Upcoming Reading, 9/2/2014

Now that I have started the final volume of the Churchill biography, The Last Lion, I am starting to think about what to read next. The three volumes amount to something well over 2,000 pages of detailed history, and I think I can use a little break from that. So here is what is on my upcoming reading list, once I finish this final volume1.

  • Coming Home by Jack McDevitt, the newest Alex and Chase novel, which Jack was kind enough to send me an early copy (the book doesn’t come out until early November).
  • Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. I thought The Shining Girls was brilliant and I’ve looked forward to Lauren’s next book ever since.
  • Lock In by John Scalzi
  • Exo by Steven Gould, the next novel in the Jumper series. TOR was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of this one.
  • Killing Floor by Lee Child. Because I’ve never read a Jack Reacher book before.
  • Revival by Stephen King.

With those out of the way, I imagine I’ll feel refreshed. Then I plan on starting in on Winston Churchill’s 4-volume A History of the English Speaking Peoples.

The truth is, I make these lists and in practice, go with my gut at the time I’m ready to pick another book. But this gives you an idea of the book that I am eager to read in the near-term.

What’s on your reading list?

Notes

  1. Keep in mind, the final volume is the longest of the 3, some 53 hours in audiobook form, and 1,200 pages, so I’m probably 10 days-to-2 weeks from finishing.

Upcoming Writing Projects

In the next day or two, I expect to finish the first draft of a novella that I’ve been struggling with for some time1 Usually, when I finish a piece of short fiction, I move right into the second draft. But the novella is not exactly short. I expect the first draft to come in at 21,000 – 23,000 words. For something that long, I think I need a little distance before moving to the second draft.

But that’s okay because I have an idea of what I want to work on next. I have that itch to write a short story. It just so happens that in early October, I will be in New York for a SFWA gathering. While there, I’m meeting with an editor and, as I’ve learned, it’s always a good idea to have something for an editor when you meet with them. My plan, therefore, is to write the complete short story, and have it ready for submission by the time I meet with my editor in early October.

That is about a month (well, 5 weeks) away. Does it really take that long to write a short story? Well, yes, and no. I’ve written short stories faster, but keep in mind that I also have quite a bit of nonfiction writing to do along with my fiction. If I get the story done sooner, great! If it takes the full month, that’s okay, too.

Once the short story is done and submitted, I’ll return to the second draft of the novella and try to make it into something really cool. Then it goes out to beta-readers. I honestly don’t know when this will be. Second drafts tend to go faster for me, so it could be by the end of October, but more than likely, it will be early-to-mid November.

And with that novella out of the way, I just might feel ready to tackle the second draft of the novel, something with which I have really struggled, but which I am sure that I will eventually get a handle on.

That’s the plan for now, anyway. Check back in November to see how things are going.

Notes

  1. “Strays” for those keeping score.

Apps & Tools I Use, September 2014 Edition

I bought myself a new MacBook Air a few weeks back. In getting it setup and configured the way I like it, I realized that my use of apps and tools has evolved enough since I last reported on them to warrant an updated post. I’ve broken the apps and tools into several major categories:

  • Core applications
  • Writing
  • Security and data protection
  • Productivity
  • Coding and development
  • Multimedia

One quick note: It’s my practice to pay for the services (or the premium versions thereof) when I like them and find myself using them frequently. That is true of each of the applications listed below. Many of these apps do have free versions, but I opt to use the premium version for two reasons: (1) more features, and (2) paying for the services encourages future development.

Core applications

The core applications that I use haven’t changed much. These are the apps that are almost always open on my desktop or laptop, and in which I spend a great deal of my time.

Google Chrome

I’ve been using Chrome since the time it was released, and I like it better than any other browser I’ve used, although since getting my MacBook Air, I’ve become somewhat sensitive to its excessive power consumption. That said, I still like it and it serves me well. I have the following apps pinned as tabs on all instances of my browser as these are the ones I use most frequently:

  • Gmail: where I do all of my email. I have used a lot of email products over the years and have yet to find one that is more reliable, and works better for me than Gmail.
  • Sunrise: I’ve used their calendaring app on my iPhone for quite a while, and now I have replaced the default Google Calendar app with this app in my browser. It can read all of my Google Calendars, but other important calendars like my Evernote reminders, and GitHub, so that I have all of my calendar-related information in one place.
  • Twitter: I’ve always used the basic Twitter web interface for keeping an eye on my Twitter feed, and replying to Tweets. For sending new tweets, however, I use…
  • Buffer: I’ve been using Buffer to schedule tweets, Facebook, and other social media updates throughout the day, and at this point, I’ve lost track of how much time Buffer has saved me. It allows me to appear far more productive because it can make it look like I’m tweeting, while I’m really working on a story or sitting in a meeting or writing code, or spending a quiet weekend with the family.
  • Any.do (NEW!): Recently, things got so busy at work that I needed a simple system to help deal with a flood of incoming requests. I don’t think of this as a to-do management system, this is more like fire-fighting, and a way of keeping track of the fires that need to be put out. So far Any.do is working pretty well for me in this respect, and is very close to what I was envisioning what I needed.

Evernote

Evernote is always open and always there for me to run a quick search, or add a note. I use it constantly throughout the day.

Skitch

Skitch is by far my favorite app for capturing screenshots, annotating them, and then posting them, or emailing them. I haven’t found anything better and there are some features–especially on the Mac version, like the timed screenshot–that I absolutely love.

Writing

Nothing has changed when it comes to the apps I use for writing.

Google Docs

I use Google Docs for all of my fiction/nonfiction writing, as well as any guest posts I write for other blogs. I’ve been using Google Docs regularly for more than a year and half and it has never given me any trouble. Indeed, even when my laptop battery has exhausted, or Chrome has quit on me, Google Docs hasn’t lost of word of what I’ve written in all that time.

WordPress

I’ve always used the basic editor that comes as part of the self-installed WordPress application to write my blog posts. I’m using it for this one right now. It’s never given me any significant trouble.

Security and data protection

LastPass

I’ve used LassPass for over a year now to manage all of my passwords, to make sure that they are all complex passwords, and to make sure that they are all unique. While it was a little cumbersome to setup the first time, it has saved me hours of time over the year, while also making my accounts far more secure.

CrashPlan

I’ve been using CrashPlan to backup all of our computers to the cloud for several years now. It just works in the background without my needing to take any action beyond the initial setup. And on the few occasions I’ve needed to restore files, it has worked flawlessly.

VaultPress

I use VaultPress to perform live backups of this site, both the files and the underlying database. VaultPress ensures that the site is backed up after every changes, whether that is a post I made, a comment made by someone else, an update to the software, or a change in a plug-in.

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Practical Statistical Modeling: The Dreaded After-School Carpool Pickup

The Little Man started kindergarten this week. It meant a new school, and the new school has one of these well-organized systems of picking up your kids at the end of the day. But it can be a bit intimidating the first time. Basically, it works like this:

You arrive at the school and pull around to a side parking area. Four lanes are set up. Each lane holds about 10 cars, and the lanes are filled in order, first lane first, then the second, and so on. When all lanes are filled, the area is closed. Cars that don’t make the first round, line up in the upper parking areas for the second round. The students are released, the go to their cars. When all students are in the cars, the lanes are released in order. This is then repeated for the second round.

It’s very organized and efficient, but there if you want to be in that first round, or that first lane, you have to get there pretty early. As someone who doesn’t really want to sit in the car for half an hour, I decided I’d get there early on the first two days to capture data about when cars arrive, and build a statistical model based on that. Which is exactly what I did. I arrived early, getting into the first half of the first lane, and then noted the arrival times, and lane positions of the other cars in the first round. I did this for two days, and then built my model.

Constructing the model

The  model was fairly simple. I used a negative number to represent the number of minutes before dismissal (a kind of t-minus 10 minutes) that a car arrived. With that number, I gave the number of the car. So at t-21 minutes, car 16 and 17 arrived. Since each lanes holds 10 cars, it’s pretty easy to determine which lane (and which slot in a lane) the car is in. I ran a correlation on my data and got a very strong correlation: 0.951. The r-squared came to 0.905. I then plotted the data in a scatterplot, and annotated it to better illustrate the lanes. Here is what the results look like:

Carpool Model
Click to enlarge

As you can see, the data makes it clear that in order to make the first round, I’d need to arrive no later than 7 minutes before dismissal. If I want to be in the first lane, I need to arrive no later than 24 minutes before dismissal.

Adding practicality

Of course, it would be a little more practical if the model told me when to leave the house. I hadn’t thought to note the time I left the house and arrived at the school each day, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed the data from my Automatic Link device, and was able to determine that it took, on average, 6 minutes to drive from the house to the school. To be safe, I added 1 minute to this number, and then came up with the following table:

Departure Times

So now, I know that if I want to be in that first round of pickups, I need to leave the house no later than 14 minutes before the students are dismissed. That information could end up saving quite a bit of time over the course of the year. I tend to like to get places early, but I have to balance that against other things I need to get done. Knowing that I don’t have to leave the house half an hour early buys me an extra 15 minutes/day. That doesn’t sound like much, but, I can write a page and a half in 15 minutes. So it’s something.

How Churchill’s “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples” Got on My Reading List

If you’ve been following along, you know that among my latest obsessions is William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. As of tonight, I am very close to finishing the second volume (the Second World War has just begin with Germany’s invasion of Poland).

In the prelude to war, Churchill, in addition to doing his best to get Great Britain into the game, was busy working on his mammoth  A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Descriptions of his research for the book, the subject matter (including the various kings of England) and quoted passages fascinated me, to the point where I found myself wishing I could read that book, too.

And so, I’ve added all 4 volumes of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples and I’m looking forward to reading that. But maybe not immediately after finishing the Churchill biography. I think I deserve a little lighter fare. Possibilities include:

  • John Scalzi’s Lock In.
  • Steven Gould’s Exo.
  • And Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home, the next Alex Benedict . This doesn’t come out until November, but Jack, wonderful guy that he is, has sent a proof my way. I really can’t wait to read this one, as the Alex/Chase novels are among my favorites.

Bottom line, I have plenty to read, but my obsession with Churchill continues.

Guest Post Over at SF Signal: “Daddy, What’s Dungeons & Dragons?”

Last week, the Little Man, now 5, asked me The Question when my copy of the latest edition of the Player’s Handbook arrived in the mail:

Well, when you’re five year-old asks, you’re kind of compelled to answer. So I wrote an article about it, and you can find the article over at SF Signal.

Daddy, What’s Dungeons and Dragons?

Many thanks to John DeNardo and company for having me over there today.

FAQ on My Ongoing Consecutive Day Writing Streak

Last week, 99u published an article of mine entitled “How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken.” At the time I wrote the article, the streak was, indeed, at 373 days. On the day the article was published, I think it was up to 393 days. And on Monday of this week, I hit 400 consecutive days of writing. The 99u article has turned out to be, by far, the most popular article I’ve written. As of this morning, it has been shared more than 4,400 times. I don’t know if that counts as viral, but it is both amazing and humbling to me. I have received more feedback on the article than for anything I’ve written before, fiction or nonfiction, and all of it, every last tweet, email, and comment, has been positive. Which, of course, delights me.

One result of all of this is that I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the streak, so this post serves as a place to point people for the most common questions and my answers. Keep in mind that I am writing this post on the 401st day of my consecutive day streak.

You can find the FAQ below.

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Going Paperless: 6 Steps for Life Continuity Planning in Evernote

At the day job, we’ve been going through various business continuity exercises over the last year or so. These are exercises in which we imagine some catastrophic disaster from which we then have to continue doing business-as-usual. Or, as close to as-usual as we can manage.

The corollary outside the business world, of course, is estate planning, something which we don’t like to dwell on, but which is necessary for the continued comfort of our loved ones after we’ve gone to the big ball park in the sky1. Of course, it’s one thing to have the various estate plans setup, and another thing to for them to be readily accessible when they are needed.

Earlier this year I went through the process of setting up what I call a “Life Continuity” plan in Evernote and making sure that my family could easily access it in the event of my untimely demise. Roughly speaking, these are the 6 steps I went through to make sure that my life continuity plan was useful and practical.

1. Tag all critical documents with “911″

When some bad happens, things get frantic quickly. I don’t want people needlessly hunting for documents and information that should be readily accessible. So the first thing that I did was go through all of the documents that I thought would be critical: powers of attorney, wills, life insurance, etc., and tagged them with “911.”

In the U.S. “911″ is the number you dial when there’s an emergency. It’s short, it’s simple, and no one who is looking through my relatively short list of tags, could mistake its meaning.

I was careful not to overdo it. I really just wanted to make sure that the most critical documents were accessible so that there was no added frustration at a time when emotions run hot. There was probably a total of 10 or 12 documents that got tagged this way.

2. Create a checklist note of the most important things to do

Back when I was private pilot, I learned about the importance of checklists. The real value of a checklist comes, not from its routine use, but when an emergency arises. You don’t want to have to hunt around for information. It needs to be right in front of you.

I tried to imagine the kind of information my family would need access to quickly, and I created a note in Evernote that outlined this information. People to contact, both friends and family, but also professionals: lawyers, accountants, etc. I tried to put the list in some order of priority so that whoever was using it wouldn’t need to think to much. Everything would be right there, including the names, phone numbers and email addresses.

Of course, I also tagged this note “911.”

3. Use note links to easily access related notes

Where it made sense, I added note links on my checklist that link to the documents to which they refer. Sure, these documents are also accessible by searching for the “911″ tag, but on the checklist the items are in order, and rather than having to go hunting, or even taking an extra step to search, all you have to do is click on a link to access the note.

4. Create a “911″ saved search

With the various documents tagged, it made sense to cut out one step of the process by creating a “911″ saved-search. This simply searches for all documents tagged “911″ no matter where they are located.

911 Search

One of the nice side-effects of naming the saved search 911 is that, in my case, at least, it’s the very first search in the list.

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Notes

  1. I’m not talking about Coors Field, gang.

Do You Have an Idea for a Future Going Paperless Post?

Every now and then, I like to ask folks for ideas or topics that they would like to see me cover in my Going Paperless posts. This is one of those times. If you have an idea or a topic that you’d like to see me cover, let me know in the comments. Don’t worry if it is something I might already have covered, but if it is, let me know if there is some aspect that requires clarification or more detail.

I’ll add the ideas I get to my list of future post topics.

Halfway Through the Churchill Biography

At some point today, I passed the halfway mark in William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. The 3 volumes total 131 hours of listening time.  I am more than halfway through the second volume, and the pivotal year 1938 is rapidly approaching a close.

I’m sort of obsessed with the biography right now. A few nights ago, Michael J. Sullivan was telling me about the latest book he was reading, and asked what I was reading. “Second volume of the Churchill biography,” I told him. He gave me a strange look. “Still Churchill? Light reading, eh?” Or something like that. I’ve gotten that reaction a few times. But I can’t help it. I can’t seem to turn away. One reason is that the books, though long, are never dull. But there is another, more important reason.

I’ve said this before, but I’m always amazed at how much we gloss over history while in school. Understandably, this isn’t really the fault of the schools. History is a long, detailed interwoven story, and even with 16 years of schooling, you can only skim the surface. That said, there are event in 20th century history for which I knew nearly nothing. The First World War was one. I knew the very basics taught in 4th or 5th grade. Or maybe 7th or 8th grade, I can’t remember. The first volume of Churchill’s biography went into great detail on the first World War and it was fascinating.

Then, too, my understanding of British politics has been somewhat limited. I had an amazing professor in school who dove into some parliamentary politics, using Great Britain as a model, but that was more philosophical, instead of real history. It’s fascinating to read the behind-the-scenes political mechanics of Great Britain.

There is also something utterly frustrating about Britain’s role in Europe in the second half of the 1930s, with the appeasers giving Germany what they want. It’s like watching some riveting television drama unfold, in which you suspect (or even know) the outcome. I keep wanting to shout, “Get in the game, already!” and then remember that this has already happened.

But halfway through, I can say that so far it is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to climb into my time machine and get back to the events of 1938 so that I can see what happens. Of course, I know what happens. But the book is that good.

Here I Am Accepting the ALS Ice Bucket Challange

I woke up this morning to discover that Brent Bowen, of Adventures In Sci-Fi Publishing fame, had named me in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Not one to delay the inevitable, I enlisted the help of my family to complete the challenge. We made a donation to the ALS Foundation this morning, and then, we me made this video:

In case it wasn’t clear in the video, I challenged Doug Rubin, Jennifer Ashlock, Eric Straus, and Lisa Krupp. You guys have 24 hours…

How Much Time I Spend Writing, Automated and Revisited

About a month ago, I automated the process of capturing how much time I spend writing each day, and incorporated that data into my Google Doc Writing Scripts. Here is how this work:

  • I use RescueTime on all of my computers, home and work.
  • RescueTime tracks how much time I spend in various applications, including specific documents.
  • Using the RescueTime API, I wrote a script that captures how much time I spend in Google Docs each day.
  • That number gets recorded in my writing spreadsheet automatically each night.

This means I no longer have to “clock in” or “clock out” to track my writing time. I just start writing, stop writing, continue later, etc. and all of it captured automatically by my script. With almost a month of this type of data on the books, it’s interesting to look at how my guesses match reality.

Generally, when I’m firing on all cylinders, I can write 6 pages (1,500 word) per hour. Put another way that is about a page every ten minutes. Of course, I don’t always reach this apogee of output. It turns out (with about 30 days worth of data to go on) that the correlation between the time I spend writing and how much I write is pretty strong (0.59). I took the data and ran a scatter plot, with a trendline using that correlation, and here is the results:

Writing Time

It is clear that the more time I spend, the more I write, but it’s not as strong a correlation as you might think. Part of the reason is that sometimes, it takes a while to get things out of my head. Here is what that same set of data looks like plotted individually over time. First the word counts…

30 Days Words

and then the time spent…

30 Days Time

These two charts illustrate that while the correlation is pretty strong, there are times when I clearly get bogged down. August 5 is a good example. I wrote just about 1,200 words, but it took me 79 minutes. And yet on August 7, I wrote 1,600 words and it took me under an hour. This variability is caused by two things:

  1. Concentration. Sometimes, in difficult scenes, I slow way down to think things through and work them out. Remember, I generally don’t plot ahead, so especially in first draft, I’m working out things on the fly.
  2. Interruptions. I’ve talked about how in order to write every day, I’ve had to learn to write with distraction. Sometimes, the kids will need me for something, I’ll step away for 5 or 10 minutes with no progress on the document, and then return and write more. That clearly shows up as slower.

But that red trendline in the first chart is pretty accurate, and comes close to my intuitive guesses. I have said that I wrote about 500 words in 20 minutes. That’s 1,000 words in 40 minutes. If you look at the 1,000 word-mark on that first chart, and then go up to where the red trendline crosses the 1,000 word-mark, it’s right about the 40-45 minute mark. My intuition is pretty accurate! You’ll also note that 1,500 words crosses at right about the 60 minute mark.

I have less than 30 days of the time data, but as this volume of data increases, I expect the trendline to become more accurate. One thing that is particularly useful about a chart like this is that it can tell you for a given amount of time you have available, how much you can accomplish. Or, flipping it around, if you want to write 1,000 words, how much time will you need to set aside?

Entirely automated

I wanted to call this out one more time. All of the data above is generated automatically. I don’t spend a single instant of my time collecting it. That is perhaps the biggest value. Once I wrote the scripts (which I did spent time on) I get the data without any effort, and this can be used to help me make adjustments down the road.

You can see my realtime data, including how much writing I’ve done at various intervals (my ongoing writing streak, for example) and how much time I’ve spent writing. Head on over to open.jamierubin.net to check it out.