Category Archives: etc

Affirmations for the free software developer

A friend recently came to me to express some frustration. He’s the leader of a relatively new free software project, and was having his first run-in with a user who was making extensive, arguably unreasonable support demands, in a tone that was increasingly hostile. If you’ve ever contributed to a public project, you have probably had similar experiences.

I responded to him with the following words of “wisdom”. Nothing terribly original here, but I have to remind myself of these points on a regular basis.

  • For every one user who engages with you in an unpleasant way, there are 10 users who provide feedback and request support in a friendly and reasonable manner, and 100 people who are using the software happily and asking for nothing.
  • People only bother to complain about something if they care about it.
  • Obviously, you want to be fair and kind to people who come to you for help. But your capacity to give a shit is like currency: it exists in finite quantities. It’s better to spend it on something that’ll provide positive good in the world, than to dump it into a bottomless pit.

Brooklyn is for runners

I lived in Brooklyn when I started running in my mid-twenties. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was spoiled.

I never really enjoyed running for its own sake. I did it because my then-girlfriend (now-wife) was a serious runner, and because I wanted to continue to eat and drink as I pleased without risking my girlish figure. I managed to tolerate running thanks only to my Brooklyn backdrop. Over the course of about five years, I ran some 5,000 miles on Brooklyn’s streets. It was my way of learning the grid. From Williamsburg, I got to know Greenpoint, Bushwick, Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights; from Park Slope, it was Windsor Terrace and Kensington and Sunset Park and Bay Ridge; from Carroll Gardens, it was Red Hook and DUMBO and the waterfront. I have a decent mental map of maybe a third of Brooklyn’s seventy square miles, thanks to these here legs.

So I came to think of myself as an “urban runner”. Pounding the pavement was my way of getting to know my surroundings, and soaking up the city was my way of coping with running.

Then I moved to Queens, and everything changed. I’m not talking about Whitestone or Hollis or Rockaway or some other deep-Queens neighborhood. I lived in Ridgewood, about five blocks from the border with Brooklyn. But it was a totally different world. The car-to-pedestrian ratio was out of whack, which resulted in a totally different relationship between drivers and non-drivers. Instead of grumbling deference, I came to expect outright hostility from cars. I can’t count the number of times a driver sped up – or ran a stop sign – to beat me through an intersection. I even got hit once (albeit slowly), even after having made eye contact with the driver.

To make matters worse, Queens (or at least my portion of it) was boring. The semi-suburban neighborhoods bleed together in my mind: Glendale, Elmhurst, Woodside, Maspeth, Middle Village, Forest Park, Woodhaven. I know Queens is a (ethnically, linguistically, culinarily…) diverse place, but I could take or leave the bafflingly numbered streets/avenues/lanes/courts and single-family houses.

I moved to Manhattan a few months ago, where I hoped to recapture my love of urban running. It hasn’t gone well. Too many cars, too many people, too many stoplights, too much street construction. Dodging walkers on the sidewalk isn’t fun for me, and it isn’t fun for the people being dodged. Central Park is very nice, but I’m bored with it already.

In retrospect, Brooklyn is the perfect balance for the urban runner. It’s dense enough to be interesting. Neighboring neighborhoods contrast sharply with each other. Cars – at least in the northern and eastern parts of the borough – are few enough (and deferent enough) to make it safe to share the streets. I miss it.

If you are a runner living in Brooklyn, fight the urge to stick to the well-trodden paths. I too love Prospect Park, and the Belt Parkway Promenade, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. But you should be out on the streets, because there’s no better place to run.

Book purge

About six months ago, I began to get rid of my books.

I’ve grown to dislike owning books. They’re heavy, take up a lot of space, and are generally pretty ugly. So many are phantoms of former lives, stirring up icky feelings – guilt, remorse, disgust – every time their spines catch my eye. I have a strong distaste for many of my old academic philosophy books in particular, but at the same time I feel guilty that, however lousy I might think they are, they’re sitting unread on my shelf when they might be of use to someone else. (It’s odd that the people who fetishize books the most are those most likely to hold them hostage.)

It’s not that I’m reading less. I’m a regular at my library. I occasionally read e-books (though I don’t care for them). I still even buy books. It just seems weird to keep them. The only copies worth keeping are those with sentimental value and those that I’ll read over and over again. This covers about 1% of the books on my shelf. The rest? Off they go.

I considered a bulk donation to charity. But this wasn’t enough of a Project, so I put them on Amazon instead. As others have noted, many books are not worth much. Between time spent listing, time spent packing, time spent at the post office, money spent on envelopes and tape, and Amazon’s fees (which have a floor and thus are particularly hefty for very cheap items) it’s often hard to break even on a sale – and that’s not even counting what I originally paid for the book! I’ve sold about 100 books to date, clearing around $600. Obviously I’m not getting rich. It’s a good thing I’m not doing it for the money.

The best part about selling the items individually is that each sale is like a little going-away party (or funeral, depending on the book). Amazon sends an email – “You’ve sold an item!”. I track down the title on my for-sale shelf, give it a last once-over, pick out any old bookmarks. I make up little stories about the buyer, based on her name and address, making comments to myself along the lines of “Reading Quine? My condolences”. I stand in line at the post office, so that I can send via Book Rate. I enter the total earned into my fancy spreadsheet. It’s a ritual that gives me a chance to reflect on the book one last time before sending it to a better place. I like it.

As the shelves grow barer, I walk a little taller. It’s nice.


Another installment in my year-end reflections.

In my 2012 post, I laid out a couple of things to think about during the upcoming year. I feel like I did a pretty decent job with at least one of them: turning off. This summer, my family and I rented a cottage and vegged out for a month and a half. I intended it to be a semi-working vacation, but it ended up being a barely-working vacation, and it was awesome. I also made some changes in the second half of the year that made me more mindful of getting sucked into work while on the go: I stopped using email on my phone, I got myself an OFF Pocket, and I’ve generally stopped carrying my phone so much. I started riding bike for fun around the city, and got back into a decent running routine (about 800 miles on the year). So, I feel like things are a bit more relaxed than a year ago.

Work-wise, I haven’t branched out as much as I’d hoped. I’ve got a few big deadlines in the next month or so, after which I plan to come up with an interesting project or two to shake out some of the cobwebs. If anyone is planning to do something really cool, let me know 😀

I continue to feel less and less connected to my old academic self. This is something I don’t talk about much, either online or in person, though I was recently persuaded by a friend that others might benefit from hearing about it. In the upcoming year, I hope to write more about this issue and other more varied topics than what I allowed myself in 2013.

Out with the old. Happy new year!

Where is the artisan bagel movement in NYC?

Moving to New York, I was excited about two things: pizza and bagels.

Pizza did not disappoint. NYC’s pizza landscape is rich, and has become richer over the last decade. There are overlapping ecosystems for dollar slice joints, traditional slice joints, and hybrid slice/Italian food joints. There’s a stratum of old school NY pizza restaurants: Totonno’s, Arturo’s, Sam’s, etc, as well as the newer places that aspire to a similar aesthetic. And there’s whole class of artisinal, neo-Neopolitan places, where foodies shell out big bucks for bufala. You could eat pizza every day and never hit every place.

The bagel landscape is perhaps equally complex. But it’s bottom-heavy in comparison to pizza. You’ve got the guys in the silver street carts who sell bagels pre-filled with a slice of cream cheese wrapped in wax paper. There’s the bullshit bakery chains, the Panara-Dunkin-ecticut-n-crustys where bagels are an afterthought to other baked goods. And then there are the mainstays, the neighborhood bagel shops. Like neighborhood slice joints, the quality of this category varies widely, from shoulda-had-a-Lenders to the Bagel Hole (the only really outstanding bagel I’ve ever had, in NY or elsewhere).

But where are the artisan bagels? Dom Demarco has people lining up for $5 slices at Di Fara. There’s gotta be a similar market for someone to sell outstanding bagels – small, properly boiled, without preservatives – even if they charge a premium for them. I get that it’s not glamorous: stirring a pot full of boiling bageloids in a dingy kitchen doesn’t have the sex appeal of wielding a peel in candlelit Lucali. And I get that bagel-place-as-destination is hard to fit into the geography and the late-night culture of New York. At the same time, a great bagel can be just as fantastic as a great slice, and IMHO is just as important a part of NY food culture. Where are the hipsters lining up to continue this particular foodways tradition?

Maybe I’m way off here, and there is actually a bagel subculture in NYC that I’ve never stumbled on. I hope someone’ll clue me in.

How to pronounce ‘Gorges’

I grew up in a town of about 5,000 in northeastern Wisconsin. Of those 5,000, probably 200 had the last name ‘Gorges’. People with the name had been in the immediate area since the 1850s, when my great-great-great grandfather Gorges migrated with his family from Pomerania. As a child, I took for granted that it was a “normal” name, and that everyone knew how to pronounce it.

When I was in ninth grade, my family moved. Our new home was just 25 miles from the old one. But few in our new town knew anyone with the name ‘Gorges’, and no one knew how to pronounce it. We quickly adopted a modified pronunciation of ‘Gorges’, one that was meant to better match the way it was spelled (GORE-guess). The improvement was marginal. Preemptive spelling became a coping technique. When asked for my family name, I would (and still do) often omit the pronunciation altogether and skip straight to G-O-R-G-E-S.

As an adult – living far from the epicenters of Gorgesdom – I started to think more critically about the whole situation. Years of experience had shown that any pronunciation, however modified, was going to require a follow-up spelling. That meant that, in exchange for a pronunciation that never felt natural, I wasn’t getting any practical benefit. As a teenager, I’d switched because my family had switched. But my family is far away now. And if there’s any one normative fact about the world that an individual ought to be able to dictate by fiat, surely it’s the “correct” way to pronounce his name.

So I went back to my native pronunciation, which my wife and son use as well. Which is different from the (modified) pronunciation still used by my father and (I’m pretty sure) by my younger siblings. It’s an odd state of affairs.

On balance, I’m actually a pretty big fan of having an unusual last name. The “gorgeous” pun is a dynamite icebreaker, especially for someone as good-looking as me. (See?) Some people are quite particular about the way others say their names (which is within their rights), but I long ago learned not to care very much, to the point that I’ve never offered corrections even to some fairly good friends. This nonchalance is like tossing off a burden I’ve carried since I was a kid. And – bonus – my usernames are never taken.

[For the record: two hard Gs. GRR-ghiss.]

Who works for the NSA?

With every awful new revelation about the NSA, I ask myself: Who works there? It must take many thousands of very smart technicians to break the internet: mathematicians, computer scientists, hackers. Who are these people, and why do they decide to do what they do?

Are they in it for the money?

Is the work really that interesting?

Are they the kinds of people who’d be cracking illegally anyway, and the NSA gives them some legitimacy?

Do they imagine themselves engaged in some kind of noble pursuit, protecting the world from wrongdoers?

I’m continually perplexed that so many people, who presumably could be making much more money doing work that is more visible and less creepy, choose this path.

No email, no cry

In the spirit of a recent post by my friend Evan Solomon, I thought I’d write briefly about a decision I made this summer: No more email on my mobile devices. A few months ago, I removed the Email shortcut from my home screen; today, I switched to a new phone, and I don’t plan to configure the email app at all.

The reasoning behind this decision is similar to Evan’s. Very rarely do I get an email whose subject is truly urgent, in the sense that it requires immediate action. Those few that I do receive are almost always related to work – someone’s production site has gone down, say. But, in nearly all cases, it’s a problem I can only solve if I’m at a regular computer. And if I’m using my phone, it’s likely that I’m not currently at a computer, and I probably can’t be at one immediately. So there’s little to be gained from getting the message while I’m on the go. Urgent messages that are not work-related – such as family emergencies – wouldn’t come through email anyway, so I’m not missing anything in that case either.

Like Evan, I find myself able to concentrate better on the people around me when I’m not thinking about the device in my pocket. This is doubly true because of the nature of the non-urgent email I usually get. Many emails are bug reports, and reading about bug reports when I’m not in a position to do anything about them is both highly distracting (mental debugging!) and usually frustrating. Some emails are requests: for favors, for work proposals, etc. This kind of email too is distracting in an unpleasant way, as I find myself silently drafting a response on the spot. Even the few emails I receive that are genuinely pleasant take me out of the moment, and again, don’t really admit of a proper response while I’m on the go (I refuse to write anything longer than a text or a tweet on a phone).

Weaning myself from the mother’s milk of mobile mail was a quick and painless process. A day or two in, and already I could see that I was more engaged with the things around me. When I’m at the playground with my kid, I’m paying attention to him. When I’m on the train, I’m reading a book. And when I’m standing in line or in some other kind of situation where email typically fills the void, I’m often just feeling bored. And feeling bored is a very welcome change from a head clouded by frustration and software bugs.

So, think about it. What value do you get from reading email on your phone? And what does it cost?

Grilling pizza for fun and leftover disposal

This summer, my family and I rented a lake house for a few weeks. We were excited to have a grill, and at first, we took serious advantage: burgers, chicken, kebobs, barbecue, etc. But we soon ran up against two problems: meat fatigue and a fridge full of leftovers. Between the two of us, my wife and I have a number of standby techniques for disposing of miscellaneous leftovers, but most (like frittatas and stir fry) require making the house even hotter with a hot stove.

Pizza to the rescue! We got the idea early in our trip to try making pizza on the grill. It turned out so well that we ended up doing it a number of times. Not only was it a good way to get rid of just about any grilled leftovers, but it was legitimately good pizza in its own right – even when some of the ingredients we used were kinda cheap.

Arriving at the best technique was the biggest challenge. I’ve described the process below. We had a propane grill, which was helpful for heat control, but you could do it with charcoal and it’d probably taste better.

Get a dough – We got our doughs from the local pizza joint. You could make it yourself, but it’s a pain to make pizza dough, and so cheap to buy it. I’ve bought doughs from at least a half dozen pizzerias, and I’ve never paid more than $4 for a large one. As long as it’s a non-chain joint that does reasonable business, you know the dough will be fresh, and prepared with more expertise than if you’d done it yourself. (Some grocery stores sell pizza doughs. I’ve never bought one, so I can’t vouch – but I have noticed that they’re generally pretty small. Also, you can buy premade crusts, but is lame, as it takes away the biggest advantage of the grill, namely that it gets hot enough to cook a crust properly.)


Get a large dough from a local pizzeria. Price: $2-4.

Get the rest of your ingredients – You’ll need:

  • Sauce – We used cheap jarred sauce. Plain crushed tomatoes would probably be even better. Once we made a pie with leftover pulled pork, and I used a thin layer of barbecue sauce instead.
  • Cheese – We had our best results with Polly-O mozzarella, either grated large or cut into very thin strips/slices. The pre-shredded stuff is a big question mark – could be fine, but could be pretty dry (that is, too dry – good pizza cheese should be a bit dried). You can use another cheese as an accent, like a bit of goat cheese.
  • Toppings – Whatever you have laying around. Once we made something pretty fancy (some chi-chi salami), but usually it was whatever meat and veggies we’d grilled the day before. If it’s a bit limp after sitting in the fridge, give it a quick sautĂ© before using. Fresh herbs are nice too.
  • Oil – We used olive oil at a couple different points in the process, as described below.

Get your mise en place together – I’m typically cavalier about getting stuff in place before cooking, but with grilled pizza it’s crucial. The steps below can be fast and furious, and you won’t have time to stumble drunkenly to the fridge to get ingredients.

Mise en place

Get it together. High Life optional but recommended

Preheat, clean, and oil the grill – Turn it up as high as it goes. The reason why you’re able to make decent pizza on the grill, but not in your oven, is because the grill gets a few hundred degrees hotter. Give it at least 15 minutes to get blazing hot (or more, depending on how your grill works). Make sure it’s clean and well-oiled, or your crust will stick and break.

Stretch the dough – There are lots of ways to turn a ball of dough into something resembling a pizza. My preferred technique is to stretch it to a disc, then hold it vertically by the edge, letting the dough fall downward while stretching the cornicione a little bit. Keep turning and stretching, allowing gravity do most of the work but helping to keep a pretty uniform thickness. Basically, make the crust as big and thin as you can without breaking and without being too big for your grill.

Almost ready to flip

Almost ready to flip

First grilling – It’s time to give a quick sear to what will end up being the top of the pizza. Lay the stretched dough on the grill. (It’s flexible, so now’s the time to make that circularish dough into a rectangularish shape, if that’s how your grill is shaped.) Brush the exposed side of the dough with olive oil. Then close the lid. Let it cook for maybe a minute, then check the upskirt. Once it’s charred to your liking, turn the burners all the way down – this’ll be important in a second. Use a big long spatula to make sure the whole crust is loose from the grill, and then use that same spatula (along with some tongs, or your hands) to flip the crust over.


Upskirt (that’s a technical term)



Top the pizza – You’ve turned the burners way down, but the grates are still very hot. You’ll want to top the pizza as quickly as possible, so you can get the lid closed and the cheese melted before the bottom has a chance to burn. Brush the pie with oil. Then sauce and cheese – if you put the cheese down first, it melts a little better, but it’s harder to then spread the sauce, so experiment to your liking. Then the toppings. It’s helpful to have two people working here, one doing the oil, the other following right behind with sauce, and so on.


Topped and ready for the second cooking

Let it cook – Close the lid and crank the heat up all the way again. Because the grill cooled a lot while you had it open to flip and top (when the heat was turned down), this second cooking will take a bit longer than the first. Check the pizza after two or three minutes. You’re looking for two things: the cheese should be adequately melted, and the bottom of the crust should look adequately done. If it seems like the crust is cooking too fast, turn down the heat.



Remove and dress – Get a platter, and use your big spatula to get the pizza off of the grill. Depending on size and thickness of crust, it should be pretty firm and easy to handle. This is when I like to dress with basil and a drizzling of oil. Some Parmasean or Romano cheese would also be good.

Here are a few of the pies we made over the course of our stay:

Unless you’ve got a special oven made for cooking pizza in your kitchen, the technique described above is likely to get you the best home-cooked pizza you can make. It’s a cheap and delicious way to put leftovers to good use. Hop to it, before grilling season is over!