Dear Friend: Let’s Talk About Mastodon

Dear Friend: Let’s Talk About Mastodon

I set out to write a letter to friends who know Twitter and are Mastodon-curious. As I worked on it, I thought: What if the letter could serve as a starting point for anyone explaining Mastodon?

That’s why I’ve dedicated the post below to the public domain and shared it as a Google Doc ?. Feel free to duplicate the doc, edit it, and share it, without my permission. No attribution is necessary, but if you’d like, my name is Lee LeFever and my Mastodon account is here: sanjuans.life/@lee

  • Please use the hashtag #MastodonLetter when sharing.
  • This letter also exists in the form of a thread on Mastodon.

Dear friend,

You’ve heard me talk about Mastodon recently. I probably said things like “People who are done with Twitter are using Mastodon” and “It’s like Twitter, but different”. If you are skeptical, I understand. At first blush, it sounds like another social media start-up trying to make a billion dollars by selling advertising and personal data.

I can assure you, dear friend, that Mastodon is different and this letter is my attempt to explain why and how. The big idea is that tech companies, advertisers, or billionaires are not required for us to use social media. In fact, once you understand Mastodon, you’ll see that they get in the way.

Today a growing number of journalists, leaders, celebrities, and millions of others are choosing to use Mastodon because it functions like Twitter, but without the baggage. This is a choice you may be considering, too. Do want to use social media that’s owned and managed by a company, or by communities of people like you?

Let’s pretend that you’re with me and asking questions…

Running a Mastodon Community Server

Other Questions

What is Mastodon again?

For now, let’s just say that it’s like Twitter. You create a free account, follow people, and read their posts in chronological order. They follow you and see your posts, etc. It’s a useful way to connect with others and learn what’s happening in the world.

How is Mastodon different from Twitter?

Think about it like this: Twitter is singular: one company, one community, one owner, one set of rules, one bottom line. Mastodon is plural: Multiple communities, each with its own members, moderators, and rules. 

I’m confused about that. Multiple communities?

It can be confusing at first. I was confused, too. The key thing to understand is that all the Mastodon communities are independent and self-supporting, but work together because they use the same software. The plumbing of Mastodon makes it possible for all those communities to operate together. After you get going, it starts to feel like one big community. 

But I like Twitter. Why move?

Twitter has been fun and useful to many. If you’re happy there, that’s great. Many people are finding that Twitter has changed recently. It’s now a private company owned by a billionaire who is making changes a lot of people do not like. Mastodon has become a viable alternative because it creates the same kinds of connections without a business model or bottom line.

I’m suspicious. How does Mastodon make money to support itself?

It’s not a company like Twitter or Facebook. Mastodon is software anyone can use to create and manage their own online community. The Mastodon software is open source and maintained by a non-profit and volunteers around the world. Most Mastodon communities are self-supporting.

So, how do I use Mastodon?

It’s like Twitter. Once you have an account, you can log into Mastodon on the web and via apps. You’ll use a website or app to post updates and connect with others.

Where do I sign up for an account?

What we call “Mastodon” is really a collection of thousands of communities using the same software. As such, there is no single place to sign up. You’ll need to pick a community (or “server”) that is your home community. See Mastodon’s list of servers to get started.

Wait. I need to find a home community before I can participate?

Yes. Remember: Mastodon doesn’t have a single owner or sign-up page. When you join, you’ll have things like a username, password, profile pic, etc. That information needs to be stored and managed somewhere. Your home community provides the place and ensures you can connect with other people on Mastodon.

How do I choose my home community?

There are communities of all shapes and sizes. Each one has its own name, members, rules, and culture. You’ll need to pick a community, but there is no lock-in. You can migrate your account to a new community at any time.

Two things to consider:

  1. The name of your home community is visible to others. This means your Mastodon username can be an expression of your identity, values, or preferences. You can ask: what community reflects me? If you’re into free speech or classical music, there is a community for you. If you care about mountain biking or gardening, those communities are available. If you don’t care, there are a lot of large, general-purpose communities.
  2. Communities on Mastodon are managed independently and you may find a variety of rules and policies across communities. Before joining, look at the community rules and how the community is moderated. If you want a free-for-all with no rules, for example, you can find it.

If I join a home community that’s focused on Pink Floyd, will I only interact with Pink Floyd fans? 

No, not exclusively. Your home community is one part of a much bigger picture. Once you have a home community username, you’ll have an all-access pass to follow anyone on Mastodon, across 1000s of communities. 

Will I be locked into my home community? What if I don’t like the moderators or rules?

No. You can always move your account to another community. This is a big reason Mastodon is different from Twitter. If you leave or get kicked out of Twitter, you lose access to the one big community. With Mastodon, you have a choice of communities and can find what works best for you. 

What if I get kicked out of my Mastodon community? 

A bit of self-reflection may be in order. Then, you can find a community that accepts your form of participation. You’ll still be able to use Mastodon and follow people, but your experience may be different because disruptive communities and individuals can be blocked by other communities. Your version of Mastodon, in this case, may be of the free-for-all variety. 

OK, so I have my home community and then the people I choose to follow. How does that work?

Twitter provides a single feed of posts. Mastodon provides at least two feeds:

  1. Everyone you choose to follow across Mastodon communities (Home Feed)
  2. Everyone who joined your home community (Local Feed)

Why would I want a local feed from my home community?

Let’s imagine that your home community is @flyfishing.wow, which promotes itself as a hub for fishers. Your local, (built-in) feed of posts is likely to focus on fly fishing because that’s who joined the community. This operates separately from the feed of people you choose to follow across Mastodon.

What if my home community goes away?

This is a risk in using Mastodon. Not all communities will be successful or supported over the long term. Thankfully, Mastodon provides a tool for downloading/exporting your data. This makes your account portable to a new community. 

Can I choose my own username?

Yes. Your username will reflect your home community and be visible to others. For example, if you join flyfishing.wow, your username will be:

  • @[YourName]@flyfishing.wow

The home page of your account would be:

  • https://flyfishing.wow/@[YourName]

Do I have to use my real name or photo?

No. All you need to join is an email address and that can be an alias if you wish. Mastodon does not require identity verification. 

I’m concerned about privacy and how my personal information is used. How does Mastodon handle that?

This depends on your home community and the people who run it. They manage the server where much of your information is stored. Unlike Twitter, most Mastodon communities have no reason to share your data and are likely to be responsible stewards of it. If this is a priority, there are Mastodon communities that are privacy-focused. 

Can I use multiple communities as my home community?

No. An account can only belong to one home community at a time. However, like Twitter, you can have multiple accounts. If you’d like, you can migrate your account to another community.

What happens when I follow people?

Their posts arrive in your Mastodon account (and app) in the “Home” feed. The posts are chronological and you can like, comment, and boost (retweet). Unlike Twitter, you can follow hashtags and see the posts with that tag.

How do I find people to follow?

This may require a bit of time and experimentation. If want to find the Mastodon accounts of people you follow on Twitter, you can use free tools like Debirdify, Movetodon, or Fedifinder.

I would consider making your Mastodon experience a fresh start and an opportunity to make new connections in addition to people you like on Twitter. Follow promiscuously for a while. Find and follow hashtags that interest you.

How will people find me?

The old-fashioned way: by posting regularly and being an authentic and interesting person. Follow a lot of people, leave comments, and boost posts. Talk about your Mastodon account on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else you connect with others.

What can I do to feel safe on Mastodon?

Like other social media, Mastodon is what you make it. You can always unfollow anyone you want. If you see a community rule being broken, you can report the account to the admins of your home community or contact them directly. You can also mute or block any user. Feditips has a useful post on this subject

Should I use the website or an app?

Mastodon works well in a web browser. However, many people use apps on mobile devices. Mastodon has an official free app. I like the free Metatext app. See Mastodon’s list of apps.

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Running a Mastodon Community

Most Mastodon users will NOT play a role in managing a community. However, understanding the process can help the rest of Mastodon make more sense.

I get that there are 1000s of communities. Who creates them? How?

Anyone who wants to start a Mastodon community can access the open-source software and host it on a web server, much like a website. This type of hosting is likely to require knowledge of installation, updates, back-ups, etc. There are instructions online

There are also managed hosting options. In this case, you’ll pay a fee to have someone else manage the server hosting, updates, back-ups, etc. You’ll use Mastodon’s admin tools via a website. Once it’s hosted, a sign-up page will appear that people can use to join your community.

Let’s say I create a community. How will people find it?

You’ll need to register a domain name that serves as your community’s name. You can pick any domain you want, just like any other website. A lot of Mastodon communities use lesser-known domains that end in .social, .life, .world, etc. You’ll use the domain name to talk about your community and encourage people to join at that domain.

It sounds like I’ll have to spend money to do this.

There are costs in running a Mastodon community. You’ll pay for registering a domain and for using a web server. The server costs may start small (~$10/month) and rise as more people use the community. You’ll also be using your time for supporting users, moderating content, sending updates about the system, and other community management tasks.

If my community has thousands of users, will I be on the hook for that cost?

Yes. This is what makes Mastodon special. Each community supports itself. Large communities use crowdfunding and donations to cover the server and admin costs. In some cases, organizations support the community. Running a smaller community means a couple of people can volunteer. Larger communities might need on-call server admins and a staff of moderators for around-the-clock coverage. 

Let’s suppose my community grows quickly. What will I need to do on a daily basis?

It’s up to you (and other volunteers) to moderate the discussions and manage the community. This can be more difficult and time-consuming than it sounds. As the community leader, you can set the tone and enforce rules that you feel are important. If a person is disruptive, for example, you can use built-in tools to prevent their participation. Further, you can make your community private, request an application, or open it to the public.

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Other Questions

What if Mastodon is bought by a billionaire or sold to another company?

There is no company to sell in the way that Twitter was sold. The organization that manages the Mastodon software is a non-profit. The software itself is open source and freely available.

Even if a specific Mastodon community becomes controlled by a billionaire or company, it’s only one part of a huge network of independent communities. People can just move to a new community if it goes sideways.

This sounds pretty great. Does it actually work?

Yes, it does. However, it’s important to note that Mastodon is not Twitter or Facebook. It’s a different platform with different features and values. The user experience isn’t as smooth as other platforms and it may take some getting used to. Once you get settled, using it becomes second nature. Mastodon and apps for using it are always being improved.

I like my Twitter friends and want to follow the same people on Mastodon. Is that possible?

Yes. There are free services that will help you find and follow your Twitter friends on Mastodon. See: Debirdify, Movetodon , Fedifinder.

What can I do to make Mastodon work for me?

The key is USING Mastodon. Participate, experiment, and learn. It’s a fascinating new world that’s growing and much deeper than it appears.

Identify a community that will serve as your home on Mastodon and join it. Once you have an account, you can follow anyone you want on Mastodon. View peoples’ profile info. Follow a lot of people so your feed has interesting posts. Unfollow too. Boost posts; reply to threads.

Identify a community that will serve as your home on Mastodon and join it. Once you have a username, can follow anyone you want. There is no lock-in. You can migrate your account to another community at any time.

Add your Mastodon username to your Twitter profile and post tweets about the account. Add username links to your blog, newsletter, or any other way you connect with others online.

Follow a lot of people and hashtags. Think of Mastodon as a fresh start. Follow and unfollow liberally. Leave comments, like, and boost the posts you like.

What’s it like to use Mastodon?

A lot of Mastodon’s recent growth is from people leaving Twitter and looking for a safer, friendlier, more helpful place to connect. You may find that people are nicer than you expect.

  • There are currently no ads or ad platforms. Mastodon communities are usually member-supported and don’t require advertising revenue to function.
  • If you want your community to continue, consider donating or volunteering.
  • In general, Mastodon communities do not tolerate harassment, bigotry, etc. The Mastodon Server Covenant is a guideline for community owners and includes this language for what they want to promote:

Active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Users must have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, antisemitism, and transphobia of other platforms.

It’s important to note that Mastodon is not a safe haven. Disruptive people and communities exist on Mastodon. However, Mastodon provides tools for muting and blocking individuals and entire communities.

I’ve seen Mastodon terms that I don’t understand. Can you help?

Let’s start with Twitter

  • Twitter = Bird Site
  • Tweet = Toot
  • Retweet = Boost or Reblog

Now let’s translate Mastodon:

  • Server or Instance: Community Software
  • Fediverse: Platforms and communities that work w/ Mastodon.
  • Decentralized: Independent, self-supported communities using open protocols.
  • ActivityPub: The connection (a protocol) between Mastodon and other communities and platforms.

Can you help me understand the Fediverse?

For now, know that Mastodon’s software is designed to connect seamlessly to other platforms.
You can follow someone *outside* of Mastodon and see their posts in your Mastodon feed. For example…

Mastodon is to Twitter what…

Mastodon is one (currently relevant) part of a much bigger movement known as the #fediverse.

This is helpful! Can I use it to send a letter to my friends?

Yes! I want you to use it for your own purposes. Feel free to link to this page. If you’d like a version that’s easy to copy and edit, use this Google Doc.

Please use the hashtag #MastodonLetter when sharing.

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I’ve dedicated the post above to the public domain and shared it as a Google Doc. Feel free to duplicate it, edit it, share it, etc. Add comments to the doc if you have ideas or corrections. No attribution or permission is necessary, but if you’d like, my name is Lee LeFever and my Mastodon account is here: sanjuans.life/@lee

Thanks to Boris Mann, my friends on Mastodon, Feditips, and all the people working to make Mastodon the best it can be. Learn more about Lee at LeeLeFever.com and CommonCraft.com.

The Wood Shed

The Wood Shed

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The first time we had wood delivered was in 2018 and we were living in the yurt. We had never really used that amount of firewood before and looked around for where to store it. We found a decaying old frame sitting by some trees that was apparently for stacking wood. It seemed odd at the time. Would we really keep wood out in the rain? Shouldn’t it be, like, dry?

Not knowing what else to do, we moved the frame into the garage and against the wall. This way, in my mind, it would be dry, safe, and sound. When the wood arrived, Ed Stone, one of the island’s wood entrepreneurs, was surprised I wanted to keep it in the garage. He said, “I don’t know why, but firewood does better when it’s left out in the elements.” By that time, I already had wood sitting on the frame, so that’s where it stayed for the season.

After that interaction, I started to notice other homes’ wood sheds. They were all very similar: A small roof, a floor with wide gaps, and no walls. In some cases, a tarp was used on top of the wood instead of a roof.

With the house built and fireplaces in action, I needed to learn more about the raw material: firewood. What does wood need or want? What can I do to treat it well?

Along with local knowledge, I consulted two books:  Norwegian Wood and  The Wood Fire Handbook. This put me on a course to making the most of our wood and one big idea stood out: we needed a wood shed. Firewood burns hotter and cleaner when it’s dry and dry wood comes from wood that can breathe. That’s why it was weird to keep it in the garage. By being out in the elements, it could naturally release moisture or “season”. In fact, rain isn’t a big problem as long as moisture isn’t trapped where it can create mold and decay.

The clock was ticking. We had two cords sitting in the garden, which was fine in the dry summer weather. It couldn’t stay there long in the wet winter.

Dump truck with wood
One cord, delivered

We started to consider what kind of shed we wanted and learned that our friends Paul and Erika recently built a very nice shed that seemed to fit the bill. In fact, they used free plans by Fine Homebuilding  that we could adapt to our needs.

A couple of weeks ago the work started with a shovel and pick. The shed needed to be level and that meant leveling the ground under it. Digging is always hard, but our ground is probably equal parts soil and rocks. One minute you’re digging, the next, you hear and feel a THUD and realize that a 20 pound rock has to be removed to keep going.

We dug holes, placed concrete piers, tried to get them level, and then realized the fence line we used to line them up wasn’t square. We shook our fists at the sky, and then started over. Leveling and squaring those damn piers was painful. All along I kept reminding Sachi that it was only a wood shed.

We finally got it set and the fun could begin. That meant setting the floor with space for air flow.

Then we built the walls all at once and slowly applied them.

Next was purlins, which are boards that sit vertically under the roof. I had never driven 5″ screws through the thin side of 2X4s, but it worked surprisingly well.

With a few more supports and some galvanized roof panels, the shed was ready and we could finally stack the wood that had been sitting in a pile for a few months.

After years of being on Orcas, our wood finally had a home that should last our lifetimes.

caption for image
Filet of Sole ? ?

Filet of Sole ? ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Sometimes it seems like we missed the good fishing in our region. From the native people to generations of settlers, salmon was plentiful and remains a big part of PNW culture. Unfortunately, the salmon runs are not as prolific as they once were and the seasons are highly regulated. Recreational fishers may only get 1-2 king salmon per year.

Salmon harvest
Total Harvest of Chinook or “King” Salmon Over Time (Source)

Despite being called an Orcas Island Fisherman, I had never done any real fishing since moving to the island. As much as I wanted to fish for salmon, it never happened, in part because the best salmon fishing is done from a boat with a contraption called a downrigger, which we don’t have. For us, fishing would begin with lake fishing rods on Short Story.

The prized species, like salmon, halibut, and lingcod, were all out of season, so we focused on what was legal to catch this fall. As it turns out, bottom fish season is always open and each person can take home 15 fish per day. We watched YouTube videos, visited a local outdoor sports store, and set our sights on flatfish, like flounder, sole, and sand dabs.

Last year we caught a Pacific sand dab in our shrimp trap (below) and didn’t know what it was. I took the little guy home, fried it in a pan, and found the meat to be delicious. These fish all have flaky white meat like a flounder. Since then, we’ve learned that sand dabs are considered a west coast delicacy.

Pacific sand dab

We talked to a couple of friends who told us where to go and what to do. We needed a “high low rig” which has two hooks and a weight. You drop the line to the bottom and then use the current to drift the bait across the bottom. We were hopeful but skeptical. Everyone said it can be easy, fun, and very productive. They were not wrong.

From the moment my line hit the bottom, a fish hit the bait. It was a smallish sand dab. The next time, I pulled up two fish at a time. We couldn’t believe how easy it was. It was like a carpet of flatfish were just waiting for something to float by them.

sand dab fishing

In a couple of hours, we hauled in about twenty fish, mostly Pacific sole and Pacific sand dabs. You can tell the difference because flat fish are either “right-eyed” or “left-eyed”. This relates to which side of the fish faces the bottom. A pacific sole is right-eyed because it lies on its left side on the bottom. As flatfish mature, the downward-facing eye migrates to the upward-facing side of the fish. How weird.

Pacific Sand Dab
Left-eyed Pacific sand dab

Once we got home the cleaning process began. I watched more videos and we formed a production line. Sachi scraped scales; I gutted and cleaned. It was messy and awkward in the beginning, but soon I got the hang of it. In fact, I filleted a few of the bigger fish for the first time. It was not pretty, but I didn’t need stitches, so that’s a win.

Sand dab sole filet
cleaned sand dabs

With all the fish cleaned and refrigerated, we could plan a few experimental meals. We started with the classic pan-fried fish. We coated them with egg, dredged them in flour and fried them in cast iron. These were whole fish, with bones. It reminded me of the fish called “spot” my parents and I used to catch on the coast of North Carolina.

pan fried sand dab

Once on the plate, you can remove the meat from one side with a fork and easily lift out all the bones.

fish bone gif

We also deep-fried fillets, which were my favorites in fish tacos.

fried sand dab filets

Lastly, we coated the fish with a thin mayonnaise garlic sauce and baked them in the oven. Delicious!

over baked sand dabs

We ended up eating every fish we caught in one form or another. Like all fishing, it was messy to process. Cleaning and filleting the fish can be tedious and time-consuming. But that’s just fine. We fed ourselves with fish and caught a short ride from home. Unlike salmon, flatfish are plentiful, always in season, and easy to catch. I’m surprised we hadn’t done it sooner.

I don’t know that we’ll fish for flatfish all the time, or that they will compete with the protein and enjoyment we get from crab and spot prawns. But this kind of fishing helps us learn, promotes self-sufficiency, and keeps us on the water. Maybe next year we’ll give salmon a try.

New York, 2011 ??‍♀️?

New York, 2011 ??‍♀️?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

We arrived in New York to cheer for our friend, Christi, who was running in the NYC Marathon in November of 2011. One of my first memories is arriving in the hotel room and putting on the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys song Empire State of Mind. We both bounced around the room like the cheesy tourists we were.

It was a strange and interesting time to be in the city. Occupy Wall Street was in full swing and Zuccotti park was full of protesters living on the premises. I snapped this photo, which felt like an appropriate juxtaposition of what was happening in the financial district.

The marathon was a much bigger event than I realized and the city was full of athletic people trying to enjoy New York, but not too much. In an act of solidarity, I loaded up on carbs and wore comfortable shoes.

The weather was perfect and Christi successfully finished the marathon surrounded by friends. She and her husband, Blake, went to UNC with a few current NYC residents who all came out to support her. One of those local friends, Nick, works in finance and met up with us for drinks.

As the weekend was winding down, we realized that Madison Square Garden was hosting Jay-Z and Kanye West for two nights on their Watch the Throne tour. These were Jay-Z’s hometown shows and apparently the hottest ticket in town.

Since we weren’t leaving until Wednesday, Blake mentioned that Nick and I should try to get tickets. Seeing Jay-Z in New York was the kind of pop culture opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Our only option was Monday night and on Sunday, Nick and I agreed to try to find tickets. We’d have to use aftermarket sellers like StubHub, and likely pay a premium. Once Nick found out it was a market, he volunteered to put in the online legwork.

Throughout Monday, I received text messages from Nick about seeing ticket prices increase and decrease. Sometimes a ticket would be within reach, but something would happen. The person seemed untrustworthy or stopped communicating. Showtime was quickly approaching.

Sachi and I went to an early dinner in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden, in case I needed to meet Nick with yet-to-be-acquired tickets. Sure enough, over dinner at about 6pm, positive-sounding texts started to arrive. Nick had connected with someone with tickets who he felt good about. All we had to do was meet this person behind Popeye’s Chicken by Madison Square Garden. True story.

We met before heading to Popeye’s and worked out a quick plan. We knew we were taking a risk. The tickets could be fake, we could get mugged, the guy might never show up. We agreed that we’d drop the whole idea if anything seemed weird. But if it seemed legit, we were prepared to pay extra for the right tickets.

Sure enough, the ticket seller met us behind Popeye’s. He was a guy about our age, dressed like us. He was friendly and seemed trustworthy. The only problem was that the tickets were printed on sheets of paper instead of normal ticket stubs. Anyone can copy and print that kind of ticket and call it real. Nick and I huddled for a minute. The price printed on the tickets was higher than expected and reflected good seats. Section 1, row J. The seller’s offer was a bit more than the ticket price, but not too much.

As we were discussing, the seller said something I’ll never forget…

“Look, I’m just a finance guy. The people in Zuccotti hate me, but I’m just a normal guy. You’ve got my work email.”

It was true. He and Nick had been corresponding via email.

Nick nodded, “I’m in finance too, it’s all good.”

With that, we paid cash for the tickets and headed in without a clear expectation of what would happen. It was a wild scene inside, with people decked out in their best duds. Everyone was pumped for the show and the energy was palpable. Every turn we took led us closer and closer to the stage. Eventually, we ended up at our seats, which we couldn’t believe.

Row J of Section 1 was 10 rows back, but the stage was designed with a peninsula that pushed it out into about row H. We were only feet from that part of the stage. I was astonished. About an hour before, I was eating dinner with Sachi with no plans, and now, I was about to be face-to-face with Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden.

As showtime approached, we heard a roar in the back of the coliseum. Slowly the buzz came closer and closer to the stage. I looked back to see what the commotion was all about and saw a face I didn’t expect. Sean “P-Diddy” Combs had arrived at the show and was a few rows BEHIND us. Hah! We had better seats and ours came from the parking lot of a Popeye’s Chicken.

The lights soon went down and the show started with a roar. The truth is, I don’t know many of the words to Jay-Z’s music aside from the most popular songs, but it didn’t matter. I was there for the spectacle and it delivered. Nick and I danced and laughed and enjoyed an experience that felt authentically New York.

Later that night, I kept thinking about all the things that could have gone wrong, but didn’t. Thanks to Nick’s legwork and judgment, a random dude on the internet sold us valid tickets for a reasonable price. The seats were far better than expected.

It seems more difficult today than it did in 2011, but I continue to believe in the goodness of people. More times than not, the average person is motivated to be fair and honest. I like to think this whole scenario could just as easily happen today.

I took the photo below with my phone; the only evidence I have of the entire experience.

Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden

In New York

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of

There’s nothin’ you can’t do

Now you’re in New York

These streets will make you feel brand new

Big lights will inspire you

Let’s hear it for New York

New York, New York

–Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z and Alicia Keys)

Podcast Interview: On Brand with Nick Westergaard

Podcast Interview: On Brand with Nick Westergaard

I was recently a guest on the podcast OnBrand with Nick Westergaard. We talked about my book The Art of Explanation and what professionals can do to communicate with more clarity.

Episode Highlights

Why is it so hard for us to explain things? “We do it every day and we can take it for granted.” Lee went on to note that, just as learning to be a better runner, you can learn to be a better explainer.

The curse of knowledge gets in the way. “It curses us by forcing us to use jargon, add examples, and more.” Lee notes that it’s best to err on the side of being familiar. “We’re not dumbing it down, we’re making it familiar.”

How to make an explainer video. Common Craft has produced explainer videos that have earned over 50 million views online. All of these are grounded in solid explanations. Where do you start? “Start like you’re talking to your parents—explaining what you do and why it matters.”

Listen Here

A Train in the Sky ? ? ?

A Train in the Sky ? ? ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Last week, we were watching TV, and Sachi jumped from her seat and opened the doors to go outside and peer into the night sky. We both looked up to see what looked like an alien invasion. Small bright dots were moving across the sky in a line. There were a dozen or more in view and they seemed to fade out of view, one after the other, until they were gone.

I snapped a bunch of photos, including this one:

Needless to say, it was a remarkable and strange event. Seeing space stations and lone satellites is not that odd, but seeing these dots, arranged so neatly and moving so smoothly in a line was fascinating.

We saw a less dramatic version over the summer that put me in research mode. The dots are satellites and specifically, Starlink satellites that are being used to beam internet access to earth. There are currently about 2,500 satellites in orbit, and once the full network is complete there may be as many as 40,000 satellites. At that point, internet access via Starlink may be open to everyone on the earth who can pay for it.

The satellites we saw that night were launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 ship on September 24th. Once released, they orbit over the earth for a couple of days as they become further apart and closer to their final destinations, a few miles up. The line is called a satellite train.

For many people, including some in our region, Starlink is a godsend because it provides fast and mostly consistent internet from virtually anywhere. You just need a dish, a paid account, and a view of the sky. Many hope it will help underserved areas around the world, and provide a connection in wilderness or unpopulated regions where people are otherwise isolated. We have friends who use it to work from their rural homes.

This, of course, is not happening without controversy. Starlink and SpaceX are both owned by Elon Musk, who also owns Tesla. No one has ever tried to add so many satellites to orbit, so there are a lot of unknowns about how it will impact astronomy and stargazing. 40,000 satellites is a lot of space junk. However, they won’t stick around after they no longer function. They are close enough to earth to be pulled into our atmosphere where they safely burn up. Interestingly, that’s a big challenge for the company. They fail and burn up all the time, and then require replacement.

The question for many people is: do we want to look up and see a bunch of satellites instead of real stars? Researchers created a simulation of what would happen if 65,000 satellites were in orbit over a few years. They found that, when viewing the night sky, 1 in 16 “stars” could be a satellite that’s also moving. I don’t think many people want, or are prepared for that reality, even if it comes with great internet connections.

SpaceX has introduced a project called DarkSat, which is meant to reduce the visibility of satellites from earth by coating them with an anti-reflective paint. Astronomers aren’t convinced.

For now, SpaceX is on track to keep putting up new satellites every few weeks. There are four launches scheduled for October, 2022. You can track the satellite trains with info on this website.

My Favorite Weather Apps and Features

My Favorite Weather Apps and Features

I treat weather watching as a hobby. Living in the PNW means that there is almost always interesting weather to experience. I use a number of weather apps and below, I’ve offered a number of my favorites.

A screenshot of the Predict Wind App

Weather Underground (Wunderground.com) – I use this app the most, in part, because I like the interface and graph of precipitation (as seen above). Wunderground uses a proprietary forecasting system that’s based on over 250k personal weather stations.

Weather Channel App (weather.com) – This forecast is similar to Wunderground and is based on some of the same data, along with IBM’s proprietary forecasts. What I love about this app is the future radar that shows predicted precipitation moving on a map, hours into the future.

National Weather Service (weather.gov) – The US government’s weather agency. NWS data is part of most US forecasts and is known for reliability. The interfaces are predictably bad, but the data is good.

AccuWeather (accuweather.com) AccuWeather is known for accuracy and I like the app. My favorite feature is forecast for over a month into the future.

Carrot Weather (meetcarrot.com) This app is all about personality and fun. You can choose from a list of forecasts (like AccuWeather above) and it will present them in a nice interface and with hilarious/irreverent messages.

Predict Wind (predictwind.com) An essential app for boaters and coastal residents. Similar to Windy, this app shows the direction and intensity of wind animated on a map over time. Very cool design and technology.

The Most Wonderful Time of Year ? ➡️ ?

The Most Wonderful Time of Year ? ➡️ ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The summer plants are dying, or at least fading away. After a season of production, they’re slowly disappearing into compost. Brown leaves blow about and crunch underfoot.

Clouds of dust swirl around the dogs when they play chase in the garden, powdering them with invisible grains that dull the color of their fur and our floors. It’s noticeably cooler, but the sun continues to shine, sometimes through a screen of wildfire smoke.

According to my weather station, it has rained 0.83 inches since August 1st and it’s not an anomaly. Summers in the PNW are almost always bone dry, in part, because we don’t get hot enough to produce thunderstorms that would be a reliable source of rain.

Annual precipitation for our county

For weeks and weeks at a time, the sun shines bright and dries everything to a crisp, including the people.

I love a nice day in the sun, but by this time of year, I’ve had enough. The world outside is a tinderbox that needs moisture before it’s too late. Wildfire is our biggest risk. If we can get through September, we can relax with the knowledge that the rain will finally arrive in spades.

Right now, I’m a little anxious, or maybe just full of anticipation. Each year, I plan for the famous PNW rain to arrive by October 15th. Then, storm season commences and the sun disappears along with the risk of fire. It’s fascinating how quickly and reliably it happens.

I plan on the transition each year, and for now, I wait and watch for signs of change. The weather models are unsure of what will happen. It’s like the dry PNW summer is battling the north pacific currents trying to push into Washington for the winter. Forecasts this time of year often say there is a 58% chance of rain, which is frustratingly noncommittal. They might as well admit they have no idea.

It’s the forecast of rain that feeds my anticipation. I want commitment and confidence. I want a sure thing. For the last couple of days, I’ve been watching a prediction for rain on Wednesday. On Sunday, the Wunderground app showed an 80% chance of 0.20 inches of rain and it allowed me to relax. Rejoice! It’s coming! ?

Then, I checked the weather as soon as I woke up on Monday. Overnight the forecast dropped to a 74% chance of 0.11 inches. It ruined my day. ?

This morning it was 68% of 0.04 inches. ??‍♂️

At the time of publishing this afternoon, it’s down to 49% of 0.03. ?

I’ve seen this happen so many times. The models get you all hyped and hopeful, only to crush your dreams. At this point, I expect a perfectly sunny day on Wednesday without a drop of rain. What have we done to deserve this? Why do they torment us?

Perhaps, I am addicted to the drama of not knowing. Or, maybe I’m just fascinated by the machinations of weather and the difficulty of getting it right. What gets me through is the confidence that the autumn rain will arrive… eventually. It always has.

As much as I complain about the sun at the crunchy end of summer, I love and look forward to this time of year. As I’ve written here many times before, I believe happiness lives in anticipation. Right now, it’s bright and dry and the summer weather seems interminable. But I have so much to look forward to. The cool misty air, the sound of rain on the roof, and fires in the fireplace. I miss seeing our property in its more natural state: wet and verdant. For me, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

The Garden Gamble ?

The Garden Gamble ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When people learn that we live on an island that’s only accessible by boat, plane, or ferry, they sometimes conjure visions of Alaska-style wilderness and off-the-grid living. People who aren’t familiar with the region ask if we have schools and grocery stores. Despite our relative remoteness, Orcas Island does not want for amenities. In fact, our grocery stores punch above their weight and have prices to show for it.

But island life does have its inconvenient realities. A severe earthquake could cut off our power and disconnect us from the mainland for weeks. An attack (or accident) that affects mainland infrastructure could do the same. In these situations, we’d be on our own and this has imbued the island with a doomsday prepper ethic of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. We are not immune and always planned to move into the new house and start preparing.

While we don’t have a bomb shelter or a closet full of MREs, we are working to build up our knowledge and skills in feeding ourselves, and our friends. This summer was our first with a full season of gardening and catching seafood from the Salish Sea, and I’m fascinated by the possibilities.

We’ve enjoyed entertaining over 30 off-island guests this year. Some stayed for an afternoon, some for days. We want nothing more than for friends and family to have a memorable experience with us. Creating that experience from our effort is something we take as a challenge.

People who visit Orcas often prize the local, farm-to-table experience, including eating local seafood, like Dungeness crab, oysters, and spot prawns. They visit the farmer’s market to load up on fresh vegetables and bread. After a nice dinner out, they may order a cocktail or a dessert. Along with good company, food is a necessary part of any island experience.

We want to create a similar experience from home, based mostly on our own planning, time, and self-sufficiency. This summer has been a time to share what we’ve grown and caught. We’ve served many meals that featured crab and prawns we from our traps, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, peppers, strawberries, and lettuce we grew, bread and pizza we baked, and dessert and cocktails we made, all overlooking the Salish Sea. That’s always been the dream and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see it happen.

Spot Prawns

Dungeness Crab

The average visitor, I hope, feels that everything is operating smoothly and we have it all under control. This is my hope because the reality is not so flattering. We are learning on the job and always trying to figure out how to solve problems. Growing, catching, and cooking food is a challenge that always evolves. There are always new problems to solve.

From the outside, you might wonder if so much gardening and crabbing is a chore. Do we really love it, or is it a means to a self-sufficient end? It’s a good question and I’ll answer it with an analogy.

If you’ve ever gambled on a football game, lottery ticket, or at a card table, you know the rush that comes with taking a risk and hoping that lady luck shines on you. Having fished for crab and shrimp with Sachi for a few years, I came to see that all fishing is gambling. You place bets in the form of lures, traps, and bait and then hope that you’ll get lucky. Some days you win, some you lose, but the rush keeps you coming back. Experienced fishers are able to beat the odds, on occasion.

Perhaps gardening is no different. There are no sure bets, especially when you’re just getting started. You plant, water, wait, and hope. Sometimes the soil and sun cooperate, and sometimes they don’t, but you keep trying. The rush comes, but it’s spread over weeks in the summer when the garden finally matures. Experienced gardeners, like fishers, are able to beat the odds.

Today the odds are probably still against us and our garden, in part, because we’re still getting a handle on our little microclimate. Wind, shadows, sun, moisture, humidity, and temperature are all variables that can impact the harvest. Understanding what works at a specific location requires entire seasons of experiments. When an experiment takes that long, you have to see vegetable gardening as a lifelong pursuit. We are currently 1.5 seasons into a very long game.

Sachi is our chief vegetable gardener and gambler. Starting early in the spring, she placed bets in the form of squash, pepper, and tomato seedlings in the garage under UV lights and over a heating pad. She planted seeds for lettuce, beans, and more in the garden. If it works, the bets pay off when dinner is served.

The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.

The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.

One of our experiments this year seems to have paid off. Peppers and tomatoes prefer heat and warm weather. This spring we added raised beds next to the south-facing side of our home. We hoped the sun shining on the black siding would warm the plants enough to make them successful. It worked this year; a jackpot that came from a new use of the sun’s rays.

In fact, it worked so well we’ve been able to freeze the surplus and give some away. Our neighbors weren’t so lucky with tomatoes, so we traded our tomatoes for their apples and a frozen loaf of homemade zucchini bread. I like to think, if things do go off the rails, that we’ll all combine forces to get through.

Now that autumn is upon us, dried squash plants are composting and the tomato plants are looking barer. We’re watering less and looking forward to transitioning to a more interior lifestyle. Before we know it, seedlings will be growing in the garage, the garden experiment will start again and we’ll be one step closer to getting it right, come what may.



Early this spring, I planted a tree called a staghorn sumac. It was about two feet tall and looked like a dead branch sticking out of the soil. We were promised it would grow to over 10 feet, eventually. (See mature version)

Nearby is a blue Chinese wisteria tree with a trunk as big as a pencil. (See mature version)

The sumac and wisteria trees are emblematic of our approach to the ornamental side of the garden that is my domain. We’re starting small. Sure, we could spend more and get mature versions of the plants we like, or we could watch their growth and savor tending them from a young and fragile age. 

When people visit, I often tell them they are seeing a miniature version of the garden and that, over time, it will change. I want them to remember this version for a sense of scale. Starting now, each year will bring another, fuller version of it. For the first time since 2017, we can plant a tree and feel confident that we’ll see it grow and mature. That feeling has been missing for too long.

This newfound sense of permanence is something we both feel deeply, having lived in the new house for over a year. It’s fascinating to develop a new rhythm of daily life with the knowledge it may stick. Twenty years from now, will I be taking out the trash, brushing my teeth, and making coffee just as I am today? If everything goes according to plan, there is a good chance I will. The accumulation of these permanent rituals will probably get boring and stale and that goes with the territory of permanence. We can only hope we get them right as early as possible.

Part of what has gripped me about the garden is the combination of permanence and change. The sumac tree may be here in twenty years, but it will have changed constantly in that time. Every day, I can inspect it and notice the little things. I can see it in different colors as the seasons change. 

There are some parts of the garden that I’m hoping will trend toward permanence, or at least long-term stability. As a result of construction, we have large and visible swaths of the property that consist of rocky construction fill. One of my first priorities this year also seemed like the most boring: planting low ground covers that will one day cover the troubled fill areas and create a dense groundcover mat that looks great and prevents weeds. 

Today, these plants are miniature, too. I planted creeping raspberry, kinnikinnick, thyme, and cotoneaster around the property and feel real joy from seeing them spread. Everywhere they go, weeds and future maintenance are being reduced. Within a couple of years, my work will hopefully be limited to trimming the edges into the shape I want. 

creeping thyme

Right now, the hundreds of new groundcovers, ferns, sedums, trees, bulbs, and shrubs require daily or weekly care because they are new plantings. They are young and need to get settled. Most need a year or two of regular watering to establish their roots. Once established, they can trend ever so slowly toward permanence.

We’ve opted for a number of drought-tolerant plants, which I know sounds odd for the pacific northwest. Our summers are very dry, with almost no rain July-September. The tolerant ones need to get established, so my watering duties for this summer are significant. In this, I’ve developed a ritual. In the afternoons, I start a podcast and spend an hour or more watering and weeding. It’s not much of a workout, but I find it meditative and a time to focus on just one thing. Every minute I spend watering contributes to the plant becoming healthier, more permanent, and lower maintenance. I have this summer to get it right.

In June, we declared our planting season to be over. I didn’t want it to end, but I knew it was time. Sachi wanted me to pause and leave some things for next year. She knows my happiness lives in anticipation and didn’t want me to use up all the fun planting and landscaping projects too quickly. I told her something I believe deeply: there will always be projects in the garden. Unlike brushing my teeth or taking out the trash, the garden changes daily. Soon enough we can transition from clearing, preventing, and preparing to a focus on developing, maturing, and beautifying. Maybe that applies to humans, too.

Today, the staghorn sumac is changing every day and has become an essential part of the garden. The groundcovers are slowly reaching out to one another in what I call the Sistine Chapel moment of development.

Every time I water, I imagine roots below the surface slowly becoming permanent parts of the landscape. And as I do, my roots become more permanent, too.