Thoughts of a Serial Tinkerer

  • Practicing Praise in the Workplace

    Posted on 09 Sep 2014.

    There has been a recent meme going around on social media, particularly Facebook, of posting things you are grateful for and nominating friends to do the same. At the same time, my company has a practice of sending a weekly newsletter with “shout outs” written by colleagues to other colleagues, praising them for their good work. The newsletter always is sent around the same time of the week and it’s one of the few emails I look forward to reading.

    I have recently been reading Simon Sinek’s latest book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’’t (referral link), which talks in-depth about the biological reasons behind what encourages safe, productive, trusting, and happy workplaces. Sinek’s premise is that many of our bio-chemical responses, like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphines, when released in proper balance, can help people be productive and happy at work and that as leaders, our job is to build a culture and environment in which that is possible.

    I believe one way to build that culture is through establishing a practice of praise. Research suggests that expressing gratitude helps not only oneself but also encourages others. In one study conducted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, fund-raisers made 50% more calls than a control group when they were thanked by their boss for their work.

    Working remotely and managing a mostly remote team means that some of the social benefits of being in the same physical vicinity as my colleagues are lost. It’s not as easy to clap a colleague on the back or thank them in passing in the hallway. Our friendly weekly email gives everyone the chance to express some gratitude for their coworkers and can trigger real bio-chemical response that can help build healthier and stronger colleagues and teams.

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my colleague, Tim Cosgrove, for the link to Harvard’s article on gratitude and also my wife, Abigail McMurray, for the copy of Sinek’s book.

    How are you practicing praise in your workplace today?

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  • Summer Squash Soup with Mint Parsley Pistou, Goat Cheese, and Roasted Lemon Fennel Chicken

    Posted on 02 Nov 2013.

    Earlier this year I took a trip to Washington, DC to visit my co-workers at Phase2 and to speak at CapitalCamp 2013. It was a great trip and my talk went really well. If you’re interested, I talked about some of the great things we’ve been building in partnership with The Robin Hood Foundation for the past few years. My talk is online at the CapitalCamp website: Weathering Storms: How Robin Hood Uses Drupal to Fight Poverty. Robin Hood is a wonderful organization and the work they’ve been doing in the wake of Superstorm Sandy has just been outstanding.

    Okay, back to to the food.

    Whenever I am in Washington, DC, I always try to find some way of cajoling my friends/co-workers into joining me for a trip to Founding Farmers, one of my all-time favorite restaurants. Their food is often locally sourced or sourced from within the United States, they are committed to sustainability, and their food is absolutely delicious. This past visit to Founding Farmers, I ordered Goat Cheese Ravioli with Honey Ginger Squash Puree with Roasted Fennel and Chicken.

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  • Simple Tempeh Stir-Fry Salad with Peanut-Ginger-Lime Sauce

    Posted on 28 Aug 2012.

    Simple Tempeh Stir-Fry Salad with Peanut-Ginger-Lime Sauce

    I’ve recently been trying to eat healthier. One of the great things about working from home is that you have your full kitchen available to you at lunch. Today, I decided to whip together a quick stir-fry salad, something I had never tried before but figured could help me get some vegetables and taste delicious. I was right.

    I made up the peanut-ginger-lime sauce on a whim as we didn’t have anything but a garlic-y salad dressing and I really loved the sweet/tart/nutty flavors that emerged. I think the sauce would work great on noodles, too.

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  • Upgrading my Galaxy Nexus to Jelly Bean

    Posted on 14 Jul 2012.

    I love my Galaxy Nexus; it has simply been an outstanding device. I got the phone around Christmas time through NewEgg. Since then a number of my friends have upgraded to the Galaxy Nexus and I noticed that they were talking about OTA updates that I wasn’t getting. Last week my phone finally updated to 4.0.4 (The latest version of Ice Cream Sandwich).

    Now that the Jelly Bean updates are rolling out I was really excited to check that out. My friends were getting the updates and still I wasn’t able to trigger the OTA update (even using the somewhat neat trick of clearing the data of the ‘Google Services Framework’ application and then checking for new system updates). Then I came across an article that said that some Galaxy Nexus phones are running a firmware that isn’t truly stock Android; Samsung provides that firmware, runs the OTA updates, and does a few things like adding in a Chinese keyboard. That’s when I suspected I might have the wrong firmware.

    To determine for sure what firmware I had, I checked by going to the Maps app (of all things), then Settings, and then About. In the list there it told me I had the firmware, “samsung yakjuzs.” The OTA updates to Jelly Bean were only rolling out for the “yajku” and “tajku” firmware and it was pretty clear to me that Samsung was lagging pretty far behind in releasing updates on their own. I have no need for a Chinese keyboard, so I decided to flash a new set of firmware to my phone and get onto the direct-from-Google software chain.

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  • Figuring Color at the ICA Boston

    Posted on 21 Feb 2012.

    On Valentine’s Day, my beautiful wife Abigail and I went to the opening of the new exhibit, “Figuring Color,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. It is a wonderful new exhibit featuring the work of Kathy Butterly, Felix González-Torres, Roy McMakin, and Sue Williams.

    It is a wonderful show and I highly recommend visiting it if the opportunity presents itself. (If you can’t make it, or just need a preview, check out the ICA’s slideshow of some of the pieces in the exhibit.)

    I particularly enjoyed Kathy Butterly’s whimsical ceramics and Roy McMakin’s “Untitled (Sitting Wingback Chair),” which at first glance appears as a classic plush chair, but upon closer inspection, the back appears to be a plump human rear sitting on the floor.

    It was also nice to see Felix González-Torres’ “Untitled (Lover Boys),” in a new setting. The last time I saw this piece was at the Art Institute of Chicago years ago on a high school fieldtrip. González-Torres died in 1996 due to AIDS related complications, which, while it has certainly fallen out of the media in recent years, is still a continuing problem.

    A great friend (and co-worker, I am so lucky) of mine, Tim Cosgrove is currently training and fundraising for the AIDS/LifeCycle, a 7-day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He has been an inspiration to me in how he’s really put his whole heart (and body) into training for this ride, so please support him if you can. In addition, if you donate, he will bake you a pie. For real.

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  • Hekyll: Impressive Presentations with Markdown

    Posted on 07 Feb 2012.

    I am a big fan of Jekyll, a static blog generator developed by one of those smart guys behind GitHub, Tom Preston-Werner. I love being able to write posts in Markdown and being able to version my entire site in a Git repository.

    In the past year or so, I have been using to create a number of the presentations that I’ve given at various camps and conferences. Prezi is great, but it’s Flash-based and authoring within their tool is not the easiest process, and there’s no way to version a talk. A few of my recent talks have been with my friend and co-worker, Steven Merrill, and then he has gone on to improve the talks and give them at a few other events that I wasn’t able to attend. Once or twice, he forgot to ‘clone’ the presentation in Prezi before making changes, so we accidentally lost a copy of the presentation we originally gave and now only have the updated one. Not desirable.

    New to the budding JavaScript-based presentation software is Impress.js, which is actually a really great analog for Prezi, done entirely in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, which is awesome.

    One day at work, Steven and I were discussing getting started on our presentation for our upcoming talk at Drupalcon Denver 2012, and we thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could write our presentation in Markdown and have an Impress.js-powered presentation? We could use Jekyll!” So, I took my lunch break and whipped out a prototype which I dubbed “Hekyll” (pronounced heckle). And thus my new presentation engine side-project was born.

    The idea for Hekyll is pretty simple: turn Markdown text files into a nice looking presentation. In the YAML front-matter for each slide (just like in each post in Jekyll), you can add attributes which can let you control all of the layout options provided by Impress.js, which includes position, scale and 3D rotations for your slides. Or, if you just need to get a presentation done quickly, there’s a “simple slideshow” configuration option for Hekyll that will just do simple cross-fades between your slides for you. But wait! There’s more! Hekyll comes with a decent set of default styles and also has a print page which will let you easily print each slide to a single page.

    That’s it for now. I’ve been pondering a way to make easy themes for slides so that there can be a handful of presentation styles to get people started – it’s really just as simple as writing some CSS.

    Wanna see Hekyll in action? Check out the documentation demo!

    I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on the project. Get invovled if you’d like, we’re maintaining the project on GitHub.

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  • Adventures in Standing: My Standing Desk

    Posted on 16 Dec 2011.

    For about six months now, I have been regularly standing up while I work. There is a lot of compelling research out there that suggests that standing while working helps you burn many more calories per day and has many other health benefits.

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  • All the New Things: My Personal Life

    This is the third and final installment in a short series I’m calling All the New Things.

    It’s now a few days after my birthday, I’ll wrap up my reflections on the past year and some of the changes that I’ve seen.

    My Personal Life

    This year has been a fairly big year for me in my personal life. As I mentioned last time, I started working from home. To be closer to her office and so that I could have my own dedicated home office, my wife Abigail and I moved to a new apartment in Cambridge, MA.

    In addition, this year I have started doing things I hadn’t really done before: fundraising for charities I want to support, and exercising. Both at the same time, actually.

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  • All the New Things: Work

    This is the second in a short series I’m calling All the New Things.

    It’s a few days before my birthday, which seems like a good time to reflect on the past year and some of the changes that I’ve seen. Over the next few days, I’ll write a few posts on some of the more significant changes I’ve noticed this year in my life.


    For just about a year and a half I have been working from home for a Treehouse Agency. For nearly the entire duration I’ve been working on just a single project, It has been an outstanding project and a great first year with Treehouse. Recently I have finished up my term with Zagat, so the past week or so has been ripe with change as I start on new projects.

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  • All the New Things: This Website

    Posted on 16 Nov 2011.

    This is the first in a short series I’m calling All the New Things.

    It’s a few days before my birthday, which seems like a good time to reflect on the past year and some of the changes that I’ve seen. Over the next few days, I’ll write a few posts on some of the more significant changes I’ve noticed this year in my life.

    This Website

    It seems appropriate to start with talking about this site as one of the many new things I’ve done this year. This website is brand new as of just yesterday.

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  • Developer-Enforced Design Flaws

    Posted on 04 Nov 2011.

    This morning, I happened upon “Wired’s Essential Apps for 2011” and quickly found myself frowning. I wasn’t frowning because of the Wired editors’ decisions about which apps are the best, it was because I was frustrated with a glaring design problem in their article and I suspect I know the reason it looks so bad:

    Developers Built it That Way

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  • The Stone Fence, a Great Drink for Autumn

    Posted on 31 Oct 2011.

    This past weekend, Abigail and I hosted a party to celebrate Abigail’s birthday. Apple cider is one of Abigail’s favorite Fall treats and she asked if there were any good mixed drinks that used cider as an ingredient.

    A few minutes of searching brought me to an old drink called the Stone Fence, which I heartily recommend.

    From what I have learned, the Stone Fence is a traditional drink from New England dating back to around the time of the American Revolution. It’s a fairly simple and straight-forward mixed drink and has a number of my favorite Autumn flavors.

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  • Selecting text with JavaScript

    Posted on 27 Oct 2011.

    Today I was working on a small tool to take some text that a user selects and copy it into a textarea to store ‘notes.’

    While I was researching how to do all of that, I figured out how to select arbitrary text on the page and highlight it, as though the user had dragged her cursor and selected it, using JavaScript.

    The following snippet uses some jQuery to select an element, but it could just as easily be written without it.

    <script type="text/javascript">
      var rng = document.createRange($('p').get(0));

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  • The fragmented state of mobile app development

    Posted on 01 Apr 2007.

    I’m not a huge fan of FlashLite 1.1. I’ve been playing around with it for the last few days in a mobile development class I’m taking, and I find myself really just waiting to move on to FlashLite 2.0 or something else entirely.

    It isn’t that FlashLite 1.1 is bad its just different. And inconsistent. I’m very glad that Adobe (Macromedia at the time) worked in what of the dot syntax they could, but I find myself wishing they had done more.

    I’m also sad that the MC Tween library doesn’t work in 1.1; though my friend Sven discovered that MC Tween’s new AS2/AS3 class, Tweener, will work in 2.0. I haven’t tried that out, but I certainly intend to soon.

    It is too bad that American cellular providers haven’t gotten more on the ball and started putting out more phones with FlashLite 1.1 support or, better, FlashLite 2.x support. Verizon has taken leaps and bounds by partnering with Adobe to get FlashLite in BREW; but then we discover that phones which use FlashLite for core applications, like the menus in the LG Chocolate, don’t have the ability to run a stand-alone swf player. In order for me to get Flash content to my friend’s Chocolate, I’ll have to wrap it up into a Java/BREW wrapper and even then it won’t work unless we get a developer key since my experiments obviously aren’t being sold through Verizon’s store.

    Even a pair of Nokia test phones I have access to aren’t the greatest for testing. Their memory cards are buried beneath the batteries, so we beam the files via Bluetooth. You’d think that’d be fine…except the Nokias don’t natively know what to do with the swf, so you can’t move them out of the inbox without a third party tool. Add to that the stand-alone flash player for the Nokias can’t navigate into the inbox folders to open the files and you’re stuck again.

    I’m discovering that even mobile application development is in something of a war-torn state just like mobile web development. Too many platforms with not enough consistency and tools which just don’t work the way their desktop counterparts do.

    Adobe’s new Device Central looks very promising; it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the support for mobile web browsing testing Device Central promises. Since every phone has its own unique browser and they all seem to behave totally different from one another, I’m left wondering if Device Central will really be able to mimic what our cellphones do.

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  • I've been busy: an online RSVP app

    Posted on 25 Mar 2007.

    The last few weeks have been quite busy for me with wedding planning, work, and my final semester of school ramping up for the death star trench run of projects and finals. I did, however, find some time last week to create this new web app: an online RSVP system so that all of the guests we are inviting can quickly and easily tell us whether or not they’ll be attending. Sure, I could have just sent self-addressed and stamped return envelopes with our invitations, but where’s the fun in that?

    Not giving out the address for this app since I don’t want the whole world hacking my RSVP app, but if you’re really curious about it, leave a comment here. I built it using just straight PHP, MySQL, and then the JQuery library for some added pizzaz.

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  • Accessibility and the Mobile Web

    Posted on 20 Feb 2007.

    The mobile web is still pretty new. There are a lot of different browsers and not a lot of standardization across them. It’s something like the browser wars of Netscape v. Internet Explorer from 10 years ago. Only on steroids.

    I’m no stranger to dealing with cross-browser compatibility, but when you start talking about supporting mobile browsers, support just gets insane. Pocket IE renders completely different than Opera Mini and both render completely different than a phone’s built-in browser, and then different phones have different built-in browsers. And none of them are specifically target-able, like IE for the desktop is (similar to how we cannot really target IE/Mac).

    Even worse is lackadaisical support for the handheld media type for CSS. Pocket IE uses both the Screen and Handheld types, but defaults to Screen, whereas some devices like Blackberry’s just pretend to be desktop computers but their browsers hardly support anything. It’s really quite aggravating.

    And then we get into the actual accessibility of the browsers, or rather, lack thereof. Opera Mini doesn’t support accesskey declarations. This isn’t a huge problem, but when you consider how long some websites can become when forced to only be 176 pixels wide, losing the ability to just hit a key on the phone and skip past parts of the content sucks. Of course, that also assumes that named anchor links work, which some browsers (Opera Mini I’m looking at you again) don’t support.

    The only hope we have is for people to create logical, semantic websites that degrade well.

    Hopefully the next few years will show some sort of standardization occurring across the myriad mobile phones and browsers in how they interpret and interact with the web. Mobile web is still in its infancy, but it will grow up quickly.

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