A guide to cleaning up in Seattle (and elsewhere)

One of the reasons we moved to Seattle in July, 2022 was to have more opportunities to contribute in building a community while living more sustainably. Anyone visiting Seattle even briefly would notice that there’s trash just everywhere. Shortly after moving here I started volunteering both by myself and with a few other groups such as Seattle Street Fixers cleaning up around Seattle.

My main focus has been in three basic areas:

  • Pedestrian accessibility and safety.
  • Bicycle, scooter, wheelchair, and other wheeled vehicle accessibility.
  • Environmental harm reduction.

Car infrastructure gets plenty of attention and funding, and I don’t care to contribute there, with the exception of the last point. I will pick up litter from car lanes and gutters to avoid it ending up in our waterways (or ending up on pedestrian or bike infrastructure).

Most of my work is in a few areas:

  • Cleaning up litter and hazards (e.g. broken glass, metal, etc.) on and around pedestrian and bike infrastructure.
  • Removing plant overgrowth and plant litter on and around pedestrian and bike infrastructure.
  • Cleaning up litter to keep it from migrating further into the environment and to improve the aesthetics of the city.

I have no interest in “cleaning up” the city by removing or harassing unhoused people, or otherwise “beautifying” the city by harming vulnerable people.

Sign up for Adopt-a-Street

The first step you’ll want to take is probably to sign up for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) Adopt-a-Street program. SPU will provide most supplies you need for litter pickup, including bright yellow “Community Cleanup” trash bags, compost/leaf bags, trash grabbers, leaf grabbers, sharps containers, gloves, and vests. Most importantly though, they will pick up the collected trash and dispose of it at no cost. For most people, the cost of trash disposal in Seattle would make doing this as a volunteer infeasibly expensive. However if you’re working by bike, it would also be difficult to transport the heavy trash all the way to a transfer station, anyway. You don’t really have to “adopt” any particular street to participate in the program, but when you sign up you can mark your home street or similar.

Build and outfit a work-by-bike rig

I am going to list everything that I personally use for cleanup work, although I don’t bring everything every time. You should, of course, decide what kind of work you’d like to do; not everything here is required for most cleanup work. For any group cleanup, I usually bring pretty much everything I have and loan out tools and supplies to anyone who needs them.

Bike and trailer outfitted for cleanup work with a bucket strapped to the pannier carrier of the bike and the Burley Nomad trailer loaded with tools (not visible) and a flat shovel strapped to the Cargo Rack on its top.

This section is very work-by-bike centric, but most of this advice applies to anyone working by car or otherwise as well. Consider working by bike if you can, though. Sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, and other places are much more accessible by bike, and you can keep your tools and supplies much closer to where you’re working that way. It’s ideal!

Giant Explore E+ e-bike

The bike is by far the most expensive, and most personal component of the rig. I have a 2022 Giant Explore E+ e-bike, and I think it’s a good fit for this purpose. An electric bike of any sort is very helpful (and maybe even required) for getting around Seattle with a trailer loaded with tools or trash.

On any non-cargo bike, you’ll also almost certainly want to have a trunk bag and pannier carriers (or a rear rack). I find that I can strap a 5-gallon bucket to my rear rack very nicely and it doesn’t interfere with the trailer hitch (whereas a pannier on that side does).

I have also modified my bike with a Rohloff Speedhub internal gear hub, partly to have lower gears available for hill climbing with a heavy trailer, but that is certainly not required.

ABUS Pro Tectic 4960 lock

The ABUS Pro Tectic 4960 lock is a good “cafe lock” to quickly lock the rear wheel when you walk away from the bike to keep your bike safe from “grab and go” theft. On a cleanup rig, it’s handy to quickly lock the bike up without anything to lock it to (although a heavy trailer loaded with trash also discourages theft). However, a much more important (and invaluable) use for it is as a parking brake so that you can park the bike and trailer combination on a (reasonable) hill and be able to walk away from it as you pick up litter, and keep it from rolling away as you load the trailer.

Ortlieb Back-Roller waterproof panniers

I have a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller waterproof panniers, and I keep the right-side one loaded up with various cleanup supplies so it’s usually ready to go. I generally carry the cleanup bags, extra gloves (for myself when I get my gloves wet or gross, and to lend out), a sharps container, extra straps and bungees, any any other small tools. I can also store extra clothing in the pannier, which is handy. They are waterproof so your supplies and clothes don’t get soaked.

Burley Nomad trailer with cargo rack

The Burley Nomad is probably the most versatile trailer for general cleanup work, especially with the Cargo Rack accessory. It is covered so that you can load it loosely with tools and not need to strap anything down inside it, which is great. It’s also nice to keep the rain off the contents, such as batteries and power tools that may not appreciate being left in the pouring rain. The cover may also keep passers-by from pilfering anything inside. The cargo rack accessory provides a nice flat (or angled) area with tubes that are handy to strap down trash bags, tools, and anything else you need to carry. While the Nomad trailer is very handy, its raw carrying capacity for trash and other junk is not that high.

I’ve modified my Nomad trailer so that I can tow the Flatbed trailer behind it, so that I can bring both trailers along.

Burley Flatbed trailer

The Burley Flatbed trailer is great for shuffling large amounts of heavy junk around. I can usually fit three fully loaded trash bags per trip on this trailer, and when correctly balanced, I can easily carry ~200 lbs (just don’t tell Burley, since the weight limit is only 100 lbs). The Flatbed trailer is, however, not great for carrying tools and supplies as you’ll have to strap everything down very carefully and tediously, or you’ll lose things on the street biking across town (ask me how I know).

Mr Tuffy tire liners

I use Mr Tuffy tire liners in my bike tires and all trailer tires. Especially since cleanup work necessarily means going to messy locations, and since Seattle has more than its fair share of road hazards anyway, these will keep you rolling most of the time instead of having to fix flats once a week. Hazards are mainly: broken glass, metal shards, broken-off needle tips, nails and screws, and sometimes thorns.


You need comfortable and durable work gloves, possibly waterproof ones. Always use them. Bring several pairs. I use Milwaukee Performance Work Gloves from the selection at Home Depot.

Five gallon bucket

For any litter picking, a bucket is practically a requirement. It’s a huge pain to carry a bag around while picking, it’s awkward to get the trash into the bag, and it will quickly get heavier than you want to carry. You’ll also inevitably drag it across some blackberry brambles and tear a huge hole in it, spilling all the tiny litter you just picked up. Pick the litter into a five-gallon bucket and dump the bucket into the bag each time it’s full. I typically use an orange Home Depot bucket, but I need to get an unbranded one and put some stickers on it.

Garbo Grabber collapsible litter reacher tool

I use the Garbo Grabber collapsible litter reacher (provided for free by SPU) for picking up litter. There are a lot of variations of trash grabbers available for sale, but the Garbo Grabber ones provided for free by SPU are nicer than the ones I bought from Home Depot. Whenever possible, don’t pick up trash by hand. Use a trash grabber. Needles can hide under or inside of trash. (Besides that, it’s often kinda gross, and you’ll want it at arms’ length anyway.)

Sharps container

If you’re litter picking in Seattle, you’re unfortunately absolutely going to find hypodermic needles (with blood and drug residues), razor blades, and other similar sharp things. You can get sharps containers from SPU with your other Adopt-a-Street supplies. If you’re comfortable doing so, I would encourage you to collect them and dispose of them properly to keep kids, dogs, and bike tires from finding them. In general, it’s not a big deal: bring a sharps container along, and use the trash grabber to pick up each needle individually and drop it into your sharps container. Once the container is full, dispose of it properly using the City of Seattle Sharps Collection Program.

If you’re not comfortable doing this, I understand. You can leave them in place, and ideally report them through the Find It Fix It app.

Hand broom and dustpan

A decent interlocking (for storage and keeping track of both parts) hand broom and dustpan is invaluable for cleaning up broken glass on sidewalks and bike paths. You probably don’t want to bring the one you use in the house, so it’s a good idea to get a dedicated one.

Flat square shovel

A flat square shovel is very useful for scraping up things from the sidewalk: mud, moss, etc., as well as sorting through trash on the ground (or even shoveling it up into a bag). I like this DeWalt 49-inch version, but anything you’re happy with works fine.

Rugg Leaf Scoops

A handy tool is the Rugg Leaf Scoops (provided for free by SPU), which allow you to pick up a large quantity of leaf litter for bagging. If you’re doing a substantial amount of leaf cleanup work, a pair of leaf grabbers like these is essential. Many people also find that a snow shovel is quite useful for this task.

DeWalt 60V MAX FlexVolt leaf blower

I have the DeWalt 60V MAX FlexVolt leaf blower and it’s pretty good. This is useful for blowing leaves, of course, but also sticks, seeds, and gravel. I use it a lot, and it almost always comes in handy.

DeWalt 20V MAX 22″ hedge trimmer

I have the DeWalt 20V MAX 22″ hedge trimmer for cutting back blackberries and similar. This is very useful for clearing overgrown sidewalks.

DeWalt 20V MAX reciprocating saw and blades

I have the DeWalt 20V MAX reciprocating saw for cutting trees and branches too large for the hedge trimmer. Usually when clearing overgrown sidewalks we’ll have to break this out at least a few times. It’s also useful for cutting up downed branches (or even entire trees) so that they can be moved. You’ll also need some decent pruning blades for it, such as these Diablo 9-inch pruning blades, but whatever works.

DeWalt 60V batteries

I have 7 of the DeWalt FlexVolt 20V/60V MAX 9.0 Ah battery and carry a few of them as needed in a separate bag. Especially if you intend to use the leaf blower for anything substantial, you’re going to need multiple batteries (each 9 Ah battery lasts about 15 minutes at full power). I got the specific tools that I did to maximize battery sharing; they all use the same batteries.

Collection of bungees and straps

You will need a bunch of bungees and straps to attach everything to the trailers, and to be able to move trash and other junk around efficiently without it falling off. There’s an art to strapping things down and you’ll get the hang of it eventually. I usually carry and use around 7-8 bungees of different lengths, and a couple of Husky 1 in x 8 ft lashing straps. (I’ve found that ratchet straps are too cumbersome to use for this purpose, but they do work.)

GearLight S400 Pro front and rear lights

I use the GearLight S400 Pro front and rear lights in various flashing modes when I have my bike parked on the sidewalk or near the bike path to notify oncoming people that I’m around and working. It also likely notifies potential thieves that I am around and the bike wasn’t just left there.

Find an area in need

I bike around Seattle every day to exercise, explore the city, and as my daily transportation, which means that I end up seeing a lot of areas up close. I’ll often mentally note an area in need to come back to later. When I am out doing one cleanup, I inevitably stumble upon several more. I keep a spreadsheet.

I am not usually looking for massive cleanups, but something where I can make a difference as an individual cleaning up solo, but that’s just me, as I am pre-planning-averse. I focus on areas where accessibility or safety is clearly compromised, or where a problem is likely to escalate. I often work in “less loved” neighborhoods such as SODO and Georgetown. I also try to keep my “home” streets such as Highland Park Way SW clean and accessible.

Find a community (optional, but fun!)

There are a few groups out there doing cleanup work, such as Seattle Street Fixers (@SEAStreetFixers on Twitter). It can be a lot of fun to meet like-minded people and do some work together to make a bigger difference. There are, however, groups which might be doing something in a way that you don’t agree with or doesn’t match your goals. Be sure the group matches your expectations and feel free to bail out of groups that go in a direction you don’t agree with.

Do the cleanup work

I usually start in the morning on weekends, load up the bike and head out to the work area. Upon arrival, park the bike to the side somewhere (but not far away), lock the cafe lock, come up with an overall plan for the day, and set to work. If I am primarily litter-picking I’ll usually walk with a five-gallon bucket in my left hand and trash grabber in my right, picking up as I go and dumping the bucket into bags. I’ll generally leave the bags as they get full (ideally in pairs though). As I walk, I’ll also move bulky items near to the curb/path so I can come back for them easily and not forget about them.

Bike and trailer outfitted for litter collection with a bucket strapped to the pannier holder, a pannier with supplies, and the Burley Flatbed trailer loaded with three large bags of collected litter and other items.

Once I’m done for the day (or sometimes mid-day as well), round up all the bags and other junk at a single collection point (more on that below). I usually shuttle bags and junk in several trips using the bike trailer until everything is rounded up in one place.

Create a pile and report your cleanup for pickup

If you’re working with Seattle Public Utilities Adopt-a-Street program, you can (and should!) report your cleanup on their website.

To make things as easy as possible and ensure a quick pickup, make a single pile of everything you collected, and I’ve found the following formula works well:

  • Do not block the sidewalk, bike lanes, crosswalks, or any other accessible infrastructure!
  • Choose a spot near a major intersection, but not at the intersection. Keep in mind that a potentially large truck will need to stop near the pile and load everything.
  • Place everything at the edge of the roadway so that it’s visible from both sides of the street and can be easily located.
  • Use the bright yellow Adopt-a-Street bags so that they are very visible, place them up front, and make it obvious to the driver that your pile is the one that was reported for Adopt-a-Street pickup.
  • Place everything on public property: planting strips, near tree wells, or on the sidewalk space (if possible without blocking anything).
  • If you must block or impair something, block the roadway rather than the sidewalk.
  • For the sake of cost efficiency in the Adopt-a-Street program, try to create just one pile (the bike trailer is nice for this because it’s really not painful to move things even quite long distances), but don’t kill yourself to do that. Just try not to leave five piles of two bags each for pickup… that will cost the city five times as much.
  • Make sure nothing can blow away: put or other heavy items on top of lighter items such as signs and cardboard.

Don’t forget to take a few pictures, both for the cleanup/pickup report and to tell people about it! (And if there’s any question about the pickup location, you can refer to the location the picture was taken and any landmarks you can see in the photo.)

Here are a few exemplary locations:

A pile of bags and junk left for pickup at one of my typical locations on the planting strip near the intersection of Highland Park Way SW and W Marginal Way SW.
A pile of bags and and junk left for cleanup at the curb on sidewalk and tree well near the intersection of S Winthrop St and Martin Luther King Jr Way S.

Tell people about it!

Write on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., and tell people about the awesome work you’re doing. It helps to get some encouragement from others, of course, but it also encourages others to get out and help as well. Mention your local Adopt-a-Street agency, tag your city name, and engage with others to encourage engagement. I frequently post on Twitter as @jeremycole about my cleanup efforts around Seattle.

When you see someone, say something… or help!

If you’re out somewhere and see someone cleaning up, feel free to stop by and say “hi”, offer your support, or even offer a helping hand. It’s really great to hear kind words of support. If you’re in a car, don’t honk though, as it’s very startling to a pedestrian, and a car driving at 150% of the speed limit honking in support as they speed by isn’t exactly… encouraging.

I learned to read at 20 years old

[Note: I shared this post on Twitter and there has been a fair bit of discussion about it there. Please feel free to re-share if you find it interesting or you learned something, and I’m happy to answer questions or read your comments there, or in the blog post comments here, as well. Thanks for your support and kind words!]

If you’ve worked with me, read my technical writing, my public Twitter or Facebook posts, or read any of my posts here in the past, you would probably not consider me illiterate. (I hope, hah.) In fact you probably read the title of this post and thought it must be clickbait – but it’s not. It’s true. I was not able to read traditional books or anything else substantial until I was 20 years old.

I am dyslexic. I didn’t know it until adulthood.

In the past two decades I have worked in some exciting and incredible places and accomplished a lot. From small startups in the early days of the web, to being an early employee of and shaping the future of MySQL, moving to Silicon Valley to work at Yahoo!, running my own technical consulting company, expending inordinate blood, sweat, and tears to keep Twitter alive in its pivotal years, working in the heart of the beast at Google, and now helping the world’s entrepreneurs be successful at Shopify – I’ve been around a bit, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been given many opportunities to excel.

Disclaimer: This is my story, my situation. It’s deeply personal, of course, but due to human biology, and also human experiences, how dyslexia is experienced and dealt with varies a lot for everyone. Some of this probably applies to nearly everyone who is dyslexic, but no doubt some of it is my own quirks, or just wrong. I don’t really like writing about myself, and some of this is embarrassing to talk about publicly, but I am hopeful that this will help others struggling with dyslexia even if they don’t know it yet.

My insurmountable struggle with school

Growing up, my family moved a lot.

I was never in the same city, and thus the same school system, for more than a handful of years. I barely remember half of the schools I attended. I never had any long term relationships with any school staff or anyone that cared to understand what the reasons for my struggling actually were. Most of my teachers thought I was either lazy or stupid, or gave up on me. I was overweight, and in later years nerdy, and almost always (due to moving a lot) the “weird new kid”. I was bullied relentlessly by other kids.

Starting at a very young age, once I started in school, it was clear that something was wrong with me. I struggled with the most basic subjects in elementary school. I failed at, or failed to complete most of my work. It was a combination of struggling with the material itself (especially anything involving reading or writing), and boredom. I hated pretty much every single minute of school and did everything I could to avoid it. I was once (in third grade?) dragged inside the school–literally kicking and screaming–by the school principal.

I struggled through elementary and middle school, nearly failing several grades along the way. Then came high school, for which I was horribly unprepared, and I quickly realized I was in deep trouble.

Entering ninth grade, I attended a “year round” high school in Kentucky. This school had a quite unusual and somewhat experimental 4 x 90 minute daily schedule, which meant completing four full courses during the first half of the year, and starting an entirely new set of four courses after winter break. I did reasonably well.

Halfway through tenth grade, my family moved again, to another state, to a different school system – one which used a more traditional course schedule. Since we moved mid-year, this meant that I had completed half of my courses, but not yet started the other half, while the students I was joining at the new school were halfway done with all of their courses. Since the new school was in a different state, there were also slightly different credit requirements for graduation… leading to a very unpleasant school year of chaos.

Eleventh grade was a struggle as well, and afterwards, it was clear I was not going to graduate high school on time – I had failed two English courses, for one, so I would end up needing to take 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English all at the same time in my senior year, or repeat the 11th grade. I decided I had had enough. I dropped out of high school and took the GED test (after I moved states, on my own, to another state where it was legal for me to do so) to get a high school equivalent diploma.

I had planned to attend DeVry University and get a degree in Computer Science, but (long story short) it was not what I had hoped for. I struggled with depression (that I only now recognize), and I ended up attending only two semesters at DeVry before leaving and working full time instead. I’ve been working ever since.

Reading is not reading

How did I get all the way to nearly finishing high school–in the United States–while being functionally illiterate? There’s a lot to blame on the American school systems for that, and I won’t get into that here. However, one of the biggest challenges is that: reading is not reading per se.

All throughout school it would be hard to say, at any time, that I “couldn’t read”. I could read the instructions to problems, I could read aloud (mostly), I could read the board (untreated eyesight problems aside), and it would not have necessarily been obvious that, despite all of that, I could not read in the traditional sense: I could not read books, long articles, essays, etc. This meant that most academic knowledge was beyond my reach (and, to be honest, some still is).

It turns out that being “able to read” is not a singular thing where you either can or can’t – where you’re either literate or illiterate. It’s always been easy for me to read short passages, single sentences, instructions, short word problems, etc., but it was impossible for me to read books, long paragraphs, or anything really longer than half a page or so.

Writing is not writing, either. Throughout school, I really struggled with handwriting, producing only incredibly messy scribble with letters out of order, or backwards, and without space between words. To this day, unless I really concentrate on writing neatly, it’s the same.

I also struggled with math in school… especially with showing my work, rather than with understanding the math. I could not write well, but I innately understood the problems and the math behind them. I tended towards doing calculations entirely in my head, or writing scribbled “notes” (to offload my short term memory) rather than full solutions. I often used non-traditional ways of working out problems. (This is still how I do a lot of math.)

I learned that there is nothing that irritates an American math teacher more than not showing your work in the way they want you to. It doesn’t matter if you get the right answer. It didn’t matter whether I was excited about learning it.

Through much of my school years I mostly believed my teachers: I must be really lazy, or stupid. Something must be wrong with me.

A fortuitous parallel thread in my life: computers

As you are probably aware by now (or if you know me at all), I got involved in computers very early in my life, as well as (luckily) fairly early in the life of computing itself. I was 8 years old when we got my first computer in 1989: a yard sale IBM PCjr for $100, ostensibly for the family. When we got it, it was already quite outdated and limited (having been sold new about five years earlier). It came with IBM PC DOS (of course), cartridge BASIC, and most critically, the whole collection of original manuals.

Computer, operating system, and programming language documentation is somewhat unique: It tends to be composed of small fragments, each describing a single device, program, command, function, etc. Reading them, I realized very quickly that I could read just fine, and comprehend them. (In fact, I really understood them very well even for my age, and could visualize the way things worked spatially–due to dyslexia–but I didn’t know that yet.) Using the results of what I learned from those manuals, I also discovered that I really enjoyed making the computer do what I wanted.

Having full-time access to a computer for the first time, I realized that when I typed something the computer would make the symbols I wanted in the right order, and the right way around, with no effort, and I could easily edit what I had typed to fix letter swaps and typos. It didn’t take any of my mental energy to remember the right shapes or orientation for the letters or any of my patience to make myself draw them. It didn’t sap all of my confidence trying to write something and messing it up over and over. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was life changing.

From that moment on, I’ve never stopped using and learning about computers.

The Gift of Dyslexia

About 18 years ago–I’m not entirely sure how or why–I read something about dyslexia in an article or on a web site. I had heard about dyslexia before, of course, but had a perception of it as a learning disability – something they talk about in school, but surely not something I had. After all, I was 20 years old, successfully working with computers, reading documentation, writing a thousand-page manual for MySQL, reading and writing emails every day…

I did some quick research, and on May 4, 2002, on a whim, I bought a book from Amazon that would change my entire perception of myself, and completely change the last 18 years of my life since then: The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can’t Read… and How They Can Learn (now available as a second edition) by Ronald D. Davis.

In The Gift of Dyslexia, Mr. Davis explains some of the workings of the dyslexic mind: the learning “disability” parts of course, but also the distinct advantages that come with it, primarily exceptional spatial reasoning and automatic three-dimensional visualization. In his description in Chapter 1, The Underlying Talent, Mr. Davis says:

The mental function that causes dyslexia is a gift in the truest sense of the word: a natural ability, a talent. It is something special that enhances the individual.

Dyslexics don’t all develop the same gifts, but they do have certain mental functions in common. Here are the basic abilities all dyslexics share:

  1. They can utilize the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions (the primary ability).
  2. They are highly aware of the environment.
  3. They are more curious than average.
  4. They think mainly in pictures instead of words.
  5. They are highly intuitive and insightful.
  6. They think and perceive multidimensionally (using all the senses).
  7. They can experience thought as reality.
  8. They have vivid imaginations.

These eight basic abilities, if not suppressed, invalidated, or destroyed by parents or the educational process, will result in two characteristics: higher-than-normal intelligence and extraordinary creative abilities. From these the true gift of dyslexia can emerge–the gift of mastery.

I realized quickly that I saw in myself a lot of the advantages of dyslexia, and I immediately recognized the challenges as well. The book goes on to describe several methods to overcome most of the reading challenges associated with dyslexia. It’s not perfect, and I didn’t follow all of its advice, but it set me on a definite path to conquer my own dyslexic reading problems, as well as to understand and embrace the advantages it brought me.

At the time, I was traveling full time for work, flying all over the world, and during that travel I read a lot of basically trash material, as practice. In particular, I read the entire series of John Grisham novels because they were formatted well for me (see below for more on that), they were easy reads, perhaps most importantly they were readily available at every airport book shop so I could pick up a new one after finishing each one. I had to consciously work to apply the methods I learned and make it through these books, but it trained enough of my brain well enough, so that I could read other more difficult material more easily.

Finally, at 20 years old, I learned to read.

What is/was dyslexia like for me?

Before re-learning to read (and even now, if I am tired or too distracted), trying to read a page of text was a challenge: The letters are a jumble. The words are scrambled. I subconsciously read the words in the adjacent lines of text as I am reading. I jump ahead or re-read behind. I read parts of the opposite page. My imagination spins with ideas about what I read. By the time I get to the end of a paragraph, I have no idea what I’ve just read, so I have to read it again. And again. And again.

Aside from the most obvious problems with reading (which I’ve largely overcome), I have many ongoing struggles:

  • My handwriting is atrocious. Unless I am very careful (slow) and methodical, letters will be poorly spaced, mis-ordered, and otherwise pretty unreadable.
  • I can’t take good notes. Since I cannot write by hand quickly enough, or listen and/or think at the same time, handwritten notes are pretty much impossible. I can type to take notes, but that makes the kinds of quick annotations and illustrations that good note-takers usually do very hard.
  • My memory is poor. This is not because of an actual lack of memory, per se, but rather the mechanism by which I form memories. It is more physical and spatial than most. If you just tell me something, it’s gone instantly. I cannot remember singular facts without context. That includes dates, names, amounts, addresses… pretty much anything.
  • I have no sense of order. I will mix up anything that can be flipped or is ambiguous, such as left/right, north/south, east/west, function parameters in programming… the arguments to ln. It doesn’t matter how recently I’ve been told or how recently I’ve used that information.
  • I have no sense of direction. My wife will attest that no matter how many times I’ve been somewhere, or how easy it is to get there, I will get lost. This is mostly because of the previous point about my sense of order.

In re-learning to read, I realized that there are several important factors that go into reading successfully. For me, these are the most important things to understand:

  1. I must always carefully choose the physical layout of the material. The choice of font (and size), and the way a book is typeset, including the size of the margins are all important. Using an e-Reader such as Amazon Kindle helps enormously with this, as for most content I am able to choose the layout features myself. For physical books, I can glance at a few pages and quickly tell if I’ll be able to read it or not. As for me:
    • I prefer simple sans serif fonts without much decoration and with clear letter shapes.
    • I tend towards larger font sizes, as it minimizes distraction from adjacent letters/lines. Tiny text on wide pages is the worst.
    • Perhaps most importantly: Any longer text must be full justified. I find the ragged edges on the right side of a page of left justified text to be so distracting that my reading speed is less than half and I will struggle to get through anything substantial. I realize some people hate full justify, and I’m sorry.
  2. I have to evaluate the writing style of the author. This is a bit harder to describe, and varies a lot by the subject of the material. In general though, for me:
    • I avoid unnecessarily flowery writing styles. Beautiful descriptions of scenes that don’t directly apply to what is happening distract me greatly and I will get lost.
    • A well laid out logical explanation from top-down is usually best. If the author gets mired in the low-level details too early or too often, I will get lost.
    • Illustrations, especially high level or architectural ones help me “set the scene” so that my brain isn’t spending time creating potentially wrong visualizations as I read.
    • Starting with a clear overview or background of what I’m about to read, with definitions, helps a lot.
    • Keeping each paragraph reasonably-sized and on topic helps. Many really short paragraphs (like one sentence) back to back are hard for me to read. Really long paragraphs are impossible for me to read – I get lost in the sea of words.
  3. I always “read aloud” in my mind. For me there is no difference really between reading aloud and reading to myself, except for vocalizing what I am reading. I have the same internal monologue either way, and for me, it’s the only way I can read. (I know this differs with different dyslexics.) This also means that my reading speed is approximately the same (slow) either way.
  4. I use my “mind’s eye” to read. In The Gift of Dyslexia, the author describes fixing in place your “mind’s eye” (the point from which you visualize things) and not letting it wander. This is true for me, and I have to consciously choose to do this while reading text, rather than allowing my mind (and thus my eyes) to wander around the page as it normally would. Imagine my reading as like following the “ball” in karaoke. This is the part that fails first when I am too tired while trying to read.
  5. It’s critical for me to avoid distractions and noise. Until reading The Gift of Dyslexia I really didn’t understand how much simple distractions actually affected me, but they do. I frequently use noise-canceling headphones even without any music playing, just to eliminate the normal house or office noise.

When writing (typing, of course): All of the above applies, but I also have to re-read my writing many times, at least dozens. That’s why it may seem polished to you, the reader. I can’t always write well immediately, but after reading and revising so many times, it probably reads well.

When reviewing someone else’s writing: I will usually take a “style” pass to fix up the spacing, style, typos, font choices, etc., before reviewing. This is not because I’m OCD about style (although I am, as well) but rather that I literally cannot comprehend the content of the writing until I’ve first made it consumable to me. I have to fix those things, or I will trip over them so badly that my reading comprehension of the actual content can be zero. This is a “me” problem, not a you problem.

My dyslexic advantages

I’ve described all of the challenges of being dyslexic, but there are also many advantages.

One of the key things I understood after reading The Gift of Dyslexia and doing subsequent research on dyslexia in general is that the reading challenges associated with dyslexia largely stem from differences in the way the dyslexic person’s brain works. These differences produce many challenges with traditional school especially around reading and writing, but they are fundamentally a beneficial difference for many other aspects of life. So I’ll describe what I see as my “dyslexic advantages”; these are subjective based on my own experience, as I can’t feel or understand how other people’s brains work. For me, though:

  • I visualize in three dimensions. This is the thing that causes so much trouble with reading, because it’s automatic and sometimes uncontrollable, but it’s a very useful skill to have, otherwise. I innately visualize my entire life a lot like a CAD model and mentally rotate objects to see them from other angles. At a glance, I can immediately understand how parts can be joined together, how to assemble or disassemble things, what might be inside a component, etc. This is based partly on imagination, thus it’s not always correct, but it’s largely automatic and effortless.
  • I understand connections. I have an innate sense of the interconnectedness and flow of different systems or components. This applies to computer hardware, electrical systems, plumbing, software, and pretty much any other system. I can sense both how things work and how they or their connections or dependencies can fail. (This does not always extend to making small engines run, though.)
  • I sense correlations. If you’ve worked with me digging through graphs trying to find the source of some bad database traffic, you’ve probably sensed this. I often can’t explain it, but I have an (sometimes almost supernatural) ability to look at a handful of graphs and mentally sort through the noise and figure out causes vs. effects vs. bystanders.

These dyslexic advantages have proven very useful in my professional career working as a computer programmer or working on databases in various web or similar companies. They allow me to understand complex software and systems architectures very easily. I have a good idea how to successfully assemble new systems. In my hobbies and spare time they have allowed me to build very complex devices and electronics for personal projects, to help kids build robots, and to learn to fly airplanes.

Why am I sharing this? Why now?

Through my childhood and my young adult life I was both unaware of my challenges (and dyslexia itself), and ashamed/embarrassed of what those meant. In the intervening years as I came to fully understand my dyslexia and embrace it, I have talked to some people about it, but not very many. To be honest, I am still somewhat embarrassed by it.

Because I could never read during the formative years of my young life, I didn’t read any of the usual books that people generally read. I never developed any love of reading for “fun” as opposed to learning by reading. Even now I don’t really read fiction, I read non-fiction about politics, biographies, and technical topics.

I know there are millions of kids struggling in the same way that I did, without any sort of support network for them. I hope that sharing my story helps at least one struggling child, or helps a parent, teacher, or mentor understand what might be happening. Or… maybe you’re another adult reading this, and it triggers a flash of realization for you.

Black History Month

[This was originally posted on Facebook, but has been copied here and backdated appropriately.]

This month – February – is Black History Month.

This month is not about me, but I hope that you will all bear with me for a moment and forgive me as I use the word “I” more than I should:

I was born in Tennessee – the American South – and despite many of my peers being people of color and various races, I was raised as a product of the white-centric American education system. That means, basically, that my understanding of black history amounted to little more than “we used to be mean to black people and call them names [whispering: and hang a few], but we stopped doing that a long time ago and made them EQUAL, and now they just like to do drugs and riot a lot about what happened in the past”.

I accepted this completely wrong “definition” of Black history (and present), not knowing any better, for a long time. Not because I thought it was right, but because it didn’t materially affect me. As an utterly privileged white male, I never really thought much about it. I accepted that it was normal to occasionally hear denigrating comments towards people of any color or of non-Christian religions – it’s the South, after all! I accepted that some of my family just “didn’t like black people”, and that was normal, right? I accepted that it was all just good fun, and everybody jokes, and jokes are harmless, right? I accepted that it was normal to hear people joke about “ebonics” or to mock religious practices or clothing.

I personally didn’t like it, and I attempted not to participate or encourage it, but I accepted it, and I admit that I certainly did participate on occasion.

I now accept that I was wrong, and that I can do better.

I contributed – even if primarily passively – to racism, to discrimination, to hurting people, and I refuse to do that or accept it from anyone else any longer.

I ignored or looked away or walked away far too often, and I refuse to ignore or look away or walk away any longer.

I ignored Black History Month, because I am not black. That was wrong, too.

Black History Month is not about or for black people celebrating black history – having a beer and toasting Dr. King, as I perhaps previously imagined – it’s for everyone (and especially everyone that’s not black). It’s about recognizing the impacts that everyone has had on black history, and especially how those impacts have molded and shaped what it means to be black in America. Many of those impacts have been negative and uncomfortable for white people like myself. Many of those impacts have been positive (and unfortunately often still uncomfortable for white people!).

This month is about recognition – both the joyous and the solemn kind. This month is also about, after achieving some recognition, offering unguarded praise and optimism for black innovation and advances, offering condolences for black sacrifice, shedding tears for black repression and suffering, and offering your heart to accepting and embracing Black History.

Black History Month is not about making blacks equal to whites somehow by giving them a month and marking it on everyone’s calendars. It’s about having the fortitude and compassion and sense to both accept the ugly past, and commit to making blacks and Black Future BETTER than your own. After all, by embracing each other, acknowledging and embracing our differences, and pushing each other higher, nobody actually gets left behind – we all rise up together.

You are black. I see that you are black. I love your blackness. I am sorry for everything. I love you. I will fight for you.

Power consumption of Dyson Air Multiplier (AM01)

A few weeks ago I got a Dyson Air Multiplier (AM01) for my desk at work. My brother Rob asked me about the power consumption, and I got a chance to measure it. However, since I couldn’t find any real data about it online I figured I’d fix that and write it here rather than in email…

Measured using a Kill-a-watt at 120.5V:

  • Lowest setting: 2-3W
  • Medium setting1: 13-14W
  • Highest setting: 31W
  • Oscillation enabled: +2W

Not bad actually!

1 Since the Dyson is infinitely adjustable, I had to guess at a “medium” position by feel. It’s adjustable in about 1W increments all the way from the lowest to the highest setting.

Kiva: How to make a difference for 1,000 people with only $100 per month

Kiva (also see my lender page) is an amazing and deceptively simple idea: People, mostly in third world countries, need loans to buy food, crops, cows, equipment, education, etc. so they get a loan from a local Kiva partner, and those loans are backed by Kiva users in $25 increments. There is no interest paid to Kiva users, (although the local partners do charge some interest), so it’s not really an investment per se.

I’ve been a user of Kiva for a more than five years now, and have made 350 loans so far for a total of $9,400 loaned. In the first few years I only sporadically made some loans and let repaid money sit around for a long time. In the past couple of years I’ve been using Kiva more consistently, every month re-investing the full repayment amounts as soon as they come in, and usually adding 4-6 loans ($100-$150) of new money.

As I’ve been doing this I noticed an effect that makes perfect sense but I hadn’t considered before: Since the loans are anywhere from 9-24 months, but the repaid amounts are repaid typically monthly, if the repaid amounts are re-invested immediately, the original loan amounts stack on top of each other, allowing the same money to be invested several times over simultaneously.

Recently I’ve been thinking about actually quantifying that effect and figuring out what impact it could have. Since it’s not a very simple calculation, I put together a spreadsheet to calculate the full picture for me.


The following assumptions are made:

  • Amount per loan: $25.00 — This is the standard loan amount on Kiva, so this just assumes you never double up on a single loan (which is not a good idea as it spreads the loss risk poorly).
  • Investment per month: 4 loans, or $100 (and reinvest all repayments) — This is approximately what I’ve been doing, although frequently it’s a bit more than 4.
  • Average loan duration: 15 months — This is the average loan duration for my loan portfolio, and seems about average for Kiva.
  • Loss rate: 2.07% — This is the actual loss rate of my portfolio, which is a bit higher than the average Kiva user at 1.09% because I tend to loan to war-torn and riskier areas.


After 5 years (60 months) of consistent and prompt investment, the results could be:

  • Total investment: $6,000 — This is the actual amount you’ve paid out of pocket.
  • Total loans made: 1,004 — The number of individuals or groups helped. This is the most amazing thing, watching all of these individuals succeed due to your help.
  • Total amount loaned: $25,100 — The amount your $6,000 turns into after re-investment through immediate re-loaning.
  • Total amount lost: $519.57 — Due to a combination of loan defaults and currency exchange loss, not all of your money will be returned.
  • Total amount returned: $5480.43 — If you stopped making loans after the 60 months and started to withdraw your money from Kiva, at the end of it you’d get this much back (investment minus loss).

Check out the full calculator on Google Docs for all the details and per-month amounts.


The really amazing thing with following this plan is that the Kiva borrowers themselves end up—through prompt repayment of their loans—funding each other. For me, the amount being invested each month is quite modest, and through reinvestment of the repayments, the monthly impact is huge. This month, I received almost $400 in repayments, added an additional $100, and made $500 in new loans.