I Am Joe’s Blog:

December 31, 2011 • 11:59 PM

What I Did in 2011

I don’t have many end-of-year customs, but every December 31, without fail, I indulge in at least a few hours of self-pity as I think about all my unmet goals from the previous year, all the unfinished projects I promised myself would be behind me, and the enormous backlog of work I have confronting me on January 2. Although I don’t make resolutions as such, every year I plan to manage my schedule better so this doesn’t happen again. But despite my best efforts, every year I seem to fall further behind. I reflect on the things that went wrong—all the unexpected illnesses, glitches, and interruptions that cost me days or weeks of work—and feel as though the last 12 months have surely been the least productive ever.

As a partial antidote to this useless and self-defeating frame of mind, I decided two years ago to look back carefully and figure out exactly what I did manage to accomplish that year. It turned out that What I Did in 2009 was a lot more than I’d thought, and that made me feel a bit better. So I did the same thing last year, and sure enough, What I Did in 2010 was, if not everything I’d hoped for, more than enough to make me feel like I was a responsible citizen, worker, husband, and father. So I’ve decided to institutionalize this exercise and make it an annual event—at least until that hypothetical point in the future when I’m so completely caught up and together that it wouldn’t occur to me to feel my efforts had been lacking. As if!

Here, then, is what I remember accomplishing in 2011:

I also spent quite a bit of time doing non-work-related stuff:

I even managed to keep my family fed, clothed, sheltered, and reasonably content—that’s probably the biggest feat of all!

I wouldn’t be so foolish as to make any proclamations about how much better 2012 is going to be. All I can say is, my hopes, plans, and goals remain as ambitious as always, and now I have yet another chance to make good on them. Here we go!

Happy New Year!

August 25, 2011 • 8:09 PM

The Dave and Sarah Effect

Morgen, Soren, and I recently moved to a new apartment here in Paris. We owe our success to Dave and Sarah—something we could also say about our last move, three years ago, except it was a different Dave and Sarah then. The story only gets weirder from there.

Moves are always traumatic, and even though I’ve been through the process enough times that I should have it down to a science, this particular move stands out as being the most tiring and involved ever. For a variety of reasons, I thought this latest move of less than two miles away from our old home was considerably more difficult than moving from San Francisco to Paris! But as painful as the moving process itself can be, one of the most stressful parts of any move is finding a new home. In this city where housing prices are high and competition is fierce, we had the additional disadvantages of being foreigners, not being fluent in French, and not having conventional jobs—all of which makes potential landlords wary of us.

We found our first Paris apartment online, before leaving the U.S. It was a perfectly nice place—furnished, spacious, and conveniently located—but expensive. After nearly a year we were feeling like we should be able to live more cheaply, and started looking around for a new place. We were hoping to have a fairly relaxed moving schedule, but then our landlord told us that he’d be selling the place as soon as our lease was up, so we were obligated to find a new apartment in a hurry.

Weeks went by, and we weren’t having much luck. Then our friends Dave and Sarah announced that they’d decided to move back to Canada. We had met Dave and Sarah at a Paris Expat Canadian Meetup event here, and within just a few months they’d become some of our closest friends in Paris. We were extremely sad to see them go, but when we realized their apartment would suddenly be vacant, we asked if just maybe they could put in a good word for us with their landlord and spare us further apartment-hunting agony. And that’s exactly what happened. Thanks to their glowing recommendation, we were offered the lease on their old place. Everything about the arrangement was fantastic—the apartment was smaller but in an even better location, and the rent was about 500 euros less per month than we’d been paying! And our new landlord, Alexis, was one of the nicest people we’d ever met. He didn’t make us jump through all the usual hoops to which Paris renters are often subject, and throughout our entire stay there we got along splendidly.

Fast forward three years. After Soren was born, we’d started feeling increasingly cramped in our two-room apartment—and as he became more mobile, our discomfort grew. We started talking about moving again, but given the number of other tasks on our plates, we’d decided that we wouldn’t start looking in earnest until the fall. Then, around the end of April, Alexis called to say he was going to be selling the apartment (hmmm—where had I heard that before?), so we’d have to be out by the beginning of August. Once again, we quickly shifted our priorities to make apartment hunting number one.

We searched and searched, but even after a month we had no solid leads. There were very few apartments that were both spacious enough and inexpensive enough for our needs, and every time we thought we found one, something bizarre happened to take it out of the running. Several times we tried to make appointments to see apartments advertised by rental agencies, only to be told after weeks of back-and-forth discussions that, for inexplicable reasons, the landlord couldn’t make arrangements with the current tenants to schedule a viewing. One lead was especially promising—an offer to take over the lease of a long-time tenant and also buy a bunch of appliances and furnishings for a song. But the old tenant kept changing the date for our viewing, and when we finally saw the apartment, weeks after it had first been planned, she informed us that another couple had just submitted their dossier and would therefore be given first choice. Grrrr!

As our desperation increased, we decided to spam pretty much everyone we know in Paris just to see if they knew of any apartments that might work for us. Almost immediately we got an email from a friend of ours named Dave. We had met this Dave and his wife Sarah at—you guessed it—the Canadian Meetup, a few months after our old friends Dave and Sarah had left town. Not only were both couples Canadian, but both of the Daves work in computers, and both of the Sarahs have given birth within the last six months. What are the chances? Well, Dave #2 said that his boss, Christophe, had an apartment for rent that might be just what we’re looking for, and he’d be happy to make the introduction. He did, and although it required several weeks, a few meetings, and some negotiations, we eventually signed the lease on that apartment. Like our last one, it’s much more affordable than what we could have found on the open market, and once again, the personal connection meant that it was much easier to convince the landlord of our worthiness as tenants than if we had been complete strangers.

So: two consecutive apartments in Paris came to us (three years apart) thanks to Canadian couples named Dave and Sarah, after the owners of the previous apartments decided to sell. I’m simply agog at the sheer improbability of all this, and in fact I’ve left out half a dozen other odd little coincidences that reinforce the curiosity. If I were the sort of person who believed in cosmic signs, I’d have to say this is a mighty striking one, although I couldn’t even begin to guess what it might be a sign of. I find it noteworthy, though, that my life frequently exhibits patterns like this—at a certain distance, from a certain angle, I can see these forms that are as symmetrical, elegant, and puzzling as crop circles. I don’t know what they mean, but they sure are pretty to look at.

July 9, 2011 • 4:59 PM

The Nisus Temporal Vortex

A curious confluence of events has occurred.

Recently, I wrote a review of Nisus Writer Pro 2.0 for TidBITS in which I made the point that this new version finally restores much of what the Nisus Writer of the mid-1990s lost during the transition to Mac OS X. And, I said that being able to do real work in this outstanding application feels like coming home again after years of wandering in the wilderness. I also mentioned, in a different context, that “I remained in Nisus’s gravitational pull” for a long time. But as it turns out, it’s more than that. I appear to be caught in a full-on Nisus temporal vortex.

Last night I downloaded a copy of Marathon for iPad. Mac gamers with a nostalgic streak remember Marathon as being a great, early first-person shooter. I remember it as being the game that all the guys at Nisus would play on the company’s network after hours. I was never much of a gamer, but I played Marathon (rather poorly) for the social interaction, which conveniently required no actual human contact. When I think of Marathon, I think of my years working at Nisus. That it should come out at just the time I’m able to start using Nisus Writer again felt mildly significant.

But then things got more interesting. Today, Morgen, Soren, and I had lunch with Rev. Heng Sure, a Buddhist monk I met while I was working at Nisus. (He happened to be in Paris for a special event and invited us to stop by for a visit.) The story is this. Back in 1996, I was planning a trip to Berkeley to give a talk at the Berkeley Mac User Group (BMUG) about Nisus Writer, since I’d just written a book about it (The Nisus Way). A fax arrived at Nisus with my name on it, from this mysterious fellow in Berkeley named Heng Sure. He explained that he was a Buddhist monk, that he’d enjoyed reading my book on Nisus Writer, that he’d heard I was going to be in Berkeley, and that he was hoping I might be persuaded to stop by the monastery for a cup of tea so he could meet me and get my autograph. The fax included his email address, so I decided to email him back to say sure, I’d be happy to.

A day or two later I received this reply:

Subject:     surely this is a test
Sent:        8/22/96 8:37 PM
Received:    8/22/96 9:08 PM
From:        Rev. Heng Sure, paramita@sirius.com
To:          Joe Kissell, joe@nisus-soft.com

Joe,
Your message was tantalizing, with the by-line "your fax", then the 
body of the message completely blank. Being a monk of the Ch'an (Zen) 
school, I first assumed that you were making a statement about 
sunyata, the ultimate hollow core at the heart of all conditioned, 
component things. Then I reflected that not everybody is a Zen master, 
and perhaps you simply hit delete command-x instead of paste command-c? 
It was still blank. I figured it must be a test of my sincerity. Did I 
really want to attend your talk at BMUG?

That option left me still hungry to know your reaction to my message, 
which is where I remain, bemused, and unenlightened about your visit to 
Berkeley. So relying on your compassion, may I request a repeat of your 
message to my fax? If it turns up blank again, I will put my palms 
together, and contemplate the void at the heart of binary reality, as 
you so instruct. :->

Peace in the Dharma,

Heng Sure

I think that was the best email message I’ve ever received. I wrote back, we made the appropriate arrangements, and long story short, I’ve been pleased to count Heng Sure as a friend ever since. (I have more great stories about him, which I may share at some point in the future.)

Anyway, I hadn’t seen him since his last visit to Paris, almost four years ago. So it was great to catch up. During the course of our discussion he asked me if I’d heard about the album he put out in 2008. He said that besides selling it on iTunes and CD Baby, he was making the MP3 files available free to anyone who performed an act of kindness and wrote to tell him about it. That seemed like a nice idea, but when I went to the Web site, I had some problems. I wrote to tell him about them:

I went to your Web site (http://www.dharmaradio.org/paramita/) and 
tried to click both of the "Acts of Kindness" links. The one at the 
top of the page pointed to http://media.berkeleymonastery.org/paramita/ 
and that said "Server Error 403 - Forbidden: Access is denied." The one 
at the bottom of the page pointed to http://www.dharmatreasure.org/
paramita, which told me "Sorry, there's no such page." And, when I click 
the iTunes link on the "Purchase CD" page I get an error message from 
Apple! I just thought I should inform you about those so you can see 
about repairing the links...unless this is an exercise in contemplating 
emptiness, in which case, it's a novel approach that I quite 
appreciate :-). Meanwhile, I did a manual search for your album on iTunes 
and made a $9.99 donation. Downloading now!

I think that’s the appropriate way to complete the circle. Or more likely, it just keeps on spinning.

(By the way, there is a real, functioning iTunes link if you look hard enough.)

March 28, 2011 • 7:20 PM

Care to Join Me for a Cruise?

Hey, are you busy a year from next month? Care to join me for a cruise…and a tour of CERN?

I’ll be a featured speaker on the MacMania 14 cruise, which will run from April 12–19, 2012. This is the first time MacMania is doing a river cruise, and it sounds fantastic: leave from Amsterdam and follow the Rhine through Germany (and, eventually, along the French border), with stops in such interesting locations as Cologne and Strasbourg. The cruise ends in Basel, after which you can opt for an add-on tour of CERN in Geneva (I’m so there!) or a few days exploring Paris (I’m, uh, already there). The classes I conduct will cover both Macs and iOS devices, with a special emphasis on the iPad. (By the way, if you read the descriptions of my sessions, you may be able to find a subtle clue as to the subject of my next Take Control book.) Other MacMania 14 speakers are Josimar King and Chris Marquardt.

But wait, there’s more! This particular cruise happens to share the same ship and itinerary as the Bright Horizons 12 cruise, sponsored by Scientific American. So you can also attend seminars on astronomy, neuroscience, and other fascinating scientific topics.

The cruise and its various add-ons are, as these things tend to be, on the pricey side, but I think it’ll be money extremely well spent. Start saving your pennies (or centimes) now.

A good time will be had by all; I hope you’ll join us!