Maintaining the Technical Status Quo (For Now)

I spent the last week doing some intensive research on two potential tech purchases: an iPhone for me and Liz, and replacing this WordPress site with Squarespace. I decided to stay with WordPress and we both decided to keep our current "dumb phones." TracFone Wireless

The major lesson from this exercise was one I've seen pop up in various coaching and self-help articles: if it's not a hell-yes, it's a no.

iPhone

Liz and I have both been using pay-as-you-go Tracfones of one sort or another for so many years I can't count them. We use them only for the basics -- voicemail, calling a few people close to us, texting, sometimes an alarm. I can use my Bluetooth headset and set simple alarms. We can't surf the web with them, check email, take pictures, or any other wonderful stuff iPhone and Android owners take for granted. (Well, the product specs and Tracfone say you can, and we were able to for a while, but it's too cumbersome.)

Tracfone support is not great, and transitioning to a new model was always rocky. But once it was set up, it just worked.

What we like about them is they are cheap to buy and cheap to add minutes to. Liz uses hers so rarely she has something like 2,000+ minutes. As far as Tracfone is concerned, those minutes are for voice and text. (Texts cost, I think, a third of a minute.)

I have fewer minutes than Liz, since I use my Tracfone for hour-long conference calls. That said, I've been calling in to one or two conference calls per week for the last 2 months, and have not needed to add any minutes yet. Also, my particular Tracfone model is pretty indestructible. I've dropped it twice; both times, I popped the battery back in, snapped the cover in place, and I was back in bidness.

So for our minimal needs, the Tracfones have served us well. But lately, they have been showing their technological age. Our friends with the fancy phones can't share pictures or links with us. My phone's keyboard has been sticking. We often don't know or can't tell that our phones are ringing or even that there's a voicemail waiting. They look increasingly old-fashioned. They are, to misappropriate Michael Leddy's word, dowdy.

I thought, it would be nice to have a single device to take the place of my camera, my iPod Touch, and my Tracfone. Why not upgrade these increasingly inconvenient phones and modernize?

Since we're an iMac/iPad/iPod family, iPhones are the way to go. I researched pre-owned phones, the reseller market, Apple's current line-up, and the newly announced SE. But that research was trivial compared to looking for an affordable carrier: one of the Big 4, or maybe an alternate carrier like Ting or Consumer Cellular, or even Cricket or MetroPCS.

For about an hour, we decided we'd each buy an SE and go with Verizon. But then the fever broke and we started calculating how much money we'd be shelling out to both pay for new iPhones (+ Applecare!) and pay for the ongoing service. My co-workers all complained they paid too much for cell phone service, but they are also on family plans, with kids who text and video chat a lot, and they are all hooked on the conveniences of smartphones.

Liz and I took a step back from the cliff, breathed in and out slowly, and decided to soldier on with our current phones. Yes, they are sometimes frustrating to use and not terribly fashionable. Yes, it would be nice to upgrade. But it's also nice to have paid-for, basic phones that we keep mainly for emergencies and to check in with family, and whose service has cost us about $20 total this year. As the saying goes, a luxury once sampled becomes a necessity. For us, now, smartphones are a luxury we can afford but do not want to pay for.

Squarespace vs WordPress

My first blog was on Blogger. After I had issues with Google's handling of my site, I opted to buy my own domain and purchase a hosting service through InMotion Hosting that supported WordPress. I was about to enter a master's program in information science and thought it would be useful to get familiar with these kinds of techy things.

That was in 2007. As the years went on, though, I had my ups and downs with the site. WordPress is pretty solid unless you add too many plugins that may conflict with each other or  slow down your site. I also had to manage the domain stuff, which meant fiddling with CPanel, the File Manager, and lots of other site-related maintenance duties I had to figure out through InMotion's then quite basic online documentation, support forums, and occasional tech support questions. And I always got the passwords confused for my WordPress site, my domain site, and InMotion support forum.

WordPress is a popular target of hacker attacks and, more than once, inMotion has locked me out of my site due to such attacks. Last year there was a particularly nasty set of attacks. So I spent several nights with InMotion's list of 20 or so WordPress security items to check, plugins to load, plugins to uninstall, WordPress configuration tweaks, edits to text-based configuration files deep in the bowels of the WordPress directory infrastructure, and so on. I bought a Genesis framework to provide more stability and some design choices I could not implement otherwise; WordPress is notoriously finicky if you color outside its lines and don't know CSS or PHP. I have Google Calendar reminders to back up the SQL database and I use Site Sucker as a secondary backup.

All in all, this site now ticks along pretty well with minimal care on my part. But when my friend Mike wanted to start his own web site a few years ago, I instead suggested he look into Squarespace. No fiddling with CPanel or managing a server. Limited templates but rock-solid. No need to update plugins or manage security since Squarespace handles that. Easy to add a blog or a picture gallery page. Mike took that suggestion and ran with it; he enjoys playing with his site and loves how easy it is to update and manage. He never stops singing its praises.

It's hard for me to praise WordPress's complexity in the same way.

Recently, an acquaintance who had been a long-time WordPress user switched to Squarespace. She wanted to create a portfolio page for her samples and finding a way to bend WordPress to her will (WP is mainly a blog-platform, after all, not an everything-platform) was too much trouble. She had her Squarespace portfolio page up in a few hours.

This was all turning my head. WordPress has its place, of course. When properly set up and maintained, it's a rock-solid and dependable content management system. That complexity is necessary to handle big, complex sites. In the hands of a skilled designer or developer, WordPress can do whatever you want. There's a deep ecosystem of plugins, themes, support, how-tos, and so on.

But. As a hobbyist with now only mild curiosity in how all this stuff works, WordPress is overkill for my minimal blogging needs. And as I think about the next steps of my career, I also wonder how easy/hard it will be to set up a portfolio page or make other adjustments to this site. At that point, we'll see how easy Genesis is to use.

For now, though, this site isn't broken. No security alerts, no plugin conflicts, no crashes. I log in every couple of weeks to empty the spam comments and update plugins as needed. The Squarespace dashboard looks, at first glance, at least as complicated as WP's. It's also about the same cost per year as I'm paying now. (Am I suffering from a sunk costs fallacy? Maybe.)

Perhaps most important to me personally, changing platforms would not materially change my motivation to write and blog. I do not now have good low-level systems for creating blog posts anyway. Switching to Squarespace would only be a diversion from the real issue of me not writing. It would be activity, not productivity.

So I decided to make better use of what I have now and simply use it more by writing more.

Triggers and Deadlines

Having done all this research, though, I decided on what may I may want to do in the future.

With this blog, for example, I've set a few mental tripwires that will trigger me moving this site from WordPress to Squarespace:

  • If I need to create a portfolio page and WordPress/Genesis proves too difficult, then move to Squarespace.
  • If this site gets hit with another major hack attack and InMotion locks me out, or I have to do more hacking on the site to secure it, then I'll move to SS.

Until that happens, I'll keep using WordPress and InMotion.

With the iPhone, I decided that on July 4 -- if I really want to -- I will purchase a 64GB 5s from a reseller (probably on eBay), open a cell account with Ting.com, and start playing with the smartphone as a hobby. I do feel I've missed out on the conversations happening around me for years, and I would like to be a part of them. The 5s should be plentiful on the resale market as its owners upgrade to the SE. A 64GB 5s would replace my current phone and iPod Touch.

By having a real smartphone, albeit an outdated model, I would also get a sense of how much or how little I would actually use it. If I use it a lot, then maybe I would upgrade to a more modern phone later. If I use it only a little, I could stick with the 5s and enjoy what it does for me.

The long-anticipated conclusion to this endless essay

As I said a hundred years ago at the start of this post, if it's not a hell-yes, it's a NO. As I researched these two decisions, I could feel anxiety in my stomach that something was not right here. I was not looking forward to getting either a smartphone or a new web site. I could feel myself trying to convince myself that these were good, sensible purchases.

That's the lesson. When I don't feel clarity around a decision, it's OK to wait. When I really want something, I don't need to make pro/con lists or do extensive research or dither about this or that criterion. I'll know it's the right thing to do. When a decision has to be made now NOW NOW then, of course, make the best decision with the information you have. But if I'm not under deadline, then the decision can wait.

As my first coach said, I don't have to motivate myself to eat the cake. If I want the cake, eat it. If I don't, leave it.

If I had a really concrete professional fear, it would be that I would wake up in the morning and know what I was doing.
Quote I found in my old journals, attributed to “an obscure artist” (I have no idea who I was referring to)

Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals.

What We've Been Watching - January '16

Youth (Dir: Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) I like a slow, meandering, plotless movie more than the next guy (such as Russian Ark), but this pretentious piece of codswallop reminded me of 1980s-era SCTV parodies of similarly aimless European cinema. I thought the symbolism annoyingly on-the-nose and the story structure annoyingly obvious; I was successfully predicting what would happen next. The blinkered view of women, the sentimentality of the ending – just awful.

Carol (Dir: Todd Haynes, 2015) Stylish, gorgeous, achingly recreated period detail. Wonderful performances. A romance between two women poured into a noirish thriller mold; I kept waiting for something more dire to happen, and pleased that it didn’t. And one of the best endings in a movie I’ve seen for a long time. A piece of writing advice I remember is that the ending of a story is the start of the next; Carol‘s ending had me thinking what that next story would be.

Spectre (Dir: Sam Mendes, 2015). Not as good as Skyfall, but as my friend Scott said, what could be? Gob-smacking set pieces, a leading lady who does not spark off of Daniel Craig the way Eva Green did in Casino Royale, an impossibly accomplished villain in Blofeld, Andrew McCarthy aka Moriarty will always and forever be seen as a psychopath so no surprises there, yet with a return to the Bond “family,” which I really enjoy seeing. Spectre felt like the finale to the multi-season arc of a long TV series. I agree with the Atlantic writer who argued that the Bond of the novels was a blunt instrument with no personality and no past; the desire to give Bond a psychology is admirable but kind of misses the point of the Bond character.

Anomalisa (Dirs: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, 2015) (What’s up with the one-word movie titles?) An odd animated piece that, were it a live-action movie, would be rather wet, gloomy, and not terribly interesting. But the movie’s radio drama roots and the affectless look of the dolls invite the viewer to actively participate in adding the emotion and motivation. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice work was exceptional, with the moment where she sings “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” both funny and heartbreakingly tender. A beautiful moment. Apart from her, though, this struck me as a cold and rather remote movie about an uninteresting man’s midlife crisis.

TV shows we finished

  • Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was light, enjoyable, and up to the minute with its references to the modern urban/online/digital landscape. It did not deal in cringe comedy, which is a pleasant change from a lot of what we’ve seen lately. One of my favorite episodes showed scenes from the childhoods of the characters’ immigrant parents. I responded to Master of None’s sensitivity and gentleness. Although Ansari isn’t my favorite comic actor, I liked his fast-talking brashness here a lot more than I did in Parks and Recreation; it pairs better with his character’s essential childishness and innocence.
  • We’re big fans of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe so we watched Series 1 of Pulling, co-written by Horgan for the BBC in 2006. It’s a bloke comedy except here it’s the women behaving badly: drinking, screwing, miscommunicating, and destroying the lives of everyone they touch. It’s harsh cringe comedy with the “no-hugs, no-learning” ethos hugged tightly to its dark heart. If the performers were less appealing, and the comic acting less precise, it’d be tough to take. I’m betting there will be no happy endings here.
  • I’m really out of touch with sketch comedy; haven’t watched Key and Peele or Mr. Show or any of them. So, we started watching series 1&2 of Inside Amy Schumer and hoo-boy, this is not The Carol Burnett Show. Like the Ansari comedy, the technology and online/urban culture references are pulled from today’s Twitter feed. As with Pulling, lots of cringe comedy and shocking (for us, anyway) subject matter. Amy is a delightful performer. There’s usually at least one sketch or moment that saves the show, and that ratio gets better as the series goes along.

Playmakers Rep's "Three Sisters"

In their ads read during the local morning NPR news, Playmakers Rep touted its “new take” on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. What on earth does that meaningless phrase mean? This is my third production of Three Sisters and it didn’t look anything like some of the wilder Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. Chekhov plays are so rooted to their time and place that they resist overmuch tampering.

Is it a "new take" because it was a new idiomatic translation? Or color-blind casting (two of the principal actors are African-American)?

The new translation by Libby Appel seemed fine, though with too many Americanized phrases for my ear. Appel translates “I don’t understand you” as “I don’t get it.” Yes, it’s shorter, more colloquial–but it jars my ear. Some phrases also struck me as clichés that would have been stripped from any other play. (Had I gone with the intention of writing a review, I’d have taken notes!)

Vivienne Benesch’s direction orchestrated some fine moments, though I think the size and spread of PRC’s thrust stage, with audiences on three sides, worked against the production and the play.

Chekhov charts the sisters’ descent from their height in Act 1, where they are clearly the center of attention and in charge of the household, until they are slowly squeezed into a small bedroom under the eaves, and then finally ejected by the domineering sister-in-law whose vulgarity they had earlier sneered at.

The creeping claustrophobia of the home is echoed by the smothering provinciality of their small town. The sisters early on deride the town’s small-minded pettiness and lack of culture. “To Moscow, to Moscow” is their prayer, their plaint, their lament.

Yet the stage, though cleverly redressed for the major scene changes, never emphasized their increasingly crowded and shrinking horizons. Olga and Irina’s bedroom should be a tiny thing, and though small enough on the PRC stage, there seems to be a whole other space alongside it where they and their uninvited guests can wander freely, talk, lie down, and scream. The sheer size of the stage undercut the play’s intimacy.

The performances were good, but not uniformly so. Daniel Pearce’s Kulygin always commanded my attention when he walked onstage, and Carey Cox’s Natalya was quite strong.

For me, the standout performances were Allison Altman’s Irina–particularly her sad and shocking breakdown as she realizes she will not escape to Moscow–and Arielle Yoder’s Masha, whose cool demeanor hides a seething anger and yearning. Marinda Anderson’s Olga was firm and supportive–the tone-setter in the opening minutes and the solid emotional anchor in the final minutes–but isn’t given the opportunity to tear into her own longings and desires. One moment of Anderson’s I loved: her shock and uneasiness at Natasha’s barking mad frustration with the old nurse.

In the last scene, as the sisters stand in the back yard of their former home, Olga hears the marching music of the soldiers leaving the town. She hopes that the sisters will soon learn “why we are alive and why we suffer.” As she said this, I think all three sisters turned outward to look at the audience, as if to say–We’re suffering so you can learn and remember. I’m not sure if I’m remembering or interpreting that moment correctly; it simply struck me as odd for the sisters to turn their backs to each other at a moment when they should be reaching toward each other and thereby finding their purpose.

Three Sisters was a fine but not a great production, with moments of exquisitely etched agony and loss, but it did not strike me as a new take.

Mark Forster's Book Challenge

UK time management coach and author Mark Forster has set himself the challenge to read only one book at a time. Although he is great at starting books, his challenge has been finishing them. He's used a variant of his Autofocus task management system in the past as a way to read War and Peace. I wonder if his high distraction rate means he got what he wanted out of those unfinished books, after all; a quick skim may be all that's needed for a sense of completion.

For myself, my book selection and (non-)completion methods have varied over the years. Here's what I do now:

  • John Sutherland, I think, recommends reading page 69 (any random page really) and then deciding based on that whether to read the book at all. I use this method when searching for bedtime books to read to Liz.
  • I give a book 50 pages or so and then decide whether to continue. Oftentimes, particularly for light non-fiction books, I practice Maugham's "art of skimming."
  • On my physical bookshelf, the top shelf is reserved for books of current interest. When I return a book, I place it to the far right. If a new book usurps its place, the new book is placed to the far right. This is just the Noguchi technique applied to books; uninteresting books migrate to the left of the shelf and can probably be safely discarded.
  • I keep a collection on my Kindle titled "Now Reading." I can only read books in that collection. I keep three books only in that collection: a short-story collection, a novel, and a non-fiction book. Yes, I'd get through one book faster if I focused on it rather than dividing my time and attention among three books. But I am eternally fond of Randall Jarrell's famous line: "Read at whim! read at whim!"

 

Rather than demanding authenticity, which is inherently paradoxical–trying to be real is embarrassing and fake–Bowie-ism instead asks for playful imagination in the artful construction and performance of persona. You can’t aspire to Bowie’s level of virtuosity in this regard, but it is liberating, especially for a Gen X-er drawn toward the grimly earnest misguided intensity of the authenticity cult, to see life as a playful pageant of role-playing that can be done with more or less art. Bowie is why I tell my writing students that there is no “voice” to find, no voice that belongs to the true you, because there is no true you, only ever versions of yourself you have learned to perform, and the voice of the character you play on the page is up to you. The question is not who you are but what connects, how much courage you have, how much guile, what you can manage to get away with.

Jon Benjamin Tries Jazz

Best known as the lead voice on Bob’s Burgers and Archer, Benjamin has no expertise in jazz music. “It’s a real insult to people who try,” he says of Well, I Should Have … Learned How To Play Piano.

Source: Jon Benjamin Tries Jazz

We’ve loved hearing Benjamin’s voice for years on Dr. Katz and Bob’s Burgers, and the excerpts from the album are a hoot. I loved hearing the other musicians yell to him near the end, “You can do better!”

It is not as sublimely funny as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards’ classic records – such as their classic “Stayin’ Alive” or “Who” – but worthy of sitting next to it in the box at the back of the closet.

Inbox by Google

I switched from Yahoo Mail to Gmail back in 2006 or 2007; it took awhile to come to grips with it, but I loved some of its conveniences and never switched back. I kept the old Yahoo Mail account as a backup just-in-case account, but I only check it every week or so.intro-logo I'm always hesitant when trying new Google products. I didn't try Google's Wave product when it was introduced (and which died a relatively quick death). The company's offhand attitude and abandonment of its Google Reader users really set the warning flag. I don't plan on keeping any notes in Google Keep. And as for Google Play's takeover of my beloved Songza service -- well, I'm not holding out any hopes for that. Songza did exactly what I wanted from it and I'd have cheerfully paid them for the service. I simply don't trust Google to do anything I expect, even if I did pay them.

But I have been trying out Inbox by Google for a month or so and I'm liking it. Based on what I've read, Google really wants to push users to Inbox and I thought, well, let's try it. They may one day turn off Gmail and users will wake up with Inbox. So it makes sense to start coming to grips with it now.

What I Like

  • Inbox's guiding philosophy is to view the email inbox as a to-do list. For any item in the Inbox, you must Do, Delete, or Defer. Viewing emails, newsletters, promotions, Facebook notifications, listserv digests, etc. as tasks has been a standard tenet of productivity literature since David Allen's first book. But while email clients helped me move emails around and write them or reply to them, they didn't really provide a framework to help me process them more quickly. Inbox, as I've been using it, is really helping me process (that is, delete or archive) emails in a more sane manner.
  • Inbox groups emails into pre-defined bins like Promos, Updates, Purchases, and so on. Their groupings are pretty accurate and it's easy to move an email from one group to another. What I like best about the groups is that it's easy to scan them and delete them all in a single stroke; this bulk management of emails saves me a good deal of time.
  • It's also easy to define my own group (in Gmail-speak, a label or tag).
  • I love the feature that lets me create reminders to myself right there in the Inbox and then set them to appear at any date/time or to recur. In the past, I'd have used the FollowUpThen email reminder service (which I pay for) or SaneLater (which I stopped paying for) or Google Calendar or GQueues. (Geez, do I think I need a lot of help in my life or what?) Instead, the Reminders are quick and easy to set, they appear in my iPod's Google app and Notifications, and my inbox is clear of any emails I used to keep there as reminders.
  • It's dead easy to snooze emails so I can deal with them later. Snoozing an email is like setting a reminder. It makes keeping a clean Inbox a breeze. Previously, I'd have forwarded the email to FollowUpThen and archived the original mail. Inbox's Snooze feature is much neater and more convenient.
  • Inbox delivers the grouped email once a day -- 7am. So if I get any new Facebook notices or Promos or Updates, then Inbox holds them back from appearing till the next morning. I have found that rather authoritarian management of my email to be liberating. I'm one of those sad people who likes to check his inbox every 5 minutes. But knowing that these bulk emails are by default not urgent, and that they'll show up in tomorrow morning's email anyway, means my Inbox stays mostly empty. Personal emails from Liz or friends appear instantly and so I don't need to plow through other emails to get to them. So during the day, I'm more likely to receive only emails that will be of  immediate interest to me.
  • (You can, of course, look inside Inbox's Social, Promos, Updates, etc. folders and see the emails that have arrived and that are being held for the next day. I prefer, in most cases, to let Inbox deliver them to me in a batch at 7am.)
  • You can set three default snooze times for a reminder or an email; I use 7am, 2pm, and 7pm. When I open up Inbox in the evening -- BAM -- I'll see all the reminders and snoozed emails that I couldn't deal with earlier in the day. At this point, I deal with them by reading them, taking action, or deleting them. The Inbox becomes my to-do list -- which is the way I've always used it.

What I Wish Were Better

  • Google's material design of Inbox looks nice in the browser, but the performance is not as snappy as in Gmail. Even on my Chromebook, Inbox is a visually stuttering application. However, using Inbox on my iPod is a treat and cements the idea for me that Inbox is optimized for mobile rather than the browser.
  • Still haven't figured out how to filter an email so Inbox can automatically send it to the Trash. I still have to create those filters in Gmail. I also had saved searches in Gmail; the search facility in Inbox never seems to work as I expect.
  • Some operations are simply easier in Gmail for me. I am taking part in an online course, so I'm receiving a ton of notifications throughout the day on new posts to the course's Facebook group. Processing 20 of these messages in Inbox just takes too many clicks. It's far quicker for me to zip into Gmail and process the emails rapid-fire.

I went all-in on Inbox over the Christmas break, avoided Gmail, and it was the best way to learn Inbox quickly. I also recommend reading Computerworld's JR Raphael's post on adopting Inbox. The second half of his post, where he talks about workflow, convinced me to give Inbox a try.

Today, I still access Gmail when I need to process a big batch of emails quickly. But Inbox rules the roost for the moment. Until Google says otherwise.


Update, January 11, 2017

I've gone back to using Gmail plain. Inbox's best feature was the scheduling function, but I have already duplicated that with FollowupThen. Inbox was just too slow, even when using it in Chrome on my iMac, even when using it on my flipping Chromebook. I often had to click on a mail two or three times for it to display as the clicks never seemed to register; Google's Material Design took so much time to load I got impatient. The only time Inbox performed at an acceptable speed was when I started using Kiwi for Gmail Lite; even so, I found myself flipping over to Gmail to process mails more quickly. Inbox by Google will have to offer much faster performance before I'm willing to switch again.