Category Archives: observations

Flicker Vertigo

Earlier, I mentioned our recent spate of warm weather in December. As pleasant as unexpected warm weather can be (if you enjoy that sort of thing a week before winter officially begins), there can be unpleasant side-effects. A case in point took place on Saturday.

Around lunchtime, I had a craving for a ham and cheese sandwich, but lacked any ham in the refrigerator to throw a sandwich together. The weather was warm, so I decided to walk to the local Subway and get a sandwich there. I stuffed my Kindle into my back pocket, and made the short walk to Subway.

Subway was packed, but of course, it was Saturday right around lunchtime. I ordered a cold cut combo (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, honey mustard, mayo, oil and vinegar, and salt and pepper) and took the sandwich and drink to one of the few empty tables, where I sat to eat.

I can’t just sit and eat, so I pulled out my Kindle, set it on the table beside my sandwich, and began to read. After a minute or so, I noticed that it was difficult to read because my screen was flickering, and that flicker made it uncomfortable to look at the virtual page for long.

The source of the flickering was not my Kindle. The ceiling fans in the restaurant had been turned on, and someone had the brilliant insight to place the fans so that the fan blades swung just below the pocket ceiling lights. The rapid spinning of the blades in front of these lights caused a flicker throughout the seating area of the restaurant. It reminded me of the flicker vertigo I was warned about back when I was learning to become a pilot.

This design is not ideal, but in December it shouldn’t be a problem because the ceiling fans aren’t typically running in December. Instead, the heat is on and there is a sign on the door reminding customers to close the door behind them so that the cold air stays outside.

But on Saturday it was 70 and the restaurant was crowded and that meant that the ceiling fans had to be turned on to keep the air circulating. The poor design of placing those fans just below the light fixtures caused the flicking that made it impossible for me to read while eating my sandwich.

You can see why I prefer my weather to stay within its seasonal boundaries. When it drifts, we get chaos.

June in January

You wouldn’t know it is mid-December by the look of things here in northern Virginia. On Saturday night, we went with friends to a Christmas light show where you walk through gardens decorated with all kinds of Christmas lights. We attended this event a few years ago bundled up in coats and hats and glove. This year, we didn’t even bother with jackets. The temperature had reached 70 during the day.

Sunday was much the same, and we did not want to waste it indoors. After taking the kids for “summer” haircuts in the morning, we walked to the local park, and the kids played for a few hours. Once again, jackets were optional as the outdoor temperatures were at or near 70 ℉. In both cases, everyone else seemed to be enjoying the weather. Lots of people were in their yards raking leaves. The playgrounds at the park were full. The bike paths were busy with traffic.

Last year at this time temperatures were often down into the single digits. I have to admit that in December, I prefer the cold to the warm. I like having seasons. December is supposed to be cold. It is a time for wool coats and hats and gloves. You can walk outside and fill your lungs with a deep breath of cold air.

Then, too, we head down to Florida for a weeks in December for the holidays. We drive, and there is nothing I like better than to pull away from the house while it cold and a light snow is falling, only to arrive in Florida a few days later, with the sun shining and the temperatures in the 80s.

Warm December weather messes with that. It’s not the same when you leave a place that is 70 degrees for a place that is 80 degrees, as it is when you leave a place that is 7 degrees for a place that is 80 degrees.

I have lived in climates where there is not much variation in temperature and season. Los Angeles was hot in the summer and fall, mild in the winter, and pleasant for a few weeks in the spring. I like summer and winter, but I also enjoy the transitions between them. I like especially like spring after a particularly cold and snowy winter. I don’t know how else one comes to appreciate spring without such winters.

Fortunately, we only have another day or two of this June in January weather. It looks as if, by the time we are ready to head for Florida, we’ll be back in to the 40s by day, and the 20s by night. Cold enough to enjoy the gradual temperature change as we make our way south on I-95.

Rounding Up

On Saturday, the yellow “low fuel” warning light blinked on in the Kia, and after picking up the Little Man from a friend’s house, we stopped to fill up. A local station had gas listed for $1.96/gallon, which is about as low as I’ve seen around here. We stopped. I pumped. I filled the tank—about 16 gallons—for under $30.

Gas Prices

My grandfather and three of his brothers ran a service station in the Bronx for thirty years. He taught me many things about cars, but the lesson that sticks our first and foremost in my mind is that people tend to overlook the 9/10 at the end of the price listed for gasoline. This is why I said I paid $1.96 per gallon, not $1.95.

Rounding up might not seem like much of a difference, but it is a more accurate reflection of what you really pay. I paid about 16 cents more than I would have if the gasoline was actually priced at $1.95 (in which case it would have been listed at $1.95 and 9/10). People think of first three numbers, my grandfather assured me, and ignored that last fraction of a penny. Not much difference on an individual transaction, but consider how much gasoline is purchased each year, and that mental difference adds up.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says 136.78 billion gallons of gas were consumed in the United States in 2014. Assume the price of a gas was $2.00 per gallon ($2.00-9/10). Assume that most people ignore that fraction at the end and believe they are paying a flat $2/gallon. Based on this, we would assume that $273.56 billion worth of gasoline was sold in 2014. We would be wrong. Tacking on that addition 9/10-cent per gallon adds $1.23 billion to the total. Claiming I paid $1.95 and ignoring that 9/10-cent/gallon adds up to over a billion dollars a year.

This is why I always round up.

You would think this gimmick, which works so well for the gasoline industry, would work well in other industries. But I haven’t seen it adopted anywhere but gas stations. And I have yet to see a gas station buck the tide, and say, you know what, we’re going to round up to the nearest penny, and to hell with the 9/10 nonsense. I’d buy gas from a station that listed their price as an even $1.96 over a station that listed it as $1.95 9/10.

Still, it is a neat trick. I wonder if it would work for writers. Could I ask for 25-9/10th cents per word, instead of 25 cents? That would mean an extra 9 cents for every ten words that I wrote. Even in a short piece like this, it amounts to an additional $4.50.

Just enough to get me 2.297 gallons of gas.

Answering the Telephone

Somehow, I have managed to accumulate four phone numbers. There is the land-line at home; my personal mobile number; my work mobile number; and my Google Voice number that I use in freelancing work. I try to consolidate things. My personal mobile number forwards automatically to my work mobile number, since I don’t want to carry around two mobile phones. My Google Voice number forwards to my personal mobile. So in actuality, calling one of my numbers will virtually always reach me on my mobile number.

I dislike talking on the phone, and as time has passed, I find that I no longer answer phone numbers that I don’t recognize. With four phone numbers from which to attack, the number of unrecognized numbers goes up, despite having enrolled each of the four numbers in the DO NOT CALL registry.

The phone is there for my convenience, and there is no reason I have to take a call when the phone rings. This has virtually eliminated my interactions with telemarketers. I never recognize the number, so I never answer. If they choose to leave a voice mail message, I’ll listen to it, but it is rare that they do. And on those occasions that I find an automated message in my voice mail box, it confirms that it was a telemarketer, and I can block the number on my iPhone so that they can no longer reach me.

Many people I know seem to feel compelled to answer every call that comes in. I ignore most of the calls I get. Unless a name that I recognize flashes on my screen, I send the call to voicemail without a second thought. It is too easy to get trapped on the phone by an unrecognized number. Inevitably, I’ll see a number that I think looks familiar, and decide to answer it. Invariable it is some organization looking for money. “Consider a small donation of $50,” they ask. “Alright, send me the information, and I’ll consider it for next year’s donation budget. This year’s budget is already set.”

That does not deter the caller. “How about $25?” they ask. To which my response is, “We have a set budget for donations each year, which gets allocated before the first of the year. Since all of the money has been allocated, there isn’t an addition $25 to give, I’m afraid. I’m sure you understand the importance of a budget and danger one gets into when they overspend their budget.” This usually ends the call. But it is waste of time to go through in the first place, which is why I stopped answering the phone for numbers I no longer recognize.

I don’t lose any sleep over this. In an emergency, if someone couldn’t reach me on the phone, they would certainly leave a voice mail message. So far as I can tell, I have not missed anything important since I stopped answering numbers I don’t recognize.

Email is my preferred method of communication. It is brief and direct, and it leaves behind a record that I can easily refer to. It is more efficient than a phone call. This is why I try to answer an email I receive as promptly as I can.

I wish that Siri was capable of handling my calls. If a telemarketer called, and I foolishly answered the phone, I wish there was a button I could tap in the Phone app on my iPhone that would transfer the caller to Siri. I don’t mind letting telemarketers talk to Siri.

The Architecture of Time Travel in a Role-Playing Video Game

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about following along with the progress of Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is the peek I’ve gotten into the process behind the scenes of video game development. The Ultima games were my absolute favorites as a kid, and as a software developer (by profession), I’ve always been curious about how they are made. It’s not so much the three-dimensional environment that interests me, but the game on the macro scale. The interweaving stories, and the various games states, and how it is all managed.

My thoughts had drifted to this while eating dinner this evening, and I began to wonder if time travel had ever been an integral element to the architecture of a game universe. I wondered if it was possible to architect the game model to support time travel as an action in the universe. For instance, a player could cast a spell to go back in time to a certain point. Once at that point, they would see the events of the game unfold, as they actually occurred. But now, there would be two instances of the player in the world. The “past” instance would now be an NPC, with a predefined course of action based on what has already happened. The “current” instance would be played from the player’s perspective.

Beyond the plot aspects, I wonder what the architecture of such a game model would look like. It would grow more complex the longer the game is played. And how would you account for changes in the past. Would a new “game universe” be spawned. Could a player cross universes at that point?

I’m not really going anywhere with these thoughts. But I was mostly curious if anything like this had been implemented in a large-scale RPG before.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s story “A Death” in the New Yorker

Stories like Stephen King’s “A Death” in the March 9 issue of the New Yorker go a long way to explaining why I love short fiction. I have this sense–perhaps a false one–that while there is no such thing as the perfect novel, there is a perfect short story. It is as rare as a perfect game in baseball, but it is achievable. Of course, it is not quantifiable the way a perfect game in baseball is. To twist an oft-used expression: I can’t say exactly what makes a story perfect, but I know it when I see it.

I can probably count perfect stories I’ve read on one hand. Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”; Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”; and Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” are three. After reading “A Death” I think I could add it to the list of perfect stories.

What makes a story perfect? Again, it’s hard to say. For me, the voice plays a big part of it, but not all of it. Another element is efficiency, or perhaps a better word is “compactness.” I don’t mean length. I mean the story has just the right amount of each ingredient, not a grain more or a drop less. That, plus the voice, are the two things that jumped out at me when I finished reading “A Death.”

Stephen King has often said that in his second drafts, he takes out everything that isn’t story. “A Death” is a great example of that. There is nothing I could find in it that isn’t story. Everything, every word, every image, every line of dialog contributes to the telling of the whole. It is a story that rests in a precarious balance, like a pitcher who has two outs in the 9th inning of perfect game, and full count on the batter. Take away anything from the story, and it is no longer perfect. Add anything to the story, and it is no longer perfect.

In many ways, while reading “A Death,” I kept thinking to myself that it is a Writer’s story. I enjoyed the story as a reader. But almost enjoyed more as a writer. I enjoyed in the same way a rookie ball player might look over at a seasoned veteran and see the smoothness of their swing, the fluid motion they make ranging for a ball in the field, and think, I want to be able to do that one day. Recognizing this as a writer means that you also recognize that you have the individual skills to make it happen, but not yet the experience to put them together in the right combination to achieve that level of perfection.

Beyond the entertainment value of “A Death,” beyond my awe at the seemingly effortless execution, I finished it thinking, man, I want to be able to do that one day. It’s why I keep reading. And it’s why I keep writing.

4 Elements That Make the Apple Genius Bar Experience Effective

Having been in I.T. for more than twenty years, I am loathe to call technical support numbers or take hardware in for technical support issues. A few months back, when I cracked the screen on my iPhone, I took my phone to the Apple Store and it was fixed in under an hour. A very positive experience.

Recently, I noticed that my iPhone was not charging. I’d plug it into a charger, but nothing would happen. If I spent 10 minutes jiggling the cable I might get it to connect and the phone would charge, but it was a pain. And it was getting worse and worse. So on Tuesday, I made an appointment for the Genius Bar at my local Apple Store. I took the phone in at the appointed time, and ten minutes or so later, I left the store with my phone charging properly again.

Apparently, dust, and grit can accumulate in the cable slot. They blew it out with compressed air (something I should of thought myself, but something which I didn’t happen to have handy, even if I had thought of it), and it has been charging good as new ever since.

These two positive experiences at the Apple Store have impressed me. Ultimately, what we want when we go to technical support is for our problem to be resolved, but I think what we really want is for it to be resolved efficiently with as little hassle as possible. I was able to make my appointment online, for a time that was convenient for me. That was the first positive moment of truth.

I have a real pet-peeve about asking customers for information which is available elsewhere. So when I checked in, I was asked to provide my iCloud account information. I was then asked for which device I needed help. That was all I needed to provide. They had information about my phone and my Apple Care plan without having to ask me to provide the information again.

When I arrived at the Apple Store, it was crowded. I was directed to a person to check me in. This is always slightly nerve-wracking because in the back of my mind, I think, “What if they don’t have my appointment?” But they did. They told me where to wait, and a few minutes later, an apple technician came out to assist me, identified the root of the problem in under a minute, took my phone back to resolve the problem, and returned with my phone five minutes later.

She then did something very important, and often missing in customer service calls: She verified that the problem was fixed in front of me, and before I left the store. The problem was indeed fixed, and hasn’t recurred since.

What I think made the process so painless and effective was four things that Apple has identified that other customer support organizations can learn from:

  1. Make it easy to request help.
  2. Ask only for the information necessary to identify the problem and the hardware (or software) involved.
  3. Have people on staff who know how to triage and resolve problems quickly and accurately.
  4. Verify the fix before the the customer leaves the store.

So kudos once again to Apple. Not only do they make great products and software, but they support them with some of the highest level of customer service that I’ve seen out of a large organization.

All of this has happened before…

While reading about the life of the people of ancient Rome in Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ this morning, I came across this brief, but rather remarkable passage concerning music in Roman life:

Old men mourned that recent composers were abandoning the restraint and dignity of the classic style, and were disordering the soul and nerves of youth with extravagant airs and noisy instruments.

In other words, grown-ups complaints of “that hideous rock-n-roll” (or disco, or rap, or fill-in-your-own-genre) are nothing new, and never have been. Indeed, I’d guess that some wise person living in ancient Rome shook her head ruefully at the thought that the reaction of the elders to the music of the younger generation was nothing new; that it happened in ancient Greece before, and Egypt before that, and so on, and so on, back to the dawn of music’s history.

Or, put another way, grown-ups have been telling kids to get off their lawns for as far back as recorded history can take us.

Thoughts on the Star Wars Episode VII Trailer

I was five years old when the original Star Wars was released in theaters. I don’t remember seeing any trailers for the movie. I just remember my parents taking me to the drive-in to see the movie. That’s right: the first time I saw Star Wars was at the drive-in.

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I remember seeing the trailer for the movie and feeling more excited about a movie than I had ever remembered feeling before. I watched the trailer over and over again, and I remember I was almost out of my head on the evening that I went to go an see the movie.

I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I watched the trailer over the weekend, expecting to be filled with the same excitement I had when I first saw the Episode 1 trailer. I was disappointed. The trailer didn’t move me at all.

This probably has much more to do with me than it does any problem with the trailer or the movie. I’ve just moved beyond Star Wars. There are far too many series out there today and far too few one-out movies–or books for that matter. I understand this, of course. The economics of it is clear. If a movie is successful, why risk something else, when you have a built in audience for a sequel. Still, I am tired of sequels and remakes, just as I am tired of television dramas that are serials rather than series. I’ve even grown tired of book series. I’m sure there are lots of people awaiting George R. R. Martin’s Winds of Winter, but I burned out after A Dance with Dragons.

Let’s face it: judging a movie by its trailer is like judging a book by its cover. But it is all I have to go on so far, and so far, I saw nothing new in the story, nothing to make me say, “Ah, now that looks interesting.” Everything I saw in the trailer is simply recycled from earlier movies: the settings, the characters, the problem (“the dark side, and the light”), the weapons (we saw a double light saber in Episode 1, so a triple light saber is the next logical step). And, of course, the music.

Having been at that critical impressionable age of 5 years old when Star Wars first came out, there was no way to avoid being a fan of the movie. Yet even at five, I never remember wondering what happened to all of the characters after the Death Star was destroyed. Nor did I wonder about them in the time before the story takes place. Still, a part of me hoped for something spectacular in the trailer, and I was a little saddened that I didn’t find it there. I hope that others do.

3 Ways I Avoided All Election Campaign Ads This Season

It occurred to me this morning that it was election day, a fact that crept up on me mostly because I managed to avoid all election campaigning this season. I was pretty busy with the day job, and the family, and writing, but there were at least three things that helped me avoid the ads and phone calls, and I thought I’d share them here.

1. I didn’t watch any live TV

I have very little time for television. I may catch a show like The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family here and there before bed to rest my brain, but it is never in real time. It is always either on-demand or through NetFlix or the iTunes store. Which means there are generally no ads, and never any political ads. Not watching TV means I have more time for other things (like the family, or writing). But as I’ve discovered, it has the added benefit of eliminating a huge proportion of political campaigns.

I do listen to the radio, now and then, when I’m in the car, but I listen almost exclusively to either Sirius XM’s 70s on 7 or 80s on 8, both of which are entirely commercial free. So I was free from torment there as well.

2. I don’t answer phone calls for which I don’t instantly recognize the number

I got tired of political calls a long time ago, and since I rarely use the phone these days, anyway, sometime in the last year, I stopped answering calls for which I don’t recognize the number. And since I no longer listen to voicemail, my outgoing message directs people to text me or email me. I imagine that most of the political calls are robocalls, and aren’t smart enough to grab my email address and send me email. Bottom line: received no political calls this season. At least, none that I answered.

3. I recycled all political mail ads without looking at them.

You can kind of tell by feel. Those ads are all printed on that same thick bond poster-like paper. I tend to sort the little snail mail I get these days into two piles as I walk back to the house. Stuff to look at, and stuff to recycle. I’m guessing that all of the political ads made it safely into the recycle bin, because I don’t recall actually looking at any.


These three things combined to help eliminate all political ads from my life this season. I might not even have noticed it, had I not realized it was election day this morning. After work today, Kelly and I picked up the Little Man from school, and took him with us to our local polling place so that he could see what it was like to vote. The polling place was pretty much empty, which kinds of makes a mockery of how much money gets spent on political campaigns, and in particular, on advertising.

But really, the important thing is, as I discovered this morning, it is still possible to vote without being carpet bombed with political ads for months at a time.

Who knew!

Thank You, Derek Jeter, for Saving Baseball

I started at my present job in the fall of 1994, at the end of one of the more depressing baseball seasons of my life, thanks to the player’s strike that killed the postseason for that year. Baseball, it seemed, was at an all-time low.

In May of the following season, Derek Jeter made his major league debut with the New York Yankees. Since then, he has gone on to become not only one of the best all around players of his generation, but in all of baseball history. And what is more remarkable: he did it while keeping his ego in check, and being a role model that kids of all ages (including the “kid” of 23 years old that I was back in 1995) could look up to, and rely on to be a good example. For twenty years, Jeter has maintained that high standard.

Yesterday, Gatorade released a new commercial featuring Derek Jeter that has gone viral. I’ve probably watched this commercial a dozen times now.

At first, it was the artistic elements that drew me to the commercial: a choice of music, a good choice of how it was shot (black and white). But there was something else, something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. People have said that watching the video gives them goosebumps. It certainly had that effect on me. But why?

The reason, I think, dawned on me earlier this evening. As I said, I started my present job not long before Jeter started his with the Yankees. That twenty years has gone by in the blink of an eye. I wonder what it must be like for someone like Derek Jeter, who worked hard as a kid to make it to the big leagues, and then lived a dream, becoming one of the best players of all time–and now, he’s retiring and that part of his life is coming to a close. This final season of his has been like the credits at the end of a movie, one that you want to end, but that you wish would go on and on forever. If the last twenty years felt like blink of the eyes to me, what must it feel like to Jeter?

The new video captures some of that, and it comes across. When he nods to the camera at the end, just before he walks out onto the field, it is like an acknowledgement that all good things must come to an end. He’s cool with that, even though it makes us shed a reminiscent tear for halcyon days.

I’ve thought it a little strange that Jeter is getting the kind of send off that he’s been getting all season, but I no longer think so. Everyone, fans, players, owners, wants to say thank you to Jeter. They are thanking him for something that he probably had no idea he was doing when he made his first major league appearance in May 1995, when baseball was reeling from the strike, and was soon to be plagued by a decade of disappointing role models, thanks to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Through all of that, there was one player that fans, kids, old-timers, sports writers, managers, owners, and other players could count on not only for excellence on the field, but for excellence in character.  The send-off Jeter has gotten this season is a thank you from everyone.

They are thanking him for saving baseball.

Which is exactly what he has done for the last two decades.

 

Winston Churchill’s Bacon Number is… 3!

Yesterday on Twitter, I was ruminating about how many notable people are mentioned in Churchill’s biography. Churchill was born toward the end of the Victorian era, and lived 90 years. So Churchill had conversations with the likes of Mark Twain, as well as actors like Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, Churchill lived long enough that, despite being a Victorian, he lived into the Beatles era.

But for some reason, the notion that Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin struck me, and I decided to do a little Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Churchill. I bent the rules a little. Instead of acting with someone, I considered a significant interaction good enough for my purposes. Indeed, Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin on several occasions. Going from there, I checked to see what Charlie Chaplin’s Bacon number was.  I used the Oracle of Bacon website to find this out. Turns out, Chaplin’s Bacon number is 2:

Chaplin Bacon Number

So, by virtue of the fact that Churchill spent significant time with Chaplin (as oppose to acting in a movie with him–my own variation of the rules) his Bacon number would be 3. I find that fascinating for some reason.