Archive for September, 2004

September 9th, 2004

Measuring Spiciness

As explained in this article on Tabasco sauce, there is an objective, scientific way to measure the spiciness of foods; peppers or hot sauces subjected to this test get a rating in Scoville heat units. Unfortunately, these measurements are never used where it counts: on menus in Mexican, Szechwan, and Thai restaurants. The menus sometimes have little chile symbols, or sometimes just asterisks, that are supposed to indicate how spicy a dish is. But these symbols are arbitrary, they vary from one restaurant to the next, and they are nearly always (in my experience) meaningless.

Even worse: the suggestion “Specify desired level of spiciness.” I do, but they never take me seriously. Maybe I just look like some lightweight gringo who can’t handle his capsaicin, but no matter how spicy I order my food, it’s almost never even hot enough to make my eyes water, which is beginning to approach “hot enough” in my book.

A case in point: One day I went to a Thai restaurant and ordered the dish on the menu with the most chiles next to it. The waitress asked how hot I wanted it. I said, “Extremely hot.” She looked at me with a concerned expression. “Extremely hot?” she asked. “Incredibly hot,” I replied. The concerned expression turned to a puzzled, worried look. “Wait a minute, do you want it extremely hot or incredibly hot?” Clearly, we were experiencing a communication failure.

I tried a different tactic. “I want you to make it as hot as it possibly can be,” I said. The waitress paused for a moment to let this sink in, then gave me a horrified expression, as though I had just asked her to set me on fire. Finally, she said, slowly, “You mean…like death?” “YES!” I exclaimed, delighted that my message had finally gotten through. “Hot like death. Exactly. Please.” She regarded me severely for another moment, wrote something down on her pad, and disappeared into the kitchen.

When the dish arrived, it was noticeably spicy—I’m going to go out on a limb and say maybe two out of four peppers. But not death. Not even “pass-the-hanky” hot. What a disappointment.

September 8th, 2004

Cat Replacement

When you’ve been married for a while and are comfortably settled, inevitably you start longing to hear the pitter-patter of little feet. So naturally you think about getting a cat.

I’ve always been allergic to cats, but not severely so—as long as I wash my hands regularly and the the cat doesn’t, like, lick my face, I’m in pretty good shape. Years ago I had a cat, though, that apparently intuited my level of sensitivity to dander and out of pure spite took to sleeping on my pillow with me. Bad cat.

Anyway, Morgen and I have so far had an imaginary cat, which was until today the only kind our landlady allowed. After considerable pleading, sweet-talking, and solemn promises of diligent carpet care, we finally got a phone call today saying it would be OK if we got a real cat after all. This is exciting, because in my opinion, the occasional sneeze or sniffle far outweighs the benefits of cat ownership, which include distracting you from getting work done, supporting your local pet shop, and keeping your home free of imaginary mice.

But more importantly, owning a cat will give me the only possible excuse to buy a gadget I’ve always wanted: the LitterMaid electronic self-cleaning litterbox. Oooh, and maybe one of those robot vacuums to pick up all the hairs, as well as tease play with the cat when we’re away. Just thinking about the home-automation possibilities fills me with joy.

So in the near future we’ll make a trek to the local shelter or SPCA to have a look at some kittens and then, perhaps, a little gadget spree on eBay.

September 8th, 2004

How to Succeed in Publishing Without Really Trying

I’ve always marveled at the role sheer randomness has played in my career.

For example, when I got the contract to write my first computer book (about 10 years ago now), it was only because I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was doing tech support for Nisus Software, and I happened to be answering mail sent to one of the company’s email addresses. A publisher wrote to the company at that address to ask if we knew of any Nisus-using authors who might be willing to write a book on the program. I mentioned a few names, and then said I myself would be extremely interested. One thing led to another, and I got the gig. And the fact that I’d had one book published gave me enough currency in the publishing biz to do a second one, and so on.

In today’s mail I found my copy of the October, 2004 issue of Macworld magazine, featuring an article by yours truly—my first for the magazine. Again, the way I got the assignment was pretty random. I’d written an ebook on dealing with Spam in Apple Mail, and just before the ebook was published, a Macworld editor had joined our Take Control authors’ mailing list. She read about my ebook and told me that another editor at the magazine had been looking for someone to write an article about spam, and would I be interested? Absolutely—I’ve wanted to write for Macworld for a long time.

But here’s what I find interesting. For its first couple of months, Take Control of Spam with Apple Mail did not sell particularly well. However, its publication led to interviews for radio shows and Wired News, not to mention the Macworld article, so it’s had the biggest PR impact of any of my titles. After the companion ebook Take Control of Email with Apple Mail came out, the two titles seemed to boost each other’s sales, and now both are quite successful. So even though the ebook by itself didn’t generate a huge amount of interest, it spawned other processes (so to speak) that indirectly reinforced its sales. And with the upcoming publication of these two books together in printed form from Peachpit, I’m hoping the exposure we get from appearing on bookstore shelves will make even more people aware of the Take Control series and perpetuate the cycle further.

September 7th, 2004


September means back to school and the beginning of fall for many people in the northern hemisphere. But in San Francisco, it means the beginning of summer. While I can usually count on the weather to be pleasantly cool, humid, and (often) foggy here, we’ve now entered our annual hot season, which will last for one or two months. I enjoy the sunshine—as long as I can enjoy it from the comfort of a cool, shady room. Alas, air conditioners are all but unknown in this city, and on days (like today) with no breeze in Glen Park, our south-facing house gets uncomfortably hot. Especially my office, which in addition to getting the brunt of the sun, is full of computers and other heat-generating electronic equipment. In short: it’s sandal weather here, and since every blog needs a “hello world” entry to get it started, I’m pulling mine up by the sandal straps today.

Even though I write daily articles for Interesting Thing of the Day, a vaguely bloglike publication—and even though I once had a massive and frequently updated personal home page listing every detail about my life—I’ve so far resisted participation in the whole personal blog phenomenon. It’s just too trendy, and besides, it takes so much effort to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But I’ve finally made the momentous decision to put those prejudices behind me, for several reasons.

First, I often find myself wanting to comment on current events, and that sort of thing just doesn’t fit into the mold of ITotD. Second, most of the writing I do requires scrupulous attention to spelling, grammar, and style—which is OK, but sometimes I like to kick back and write in a more relaxed way without worrying about word counts, deadlines, templates, or making editors happy. And finally, I wanted to be able to write about my work—Interesting Thing of the Day, alt concepts, ebooks, and so on—because increasingly people tell me they’re curious about what goes on behind the scenes.

So I’ve redone my personal home page and added this blog, which will henceforth be the new repository for news and commentary about my life, my work, and anything I notice that I think is worth sharing. It’s also where I’ll say anything I have to say about the books I read, movies I watch, music I listen to, and so on. I’d like to keep this informal and interactive; I invite your comments, questions, and suggestions.

Because this system is brand new, I assume that things like styles and layout will change as time goes on in order to make the site prettier and easier to navigate. I make absolutely no guarantees as to the frequency or quality of the posts, but I’d like to think that the very lack of pressure to produce will encourage me to write more.