Archives » January, 2006

January 30, 2006

The Renovation Tango

It’s been several months since we did any remodeling work on the house. In that time we actually bought the house from my parents, so from here out any work we do will have to be on our dime instead of theirs. It’s such a shame.

But when we bought the house we also got a big loan to do some of the major work the house needed. Because, you know, after 25 years some things just start falling apart on their own. So a few weeks ago we had a new furnace installed, to replace the original one which had been converted from propane to gas and was running at below 50% efficiency. And this week we’re having the next job done, replacing all the windows in the house.

But first, we snuck a new front door in with the window project. So the contractor came today to install that. Here’s the old door, vintage 1979:

And here’s the new, updated one:

Now, of course renovation can never be easy. And that’s why the house threw us a monkey wrench. It turns out that the two sides of the door frame aren’t level; one leans out and the other leans in, so the frame ends up twisted and the deadbolt won’t lock. The contractor says he has some magic to work tomorrow to get things lined up; we’ll see if he’s right about that. And then we’ll get all the windows installed, so for once maybe our house will actually keep the cold winter air out.

Should be an exciting week!

January 27, 2006

Hyperlocal Isn’t a Business

It’s been said before, “Local Ain’t Easy”. Whether you call them “hyperlocal”, or “citizen’s journalism”, or “grassroots media” sites, websites that are built around a community and depend on contributions from readers just have a hard time getting launched and building up a critical mass of visitors. In the last year or two, there have been a number of high-profile site launches, like Backfence and Bayosphere, that got a lot of press when they first came out, but failed to build on that initial buzz and kind of petered out over time. There’s a review of Backfence from about two months ago that compares it to a ghost town, or a frontier land with infrastructure and zoning but no residents. Even after all of the money and all of the excitement, few people showed up to actually contribute to the thing.

Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere is having the same problem. A year ago, in a highly-publicized move, Dan left his cushy job as a Silicon Valley reporter to launch a citizen journalism site for the Bay Area. It arrived with much fanfare, and at first it consisted only of…Dan’s blog. At a new address. And after a year, a year that has seen them add tools to allow anymore to sign up for an account and post their own entries, Bayosphere is still primarily made up of…Dan’s blog.

Not that this is a bad thing. Some of the best-written sites out there are personal blogs. But all along Dan was talking about how this new venture was his full time job. He and his partners were throwing money at it, some of it theirs, some of it from investors, and they expected to make back a profit. Enough to pay Dan’s salary and a few others, and to keep the site growing. In short, they looked at it from the beginning as a business. And that, Dan admits this week, was the biggest mistake they made. There never was a viable business model to the site, and by September they stopped spending investors money because it seemed pretty clear that they were never going to make it back.

Just like Backfence, they defined success as “making money”. And they failed, just like others will if they’re only chasing the bottom line.

So all of this has me thinking about my little hyperlocal site, Around Carson, and what kinds of lessons I can learn. And it seems that the number one lesson is not to think of a site like this as a business. Don’t define success by how much money you make, because it’s always going to fall short. Personally, I pay the site’s exorbitant costs ($9 per month for hosting) out of my own pocket, and I don’t expect to make it back anytime soon. Luckily the Google AdSense ads on this blog pull in $30-$40 a month, so I balance it out by saying that I’m subsidizing that site with this one.

But it’s not about the money. It can’t be. Building a site like this is something that’s going to consume you for months and months, and whatever rewards you get sure aren’t going to come with pictures of presidents on them. At least not at first. First comes the hard task of building the site (even harder for me because I’m doing it from scratch instead of using some pre-built CMS) and attracting readers, and then convincing those readers to become writers. And only then, when you’ve got things like traffic and contributors, can you start to think about business models. Maybe down the road I can put together some kind of advertising deals with local businesses and start bringing money in from the site. But even then, how would I justify lining my own pockets if other people are doing most of the work? I don’t know, and in a way, I’m glad I’m not in that situation yet.

So, for now, I think the biggest advice for hyperlocal sites is to think nonprofit. That’s the route Dan Gillmor has taken, stepping back from Bayosphere (trying to unload it on someone else, in fact, if you read to the end of his article) and moving over to found the Center for Citizen Media. In doing this, he seems to be leaving the world of producing citizen’s media, and going back to writing about citizen’s media, which is what he does best. And for the rest of us, look at some of the best hyperlocal sites out there. If you study them closely you’ll see that they’re mostly independent and intensely personal, and that’s what makes them great. Baristanet. H2OTown. Philly Future. These are my role models, not the “consumer-generated content” startups and the newspaper-backed local sites. These are what I want Around Carson to turn into.

If I ever get off my butt and finish the programming.

New Reno Blog

From Yukon Sully comes word of another Reno blog that started last month, Reno and it’s Discontents. It looks like it’s going to be a communal blog, with multiple authors, and a mix of local and national politics and opinions. Definitely one to keep an eye on!

One unfortunate thing about the site is the link on their blogroll to Salon’s Broadsheet, which Miss Alli deftly ripped apart a couple of months ago. But there’s no accounting for taste; I’ll let them slide on that one.

January 25, 2006

XP In Your Pocket

If you’re a computer tech that works on a lot of systems, you know that sometimes you run into the worst beast of all: an unbootable computer. Here in my office this isn’t such a big obstacle; I’ve got a workbench, and tons of other computers that I can pop the hard drive into to figure out what’s going on. But if you’re in the field and you run into one of these stubborn SOBs, you’re usually out of luck. There aren’t many diagnostics you can run on a computer that won’t even boot up.

What you need is an easy way to run Windows on a system like that, and that’s where this tip comes in. Fred Langa has an article this week on how to install Windows XP to a bootable USB thumb drive. You can then plug this drive into any non-working computer you come across, and instantly have a running copy of Windows to work with.

I haven’t tried doing it myself, but Fred Langa’s articles (and his LangaList newsletter) are usually spot on.

January 21, 2006


It’s been a while since I’ve posted cat pictures here. Especially pictures that remove all dignity the cat once enjoyed. So here’s my shot at rectifying that, with two pictures of the twins, Yin and Yang.

Yin the Jester

Say Cheese!
Say Cheese, Yang

January 20, 2006

Off The Pad

New Horizons launched successfully yesterday, and it’s now well on its way to Pluto. Next year, in February, it’s flying past Jupiter, and that will give the team a chance to test out all the instruments and give the spacecraft a trial run at planetary flyby. And then, after that, it’s a long, lonely eight-year flight to get to Pluto. Once it gets there it only has a few hours of frenzied activity to study the planet and its moons before it zips past and heads into the unknowns at the outer edge of the solar system. The hope is that there will be other KBOs that just happen to be in its flight path, so it can check those out too. But nobody really knows for sure what will happen after the Pluto flyby, except that New Horizons will keep on getting further away from Earth, just like Pioneer 10 and 11 and the Voyagers.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society has some excellent coverage of the launch and the first 24 hours of flight on her blog.

January 18, 2006

Beeline to Pluto

As we speak, the New Horizons spacecraft is sitting on the launchpad in Florida, waiting for the conditions to be just right for launch. Yesterday the winds in Florida were too high, and today the mission control center in Maryland lost power, so the launch has been delayed twice. They’re scheduled to try again tomorrow afternoon, and with any luck this spacecraft will get off the ground and be on its way within 24 hours.

New Horizons is the long-awaited, long-delayed mission to study the outer planet Pluto. Pluto is the only one of the nine planets that hasn’t yet been visited by a robotic emissary from Earth, and the only reason a mission like this hasn’t been launched sooner is because of budget issues. But finally everything got approved and a space probe is going to be on its way, and not a moment too soon. Pluto’s orbit is elliptical enough that its distance from the Sun varies drastically over time. This gives the planet a definite “summer” and “winter”, where the atmosphere grows and shrinks depending on how warm the surface of the planet is. The thing is, Pluto is now getting further away from the Sun, which means winter is coming on, and its atmosphere is shrinking. So every year that goes by, the planet gets a little less interesting scientifically.

In fact, it’s just a lucky break that Pluto is considered a planet at all. In 1930, when it was discovered, astronomers had been long searching for a ninth planet. So when this little speck of light was found, orbiting out beyond Neptune, it immediately was classified a planet, even though they had no way of telling what it really looked like or how big it was. If it was big enough to show up in a telescope, it must be a planet, right? Well, over the decades we’ve found out that Pluto is tinier than they thought, smaller than any of the other planets, smaller even than the Moon. And it’s most likely not even a solid chunk of rock; instead it’s probably more like a comet, made up mostly of ice and dust, and maybe with a rocky core in the middle of it. In fact, pretty much everybody agrees that if Pluto had been discovered more recently, it wouldn’t have been labeled a planet at all.

Even more damaging to Pluto’s reputation is the discovery of thousands more objects out there just like it. Together, they make up what’s known as the Kuiper Belt, which is a lot like the asteroid belt only it surrounds the outer edge of the solar system. In the last ten years, with telescope technology advancing rapidly, a veritable cloud of icy rocks has been found orbiting just beyond Neptune. Many of them have moons of their own, and at least one of them, scientists figure, is bigger than Pluto itself. But there’s no chance that any of these objects are going to be classified as planets. They’re too small, they’re too irregular, and their orbits are too erratic. At best they can be called minor planets, at worst they’re just lumped together as “KBO”s, or Kuiper Belt Objects.

So where does this leave our poor little friend Pluto? Apparently its discovery in 1930 was nothing more than a lucky mistake. Everyone was looking for a planet, and Pluto just happened to wander into the right photograph at the right time. But now, seventy-six years later, we all know the truth. Pluto was just a pauper pretending to be a prince, a lowly little KBO who found itself sitting at the head table with the rest of the planets. There are those out there who would have Pluto excommunicated, stripped of its title and banished to insignifigance with the rest of the KBOs. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, nor should it. Everyone alive today has grown up with the idea that there are nine planets. Pluto may be known as the smallest, but it’s still part of the club. There’s nothing to gain by demoting Pluto, by teaching schoolkids that there are only eight planets. In essence, Pluto has been grandfathered in, and it will always be considered one of the nine old men of the solar system, even if it doesn’t really belong there.

And that’s why we’re sending a spacecraft to Pluto. First of all, there’s just the ego of the human spirit. We have eight notches on our interplanetary bedpost, but there’s room for one more. We need to visit just to say that we’ve been there. But we also need to examine the place up close, and find out for sure what it’s really like. Pluto is just so far away and so small that there’s really only so much you can find out using telescopes alone. Most of what we’ve learned about Pluto over the years have been inferences and guesswork, and most of it has been proven wrong by new advances in technology. The only way to break that cycle is to go there, to see close up exactly how big it is, how many moons it has, what the surface is like, and just what kind of lonely life Pluto has to live way out there at the edge of the solar system.

That’s what New Horizons is going to do. The hunk of metal that is currently balanced on the tip of a rocket in Florida will one day be zooming past Pluto, giving us the answers that we need so badly. But it’s not going to be fast. If New Horizons manages to launch before the end of the month, it will be on course to rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015. That’s over nine years from now. And if it misses the January launch window and gets underway in February, it loses the advantage of a Jupiter gravity assist, which adds another five years to the trip. So even with the launch just hours away, we’re still going to have to wait an interminably long time to get any of our questions answered.

But at least it will be happening. A spacecraft that’s en route is a million times better than one that’s still in the planning stages, or one that still being talked about and waiting for a budget. That’s where we were with this Pluto mission for so long: no definite plans, no definite timetable, just a lot of hot air and no money.

The universe is full of questions. But if tomorrow’s launch goes off as planned, at least we’ll be a little closer to answering some of them.

A Publisher, But Not a Journalist

I haven’t been doing a lot of blog reading lately, so I haven’t been doing a lot of blog writing lately. I do try to read at least the top five from my blogroll daily, but it doesn’t always happen. And I have been posting stupid little snippets over at Around Carson, mostly pictures that I take out of the window of my car on the way to work. That’s not exactly earth-shaking journalism. But, then again, I don’t want to do earth-shaking journalism. That’s not what the site is supposed to be about.

There was a good guest article in Press Think yesterday by Debra Galant, who runs Baristanet. It’s all about the joys of running a hyperlocal website, and how sites like these aren’t trying to put the newspapers out of business, they’re trying to fill in the gaps that the newspapers miss.

These are the stories that people want to know. They still want to know why the pool is closed on a sunny August afternoon. These are the stories that you almost never get in the weekly local newspaper, which is typically staffed by 20-something journalists straight out of school and with no ties, or real sources, in the community. They also want to know if the hot new restaurant that just opened is any good, whether their neighbors are also furious about new leaf raking regulations, and why the 6:18 from Penn Station was being held up in Bloomfield, and not allowed to continue on into Glen Ridge.

Like my father, I’m a publisher. But I’m not sure I’m a journalist. Journalism is nonfiction. It belongs with history and politics and business and current affairs. I read, and write, novels. I’m more interested in why the pool is closed tight on a sunny day than in the town government’s master plan.

So everytime I read something like this about one of the hyperlocal sites out there, it makes me feel bad about dragging my feet on the back-end programming that will let everyone post to Around Carson. Because that’s when the party will really get started. And I don’t mean to say that there’s a ton of people out there just waiting for that part of the site to launch, enough that I’ll get dozens of posts on the first day, but that functionality really is the heart of the site. I don’t want the site to be just my voice, because, first of all, my voice isn’t that compelling, and second of all, I’m not tied into the community enough. I don’t know what’s going on out there. I go from home to work to home, and that’s a full day for me. But there are tons of people out in the community who are plugged in, who do know what’s going on, and that’s what I want to tap into. I want to build Around Carson so that all of them have a voice.

Plus I’m selfish. I want a site like this because the local newspaper, and their companion website, doesn’t do it for me. I want a good local site for Carson City, and there isn’t one, so it’s up to me to build it. I only hope I can give it enough momentum to get started, and then other people will flock to it. Becuse I definitely don’t want to do all the writing; I want to take the lazy route, sitting back and reading what everyone else has to say.

January 10, 2006


Downtown Seattle

Our week in Seattle passed by like a dream. When we were there, we were in a different plane of existence, and all the memories of home started to melt away, like we could just leave it all behind without a worry. We toyed with the idea of never going back, of staying in our hotel and living out of a suitcase forever. Get new jobs, buy all new stuff, and just never come back. But we had that return plane ticket, and the hotel was going to kick us out on a certain date, and the rental company wanted the car back, so it all had to come to an end. And now that we’ve spent a week back home in Carson City, which in the last couple of weeks has experienced rain, flooding, mudslides, snow, and ice, we feel like we’re waking up to the real world. And we desperately want to go back to sleep.

Kerry Park

One thing we did accomplish on this trip was to build a closer bond to Seattle itself. On all our other trips up north, we would drive by Seattle on the way to somewhere else. We stayed way out of town, and maybe we’d come visit the city for a few hours one day, or drive through on the way to catch a ferry, or even stay one night in a hotel so we could pack in more sightseeing with less driving. But we never got to spend any time in Seattle, not real time, not driving and walking around time where we could put aside the list of tourist attractions and see the places where people really live and work and play. We were always so rushed, and haunted by the fact that we had an hour’s drive back to where we were staying, so we better leave before it gets too dark, but we need to try to avoid rush hour on the freeway, and are we going to eat dinner here or on the way back, and oh I’d really love to drive over there but we just don’t have time to do it today. Sorry. Maybe next year.

Pike Place

No, this time we stayed right downtown, and we stayed there for eight nights. So we actually spent time in Seattle itself. We experienced how crazy the streets can be, especially with all the times we had to drive through the Denny Triangle (What we learned? Don’t plan on making a left turn from Denny Street. Can’t be done). We made trips to Westlake Center. We spent time exploring all the levels of the Pike Place Market. We drove through Magnolia, and Capitol Hill, and Queen Anne, and all the other neighborhoods that we never had time for before. We stepped outside every morning to a soft drizzle falling from the sky, a drizzle that never quite let up through the day. We passed the pink elephant more times than we could count.

New Years at the Needle

And we tried to make it our goal to eat every meal at a restaurant that isn’t available to us back home. Sure we still went to chains, but chains we don’t have in Reno, places like Old Spaghetti Factory, Azteca, and Pagliacci’s Pizza. But we also sought out local eateries. Places like Mama’s Mexican Kitchen in Belltown, some of the best Mexican food we’ve found in all the northwest. Von’s Grand City Cafe in the Roosevelt Hotel. And T.S. McHugh’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in the shadow of the Space Needle.

Pike Place Fruit

But even with all the time we spent in Seattle, there’s still so much we missed. You could spend years in the city and not see it all. So I guess there’s only one solution: we’ve got to go back, and soon!

January 3, 2006

Home Unsweet Home

We’re back from Seattle, but of course it’s impossible for me to just write a quick note saying so. I have to work on some big post, with pictures and paragraph after paragraph of text, and it takes four days to put it all together, and by the time I’m finishing it up it’s not even topical anymore. I guess that’s just my lot in life as a procrastinator. So I’m forcing myself to write this quick post first.

Where we are.

We flew in Monday night, going from warm weather with a few rain drizzles in Seattle to snow and ice and mud and flooded streets in Carson City. Apparently we missed one of the largest floods in years while we were gone. (Good time to get out of town!) But now we’re back, and everything’s nasty here, with a layer of snow on top of the ice that formed when the flood waters froze, and we’re sad that we’re here instead of in Seattle, and I’ll be writing more about all this later.

Seattle Center
Where we want to be.

I’m slowly building a Flickr photo set about our Seattle trip. Check it out.