Welcome to the United States of America


I’ve just been accepted as a permanent resident here in the US, with the green card (actually mostly white) arriving a few days ago. It’s taken me 7 years of patience and struggle, but now I’ve graduated from a temporary work visa tied to a single employer, to an independent person, free to follow my dreams. It’s a giddy feeling, both the new-found security that I won’t have to leave the country and the liberation of having no restrictions on my professional life.

I’m counting down the days to naturalization now, just 5 years from now I can be a full citizen. I knew very quickly after arriving that I belonged here, as much as I miss my family and friends from Britain. America is full of encouragement for people dreaming big dreams, it’s the best place in the world for doing something that’s never been done. Thanks to everyone who’s kept me going through the long process of getting this sorted out, especially Liz.

Why the passive voice is considered harmful

Photo by MadMannequin

I really, really hate the passive voice. I had to rewrite my bachelor’s thesis after my supervisor rejected my active version. People use it to add an aura of faceless authority to what they’re writing, as if it’s not just someone’s opinion, it’s the way the world is. Things occur, there’s nobody to argue with, they just are. George Orwell agreed too, including it as one of his 5 rules of effective writing.

Most companies I admire write their copy in the active voice, see Feedburner’s about page for a good example. It’s part of a stance that they are in a conversation with their customers as equals, not talking down to them. The passive voice says "There’s no one you can talk to, this is a one-way communication". Active verbs give the feeling that you’re hearing from a human being who might welcome a response. Blogs use the active voice, and that’s what makes them seem so fresh and energetic.

It’s tough when you’re starting off to steer clear of passivity. You want as much authority as you can fake, since a big hurdle is getting anyone to take a chance on a startup with no history, but the language you use affects your thoughts and actions. Using the passive voice is all about putting distance between you and your customers, and you’ll end up losing out. Be active and engage people instead.

Chantry Flats is burning

Photo by Moondabor

Just last week I discovered Hoegee’s campground in the mountains above Altadena, and now the whole area is being swept by the Sierra Madre wildfire. I know that the Chantry Flats buildings, and the cabins in the canyon must be at serious risk, though from this map the trail to the campground has burnt, but not the area we stayed in.
The area was full of extremely dense brush when we hiked through, I’ve heard this is the first fire in 30 years, and the hillsides are very steep. The hot, dry Santa Ana winds kicked in on Saturday too, giving us temperatures over a hundred while we were working on the trails. That makes this a very tough fire to fight, and my thoughts go out to the wildland firefighters who are in the middle of it. So far they’ve protected the city at the base of the mountains, but the hills themselves are so hard to access I hope they’re being very careful as they go deeper.
If you want more information, Jae, a city employee in the thick of it has been blogging about the situation. Moondabor has put up a chilling series of photos of the approaching fire, and Flickr has better coverage than any newspaper I’ve seen. Altadenablog gave me some links to other sites with information, like the Crime Scene Blog and the USGS online maps at GeoMac.

Camping in LA: Hoegees Campground


I just got back from an overnight camping trip in the Angeles mountains north of Pasadena. We stayed in a small hike-in campground called Hoegees, about three miles in from the parking lot. I’d never been there before, but we were looking for somewhere that would allow dogs so Thor could come, and locally that means National Forest land since both State Parks and National Parks are very restrictive about pets.

It turned out to be a real find. The trail up to the campground is in really good shape, with around a 1000 foot gain over the 3 miles, and some great views down the canyons. It’s placed at the bottom of a small gully alongside a seasonal creek, in the middle of a grove of bay trees. For most local camping there’s a lot of fire restrictions, with only small gas stoves allowed. Here they not only had fire pits and stoves at each site, they even let you burn fallen wood so you didn’t have to pack in your fuel. We had a wonderful evening around the roaring fire, and some fun hunting down extra wood in the dark when we ran low.

The area used to be a hiking resort, and there’s still a whole lot of cabins nearby that people lease from the Forest Service. These are pretty interesting places, with no power or water, mostly dating back to the 30’s. There’s even a ruin in the campground you can pitch your tent in if you want a spooky experience.

It’s first-come, first-served with 15 sites and no reservations or fees at all. We were there on a Saturday night, and though there was a group of Boy Scouts, most of the sites were empty. You’ll need a Forest Adventure Pass to park at the Chantry Flats trailhead parking lot, but since that was full we used the nearby Adams Pack Station lot for $5 a day. We stopped and chatted to the owner Rich Conforti on the way out, and he told us about the work they’d been involved in to keep the trails maintained, which explained the great shape they’re in.

If you want to do this hike and camping, I’d recommend getting both Tom Harrison’s Angeles Front Country map, and John Robinson’s Trails of the Angeles which describes the hike in along Upper Winter Creek trail, and an alternate lower route we took out which went alongside the creek.

More camping posts

Kinesis Keyboards – I wish I could quit you

I’m stuck in an abusive relationship with my keyboard. The Kinesis model I use is an RSI sufferers dream, and I’ve been using one for the last 4 years. Unfortunately, I’ve just had to order my fourth, since they’re built to shop class project standards.

The design is perfect, with an amazing amount of programmability and a QWERTY layout where you never need to stretch or strain your fingers from their home positions. There’s even a programmable foot switch, which I have mapped to shift, control and command, since pressing my little fingers for the modifiers seemed to be at the root of a lot of my pain.

They’re pricey, starting at around $300, but look and feel cheap. The silver paint rubs off pretty easily, the cut plastic is uneven and they use a telephone connector to join up the pedal with the main unit. More seriously the lack of quality shows up in the number of times they go wrong. I’ve had to open up and fiddle with all of my keyboards and footswitches. They’re surprisingly low-tech inside, with a small PCB and chips for the keyboard and old-school analog sensors for the foot switch. Because of this I’ve sometimes had luck when the problem turned out to be a loose connector or dirty contacts, but I’ve never had one last more than 18 months before it’s declared dead. Before you blame the victim, I’m pretty careful with my equipment, so I don’t think I’m putting them through anything unusual. They have a 2 year warranty, but I’ve not wanted to lose my keyboard
for the time that would take, and have usually hacked mine so much by
the time I give up that I don’t feel like I could return it.

I still recommend them to anyone who wants a hand-friendly keyboard, Liz now has two, but go into the relationship with your eyes open. I’d love to hear alternative suggestions too from anyone who’s found something better.

Off the grid on Santa Cruz Island

Photo by Kevin Sarayba

Tomorrow morning I’m off for a four day camping trip to Santa Cruz Island, where we’ll be working with the NPS rangers to fix up some of the hiking trails. It’s like a trip back to the 19th century, with no phones, cars, planes, and no permanent inhabitants on a 100 square mile island. I can’t imagine any other way of escaping from my compulsion to check my iphone and RSS reader, and it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth to boot. All that and it’s just an hour’s boat ride from LA!

To keep you busy while I’m away, I recommend checking out the Bombay TV video mashup site. It’s very simple, just placing subtitles on some old bollywood movies, but the clips are perfectly chosen. I guarantee that you’ll wake up everyone in the room if you use this for your next presentation.

You need pictures

Photo by The Pack

I’m a very visual person, and I love plastering photos over anything I can. Jud mentioned he got a kick out of some of them on here, so I’d better confess and acknowledge my sources. Thanks to the internet and a wonderful community of artists, you can spice up your own documents, presentations and blog posts with some stunning pictures, all for no money down and zero monthly payments.

Flickr users have made a lot of beautiful photos available through the Creative Commons license. If you do a search like this:
you’ll get around 3 million CC attribution/non-derivative/non-commercial licensed pictures that contain "the" in their description, sorted most-interesting first. Alter the search term if you want to explore something more specific. Make sure that you include proper attribution for the photo if you do use it, and respect the licensing. Be careful though, sometimes I end up spending more time browsing for photos than actually writing the post!

Once you’ve got one you like, my preferred way of getting them for a blog post is to screen-grab from the thumbnail shown on the main page for the photo. This is about the right size, has been downsampled well, and lets me do any cropping I want to do, all very quickly without ever having to load up a photo editing program. On the Mac you press Command-Shift-4 to bring up the cross-hairs, and then the result is saved as Picture X.png on your desktop. On Vista, load up the "Snipping Tool" from accessories and choose "New" to do pretty much the same thing.