Benchmade Volli vs Kershaw Blur

Benchmade Volli on top, Kershaw Blur on bottom.

I just got my hands on a Benchmade Volli, and thought I’d do a quick comparison to the EDC knife that it’s replacing, the Kershaw Blur (black non-serrated blade). Here are my observations so far:

  • The Volli is clipped so that it sits tip-up in the pocket. The Blur is tip-down, so that’s taking some getting used to.
  • The handle on the Volli is noticeably thicker/fatter than the handle on the Blur. Since the clip also has a higher profile, the entire package is quite a bit bulkier in a pocket
  • The AXIS lock on the Volli is really nice, and the locking mechanism along the spine is a nice touch — you can double-lock the blade open for heavier work.
  • The Blur has a faster spring-assist, and a more satisfying “clunk” when coming open. I think the sound/clunk comes partially from the aluminum frame (vs the Volli’s “G10″ handle, which is some kind of plastic/fiber stuff).
  • The Volli has zero blade-play, which the Blur has a bit.
  • The thumb-stud on the Blur is “one-sided”, and has a bit sharper of an edge on it, which can be good or bad.
  • Because of the slightly wider handle (and thus wider arc to get around it), I find the Volli harder to close one-handed.
  • The straight edge on the Volli’s blade is a big plus for me. The slightly curving blade on the Blur really annoyed me when sharpening it.
  • Handle length is (almost?) identical. Blade is a little longer on the Blur.
  • The Blur is a little heavier .
  • I really like the blade grind on the Volli.
  • The Volli’s blade is a little thinner than the Blur, and is also ground down along the spine to make it appear even thinner still.
  • Since the handle on the Volli is plastic, I guess I won’t be able to use it as reliably as a bottle opener (note the scratched out surface on the Blur, where the blade meets the handle :) ).

Overall, I’m happy with the Volli, and will definitely keep is as my EDC (at least for now). I do think that if you could take the Volli blade and put it on something resembling the Blur handle, but keep the AXIS lock, you might really have a winner.

Flint-Knapping Arrow Heads

Image shows leather hand-pad, copper-tipped pressure flaker, small stone (Jasper?) arrow head and larger glass/beer bottle arrow head (both made by me, today).

A few weeks ago I decided to have a look on Meetup.com and see if there were some meetups that looked interesting enough to attend in the area. I spotted the Wilderness Awareness and Survival Skills in Denver group, and joined it immediately. I’ve been interested in this sort of thing for a while, and even attended a week-long school with Tom Brown a few years ago. The next meetup was going to be a basic flint-knapping class, which is something I’ve wanted to try for a while. We talked about it at the Tom Brown Tracker School class, but like so many other things, didn’t have time to get any hands-on experience. I’ve also been watching a bit of Ray Mears stuff lately, and he does some basic knapping in some of his episodes, so I had some recent motivation to check it out.

The meetup was held in the court-yard/shared space between 2 apartment blocks, one of which our guide lived in. Andrew is a really personable guy who apparently works for Denver Parks & Rec at the moment. He’s also studied and been practicing primitive skills for a while, and these meetups are his way of passing those skills along to others. He was really well-prepared, and provided us with everything we needed (except a chair) to get started, and to make some simple blades/arrow-heads.

We were mostly aiming for 3-notch arrow heads, since they give a notch to got in the end of an arrow shaft, and then 2 side-notches for binding the head to the shaft. They are a little more complex than some of the others I’ve seen (or the ones that Ray Mears was making), but they aren’t that hard once you get the hang of things, and I guess could even work without any natural glue, which is an advantage. They definitely require a fine, strong point on your pressure-flaker though, so you need something like a deer antler, or if you’re using some modern tools, then a copper-tipped flaker like we used works nicely.

For practice, we used the bottom of beer bottles, which flake pretty nicely, are cheap and easy to acquire, and are pretty consistent (so you don’t have to figure out crazy impurities or anything). To get the base off, we put a giant steel nail inside the bottom, then just shook it up and down a little until it popped out the base. Then you start flaking off the edges and go from there.

You’ll need:

  • A strip of leather (which you use in your hand, to guard against sharp flakes, and the tip of your pressure flaker)
  • A round/smoothish rock (or a few different ones), for percussion flaking and also for “platforming”
  • A pressure flaker, which you can see in the picture above (that’s a thick piece of copper wire in the tip of a piece of Aspen (I think, the wood doesn’t matter that much, just make it soft enough to get the wire in there). Traditionally, you’d use a deer antler (which we also tried). They are amazingly strong, and already pointed.
  • Stone/glass to knap.

There are 3 main things we were told to keep in mind:

  1. Platform: this refers to setting up the edge that you’re working on. Basically, you use a rounded stone to abrade/grind off the edge so that you can remove all the small irregularities and provide something a bit more substantial for your pressure flaker to grip onto.
  2. Centerline: which is just referring to the rough centerline of the mass of your piece, on a horizontal plane. You always want to be flaking down from this line (into your hand, “under” the piece you’re working on).
  3. Acute: you’re looking for acute angles, below the centerline. That’s where you can get good flakes, and make progress. If the angle is obtuse, there’s nowhere for your flaker to grip, and you won’t be able to flake anything off.

I went back and found my notes from Tracker School about flint knapping, and was impressed to see that they lined up almost 1:1 with what I learned today. Getting a chance to try my hand at it really made a difference though, and I’d like to give it a bit more of a shot in the future. I’m particularly interested in super-simple, percussion-flaking, which is something that seems like it could be immediately useful in a survival situation (where you’re not going to have something like antler or copper wire handy for true pressure flaking).

A big shout out to Andrew for being a great teacher, and I really look forward to having some more classes and adventures with him and the others.

Automattic Grand Meetup, 2014

Once a year, all of Automattic gets together in one place for a full week of face-to-face work, learning, food and fun. We fly in from all around the world, shuttle to a hotel/resort/space of some sort, and then get together to work through a bunch of things. This year we descended upon Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah (another US state crossed off my list!). The week was roughly structured into a front-loaded, work-type-things section, and a tail end more loaded with activities. For my part, I:

  • Learned more about Node.js (and got a copy of coworker @TooTallNate‘s “Node.js in Action“), specifically in relation to some new applications we’re building out at WordPress.com
  • Worked with React.js some more (which is awesome and pretty exciting)
  • Went on a 5km run (walked the first bit, but then my knee was feeling OK so I ran most of it)
  • Took a gondola ride up the mountain, then went on a ~1.5 hour hike through beautiful aspens and conifers, past a trout-stocked lake and through some downhill MTB trails
  • Went on a guided fly fishing trip with guides from Trout Tales, where I (finally!) caught my first fish; and then my second and third as well
  • Visited High West Distillery for a tour, tasting, and picked up a bottle of their Son of Bourye (a delicious blend of Bourbon and Rye)
  • Met a bunch of new Automatticians and spent time hanging out and getting to know people new and old
  • Road tripped from Denver, CO to Park City, UT and back again with @alternatekev and @michaelarestad

Michelle did a great official write-up on the WordPress.com Blog.

Here is a collection of shots from the week (including the trip there and back):

* Title image taken by Luca Sartoni

Phantogram Blew My Mind

I just got back from seeing Phantogram play at the Ogden Theater here in Denver, CO, and they blew my mind. It was definitely one of the stand out shows that I’ve seen recently, which was extra impressive for a Monday night, at a venue I can walk to from my apartment, for $25.

Their set was super tight, and flowed really well. Instruments were switching constantly, and the four of them wove guitar, drums, keys, bass and samples together flawlessly. The two core members, Josh and Sarah, switched vocals every few tracks to provide a balance and variety that kept things interesting, while one of the best-executed light shows I’ve seen played on around them. Their stage presence was dramatic, powerful and engaging, when it wasn’t intimate and personal, depending on the track.

If you get the chance, go and see them, you won’t regret it.

I was moved enough to buy a shirt as a memento, which I almost never do at live shows.

* Header image from Wikipedia entry.

Why JavaScript Is The Next (or first) Programming Language You Should Learn

I’ve been asked a few times recently what programming language I’d learn if I was just starting out. Right now, the answer is definitely JavaScript, and here’s why:

Easiest Development Environment

I believe one of the biggest hurdles for people to get into programming is actually all of the other stuff around just writing code. Anything you can do to get to the point where you’re writing code faster (at least while you’re learning) is a win in my mind. Everyone has access to a web browser, which means everyone now has access to a simple development environment. If you’re using Chrome on a Mac, press cmd-opt-j. Welcome to the console, you’re now able to start writing JavaScript to manipulate the page you’re looking at. That’s pretty awesome. There are also a bunch of online editors and tools like CodePen, JSFiddle which allow you to dive into a more complete development/testing/prototyping environment right in your browser.

Simple

JavaScript makes it really easy to write simple code when you’re getting started, which is perfectly valid. Define a function, call it. Make a loop. Ignore the DOM (in fact, ignore the web almost entirely) and focus on simple logic and code. Start building objects and arrays. The OO-model in JS can be a little weird (especially around classes and inheritance), but that’s OK, you’re going to need to be flexible if you’re going to be a developer anyway. Once you get the basics figured out, you can start diving deeper and discover the full power of JavaScript.

Flexible

The flip side of the previous argument is that JavaScript is also super flexible (arguably too much so!). Once you move on from a few functions embedded directly in script tags in your page to manipulate an image or a menu, you can quickly move towards a fully-architected web application with many files, larger object/class-style structures, complex single-page-applications and a whole lot more. JavaScript actually scales up quite nicely to handle bigger challenges, and is ideally suited to web applications, since it’s so tightly integrated with the DOM and the browser.

Web-native

As much as native mobile app developers would have you believe that apps are the future, I still think that open web technologies are the key to the future. Give it a little time, and we’ll mostly be writing all of our mobile apps in HTML/JS, and deploying them in wrapper-apps to our phones. I consider this basically inevitable. Learning to develop for the web is super important. You’ll need to know it basically regardless of what main language you’re working with, because despite our best efforts, you will still end up manipulating CSS, tweaking some HTML tags, etc. That’s not going to go away any time soon I don’t think.

Inevitable

This is pretty far down the list, but that’s mainly because of a thought progression more than anything else. I actually see this as a really important reason for why you should learn JavaScript. Here’s the deal — if you want to develop things for the web, you will end up writing JavaScript. There’s no avoiding it. There’s only so much you can do with a server-side language (PHP, Python, Ruby). At some point, your payload is delivered to a browser, and if you want to do anything remotely interesting there, you have to do it in JavaScript. So if you’re going to have to learn it anyway, why not optimize that process (and perhaps use JS in more places, rather than less?).

Portable (browser/server/native)

Now that we have things like Node.js, JavaScript has moved beyond the browser. Not only can you write server-side JS (so you can build the front and back-end of your web application in JS), you can also use something like node-webkit to bundle it up into a distributable desktop application, or use PhoneGap to package it as a mobile app for any platform. No other language can match that portability right now.

Toolchain

If all of the above wasn’t enough, the exploding JavaScript community has really come a long way in the last few years as far as the developer’s toolchain goes. While we might not have the integrated, one-stop-shop approach of something like XCode for Mac developers, we have tools like Grunt and Gulp which allow us to build our own asset pipelines. Every code editor known to man has support for JavaScript syntax highlighting and linting, and we don’t need a build process like other languages, so we’re lighter on our feet anyway. There’s also a bunch of tools for testing; everything from unit tests to functional tests, to fully automated simulations of users-in-browsers.

So anyway — there’s never been a better time to get started with coding, and if you’re going to do it, I suggest starting with JavaScript. Start small, work your way up. View Source. Get on Github. Go nuts.

Personal Location Tracking

I’ve been pretty fascinated with the idea of recording my own location for a while now. I started using Foursquare at SXSW in 2009 and have mostly continued to do so since then (I have over 3,700 check-ins). You can see my check-ins being syndicated back to this website (using Keyring Social Importers), and if you scroll back through the history of the main page, you’ll get maps aggregating a few check-ins at a time.

TripIt helps me keep track of all (most) of my travels, and provides back some data (via API), which I also import into this site. Here are all of my trips since March, 2008.

In February last year, I started using Moves, and quickly came to love its simplicity. It’s a background app that runs on your phone and keeps track of your location. Using server-side data processing, they crunch the raw location information to figure out when you were walking, running, riding, or on some form of transit, then give you back a timeline and a map showing what you’ve been up to. It’s a really nice “set and forget” way of keeping up with how many steps (roughly) you’re doing each day, plus your other forms of exercise. The app has continued to make small improvements, and then on April 24, Facebook bought them. I can’t say I’m stoked about the acquisition, but regardless, it’s a cool app, and it collects some fantastic data.

Since it’s all data, and there’s a growing sphere of location/movement-related data services out there, shuffling your data around is just a matter of a little programming. As I mentioned, I’m importing my Foursquare data into my blog already. I also have a Moves importer that’s currently creating a text-only summary of my information. I’ll probably add simple maps to it at some point. Moves-Export is a pretty neat service that will automatically import your Moves data and can give you a better breakdown of things, plus auto-post to Runkeeper and Foursquare (if you like) when activities are over certain thresholds (e.g. riding for more than 15 minutes). Pretty awesome.

Today, Chris Messina tipped me off to Move-o-scope, an awesome web app that will slurp in your Moves data, and give you back a rich visualization of it all. It lets you toggle things on and off, pan around the globe and see what you’ve been up to. It’s fascinating. Here are some places I’ve been since last February!

It’s fun to turn on the “Transit” layer (orange/brown, seen in the last picture above and the first one in the post), and follow the lines around the globe to see where you’ve been, then turn it off and zoom in to get a feel for what ground you covered while you were there.

Automattic, 5 Years In

On May 11 (today) in 2009, I started full time at Automattic. I’ve written about my experiences over the years, and marked the occasion each year in some small way. Let’s continue the tradition.

automattic-logo

This year has actually been a particularly big year. Probably the headliner happened only a week ago; Automattic raised $160 million, on a valuation of $1 billion. That’s a lot of money. That’s a large valuation, and it feels kind of weird to be employee #35 of a company of that scale. We’re now at 247 employees, and we span 30[1] different countries. Whoah.

Other than that, this year we: had a pretty large secondary fund-raising ($75m, via Tiger Capital), made some exciting acquisitions: Cloudup, Scrollkit, Longreads, had another successful WordCamp San Francisco (where I spoke, and organized the Contributor Day again), launched WordPress.com Connect, transitioned to a new CEO (Matt Mullenweg, our founder), and a bunch of other interesting things both internally and externally.

On a more direct/personal note, I feel like I’ve settled into my role as a team lead, and my team and I continue to evolve our development practices towards a modern, iterative workflow, heavy with JavaScript, Sass, and the like. Shout-outs to Allen, Gary, Jennifer and Kevin (my team) for working with me as we continue to make it all up as we go.

 In my sixth year as an Automattician, I’ll be relocating to Denver (my second relocation since I started, capitalizing on working for a completely distributed company). I look forward to new adventures there, and continued adventures with Automattic. It continues to be an inspiring and challenging company to work for, full of interesting and impressively-smart people.

Thanks everyone for continuing to make Automattic home, it’s the best job I’ve ever had, and it would be hard to ever top.

[1]: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay.

The Year Without Pants

Today is kind of exciting, although it’s been a long time coming so it’s not much of a surprise for me :) Today Scott Berkun, the author of books such as The Myths of Innovation, and Confessions of a Public Speaker, releases his latest book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work.

The book gives an inside look at what it’s like to work at Automattic, and to work on something like WordPress.com. Scott was my direct team lead (of the team that I now lead) while he was at Automattic, so the book contains a lot of personal interaction with yours truly. It also happens to be a fun read with a bunch of interesting insights into distributed teams, management, and the open-source-based culture we have at Automattic, and which may well be the future of many more companies.

I’ve read versions all the way back to some of the first drafts, and am right now reading the “final” version which I received in hard copy. You should go get it and read it as well.

4 years on Automattic

On this day, 4 years ago, I started full time with Automattic. This is my 4th Automattiversary.

I had already been on trial for 5 months by that point (since January), and had a good feel for the company and the other Automatticians. I knew it was where I wanted to be. So I accepted the offer, and became a fully-fledged member of a relatively small team (I was employee number 35) that was bringing blogging to the people (amongst other things).

In the four years since then, a lot has happened and changed.

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I Want to Love My Pebble

It’s true, I really want to love the Pebble that I got from being a Kickstarter backer. I want to, but right now I can’t. I can only like it. And I can like it a lot — there’s a lot to like!

  • I have a computer on my arm!
  • I can read text messages without taking my phone out
  • I can control music that’s playing on my phone
  • WordPress notifications on my wrist? Yep.
  • Calendar alerts? Got ’em.
  • The form-factor is slick: it’s slim, super lightweight and IMHO, looks pretty darned cool.
  • Nice backlight, which I can activate by shaking my wrist or tapping the watch
  • It’s waterproof! (although I’m too nervous to actively put that to the test)

So why can’t I love it? Let me count the ways (biggest reasons first): (more…)

Technology Startups As Military Special Forces

Anyone who works in a remotely corporate environment has no doubt heard a bunch of (often ridiculous) military metaphors describing business-as-usual. We’re divided into “squads” and talk about “strategic thinking” and “tactical mistakes”. We develop “mission statements” (more about that later) and managers demand that we “go in for the kill”, all the while referring to their top executives as their “Generals” and modeling the hierarchy of their companies around the command structures seen in the military. While a lot of this is just the strange glorification of business (and war), it turns out that some of it makes a lot of sense (on a very metaphorical level), and might just be evolving right along with military tactics. John Robb has done some amazing work analyzing the application of open source concepts to warfare, I’m going to do something like the opposite and look at applying special forces operating concepts to technology startups.

I recently finished reading Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, by (Vice Admiral) William H. McRaven, who credited as organizing and executing the mission that brought down Osama bin Laden. He is now the Commander of US Special Operations Command, so he’s somewhat of an authority on the subject. While reading the book (which is a really interesting read in its own right, I highly recommend it), I couldn’t help but notice a lot of corollaries between what I was reading and the structure and function of tech startups (and perhaps smaller units within larger technology companies). Let’s look at how Special Operations Warfare compares to working at a startup.

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Exploring a Neighborhood Like an Engineer

When I moved to Brooklyn in June, I decided that I wanted to get to know my new neighborhood reasonably well, reasonably quickly. Being an engineer, I figured a methodical approach was the best solution, so I got a map and got to work.

Based on a rough understanding of what was where, and letting the nearby Prospect Park somewhat dictate the area I wanted to cover, I drew out a grid with my new home roughly at the center, covering the bulk of the surrounding area that was of interest. The grid looked like this: (more…)

Ready Player One — Ernest Cline (Book Review)

NOTE: I am fully aware that at times in the review below, I sound like a ridiculous book-critic or something. I do not care. Also, links to Amazon contain my affiliate id.

Ready Player One

A few weeks ago I attended the New York TimesTimesOpen Open Source Science Fair on behalf of Automattic/WordPress.com. As part of my “thank you” bag, I got a copy of Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I left it on my bedside table in a stack of other books which I’d thus far neglected to start, let alone finish (not to mention all the unopened titles on my Kindle).

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TimesOpen Hack Day/Readtrack

On Saturday, I attended the 2012 New Times/TimesOpen Hack Day. It was a long day, but I had a lot of fun. I sat in on an intro session to Arduino which was pretty cool, and also a session on the EchoNest API, which I ended up using in my project. You can find out all about my project on the Readtrack project page.

It’s a bookmarklet-powered little app that analyzes the page you’re looking at (using the AlchemyAPI) and then tries to find related music (using the EchoNest API) which it then plays back to you in your browser (using rdio). I got a “runner up”/honorable mention prize :)

One of the most visually-polished projects was “Story Arc”, which showed a visual representation of the frequency of mentions of keywords over the NYT archives. Probably the most fun one was a set of drivers for a DDR pad, hooked up to commands for things like deploying code!

Hurricane Sandy Aftermath

Right now, I am considering myself very lucky. I’ve just lived through not only my first ever, but the most intense hurricane in New York’s history. Hurricane Sandy.

Within less than a few miles in 3 directions (North, South, West) homes are destroyed, roads are flooded, power is out. Right where I am (Park Slope) we have a lot of leaves on the ground, a few branches down and some minor damage on buildings. It’s pretty amazing how little impact we’ve directly had. It’s definitely not completely over, but we’ved fared a lot better than folks very nearby. Now we see how long it takes for NYC to get back on its feet and get things running again.

Subways are still all out of commission. 7 tunnels between Brooklyn and Manhattan are flooded. Buses will hopefully start coming online later today. What’s left of Lower Manhattan is a mess. It will be a long time before things are “back to normal” for everyone. Here’s how it looked from my perspective:

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Where is Your Digital Hub/Home?

I’ve been using WordPress to power my own website for a while now, and working with it in some way or another for even longer. Over the years, I’ve developed the belief that it’s a pretty perfect platform for people to build their own “digital home on the web”, considering the range of plugins and themes available, the flexibility of the publishing options it offers, and the fact that it’s completely open source, so you can do whatever you want with it.

That last bit is important in more ways than you might immediately think. Apart from just being able to write my own plugins or tweak my themes, this also means that I own my own data. I think in this MySpace/Facebook generation, people are all too loose with the data trails they create — giving up ownership of their digital self at the drop of a hat. In case you didn’t realize, when you use something like Facebook, it is not the product, you and your data are the product.

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Standing Desk, The 6’4″ Edition

I’m pretty tall — 6 ft 4 inches (193cm) when I’m not stooping. I’d been wanting to try a switch to a standing desk for a while, and a recent move to New York meant I needed a new desk anyway, so it was the perfect opportunity. I had a few requirements for my new office-space:

  • Must be able to support an Apple Thunderbolt Display (23.5 lbs or 10.8 kg)
  • Need some space (didn’t have a specific lower bound, but saw a bunch that were too small)
  • Adjustable workspace height, of primary concern being that I could put the main one at (my personally determined height of) 47 inches (119 cm)
  • Storage space for random “desk stuff” that I’d prefer wasn’t on my actual desk, but would like nearby.
  • Not crazy expensive.

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