Six Movies

 Darkest Hour (2017). Gary Oldman, unrecognizable as usual, as Churchill. I’m unclear, in these historical recreations, on what is real and what is manufactured. But I can tell you the moment of Churchill barging into the Underground was obviously manufactured. Interesting directorial flourishes. It ends on a high note, before the years of privation and many dark hours yet to come. But who was this movie made for? The people who voted for Brexit or who voted against it? Carolina Theatre.

The Shape of Water (2017). I’ve never seen any of Guillermo del Toro’s movies, but I gather most are in this line of fantasy and romance. It’s visually gorgeous, even the drabness looks romantic. Sally Hawkins is luminous, as always, and I was entranced by some of the visual flourishes: the droplets sliding across the window, Hawkins’ character’s reveries. Story-wise, I was most interested in Michael Shannon’s character; I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a bad guy’s private life and I wanted to see more of how his personal American dream soured in his belly. Plot-wise, why does a super-secret facility that has security cameras even on the loading dock not have a single camera where The Creature is locked up? And in a room that is conveniently empty of the security guards, soldiers, and scientists that swarm all over the rest of the building?  Don’t ask questions of a personal wet dream. Carolina Theatre.

The Front Page (1974). Billy Wilder’s take on the venerable chestnut. Blisteringly fast and crackling dialogue; it’s thrilling to see a squadron of top character actors going through their paces with a zesty skill that has no place in today’s Hollywood. At some point, I thought: how long have they all been shouting at each other? It seems like the last 30 minutes is nothing but shouting. And yet the pace, the energy, doesn’t flag and I simply hung on for the ride. It’s a minor movie, but its clockwork plot is finely honed and expertly done. They really did know how to make ‘em. Carolina Theatre.

Phantom Thread (2017). A restrained art piece about an artist, about how the people whose livelihoods depend on him accommodate him, and about the muse who wants more than being a tailor’s dummy. Loved the period detail, the stateliness, the immaculate acting. It’s fun to talk about its themes as if I were writing an essay about it, to show off how clever I was to spot them all. “Cerebral” is a description, not an insult. Still — it remains a rather chilly piece. I was interested the whole time, but I’m not sure what to make of it. Carolina Theatre

Love and Death (1975). I  had seen this years ago and had a hankering to see it again. Woody Allen flexing his considerable comic muscles — I loved his battlefield sight gags — in one of his slighter efforts. Your patience for it depends on how much of his “Woody Allen” comic persona you can stand. Diane Keaton is heart-breakingly beautiful yet she’ll suddenly pull a face that cracks me up. Some jokes inevitably creak, some jokes — particularly the ones said by old men about young girls — made us squirm. Amazon Prime Video

The Post (2017). I almost laughed out loud when John Williams’ spiritedly thrumming, almost martial, music ran under the shot of delivery trucks leaving the Washington Post building with its newspapers; it was like a moment from a mythical gung-ho ‘30s movie where you just knew the delivery of the newspapers was going to bring down the crooked political bosses and all would be well. I shook my head, mystified, watching the back of the pantomime Richard Nixon gesticulating maniacally as he talked on the phone. Good performances all around, a good story briskly told, but ... A vanished time? A manufactured memory? Would the current owner of the Post stand up for the First Amendment or listen to his financial planners? Chelsea Theatre.

Gmail Delay Send

An advantage of some desktop or third-party email clients is their ability to schedule sending an email. Outlook 2016 for Windows can do this, as can the macOS and iOS application Spark. There are also services/plugins you can buy to give you this feature, such as Boomerang.

At work, I sometimes delay sending emails till 7 or 8 pm, after I've left for the day. Some people feel an obligation to respond immediately to an email; I don't want to encourage that obligation, especially for trivia or simple follow-up tasks.

When I volunteered in our neighborhood association, I would have liked to send emails to my fellow volunteers later in the week. I inevitably thought of some other instruction or clarification I should have included after drafting the email, so a delay would have given me time to tweak my draft before it was sent.

My primary email client is Gmail, which does not offer a feature to delay sending outgoing mail. Nor does Apple Mail (the Automator workaround is WAY too fiddly to be useful). I could use Spark on my iMac, but the font it uses is so tiny, I cannot draft emails in it comfortably.

Hackers to the rescue! There is a Google Code project, Gmail Send Delay, that does most of what I want. It's free. It uses Gmail tags, so I could draft emails in Apple Mail or iOS Mail and use those Gmail tags to delay sending. And in my limited testing, it works.

But there are two or three things that make it something you cannot casually adopt and that keep me from embracing it wholeheartedly.

  1. The script requires access to your Google account, as you might expect. I don't mind doing this -- most of the applications I use require Google or Gmail access -- but it's something others may balk at.
  2. You need to remember to enter the time you want it sent in the first line of the email body. And while the time format is flexible, if you don't enter the time correctly, then the mail won't be sent.
  3. In addition to adding the email to specific Gmail label, you have to remember to keep the email in Drafts. Or put another way: you have to remember TO NOT CLICK SEND. While you can recall the message if Undo Send is turned on, the Gmail Delay Send script appears to deliver the mail anyway.

It's that last point that stops me using the feature more often. I've blundered one too many times with an incorrect time format or pressing Send, since that's the button I've been pressing for over a decade. I have to think a little too much to use this capability freely.

It may be time for me to try Boomerang again. It has extra features I'm not interested in, but its primary advantage is a big red Send Later button plus selectable time formats. The application is taking the burden of remembering off of me. I could get by with the free tier of service, since I would rarely schedule sending more than a few emails a month.

Digital Sabbath

I spend my working days at a computer and sometimes whole evenings too. And bits of the weekend. For the most part I enjoy it, and have enjoyed it as a hobby for the last couple of decades. The Internet can be endlessly distracting and enjoyable.

But ergonomically and mentally, it’s also good for me to take a physical break from my devices now and then.

For that reason, I like the idea of the digital sabbath. It’s an idea that’s floated around probably for as long as the Blackberry and iPhone have been with us. [1]

For a time last year I used a free iOS app, Friday, to nudge me into adopting the digital sabbath. About a half hour before Friday sundown, the app displayed a thoughtful message, quote, or anecdote, and then the screen went dark. That was the cue to set the device down – at the time, my iPod – and not pick it up again till sundown on Saturday.

I made my own rules for a digital sabbath. I allowed myself to check my emails for anything urgent that required attention, but set the device down quickly after that.

I tried to avoid adopting the “Blackberry prayer” posture but didn’t (and still don’t) always succeed.

I found that not using a computer from Friday evening to Saturday evening was quite doable. I spent Friday evening reading a physical book or magazine while Saturday was usually a day full of chores anyway. I allowed reading on a Kindle since it’s an ebook and I cannot go online with it.

Of course, there’d be backed-up emails to wade through on Saturday night (or Sunday morning, if I enjoyed the time away). But that also made me think: how much time do I want to spend processing emails? Time away from the computers made me consider how I wanted to spend my time at them.

A friend tried the digital sabbath, but the furious pace of his and his family’s life militated against a no-email-for–24-hours policy.

I did not download Friday to my new iPhone when I got it. Too many things to learn! But I downloaded it again after I started drafting this post. I want to give the digital sabbath another try.

 

  1. As with any good idea, there are always detractors. For me, the digital sabbath is not about me blaming technology for being addicting. When I fast, it’s not because I blame food for being delicious. It’s about developing a healthier relationship with all things in my life – including myself.  ↩

Three Use Cases

I am debating what I want in a protective case for my iPad Pro. A luxury problem, to be sure.

There are many choices: sleeves, cases, cases that leave the edges open, wraparound cases that leave only essential ports uncovered, cases that include a keyboard, cases that include a strap, cases to cover only the back of the iPad, expensive leather cases, cheap plastic cases, etc.

And if you only want a strap, then there are multiple hand strap options, believe it or not: velcro, silicon rubber bands, magnets, adhesives, full 360-degree swivel, etc.

When I’m in the welter of too many choices related to a product I want to buy, I use the following method for slicing through some of the noise.

I imagine at least three different scenarios, or use cases, where I would use the product. This gives me an idea of the type of experience I’m after. It helps me define what I want from the product and refine my requirements. I don’t always get to an a-ha decision this way, but it does help me discard options that don’t match the scenarios.

In this case (heh), my top three scenarios are:

  1. I drop the iPad or it slides out of a backpack: I want the case to help cushion the fall and generally protect it from collisions with the real world. 
  2. The case should make the iPad easy to hold for long periods of time. Although lots of cases boast their covers fold back so that the iPad can stand up, I will hardly ever use it that way. At home and especially when traveling, I will most often be reading on it.
  3. I don’t have a compelling third scenario, beyond that the case look good.

That I only have 2.5 scenarios may explain why I’m still sorting signal from noise.

Oddly enough, I did not have these mental discussions around my iPhone SE case. I use an Apple leather case and a tempered glass screen protector. That’s it. I even put the phone in my back pocket and sit on it, for heaven’s sake.

But the iPad feels … different. Thinner, more susceptible to damage. I would not dream of sitting on it.

So the search continues. For the time being, I may get a $20 case to protect the back of the iPad while the Smart Cover protects the front.

I continue to search out images and reviews of cases and judge them against my scenarios. I have the feeling, after seeing and pondering so many of these things, that I’ll know it when I see it.

Afterword: I think I got the idea of “3 use cases” from JD Meier’s blogs. He’s a fan of the rule of 3 and has written about scenarios. He has lots of great practical ideas and advice focused on the world of work.

Leaving My Email Alone

The @SaneLater folder in my Gmail account bulges with links to pages, or the text of pages saved via Email This, that I thought interesting enough to read later but not crucial to read now. 

I trolled through the emails tonight looking for ideas on something to post. I deleted some recent emails related to research on a project only recently finished. I deleted some things because the time has passed and I'm no longer interested. I left a couple for me to rediscover later, if and when I want to.

When I started my SaneBox subscription and saw the numbers of undealt-with emails climbing in that @SaneLater folder, I started to stress about it. Surely I need to keep on top of these things? If I committed to receiving them and reading, then surely I needed to do something about them? I prided myself on running a tight ship and staying on top of these little dust devils before they became whirlwinds. I would stay up late reading, processing, giving each item its due.

But at some point I gave myself permission to leave them alone. And to not stress about them. Let them pile up. Will I be docked a letter grade for not keeping a pristine email inbox? Will this come up in my semi-annual performance review? I think not. The important emails get taken care of, the others will rest and compost and I may eventually turn the heap to find something of interest. It's OK if I don't. I have plenty of other demands on my time that are more urgent. Naps are more urgent than email. 

One of the many things I learned from David Burns' Feeling Good was the ways we drive ourselves bananas with our thinking. He identified a long list of "cognitive distortions" and the ones that chimed with me related to all-or-nothing thinking, magnification, and disqualifying the positive.

Keeping my inbox at zero fueled my stress reactions: if I had even one or two emails in that box, I had failed (all-or-nothing). But, no. That's blowing a minuscule situation out of proportion (magnification) and ignoring all the emails I did process (disqualifying the positive). 

The coaches I'm working with, and the mind/spirit path I'm following now, help me see -- sometimes -- that things in life are not light switches marked on or off, black or white, false or true.  They're more like sliders moving along a spectrum, sometimes this, sometimes that. 

Having a clean and neat inbox is admirable. It shows I'm good at handling only the commitments I have time to process, that I am on top of things, that I have good routines and habits to build on to achieve higher things.

Well, not there yet. I have given myself permission to take the slow road. 

Diet Update & Fasting

I weighed 211.0 lbs. a couple days ago, way over the control line.

So I did a 22-hour or so fast. I had last eaten about 8pm the day before, so I did not eat again till after 7pm the day after.

By the next day, my weight had dropped a pretty remarkable 2.5 pounds – almost a pound and half below the control line.

I could drive myself crazy trying to figure out why my weight was up so much and why it went down so fast. Doesn’t really matter. What matters is having tools and techniques I can use to smooth out the curve.

Intermittent fasting (IF) is one of those tools. Most of the information I use for fasting I got from Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat e-book. [1]

Pilon’s book goes in depth on the research behind fasting (the bibliography is long and looks thorough) and his recommendations.

His plan is simple: fast for 22–24 hours one or two days a week. That’s it. Make sure you’re sleeping through 8 of those hours. So what happens is you wind up skipping two meals – either breakfast/lunch or lunch/supper – on those days, You’ll still eat every day, but you’ll also get the benefits of a 20+ hour fast. There are more specifics in his book.

And what do you on the days you don’t fast? Pilon wrote an excellent blog post on Eating Responsibly that I love for its directness and simplicity.

My view is that we’ve all had our turn being kids, which means we’ve had our turn eating like kids.

We’ve had our ice-cream birthday parties and our stomach aches from eating too much candy at the movies.

We’re adults now. Time to eat like it…

Eating responsibly, he says, is how you eat when your plan falls apart and the world is offering a platter of brownies with no parents around to stop you scarfing them up.

I’m the adult here. Time to eat like one.

 

  1. I’d link to the direct order page for ESE, which may be cheaper than the Kindle book, but unfortunately it’s a long sales page with clipart, misspellings, and generally embarrassing design and presentation. Pilon offers up great information and I value his opinions, but I can’t stand his marketing/promotion choices that I have to filter out to get to the good stuff. So I can’t recommend wading through that page.  ↩

GOOGLE SITE SEARCH BOOKMARKLET

I install a consistent set of bookmarklets across all the browsers I use at work and home. (Except for iOS; haven’t figured out how to install them in Safari.)

The most useful one on a daily basis is for Google Site Search. From the Bookmarks bar, click the bookmarklet – I’ve renamed mine to “GSS” to save space – and then enter a search term. The bookmarklet fires off a Google search for that term on the site you’re browsing.

You could do the same thing by entering in Google “site:brownstudy.info batman,” for example, but simply clicking ”GSS" while I’m at the site is quicker and more useful.

Scroll down this page of Google bookmarklets for the Google Site Search Bookmarklet. Drag it to your bookmarks folder or, preferably, the Links or Bookmarks bar.

You will thank me later.

Update: Dang it! I didn't use the site search on my own blog. If I had, I would have discovered this 2012 post on the same topic

INSTANT WATCHER, FIXABLE

Flixable is a search engine for Netflix-specific streaming video. It features a more open design that lets the page elements breathe, and offers a pleasing way to browse what movies are debuting and leaving.

Fixable’s search function isn’t necessarily better than Netflix’s native search function; it just presents its results in a prettier package. That package would be more useful if I could hover my cursor over a movie and have its star rating, summary, etc. presented in a float-over box, as Netflix does.

On a different plane of reality – functionally and visually – is Instant Watcher.

Instant Watcher used to exist as a very handy iOS app back in the day; its online incarnation explodes onto your browser all manner of content, tools, pictures, keywords, and faceted search functions, all at the same time. When the page opens, my eye is so besieged I don’t know where to look.

But what Instant Watcher lacks in loveliness, it makes up for with sheer brawn.

For one thing, you can search Netflix (the default) or Amazon individually for streaming videos. If you subscribe to one service but not the other, this is useful (particularly for Amazon; its has no functional search and discovery tools to aid users).

Or – and this is the handy part – you can search both services’ combined listing.

Search on “Batman”, for example.

As busy as the results page is (do we really need all of those genre checkboxes? and that sidebar?), it offers a lot of power. Clear the “Amazon Non-Prime” checkbox, for example, to show the Prime-only items. Now, I quickly see that Netflix has the live-action Batman movies for streaming, while Amazon Prime carries the wonderful ’90s animated series.

The Amazon Non-Prime selections include a miscellany, such as the 1940s movie serial, the 1960s TV show, and even what appear to be customer videos reviewing Batman-related products. I mean, what?? You get more results with Non-Prime, but also a lot of junk.

One of Instant Watcher’s big advantages for Netflix searching is its single page listing all genres, with the number of movies in each. We discover, for example, there are four silent movies available for streaming, 128 Britcoms, and all of their International movies helpfully broken out by country. This really is the best way to see what’s available on Netflix.

But even more so Amazon. According to the site, Netflix offers 6,933 titles. That’s a lot, but it’s spread over a fair number of genres and so somewhat easy to grasp.

But there are 112,625 Amazon titles, with Prime alone holding 46,628. Holy crap. Does the world even need this many things to watch as we, to quote Peter Cook, "sink giggling into the sea"? Nevertheless,  if you want to find a needle in these haystacks, then Instant Watcher is the way to do it.

BACKUPS UPDATE

Well, blow me down.

I ran a manual Time Machine backup on Sunday – about 16GB – and it ran without a hitch. No error messages, no stopping. Progress, of a sort, though I have no idea why it suddenly decided to start working again. (Note that I have granted this unholy amalgam of silicon and software independence and agency. I am in its power.)

I have set the iMac to back up to Backblaze every night. I use the Amphetamine app to keep the iMac awake for 10 hours after I go to bed. As of today, about 24,000+ files and 441MB of data still to be uploaded.

I have not plugged in and installed the external drive yet. But there is no hurry. With up-to-date Time Machine and Crashplan backups, and the Backblaze experiment going well, I feel reasonably secure. Creating an additional local backup has a lower priority right now. 

I feel more urgency to step away from this computer for a while, rest up, and let it do its thing.

TECH OVERLOAD

What began last year as “modernizing” has turned into a bit of a tech tsunami at our house:

  • Got my first smartphone, an iPhone SE, last fall
  • Got an iPad Pro 10.5 for our Christmas trip, to replace the ol’ Acer Chromebook
  • Got a Doxie Go SE wireless scanner
  • Got a new external 4TB hard drive
  • Got the Logitech K811 keyboard
  • Got an Apple TV

Plus, Liz got her first smartphone, an iPhone 7, yesterday.

I’m not quite sure what has been driving the modernization of our household tech. Maybe because we hit hard limits with the old tech and updates were long overdue. Maybe because we have the money and time at this moment to acquire and absorb them into our routines and work lives.

I am not inquiring too deeply into the question. I’m sure the time we spend getting these tools working for us will repay us someday. Waves are cresting, so we’re riding the waves. The tides will ebb soon enough and, if our history is anything to go by, we’ll spend next to nothing on tech for the rest of the year.

Still, since I’m the household’s sysadmin and Head of Technical Support, I now have to up my game. iPhone and iCloud and iEverything can quickly become overwhelming conceptual mindspaces since I have only a patchy understanding of how they are all wired together.

Liz already had a long-beloved iPad Mini 4 that she did not need my help with, both because I never had an iPad until recently – so she was her own tech support for it – and because she hardly ever synched it via iTunes on our iMac.

I had advised that we both wait on upgrading to iOS 11. Apple has had such ill luck with the updates that I did not want to deal with any possible technial snafus, particularly before our Christmas trip.

But there was a selfish reason too: I did not want to deal with the mental overhead of learning the ins and outs of a new OS. Along with all the other new tech I've acquired, my mind is rather a muddle. What do I need to stay on top of next?

Liz’s purchase of her iPhone yesterday changed that delicate balance of competency. It arrived with iOS 11. Having to mentally flip between iOS 11 on the phone and iOS 10 on her iPad would be confusing.

So I’m upgrading all our devices to iOS 11 today, and then we will both settle in to watch the Lynda.com videos on iPhone and iOS 11 basics, iCloud, and other iTopics.

My goal? To have two Heads of Technical Support in the house.