Ben Crowder

Archive: December 2009

Simple Markdown tables

As I’ve started using Markdown more, I’m wishing the table syntax were cleaner. I once used a wiki (I wish I could remember which one) that had this syntax:

| Date | Description |
| 12.21.09 | Finished transcribing the November documents |

Which produced a table that looked like this:

DateDescription
12.21.09Finished transcribing the November documents

Super simple. It assumes that if you have more than one row, your first row is a header row. Compare that to the HTML I’d have to write instead:

<table>
    <thead>
        <tr>
            <th>Date</th>
            <th>Description</th>
        </tr>
    </thead>
    <tbody>
        <tr>
            <td>12.21.09</td>
            <td>Finished transcribing the November documents</td>
        </tr>
    </tbody>
</table>

Sure, you couldn’t do much more than this with it — no control over alignment, no possibility for complex setups — but it was enough. Being easy to write goes a long way. (And again, if you need more control, you can always revert to HTML.)

Now look at PHP Markdown Extra’s syntax:

Date     | Description

Creativity triggers

When it comes to creativity, I tend to blow to and fro with each new interesting wind that comes my way. For example:

Exhibit A: If I read a book on writing, read a novel, or watch a well-written movie or TV show, I want to write.

Exhibit B: If I respond to a single email about my magazine or flip through a back issue, I want to work on the magazine.

Exhibit C: If I watch a well-made animated film or clip, I want to make an animated film.

Exhibit D: If I read about good business principles that resonate with me, I want to start a side business.

Concrete case in point: Yesterday morning I got an email about my magazine. (One of our volunteers suggested a possible interviewee.) I replied. Suddenly I was interested in working on the magazine again, and I ended up spending a couple hours coding this administrative web app I’ve been working on (er, more honestly, the web app I’ve been procrastinating for weeks).

Second concrete case in point: I picked up this 20 Master Plots book my old roommate Joe gave me and flipped through a few pages, and suddenly I found myself craving to work on my novel Tanglewood. (Tangent: can you put a verb after “crave” or does it only work with nouns? Hmm.) (Okay, I’m back. Doesn’t look like you’re allowed to use it with an infinitive after all, but heck, I like the way it sounds, so I’m going to keep it.)

And the list goes on. It’s almost uncanny how reliable this system is — works pretty much every time without fail. And I think that’s the source of my wanting to do everything. Influences push and pull on me, and when they’re intriguing, I’m hooked. (At least for ten or fifteen minutes, I should add. If I don’t act upon that newfound interest, it usually wanes quickly. And this keeps me sane.)

Is it good? Yes and no.

The good: These triggers (motivators, catalyzers, whatever you want to call them) work really well, which means I can harness them to direct my creative energy. When I know I need to work on the magazine, all I have to do is make myself reply to one email and from then on it’s easy. I haven’t yet figured out how to harness them, but I’m working on it. Triggers are also good because they generate passion, which gets things done and makes life fulfilling and all that jazz.

The bad: I flit back and forth between projects, losing interest in the last one as soon as a new trigger pulls me in another direction. But I’m not sure this is actually bad; it keeps things varied enough to be interesting, and it doesn’t seem to have stopped me from getting stuff done. It just makes my experience broader instead of deeper, basically.

Triggers are especially handy in jumping the gap from zero to one:

Jumping the gap between 0 and 1 is tougher than 1 to 2, or 1 to 100. At that point, you’re building on something already there. It’s that initial jump where the urge to give into procrastination is strongest, where excuses can derail you easiest. We’re all creatives of one discipline or another, so creation (or rather, subcreation) is something we each deal with on a near daily basis. And, for the most part, it’s ex nihilo. A blank page or canvas is terrifying in its possibility and your inadequacy to fill it.

In other words, in getting from nothing to something. The something may be small, but it’s usually enough to get some momentum to move forward.

My current goal: figure out how to control these triggers so I can spend more time working on higher priority projects instead of sprawling myself all across the board.

My blogging tools

Here are the tools I use to blog. Be warned: they’re geeky. This is not for the faint of heart. ;)

Dropbox

Basic layout: in my Dropbox folder I have a blog folder with two subfolders, drafts and posted. Self-explanatory, I hope.

Each post starts as a stub text file in the drafts folder, using the post topic for the filename. If I have any ideas for the post, I’ll make a bulleted list in the file with those ideas.

Writing the post comes next. When I’m done, I post it and move it to the posted folder. I’ve thought about storing these drafts in WordPress itself, but I don’t write my posts in WordPress; I write them in Vim, and I don’t want to waste my life copying and pasting unnecessarily. I also like having my blog post drafts as plain text files in a filesystem — easy to backup and more open than being hidden away in a SQL database. And I can get to my blog posts from any of my computers, from my iPhone (using the Dropbox app), or from the web app.

I have to say that this setup (which is still fairly new to me) is a much easier way to keep track of blog post ideas. Instead of keeping a list of ideas (which is what I’ve been doing), I just make a new file in the drafts folder. Boom.

In fact, this organization system has rejuvenated my interest in blogging, oddly enough. It makes me want to blog.

Vim

While I’ve used many different writing tools (Bean, OmmWriter, WriteRoom, TextMate, Scrivener, etc.), I always come back to Vim. Most of the time I use MacVim, but I often use plain vanilla Vim on the terminal as well.

It’s fast. It’s free. I love it. The keyboard shortcuts make writing and revising so so so fast. I can work almost at the speed of thought. (Almost. :P) It really is a joy to use.

That said, there’s a steep learning curve and it is a very esoteric tool. Definitely not suited for everyone. But if you’ve got a geeky inclination and enjoy feeling a rush of pure power every time you open your text editor, try Vim. It’s bliss in bits.

Markdown

For years I’ve been writing my posts in HTML, but a few weeks ago I realized that I really ought to be using Markdown instead. (I’ve also been using Markdown for Glider, my lightweight wiki, and it’s been great.)

What’s Markdown? A simple markup language for writing for the web. For example:

HTML: <a href="http://google.com/">Google</a>
Markdown: [Google](http://google.com/)

HTML: The <i>quick</i> brown fox jumps over the <b>lazy</b> dog.
Markdown: The *quick* brown fox jumps over the **lazy** dog.

HTML: <h3>A header</h3>
Markdown: ### A header

Pretty much awesome. It’s so much easier to write using Markdown. (And I say this as one who practically dreams in HTML/CSS.)

I save my text files with a .text extension so I can easily add Markdown syntax highlighting in Vim (using the Markdown Vim mode). Here’s the relevant section of my .vimrc:

au! BufNewFile,BufRead *.text  set filetype=mkd
au BufNewFile,BufRead *.text   set ai formatoptions=tcroqn2 comments=n:&gt;

Note: Originally I was using .md for my extension, but I switched to .text because the Dropbox iPhone app couldn’t view .md files, nor could MobileSafari.

I’m using the WordPress plugin PHP Markdown Extra to let me write my posts in Markdown, by the way. Switching over required some slight reformatting on previous pages (where I was counting on WordPress breaking lines but Markdown didn’t, for example), but it wasn’t that bad.

Simplenote

I use Simplenote on my iPhone for jotting down post ideas when I’m away from my computer, and occasionally I use it for drafting posts. (I can then copy and paste the text from the Simplenote web app into a .text file in my Dropbox folder.)

I should add that I use Simplenote for other things all the time, several times a day. It’s awesome.

Also: I can’t wait until Simplenote integrates with Dropbox (which is coming next year, I hear).

Field Notes

When I’m feeling more analog-ish or don’t have my computer or phone handy, I draft blog posts in my Field Notes notebook and then type them up later. I love Field Notes.

WordPress

I use WordPress, hosted through Bluehost. And I love it. It’s beautiful and fits my needs, and I can easily theme it and extend it when necessary. (And the auto-update feature? Priceless.)

That said, I would like to eventually write my own CMS, something bare-bones like Jekyll. Will it happen? Probably not, since it would take a lot of time (both to implement and to migrate all my old posts and comments and images over) that I could better spend writing and designing. WordPress is a little bloated, but it’s not awful — I can definitely live with it.

Vimblog

Copying and pasting my blog drafts into WordPress is a slight pain, one that can easily be automated. Enter Vimblog, a Vim plugin I put together (based on the vim-blog code) to allow me to post from Vim. It’s a Python script that uses the MetaWeblog API to post the draft (and I should add that it puts the post in draft mode, so you can go in and add images and categories and such before you publish the post).

Also: to make things a little easier to write, Vimblog expects a blog post to take the following format:

My blogging tools

Here are the tools I use to blog. Be warned: they're geeky. This is not for the
faint of heart. ;)

### Dropbox

Basic layout...

The first line is the title, followed by a blank line and the rest of the blog post. Simple.

Could I extend the script so I could add categories and images and all that straight from the post? Sure. But WordPress’s tools are better suited for both of those tasks, so I’ve left it out.

Last words

I’m still trying to find better, faster, simpler, smoother ways to do this, so if you have feedback or ideas, leave a comment.

To do or not to do

I used to want to do everything. (Except skydiving. I’ve never really want to do that.) (Oh, or be a doctor.) (Or a lawyer.) (Uh-oh, my list of exceptions is getting too long. I need a new first sentence. ;))

So, I have lots of interests, and for the longest time I’ve been trying to figure out what I should focus on — what my life’s work would be. I’ve been crawling closer, but it wasn’t until recently that I narrowed it down to something doable.

In reading Jim Collins’ article Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List, this paragraph dinged my mind and set it abuzz:

Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

Right after that, he lists three questions with some follow-up kick:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What are you are genetically encoded for? What activities do you feel just “made to do”?
  3. What makes economic sense? What can you make a living at?

And that was the beginning of the epiphany. I started going through the things I do, examining each in turn.

Writing? I’m passionate about it, I seem to be made for it, and if I work hard enough at it, yes, I could make a living at it. Plus, I’ve been doing it all my life. I’m a man of books. I love reading. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy. I love sculpting words into sentences. Writing just fits me.

Design? I’m also passionate about it, I seem to be made for it, and I’m already making a living at it, both full-time (web design) and occasionally on the side (book design and graphic design). I love iterating through drafts until I get to a design that clicks and shines with beauty. Design is what I’ve spent most of my free time doing for the past five years, actually.

Art? I’m passionate about it, yes, but I don’t think I’m made for it. If I were, I’d have been drawing my heart out all these years, burning to make art. I get flickers of interest every once in a while, but it’s not consistent enough to make a career at it. (And I almost typed that as “flickrs”. Dang, Web 2.0, you’re getting to me.)

Music? I’m also passionate about it, but again, I’m not made for it. I play the piano from time to time for fun, and I’ve composed a number of pieces, but the even then, the last time I composed anything was around ten years ago. I’m not drawn to it enough to do it seriously.

Coding? I’m not as passionate about it, and I’m only partly made for it. I realized a while ago that most of the coding I’ll be doing in my life will be to make tools to assist the other parts of my life’s work. I don’t love it enough to make it the alpha dog.

There were other things I’d contemplated doing, but these were the main ones that had repeatedly risen to the surface.

And there it was: writing and design. It makes sense. It’s what I love. It’s what I spend my free time doing. It’s me. (And I realized that I’ve been calling myself “a writer and a designer” for the past few years. Apparently I’m nearsighted in more than one way. ;))

So, I’m going to stop worrying about getting great at art or music or coding. I’ll still do them, sure, but just for fun and relaxation. That’s the difference. Dabbling is now enough. This way I can focus on becoming a great writer and a great designer, without other things distracting me and pulling me away from my goal.

I’ve already felt like a burden has lifted, like I’m finally free to do what I was born to do, unfettered and focused. And it’s awesome.

New banner

Got my regular must-change-the-website-design itch but managed to limit myself to just the banner this time. :)

Went from this:

To this:

I think I’ll change the banner regularly from now on.

Update (12.22.09): I changed the banner again, along with the color on the headers:

How I met my wife

Today was the day my wife was supposed to go into the MTC. Let’s rewind.

End of June. I needed a new section editor for Mormon Artist. Annie, one of my other editors, recommended a certain Meridith Jackman.

Hmm, I thought. I’ll have to facebook her. Which I did, and this is what I saw:

mer

My first thought: “Cute.”

My second thought: “Dang, she really is cute.”

My third thought: “I must marry this girl.”

I jest. But I did think she was cute…and that was about it, actually, seeing as her profile was private. She was, however, friends with my sister and brother-in-law. “Hey, April,” I said in an email to my sister a few minutes later. “Tell me about Meridith Jackman.” She wrote back and said that Meridith was awesome and that “she always has a book in her hand.” I started salivating. “But she’s putting in her mission papers soon.”

Brief semi-related tangent: I had a history of getting interested in a girl and then finding out she was about to leave on a mission. It was getting old.

On the fourth of July, I got another email from Annie saying she’d run into Meridith at the hot air balloon shindig that morning and that Meridith was interested. (At this point I thought to myself, “She’s interested!” And then I realized that no, Annie meant Meridith was interested in the magazine, not me. Sigh. And yes, I may have had unrealistic expectations at this point. :P) The next day my brother-in-law gave me Meridith’s phone number even though I wanted to wait until Meridith herself gave it to me.

I procured Meridith’s email address, sent her a few (read: six or seven) emails about the magazine, and then added her as a friend on Facebook. The next morning I opened Gmail as soon as I opened my eyes and sure enough, there was a lovely little email sitting in my inbox saying that Meridith had confirmed it. It got better: there was a second email saying Meridith was now following me on Twitter as well.

Match made in heaven.

After I recovered from my wonderment, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking through Meridith’s Facebook profile. (I may or may not have been late to work that day.) Ordinarily I’d check out a girl’s profile and realize pretty quickly that she wasn’t my type. This time, however, the more I read and saw, the more excited I got — goosebumpy and all. And she had some awesome quotes on her profile from Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Oscar Wilde.

So I sent her a Facebook message lauding her taste in books and promptly spent the rest of the day checking my email every two minutes to see if she’d written back yet. Luckily she actually did write back later that afternoon, and it was good. I wasn’t going to reply until the next day, so that I wouldn’t look desperate, but my patience ran out faster than my resolve, so about 45 minutes later I shot off a reply.

That night I was, ahem, strolling through her Facebook pictures when I came across a picture of her and her roommates. Problem: she was at least a full head higher than all of them. And that meant she just might be taller than me, which was a bigger problem. (I’m shallow.) (Actually, I think lots of people are like this, so I guess I’m not shallow after all. ;)) I spent the next hour examining the backgrounds in her photos, trying to find something I could measure her height from. There was one with a refrigerator and another with a door; I triangulated her distance from each (in each picture) but then realized that not all doors and refrigerators are alike. Useless. So I called my sister and asked how tall Meridith was. Shorter than me, thankfully. Phew.

My plan was to wait till Meridith wrote back, and then I would message her again and ask if she wanted to do dinner sometime and could I please have her number. The next night, however, she still hadn’t written back, and my other sister and brother-in-law told me I needed to just man up and call Meridith. It was scary as heck, but boy am I glad I did it. (To prove that I was scared: just after I said, “Hi, this is Ben Crowder,” I said, “Just kidding — this is McDonald’s, can I take your order please?” No joke. I was watching myself say those words, all the while thinking, “Stooooooopppppppp!” But my mouth was a runaway train. Luckily I got it back on the tracks right after that embarrassing blurtation.)

Another tangent: whoa, this is getting longer than I intended, and I’m not even to the first date yet. Time to speed things up a bit.

Date #1: Picked up Panda Express, ate in the park, and watched West Side Story at the SCERA Shell outdoor. I wasn’t interested at first, but then during intermission Mer started about #followfriday on Twitter and XHTML Strict and I realized that I was in fact smitten. Yeah, I’m a geek. ;) “Oh, I’m putting in my mission papers,” she said. Bomb dropped. “Oh, I already know,” I replied. “I saw it on your Twitter feed.” Bomb defused…or so I thought. (And yes, it’s true — I had gone back and read everything she’d ever posted to Twitter, including some tweets where she’d mentioned doctor and dentist appointments for her mission preparations.)

That was Friday, July 10. On Monday, my birthday, I made an email address with her first name and my last name (what can I say — I’m an optimist :P) and asked her out on a second date. She said yes, somewhat to my surprise, lighting off a chain reaction of dating that exploded into matrimony.

Which isn’t to say that we had a smooth start. Meridith wasn’t actually interested until date #5. (But luckily she wasn’t repulsed, either. Yay for aftershave. :P) There were dozens of times where I made up my mind that “this date will be the last,” since I kept getting the vibe that she wasn’t interested. And yet I also kept getting the vibe that she was, and so I kept asking her out. Come date #5 (a walk through the Museum of Art) (a walk during which she touched my arm at least fifteen times, and oh yeah, that totally means interest as far as I’m concerned ;)), she realized I was in fact fun to be around, and life started to get really, really good.

By then we were going out every other day, and within a week and a half or so we’d upgraded to the every-single-day package. I sent her flowers. (First time sending a girl flowers, ever.) Flowers work wonders, gentlemen. It’s magic.

Enter a kink in the plans. Two kinks, actually. One morning on chat (we were chatting online all the time by now), I asked Meridith if she was just saying yes to our dates to be nice. No, she said, she enjoyed them…but that I should know that two other guys were also seriously pursuing her. Now, ordinarily this kind of news would have made me drop my hands in despair and walk away. Competition? Not my thing. But this time was different. I told Mer I wasn’t planning to go away anytime soon. “May the best man win,” I said. “And may the best man be me.” It was like I’d accidentally gotten some relationships steroids into my system or something. Whatever it was, it turned on the juice and I started wooing Meridith with everything I had. I wrote her a poem about how the other guy (the first one had dropped out of the running a few hours after Meridith told me about him, so it was just me and Mr. P) had moved on because Meridith was more interested in me. I sent more flowers. I emailed her digital paintings I’d done for her.

And to my surprise, it worked. Within a week she’d decided she wasn’t interested in Mr. P after all, which left little ol’ me. Just how I liked it.

But complete hunky-dory had not yet arrived. You see, she was still planning on serving that mission. Over the course of those first couple weeks she’d met with her bishop and stake president and submitted her papers, and pretty soon her call arrived: Philippines Cebu, entering the MTC on December 16. (Which is today.)

My first thought: December 16? That’s four whole months away. Plenty of time for her to change her mind.

Actually, that was my only thought. :)

The next day we officially became boyfriend and girlfriend, and over the next couple of weeks things got more serious. But we both knew that the Lord wanted her to serve a mission. Whenever we talked about her staying home, we both felt our souls splintering, but as soon as we accepted that she was in fact going to serve a mission, we felt good again. I started hoping it was an Abraham-and-Isaac sort of situation. And lucky for us, that’s what it was. :)

So, on August 22 she went through the temple (having received her mission call a few weeks earlier). I was there at her invitation, which was nice, because by this point we’d started talking marriage and had decided that it was just a matter of when, not if. I was willing to wait for her, I said, and I was. But eighteen months was looking like an awfully long time.

A day later we went to the Oquirrh Mountain Temple dedication. Just before it started, she turned to me and whispered, “How would you feel if I stayed home?” I had to pinch myself to make sure I hadn’t fallen asleep. Yep, I was still awake. “Um, I’d be fine with that,” I said. “Warning: I might marry you.” She smiled and whispered back, “I’d be fine with that.”

Why did it change? After all, the Spirit was clear that she needed to go, and then it was just as clear that she needed to stay home and marry me. My guess is that we both had to show the Lord we were willing to do things his way. Once we’d proven ourselves in that regard, then and only then were we able to get the prize. Maybe that’s it, maybe it’s not. All I know is that it was right, and as we sit here tonight at our apartment, blogging together, I’m really, really glad she stayed.

Here are the previous Meridith-related posts in case you want to catch up on the rest of the story:

What matters now

If you haven’t already seen it, check out What Matters Now, a free 82-page ebook by Seth Godin. It’s a collection of short essays by people answering the question “what matters now,” and there are several gems in there. Here are my favorites:

Chris Anderson

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and little bit of self-taught expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and if it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production. They are a virtual microfactory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; everything is assembled and drop-shipped by the contractors, who can serve hundreds of such small customers simultaneously….

Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, DIY and UGC — all these digital phenomena are starting to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution gets real.

This makes me giddy. He’s right — this is going to change the world in a huge way. Most of the stuff I make is purely digital, unless it’s a book or a magazine or a chart I get printed, and while that’s not a bad thing, it gets a little ethereal at times, just a bunch of bits floating in cyberspace. I’m excited to make it real and start creating some hold-it-in-your-hands bona fide objects. (Objects that weren’t previously possible, that is — tools and gadgets and the like.)

William C. Taylor

Imagine any and every field possible. There are so many brands, so many choices, so many claims, so much clutter, that the central challenge is for an organization or an individual is to rise above the fray. It’s not good enough anymore to be “pretty good” at everything. You have to be the most of something: the most elegant, the most colorful, the most responsive, the most accessible.

I’ll save my thoughts on this for the blog post I’ve got in the oven, but let me just say that I agree completely: quality is better than quantity.

Daniel Pink

Management is great if you want people to comply — to do specific things a certain way. But it stinks if you want people to engage — to think big or give the world something it didn’t know it was missing. For creative, complex, conceptual challenges — i.e, what most of us now do for a living — 40 years of research in behavioral science and human motivation says that self-direction works better. And that requires autonomy. Lots of it.

If we want engagement, and the mediocrity-busting results it produces, we have to make sure people have autonomy over the four most important aspects of their work:

  • Task – What they do
  • Time – When they do it
  • Technique – How they do it
  • Team – Whom they do it with

Hallelujah! This is music to my ears, and it rings so, so, so true. In my line of work, autonomy trumps management, period. If only there were more of it…

John Moore

A winning business understands that to gain a customer it must first be willing to lose a customer….

Costco wins customers by losing customers. Its membership model shuns consumers not willing to pay the yearly membership fee. Its broad but shallow merchandise mix turns off consumers wanting more choices. Costco makes deliberate sacrifices because its customers will also make deliberate sacrifices in exchange for lower prices.

Winning businesses have a common trait, an obvious and divisive point of view. Losing businesses also have a common trait, a boring personality alienating no one and thus, sparking passion from no one.

This goes along nicely with William Taylor’s essay. You can’t do everything, and if you try, you’ll be mediocre at best. Also, take risks. It’s the only way to succeed.

J.C. Hutchins

Most of us settle in, and settle for what we have. Rather than pursue, we accept. Our lives become unwitting celebrations of passivity: we undervalue our work and perceive ourselves as wage slaves (and so we phone it in at the day gig), we consume compulsively (but not create), we pine for better lives (but live vicariously through our televisions).

These corners we paint ourselves into, it’s no way to live. There’s no adventure here, no passion, no hunger for change. Remember that relentless optimism you once had? The goals you wished to achieve, before settling in? They’re still there. You need a nudge to find them; a little gumption.

You can start that business. You can lose that weight. You can quit smoking, and learn to garden, and write that book, and be a better parent, and be all the things you want to be…the thing this world needs you to be. It requires courage and faith, both of which you can muster. It requires effort — but this effortless life isn’t as satisfying as it seems, is it?

Declare war on passivity. Hush the inner voice that insists you’re over the hill, past your prime, unworthy of attaining those dreams. Disbelief is now the enemy, as is the notion of settling. Get hungry — hyena hungry. Get fired up. Find your backbone, and your wings.

Flap ’em. It’s the only way you’ll be able to fly.

Love it. Grab some gumption and go do cool, beautiful, wonderful things.

A mysterious parcel

Yesterday in the mail we got a note from the USPS, saying they’d tried to deliver a parcel but couldn’t, since we weren’t home.

First, they had me from the word “parcel.” I love that it’s still in use and hasn’t been obliterated by “package.” But I digress.

The note said we had to pay $4.90 to pick up the parcel. Weird, I thought. When was the last time I had to pay to get a package delivered? Like, eight years ago. I flipped the note over and found an address on the back: Howard C. Nielson, 95 W 100 S, Provo. Random. Now, we’ve been getting lots of wedding gifts in the mail over the past few weeks, so I figured that’s what it was. (Actually, my first thought was that it was a bomb, but I sadly — and happily — acknowledged that that was pretty darn unlikely.)

“Hey, do you know any Howard Nielsons?” Meridith shook her head. We checked with her parents. Negative. Curiouser and curiouser.

I googled Howard Nielson and found that he is a politician, and a rather old one at that. And apparently he passed some bill relating to the post office. Why on earth would some random Congressman with a post office connection send us a package and make us pay for it? Conspiracy theories started tunneling through my brain. This could be big. This could be really big. But how would this politician have gotten our address? Oh, yes, the post office connection. It all made sense. But why would he target us?

We could call him, I thought — we could drill him to figure out what was going on and tell him that sorry, Mr. Nielson, we don’t want any part in your drug smuggling ring or whatever this shady business is. So I looked him up on WhitePages.com — no luck. Maybe he’d moved. Or maybe, considering his age, he’d permanently relocated to the city cemetery. I don’t know about you, but getting packages from dead people is even weirder than getting them from strangers.

I looked at the address again, which had been tickling the back of my mind since the first time I looked at it. Something vaguely familiar about it… Pulling open Google Maps, I zoomed in on the address and realized that it was at the same spot as the Provo post office. In fact, it was the Provo post office.

Gears started clicking. I googled “Howard C. Nielson post office.” Yep. The official name of the Provo post office is the Howard C. Nielson Post Office Building.

So anticlimactic. But I guess I don’t have to call Witness Protection after all. ;)

We’ll pick up the package today, assuming it is in fact from someone we know. (I’m still holding out hope that it’s from someone we don’t know, in which case the intrigue jumps back up to a ten. :P) But at least we know it’s not from Howard Nielson.

P.S. And in case you were wondering, I’m fine with relegating the intrigue and danger to fiction and not my real life. :)

Project tracker PDF

For those who liked the project tracker, here’s a PDF version (yes, I’m now calling it a project tracker instead of a project calendar):

project_tracker

You can print it out, fold it up, and carry it in your pocket, or post it on your refrigerator or desk, or three-hole punch it (there’s room on the top margin for that) and put it in a binder. You do have to fill out the month, days, and days of the week manually, but there’s a little more flexibility this way.

Project Tracker Printed

Wedding photos

Here are our wedding photos, taken by the excellent Lauren Blackham Davison.

Early Photos

Lauren was pregnant and due just before our wedding, so a few weeks before the actual day, we went up to the temple (Oquirrh Mountain) with her and did a shoot.

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Wedding Day

The day of (November 14) turned out to be blizzardy, so we only took a few pictures outside the temple and were glad we’d done the earlier photo shoot. (Lauren had her baby early enough that she was fine taking our day-of photos, by the way.)

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Pseudo-Reception (Family Dinner)

The reception/dinner was at a local church building and turned out to be a smashing success.

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The end. Or the beginning, rather. ;)

On married life

And now for the long-awaited post on the wedding, pseudo-reception, and married life. (Pictures will becoming very soon now. :))

The Wedding

The closer we got to the wedding, the more surreal I felt. And I think it was better that way, because every time I told myself that I was going to be married in a week or a few days or tomorrow, it was freaky as all get out. Marriage is a serious thing. I honestly think it’s kind of good to let the surreality of it carry you through the wedding to keep you from going crazy until things settle down back to normal again. (But married normal is so much better than single normal. ;))

Wedding day was like wandering through a dream. The weather was nice and clear down where we were, but when we got a few miles from the temple, hello blizzard. Luckily everyone was able to make it.

The ceremony itself was especially surreal. I’ve been to other sealings before, and when I was sitting there in the sealing room, I kept having to remind myself that this was my sealing and not someone else’s. Mostly I just went on autopilot, again because thinking about it too much would lead to panic. (This is where I was grateful for the temple’s calming spirit. It helped a ton.) The sealer had some beautiful things to say, and then he performed the ceremony and voila! I became a married man.

The Faux Reception

Okay, okay, our wedding dinner was a reception, just not a traditional Utah Mormon kind. We had a live jazz band there (awesome), great lighting and decorations, and delicious food. I wish I could take credit for the awesomeness of the reception, but all the credit is due to Meridith and her mom. (I just said, “Yes, dear,” whenever she asked me what I thought. Happy wife, happy life. ;))

We went around the tables for the first part of the reception, greeting people. For me, this mostly consisted of my holding up my hand and pointing dumbfoundedly at my ring. “I’m married! What the heck!” (In a good way. :))

After people had gotten a chance to eat their food, we had a short program involving a slide show of pictures of Mer and I growing up (put together by her sister Susannah), a song to Meridith from her siblings (and the song was awesomeness incarnate and so catchy that it’s taken weeks to get it out of people’s heads), my reading some emails I sent my missionary brother (summarizing the development of my relationship with Meridith), and dancing.

Then Meridith and I left for our honeymoon.

Honeymoon

It was lots of fun. ;) No, really, we spent the first night in a hotel in Salt Lake, then took a flight the next morning to Burlington, Vermont, where we stayed at the Willard Street Inn (a nice B&B a few miles from the airport) for four days. The B&B was gorgeous — built in 1881, full of all sorts of New Englandy goodness, with a solarium and several bookcases (mmm ;)) and sixteen different bedrooms (we were on the third floor).

We walked around town a bit over the course of our time there, checking out the bay (Lake Champlain) and local cafes and restaurants (not to mention the Ben & Jerry’s store). Very nice little town, and the architecture — towers and porches galore — was right up our alley. And did I mention that the weather was even nicer there than it was back here in Utah? No snow, just clear skies, and it wasn’t all that cold.

The part that wasn’t quite as fun was that the first leg of our flight back (to D.C.) ended up getting postponed by several hours because of engine troubles, so we had to take another flight out that left seven hours later than we’d hoped. C’est la vie. Better to be late than to die because of technical malfunctions. :)

And suddenly we were back home again. We were glad our honeymoon only lasted just under a week, since we were pretty ready to return home and get back to normal life.

Ruminations on Married Life

One minute you’re single, another minute you’re not. And in that split second, things that were once forbidden are suddenly encouraged. (Well, not all forbidden things. Just some. :)) But I’m not going to talk about those things, since, well, I try to keep this blog G or PG. ;)

Time leading up to our wedding was oh-so-slow, wriggling by like a dying, exhausted earthworm. Time since the wedding has blitzed by. Three weeks! I’ve been married three weeks already! Crazy.

Being marriage really is so much better than being engaged or dating. It’s more peaceful, more calm, more…normal, I guess. It’s super nice not having to say goodbye at night, and we can finally watch movies lying down in bed together. So much more comfortable. And we have our own place now, so we don’t have to go out to eat as much. (Interestingly, now that we’re hitched, going out to eat has returned to being a special occasion rather than an everyday thing. It’s better that way.)

Food! I love that my wife can cook. I’ve gained around ten pounds since I started dating Meridith, and I’m already eating way better now than I was before our marriage. Life is grand. :)

Getting used to being “the Crowders” has taken a little bit of time, especially moving from a singles ward to a married ward where I’m now Brother Crowder instead of Ben. (Speaking of which, I know several people in our new ward, which is nice.)

I’m also getting used to wearing a wedding ring. I almost wish I’d had an engagement band of some kind when I was engaged, to say “Hey, ladies, I’m sorry but I’m engaged and quite unavailable,” but then again I don’t really get girls hitting on me very often, so it was really a moot point. ;)

Responsibility is a bit more intense than it was before, but in all honesty it’s not that bad. (I’ll probably change my tune once Baby Crowder comes along. ;)) Now I’m providing for a family, thinking beyond my own needs alone.

Are things perfect? Nope. There’s adjusting, and anyone who thinks marriage is going to be a fairy tale bliss free from rocks and valleys is fooling themselves. Life is still hard. Things don’t always go according to plan. I don’t have as much free time as I used to, and I can’t just do things my way anymore. But even so, marriage is seriously so awesome. One word: companionship. And when both husband and wife focus on the Lord, you just know you can get through anything. Faith and hope and charity smooth a lot of things out. (And it’s fine that I can’t just do things my way. Yay for flexibility and forging new traditions together.)

All in all, my life feels more solid, more healthy, more stable, and more complete now that I’m wed. So yes, I’m glad I got married, and I’m excited that this is just the beginning. I’m one heck of a lucky guy. :)

Beyond: pedigree chart mockup

A mockup of what Beyond’s pedigree chart might look like:

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  1. I’m going for an uncluttered look, trying to keep things as simple as possible while still being useful. Since there isn’t a whole lot of data shown on the pedigree chart, I’m thinking about adding a Quick Look-style function where you press spacebar and it quickly shows you more information on the person you’ve selected.

  2. Rather than rigidly force people into laying out their working pedigree charts in a structure, I’m hoping to allow a more fluid layout (ala the node editors in programs like Blender). What this means is you’ll be able to take a person (say Henry Smith in our example) and drag him anywhere on the canvas, and the line will stretch to follow. You’ll also be able to put unconnected people wherever you want; in this case, I’m thinking either William Smith or George Smith might be Henry’s father, but I’m not sure which one, so I’m keeping them both nearby so I remember. Likewise, I have evidence for Harold and John Smith but I’m not quite sure yet how they connect to the rest of the tree.

  3. What about multiple users? The data will be the same for everyone (i.e., William Smith and George Smith will show up for my wife when she logs in), but each user will have their own view of the canvas, so each person can arrange things however they want. And there will of course be a default layout for people who don’t want to fiddle. (In the upper right of the screen there’s a “tidy” button that will take the tree and line things up nicely, kind of like the “cleanup” option on the desktop.)

  4. You’ll notice that some parts of the tree are faded out. That’s Beyond’s way of encouraging using sources as the main entry model — if you add someone to your tree but don’t have any evidence attached, the person and their data will be ghosted out. Once you add at least one source (a document or whatever evidence you have), they’ll become solid.

  5. Carol Smith is highlighted because she’s the current person selected on the tree. You’ll be able to navigate the tree using the keyboard. I’m also thinking about letting the user isolate their view so they only see the part of the tree they’re working on, uncluttering things as much as possible. We’ll see.

  6. If you’re on this screen and want to search, hitting a global hotkey will slide a search panel onto the screen (ala Visor and the Quake console). Instant search from anywhere, but without cluttering up the screen with a search box.

Basically, I picture the pedigree chart as a messy workspace of sorts where the user can figure things out in a way that makes sense to them. By loosening things up a bit, the software will hopefully free the user to test things out in a safe environment.

Again, this is just a mockup and things won’t necessarily be this way, but you’ll at least be able to get a better idea of what I’m going for. Oh, and feedback would be great. :)

Beyond: dashboard mockup

Here’s a quick mockup I threw together for the Beyond dashboard, which will come up after the user logs in:

Dashboard

On the left we have the recent activity list, where you can see what you’ve been working on lately (an easy way to pick up where you left off). At the top is the search (and the search box will have focus as soon as you log in), so you can quickly get to anyone in your tree. And at the bottom is the Add New Source button, which will be the main way of adding information to Beyond. (It will also be able to import GEDCOM, don’t worry. :))

Keep in mind that this is just a mockup and things are liable to change. :) For example, I’ve only focused on the center panel here; I’m not sure yet what will be in the top and bottom parts.

As for what’s next, I’m going to write out a dozen or so use cases so I can nail what the real tasks are that this app needs to accomplish — and the smoothest workflow for doing that. From that I’ll figure out what the bare essentials of Beyond will be — what’s absolutely required — and then map out what it’ll take to get it up and running. I’m also planning to create an interface style guide ala Nathan Borror’s for Readernaut. More to come soon. :)

Project calendar

I’m apparently addicted to productivity and having lots of projects. I’m also very, very fond of tracking things. Put the two obsessions together and you get this:

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It’s a project calendar for keeping track of (a) which projects I’m working on and (b) when I’ve worked on them. That way I can easily see where my time is spent and possibly where I need to adjust things. (“Hmm, looks like I’m neglecting my writing. Whoops. Time to fix that.”)

I started out using the back of my Field Notes notebook, since it has a handy grid, but I ran into a problem: when I finish the notebook, I no longer have my project calendar with me.

Enter Google Spreadsheets:

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The grey boxes mean that the project has ended. Each month is its own sheet, which keeps things tidy. (Projects that end don’t need to be on the next month’s sheet.)

And the best part? It’s super easy to maintain. I can just copy and paste the black boxes, and when I start a new month, it only takes a few seconds to clear out the boxes and change the days of the week.

Speaking of tracking things, I forgot to blog about my writing log (which I used to use back when I was writing more frequently):

Writing Log

I need to go in and start using that again. (Since, ahem, I’ve been a slacker.) I’m also planning to make a grid-based log for scripture reading and family history and other church-related things I want to do more diligently.

Update: You can now download a Google Docs template of the project tracker.

Another update: There’s now a project page for this.

D&C reader’s edition: sneak peek

I’ve been working on a reader’s edition of the Doctrine & Covenants for the past month and figured I’d give y’all a sneak peek at how it’s coming:

D&C Sneak Peek

I’m currently about a fourth of the way through reparagraphing the text and hope to have everything done by the end of the year.

The book will be available as a free PDF, and you’ll also be able to order a hardcover or paperback edition through Lulu if you want a hard copy.