Winston Churchill. Defender of the Realm.

I read (and finally finished) a fantastic book last night called The Last Lion. Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. This book was mammoth, to say the least- one of the largest books I’ve ever read. My dad asked me how I liked it and I told him it was a love/hate relationship. I loved reading it, all the way to it’s lengthy end. But it took me forever to get there and I’m ready to pick up something else. The book was a bit plodding at times. It’s 1053 pages of pure, glorious history, complete with names, people, and places I’ve never heard of. Two things were required companions to this book (both of which I could get on my iPod Touch)- a dictionary and maps app. I frequently made use of both as I read.

So it’s a long book. But such a fascinating story. Like most people, I know enough about World War Two. I understand the reasons for war, what was at stake, and even a lot of the places and major battles. Both my grandfather’s were veterans and told me stories from their experiences. This book however, was a unique look at the war from a British perspective, something I’ve never had the chance to see. Did you know, for instance, that England carried on alone in the war against Germany a full two years before the United States came to it’s aid? That is just incredible. I mean, think about it. Germany had conquered all of Europe and had a peace agreements with Russia and Japan (ie. all of Asia). They could invest all of their military might towards the little English island. But the English hung on in large part to Churchill’s tenacity and strength. He was the mouthpiece (a loud mouthpiece) for the spirit of the British people and personified their resilience.

The book was a look at the world from a British perspective (from the years 1940-1965), but it followed the life and career of the man, Churchill. Indeed, he was (and is) a man to admire. He held the nation and the world together during this time. He stared down the devil without becoming a devil himself. He gave passionate speeches. He wrote them himself. He cared about normal people, often showing great emotion and weeping alongside them. But he was a man of strength, courage, and boldness. He was just as aggressive as Hitler, only not evil. There’s a lot of learn and admire about such a man.

So who do I recommend this book for? Well, like I said it’s a massive read. It will take you a long time to get through it, not only because of it’s length, but because of the many names, terms, and places that you’ll run into. But I recommend this book to anyone interested in history. It’s a breathtaking read. I was never bored with it. It offers a unique look into British politics, colonialism and it’s downfall. It covers the rise of the super powers (the US and Russia), the struggles of ordinary people during the war, and plenty of detail about military objectives, technologies, and battles during this time. So I would also recommend it to anyone interested in a different look at the world, and the world at war. You will definitely come away with a much higher regard for the British people and Churchill in particular.

This was such a fascinating book to read through. I feel that the biggest thing that I’ll get out of this book is not so much a look at one particular person (Winston Churchill), but a lasting impression of a people and time period as a whole. The strength of this book is that it allowed me to relive their experiences and struggles. I could really put myself there and feel the fear, feel the struggle, the defiance, the weight of decisions, and eventually the triumph of victory. What a journey. What a people. What a time to live. Give this book a read and experience something new. It will give you a better appreciation and context for the times we live in now. Definitely recommended, just prepare to do battle.

Strap Yourself In. The New Apple Watch.

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A while ago I wrote a post called “The KISS Principle. Why Dumb Devices are the Smart Choice“. In this article I talked a lot about the iPhone and how sometimes a device with so many features and internet connectivity can be very distracting. I contrasted the iPhone with ‘single function’ devices and how overall I seem to enjoy these more.

Last week Apple introduced the world to it’s new Apple Watch and, like the iPhone, I have a few reservations. On the one hand (no pun intended), it’s not surprising that wearable tech is becoming the next big thing. An internet enabled device that you can strap to your wrist seems like the next logical step in a connectivity-obsessed culture. The iPhone has allowed us to do this for years. Now the Watch is taking it one step further. Now you don’t even have to take it out of your pocket. This is similar to what Google is trying to do with Google Glass (internet glasses). But here, instead of a Google head’s up display, you’re getting an Apple head’s down display. You wear them on different parts of your body but it’s the same concept really- making the internet available on a moment’s glance.

But I have issues with this sort of technology. Call me old-fashioned, or a traditionalist, or just simply slow to adopt new things. But I’m of a very different philosophy. The simple fact of the matter is that the one thing that these devices promise to do, namely bring the internet to you fast and NOW, is the one thing I actively try to avoid in my life. Constant internet, accessibility, is not something I want in my life. I like my space. I like room to breathe. And being strapped to the internet, which is what the Apple Watch allows you to do, is not something I want to add to my lifestyle. Whether you realize it or not, in subtle ways it creates a dependence. The connection becomes more than just an enhancement. It becomes a lifeline. I think it’s worthwhile to fight this dependency. One way to do this is to keep the internet in it’s place. To me the internet is and always will be compartmentalized. It fits into a little box in my life. I go to it when I need it, and turn it off and put it away when I’m done. It’s not something I want to keep ON at all times, and heaven forbid strap to my body. Like I said, I like my personal space and freedom.

So my initial reaction to the Apple Watch, like the iPhone itself, is one of caution. I won’t be surprised if in a couple years wearable tech really catches on. But for me I will always choose personal space and freedom over a constant barrage of information and connectivity. That to me is the smart choice.

Bye bye Zenphoto.

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I’m trying out a new photo gallery on my website. You may have noticed a few subtle changes to the way I display photos on my site. After several years of using Zenphoto, a stand alone product for displaying photos, I’ve decided to just bite the bullet and use WordPress’ photo management instead. This was not a light decision. I’ve put in quite a bit of time tinkering with Zenphoto over the years and getting it to work more or less the way I want. But it’s just become more of a burden now than useful and I’ve decided to use WordPress instead. The nice thing about WordPress is that even though it’s still mostly a blog platform there are actually quite a few themes that help you showcase your photos or artwork. I found a few that get me pretty close to the result I want. I’ll just have to tweak/modify to take it the rest of the way.

In addition to themes, WordPress is just so easy to work with, whether you have a blog or photo gallery or full website. It’s just numbingly easy to update your site, to add extra features (called plugins), and change the appearance. After working with something like Drupal, WordPress is the king for ease of use. And my other photo software just wasnt’ cutting it in this area anymore. It was such a pain to update, the interface was clunky, and it didn’t always work right. And there were only a few themes to choose from. This is surprising given that it’s sole purpose is to display photos. You’d think they’d spend more time perfecting the visual presentation. But alas, all things must come to an end. So for now I say ado to Zenphoto and look forward to seeing what I can do with WordPress.

And in case you’re wondering where all my photos and videos went, just hold on! I’m reworking a few things and will bring stuff back up as they’re ready.

Making a Blog Book. A Trip Down Memory Lane.

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So I have a new  little project I’m working on. .  . I decided to try to turn this blog into a BOOK. Yeah, kind of a neat idea. I’ve heard of people doing this, and that it was possible, so I decided to check out my options and see how easy or difficult it might be. It’s really not that hard. I’m chugging along at full speed now and have really enjoyed the process.

I’m using a service called Blurb and their book making software Booksmart. Blurb is the online interface where you upload and order from, and Booksmart is the software you install and use on your computer to put the book together. I’ve been using the Booksmart software for a few days now and I’ve been impressed. It seems pretty flexible. You can drag and drop blog posts into different pages of the book and there are dozens of different layouts to choose from. It also provides quite a few embellishments- backgrounds and graphics- to throw in too. But I’ve been impressed most with the ease of use and power. It’s relatively easy to import your blog into the interface and customize it. All you do is point the program to your blog (at wordpress.com or blogger.com, etc.) and it pulls all the info in, pictures and all. You can even specify a data range or category. Like I said, pretty powerful.

I’ve enjoyed the process of preparing this book. Over the last several days I’ve been going through all my old blog posts, fixing little typos here and there and adding photos. It’s been fun to reread some of these entries, revisit some old times. My blog covers about a five year period, our whole time in Indonesia. I forget many of the details. I’ve never really gone back over old blog posts before so it’s sort of interesting to reread these.  My how times change! I can tell a difference in my writing too. I think it’s gotten better over the years, less random and more cohesive.

It’ll be nice to have a hard copy of some of these thoughts to pick up and read from time to time. This book will be a nice companion to my journal. My writing style is different than my journal, so perhaps I slightly different story will emerge- or at least a different rendering of that story. That’s the benefit of multiple mediums. Each one gives a slightly different flavor. So why not, right? I’ll give it a try and see what comes out of it. Whether it’s a success or not, the process has been worthwhile.

Btw, if you want detailed instructions on how to turn your blog into a book, I found helpful instructions here: https://blog.blurb.com/turn-selfhosted-wordpress-blog-blurb-book/

Spotify. Love music more.

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I’ve been trying out and enjoying this new service called Spotify lately. “What?” you say. “New service. . . Spotify? Hasn’t that been around for. . . ?” Yeah, it has been around for a while. But I haven’t been. Travel outside the US and you’ll find that many internet services and websites are blocked. Something about copyright infringement and rampant piracy. Can’t see why that would matter. . . But anyway, it’s been blocked and now that I’m back in the States this is the first time I’ve getting my hands (I mean ears) on it. And let me just say, Spotify rocks!

I’m using the free plan and from what I can tell this is all I’ll ever really need. Spotify’s free service lets you listen to ANY song, artist or album for free. And when I say any, that’s just about true. The other day I tried searching for ‘Miles Davis’ and the list of albums and songs that came up was nearly endless. It took me ten minutes of scrolling just to get to the bottom of stuff I could listen to . That’s a lot of Miles!

Not only do they have virtually anything you want to listen to, but you can bookmark and listen entire albums at a time. This is where Spotify stands above the rest. I’ve tried other music services like Pandora, Jango, and iTunes radio and they all do about the same thing- namely, they generate playlists from music you like. That’s nice if you want to listen to a bunch of random artists you may or may not like. But with Spotify you can listen to ENTIRE albums of your favorite artists. No guessing around. No random tracks. Because the thing is I already KNOW who I like. I don’t need some service to spit a bunch of random bands at me. What I haven’t had is access to the complete collection. Spotify gives you the whole thing, not just bits and pieces.

It kind of makes me think how all this can be free? They do have a paid service which lets you download music to your computer/phone but I haven’t had a need for that. In fact I kind of like the online streaming aspect of it. Keep it in the cloud. No need to download or manage digital music files anymore. Clear up space on your hard drive while listening to great music.

I’ll probably still buy albums I like. But with Spotify I can preview anything before I make the jump. Now I just have to find the time to listen to everything I find. Unlimited free access to bands and albums. That’s music to my ears.

Try Out My Slick New Comment System.

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Just wanted to say sorry to those who have written comments or messages on my site recently. I’m in the process of installing a new comment system and most of the old comments are not displaying anymore. If you’ve written something, thanks, and keep on commenting. I think you’ll find this new system better and easier to use.

So what’s new about it? Well, I’ve been able to integrate comments between my photo site and blog. This means that comments that are posted on my photography site will show up on the blog, and comments from the blog show up on the photo site. Previously there were two, but now it’s just one system. Pretty slick eh? This is done with a little service called Disqus. Even though I use two different platforms on my website (WordPress for the blog, and Zenphoto for the photography), they both can use the Disqus service, which is awesome!

So what else can you do? Well, you can login with your Facebook, Google, etc. username and password. You don’t have to create a username JUST for my site. You can use one you already have. That’s handy. (Note: you can still post anonymously if you want) Also, it can display some advanced lists like MOST POPULAR, and TOP COMMENTERS.  At a glance I can see which posts/photos are getting the most interaction. You can see these at work in the sidebar.

Hopefully with these new features and by integrating the two together it will be easier for people to comment. That’s sorta the point. So thanks for reading and oh, by the way, how about leaving a comment now. . . =)

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook

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I recently finished the book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook. It was a pretty easy read and for the most part I enjoyed it. If you’ve seen or are familiar with the movie “The Social Network” than you might not have to read the book as the movie follows the book pretty closely. You get a better sense of timing and locations in the book, but the plot and content is essentially the same. I checked out the book as it was a free download for our Kindle and thought I’d give it a try.

I’ve been into business books quite a bit lately. I’ve read about Google, Apple, and now I can add Facebook to the list. While this book shared some things in common with the others, this one was unique. The subtitle of the book gives you a clue as to it’s uniqueness: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal. Really those four points are a good summary of the book (and a synopsis of what Facebook was like in the beginning). The book goes into much greater depth on these themes but I can summarize them here.

Sex– Facebook originally was a platform to meet and hook up with members of the opposite sex. The story took place at Harvard and talked in great deal about what college life is like there. It seemed every other page was referencing male/female relationship pressures and how the overarching goal of every student was to get hooked up with someone of the opposite sex. That’s where Facebook came in- a platform to meet and hook up with others of campus. Mark Zuckerberg thought he’d get noticed by girls if he created a social website. That’s why originally his name appeared at the bottom of every page- he wanted to be noticed.

Money– the book describes how Mark Zuckerberg and friends got insanely wealthy overnight from their work and the funding of venture capitalists. Here’s where the book shared quite a few things in common with, say, Apple or Google- take an original idea, something that’s never been done before, work your tail off to program/create it, and release it to the right audience. This has paid off big time for those with the right skills, with the right ideas, at the right time. Facebook is one of these success stories.

Genius– like I mentioned several ideas came together at just the right time. It was brilliant really to restrict Facebook to college campuses at first. That created an ‘exclusive’ private feel. People didn’t have to worry (at first) about what they posted because it was just for their friends, and just for those on their campus. It also was brilliant for Mark to notice a powerful force at work on his campus, namely social clubs and social interaction. He took something that was already happening in the real world and transferred that energy to a web platform.

And Betrayal– the story reveals Mark Zuckerberg’s character and how he broke alliances and friendships that got ‘in the way’ of Facebook. Facebook was his consuming passion and he was not willing to accommodate others in his race to the top. All in all, he was a pretty ruthless guy.

Besides being pretty ruthless, I find it really ironic that somebody so socially awkward created the biggest social network on the planet. It kind of begs the questions- do people who aren’t socially awkward need Facebook? Certainly today Facebook has been useful for all kinds of people, not just the socially awkward ones. But from the beginning Facebook was meant to be a bridge in relationships- a shortcut. It gives you all the info and status updates you want without any of the pressures or inhibitions of real face-to-face conversation. This idea has caught on big. And while being connected to so many people seems like a novel thing, the fact of the matter is that relationships take time. There’s something to them. Relationships have substance and depth, and that is something that an online medium will never quite capture. But for what it is Facebook has been a huge success. Just recently it crossed the 1 billion mark of subscribed users.

If you’re an avid Facebook user I would recommend reading The Accidental Billionares. And for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie it’s still an interesting modern day story. Facebook is a reminder that hard work and a good idea (whatever your motives may be) can be a huge success.

Good Writing

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Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. . . it succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head- even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.

– Malcolm Gladwell, taken from the preface of What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

I’ve been enjoying this author lately. He has the wonderful ability to write about such varied things as ketchup, hair dye, and the Pill and somehow make these topics so interesting. In this book he examines the thought processes, the research, and the story behind many of these everyday items in our lives. He invites us into the heads of the people who created these things, and makes some very interesting observations along the way. And like he said, he does it in a  pretty engaging way.

The KISS Principle. Why Dumb Devices are the Smart Choice.

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Recently I’ve begun to like ‘single function’ devices more and more. By single function I mean they have basically one and only one thing they do. They’re not encumbered by multiple features, menus and buttons. I really began to appreciate this recently when I purchased a fifty dollar iPod Shuffle. Now I do have an iPod Touch and have used this for music for several years. But I’ve found that all too often my music listening gets ‘interrupted’ by all the other things the iPod Touch can do. I find myself no longer just listening to music, but reading a web page, checking my email, or looking up lyrics on a lyric app. The iPod Touch has a lot of neat features, but it’s also SO distracting. I can’t enjoy music as much if I’m doing all these other things.

But the Shuffle is a different animal altogether. First of all, it’s about the size of a quarter. That should be your first clue to it’s intended use. It has a play/pause button in the middle surrounded by volume and previous/next buttons. Oh, a little knob on the top has a couple more options, but as far as music players go this is as simple and dumb as you can get- and I love it! Because there’s no screen I don’t even have to look at it to use it. I can hit play and change the volume while it’s still in my pocket. It’s a music player that takes all decision making out of enjoying your music. Just pick it up, hit the big play button, and you’re rocking. I’ve really come to appreciate how quick and easy listening to music has now become.

Another one of these single function devices that I’ve really come to like is the cheap $70 kindle reader. Now the newer Kindles like the Fire don’t fit this category, but the cheapest Kindle keeps it really simple. Again, it pretty much only has one function, namely storing and reading books. It has a black and white screen, and a really simple interface- basically scroll down a list till you find your book, select, and read. It can bring up a web browser and surf the net, but really, who uses it for that? It’s a single function device, and again it takes almost all the decision out it. Pick it up, select your book, and read. You really can’t be distracted by the device while you’re reading.

Now compare these devices to others that we’re familiar with, like computers, iPhones, iPads, smart televisions, etc. There are more but those come to mind immediately. I think we can all agree that these are definitely MULTI-function devices. I remember watching Steve Jobs introduce the original iPhone back in 2007. We were all amazed by everything it could do. It was a phone, a music player, and videos. You could check your email, organize your contact lists, and surf the internet, all from a device that could fit in your pocket. Everyone in the audience (myself included) was amazed by the simple, attractive design and that it could be operated with just your finger. Indeed, it’s hard not to be impressed by such a device, even today. My initial reaction to the iPhone was one of awe and wonder, but also suspicion. To me it was cool but also overwhelming to think all those functions could exist on a device I could put in my pocket and take with me. I feared such a device like that would most certainly take over my life. It would insert itself into the little corners of my life and I’d never get that space back. All that capability and power demands your attention, and it’s my attention that I don’t want to so easily give away.

In my efforts to simplify my life, reclaim the quietness of my own thoughts, and build margin into my day, I’m beginning to appreciate single function gadgets more and more.

Our world is becoming more and more complex and connected. We’re constantly barraged by information, advertisements, and choices. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to disconnect and get away from this stream of information. In my efforts to simplify my life, reclaim the quietness of my own thoughts, and build margin into my day, I’m beginning to appreciate single function gadgets more and more. For me, choosing dumb devices is the smart thing to do. Not that I can’t handle all the latest tech, but I appreciate things that let me decide less and enjoy more.

Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. A Comparative Look

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I just finished reading The Animated Man, A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier. I’ve sort of been into biographies lately. A few months ago I read the Steve Jobs biography and now moved on to another man I’ve been interested in. I really quite enjoyed reading this biography about Walt Disney. I had looked into several biographies about him that I could’ve chosen from but ended up going with this one. The biggest difference between this one and the others is the amount of research that went into it (the hundreds of quotes and interviews), access to original Disney archives (which others apparently didn’t have), and the honest by hard look at who the man really was. Other biographers tend to write about his accomplishments in glowing and flowery terms. They focus too much on the ‘magic’ and not enough on the man. I wanted a good look at who he really was- his personality, what he believed in, and how we was able to build such a legacy.

I think I got what I was looking for. I’m impressed by certain qualities of Disney, like his vision and how he turned his hobbies into businesses, and not so impressed by others. Despite what Disney (the company) has become today, Walt Disney was really just a business man who had a real belief in a certain medium (namely animation), and had a drive to see it become mainstream. He was motivated more by personal interests (it’s what he enjoyed doing), and to make a successful business, rather than creating a “wonderful world”. I think that’s where some of the illusion was dispelled for me. It was more about what Walt wanted to do rather than people. Of course his films and parks are for people, but I think it was more of a means to an end rather than a sense of altruism.

The main thing that I’ll take away from this book, though, is just how similar Walt Disney and Steve Jobs were. Having just read the Steve Jobs biography several things rose to my attention as striking similarities. What’s amazing is that even though these two men lived and worked in completely different times and industries, each one possessed qualities that were similar to the other. In many cases it was almost like they were the same person! Here are a few of the similarities I noticed. They both had:

  • obsessive control of their product(s)
  • high attention to detail
  • an entrepreneurial spirit

Disney had obsessive control of everything he did. In the book it talked frequently about his need to have his hands in whatever project, film, or endeavor his company put out. If he didn’t have a hand in it, he simply wasn’t interested. He had to share in the contribution. One example: he wanted tight control over Disneyland in California, from how people would feel when they entered and roamed the park, to where and how they moved throughout it. He wanted to control peoples’ experience. Coincidentally, the original plan for EPCOT was to be a self-contained, autonomous city. He wanted to take what was successful at Disneyland (the order and structure) and apply it on a city scale. He believed in control.

Disney also had a high attention to detail. He noticed when things were out of place, a line was missing, or something just didn’t feel right. He knew what he wanted and anything else stood out like a sore thumb. He had a clear vision for what he wanted. He would tweak things until they were just right.

And lastly, Disney had an entrepreneurial spirit. In other words he was a businessman and had a real sense of how to make a business succeed. He loved his business and worked very hard at it. The book talked about how he would arrive earlier than even his brother Roy, work a full day, and then make rounds in the studio late at night looking at everybody’s drafts and things. He loved his work. He even took it home with him often discussing with his family ideas or gags. He read film scripts while on vacation. Of course oftentimes this leads to sacrificing other things in your life, namely family and personal relationships, but he was very driven to make his business succeed. He was a keen negotiator and knew that strong relationships with key people are how deals happen.

The book wasn’t about these points in particular, but these are the things that really stood out to me, especially as I thought about Disney in comparison to Steve Jobs. They were both creative visionaries and pioneers in their respective industries, and they transformed these industries in the process.

As a takeaway for the rest of us, maybe it’s a good thing to have vision. It’s good to believe in something and strive to make it happen. It’s okay to know what you want and work hard to see it happen. I think Walt Disney and Steve Jobs teach us that hard work, passion for what you’re doing, and a personal interest in seeing your dreams come to life can be very transforming; for yourself and for the world.