Sunday, June 28, 2009

Don't Forget the Big Picture when Solving Problems

The Internet is completely changing the way we learn, and mobile devices are taking that change to a new level. If you have any kind of problem to solve, you can search for and often find a solution in a matter of minutes online.

This ready access to information has certainly made my life as a software developer much easier. As part of the payback for that convenience, I have my own developer web site Nerdy Musings on which I post free articles that describe various solutions I've devised. I regularly get supportive email from people who were helped by my efforts, which I must say is a very satisfying experience.

However, while the convenience of such targeted access to information is valuable and undoubtedly appeals to the short-attention-span society we are creating, something critical is missing: the big picture.

It is far too easy now to have a general idea of what you want to accomplish and to locate suggestions on how to accomplish it. It is not usually hard to find step-by-step instructions that walk you through the process. In the end, you get what you wanted and it's all good. Or is it?

The problem with cobbling together the results of various searches and muddling through them to achieve your goal is that you don't really know what you are doing. You may get the results you were after, but you may not really know why or even how you did it.

So what? Who cares, as long as you got the desired result?

That attitude is fine if you are working on a one-time project that you never expect to revisit. But if you are truly trying to build a skill set, you need to balance the experience of "doing" with some background in "understanding."

Unless you take the time to understand the concepts and theory behind the application, you operate with several disadvantages.

Problem Solving

If you don't understand how and why something works, you will have a difficult time troubleshooting any problem you encounter during the implementation. This is the "muddling through" I mentioned earlier.

If you do take the time to learn the basic concepts of your subject matter, troubleshooting is much easier. You can almost "intuit" the answer when a problem comes up, because you understand the source of the problem.

Evaluating

Without a conceptual understanding, it is hard to select the best solution to your problem from the various alternatives you find. Finding a solution becomes a trial-and-error process. Worse, you may stop trying the alternatives once you find one that more-or-less does what you want, while a much better solution may have been the next one in line.

With conceptual knowledge comes the ability to quickly scan the alternatives and identify the best one with far less experimentation.

Customizing

In my experience, you rarely find an example that does exactly what you want. You often need to tweak it to fit your requirements. That process is much easier if you understand how and why something works the way it does.

Adapting

Conceptual knowledge gives you the ability to mentally catalog the solutions you implement. You end up with a "library" of techniques that have utility outside of the context in which they were originally applied.

Later, when you have a completely different problem to solve, you may realize that all or part of a prior technique can be used for the new requirements.

If you didn't really understand what you were doing the first time, it is unlikely you will recognize it's potential applicability to a new situation.

Finding Conceptual Information

Alas, it is much more difficult to locate general information on the Internet than specific information. It's a matter of keywording. If you are looking for specific information, you can use specific keywords that narrow down the results. If you use general keywords, you get a wild cross-section of specific and general information that you must sift through.

Additionally, information on the Internet is typically delivered in relatively small snippets. You may find everything you need to know on a subject, but you find it in random chunks with no logical progression to help guide you through the topic in a structured fashion.

Making the Best Use of Your Time

The problem with focusing on theory and concepts alone is that they don't get the job done. This is one reason why companies are reluctant invest in training. While you are learning, you aren't doing. Companies pay you to get something done. More progressive companies realize that the training makes you able to get future jobs done faster and better.

Additionally, no one wants to "waste time" learning about stuff you'll never use. There's a fine line between getting the basic information you need on a subject, and learning the details about a technique that you'll forget anyway by the time you need it (assuming you ever do).

To deal with both of these issues, here's the approach I usually take:

  1. Learn the basics. Buy a book, take a course, or do online searches to uncover the basic information about what you want to do. If you want to learn about glass cutting, find information on the kinds of glass there are, how it is made, and the different ways it can be cut.
  2. Experiment. Do a pilot project to apply what you've learned. For example, try your glass cutting techniques on a piece of scrap glass.
  3. Learn the specifics: As you run into difficulties or uncover alternative methods, do some targeted, in-depth research to learn more. For example, when the first piece of glass shatters into a million tiny pieces, you do some research and discover that your experience is typical of trying to cut tempered glass. So, you try your experiment again on a piece of non-tempered glass.
  4. Implement. Once you are confident that you know what you are doing and you understand the implications of what you've learned, apply your shiny new knowledge to a real project.

Invest in Yourself

Different people learn in different ways. Take your best learning modes into consideration when choosing from the alternatives. For example, I get most of what I need from books and articles, while other people want audio, video, or hand-on training. Know what works for you.

The best training (in any form) gives you an overview of the subject and specific examples of how to do the things that most everyone needs to do. For example, when evaluating a book, I avoid books with contrived, generic examples that can't be used for anything practical. Instead, I look for examples that I might actually put to work in my own projects.

Before you run off and get started on your next project, do yourself a favor and invest a little time in yourself. Give yourself the background you need to be effective and productive. Having a firm grasp on the big picture makes you appear more professional and competent, and that is a big advantage in a competitive workplace.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Investing in Replacement Technology

With all the hype that goes along with the latest release of Microsoft's development tools, you'd think amazing advances are being made. From a user's perspective, that's largely untrue.

Granted, we've seen impressive improvements in usability in web applications as browsers have become more compliant with JavaScript and CSS standards. But they aren't really doing anything new, they are just catching up with what desktop applications have been capable of for two decades.

Realistically, nothing much has changed since the introduction of the graphical user interface. Users still interact with software through windows, text boxes, drop-down lists, and buttons.

I have a friend who works at the leading edge of Microsoft's development technologies because his company does projects for Fortune 500 companies. To hear him tell it, it is essential to learn how to develop WPF applications right now. WPF stands for Windows Presentation Foundation, but the acronym is irrelevant: you could replace it with any other wildly-hyped acronym Microsoft has invented over the past 20+ years.

So, lets say you do invest in learning all about the latest technology and start building applications with it. What do you end up with? An application with windows, text boxes, and buttons. Big deal.

I have clients who invested in applications that solve business problems for them. Ten years later, those applications still solve the same business problem. They want tweaks now and again, but it is tough to convince them to completely rewrite the application in a new technology just to solve the same business problem. They already have a solution that works.

Unfortunately, these companies don't make Microsoft (or the developer!) any new money. How dare they be happy with what they have! They should have to pay, pay, pay.

Microsoft's only recourse is to continually develop new tools and environments, and drop support for the old ones as they move forward. My poor clients will eventually be forced to replace their applications because they simply won't run on Microsoft's latest bloated operating system, or they can't find developers who are willing to work with the older tech.

These clients, along with thousands of others like them, are increasingly faced with the high cost of investing in new applications. And what do they get when they are done with that investment? What they already have right now.

Monday, June 22, 2009

New Experiences Lengthen Your Life

From the title of this post, you might think that I'm suggesting a way you can add years to your lifetime. In a sense that's true, but I'm not talking about quantity here, I'm talking about quality.

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "it's the journey, not the destination, that matters." I'm a big proponent of that kind of thinking, because the ultimate destination for all living things is not much fun to contemplate. Even if you believe in some kind of afterlife, there's that moment of "transition" to which few people look forward. Regardless of what you believe, you have a very limited amount of time to exist in this form and in this time, so you might as well make the most of it.

I developed a theory many years ago about the sense of time compression that comes with repeated experiences. I noticed that all of the time I spent doing the "same old, same old" got compressed into a single chunk of memory with few distinguishing moments. At the same time, every truly unique experience seemed to produce a separate memory with many distinguishing moments.

You can see this theory in action when you look back over the past year of your life. What can you say about it? What moments stand out? Does any moment you spent on day 90 at work compare to any moment you spent on day 2 of your vacation? I'm guessing not.

The flip side of time compression is time expansion. Every moment you spend doing something new and different expands your perception of the time involved. I know, this theory seems to fly in the face of the saying "time flies when you are having fun." But again, I'm talking about quality here, not quantity. For example, I noticed that virtually all of the time between vacations gets compressed in my memory into a single uninteresting block of time labeled "I worked." Sure, a few work moments stand out, but they are when something unique happened.

If you doubt my theory, try this experiment. At least one day of each weekend for the next month (rain or shine), go somewhere you've never been before, or do something you've ever done before.

At the end of the month, look back. What memories stand out? Even in such a short time period, where all memory is still relatively fresh, I'll bet your memories of the unique weekend experiences will be sharper and more interesting than anything that happened while you were attending to everyday responsibilities. The discrepancy becomes even more pronounced the more time that passes. In three months, only the weekend experiences will stand out at all.

So there you have it. If you want to feel like you're living a full life, you have to break out of your routine periodically. Routine is great for efficiency and consistency, but it steals precious time from your experience of life.

You don't have to spend a lot of money, and you don't have to do a lot of planning. Just get out. Do something different. I doesn't matter what it is.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Creamy Tofu and Asparagus on Pasta

My wife Susan was in the mood for something "creamy" the other night, and I wanted to use up some of the fresh goodies from our CSA package while they were still fresh, so I cooked up a tofu dish with a creamy sauce and served it over radiatore pasta.

I'm going to estimate the amounts of goodies I used, so this isn't going to be much of a recipe, but you'll get the idea of what's involved. Feel free to adjust liberally.

Creamy Yellow Tarragon Sauce

This recipe starts out as a white sauce that becomes yellow when you add the turmeric. When I make a white sauce, I totally wing it, so I really have no idea of how much of each ingredient is involved. I'm going to estimate here and describe my process, but I'm sure you'll need to adjust the amounts of flour, soy milk, and water as you stir them in.

  • 3 tbsp - Canola oil
  • 1/4 cup - Unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup - Soy milk
  • 1/2 cup - Water
  • 1 tsp - Turmeric
  • 2 tbsp - Fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp - Salt
  • 1/2 tsp - Sugar
  • 1/2 tsp - Black pepper, coarse ground

Here's the process:

  1. Heat oil on medium in a 1 qt sauce pan. The oil is ready when you add a pinch of flour and it starts bubbling right away.
  2. Sprinkle in the flour a bit at a time as you stir it into the oil. It will bubble and turn into a batter that spreads out across the bottom of the pan. Keep adding flour until the batter starts to become more like a paste. Cook, stirring constantly, until the flour starts to smell toasty and turns a golden or tan color. It won't take long. Don't let it get too dark, or it will start to taste gritty.
  3. Add soy milk, starting with a good splash. Be ready for the steam that will rise as you add the milk. The flour will absorb the milk like a sponge and become somewhat gelatinous. Keep adding soy milk until the mixture smooths out and achieves the consistency of soft-serve ice cream.
  4. Add water until the sauce is the desired consistency. For this recipe, I left it pretty thick -- about the consistency of pancake batter.
  5. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Adjust the amount of salt, sugar, and pepper to taste.

Let the sauce sit covered for a while for the flavors to meld. I completed the sauce before I started on anything else and just set it aside.

Tofu and Asparagus Topping

We got the most amazing asparagus from Greentree Naturals this week. Even the huge spears were tender all the way down to the end. It was an act of will not to just eat them raw! Again, I didn't measure anything when I threw this dish together, so the amounts I'm giving here are approximate.

I recommend that you start the water for the pasta after you gather your ingredients, but before you start prepping them. That way, the pasta and the topping will be done around the same time.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp - Canola oil
  • 1 medium - Yellow onion, diced
  • 3 stalks - Bambino garlic, chopped
  • 3 stalks - Garlic scapes, chopped
  • 1/2 pound - Asparagus spears, chopped
  • 12 ounces - Firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch squares
  • 3 sprigs - Fresh Mexican oregano, stemmed and chopped
  • 1 large - Yellow tomato, chopped into chunks
  • 1 tbsp - Olive oil

Instructions:

  • Start the pasta and prepare according to package directions. I used radiatore, but any chunky pasta will do (medium shells, bow-ties, penne, etc).
  • Heat the canola oil in a large skillet on medium. Throw in a small piece of onion. The oil is ready when the onion starts to sizzle.
  • Add the onion and bambino garlic, and stir until everything is coated in oil. Saute until the onion starts to turn translucent.
  • Stir in the garlic scapes, asparagus, tofu, and oregano. Once everything is thoroughly mixed, add a few tablespoons of water and cover to steam for about five minutes.
  • Remove the lid and stir in the olive oil, tarragon sauce, and tomato chunks.
  • Serve over pasta immediately.

If the pasta finishes first and needs to sit, stir in some margarine to keep it from sticking together. If the topping is done first, remove it from the hot burner and cover.

You'll notice that I like to add a bit of olive oil and tomato at the very end, just before serving. If you do it that way, the olive oil doesn't just disappear into the mix and the tomatoes are heated, but still firm and flavorful. Additionally, for those of us with acid-sensitive tummies, the tomatoes are much less acidic if you heat them but don't cook them until they break down.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Using Content to Make Money on Today's Internet

Mike Shatzkin wrote an interesting blog post recently titled What replaces charging for content? Does anybody really know? (click the title to read his post).

He points out that using subscriptions, micro-payments, and advertising to make money on online content doesn't make for a viable business model. You can make some money that way, but not enough to sustain an organization. That's bad news for organizations like newspapers that have traditionally made their money by selling content.

My company has been making money from online content for years now, but I agree that it would be difficult to make a business-sustaining income stream directly from that content. Ever since Google came along, the real value of content is to generate leads for some other business activity. Good content helps filter qualified leads out of the Internet masses and helps the people who are hungry for the information you offer to get to know you. It is the first step in a conversation.

Of course, once you have their attention, you need to offer something that has added value if you want them to spend money with you. And that something had better be relevant to the content that drew them in originally, or the potential for conversion is a crap shoot.

Most of our free content takes the form of articles we've posted on multiple web sites. We've converted free content consumers to paid customers in several ways. In some cases, we offer tools related to the subject of the article. For example, my wife wrote a series of articles on how create certain types of documents in Word, and we upsell some of those readers to templates that do part of the work for you. We also offer books that organize and aggregate the content from our articles.

When we hosted the Self-Publishers Online Conference, we decided to make "live" attendance free (you could listen to the teleseminars at no charge), but we charged for the ability to download the audio files and for Conference Bonus Pack that delivered the material on CDROM. We're selling the Bonus Pack as a separate information product as well.

So, I have two answers to Mike's question about what replaces charging for content. Both revolve around using your content as a net to capture the attention of visitors interested in the subject of your content.

  • Charge for added value. You don't try to sell your articles on basket weaving, you use your articles to find people who may be interested in buying your e-book on basket weaving.
  • Charge for related products and services. Your articles on basket weaving explain how to deal with some of the difficulties of basket weaving, and also promote how your Basket Weaver Widget takes care of these problems automatically for you.

The common theme here is verticalization. Organizations that aggregate content "horizontally" (without a specific subject or industry focus) are doomed to play the affiliate game. If they do try to sell products or services to a horizontal audience, those offers won't be relevant, which makes the aggregator little better than a spammer.

Mike also sees vertical development as an enabling factor in the shift from paying for content to paying for community, but believes that is a long-term solution. I agree that the overall transition may be long term, but the potential for a business model that takes advantage of vertical development is here today.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Do Writers Have to Be Readers?

My wife Susan and I are consistent, if not avid, readers. We go to the library just about every month and typically check out between four and ten books. On top of that, we occasionally buy books that we can't get at the library or when we want to own our own copy. When we go on vacation, we often get through a book a day -- in addition to having fun recreating outside.

It turns out that we are unusual. Most Americans don't read. I found these statistics while trolling the Internet, but be warned that I have not tracked them down to their source, so I can't really vouch for their accuracy. Empirical evidence suggests they aren't far off, however.

  • 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book
  • 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • Most readers do not get past page 18 in a book they have purchased.

As a book publisher, it is disappointing to me that so few people actually read books. What gets me is that these statistics seem at odds with the estimate that 80% of people claim they would like to write a book.

Can you write a book if you don't read books?

I'm guessing not. And to me, THAT explains why so few people actually become published authors. If being a reader helps you become a writer, then the pool of "candidate" authors is not the 80% figure you hear bandied about. If you believe that 80% of families don't buy or read a book over the course of an entire year, that means only about 20% of Americans are even in the pool of available authors in the first place. If 80% of that pool wants to write a book, then really only 16% of Americans are truly candidate authors who are interested in writing a book. Okay, sure, that's still a lot of people.

Yes, I'm playing fast and loose with questionable numbers and assumptions here. The point I'm trying to make is that very few of the people who think they would like to write a book ever will, and that is due in no small part to the fact that they don't read books themselves.

Here's another interesting implication of my statistically dubious conclusion: when you do publish your book, who are you writing for? Probably other potential authors!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

15 Books in 15 Minutes

My wife "tagged" me in Facebook for her "15 Books in 15 Minutes" note. Here were the instructions:

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

I had to cheat and go upstairs to look at our bookshelf. I just don't have a good memory for author's names. We only keep the books we actually think we would read again, so our bookshelf is a pretty good indicator of what turns us on in reading material.

So here are my selections, in no particular order...

1. The entire Belgariad by David Eddings, but particularly the first one, Pawn of Prophecy.

2. Imzadi by Peter David

3. The entire "alphabet series" by Sue Grafton

4. Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castenada

5. The entire vampire series by Anne Rice, but particularly Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat.

6. The Knack by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham

7. Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind

8. Dune by Frank Herbert

9. Jonathan Livingston Seagul by Richard Bach

10. The entire Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, but particularly the first 5 or so

11. The entire Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

12. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

13. The entire Shanarra series by Terry Brooks, some more than others.

14. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

15. The entire Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

This blog entry will post to my Facebook profile automatically as a note, and I'll tag people once it appears.

Get Out Into It

When we first moved to North Idaho, we befriended a neighbor who had lived here for quite some time. One of the many tips he gave us early on related to dealing with North Idaho weather. His advice was, no matter what the weather is, "you gotta get out into it."

Having lived here for thirteen years now, I can say he was right on. I frequently hear whining about the weather (and have been known to do it myself on occasion), but the tradeoff for all that rain and snow is the amazingly beautiful conifer forest that surrounds us. The way I see it, if you want sunny days every day, go live in the desert somewhere.

Today was a perfect example of not letting the weather get in the way. The day dawned heavily overcast with a 50% chance of rain, according to the Nasty Weather Service. My wife had a few gardening tasks to attend to and I had some tree maintenance I wanted to deal with. We both decided to go for it, in spite of the fact that it started to sprinkle almost as soon as I put on the bug repellent.

Over the time we were out there, the sprinkle turned into a full-on rain. I was under cover of the trees most of the time, but enough rain got through during the two hours I was out there to soak me to the skin.

In spite of the temporary discomfort, the experience was exhilarating. If I hadn't gone out, I wouldn't have seen that white tail deer that bounded away from me as I came around the corner of the house. I wouldn't have been able to take deep breaths of the strong pine-scent that hung in the air like a cloud of perfume. I wouldn't have heard the gentle patter of rain on the deciduous leaves. And, of course, I wouldn't have gotten the work done that I wanted to accomplish.

A little recreational complaining is expected and probably good for you, but I've run into a lot of people who seem to take serious offense to a foot-deep snowfall overnight or a solid week of rain during spring or fall. Those are probably some of the same people I see heading across the Long Bridge in June, towing a U-Haul trailer in their wake.

I just smile and wave, then turn and disappear down a trail into my tall forest.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Accepting the "Cooking Away My CSA" Challenge

Heather Lalley from The Flour Girl blog started an interesting idea. She posed a "Cooking Away My CSA" challenge to all bloggers who participate in a CSA and are willing to share recipes of their creations with the rest of the world on a weekly basis. I think I can handle that.

If you aren't familiar with the acronym, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Most of these programs work as some kind of subscription service where you pay a local grower a fee to receive a weekly package of fresh, in-season fruits and veggies. The LocalHarvest.org site has a great overview of how these programs work.

Our local grower and supplier of our CSA is Greentree Naturals. There's something special about getting food from someone you know. Everybody wins, and you actually know the names of the winners. Diane and Thom are not only expert organic growers with over 20 years of experience, they have become good friends to my wife Susan and me as well.

The successes we've had with our garden are due in no small part to Diane and Thom's guidance. When we needed a greenhouse to extend our very limited season for our tomatoes and other tender plants, we attended a hoop house workshop at Greentree. The hoop house we built as a result of that program has been with us for almost ten years now and serves us well every year. Susan often buys our starter plants from Diane at the beginning of the season, and receives great advice on how to manage pests and other problems using organic methods.

Even though we grow our own garden, we get the CSA because there are certain things we just can't seem to grow well. The Greentree Naturals farm gets a LOT more sun than our garden does, so they are able to grow things that require a longer season.

To give you an example of what a CSA entails, our most recent CSA package contained the following:

  • Over-wintered carrots
  • Rhubarb
  • Fresh herbs (spearmint, Mexican oregano, & chive flowers)
  • Leeks
  • Scallions
  • Salad greens (seven kinds of leaf lettuce)
  • Celtic Sea Salt (proprietary blend of herbs and sea salt)
  • The CSA newsletter with news, a recipe or two, and a bit of lore.

We usually just incorporate the CSA items into various meals during the week, but we make some meals that showcase a particular item, and those are what I'll try to share during the Challenge.

Last night I made a tempeh dish and used up the carrots, leeks, scallions, and some of the herbs. I added a yellow pepper and some celery we had around. It wasn't much in terms of a recipe. It was just a "chop and steam" event with some olive oil and a sprinkle of Braggs Aminos for the sauce. I served the tempeh mixture over thin spaghetti that was tossed with margarine, sour cream, and dill weed.

The recipe I'm going to provide for the challenge is actually one my wife Susan's efforts. The Greentree newsletter included a recipe for rhubarb bread that sounded pretty tasty, so she "veganized" it and expanded on it a bit. Here's the modified recipe…

Vegan Rhubarb Bread

This vegan rhubarb bread recipe produces a deliciously tangy quick bread with a sweet and crunchy coffee-cake-style topping.

Dough
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup soy milk
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tsp egg replacer (or corn starch)
  • 3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped rhubarb
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Topping
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup unbleached flour
  • 1 tbsp margarine
Instructions
  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees (F).
  • Coat the bottoms of two 8x4 loaf pans with oil.
  • In a measuring cup, combine the soy milk, lemon juice, and egg replacer. Stir and let sit to curdle (about 5 minutes).
  • In a large bowl, combine the brown sugar, milk mixture, and all remaining dough ingredients. Pour into loaf pans.
  • For the topping, mix the flour and brown sugar in a small bowl. Use a pastry cutter to chop the margarine into the mix. Sprinkle the topping onto the loaves, and bake for one hour.

Want more recipes?

If you are interested in seeing more vegan recipes, you might like our web site ManyVeggieRecipes.com, which as the name suggests, has many free vegan recipes.

Susan and I have also co-authored a book of easy-to-make vegan recipes called Vegan Success: Scrumptious, Healthy Vegan Recipes for Busy People. The book focuses on fast, simple recipes for people who are new to vegan cooking or are just short on time for meal preparation.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Whole, Fresh Foods are Best

But you'd never know that from what passes for food in most local grocery stores. At one end of the store you find a couple of aisles of "fresh" fruits and vegetables. The fruits are mostly laden with pesticides and harvested green in some foreign country thousands of miles away. They arrive on the local grocer's shelf flavorless and with reduced nutritional value. The veggies often aren't much better.

At the other end, you have the "fresh" meats, which are often cut from animals that lived miserable lives, and again, are pumped full of junk chemicals.

The aisles in between are what get really scary. Virtually all pre-packaged food is processed with excess sugar, salt, fat, and more junk chemicals. It is rendered virtually nutrition-less as it is powdered, shredded, reduced, frozen, dried, or whatever into the pile of "caloried tummy filler" you eventually take out of the box.

Over a decade ago, while we were living in Southern California, my wife and I discovered the benefits of shopping at local produce stands. I discovered that tree-ripened, organic fruit actually tastes like "the real thing." Most of my life I had eaten green-harvested fruit that had only a hint of the flavor that develops in nature.

Zucchini from our gardenSince moving to North Idaho, we grow many of our own vegetables and get fruits and other veggies from local organic growers. The difference spoils you. I can hardly stand to buy produce from the grocery store any more, and winter is a long, long, disappointing time away from fresh goodies.

[Note: To be fair, our local Yokes grocery store has an unusually large organic and health food section. We actually do get good stuff from them on occasion. That's why we shop there instead of the local Safeway or WalMart, which feed the masses who would rather save a buck than save their lives.]

Yes, organic fruits and vegetables often cost more. Of course they do! I don't know about you, but I'm willing to pay more if I get more, and you really do get more.

I've been happy to see that general awareness has risen with regard to the issues of our food supply. Books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver have sold well and educated (or at least warned) a generation of Americans about the problems we face.

But the food industry is a business. It's all about money and a responsibility to give investors a good return. It has nothing to do with the health of your family, as long as they don't outright kill you so you can sue them and jeopardize their profits. I'd argue that the disconnect between the farm and the consumer is a big part of what's wrong with our food supply today.

The point of this rant is that I believe strongly that buying fresh, buying organic, and buying local will make you healthier and happier while it supports people in your own community instead of some remote billionaire investor. But it is up to you. If you continue to support the food industry that currently poisons you, don't be surprised when they figure out better ways to use your money to make matters worse.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why Call It The Logical Half?

I called this blog The Logical Half because of a somewhat inside joke around the company my wife and I run. The company is named Logical Expressions, and that name has turned out to be appropriate in many ways. One of those ways has to do with the fact that Susan is more of the creative/artistic type (expressive), while I am the more analytical/technical type (logical).

We sometimes jokingly tell others that I'm the logical half of Logical Expressions, and she's the expressive half. When I was deciding on a name for this blog, which is going to be about all of the things that I find interesting, calling it the Logical Half just seemed appropriate.

A lot of my professional and business writing already goes into other web sites, so I intend to use this blog as a forum for all the information I'm personally interested in and want to share that doesn't readily fit in those other locations. In case you are interested, here are other places you can find stuff I've written:

Logical Expressions Blog for company information.

Nerdy Musings for my programming and technical articles.

Publishize Newsletter for articles I've written on self-publishing topics.

Computor Companion and Logical Tips for various computer and business articles.

Follow the Yellow Chip Road

The South-facing side windows of our house look out over our garden and the forest beyond. This morning I sipped my coffee and chuckled as I noticed a recently-chipped path winding off and disappearing into the trees. In my mind, I heard strains of Follow the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz, only the word "road" became "chip."

One of my favorite activities during the non-winter months is to build trails through our 27 acres of forested land. The way I figure it, if we are going to own this much property, we might as well be able to access it! For my exercise routine each morning, you can find me out on a trail somewhere with loppers, bow saw, and a garden wagon, clearing back the encroaching forest. Most of the material that I clear out gets chipped and spread along the trail surface. This practice gives the nutrients back to the forest and makes for a pretty trail.

I've learned that the forest quickly reclaims any trail that is not regularly used. In about 3 to 5 years, you can hardly tell a trail ever existed. I used to feel somewhat guilty about removing understory trees, but I've mostly gotten over that. I now know that my trails are frequently used by the deer and moose and that the areas formerly covered with useless "dog hair" undergrowth turn into huckleberry patches and other shrubs that please the forest critters. Meanwhile, the bigger trees that are left behind become stronger and healthier.

Our little piece of the Idaho forest is one of the things for which I'm very thankful. The ability to live here in the middle of nowhere and being able to have the time to enjoy it are some of the things that make the self-employed lifestyle a fabulous thing.