Reader Request Week Starts Tomorrow

Reader request week starts tomorrow. Several people made requests, and once the overlapping requests were consolidated, I ended up with five. So on Monday through Friday this week, I’ll be writing about things you asked me to write about.

But I am taking today off. I need a little break. See you back here on Monday.

10 Time-Saving Tips

Everywhere I look people are offering time-saving tips. There are so many tips that it sometimes seems to me that the time people save using these tips is spent offering the tips to others. In any case, I thought I’d hop on the bandwagon and offer some time-saving tips that work for me.

1. I pack my lunch. This takes me five minutes and easily saves me twice that much by avoiding the lines at the various eateries near my office. It saves money, too.

2. I always hang my keys and sunglasses on the key rack when I come into the house. Saves me time trying to find them later.

3. I skip the shaving cream when I shave. I ran out of shaving cream a year ago, and decided to forgo it. It wasn’t so bad, and I never looked back.

4. I use a text expander for the most common things that I type. My email address, common email replies, things like that. This saves more time than I realized.

5. I write one draft for a blog post instead of two. I know this is living on the edge, but I get few complaints, and it does save me the time it would take write a whole other draft.

6. I schedule meetings that are 15 minutes long instead of 30 or 60 minutes. I try to keep the 15 minute meetings to 5 minutes.

7. I try to arrive somewhere exactly on-time, not early, not late. When I fly, I prefer to arrive at the gate just as they are calling on travelers to board the flight. I figure if I miss the flight, there will always be another one. So far, I haven’t missed a flight.

8. I time myself when doing routine tasks to see if I can shave off seconds. I can change a diaper start-to-finish in under a minute.

9. I don’t add things to lists just to get an even number. Why have 10 things, when 9 will do?

10. I use Fast Travel when I need to go somewhere I’ve been before. Just like in Skyrim. Rather than driving to the office, I click on my office in Google Maps, and then select the Fast Travel option and I’m there within a few seconds.

I’ve always found the idea of saving time strange. Time is money, the saying goes, but money can be put into an account and used on a rainy day. You can’t do that with time.

Keyboard Shortcuts

I spend most of my day sitting in front of a keyboard. I can’t figure out why so few keyboard shortcuts have been standardized. Keyboard shortcuts have the potential to save typing. I say potential because it sometimes take me longer to remember the shortcut than it would to perform the function without the shortcut.

Most application have standardized on CTRL (or Command)-C to copy text to the clipboard, and CTRL (or Command)-V  to paste text from the clipboard. That is where the general consensus ends.

Take cursor movement. I like CTRL-E to go to the end of a line of text, and CTRL-A to go the beginning of a line. This works fine in many text editors. It doesn’t work at all in Microsoft Word. If I want to jump to the end of a line in Word, I have to press SHIFT-HOME. or SHIFT-END. This means that when I want to use the keyboard shortcut to jump to the end of a line, I have to pause to consider what application I am using, and then see if I remember the key combination. The time it takes me to do this is longer than the savings the shortcut provides.

I write these posts in Scrivener. In Scrivener, CTRL-A goes the beginning of the current paragraph, and CTRL-E goes to the end of the current paragraph.

For standard functions, there should be common defaults for keyboard shortcuts. CTRL (or Command)-S should always mean Save just like CTRL-C always means Copy. No one wants to remember a different set of keyboard shortcuts for every application they use. Any yet that is often what happens.

Not everyone would agree on the common defaults. That is why I think they should be the defaults. Every application that allowing typing text into boxes should also provide the ability to alter the default keyboard mappings. If you prefer CTRL-B for beginning of line, remap it! Remap to your heart’s content.

I’d go a step further and say that our keyboard shortcuts should only need to be defined once. You could define your personal mappings, and store them in a service that all applications you use would access. I could set up CTRL-A/E for my beginning/end of line commands. This would get stored in my profile. Opening Word, or Scrivener, or Atom, or BBEdit, or Google Docs—whatever the application may be—would pull these preferences and my keyboard shortcuts would be the same everywhere. What a world that would be!

There should be a rule against keyboard mappings that require more than three keystrokes. I get annoyed every time I see a shortcut that reads SHIFT-CTRL-ALT-K. A shortcut is supposed to be short! If I can do it the task in fewer mouse-clicks it defeats the purpose of a shortcut. Plus, I can never remember which command keys to use. On my Mac, I can never remember if Force Quit is Command-Option-Power, or CTRL-Command-Power, or CTRL-Option-Power.

Keyboard shortcuts should have some mnemonic anchor to their function. In Scrivener, the Bibliography/Citations shortcut is Command-Y. Because the letter Y is what you think of when it comes to citation.

I think there should be penalties applied to applications that don’t use standardized keyboard shortcuts. The penalty would be that the people who make the application aren’t allowed to use keyboard shortcuts. That would fix things quick. Or they’d give up on shortcuts all together and the added labor would be reflected in the price of the software.

A Lost Post

Driving the little man home from baseball practice the other day, I had a great idea for a blog post. Normally, when an idea occurs to me, I either jot it down in my Field Notes notebook, or enter it into my Blog project on Todoist. Either gets it out of my head and someplace safe. The problem I had the other day was that I was driving. I couldn’t pull out my Field Notes notebook, and I couldn’t enter the idea into Todoist. I was also talking to the Little Man. I told myself that it was such a good idea, there’s no way I’d forget it.

As the title of this piece suggests, I forgot it. That night, as I drifted to sleep, I tried hard to reclaim the idea. I crept right up close to the idea, but never close enough to remember what it was.

When I first started out writing, I worried that I’d never have enough good ideas to write about. That was silly. I have never had to worry about getting an idea for something to write about. What I have had to worry about, especially as I get older, is keeping the idea. I used to tell myself—like I did the other day—that there was no way I could forget a good idea. But I can and I do. It makes me wonder how many good ideas I’ve lost over the years. There is absolutely no way of knowing.

I can’t be the only one who has ever lost a good idea. How many good ideas get lost every day? How many good ideas have been lost over the course of human civilization? I shudder to think of this.

Some of my best ideas come to me when I am in the shower. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it is one of the few times during the day when I let my mind wander. I was in the shower the other day puzzling over how I might start a story that I’d been struggling with. I figured it out while rinsing my hair. A good thing, because, worried that I might lose the idea, I dashed out of the shower to jot down the idea so I wouldn’t forget it.

Every writer has people suggesting ideas to them. Non-writer friends say, “I have a great idea for a novel I’d like to write if I ever could find the time.” Then the offer me the idea. I can’t give you any examples because I never write these ideas down. And because I don’t write them down, I don’t remember them.

Sometimes, I wish I could scroll through my recent memory, the way I scroll back through my browser history to find a web page. It wouldn’t have to go back far. Just the last hour or so would suffice. That way, when a good idea occurs to me and I don’t have the opportunity to jot it down at once, I could scroll back through my memory to retrieve it.

I’m certain that the idea I lost on Saturday was brilliant. And while I try to be humble here, I’d venture to say it would have made the single greatest blog post I’d ever written. Too bad I lost it.

Pledge of Allegiance

In school we stood up each morning and said the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a long time before I knew what the words meant, or why we said them. I don’t recall anyone in my Kindergarten class ever explaining it. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention that day.

There are at least six words that I think I would have had trouble understanding:

  1. Pledge. This one isn’t too bad. I knew what a promise was. A pledge is different than a promise. A pledge requires some kind of bailment beyond just your word. Allegiance, for instance.
  2. Allegiance. I don’t think I would have understood this as youngster. The closest I came was my allegiance to the New York Yankees.
  3. Republic. When I was a kid, everyone talked about America being a democracy. But our form of government is actually a Republic. As a five or six year old, I don’t think I would have understood the difference.
  4. Indivisible. This a big word for a youngster. Five syllables. It means something that can’t be broken. As a child, you have to break down the word just to say it. It was years before I stopped saying, “…one nation, under God, invisible, with liberty and justice…”
  5. Liberty. I might have understood liberty to mean “freedom” if someone explained it to me.
  6. Justice. It sounds like anyone should understand it, but even the dictionary has trouble defining it. My dictionary says, “The maintenance or administration of what is just esp. by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” You need a lawyer just to parse the definition.

As I don’t remember anyone ever explaining why we say the Pledge of Allegiance, or what it means, I spent several years reciting it because that’s what we did at the beginning of the day. Once memorized, my mind wandered onto other things. To this day, when we stand to say the Pledge at my kids’ school events, I recite it mechanically and think about my to-do list for the weekend, or mull over the idea for a blog post, or a dozen other different random thoughts.

I don’t know if this makes me a bad citizen, but it seems silly to me to make kids recite a Pledge for which they can have no possible comprehension. On the other hand, maybe kids are much smarter than I was at their age. I have no particular objection to the Pledge, it just leaves me cold. Poetry it is not.

If it were up to me, I’d replace the Pledge of Allegiance with the National Anthem. My mind wanders when it plays, but in the case of the National Anthem, I always imagine the battle taking place, the smoke from the cannons blanketing the harbor, and then the explosion of a rocket lighting up the darkness to show the flag still standing.

And while I’m at it, I’d extend our morning singing to include all four verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Francis Scott Key wrote four versus about the battle at Fort McHenry. How come only the first one ever gets sung? Where’s the justice in that?

If I Could Use The Force

A Jedi is supposed to be stoic, ascetic even. A Jedi would never knowingly make trivial use of the Force. But I am not a Jedi, and I sometimes wish I could use the Force. Given how crazy life can be at times, I think it could come in handy. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and here are some of the ways that I would make use of the Force, if the ability was available to me.

  • Getting items off  the top of shelves at the hardware store. Every time I go to the hardware store, the thing I need is inevitably located on a shelf twelve feet above the ground. I have to find someone who works in the store and ask for help retrieving it. But if I could, I would use the Force to move the item in question into my cart.
  • Half the time I get into bed at night, I’ve managed to leave my reading glasses on the desk in my office. I’m already cozy and don’t want to get out of bed, especially in the winter. If I could, I would use the Force to move my reading glasses from my office desk into my lap.
  • The Little Miss often leaves her stuffed animal “all the way downstairs,” meaning in the family room, two levels below where our bedrooms are. Once we’re upstairs for the night, I hate having to dash down two flights of stairs to retrieve something. So if I had the Force, I’d use it to retrieve the stuffed animal, while I lay comfortably under the blankets.
  • The baby has recently switched to solid food, and as anyone who has kids knows, the exciting change from milk to solid food comes with an even more exciting change in the contents of diapers. There have been some cataclysmic explosions. There have been a few emergency egresses from onesies. What seems at first like a simple diaper change ends up with everyone involved bathing, and burning their clothes. If I could, I would use the Force to change the babies diapers on those particularly egregious diaper explosions.
  • Sometimes, when racing for an elevator shouting, “Hold it, please!” the person inside either can’t get to the buttons in time, or choses not to. I’m too far to stick my arm between the closing doors to force them open again. But if I had the Force, I could use it to stop the doors from closing, and then slowly reopen them, all as I casually walk toward the elevator.

Those are some of the ways I’d use the Force, if I had the ability. Of course, I know what would really happen if I could use the Force. I’d go to the hardware store and the thing I would be looking for would be right there at eye-level. The Little Miss would remember to bring her stuffed animal upstairs, the baby would never have an explosive diaper again, and all elevators I encountered would wait patiently for me as I arrived.

A lot of good the Force would do me!

Snow Days

Our first snow day of the winter got in just under the wire. Schools in our area closed last Tuesday, one week before the official start of spring. Everyone has an opinion about snow days and whether or not schools should be closed. If you grew up in a place where several feet of snow were not uncommon, you scoff when two inches of snow close schools in northern Virginia. People from Chicago mock Washingtonians. People from L.A. keep quiet. They are well aware how much trouble a few drops of ran gives them.

It is the school systems that get blamed when schools close, or stay open. For the poor people who make the decisions to close schools, it is a no-win situation. And yet, they are making their decisions based on the same information we all have access to: weather reports.

The absolute worst time to try to get good information about the weather from a television news program is on the eve of a snowstorm. In our area, the possibility of snow will call “breaking news” reports in the middle of the day. Reporters will rush to popular Metro stations, while the skies are still clear, and interview commuters about their thoughts on a storm that may or may not produce a lot of snow. How is that news? How is that even helpful?

Different news channels will take to different sources for their weather information, each one seeking to out-drama the other. One station will predict “as much as” 19 inches of snow. Another will say there’s a chance that the District and neighboring areas will see 2-6 inches. Even the National Weather Services will offer a probability band for the region. No one can ever say for certain how much snow will fall. So why do we blame the schools when they decide to close—or stay open? They are using the best information available!

Here is my suggestion: if the chance of at least 2 inches of snow (or equivalent ice) as reported by the National Weather Service is greater than 50%, schools should close. Why make it overly complicated? Moreover, the decision to close should be made by 6 pm the evening before when possible. I find it absurd that some local school districts wait until 6 am the morning of to make a decision. How is a parent supposed to make childcare and other arrangements on 2 hour’s notice?

My rule isn’t perfect, but it is consistent, and it is something that everyone can easily evaluate. Just go check the National Weather Service’s report.

Snow days should be fun, especially for kids. They should go to bed knowing that they don’t have school the next day. Most kids are smart enough to know when a snow day might be imminent, and nothing is worse than a kid who can’t sleep because they don’t know if they will be heading off to school or not.

There should be only one school open on snow days: the school that teaches television meteorologists something about the weather. All television meteorologists should be required to attend while we are all out having fun in the snow.

An Improved Federal Tax Invoice

Every year around this time, I eagerly await word from our accountant as to whether we will owe the Federal government money, or whether we will be owed a refund. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I feel completely disconnected from what the money that we pay the Federal government is used for. When I get a credit card statement, I can scan the items to see what makes up the total. What we need is a clear invoice of our Federal income tax.

What I’d like to see is an itemized list of expenditures for which I am being charged, much like a credit card statement. Each major section of the Federal budget for that tax year would be itemized, and displayed as a proportion of my total tax bill.

Here is an example. In 2015, the average U.S. taxpayer paid $12,978 in income tax. Let’s round that to $13,000 to make it nice and even. The Federal government had a $3.7 trillion budget in 2015. I looked up the Federal budget for 2015, and created the following invoice for the average U.S. taxpayer:

Improved Tax Invoice

An invoice like this provides useful context. It tells me, as a taxpayer, where it is my money is going. An average taxpayer in 2015 was billed about $2,000 for National Defense. The top five categories in the Federal budget—Social Security, National Defense, Medicare, Income Security, and Health—cost the average tax payer $10,600. That’s 82% of the entire tax bill.

The Federal budget is public, of course, but the numbers are so big as to be meaningless to the average taxpayer. Providing an invoice that shows the breakdown of your tax bill against the budgeting categories removes some of the abstraction. After all, when you get a credit card statement, you usually look at it to see how you spent your money—or to see if mistakes have been made.

An invoice like this also provides more context come election season and politicians begin talking about raising taxes and cutting spending—or vice versa. For example, suppose a proposal is made to add $50 billion to National Defense. Well, it makes it easy to see that it would alter the average taxpayer’s bill from $13,000 to $13,176 a year. Of course, when a big expenditure is added, a cut is usually made elsewhere. Maybe we’d need a chart on the invoice showing how much we spent in the same category in the previous year so we can see the change. The bills I get from the water company do this.

Each invoice would be tailored to the individual taxpayer. If you pay $25,000 in taxes, you’ll see a proportional increase in what you’ve been invoiced for. If you pay $7,900, you’ll see a proportional decrease.

I’d like to see the IRS begin producing an invoice like this so that I have a better sense of how my tax bill related to the Federal budget. In other words where the government is spending my money.

If I offered this idea free to the IRS, does that count as a charitable donation?

An Annotated Website Content Marketing Message

If there is single truth in the world after death and taxes, it is that someone is always trying to sell you something. And lately, it seems like someone is always trying to sell me more traffic to my website. A couple of times a week, I get an email message promising increased traffic and sales to my site. Here is an annotated example of one such email message, typical enough to stand for all the rest. The annotations follow the message.

Annotated Content Marketing Message

Annotations:

1. Right off the bat, you can tell that they have not done their research. There is no team. There is just me. Right away I think “spam.”

2. This pleasant, if bland, intro is ruined by its lack of proper punctuation.

3. Why does the author of this message think it is important this his or her name be bolded? Will I remember it better because of that? Given what follows, I’m not sure I’d want my name associated with the message.

4. So we have a self-proclaimed expert. That is an important point, considering the pitch.

5. Why do they say “a leading software provider company” instead of just naming the company. Playing coy with me makes me immediately suspicious of your motives.

6. The pitch from this expert is that my website is not ranking well with Google and other search engines. This is their expert opinion. Have they checked this? They must have since they produced an extensive report. But when I do a search for my name in Google, here is what I see in the first page results:

Jamie Todd Rubin Google Ranking

7. Maybe my traffic is poor. Everything is relative. It is certainly down from its monthly peak a few years back. But it is actually up in the last couple of months over what it was for the months prior.

8. “Due to some of the reasons.” My traffic is poor because of reasons. Could you be more specific, maybe?

9. For some reason, we change fonts in this paragraph.

10. As you can see, the report is extensive. Three whole bullet points.

11. Thanks, but as I’ve said, I already have 1st page ranking on Google.

12. Now we’ve changed font color.

13. If I am not happy, I get my money back, but they have yet to ask for money. The Website Audit Report they offer in the previous paragraph is free. Even so, I wouldn’t pay money to improve my traffic or Google ranking.

14. Now a plea not to treat the message as spam.

15. Because they have put a lot of time an energy and effort into something that I never asked anyone to do in the first place.

16. I don’t even understand what the point of this final caution is. I did amuse me that they capitalized the word Details in the final sentence.

I’m sorry to break the news to you, Boldface Surname, but your message is spam, and that’s where I filed it. This may not stop similar messages in the future, but it was satisfying to mark it as spam.

The Rules of Capitalization

It seems to me that fewer people are following the rules of capitalization. This is never more obvious than in comment threads on the Internet and social media. Reading this comments, you’d think the commentators mistook English for German. In German, all nouns are capitalized.

I play a game where I try to guess why the author of a comment chose to capitalize a particular word.  Often, it seems to me that the word was capitalized to give it emphasis, as if capitalizing the word gives it added importance. A typical sentence might look like this: “When Joe Politician said he was going to do something about Health Care, he was Lying to his Constituents.”

(For some reason, the comments are almost always political in nature.)

In the above example, the author got about half of his capitalizations correct. “When” should be capitalized because it is a the first word in the sentence. “Joe Politician” should be capitalized because it is a proper noun. But “Health Care”? No, I don’t think so. And you don’t typically capitalize a gerund. Constituents is not a proper noun.

Then there are the extremes. People who write in all-caps; this is what the Internet calls shouting. There are people who don’t bother with capitalization at all. I’ve never understood the reason for this. Is it a stylistic thing? It is laziness? After all, capitalizing a word requires tapping the extra Shift key.

I see unusual capitalization in email as well. There, at least, there is some consistency to the patterns. Email correspondents a generation older than I am tend to capitalize more words, for some reason.

Some people get upset when certain words are not capitalized, even though it is grammatically correct to leave them lowercase. For example, “The president spent his day playing golf,” is grammatically correct. As I learned it, you don’t capitalize a title when it is used in place of a name. On the other hand, writing, “When President Ford arrived at the White House…” it is appropriate to capitalize the title because it is used directly before the name.

I am occasionally confused myself. Titles always get me. Do I capitalize “is” in a title? Turns out the answer is yes, you capitalize all verbs in the title, including all forms of the verb “to be” of which “is” is one instance. On the other hand, you don’t capitalize coordinating conjunctions in a title, unless it is first or last. Thus: “Beauty and the Beast” not “Beauty And The Beast.”

I don’t know about you, but I hear a word differently in my head when it is capitalized. For me it is similar to a quoted word or phrase, which I also hear stressed differently in my head. Reading a sentence like, “The Mets are the Best team in baseball,” puts the emphasis on the word “best” in my head. The notion that the Mets are the best team in baseball is a patently ridiculous one.

That is why the rules of capitalization are so important.

Awareness Days

Walking into work this morning, the big digital sign that hangs above the food court alerted me that March is National Caffeine Awareness month. The month is there to bring awareness to caffeine use, abuse, and even addiction.

It seems like every month is some kind of awareness month or other. Every week or day, for that matter. As I write this essay on Friday, March 10, I’ve learned that today is, among other things, “Pack Your Lunch Day,” and “Middle Name Pride Day.” I know “Pack Your Lunch Day” by another name. I call it a “weekday.”

It is also “Skirt Day,” and “International Bagpipe Day.” Tomorrow is “World Plumbing Day.” As a child, whenever I had a fever, I had strange fever dreams where I had redo the piping of the entire world. I don’t need World Plumbing Day to remind me of that. Tomorrow is also “Submarine Day,” and the ultra-specific “Oatmeal Nut Waffles Day.”

My birthday falls in March, and it turns out that in addition to my birthday, we can all celebrate “International Whiskey Day,” “Quirky Country Music Song Titles Day,” and “Spanish Paella Day.” Three things that, when combined, should make for hilarious birthday celebration.

In addition to being Caffeine Awareness Month, March is also Nutrition Month, Kidney Month, Craft Month, Credit Education Month, and the all-important Cheerleading Safety Month. It is also “International Ideas Month.” I don’t know if this means March celebrates ideas that come from other countries, or if it is an international celebration of ideas.

There are so many awareness days that some are bound to conflict. June 1 is Go Barefoot Day. It is also Say Something Nice Day. Those go well together for someone with a foot fetish. Not so much for someone who doesn’t like feet. August 1 is Respect for Parents Day, while at the same time it is International Childfree Day. World Religion Day shares January 18 with Winnie the Pooh Day. December is Write a Business Plan month and Tie Month. That works out well. You’ll need to wear a tie when presenting your business plan.

February 29 is Rare Disease Day. Are people are only aware of rare diseases once every four years?

There is no escaping some daily awareness day. I wish there could be an International Nothing’s Doing Day, but its presence on a calendar somewhere would cause a paradox.

This post will appear on Thursday, March 16, which is Lips Appreciation Day, Panda Day, No Selfies Day, and Freedom of Information Day.

Look, I am well aware that I am addicted to caffeine. I don’t need a month to remind me of that. A morning without caffeine does the trick just fine.

Reader Request Week Coming On March 26, 2017

Just a quick update: I’ve gotten several suggestions of things to write about for Reader Request Week. I’ve decided to make the week of March 26 Reader Request Week here on the blog. If you’ve put in your request already, I should have it. If you haven’t already done so and would like to suggestion something you’d like to see my write about, go ahead and drop your suggestion in the comments here, or shoot me an email at jamie [at] jamietoddrubin [dot] come.