!

Excuse me while I go sob quietly in a corner. And try to figure out how to get this public/private PEM key pair working.


Milking trainer update: ANP’s dad drops the science

Ex-colleague and exceptionally well-balanced overachiever ANP read my plea for a milking trainer, and responded by asking her dad, who is clearly an old-school, old-world badass, for some written instructions. Here’s what he had to say to her:

  1. “You know how to gesticulate to an “OK” sign, right? Do it now with your right hand.
  2. Visualize making that OK as far “up” the teat (haha)* as possible. Your thumb and first finger (they are forming the OK circle) should be against the udder (again, haha) with the remaining digits hanging loose.”
  3. read more at ANP’s blog

* I’m not sure if the parenthetical tittering (haha) is ANP’s or her dad’s.

So far, I’ve got two farms as “possibles”, so it seems like there will be some sort of initial milking 101 training going on this weekend. I will, of course, blog it all AS IT HAPPENS.

Milking trainer update: ANP’s dad drops the science

From “A Field Guide to North American Christmas Trees”:

Engleman Spruce (Picea Doloris Excrutiata):
Similar in color to the Blue Spruce (Picea Pungens). Tall, upright appearance. Ravenously, unbelievably sharp, four-sided needles that pierce the soft, unsuspecting palms of suburban dads who work computers for a living and forget to bring gloves to the cut-your-own christmas tree farm. Trunk, especially, covered with short, needle-like barbs to punish the unprepared.

The Engleman Spruce is favored by hard-bitten, Bronte-like Christmas-tree farm owners who thrive on the bitter tears of the soft and the weak.

  • Size at eight years: 7-10′
  • Identifying characteristics of tree: Starbucks-fogged shrieks of pain; angry red welts on hand and forearm; rolling eyes of spouse; delighted toddler chuckles.”
  • Official soundtrack of the Engleman Spruce
From “A Field Guide to North American Christmas Trees”:

Wanted: Milking Trainer

On January 11th, at precisely 1:30 PM, Kate’s mom, my mother-in-law, the estimable State Representative Barbara McIlvaine Smith, will compete in the Celebrity Milking Competition at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.

Now, my New York City friends might be thinking of this as quaint. Which it is, in a way, but not if that way means small or low-stress. The Pennsylvania Farm Show is a big, big event, and, if you were going to be doing something difficult and unfamiliar in front of a big crowd — if you were going to be up on stage doing a mysterious activity, competing against local meteorologists, football stars, and assorted ringers, you would want some serious training. Rocky IV-style training. With a wooden stool, a bucket, and steaming breath:

My dad’s friend, chef Fritz Blank, was a regular competitor. Chef Fritz holds a degree in microbiology, grew up on a farm, and knows all about milking cows. He would be the perfect merciless trainer for Barb. Unfortunately, Chef Fritz retired to Thailand, and so is not available for riding in a golf cart and shouting through a megaphone.

So we need help. Specifically, we need milking lessons. And I don’t think using a plywood cutout and a latex glove is going to do it. I’m not quite sure of the best way to proceed — there are lots of dairy farms just to the west of us, but any dairy farm has been automated since the Fifties, so there’s no reason why a dairy farm, just because it’s a dairy farm, would be able to teach hand milking. I think we’re looking for a small farm — but a small farm that has the eye of the tiger.

I might try calling a local Amish Raw Milk farm, or the really excellent, organically-run Meadow Run farm, since they do active outreach to the community (they have an open farm day that we really enjoyed this year.) Or maybe I could call the Chester County 4H Club and see if they have someone that would be willing to train Barb. And Kate, and me, and Lydia — after all, I think “milk a cow” should be on Heinlein’s list.

Any suggestions on where to find a by-hand cow-milking trainer before the turn of the year? Please make a suggestion in the comments, and I’ll let you know how it goes. (Also, if my comment tool breaks or annoys you, please let me know by sending an email to john DOT young AT gmail DOT com — I don’t want to lose that one comment that holds the keys to victory!)

UPDATE: I got a response back from the Landis family at Meadow Run farm, which is gracious and packed full of AWESOME INSIDER TIPS. They say:

“Unfortunately I don’t think we can give you the milking lesson you’re looking for. Though we had been milking 3 or 4 cows outdoors that had calves this summer, we have now stopped. We would suggest contacting a dairy farm that would have indoor milking areas (in these freezing temperature). I know Seven Stars Dairy in Kimberton has lovely organic Jerseys although I’m not sure if they allow people to come in. You might check under dairy farms and call one of them.

You could mention to your mother in law that squeezing tennis balls in both hands for a few weeks prior can help build up the hand’s milking muscles. I think stamina and hand strength is as important as technique. Most people who don’t milk regularly just get tired very quickly. My second piece of advice is to pet and talk nice to the cow before milking since it’s all about the soothing and relaxation of the cow so she “lets” her milk down for you. I hope that’s not too much information, but it is certainly true.

Thanks so much for the advice! I’m going to be calling Seven Stars Dairy, and also our friend Meg, who graduated from Penn Veterinary school a year ago, and probably knows a cow.

Update 2: It’s starting to look like Penn’s New Bolton Center may be the way to go. My only reluctance here is that, if we go to the New Bolton center, that means Barb is not Rocky, but rather Barb is Dolph. I’m sure they’ll have her milking under water, squeezing gleaming stainless-steel “milkometers” while grimacing a ruthless Teutonic grimace. Actually, that sounds pretty cool. I’ll call Meg this morning.

Update 3: Meg came through in spades. She called a large-animal vet friend of hers, with whom she had ridden as a part of her schooling. Her friend knows a small dairy farm in the area, and reports that they will be “delighted to teach Barb hand milking.” This is great. I’ll give them a call and report back. Did I mention that I just finished re-reading All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful? Boy, talk about the right time to be doing this.

Wanted: Milking Trainer

This is what traditional banjo-playing has been up to while I wasn’t paying attention

I mentioned a couple of years ago that I play the banjo some, but I haven’t really taken the banjo out of its case for a long time. So Laird, my chief (and, sadly, now only) banjo-playing uncle — more about that later — just sent along this video via my mom, demonstrating what traditional music has been doing while I wasn’t paying attention:

I’d like to think that everything in life gets this weird and awesome if you don’t pay attention to it. I’m hoping that the gardening-tools area of the garage is now facing off into competing teams, or that the boxes full of library books in the basement are having, you know… grammar rumbles.

This is what traditional banjo-playing has been up to while I wasn’t paying attention