Monthly Archives: June 2009

Balsamiq Mockups Rocks

I ran into Balsamiq Mockups last Tuesday at about 11PM. By 2AM I was placing an order, with bleary eyes. Balsamiq is just that much fun to play with.

Balsamiq is just $79, runs on Mac, Windows, Linux, and in a web browser, and is a straight-up joy to use. It’s quicker than drawing by hand, with a much better end result. It auto-aligns objects, offers easy customizations in most of the ways you would expect (and a few you wouldn’t), and supports re-layering and multiple levels of grouping.

The only obvious shortcomings are minor: there is no way to add to the library of controls — they add more upon request, and you can import an image if you like; and it seems as if it may have a slow memory leak — after an hour or so, it seems like saving, exiting, and re-opening is a good idea because it’s slowed down a bit. Peldi, the creator of Balsamiq says the latest version should improve this (see his comment below); I’ve just downloaded it. Both of those are minor compared to the sheer exhilaration of how perfectly focused this product is.

I should also mention that I took Balsamiq in to work with me the next day. Our Product staff fell in love with it immediately. They pretty much demanded that their boss buy it for them, and just like that it’s the tool of choice at work for doing product design. I’m not kidding, it’s just that good.


Bicycling the coast — of Los Angeles

Yesterday I rode my recumbent almost sixty miles. Here’s the Google Map of the route (nearly — Google doesn’t handle bike paths) and a picture:


My bike is from S&B Recumbents. It’s a short wheelbase (the pedals are in front of the front wheel) under seat steering (as it says) bike. Here’s a picture of a bike very much like mine:

In the past fifteen years, that’s the first time I’ve bicycled more than twenty miles, and only the third time I’ve bicycled more than five miles.

The ride went well. I took off at about 9AM, took a few breaks along the way, and wrapped up about 4PM. For most of the time I was riding I think I was making 10-15 MPH, which isn’t great but it isn’t bad either, given that it was my first try at this distance in well over a decade. My legs were worn out by the end, but I think I could definitely do it again tomorrow.

This is my first recumbent, and I’m starting to get used to it. The bike is comfortable to ride, but a bit squirrelly. It will never be a no-hands bike, but I’m pretty comfortable with one hand now. Likewise with high speed: on my old Univega I got up to fifty MPH on steep downhills; on this bike I think I’d be nervous above thirty. Like all recumbents it’s weak on the hills, but then so am I, so it works out. I have really low gearing on it, so I can spin along at about 3 MPH if I need to. With the new larger front wheel I feel much more confident going over bumps and through potholes. I need to get better shade for my face, and I need to figure out how to keep the sweat out of my eyes. I thought I was going to go blind on the hills.

My daughter Aja is going off to Humboldt University in the Fall. She wants to take the Subaru with her, so I’m thinking about taking her up there with the bike on the roof, and then riding back. Some people have said I’m nuts. I figure I can just set a time frame and then see how far I get. I’ve done it before, so why not?

Riding the Coast Twenty Years Ago

About twenty years ago I bicycled the coast of California, from Crescent City to San Diego. I didn’t prepare much, except for the fact that I didn’t own a car. I bicycled everywhere. I lived about three miles from work and bicycled both ways every day. I had a Univega Gran Touring set up with racks front and back, and panniers all around.

Prep Number One: The coldest night of my life

A few months before I cycled the coast I did a two-day ride through the Cuyamaca Mountains. Here’s the Google Map of the route, and a picture:

The A of the starting point is covered by the C of the end point. I rode up the short way (the lower route) and back the long way.
The start and end points overlap at C. I rode up the short way (the lower route) and back the long way.

I rode up along highway 8, and covered about 40 miles that day, the longest ride I’d ever been on. That night I stayed at one of the campgrounds in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. It’s not common knowledge that state parks took walk/ride ins regardless of how full they were. They didn’t give me an assigned spot — they just pointed to an empty area and said I could stay there, but not to set up until later in the evening.

I only had a K-Mart special sleeping bag with me: no tent, no pad, no additional clothes. That night was so cold that I didn’t sleep much. I closed the sleeping back around my head (it wasn’t designed that way) and breathed through the small remaining hole. I would doze off, wake, open the bag enough to look out and see that it was still dark, curse my fate and stupidity for not bringing more clothes, and then try to get back to sleep. The next day I found out that in Julian (lower in the mountains) it had been sub-freezing that night. I’m lucky I didn’t lose some toes in addition to sleep…

Prep Number Two: I have now ridden farther than I ever have before, and I am only half way there

I wanted to get some real distance in, and I wanted to try out the panniers, which I had bought after the Cuyamaca ride. The YMCA did a two-day double-century: 100 miles up to Los Angeles on a Saturday, then 100 miles back to San Diego on Sunday. That seemed like a reasonable goal. Of course, I lived in La Mesa, twenty miles from the starting point. No problem! I just started out an hour early and… when I got to the start, the others had already left. So I simply turned right (north) and followed them.

There’s a reason most people ride the coast north to south — and it’s not because it’s downhill, as you will hear at least once if you tell anyone you’re going to ride the coast. It’s because the prevailing onshore winds tend to be behind you if you ride south, but ahead of you if you ride north. So by the time I got to the wind tunnel also known as Camp Pendleton, I was pretty tired. With my panniers front and back loaded with stuff I wouldn’t need until the actual coast ride and a ten to twenty MPH headwind, I was making six to seven MPH heading through some pretty empty territory.

As I rode along at that miserable pace, I hit sixty miles for the day and realized that I had at that point ridden as far as I ever had before (day two of the Cuyamaca ride, and that really was all downhill) and I was only half way through the day’s ride. That was a serious low point. I kept going, though, and made it. The ride back was hard, but not nearly as hard as that.

Life expectancy in the 1800s not as bad as reported

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people write about how life expectancy has gone up dramatically because of modern [medicine|sanitation|technology|whatever]. Often they report (as this site does) (edit: here’s another) that the average life expectancy has increased to near-80 from something under 50 (43 in the first example, 62 in the 1930s in the second). For some time I’ve wondered whether this was life expectancy at birth (and therefore affected by infant mortality), which would be quite different than everyone keeling over before their grandchildren are out of diapers. This site gives the answer:

Life Expectancy by Age, 1850–2004 —

…and it’s clear that infant mortality was the issue in the 1800s, not general early death. Looking at white males (the first table) the life expectancy at birth in 1850 was indeed a dismal 38.3 years. But that’s incredibly misleading.
At age 10 the life expectancy had increased to 58.0 years.
The final number goes up for each subsequent column, but the big jump in life expectancy is from 0 to 10:
  • 0 to 10 — 19.7 years
  • 10 to 20 — 2.1 years
  • 20 to 30 — 3.9 years
  • 30 to 40 — 3.9 years
  • 40 to 50 — 3.7 years
  • 50 to 60 — 4.0 years
  • 60 to 70 — 4.6 years
  • 70 to 80 — 5.7 years.
The difference in life expectancy for a newborn and a ten year-old doesn’t mean that a newborn could actually expect to live an average of 38.3 years. It means that a newborn faced two distinct possible futures: he had somewhere between a 60 and 66% chance of living 58 years; and he had somewhere between a 34 and 40% chance of not living to see double-digits. The variance is due to the unknown average age of death for under-10s. If they all died as infants, then roughly 34% died that way. If they all died as 9 year-olds (far less likely it would seem) then 40% of them died that way. In any case, it’s fair to say that the majority of the reported prolonging of life is due to reducing childhood mortality
Comparing just life expectancy for 20 year-olds, in 1850 a young man could expect to live to 60.1. In 2004, that same man could expect to live to 76.7. That’s a significant improvement, but considering that in 1850 the germ theory of disease was just being formalized, it seems a little less impressive.

The future of movies is small

Once upon a time, a musician needed a lot of help to be successful. The best way to find out about new music was by listening to radio, which requires expensive broadcasting equipment and access to limited transmission frequencies. The best (only) way of distributing music was on physical media, purchased in a physical store. Recording music required expensive equipment. All the barriers to a musician successfully reaching an audience needed help — expensive help — to overcome.

One by one, the barriers have come down. It’s now possible for someone like Bo Burnham to reach the world from their bedroom.

The same thing is now happening to movies. At the same time the Hollywood studios seem unable to make even a small character piece for less than $60 million, independent filmmakers are turning out credible work for little more than lunch money.

Colin (site down at the moment, here’s the Google cache) tells an apparently engaging zombie story in a full length movie, was made for a few hundred dollars, and was a hit at Cannes.

Here’s a short film, also made for a few hundred dollars, and loaded with special effects.

If Hollywood continues to spend $200 million to make an action film, they’ll soon be as irrelevant as the music industry already is.

The Last Psychiatrist: Ramachandran’s Mirror

In my post 1. Make a Checklist 2. Save Lives I talked about the amazing results Peter Provonost is achieving with seemingly trivial checklists. He created a five-step checklist for putting in an IV and reduced infection rates to near-zero, saving hundreds of lives.

Here’s an article on another seemingly simple technique with remarkable results: The Last Psychiatrist: Ramachandran’s Mirror. Amputees with phantom limb syndrome often suffer agonizing pain from cramps in limbs that aren’t there (and therefore can’t be relaxed). This pain can often be relieved simply by using a mirror to fool the brain into thinking the limb is in place, and clenching/unclenching a few times.

The point of the article isn’t the technique itself. It’s about the fact that the author, a psychiatrist, knew about Ramachandran’s Mirror for years before considering trying it with a particular patient.

In both cases, the problem is one of perception. Doctors think a checklist, especially a simple one, is unnecessary, and aren’t prepared to consider the facts. Likewise, things like Ramachandran’s Mirror, which actually work, aren’t considered, probably because they seem similar to other things (homeopathy comes to mind) that don’t.

The whole thing reminds me of “thinking jail.”