Growing up I found my identity in mastery. I had a gift to be able to figure things out and do them well. School was mostly a joke to me even throughout my college years and I found success in my job. Being accomplished was a comfort to me: when I came home crying in third grade because I felt like I had no friends, it was a consolation to hear that some of my troubles relating were due to my abilities. Success wrapped itself around me and became what defined me, became my drug.

If you don’t already know where this is going, it’s an introduction to a great irony. I’ve learned as much in my years to judge with great suspicion anyone who seems to have things going really well; someone who seems to “have things figured out.” Nobody has it all figured out and nobody is without their own issues. Some people lay out their problems in front of everyone else, others hold it in private. This is me, and you should have been suspicious too.

The great irony then is that I’ve struggled in the most intense way for years with what have been personal failures in the greatest degree. I’ve been difficult to live with and bitter to my wife and followed in the footsteps of my father, whose demand for control was only matched by his need to hide problems and appear fine on the outside. I have failed and failed again to live up to my dreams and expectations, spiraling into defeatism and grochery.

It’s very difficult to let down the smokescreen, and while several of my close friends have tracked along with me throughout the past couple of years, I have tried to keep it mostly hidden from the outside: it is incongruous with my identity: the one who succeeds.

The honest-to-goodness truth is that for most of my life I have been emotionally unstable, scarred from a childhood of shouting and manipulation, perplexingly dependent on having friends nearby, and plagued by depression and anger.

These and other maladies have been continually more difficult to resolve with my faith, which tells me they are the exact kinds of things Jesus wants to take away from me. I haven’t been willing to let them go, and I haven’t been willing to give in. I am the one in charge; I can master it!

At the end of a long journey, I believe I have hit the bottom. I’m not into drugs, not into prostitution, not running away from the law; just plain old spent and foolish and hopeless. I have to kill this terrible identity if I will ever conquer this dark part of my life and draw nearer to God; so now you know – I’m not a success.

I’ve been running a lot the past couple of years. My job at Automattic has helped me to run away time and time again. Each voyage of great adventure has brought with it a marked note of let-down; that my opportunity to see the world was also an indictment on my inability to cope with the stresses as home and with the man I had become.

I’m done with that journey, tired and ready to go home, hoping that I haven’t completely ruined the home I have to return to from my own destructive habits. I will be grateful for your prayers as I learn to repent and try to be reborn into a more honest and life-giving identity.


My company, Automattic, currently employs over four hundred people scattered across the world. Last week I was attending a meetup in Dublin – a jam-packed week where a few of us get together “in real life” to work together. While transiting through the Dallas airport I bumped into Steve, a coworker of mine who I hadn’t yet met. He was wearing a WordPress pullover and maybe something else with a logo on it. Seeing those, I showed him my WordPress bag from Timbuk 2 (something many of us have) and asked if he worked with me. It’s not too rare to meet with coworkers en-route to a specific meetup destination, but Steve was taking personal travel. On my way to meet coworkers in Dublin, I met another coworker at random in one of the larger and busier airports in the US.

It was one of those “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…” feelings, though only in the probability sort of way

After my meetup, I came to England for the Word Camp London event, a gathering of WordPress developers, users, agencies, hosts, etc… When I realized that I had a few extra minutes before I needed to leave in the morning to catch the tube, I decided to go downstairs and grab some of the free food available for breakfast at my hostel. As I stood there starting on my yoghurt, a woman was staring at me with a confused look on her face. After a short pause she asked, “Dennis?” and I realized that it was Britta, one of the friends Amanda and I had in Hannover while we were there last year.  In the middle of one of the biggest cities in Europe and in the basement of one probably two hundred or more hostels in London, I randomly met a friend from another place and time.

If the probability of these events happening on any given day were one-in-a-million and considering that I’ve been nomadding for about two years, then we find that the chance of this happening at least twice in that timespan is a little more than one-in-four-million (or a probability of 0.000000265956).

The first of many

This morning I got out and had the first European coffee in a while and it was mighty tasty. Maybe it’s because I started to develop my taste for coffe in Europe that I like it so much more than in the US, or maybe it’s flat-out better. It’s different in the way that chili can be different in one state or another: whether or not it’s served with pasta, for example.

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An AerLingus flight sails across a rainbow over Dublin

My flight into Dublin arrived yesterday a week ago just before 3:00pm local time. It was a particularly long day of travel because three flights were involved and I had started my journey in Tucson at 11:00am local time. That’s a total of twenty hours if I do the math correctly. There was no power or internet access on board the transatlantic flight and a small selection of movies, which made it rough for me since I couldn’t sleep and since my laptop didn’t have enough charge left to make it very far. Thankfully, despite being in the middle of the middle of the middle of the aircraft (the 777-200 had a 3-5-3 arrangement of seats in the economy sections), I was surrounded by a couple of polite women and we all had sufficient room.

Although known for its green, sometimes Ireland’s most vibrant color is rainstorm gray.

Of course, I came to Dublin to work. It had been over a year since my team at Automattic came together in person (excluding our all-company meetup) and we were due for it. Since our team’s focus was recently changed and since we will be working hand-in-hand with another team, it was a joint meetup. The first part of the week was fairly exhausting as we brainstormed and planned for our next year’s worth of work, but as we actually started the work it became a bit more pleasant.

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We had a joint meetup between my team and another team – working together on new goals.

Yesterday we took a tour into the mountains south of Dublin. Ireland is a very beautiful and calm country. There are mountains (literally) of peat and turf that used to be harvested to burn for heating. These hills are bogs-on-mountains and are not only protected now, but some of the most efficient and effective carbon sinks in the world. From nothing more than the carbon-dioxide that the grasses and shrubs suck in, they supposedly accumulate peat at a rate of approximately an inch every thirty years. That figure is really quite incredible.

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Billions of little prisms paint all of the colors across the sky above Dublin.

Back in Europe means back to cheap travel. My friend Donncha is flying to London (from Cork, Ireland) today to walk around the city and take pictures. He told me that his flight cost about 35€, or about $40.

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Some of my tentative plans for the next month.

I’ll be nomadding over the next month. Instead of flying home and then flying right back, I’m staying over here while Mandi finishes her semester. She’ll be joining me in May and until then I plan on doing some solo adventuring – hopefully to provide some interesting stories here.

Stragely, though I’m “more settled” in Tucson, I seem to have more time when travelling to do things like write on this blog. Right now it’s my short flight which gives me this opportunity; the first of many.

DMDX on Mac

Many of you know that my wife spends a good deal of her time studying the ways in which immigrant, refugee, and minority language learners acquire a new language differently than for those who grow up learning it in school. In this post, I am publishing instructions on how to install a piece of software, called DMDX, on a Macintosh computer with the hopes of making it easier for researchers like her to take advantage of this tool without further adding to its already long list of hassles.

Continue reading “DMDX on Mac”

A Fragile Balance

Trying to explain computer or cyber security can be like trying to explain how a nuclear reactor works – it’s complicated. Nonetheless, I want to take a moment with this post and share a letter that my company, Automattic, Inc., published today with respect to security and government requests as it relates to the recent case with Apple.

The greatest difference between the privacy one has in something like a diary and the privacy one has in the cyber world is a matter of speed and reach.

It’s simply not feasible to find the time and craft to sneak into everyone’s home in a city and look for their diaries, read them, then catalogue that information. On the other hand, if someone has a specific target and they spend the time preparing, they have a very high chance of sneaking in and getting what they want.

In the cyber world, however, things that would normally take weeks of planning and execution take place in milliseconds. Things happen so fast that we can’t feasibly spend the time planning to figure out what we want to find. Instead, it’s cheaper to just get in and take everything and then try to sort out the important findings later. In other words, even though the probability is low that we will get something valuable for any given break-in, we can repeat the experiment billions of times and hope for the best.

This is the difference between someone who takes a week to mold a key that fits your front door and then opens it easily and someone who has a ring with millions of keys on them and can try all of them out in seconds. Physically, we couldn’t try out that many keys that quickly, but electronically this happens all day every day around the Internet.

In related news, somebody recently discovered a security bug in a common piece of software that lots of other software in the industry relies on. The security relies on using very large prime numbers, but the one that had been used was discovered to be non-prime. Here is the number for reference.


When someone originally chose this number, they determined that there was a very low chance that it would turn out to be non-prime. In fact, that was a one-in-one-with-twenty-four-zeros-after-it chance that it would turn out to be non-prime, so there is very little blame to be given for the person who chose it. The fact that it’s not prime, however, means that the security behind the algorithm that was using it is severely crippled and it becomes trivial to break just by incorporating some simple math tricks.

The point of this is that computer and cyber security is a very fragile system and a small perturbation is more than enough to allow unintended parties to gain access to systems and data that were intended to be safe and private.Within a year of the release of DVDs to the mass markets and before there were even 10,000 DVDs sold globally, a 16-year-old hacker played a big role in cracking the security meant to prevent people from copying the films from the discs.

Today, the FBI and the Department of Justice is asking Apple to not only help them recover information from the iPhone of a terrorist, but they are asking Apple to build documented security flaws into the iPhone operating system. This is a fascinating and monumental case whose discussion is far broader than this post is able to cover. In short, the things the FBI wants would effectively eliminate any security mechanism built into Apple’s products and it would be no more than a short matter of time before other governments or malicious hackers got access to the same methods of access. Cyber security is a fragile thing and one weakness on one device is a major weakness to all related devices.

Apple has been doing all it legally can to refuse the request and protect its customers. We support their work and believe that the consequences of compliance will bring severe and broad risks to the protection of personal privacy, whether it protects those at risk of political retribution, embarrassing personal revelations, damaging financial misconduct, or even of the release of immodest pictures meant for specific audiences.

Following is the amicus brief published today by Automattic, Inc., alongside many other major technology companies who work hard to protect their customers.

Throwback to the early years

When I was young, under ten years old, my parents took me to a pizza joint in Indianapolis that doubled as a roaring organ theater. That place left me with fond but fuzzy memories I have cherished over the years. When I recently discovered that the concept wasn’t unique to Indianapolis and even more so when I learned that there still existed such a place in Mesa, AZ, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to experience it again.

The Paramount Pizza Palace

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Theater organs were originally installed in, you guessed it, theaters. They were the source of sound and effects in silent films. However, as films started to ship with audio tracks and theaters built their own loudspeaker systems, the organ’s role vanished. Several decades later, these old organs turned up in places such as the Paramount Pizza Palace in Indianapolis (whereas the Paramount theater, the original home of the organ, served as its namesake).

Granted, in my years since I have toured some incredible European churches and cathedrals with significantly better-sounding organs and more highly-skilled organists, but there is a different vibe from the luster and opulence of the mighty Wurlitzer and its company. Beyond a few registers of pipes, these organs connect to drums, cymbals, bubble machines, trumpets, ooga horns, lights, accordions, and every other instrument imaginable. As an inquisitive boy I was also sucked in to the impressive display built up around the wind machine that powered the whole contraption.

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The tremulants produce a vibrato in the organ pipes

In fact, the most clear memory I have of the place in Indy revolves around the giant window into the room with the bellows. Geometric boxes breathed in and out, pumping air while lights of all colors dressed them up. These were the mechanical heart of the machine that made it tick. I’ve still never seen the air source for the large cathedral organs.

I remember a bird that cooed, bubbles that fell from the ceiling, colors, pizza, and ice-cream. Beyond that, I was afraid the other memories were lost forever.

Organ Stop Pizza, Mesa, AZ

While in a daze watching an organist play on a revived Wurlitzer console at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, I started to try and share some of these memories with a friend of mine. The music was great but the pipes and bells and whistles were absent where a synthesizer took their place.

“Surely,” I thought, “somebody online should have a picture of the old place.” So I looked on Google and found stories, pictures, clips on Youtube, and some discussion from the son of the owners. To my amazement, he mentioned that another such place existed in Arizona.

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Sure enough, there’s one about two hours from here. This one took the organ out of a Denver Theater. It’s almost identical in every way to the place in Indy, though I hear the pizza is better (they also have gluten-free pizza, a double-win). It was only a matter of weeks between learning about its existence and going there twice.

Memories refreshed

Back in high school some friends and I thought it would be fun to re-watch a childhood favorite: The NeverEnding Story. That was a bad idea because the film turned out to be much better for very young children than for adults. My memories were shattered, but thankfully it wasn’t that big a of a deal, just a few hours wasted. How would going back to the pipe organ and pizza stop support or revoke my cherished childhood wonder?

Thankfully, this experience gave me everything I remembered and more. It was just as enjoyable as an adult as I remember it being as a child. Today I’m more aware of the mechanics of how the organ produces its sound, what it takes to train for the skill to play it, and what kind of market dynamics are required to sustain such a business, but I still found myself plastered again at the window to the bellows-room and leaning over the railing to watch the piano magically play as the organist directed.

We are rarely able to hear some of the music that these pipe organs play. Our speakers can’t reproduce the notes they do, probably the best example being the tones booming from the 32′ pipe, which can be shatteringly loud at around 8 Hz. All in all, the organ has over six thousand pipes and other instruments!

At the center of all my wonder concerning this instrument is the simple fact that someone decided to build it. Somebody thought they could attract enough interest to spend all this money and effort to construct this marvel and bring in a profit. Although some might consider it pandering the way the lights and gimmicks accompany such songs as, The Theme for The Pink PantherThe Imperial March, and other Hollywood classics, the experience is an art in itself of a different kind than found in the halls playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

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This moment comes from the climax of one of my favorite songs, “Rhapsody in Blue”

Never stop wondering, never stop being inspired.

People do tend to poke fun at the way I stare at the instruments and the wind machine and the console, but these are the kinds of things that inspire, and that inspiration creates wonder. While it’s too hard for me to objectively identify the role the Paramount Music Palace played in my taste for music in general, I know that it furthered my interest in designing big engineering feats whose result is artistic expression.

Art captures something in us that can’t be verbalized. It captures emotion and passion and I love to sit in a big reverberating room while a pipe organ blasts away. How do they create those notes? How does it all work together? How could someone build this thing? Questions like these drive discovery and my visits in Mesa rekindled some of those questions.

Anyway, despite the plethora of keys on the organ console, there’s no Like button, no Share button, and no This is a waste of taxpayers’ dollars button. I hope that you too can get the opportunity to experience something like this or relive old memories from similar places around the US or around the world. I hope that you can put on some music and forget about the pragmatic cares of everyday life and listen and engage in something so abstract, so useless, so ars gratia artis, that it inspires you to something new and valuable and memorable.

P.S. The devices I described as bellows technically aren’t. They are actually tremulants, which control the vibrato sound of the pipes. Since I just learned this while writing this post, I chose to leave the incorrect usage in the main text.

Presta Coffee | Tucson

After too long of not recording where I’ve been working, here is the first in (hopefully) a series of exposés on Tucson coffee shops and coworking facilities.

Welcome to my Workplace

Presta Coffee is the place to be in Tucson if you like snobby coffee. I had been waiting for some time to go there but had heard nothing but great recommendations for it. When I arrived they were doing a cupping and people stood around a table tasting and learning about different varieties of coffee.

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Unfortunately this iasn’t a great place to work. The WiFi access was good, but there were only marginal places to sit down with a laptop and very poor power access. Presta only recently opened up as a cafe; before then it was purely a roastery. The owner and staff were both friendly and knowledgeable, but I’m not sure that remote workers are in their target market.

Presta Coffee-003The Basics

  • Internet access was brisk and required a password that they provided on request.
  • There are only a few choices to buy here: iced coffee, Chemex, V60, Aeropress…

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Tucson Stadtrundfahrt

Although I arrived in Tucson back in August and had been pretty busy before then experimenting with my photography, I haven’t taken my camera much around the city. So earlier yesterday morning when I was faced with the decision to continue working on Saturday or do something else, I decided that it was finally time to try and capture some of life out here and pass it along to my friends. The full album of pictures is available over at Flickr.

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My tour started just outside our door. It’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s the middle of January. I’ve never experienced weather like this in the winter. Granted, it is chilly, but a very tolerable type of cold, all things considered.Tucson Stadtrundfahrt-003

My friend Lance pointed out that the white spots on the cacti pictured here are the source of a saturated red dye. The cottony white substance coats the red Cochineal insect pods.

My bike-ride into town and through the university passes some beautiful neighborhoods. The houses are all varied in their architecture: adobe, brick, concrete block walls; flat, slanted, and multi-tiered roofs; gravel, grass, and stone yards. Shade trees are few and far between, but there’s a surprising diversity in plant life with fruit and cacti and tall palms and others. The closer one gets to the university, the more impressive the houses become where some have exquisite yards and artistic installations.

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Lots of activities on campus meet outside. A long green stretches from one side to the other and the grass is curated perfectly. Over near the dorm area I found a group of guys playing voleyball while throngs of students were walking towards another game in the stadium up the street. It’s common to see musicians, athletes, dance troupes, and groups of cyclists gathering here. The campus is a beatiful place to be.

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Further westward I came to 4th Avenue full of ethnic restaurants, bars, creative shops, marijuana social clubs, a Goodwill, an arcade, and more. 4th Avenue is where most of the festivals and parades in town take place – right around the open-air stage in the middle. One of my favorite coffee shops – Cafe Passé – is just down the street across from the Food Conspiracy cooperative. Actually, there are several good ones along this stretch of road: Epic Cafe, Revolutionary Grounds, Cafe Passé, and Cartel Coffee somewhat sits at the terminus downtown on the other side of the tracks. Had I been on my way downtown I would have continued down 4th to cross underneath the Union Pacific tracks. Instead, I turned around to meet Mandi and head to church a couple of blocks over.

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That’s it for this journey. It usually takes me about twenty to twenty-five minutes to cycle into town from home. These are some of the common sights I see each day. Of course, this is prettier than the more direct Broadway route, and I prefer to ride through where all the people are, so it would be somewhat uninteresting for me to have taken my camera there: Safeway, Del Taco, the FedEx store, etc… My last picture came from the end of my favorite time of day: a window approximately twenty minutes long where the sun is at such a point that the sky fades from blue to orange all the way to black. If you watch at the right time, you can see the most gorgeous sunsets every day.

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See more from this album at Flickr.

Hario Coffee Grinder

Next to my AeroPress, my Hario grinder has been the most significant contribution to my coffee repertoire. It’s a hand-cranked burr-grinder and it does a mighty-fine job, letting me make extra fresh coffee one cup at a time.

Before my last round of trips, the washer mysteriously disappeared. It’s literally the smallest piece of the assembly – a small translucent annulus that reduces friction between the rotating burr assembly and the stationary bearing. Technically I could still use my grinder without the washer, afterall, it’s just plastic and metal and hand-crank speeds, but the engineer in me couldn’t pull the handle.

Hario’s a big company and I didn’t have high expectations of reaching anyone who could help me. I thought about just picking something up at Ace Hardware, but the employee at the local Ace had been pretty rude to me a couple times and so I decided plan A would be better – call Hario and see if they could ship me a replacement.

In fact, after leaving an email explaining my sadness for losing my fresh grinds each morning, I received a quick response from someone who wanted to help. I ended up corresponding with two different people and both went out of their way to make sure I could crush once again. If you know how I usually handle these kinds of logistical things, you can imagine the obstacles they faced. Luckily Eileen was persistent with my sloth-like responses over the holidays and got what she needed – $1 for the washer, $1 to ship it, and an address to ship it to.

That’s not a handwriting font, it’s actual handwriting.

My washer just arrived in the mail and I can’t wait to pull out the AeroPress and see if my old bag of beans has any of its berry vigor left after sitting alone in the drawer these past couple of months. I was surprised and impressed when it came in a hand-addressed envelope with a personal message warning me about the dangers of opening a folded post-it containing washers. In fact, if it weren’t for M.L, God bless his or her soul, I might have lost the replacement and sighed anguish instead of relief over the empty mug in my hands.


After visiting with family over the Christmas break, Mandi and I drove out to Omaha to spend a few days with our friends Andrew and Sarah and their two little boys. To our delight, they brought home the newest addition to their family just before we arrive: Missy, the Schnauzer.

It was lovely to relax for a few days and hang out like we used to. Andrew and I used to have more opportunities like these when he lived in Chicago and I lived in Indianapolis.

With Mandi there this time it was easier for Andrew and I to get away together. Sarah has always been generous with me stealing away Andrew when I visit, but it’s hard for me to ask to do so because I know it’s like asking if we can go play while she takes care of the kids. I’m really thankful for that time, though, and knowing that Mandi was willing to help out made it easier.

This was my attempt at a candid moment with Andrew, who is usually the one behind the camera.

Even those of us without kids know that it’s life-changing how different kids make things. When I spend the time with them I’m reminded of how little I have to think about things like eating, going to bed, doing house-work, etc… On the contrary, it can noticeably impact Ezra’s and Micah’s moods if they don’t eat at the scheduled times and they seem to fumble around with their bodies and expressiveness as they figure out how to say they’re hungry, just as missing a nap or going to bed at the wrong time can have frustrating consequences. I admire the effort parents put out to bring that needed structure and security in their kids’ lives (and clearly I have none of the structure in my own).


That late-night light-bulb illuminated the lounge
where we laughed and lingered while the little ones
were lulled in their beds and the chill of the winter
was knocking on that lounge door,
was knocking and calling but we couldn’t hear
for the light of that lamp which was warming our spot
in the corner of that lonely lounge
was all that our fascinations were fixed on as we
sat and sipped and shared tales
of the times that we missed
and the times that were yet to be.

We got out into a place called the Old Market in downtown Omaha a few times which was really fun. The city reminded me of Kansas City. He was able to show me some of the places from his childhood which were part of who he is and which are special to his family. He took me to the Drastic Plastic record store and to the Beansmith up the street. We sat and had good conversation right across from the old brick buildings lining the paved-brick road.

In fact, one of the buildings we sat across from had seen its last Christmas and wasn’t going to see another. In 7º F temperature, it burned up just a few nights after we left. Andrew took some amazing pictures of the beatiful remants the following morning. Water sprayed on the building to quell the flames froze before it fell to the ground. If you click on the picture it will take you to his full gallery, and it’s worth a view.

Eventually Mandi and I had to leave. The 7º F chill wasn’t exactly holding us back either. We packed up, took a 4:00am lift to the airport, and came back to sunny Tucson after having been gone for weeks. Her luggage was destroyed in transit and we are waiting for a replacement from the airline. Overall we had a good vacation, but it’s really nice to be back home and back into my routine. I hope you all had a nice Christmas and New Years and had a chance to spend some time with some great people too.