Diarizing my life

Sorry for the horrible "diarizing" in the title, but the word fits for now. 

In addition to this blog, on which I'm aiming to make a daily post of some kind, I'm also recording the days in the fifth year of a 5-year diary (many, many gaps of white space in previous years), and am playing with the 1-Second Everyday video app on my iPhone. 

Each medium contains a different message, as it were. The blog is the stuff I clean up and show to people, the diary holds some minutiae of the day (weather, errands done, people met, movies seen), and the video app records a blink of visual time. Two days ago, I shot a second of our still fully lit and decorated Christmas tree from my chair in the living room. Today, I shot a second of the bare tree lying on our snowy curb.

Each medium forces me to think a bit differently about what is worth remembering. They are all, in some way, about paying attention. I wonder what I will see.

 

Four-Quadrant Movies

In the world's neverending quest to quantify, there is the concept of the "four-quadrant movie." I'm sure there are demographic breakdowns like this for any industry, and this may serve as a simple heuristic for making quck decisions, but geez -- isn't it also a Procrustean bed?

Liz and I recently saw Darkest Hour and The Shape of Water. Neither of which I think would appeal much to quadrants 1 and 2 (men and women under 25 years old). There is no quadrant for "popcorn-worthy movie," which seems to be the basis of our movie-going decisions.

Sleepytime

I have tried various technological or mental gizmos over the years to help me fall and stay asleep: white noise machines, small fans, mantras, working my way through the alphabet naming flowers or birds or superheroes, or tensing and relaxing my body from the feet up.

A few months back, I tried something different and I now tend to fall asleep and get back to sleep more quickly.

It's not a new idea by any means: I listen to music through my Bluetooth headset as I go to sleep. If I wake in the night, I simply put the music back on and away I doze.

Two keys that make this work for me: the music and the hardware.

What came first was the music. I don't know why music works for me; it could be that the music distracts the busy analytical part of my mind enough so the sleepy part can shut everything down.

In my iTunes music library, I created a playlist folder called "Zleep" (it sorts to the bottom) and in it, I have playlists for the following:

  • Some time back, Moby released a playlist of slow, droney tracks that he created to help himself relax and sleep. Each track is from 17 to 35 minutes long, so I created playlists holding just 2 or 3 tracks at a time. I usually find myself asleep within a few minutes.
  • If my mind is feeling overactive, I listen to Sharon Isbin's complete Bach lute sonatas. This album is in its own playlist and lasts about an hour. I can't remember ever listening to the whole thing; I think my mind has associated this CD with sleep for so long that I am usually gone by the third or fourth track.
  • Max Richter's From Sleep is a minimal, ambient album, not as electronic or droney as Moby. More rhythmic. There is piano, strings, some vocal chant -- rather melancholy, truth be told. It's an hour long and is excerpted from the much much much longer work Sleep, which is intended to reflect a complete 8-hour sleep cycle. As one Amazon customer puts it, "Playing it a little louder, it also works fairly well as somewhat somber background music for dinner parties." Sold!

And that's it. When I go to bed, I pick whichever playlist stands out and crawl under the covers. If I get up in the night, I'll simply start playing it again.

The other key to making this work for me is my LG HBS-730 Bluetooth headset. I've had these for so long the button locations are in my muscle memory.

I use a bit of black tape to cover up the blinking blue light. Whenever I wake in the night and want to hear the music again, I simply press the Play button and the active playlist starts right up.

I like this "collar" style of headset for sleeping. It does not obstruct my head movement and does not get in my way. I sleep on my side, so it's easy to magnetically dock an earbud when I'm sleeping on that side.

My sleeping problems seem to be 90 percent licked. The waking-up-and-not-raring-to-go-in-the-morning problem is still there, but these things take time.

The Potato Hack

I just finished boiling about 5 lbs. of red potatoes, eyes and blemishes removed but much of the skin intact.

They're now sitting in two good-sized containers in the fridge. I'll carry one of them to work tomorrow and those cold potatoes, with a bit of salt, are all I'll eat till suppertime, when I eat a normal meal with my wife.

That style of cold-potato eating is called PBD -- or "Potatoes by Day" -- as found in Tim Steele's book The Potato Hack. The book is quite well-written, with a dip into an 1880's article on the efficacy of potato diets, the history of potatoes, the science of potatoes, and recipes.

The actual Potato Hack is eating only cold or reheated potatoes for 3 days straight. Some people can lose from a quarter to a half pound a day on this regimen.

I've tried the hack twice and could only make it a day and half before I caved. Despite cutting the experiment short, I lost 3 pounds on the first hack, so I will testify to its weight-loss effect. Unfortunately, I was also swept away by incredible hunger pangs and thoughts of food distracted me for hours.

For whatever reason, I find the PBD variation easier to deal with. In communication with Steele on his web site, he suggested I vary up the potatoes for different times of day or meals. So cold boiled potatoes for lunch, perhaps, with maybe baked potatoes or baked russet wedges alongside mashed Yukon golds for supper. I've not tried that but it's a good idea.

The goal of the hack is not to eat only potatoes for ever and ever, though there's a guy who kept a video diary on YouTube where he ate only spuds for an entire year. Yikes. The goal is simply to "reset" your digestive system, give it a break from the standard American diet, and then go on with your life. The way I use the PBD hack is to establish a stable eating habit during the early part of the week, when my will power is strongest and when I can leverage the power of routine. Even if I don't lose any weight, I can easily maintain where I am.

One of the first things people ask me when I talk about the hack is, "I thought potatoes were high on the glycemic index and the starch turns to sugar in your body."

That was my belief too. But Steele makes the point in his book that, while cooked potatoes do indeed act like that, cooled potatoes do not. The cooked starch cools to become "resistant starch" -- basically fiber -- and so one should not experience a glycemic spike from the cooked then cooled potatoes. Reheating cooled potatoes can reduce some of the resistant starch, but when they're cooled again more resistant starch is created.

Steele goes into quite a lot of detail on resistant starch and its favorable properties in supporting better gut health. I was impressed by his research and presentation of the scientific literature.

I first heard of The Potato Hack via the Critical MAS site, where MAS has helpfully collected all of his potato-related posts into a single Best Of page.

MAS made several points that swayed me to try it. One was that potatoes are noted for their high satiety -- you will "feel full" faster with potatoes.

One of MAS's more compelling arguments is that eating plain cold boiled potatoes severs the flavor reward connection in our brains. One of the reasons we mindlessly eat more than we need to is because we crave a variety of flavors and textures. By eating unexciting cold potatoes, you're taking in calories, feeling full, but not reinforcing the flavor-reward connection. You'll likely stop eating sooner when the body feels sated rather than eating to discomfort or regret.

One of the key ideas I picked up from Tim Ferris' slow-carb diet (SCD) was that we already eat the same few dishes anyway, week in and week out. When I did the SCD, I ate the same lunch at work Mon-Thu of microwaved lentils, veg, and poached chicken breasts or thighs, with some apple cider vinegar and Tabasco splashed on. For months. I appreciated not having to think about what I'd do for lunch that day. My wife really dislikes eating the same meal more than twice in a row, but for whatever reason, I have no problem with it.

So taking my cold boiled potatoes to work tomorrow suits me just fine. I will not go hungry but I'll also consume far fewer calories than I would on a normal eating day. It's simplicity itself, and a hack I still find interesting and fun to do.

Word of the Year: TRUST

I quit adopting New Year's Resolutions some years ago. But I liked the idea of an official "fresh start" of some kind. A Google search for alternatives led me to find Christine Kane's Word of the Year scheme.

If coachspeak makes your skin crawl, then let your eyes glide over "intention" and "upleveling." Instead, simply consider the idea that an aspirational or inspirational word could help you more than a list of rules and regulations.

Christine includes a PDF (you need to provide an email address to get the PDF) of questions and fill-in-the-blank items intended to help you think through what you want from the year and also, just as important, what you tend to avoid.

She includes a list of sample words (Yes, No, Prayerfulness, Risk, Pioneer) and some good provoking questions to help you think about why this or that word may be a good match for you in the coming year (i.e., "How do you already embody this word? How do you not embody it? List 5 habits that would help you embody the word fully.")

I have found, for myself, that the word should scare me a little bit. It's a word that makes me want to, in Christine's words, "run in the other direction." That for me is a sign that a part of myself needs some loving attention. The word becomes a teacher or perhaps a lighthouse, guiding me rather than pushing me.

During a particularly challenging work year, I chose the word "Leader," a word and concept that absolutely terrified me. It's not part of my self-image at all, particularly in the workplace. I'm not sure I became the leader I thought I needed to be that year, but it encouraged me to live up to that word, in the ways I thought best. I'm sure I carry some attitudes from that year into my work today.

Christine suggests placing a reminder of the word in your path every day. Let it work on you, don't force it to work on you.

I use a FollowupThen biweekly email with questions and prompts to remind me of my word and think about whether it continues to be useful to me.

My word this year is rather a plain one: TRUST. Trust what? Myself and my intuitions, mostly. I tend to look outward for "expert advice" for lots of things -- for too many things possibly -- instead of just trusting my own experience and my own wisdom. Look inside this year, rather than out.

Trust that I will get the answer I need when I need it. Trust that I will always have the resources to meet whatever challenge it is I may face, and that I will be OK if I don't.

I could have maybe chosen the word "Relax," since that seems to be my ultimate goal. But it isn't. The goal is something bigger, the person I want to be is someone bigger.

Happy New Year.

Reformatting Time Capsule

Backups via Time Machine to our 2TB Time Capsule have not gone smoothly the last several months, with the backup always stopping with an unexplained error.

After reviewing this 2010 page from Joe Kissell on troubleshooting Time Capsule problems, I tried Disk Utility and then finally opted for a complete erase of the drive and a fresh Time Machine backup. The dialog UI has changed, of course, and it took a bit of spelunking to find the Erase command in the Airport Utility.

The fresh backup copying seems to be going OK so far, and I'm hoping this brings an end to these intermittent failures.

Update, 2018-01-01: This did not help; still getting the error. May try another erase and then a hard reset of the Time Capsule. More later.

Amazon Live Chat Support = Refund

Liz wanted to return one of the gifts I'd purchased for her from her Amazon wishlist. She tries to only flag items covered by Prime and that are "Fulfilled by Amazon"; if we have to return an item, then those are indicators of free UPS shipping back to Amazon.

But the item we wanted to return today was showing that I'd be paying almost half the purchase price of the item for return shipping -- for a Prime item Fulfilled by Amazon. Huh.

A few quick searches uncovered an interesting workaround: engage in a Live Chat with Amazon Support. I gave the guy my order number, the specific item name, and said I needed to return it. He immediately created a return slip for me and said there would be no shipping charge. In a few minutes, I got an email with the return shipping label. Later this afternoon, I got an email from Amazon confirming the full amount of my refund.

So: if you're not getting the full refund for a return, try starting a Live Chat with Amazon Support, and see if that works for you.

Two Very Different Travel Days

Instead of driving 13 or more hours from Durham, NC, to Lakeland, FL, for Christmas, we decided this year to fly.

We got to the airport last Friday, Dec. 22, about 2.5 hours early because we're like that. The Allegiant flight was delayed about 2.5 hours. When a plane arrived, it was of a different configuration than the previous plane (or something) so that our pre-printed boarding passes could not be used. The Allegiant staff used every computer they had, even laptops, to look up every passenger individually to manually check us in, as was done in days of yore.

We arrived at the Sanford airport, picked up our rental car, and arrived in Lakeland at about the same time as if we'd driven down. Tired, but not exhausted. I'd still say waiting in an airport 5 hours for a flight is still better than driving for 13.

On our return flight today, the circumstances flipped. We drove from Lakeland to Orlando and were stopped cold by sludgy traffic along the accursed I-4. The traffic never stopped but it didn't get better till a few miles before our exit to the 417 toll road that skirts Orlando (I would pay anything to avoid Orlando forever).

By the time we filled the rental car with gas (had to go to two service stations), turned it in, tromped to the terminal, sped through a pretty light TSA line (invest in TSA Pre, seriously), and found our gate, Allegiant announced that boarding had started for our flight. The check-in went so quickly that the full plane sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes waiting for the official departure time. The flight was quick, the FastPark shuttle drove up just as we walked to the curb, and we were home within the hour.

The whole experience whipped by so quickly, I couldn't process what was happening. It was uncanny how dissimilar the two days were.

What Did Jesus Look Like?

The 2015 BBC News article What Did Jesus Really Look Like? is still interesting, even in the afterglow of Christmas. The article is a great blend of historical fact and art history tracing how Jesus has been portrayed in Western art through the centuries, where some traditions started (the beard, halo, and flowing robes hail from Byzantine influences), and some deductions about how he may have actually looked.

Traveling with my iPad Pro 10.5

One of my reasons for purchasing the iPad Pro was to replace my Chromebook as a travel computing device. Here's what I've been using my iPad for on this trip:

  • Reading downloaded ComiXology comics on the frankly beautiful screen using ComiXology's Guided View mode. Seeing individual panels filling the whole screen helps these old eyes. I could have done the same on the Chromebook using the ComiXology web site, but the Chromebook's screen isn't as good. Also, using ComiXology's iOS app, I could download the books I wanted and read them on the airplane or anywhere else without needing a wifi connection.
  • Checking and responding to email, of course. I use my Apple Bluetooth keyboard when I want to type anything longer than a quick message. The iPad and this keyboard are a great combo, with all function keys and many common keyboard combos that work just as expected (but no Forward Delete!).
  • Reading comics and Kindle ebooks on the airplane, something that would have been more cumbersome with the Chromebook. I have never read Kindle ebooks on the Chromebook, as reading them via the web was my only option. I carried a separate Kindle Paperwhite for those occasions.
  • Writing this blog post using the Squarespace editor. There are some restrictions to editing on a mobile device, but I can create and publish posts. The Chromebook, however, would have offered the full suite of editing and styling functions from its web browser Update: I originally wrote this in the Squarespace editor when the wifi went out before I hit Save, so that I lost all the edits for that session. Lesson learned! I'm now drafting this in the Drafts app. The Chromebook also offered offline editing but that kind of violated its whole reason for existing, so I never used it for extensive writing.
  • Downloaded the Doctor Who Christmas special via the Amazon Prime Video app. Again, I could have viewed the video on the Chromebook if I had a stable wifi connection. Where we're staying on the road, the wifi connection is iffy (wiffy?) (no). 
  • Used the You Need A Budget (YNAB) app and my credit union's app to track my expenses. I could have done this via the Chromebook also, though YNAB's iPhone app makes it dead easy to capture expenses on the fly.
  • Slipped it quickly into and out of my backpack, where it weighs less than the few books and notebooks I keep in there. The Chromebook was bigger, bulkier, and it's AC adapters were impossibly awkward in size and weight when I wanted to travel light. The iPad Pro is a clear improvement.

I'm not really doing anything different on the iPad than I could do on the Chromebook. I'm reading, watching video, writing, surfing the web. But what I'm doing is easier and more fun on the iPad. It's the best all-In-one computing device I've ever used.

Six More Little Words

The same coach I mentioned in the previous post asked me in a later session to sum up a motto or philosophy for myself in six words. Instead of compressing a single philosophy into six words, I thought of three two-word phrases to (as always) give myself options. Still, they add up to a single philosophy, I think.

The six words I picked were:

Eyes open. Straight ahead. Keep walking.

They're good words for me, I believe. I tend to duck my eyes at things about myself I don't want to look at, I distract and divert myself, and instead of marching ahead, I sit, stop, and ponder. Sitting and pondering is not a bad thing to do, but I believe I've resorted to that behavior more often than was warranted. Taking action, moving ahead, doing the work even if I don't know where it leads: these are the behaviors I'd like to become my default tactics.

Three Little Words

I worked with a coach one time who asked me a question that I regret I can't recall. Something about "what three words sum up what gives you energy or passion" or "can you tell me what really lights you up, in three words?"

The question I don't remember, but I remember what I answered. Not a phrase but three separate things:

  • Fun
  • People
  • Create

When I experience fun, it's when I'm creating something or solving a problem or am with people whose company I enjoy, where I can forget myself. 

But it occurred to me that those three words can be arranged in sentences:

  • People create fun.
  • Create fun people.
  • Fun people create.

And I think it's that last one I got stuck on, because I believe it to be true for me and the people I know who are creators: fun people CREATE.

I thought that those would be good words to put on any calling card I make for myself. Hell, I'd like to replace my LinkedIn page with Fun People Create. 

I wrote those words on a card and placed it beside my monitor at work. It's become part of the furniture now so that I hardly notice it anymore. I would like to notice it more. And I would like it to be true for me.

 

 

Still running Sierra and iOS 10.3

Computers -- or playing with them -- has been a hobby, pastime, and necessity for the last couple of decades. It used to be that I could not wait to download or install the new version of an application or operating system; the thrill of the New powered that desire.

But with my iMac, 3-month-old iPhone SE (my first ever smartphone), and iPad Pro 10.5-inch (my first ever tablet), I'm taking the upgrades slow. 

One reason is that they're so dang big -- 1-2 GB for iOS, and 5.2 GB for the High Sierra installer. We're on a relatively stable but slow DSL connection so I would need most of the night to download the latter. (I use the free Amphetamine app to keep my iMac from going to sleep.) I would also need a Saturday or Sunday free to deal with the frequent reboots and minor disruptions.

The other is that Apple's software upgrades have been famously fraught with frustrations, from the root login problem in High Sierra to the battery drain and other issues in iOS 11.

It's a shame, because both upgrades seem to be essential ones, especially for the iPad Pro. But both OSs are still too young and Apple, which prides itself on its devices' rock-solid reliability, still seems to be scrambling. I'll wait till it all cools down.

For the iOS upgrade debacles, I am following Forbes.com's Gordon Kelly. While the tech press and Mac sites trumpet each new upgrade, Kelly instead draws his conclusions based on what real users are reporting on Twitter. His recent article on the iOS 11.2 upgrade -- the one that everyone hoped would bring stability to this wearying story -- convinced me that I was wise to bide my time.

I will probably wait till the new year to upgrade, when I have time and when the dust has settled.

How I'm Learning Now

My day job for the last two or so decades has been as a software technical writer. Basically, I write the how-tos that people generally avoid reading. 

I always default to buying a book when learning a new product. I did this for my iPhone and for Squarespace; I have bought innumerable e-books from Take Control to help me learn the ins and outs of certain concepts and software packages. 

But now I find myself acting like you all: it takes considerable willpower for me to crack them open so I refer to them only when I have a problem. Example: when I bought my first iPhone in September one of my first purchases was Que's My iPhone. I skimmed the first chapters, gleaned a few things I didn't already know, and have not gone back to it.

I'm currently involved in a project where I'm using iMovie for the first time, and at work I find myself using Git and LaTeX. So now I'm watching Lynda.com or YouTube to introduce and acquaint me with the software. 

I find I am naturally and unconsciously defaulting to this sort of just-in-time training -- and visual training at that -- while my "rational" brain still favors just-in-case training.

Do I learn any more quickly? I can't say. Some videos are just narrated slideshows, which is worse than reading because I can't skim ahead (though I can play the video at a faster rate and race through the material faster). I like Lynda.com's software video tutorials because they walk  through a sample project so I can actually see how something like editing is done within this bewildering interface. I'm more of a visual learner than I thought.

So as I get acquainted with my iPad, I will stop myself buying newsstand magazines or books and instead watch some videos. And for what the videos cannot give me? There is always The Google.

My New iPad

New and first iPad ever, actually, only a few weeks old. It's the 10.5-inch iPad Pro and it is a beaut of a machine. Remarkably light and thin, beautiful screen. It's a luxury that is not yet a necessity.

Liz has had an iPad Mini for 4-5 years now and absolutely adores it. She reads the digital version of our local newspaper on it, surfs the web, listens to music, researches our trips, and generally does not need a traditional old-fashioned PC or desktop computer at all. Her iPad Mini is a constant companion for her: the perfect size for carrying and using anywhere. 

My friend MikeU bought the 9.7-inch iPad about 5-6 years ago and it became his laptop replacement at work. His aim was for the iPad to pay for itself. With the addition of a Logitech case/keyboard and Evernote, the iPad became his note-taking device at meetings and led him to eschew paper-based Day-Timers after nearly 20 years. But he rarely used his iPad for entertainment; for him, it was primarily a work machine.

I bought my iPad as I thought about our upcoming trips. For the last several years, when we've traveled, I've packed an Acer Chromebook laptop with its ungodly and ungainly AC adapter and cord. I liked the full-size keyboard for writing emails, I could use my Bluetooth headset, and the screen was adequate for watching the Doctor Who Christmas specials. I did not want to use Liz's iPad to check my email or type messages on; iPads are personal devices and I didn't want to mess anything up on her True Love. Besides, what if I wanted to surf the web too? Better for us to each have our own devices.

The appeal of the iPad Pro for me was primarily to make traveling easier: it's lighter than the Chromebook, the AC adapter is very low-profile (in a pinch, Liz and I could share one), I could use the iPad while squished into an airplane seat, and I could customize its display as I liked. The attraction of the bigger screen means I can now read comics via Comixology and get something like the experience of having the pamphlet in my hand, with the extra advantage of zooming into a panel when I want to study finer details. And there are Kindle ebooks that are meant for use on color devices, so I can now enjoy them on my new toy.

So why am I not more excited? I am a little skeptical of this expensive device. Expensive not just in terms of money, but in the time I feel I need to take to get it set up and to learn its ways.

My Kindle Paperwhite is still fine for reading and has its own advantages: smaller even than the iPad Mini, longer battery life, cheaper and thus more easily replaceable, it doesn't push light into my face, and -- crucially -- I can't do anything else with it. It's built for distraction-free reading, while the iPad encourages distraction. 

My iMac is my principal home computer and I already tend to do most everything I need to do on it: writing, YouTube, file management, even Comixology though it's not terribly pleasurable. The iMac is my everything-device; I am used to the power of the full-fledged Mac OS and desktop apps.

My iPhone SE (my first smartphone ever, bought in September) replaced my trusty and beloved iPod and it quickly filled a key niche in my digital ecosystem. The iPhone hosts my iTunes music library, email, camera, podcasts I listen to in the car, Evernote, and my budget app. Its smaller screen prohibits me from reading on it for long periods (which is a good thing). It's my general purpose pocket computer and it has become as necessary to me as Liz's iPad Mini is to her.

So while I look forward to using the iPad on our upcoming travels, I remain skeptical of its value to me when I'm at home. Where does it fit in my media consumption diet? Where does it fit when I want to write emails or a blog post? These are things I'll find out over time, while I work out how necessary this luxury item is to me.

 

"Teacher" -A Short Documentary

In the spring of 2017, I was searching for a new creative project to take my mind off of work upheavals. I signed up for a Durham Arts Council short course called “Make a 5-minute Documentary in 7 Weeks.” I’ve done screen capture edits at work with Camtasia Studio, but had never worked with capturing or editing digital video. I thought this would be a good enough challenge to get me making something.

The final product took longer than 7 weeks to create (lessons learned to follow!) and is about 8 minutes long, but I was pleased with the result.

The documentary is of my banjo teacher, J. Michael Pope of Beautiful Music Studios. I think it captures the heart of his teaching and its deeply spiritual underpinning. I captured the video, edited it in Final Cut Pro, and uploaded it to YouTube.

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

Domestic Comedy

Liz: "Thank you for doing the dishes and bringing home all these library books! This is an  embarrassment of riches! [Pause] And...I have you!"

Me: [Beat] "Just an embarrassment."

Some Lesser-Known Truths About Academe

One thing my professors told me early in graduate school: You absolutely must condition yourself to fail. Constantly. For every small success I had in graduate school, I am certain I had at least a dozen failures: rejected articles, brutal conference reviews, unexpected flaws discovered in something I’d just spent days working on, etc.

These iterative failures are, at a very deep level, the essence of creating new knowledge, and are therefore inseparable from the job. If you can’t imagine going to bed at the end of nearly every day with a nagging feeling that you could have done better, academe is not for you.


Some Lesser-Known Truths About Academe