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Missing Clovis

We lost Clovis, our alpha tom cat, Friday night. He was terribly ill, and after much discussion with the vet and soul-searching, we had him put to sleep.

We keep missing little things. Clovis was large & in charge—a benign despot over the other kitties. He checked up on them and licked them regularly (except for Swann, who didn’t get along with him). His best friend was Ruffian, our 65 lb. dog. Clovis used to stalk, crouch, and jump on her, then roll around together play-fighting. Sometimes he would bring her string or ribbon to play tug-of-war. They also napped together regularly.

Anytime you were standing at a sink or counter, you were likely to feel a velveted paw on your hip, and discover a hip-level cat head ready for petting. Clovis was also incredibly relaxed. We could flip him over onto his back in a lap and skritch his belly, grab his paws and shake his leg gently without concern, pick him up under the arms and just look him in the eye without a whiff of tension. He’d just stretch out his nose to touch yours. Plus, being the founder of the Merovingian dynasty (yes, he was named for that Clovis), he was death on Aryan heretics (a.k.a. bugs). I’m guessing it was a spider Aryan that did him in.

Below is a slide show of Clovis photos, including his “lion cut” when he needed a shave; his fascination with Demetri Martin’s Important Things; his love of guitar playing; and of course, hanging out with Ruffian.

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Praying Mantis (Stagomantis)

This charmer found a nice little space on our porch light last night.
Praying Mantis on porch light, Central Texas

common name Praying Mantis (or Praying Mantid)
domain Eukaryota
kingdom Animalia
phylum Arthropoda
class Insecta; subclass Pterygota; infraclass Neoptera
order superorder Dictyoptera; order Mantodea
family Mantidae; subfamily Stagomantinae
genus Cyanocitta
species unknown
location Central Texas
IUCN status Not tracked
Extremely local species are itemized species seen at our homes: on the actual property, or in the air above it. (Across the street doesn’t count!) I began by itemizing species seen at our house in Copperas Cove, Texas, and later expanded the project to include our home in Renton, Washington.

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Why I only wear red shoes

There’s nothing in the world like a pair of red shoes. —Hans Christian Andersen

I only wear red shoes. The shade and hue may vary from light tomato-red to dark wine, but it’s red. This has been going on for several years, and I’m not sure how long it will last. These are my favorite flats:

pair of red flats

There are many reasons I wear red shoes, but here are some of the top ones.

The fairy tale

I never liked the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It’s a caution against vanity, in which a young girl, Karen, is punished for being overly attached to a pair of red shoes. As a child, she has red feet and ankles from the cold. Her parent buy her a cheap pair of red shoes. When her parents die, she wears the red pair to their funeral (they are her only shoes). Karen attracts the attention of an older woman, who adopts her and buys her a much prettier pair of red shoes. She becomes obsessed with the shoes, wearing them to church despite being told not to, and preferring occasions for wearing them to more serious obligations.

One day the shoes are cursed by an old soldier, who tells them, “Never come off when you dance,” just before Karen goes into church wearing them. She is distracted during the service by them, and when she emerges her feet begin to dance. Karen can’t control the dancing, which behaves contrary to her desires and will not stop. She is unable to enter buildings and unable to rest. She has a vision of an angel further cursing her for her vanity, dooming her to “Dance in your red shoes until you are pale and cold, and your flesh shrivels down to the skeleton.” Eventually Karen begs the town executioner to chop off her feet, so she can stop dancing and ask forgiveness for putting the shoes ahead of God. The executioner does so. The shoes remain attached to the dismembered feet, and run off into the forest. The executioner provides Karen with crutches and wooden feet to replace her own feet.

When Karen attempts to return to church, the dismembered feet and shoes block her way. She becomes repentant and somber, and takes up a position working for the parson. But she cannot return to church. One Sunday, while everyone else is away, she has another vision of the angel. She is forgiven. She dies and goes to heaven, where no one mentions red shoes.

While I agree putting a pair of shoes ahead of family and spiritual needs is foolish, it was clear to me that this story was not about vanity, but about becoming too invested in something associated with her parents (the original pair of red shoes, the cold red feet), and which arguably saved her from poverty and hunger after her parents died, by attracting the attention of the older woman. The shoes were too important to her, but this was a natural result of the trauma and dramatic change in her life. Andersen was a good natural psychologist, and the story makes it clear that it was overdetermined that Karen would develop this obsessions. But chopping off her feet wasn’t the answer. Someone needed to make it clear to Karen she wasn’t valued for red shoes or appearance, but for herself.

I wear red shoes because I do not believe in punishing people for standing out from the crowd.

The movie

A few years ago, I re-watched The Red Shoes (1948, Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer). In it, Vicky Page, a prima ballerina’s breakthrough performance occurs playing the lead in a ballet performance of The Red Shoes. Page has an exceptional talent, which director Boris Lermentov wants to develop so that she can fulfill her potential. But Page falls in love with the ballet’s composer, Julian Craster, and must choose between marriage and her career.

Page replicates the fairy tale in her life, by being unable to step away from her art and the ballet (which requires she wear red shoes, of course). Eventually the pressure is too much, and she flees the theatre the night of a premiere, leaping to her death while wearing the red shoes. Dying in her husband’s arms, her last request is that he take off the shoes. The troupe performs the ballet anyway, dancing around a pair of still red shoes, turning her lack of presence into a memorial for Page.

Every time I watch this, I wonder if it was a deliberate piece of feminist art, or accidental. It’s played straight: no one questions whether it’s appropriate for a woman to be forced to choose between her love of her art and her love of a man. Today, while there still exist many challenges for women, it is at least possible for a woman to be married and have a career in this country. (In fact, it’s economically necessary for the wife or mother to work in many families). Advances are being made in countries where the woman’s role is much more restricted.

It was after this viewing I began wearing only red shoes. It’s a reminder to be grateful I live in a time and place where no one asks me to choose between my husband and my career. It’s not always easy, but at least it’s possible.

The color combinations

I don’t have favorite colors, I have favorite color combinations. My theory is that there are no bad colors, only bad color contexts, and occasionally wonderful ones. China blue and chocolate, gray and gold, tomato red and avocado greens (inside and out), violet and copper, cerulean and spring green: all have entranced me at different times.

The challenge of wearing only red shoes makes dressing a little more fun, and gives me the opportunity to indulge some unorthodox color combinations.

Red shoes keep me out of trouble…

…In shoe stores, that is. There are many delightful shoes, but most of them are not red. This protects my pocketbook. It also keeps me focused when a particular shoe need arises (flats suitable for work, for example).

Highlights from my closet:

line of red shoes

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Yellow Houseplant Mushrooms (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii)

These appeared in one of my mother’s flower pots a day after we had our first rain in months. They grew rapidly.
 

Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, a common mushroom

Post-storm yellow mushrooms | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, day 2

common name Yellow Houseplant Mushroom
domain Eukaryota
kingdom Fungi
phylum Basidiomycota
class Agaricomycetes
order Agaricales
family Agaricaceae
genus Leucocoprinus
species birnbaumii
location Central Texas
IUCN status Not tracked
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Early morning local fauna

Seen on the stoop early this morning.

We used to have Mediterranean Geckos all around the house. Since moving back I rarely see them, but I do see this Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus) regularly.
Texas Spiny Lizard on our front porch

Agelenopsis (species uncertain), a.k.a. a Grass Spider. He’s lost a leg, possibly to one of the resident lizards. He’s fairly large; his body is about an inch long.
Grass spider

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Why Google+ works (UXtraordinary blog preview)

Excerpt from UXtraordinary:

I am thrilled to see Andy Herzfeld’s social circles concept implemented so beautifully in Google+. My semi-educated guess is that empowering users to define access to themselves according to their own purposes and needs—in context—will build engagement and strong loyalty. Why? Because it comes naturally.

Too many social media-based sites, including many social networks, provide only lip service to how users think about groups, let alone user privacy empowerment. A user is seen as one of their members, and the business creates a mental model in which the user is the center of a series of widening circles. “Empowerment” of user content privacy is typically limited to enabling permissions control within those circles.

Users don’t see themselves that way. People think of sharing information in terms of a constantly changing algorithm of need, purpose, and ability. We trust some friends more closely than others; we have acquaintances who know a great deal about us whom we barely know. It’s my belief that these clashing mental models are one of the primary reasons social media and social networks fail to engage.

Mental models of user grouping
Read more
.

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Last of the Seattle photos finally uploaded

I’ve been putting them off with a million reasons: getting a new job, still unpacking, visiting my mother (whom I only saw once the past three years), etc. But now I have a great job*, and the unpacking has slowed a little since the house is now habitable.

Highlights:
Robin Redbreast

Crows through back door

Maple seed close-up

Rose

Rhodedendron in rain

Spotted towhee takes flight


*Update: the “great job” ended up not happening. Chickens, unhatched, counted…

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Field guide entry, Alex O’Neal

Taxonomy

genus, species: Homo sapiens*     family: Hominidae     order: Primates     class: Mammalia     phylum: Chordata     kingdom: Animalia

Shape

identification aide for field guide entry, Alex O'Neal

Field marks

  • Brown-black hair; occasionally red
  • Red shoes (shade varies, but color is constant)
  • Backpack, laptop, books

Description

IUCN Status: Least concern.

Alex can be seen in the wild in the Austin area, working on her laptop to optimize user experience wherever she can. Occasionally she leaves off work to forage for books or good food, or play with her dog.

Alex shares den space with her philosopher husband and various members of species Canis lupus familiaris and Felis catus.

Range

Green areas are previous or existing habitats; dark teal areas are Alex’s known range.

Range, habitat for Alex O'Neal

Welcome to the alexfiles, the personal site of Alex O’Neal (that’s me!). I’m a user experience architect, with expertise in information architecture and usability, SEO (search) and semantic design, front-end web development, taxonomies (a hobby since 1988), cognitive science, and of course visual information design. Here you will find essays, artwork, poetry, jewelry, reviews, photographs, Freudian dream interpretation, local fauna, and much more.

Since 1999, alexfiles.com has been my primary channel for online self-expression, but there are other places I contribute or participate regularly. Some include:


*Species definition sapiens occasionally in question.

image

Now that I’m no longer with Memory Lane/Classmates, I no longer have photo opportunities on my bus commute, over Elliott Bay, etc. I’ve finally uploaded the last of those to Flickr. Here are some highlights:

Crow attacks Bald Eagle, from my window at work:
Eagle, seagull, crow

Canada Geese, from my window at work:
Canada geese

Seagull, head-on, from the bus:
Seagull, head-on

Seagull on train, from my window at work:
Seagull on train, take two

My old cube. When we moved I went from an office to a cube, but this view, and the neighborhood, was a complete joy.
My old cube

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Social terminology

When you’re in a business, the jargon is like the air—you just don’t notice it. Then you listen to people outside your field using the same terms, and suddenly you see, yes, that can be confusing.

Recently someone asked, on a fairly tech-savvy mailing list I participate in, how best to describe social networking in a nutshell. I realized that I see a lot of confusion at times about this (in general, not on the above list), possibly because of how terms like social network and social media overlap. So I offered the following, which I thought I’d share here:

  • Social media is the set of communication features (sharing, reviewing, blogging, message boards, comments, etc.) used by many sites. For example, Amazon is not a social network, but helped popularize using social media to improve both user experience and the business.
  • Social network (noun) refers to a site dedicated to social purposes. It can also refer to a personal social network. A social network site’s social media features don’t merely supplement or enhance its business, they are the business.
  • Social networking (gerund) is the process of developing a social network, typically a personal one.
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How not to be overwhelmed by data

When dealing with vast amounts of data, how to prioritize it? Lois Beckett reports this approach, from John O’Neil, curator of the New York Times’ topic pages:

The most pressing criterion for what gets updated first, O’Neil said, is whether “we would feel stupid not having it there.”

Guess that’s as good a standard as any ;–)


Beckett, Lois (23 Feb. 2011). The context-based news cycle: editor John O’Neil on the future of The New York Times’ Topics Pages, Neiman Journalism Lab, Harvard.

video

Stephen Fry makes a beautifully expressed plea for language lovers to share the love, not the pedantry. Matt Rogers tosses in some animated typographic eye candy.

Enjoy!

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Dear Law & Order:UK composer,

Mr. Zimmer’s and Ms. Gerrard’s attorneys would like to speak to you regarding your use of the Gladiator theme.

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Singing like a bird…

“Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it;
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”

Black-headed grosbeak

Cole Porter was wiser than he knew. Insofar as love songs and “territorial” songs are concerned, we do as the birds do. From The Scientist’s “Behavior Brief:”

Courtship songs of chestnut-sided warblers appear relatively stable over evolutionary time compared to those used for territorial displays, which have changed considerably over the course of two decades, researchers found, suggesting the presence of two distinct traditions in song bird “culture.”

Isn’t that the case with humans as well as birds? While each generation contributes its own songs to the ouevre, certain love songs continue to appeal decades and even centuries after composition: Someone to Watch Over Me, I’ll Be Seeing You, and of course the evergreen Greensleeves all have strong followings beyond their generations, from people born long after they showed on the scene.

In contrast, highly specific genre songs which help define cultural “territories” such as metal, punk, gangsta rap, indie, bluegrass, and others, frequently hold less appeal over time, even within the groups in question. Perhaps simple, cross-genre love songs are more likely to have lasting appeal simply because the audience is larger – but perhaps that’s because they engage on a more universal level.

P.S. On a related note, we should probably all stop using bird-brained as a derogatory term.

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About those Facebook messages…

Discover Magazine shared the basics of Facebook’s new messaging service. The highlights:

  • Everything, from texting to email to IM to Facebook posts, is served in one large thread.
  • Everything is saved. Mark Zuckerberg is reported as saying, “Five years from now, a user can have this full rich history with your friends and the users around you.”
  • Extremely large attachments and storage are allowed.
  • Microsoft is pairing up to allow document viewing of a variety of file types.
  • Facebook will prioritize your content, based on your social network and other indicators.
  • The data is Facebook’s as well as yours—content will be used to guide personalized advertising, etc.

I don’t see why what I currently do – forward everything to Gmail and label it as flexibly as I want – isn’t just as good. This allows me to:

  • Track things as far back as 15 Nov. 2004, when I started Gmail. I certainly don’t mind not having Facebook posts captured in it—there’s too much spam there already—but I do have notifications in Gmail, with content, from a variety of sites I use to communicate with friends, colleagues, etc. Personally, I dislike the One Giant Thread approach, possibly because it diminishes my enjoyment of a thing by distracting me.
  • Allow Google to prioritize email
  • Receive targeted advertising according to my content, which I don’t thrill to—but it’s certainly not original to Facebook.
  • Allow me to save extremely large files.
  • View a broad variety of files in the integrated Google docs.

It seems none of this is new, and that using Facebook, I’d be starting from scratch re: richness of content, content taxonomy, etc. Why on earth would I switch?

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Rand Paul, keeping the customer happy

Rand Paul, speaking to Wolf Blitzer (emphasis mine):

Well, the thing is, we’re all interconnected. There are no rich. There are no middle class. There are no poor. We all are interconnected in the economy. You remember a few years ago, when they tried to tax the yachts, that didn’t work. You know who lost their jobs? The people making the boats, the guys making 50,000 and 60,000 dollars a year lost their jobs. We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people. So just punishing rich people is as bad for the economy as punishing anyone. Let’s not punish anyone. Let’s keep taxes low and let’s cut spending.

What I’d like to know is, for which rich people does Rand Paul work, and to which ones is he selling? Personally, I like my Congressional representatives not to sell, but to legislate.


P.S. My husband offers the following:

  • Does Rand Paul seriously believe the entire economy should be in service of the rich?
  • Taxation is not punishment. It’s how we get things (like the military, police departments, and roads) done.
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NYT asks Stewart, “Don’t shoot the messenger!”

The New York Times decided to take the bull by the horns, and tackle Jon Stewart’s accusations of poor reporting by the media. Unfortunately, David Carr’s Rally to Shift the Blame comes off as a poorly argued, disingenuous attempt to separate the media from the message.

Carr writes, “[Stewart's] barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers.” What Carr should know—and if he doesn’t, why is he writing for the New York Times?—is that the medium is the message. (Surely Carr has heard of Marshall McLuhan?) What the media sends out is the message we get, whether through the television, the internet, the radio, or paper.

Here’s Carr’s first attempt to make the distinction of message vs. messenger:

It was a beautiful day on the Mall, and who doesn’t like kicking the press around, but speaking of ants, media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution—not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court —seems to be above petty partisan bickering. Mr. Stewart couldn’t really go there and instead suggested it was those guys over there in the press tent who had the blood of democracy on their hands.

The problem is that Stewart never said the press was responsible for unemployment, war, or hatred. What Stewart said is that the press makes it very difficult to effect change in any of these areas, because it’s driven by ratings. From the speech Carr complains about:

We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour, politico-pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder.

Stewart is absolutely right. I don’t see Tea Party rallies in person, I see what the news channels share of them; I don’t see the administration’s press conferences in full, I see what the reporters and cameras share of them. When politicians make claims, I don’t see investigation into whether the claims are credible; I see “he said, she said” coverage of claims that, if true, must come from alternate universes, since they’re radically incompatible with a shared reality.

The heart of the Stewart/Colbert message

What many media commentators, Carr among them, seem to have forgotten is that the very structure and content of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is to provide satire and critique of the media. Sure, it’s comedy, but it’s the comedy of the court jester, mixing hard truth with silliness. Truth is relatively easy to say in comedy, and relatively hard to say in the 24/7 news cycle.  That’s probably why news coverage quality has devolved into its current state. (What does the media at large think inspired Colbert to coin “truthiness” as a word, and why do they think so many people immediately appropriated it?)

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are highly aware that the medium is the message, and equally aware of what drives media coverage. This rally was an attempt to expand coverage of their message by creating an event the news media could not ignore. That media might not understand their message or represent it as clearly as Stewart and Colbert would like. Still, those of us tired of seeing the media allow itself to be used by people, parties, and corporations they should be holding in check, were pleased to see that same media forced to cover an event calling them on it.

It’s all cable TV

Carr also argued against Stewart’s observation that, “We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV.” Somewhat disingenuously, Carr responded:

But here’s the problem: Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him.

I call this disingenuous because since everything went digital—since broadcast news ceased to be aired and had to be obtained via cable companies—it’s all cable TV. If it’s not, it’s online, (frequently obtained through cable companies as well), and is driven by either TV channels, stations, or online “newspapers.” And more people than ever are watching the news one way or another, according to the Pew Research Center.

There are many more ways to get the news these days, and as a consequence Americans are spending more time with the news than over much of the past decade. Digital platforms are playing a larger role in news consumption, and they seem to be more than making up for modest declines in the audience for traditional platforms. As a result, the average time Americans spend with the news on a given day is as high as it was in the mid-1990s, when audiences for traditional news sources were much larger.

…The net impact of digital platforms supplementing traditional sources is that Americans are spending more time with the news than was the case a decade ago. As was the case in 2000, people now say they spend 57 minutes on average getting the news from TV, radio or newspapers on a given day. But today, they also spend an additional 13 minutes getting news online, increasing the total time spent with the news to 70 minutes. This is one of the highest totals on this measure since the mid-1990s and it does not take into account time spent getting news on cell phones or other digital devices.*

I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

The media should take responsibility

That same Pew report noted that, “About eight-in-ten (82%) say they see at least some bias in news coverage; by a 43%-to-23% margin, more say it is a liberal than a conservative bias.” Jon Stewart isn’t the only one to see skewed coverage, he just had a larger platform to speak out about it. It’s not bias that’s the problem, though, it’s the choice of what’s covered, the style of presentation, the lack of critical evaluation of the data being presented.

Sure, we like seeing conflict and meltdowns. It’s sad but true that it’s more exciting to see someone rudely yell “You lie!” at the President, than to learn whether it was or was not a lie. Whatever side you’re on, you’re more easily engaged by the strong emotions of outrage or support. But shouldn’t at least as much coverage as the video clip be provided about the truth behind the furor? It shouldn’t be necessary to dig deeply online while watching the news to discover the truth behind the news. If it’s not informing us, it’s less news and more entertainment.

My personal plea to the news media: We are fully capable of being engaged and enlightened at the same time. Please, don’t turn a necessary critique into another conflict. Help us be the educated populace we need to be to defend ourselves against those with more power and bigger pockets.


* The increased attention to news is good for the New York Times web site. From the Pew Research Center: “This year, 17% of Americans say they read something on a newspaper’s website yesterday, up from 13% in 2008 and 9% in 2006.”

References

12 September 2010. Americans Spending More Time Following the News, Pew Research Center. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1725/where-people-get-news-print-online-readership-cable-news-viewers

Carr, David, 31 October 2010. Rally to Shift the Blame, The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/01/business/media/01carr.html