About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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The goal of a GUI is to present the user with as few decision points as possible. Remember the Macintosh dictum that the user should never have to tell the machine anything that it knows or can deduce for itself. "As few as possible decision points" is another way of stating the guiding principle of good UI design for end-users: Allow the user the luxury of ignorance. This does not mean that you can't reward acquired knowledge with more choices and more power; you can and should do that. But the user should also be able to choose to remain ignorant and still get all their basic tasks done. The more thoroughly software developers internalize the truth that real users have better things to do with their time and attention than worship at the shrine of geek technical prowess, the better off everyone will be.

Eric Raymond



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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/27/2020

Totals
Posts - 2626
Comments - 2635
Hits - 2,301,219

Averages
Entries/day - 0.42
Comments/entry - 1.00
Hits/day - 366

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 6:48 AM Pacific


  08:15 PM

I spend a lot of time on social media—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There's value here; for example, I "know" many people only through these media, and I much appreciate what I've learned from them. For example, I know hardly any linguists IRL, but I follow many on Twitter, and it's great.

But even I can tell that I overdo it. It's a time suck, and it's an easy way to procrastinate when I need to be doing, you know, work. ("While this documentation is building, I'll just check Twitter quick-like.")

More insidiously, too much social media starts making me cranky. And when I get cranky, I do unfortunate things, like respond in pissy ways to innocent posts by other, nicer people. Or, gah, I give in to the temptation to respond to morons and their idiotic political opinions, a no-win situation if ever there was one.

So I decided recently to implement what I'm calling Asocial Sundays. Between midnight on Saturday night and midnight on Sunday night, I don't visit any social media sites, period.

This is a new experiment, but I can see some benefits already. Not having the option of social media redirects my attention to more productive things. If I'm sitting at my desk and finish some task—paying bills, say—I don't just mindlessly switch to FB or Twitter to see what's up. Instead, I might actually get up from my desk and wander into the rest of the apartment.

It also has been a way to unplug from a source of stress. We all know that it is distinctly not conducive to good sleep to doomscroll Twitter before bed. Politics and COVID are inescapable on social media, and both are not only inherently stressful, they're sources of endless arguments, outrage, scolding, shaming, uninformed opinions, and on and on. It's nice to take a break from that.

I'm far from ready to withdraw altogether from social media, the way some of my friends have. (A social media detox or social media fast, as it's sometimes called.) I've occasionally considered unplugging permanently from Facebook because their ad models are scary and because Zuckerberg is an incorrigible weasel. But as I say, I still get a lot from my social interactions.

If the experiment goes well, I might at least expand my lights-out policy for social media. I suspect that the more I do it, the easier it will be to use social media in a healthier way.

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  08:25 AM

We've been without a microwave oven for about 9 months now.

This is not because we have some sort of philosophical objection to microwaves; the reason is much more practical. Before we remodeled the condo, there was a built-in microwave above the stove, which doubled as the no-vent/recirculating range hood. We knew that we didn't want this 1980s-era microwave, and we replaced it with a dedicated range hood:

Our initial idea was that we would get a countertop microwave. But once we'd moved in and sorted out the kitchen, there wasn't really an obvious place to put a microwave, because there's just limited counter space, alas.

So we've been doing without. This means we've had to explore substitutes for how we used to use the microwave. Like, how do you reheat leftovers without a microwave?

We use our oven or toaster oven. The room we might have given over to a microwave is taken up by a small toaster oven. That appliance is more useful than a microwave, I think, because it can heat and toast and broil. I make toast all the time, and we have no toaster-toaster, so this is a daily-use device for me.

One of the advantages of a microwave is that it's fast. But heating things in our little toaster oven doesn't take that much longer. It's a little oven, so it heats up pretty fast. It also has a convection setting (which I think just means it has a fan that blows the hot air around). All in all, what might have taken, say, 2 minutes in the microwave takes maybe 8 or 10 minutes in the little oven.

We heat things on the stovetop. Anything that's got liquid—soup, stew, whatever—we can throw in a pot and heat on the stovetop.

There are definitely dishes that would be easier to reheat in a microwave. Leftover pasta, for example. What I've been doing is putting these into a pan on the stovetop with a glug of water and a lid. It's not perfect, since it inevitably steams whatever you're reheating, but it's tolerable.

We (mostly I) heat things in a frying pan. Some dishes can be fried or refried. Heat a splash of oil in a frying pan and toss in your leftovers. If I fried up hash yesterday and have leftovers (unlikely), I can reheat it by giving it a short version of the same treatment again. And if we've got something like leftover rice, I can steam it again, or I can make fried rice.

I never much liked defrosting things in the microwave anyway. These days, if I have to defrost a hunk of hamburger, for example, I'll put it in the Dutch oven on very low heat on the stovetop.

And then there's popcorn. I love me my popcorn, but I never used prepackaged microwave popcorn anyway. I did have a series of microwave poppers, but they have an unfortunate tendency to break. So I went to the discount store and got a cheap 6-quart pan that is my dedicated popcorn popper. I heat it on the stove and do that classic thing where you shake the pan as the popcorn pops merrily.

I don't miss the microwave as much as I thought I would. It's been interesting to, in effect, return to our pre-microwave days. I didn't grow up with a microwave (back when they were known as "radar ranges," ha), and it wasn't ingrained in me to rely on it. We might still get one someday, but I think that the longer we make do without it, the less likely it is that we'll want to house one more bulky appliance in our limited kitchen space.

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  07:30 PM

As I explained in part 1 and part 2, Duolingo's pattern- and repetition-based instruction is supposed to teach you a language without grammar instruction. How's that working for me?

I should note that I've had a lot of language instruction—I rassled with two-way prepositions in German and with the subjunctive in Spanish. I can explain phrasal verbs in English. I know what vocative means in "vocative comma."

So I'm probably an outlier in Duolingo's audience. Still, language learning is language learning, and even when you're studying a language the traditional way, you're only going to get better if you practice and practice, which is one of Duolingo's mantras. Could I learn Latin through repetition alone and with no explanations?

Possibly, but I wasn't patient enough to find out. Even at the very beginning, when I was presented with a new pattern, I was both learning it and analyzing it. To repeat an example from earlier:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

From this I abstracted that one plural ending was -i and another was -ae. I might have even concluded that -i is a plural for masculine nouns and -ae for feminine ones. (I guess I also abstracted the idea of noun genders and singular/plural verb conjugations, none of which Duolingo has breathed a word about.) So I'm not just learning the patterns, I'm starting to fill in a chart in my head of noun declensions and verb conjugations.

The first thing that threw me a bit was encountering this contrast:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Estne femina domi? (Is the woman at home?)

My previous language experience had not primed me to expect that when a verb is used as a question, it takes (or can take) an -ne suffix. Because this was novel to me, I stumbled over it repeatedly until—just as Duolingo hopes—I just went with it. (Mostly; I still forget sometimes.)

As I progressed, I kept mental tabs like this on grammatical aspects as they were introduced. For example, from sentences like this[1]:

… I tucked away that the 2nd singular form of verbs (present tense) ends in -s and that in the singular, direct objects (i.e., accusative case) have an -m at the end.

Eventually I got to something that I just could not figure out. Compare these sentences:

ego litteras latinas lego. (I read Latin literature [lit. "Latin letters," how poetic])
ego litteris latinis studeo. (I study Latin literature)

Here's where my need to analyze the grammar worked against me. In both sentences, "Latin letters" is the direct object. But which is the form for the direct object, litteras or litteris? I kept seeing both, it seemed to me, and this made no sense to me.

Maybe I could have just accepted this contrast, the way a Roman toddler would have eventually gotten it through sheer repetition. But after I'd already spent some time deducing that the -as ending was an accusative (direct object) ending, what was I to make of this seemingly arbitrary difference?

On every exercise, when you've submitted your answer, there's a Discuss link at the bottom:

When I was sufficiently flummoxed by this direct-object thing, I clicked the link. Sure enough, I was hardly the only one to have had this question. Someone who knew Latin had explained: the verb studere ("to study") takes a dative object. That's why it's ego litteris latinis studeo.

This is where Duolingo's philosophy and traditional instruction really part ways. The term "dative object" instantly cleared this up for me; I'd encountered this in German and in Old English. I imagine that the folks at Duolingo assume that the term "dative object" would be gibberish for many (most?) of their students, so of course they don't formally provide an explanation. But they've provided the discussion forum as a backdoor, so to speak, where learners can talk to one another and where you can often get the grammatical explanations you won't get directly from Duolingo.

At this point, I decided I wanted to supplement Duolingo. This was a learning experience in itself. The teaching of Latin was the template for language instruction for, what, the last 15 centuries? And boy, a lot of Latin coursework is the epitome of old-skool (haha) language learning. The classic approach, it seems, is that after a quick lesson on how to pronounce the letters, you learn all 6 cases for the first noun declension! Fun times.

After looking around and reading a lot of reviews, I settled on three books:

And I've got a notebook and I even went and got 3x5 cards to make flashcards with. Not to mention that I can find stuff on the internet.

I'll keep doing Duolingo, because I do actually have faith in the principles they're following. Daily practice and repetition are powerful learning tools, and I've learned stuff by adhering to their philosophy. Plus they have some excellent and useful sentences, like Uxor maritum senilem habet ("The wife has an old husband") and Velisne vinum rubrum ("Would you like red wine?").

Overall, though, I'm not sure if the Duolingo/ALM approach can ultimately work all by itself. Maybe for others, but I guess I'm not going to give it a chance to be my sole way to learn Latin.

[1] By coincidence (or was it?) I started seeing sentences involving graves around Halloween last year.

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  09:40 PM

As I said in part 1, when I started with Duolingo, I realized that it used the principles of the audio-lingual method (ALM), which emphasizes patterns and practice over grammar instruction. But how do you teach someone a language starting from nothing? And, as per the ALM/naturalistic philosophy, without explaining anything?

When I started with Duolingo, I didn't know how the app worked. Now I'm sorry that I didn't start capturing screenshots right at the beginning. But I'll try to recapture some of it by showing you roughly how the teaching progresses.

1. Start with pictures

Duolingo started by introducing basic vocabulary with pictures, like this:

As you can see, they make these as easy get as possible. Hey, Latin is fun!

2. Solicit sentences where it's hard to make errors

The next phase is to have you recognize words that you've been introduced to. They do this in a couple of ways. One approach is the classic multiple-choice answer. In my exercises, there have only been 3 choices, and I've found that the 2 incorrect answers are pretty easy to eliminate. They're not trying to trip you up; they're trying to make you successful, so they're asking for just a tiny bit of effort. So far.

(By the time I got around to snapping this screen, I'd gone quite a bit beyond the intro to the words puer ("boy") and urbs ("city"), obviously.)

Another approach that they use is to give you a short sentence and then have you assemble the translation by selecting (clicking) words from of a limited set of choices. In this phase, they again give you choices that make it pretty easy to get the right answer.

They use this approach a lot, and it's one way that they introduce changes in the pattern. Here's a variant form of urbs in a sentence:

In the first example, Corinna built four cities. In the second example, I built the city. What you're supposed to deduce from many repetitions of these types of related sentences is that when "city" is singular and the direct object, it's urbem; when it's plural and the direct object, it's urbes. But as I keep saying (sorry), they never utter terms like direct object, or for that matter, singular or plural. With enough repetition, you start picking up patterns like these.

They also use this "click the word" approach to introduce vocabulary that doesn't lend itself to pictures, like verbs. They give you a sentence where, by process of elimination, you figure out which one is the one you don't know. In this example, it's almost impossible (imo) not to figure out what venis means, given the choices they provide:

Up to now, you're just clicking. This seems weak—as someone on Twitter said, "I dislike clicking things to try to learn a language." A fair point, but there's a method here: you're simply seeing vocabulary, with a minor boost of having to actually pick from a small selection of choices. Now they change it up.

3. Solicit sentences aurally

The next step is that they dictate a sentence to you and you type it out:

This does a couple of things. One is that you encounter the new terms in a different medium, namely through the ear. (If I were studying a modern language, this listening skill would be critical[1].) An important benefit is that you're writing the terms that up to now you've only been reading and occasionally clicking. This is stepping up your language acquisition; you're now actually producing the language, albeit in a highly prompted way.

4. Translate to English free-form

Another form of exercise is where you produce a free-form English translation of what you're reading:

This takes away the training wheels (no hints via the clickable words) and it exercises your ability to understand what the different word forms actually mean. For example, in this example, you have to recognize that sunt means "are" and that Philadelphiae means "in Philadelphia," even though there's no "in" in front of it. (These are things that you would have been introduced to and drilled on before you see this exercise.)

5. Solicit translations into Latin

The most advanced exercise I've encountered so far is when they give you a sentence in English and ask you to translate it into Latin with no clues at all:

This requires everything you've learned: what words to use, how to inflect them, and what order to put them into (lexicon, morphology, syntax). With Latin, that's as much as you'd theoretically ever need to learn, but I guess I'll see down the line.

How to make this work

Although you do these different types and levels of exercises, the information is not presented in this strict sequence. Each lesson mixes up these different approaches in a set of 10 exercises.

The teaching also relies on these principles:

  • You get immediate feedback as to whether you got the exercise correct.
  • If you get an exercise wrong, it's repeated later in the lesson, though not immediately; they seem to follow a practice of intermittent reinforcement. As far as I can tell, you can't finish the lesson until you've gotten them all right.
  • You repeat and repeat and repeat. Even as you make progress, you do the same exercise again and again.
  • The lessons are short, no more than a few minutes. Their idea is that you can spend 5 to 10 minutes a day and make progress as long as you do it every single day.[2]

I'm probably overlooking some aspects of the pedagogy here, but I think that this is the gist of how they've designed the lessons for progressive learning: see, copy, listen, produce. As I say, I'm not sure I'll get to a phase where I have to respond to a question by writing a free-form answer, which would be to create novel sentences that have no direct pattern. (That would be hard to machine-grade, I think?)

I did make progress with this approach. However, as someone's who's studied other languages before, I found the no-explanation approach a little frustrating. More on that in the next installment.

[1] Language mastery consists of four skills, in order of difficulty: reading, listening, writing, speaking. Latin might be different from other Duolingo languages in that they have you read sentences, listen to them, and write them; but so far in my experience, they don't ask you to produce any spoken language. Then again … conversational Latin?

As an aside, they don't explain Latin pronunciation; they just show you words and then say them, and you sort out how the letters correspond to sounds. That's pretty easy in Latin, although I did eventually discover that I was learning "classical Latin" pronunciation as opposed to "ecclesiastical Latin," which sounds more like Italian.

[2] These principles are similar to the ones used by Kumon for teaching math and reading.

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  10:19 PM

A couple of months ago, I started learning Latin by using Duolingo, a language-learning app for your phone or browser. I sort of knew about Duolingo because my kids had been using it, one to work on Spanish and the other to work on Japanese. They'd shared with me some of the amusingly strange sentences that Duolingo produces, like "A cat does not play piano" in Japanese.

When I learned that Duolingo had a course in beta for Latin, I thought I'd give it a shot. I'd somehow managed to never study Latin, a language that's always seemed not only inherently interesting but useful for understanding Spanish and, of course, for grokking English word origins.

We pause briefly here for my favorite scene from the movie "Life of Brian":

As soon as I started Duolingo, I recognized the pedagogic technique they were following. When I was learning German in high school, we knew this as the audio-lingual method[1]. To quote one source, this "foster[s] naturalistic language acquisition in a classroom setting." The idea is that you learn (internalize) patterns of the language. They don't explain any grammar. Instead, the instruction teaches you short snippets that it then changes in very controlled ways so that you can follow along. Here's an example:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Vir domi est. (The man is at home)
Puer domi est. (The boy is at home)
Puella domi est. (The girl is at home)

The hope is that you internalize xxx domi est for "xxx is at home." Once they've drilled you on this for a while, they change the pattern:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

Now they've introduced the concept that xxx domi sunt == "xxx are at home". You spend a fair amount of time drilling these variations until you seem like you've mastered both domi sunt and the various plural forms.

At no point do they stop and say that est and sunt are verbs, and est is used for 3rd person singular, or any of that stuff that you get in traditional language learning. The "naturalistic" approach of ALM is supposed to follow how children learn a language (I guess?), since we all learned our mother tongue without a single grammar lesson.

How can you use this to learn a language from scratch? I'll show you in the next installment.

[1] When I got to college and was studying German, one of our professors who specialized in pedagogy was from Germany and had a strong German accent. Ever since those days I only hear this as "ze odd-yo ling-val messod."

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  09:33 PM

One of our accomplishments for 2019 was to complete the next phase of our downsizing. In 2017 we sold our big house and moved into a nice urban apartment. In 2019 we had a small condo remodeled that I owned, and then moved into that. This involved initially making many decisions (cabinets, carpeting, fixtures) and then doing some work (painting), and then of course actually moving and arranging many things. So many things.

I decided recently that I was going to mentally declare this remodel-and-move-in phase done. From here on out, I decided, we weren't crossing off the last items on the remodel-and-move-in list; we were starting a new things-to-improve list. But there was one final thing I wanted to get done before I could do this.

Bear with me a sec while I explain the situation. A feature I like of our new place is what we call the "book nook." In the area that was originally designed to be a little dining room (emphasis on little) we put a wall of bookshelves:

As you can see, there's a corner bookcase. It turns out that a "corner bookcase," at least as conceived by IKEA, is not a bookcase that fits into a corner. It's a bookcase that's angled against the two bookcases to either side and held in place with some brackets. As a result, there's space behind the angled bookcase. The following schematic shows the arrangement, looking down from the top. The bookcases are outlined in blue, and the open space is shaded:

I didn't think much about this until one of the kids visited shortly after we moved in and asked "What if one of the cats gets trapped down there?"

I had never thought about this. The cats are not bookcase climbers, or they hadn't been in our earlier places. But who knows—maybe the move would make them anxious and they'd try to hide on top of the bookcases or something. The bookcases are 7 feet high, and if a cat wound up behind one, it would mean dismantling a good part of the book nook. Not to mention a seriously traumatized kitty.

That very evening I jury-rigged a pile of big books and notebooks to sort of cover the top of the open area. This looked sloppy and it detracted from that nice book-nook look.

So I decided that my last move-in project would be to deal with this, which I did on December 31. I used a piece of pegboard that I happened to have around. As you can see from the earlier schematic, there's nothing really to hold up the board on the wall. I ended up screwing an angle bracket into the wall in a way that the pegboard can rest on it. Here's the finished cover:

It's nothing you'd want to show in Architectural Digest, but I think it will work to prevent a cat from falling down behind the bookcase. And better yet, I can now declare that as of the last day of 2019, we were finished moving in.

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  07:00 PM

I commute to work on crowded mass transit, and when I get there, I work in an open office. So I consider good headphones an essential part of my gear. My employer apparently agrees; they subsidize headphones for us. I’ve appreciated the pair I got: over-ear, noise-reducing, Bluetooth headphones. I use them for hours a day every workday.

But the daily use has taken a toll. A few months ago I noticed that the headphones seemed loose on my head. Close examination revealed that the plastic arch between the earpieces had cracked. Thus began an ever more involved effort to save these lovely headphones.

Bridging the crack

My first thought was to patch over the crack. I found a washer that was about the size of a quarter, and used epoxy to glue the washer across the crack, then taped it over to salvage some semblance of aesthetics. (Ha.) was a little dubious about this, but it actually worked ok.

However, a few weeks later the headphones were loose again. I thought my patch had failed, but no—a second crack had appeared at a different point. It seemed clear that there are stress points in the headphones:

I tried a second patch like the first one, but a third crack developed.

Repair or replace?

After this discouraging development, I spent some hours online looking for a replacement for my headphones. I looked and looked, but two things ultimately stopped me from buying a new pair. One was that omg, headphones that have all the features I want (NR, Bluetooth, over-ear, decent audio) are expensive. And to add to this disheartening discovery, many reviews suggested that many other brands of headphones were probably just as prone to breakage as the ones I already had. So I returned to the idea of trying to engineer a fix for the ones I already had.

Brothers of bands

After the severally patched cracks had failed, I kept thinking that I needed to in effect make a new arch for the headphones. I needed some sort of spring-like band of material that I could attach to the headphones. (Some people might already have thought about an obvious solution, which I arrived at later; bear with me a few moments.) I kept thinking about some sort of plastic, but couldn’t arrive at a material that was both flexible enough and had enough spring. What I eventually did was to cut apart the plastic jar from a well-known brand of popcorn and laminating four layers. This seemed to provide the right amount of spring:

I then taped this ad-hoc spring to the headphones with lots of tape, even further reducing their visual appeal:

(I swear that I catch people on the train looking at my jury-rigged headphones and wondering “What the heck is that?”)

Is there a spring for the head?

This worked pretty well for a couple of months. But inevitably, my plastic spring started losing some of its sproing, so I was back to thinking about a better way to make this fix. It finally occurred to me that there is a device that is pretty much designed for this exact purpose: headbands for hair. I betook myself to the beauty section of the local drugstore and pondered my many choices. I ended up with a set of thin metal bands:

I disassembled and reassembled the headphones, this time adding one of the metal headbands to the arch. (I don’t want them to be too springy, because I wear the headphones for long periods and don’t want to squash my ears.)

And that’s where I am today. I’m hoping that this repair, or if necessary, another one like it, will hold until the electronics fail, or I step on them accidentally, or I have some other reason to buy a new pair. And next time I’ll have a head start on ways to fix the headphones when they start cracking.

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  10:00 PM

This is my maternal grandfather, known as Opa because he was German:

I don't know a lot about this portrait, other than it was done in 1956. I guess it's done in conté, a type of artist's crayon. I suspect that the portrait was done as a birthday gift by family or by colleagues.

Ever since I was quite young, people have told me that I look a lot like my Opa. For example, when I was 14, we visited one of my grandfather's friends, and the friend couldn't stop laughing at the resemblance. To my 14-year-old mind, looking like an old guy seemed literally impossible. I imagine that it's hard for people to see their resemblance to someone else; I have never really seen it. Still, my mother shared this belief, and a few years later, she took a photo of me next to the portrait so she could show distant relatives this supposed resemblance:

Ok. About a year ago, I watched a video by the artist Eric Chapman, a time-lapse of him doing a portrait:

While I watched the video, it occurred to me that this was something like my Opa's portrait. And this led to what might have been the most vain thing I've ever done: I contacted Eric and asked about having a portrait done that was complementary to my Opa's. Sure, no problem, he said, after he'd seen a photo of the original.

I got my daughter to take a series of photos, which I sent off to Eric. I had to make some decisions—size? show all the hair or not?—but those having been made, after a couple of weeks Eric was all done:

When I got the portrait, I had it framed, and now Opa and I occupy a wall together:

I had a funny moment when I finally saw the pieces side by side—I realized that I'm actually a year older in my portrait than he was in his. But no matter how old I get, I'll always think of him as the old guy.

My own kids seem to be ok with all this. In fact, my son mentioned that maybe he'd have a portrait done as well. People tell me that he resembles me, hmm.

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  10:24 PM

I’ve been trying to like Lime bikes

Some little while ago—a year? 9 months?—a rainbow of brightly colored bicycles sprouted in Seattle. All of a sudden dockless bike sharing had arrived. There were three vendors and three colors: Ofo (yellow), Spin (orange), and Lime (green, duh):


Dockless was a new thing. Seattle had had a flirtation with docked bikes (company name Pronto!), but that didn’t work out. Part of the reason, surely, was that docked bikes could be picked up and dropped off only at certain points in Seattle, and those were concentrated downtown. Dockless bikes, on the other hand, can be practically anywhere. There’s no stand or station. Using an app on your phone, you locate a bike close to you (they’re all GPS tracked). When you find a bike, you unlock it with the app, hop on, and ride wherever you want. When you’re done, you get off, lock the bike, and walk away.

A key point is that it’s literally wherever. People take these bikes onto the light rail and presumably leave them in far-flung neighborhoods. The companies hope that you will leave the bike well parked in a convenient location, but they can't enforce this, so bikes show up all over the place.

Another appeal of the dockless bikes is that they're cheap to rent: you can ride for one dollar. (More on that in a moment.) This makes dockless bikes great for a kind of impulse ride—you want go for a ride, or you need to get someplace, and hey, here’s one of those bike right there. One dollar and 30 seconds later you’re riding.

Initial experience

I have a two-part commute. Normally I ride the train (light rail) from our apartment to downtown Seattle. From there I take a bus to Fremont, the neighborhood where our office is. At some point, however, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to get off the train downtown; the train goes to the University of Washington, which is about 2-1/2 miles from our office. I can then take a bus from the U for my second leg. Or, as it occurred to me, I could ride a bike.

So I gave it a try. I installed the app, and after getting off the train at the U, I used the app to locate a bike. I found one, unlocked it, somewhat awkwardly got on, and pedaled away.

Well. My very first lesson is that these bikes are extremely … sturdy. 42 pounds, oof. As I also quickly learned, they have 8 gears, but they’re geared pretty low. (You shift by twisting the handle—easy!) Even on level ground, and even in the highest gear, you are working to move that bike. This is particularly evident if you’re riding on a bike trail, because people on sleeker bikes are constantly whizzing past you.

This is understandable, of course. Both parts, I mean. For the sturdy part, if you’re designing a bike to withstand both the elements and people’s inevitably casual use, you favor something that can take some knocks. And for the gearing part, you need low gears so that people can just get the danged thing moving. Plus you’re accommodating a wide range of riders (weight, strength, skill), and you want a pretty low common denominator.[1]

Safety not first

The spontaneous nature of grabbing a dockless bike does have a downside—namely, that you’re unlikely to have thought to bring a helmet. Seattle ordinance requires a helmet, but the bike-share companies don’t provide. This is an interesting dilemma for me. I could carry a helmet around, but I use these bikes comparatively rarely, so that would mostly be dragging around the helmet for no reason. My approach for the time being is that when I do use a dockless bike, I don’t ride on city streets at all; I ride only on bike paths that are separate from the road.

The jalopy bike

The first ride was a learning experience. The second was as well, but in a different way—the gears slipped if I pedaled too hard, making for an unpleasant and even more laborious ride. And this I suppose underscores a different problem of these bikes, which is that people don’t treat them well. They’re rentals, after all, so people ride them hard, and let them fall, or worse:

I tried a few more times, but had one more incident of a slippy gear and a couple of bikes where the seat was loose or there was some other problem. My experience overall seems to have been typical—the Seattle Times did a test and concluded that only about 64% of Lime bikes were ridable. So between the crapshoot of a getting a bike that had problems and the more general prospect of having to work so hard to bike 3 miles, I didn't really embrace the whole idea, and I sort of forgot about Lime.

Chapter 2: Electronics to the Rescue

Somewhere along the line, Lime (only, afaik) introduced ebikes, which have an electronic assist to your pedaling. This makes sense in Seattle, which has a lot of hills. (It makes sense everywhere, but there are certain popular routes in Seattle that just don’t seem feasible with the normal Lime tank-bikes.) This re-piqued my interest in using a Lime bike for a leg of my commute, so I gave it a shot.

Oh. My. God. As soon as you step on a pedal the bike practically lunges off. It isn’t effortless, but the assist does a lot to overcome the inertia of the heavy bike, so it’s a very welcome improvement.

But there are some issues. One is that ebikes are extremely popular, so it can be a challenge, unlike the all-manual bikes, to find one nearby. A complicating factor is that the ebikes lose their charge, and Lime won’t unlock a bike that has less than 20% charge. Another issue, at least theoretically, is that local rules say you're not allowed to ride an ebike on a sidewalk or bike path, which means that you're legally only allowed to ride them on city street. Yeah, that's not going to happen. (As with the helmet laws, it remains to be seen whether the city will try to enforce this rule.)

And then I learned about the cost. As I noted, you can ride a manual bike for a dollar. The price for ebikes is one dollar plus 15 cents per minute from the moment you unlock. It had never occurred to me that the price would be different until I got notification from Lime that one my rides had cost me $3.40. Only then did I go back and check their pricing page, which does not even mention ebikes; I had to poke around to get the details on ebike pricing. This rather more substantial cost has given me pause. I mean, it's not like taking an Uber or anything, but I do have to ask myself just how much value I put on being able to pedal myself, albeit with electronic assist, to or from the train. At the moment, I'm riding a dockless bike maybe, dunno, every other week? Still cheaper than an unused gym membership, I suppose.

It's the future

Dockless bikes appear to be doing well in Seattle. There are currently about 10,000 bikes in Seattle, and for the months of May and June (which were clement), they were ridden an average of 7,000 times a day. The city of Bellevue, our cross-lake suburban sister city, is beginning its own experiment with dockless bikes. Just recently, Seattle expanded the charter for dockless bike companies, and we could have up to 20,000 of the bikes circulating through the city. (That's 4 companies times 5,000 bikes each, assuming the companies want to pay the fees that Seattle is asking.)

In the meantime, Lime is experimenting with new form factors. They have manual bikes and ebikes now; they're adding electric scooters, which we'll be seeing soon in Seattle:

Given my lack of balance, this does not seem like a vehicle I should be piloting. But who knows—maybe the lure of an inexpensive way to try one out will get me careering down the Burke-Gilman trail on a scooter. I'll let you know.

[1] I would be amused, tho not surprised, to see some sort of derby or race in which riders all use Lime bikes.

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  06:27 AM

Today is a notable anniversary for me: 15 years ago today, I wrote the first entry on my brand-new blog. As I've recounted before, the blog started as a programming project that was an outgrowth of a book I'd worked on. And a certain amount of "how hard could it be?"

I've got just over 2500 posts, which averages .46 entries per day since I started. (Needless to say, that was before Facebook and Twitter.) Per a somewhat crude count, I've written about 804,000 words. Plus there's a lot of code.

What we write about when we write blog entries

The themes I've addressed have changed over the years, depending on what I was doing. I wrote a lot in the early days about programming, since I was doing a lot of that. When I glance over at the list of the 25 most popular entries, I see that 20 of them pertain to programming in ASP.NET.

But there are some gratifying exceptions:

As I shifted in my career, I wrote more about the process of technical writing and then about editing in general:

I occasionally put together something about Microsoft Word:

I've written about motorcycling, which occasionally intersects with my obsession with traffic:

People who've come by the blog recently will of course know that these days, I post Friday words, about new-to-me words and fun-for-me word histories.

A community of bloggers

One of the great things about blogging in the pre-social media days was the community. You'd comment on a blog, or someone would comment on yours, and you would become blog friends, the way we are now friends with people on Facebook or Twitter who we've never met in person.

I still "know" people on social media who I met originally through blogging. Among them are Ben Zimmer, Colt Kwong, Jeff Atwood, Jerry Kindall, Melanie Spiller, John McIntyre, Jonathon Owen, Lauren Squires, Leon Bambrick, Michael Covarrubias, and Nancy Friedman.

Some of these people I've even managed to meet in real life. :)

But mostly it's for fun

There's serious stuff on the blog, and there are posts here that I have submitted in the past as writing samples for job applications. Writing a blog for this long has—or so I like to think—helped improve my writing. As the world of technical writing moved toward a more friendly voice and tone, the practice I'd had in writing many, many blog entries proved to be professionally useful.

But in the end, it has all been, and continues to be, primarily for my own amusement. Now and then I'll open up the big ol' can of worms that constitutes the code for this blog and make some sort of tweak, which always takes me back to the first days when it was kind of amazing to me that I could even do this. I would never have guessed all those years ago that I'd still be posting here.

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