My Feedly Collections Are Now Available to Anyone

This morning, I purged a ton of feeds from Feedly that I was no longer keeping up with. At the same time, I took advantage of the new Feedly Collections feature that allows one to share their various collections with anyone who is interested. So if you are interesting in seeing what blogs I read on a regular basis, check out my Feedly collections.

I am always on the lookout for good blogs. In particular, I enjoy reading blogs on technology, life-hacking, quantified self, and writing (especially by writers). I also enjoy more general blogs like John Scalzi’s Whatever, or Anil Dash’s blog. I am also particularly interested in blogs by coders which talk about process–like some of the stuff that occasionally appears on GitHub’s blog. If you have recommendations for good blogs in these categories, drop them in the comments.

Where You Can Find Me Online, September 2015 Edition

This blog hasn’t been quite as active as it once was, although I am doing my best to change that. But just because the blog has not been as active, that does not been I haven’t been active online. Let me take this opportunity to point out the various places you can find me online for those who might be interested.

And I really am working to return things to normal here in the meantime.

Awards Reflect the Society We Live In

One of my favorite classes in college was an elective class I took on History and Film taught by Carlos Cortés. The essence of the class was that films reflect the times in which they were made. As one example, we watched Henry V starring Lawrence Olivier, and followed that film with Henry V starring Kenneth Branagh. Olivier’s portrayal of Henry in the former film was strikingly different to Branagh’s “Harry the King” in the latter. Each film told the same story, using the same dialog, but the pictures we get of the two Henrys were very different. Those films tell us a lot about the times in which they were made.

When I read earlier today of a proposal for yet another genre award that, in part would allow judges to

Disqualify any work they find to have an emphasis on other than telling a good SF/F story.

I kind of rolled my eyes. Aside from the mechanics of ensuring that judges based their decision solely on an unmeasurable criterion (“The Judging Committee will use the quality of SF/F storytelling as their sole criterion.”) it ignores the fact that most awards reflect the society at the time the award is given.

Fiction, like film, reflects the society we live in

How many genre readers today bemoan the fact that Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s novel They’d Rather Be Right actually won a Hugo award (in 1955). It might not meet our standards for a Hugo today, but it reflects the standards for the award that was given in 1955.

Had the Hugo existed in the mid-to-late 1930s, I have no doubt that E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories would have one more of the awards to their name. We can discount the fact that “Galactic Patrol” lost the retro-Hugo for 1939 because it was a 2014 audience that voted.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels feel dated today because the Cold War is thing of the past. You can’t get away from the fact that an award reflects the society in which we live, because the definition of “good story telling” changes as society changes.

I have a feeling that most genre readers today would not consider Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series as the Best All-Time Series. But in 1966, Asimov was given a special Hugo for Best All-Time Series, beating out Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and J. R. R. Tolkien. In 1966 that was how fans felt. Today, feelings have evolved, and not just because there is a half-century more fiction to consider. Fiction reflects the society we live in.

Genre awards are not unique in this respect

Derek Jeter never won an MVP award, but he is considered to be one of the greats of the game of baseball. Put together the number Jeter put in his career, with the intangibles he brought to the game, and its hard to believe he never won an MVP. Compare him to past winners, and it is even more remarkable.

But awards reflect the society we live in. Maybe Jeter would have won an MVP if he’d played for the Yankees in the 1960s. The criteria for Most Valuable Player changes with time. The same is true for most awards. Science fiction and fantasy films have been among the most popular and successful films for decades, but it wasn’t until 2004 that a fantasy film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, took home an Oscar for Best Picture.

No award system is perfect. But one of the things I have always enjoyed about our genre awards is that they are a good reflection of the times at which the award was given. Look at the awards given in the late 1960 and compare them to the awards given in the late 1970s. They encapsulate a sea-change within the genre. It is good to see change. It means our genre is evolving along with the rest of society. As much as I enjoy Golden Age stories, I don’t want to see us mired in a nostalgia for the past. I want to see our genre moving forward toward bigger and better things.

What I have seen is that we are slowly, but steadily moving toward a place where our best stories reflect the diversity of the genre as it is made up today. We still have a lot of ground to cover. A new award that tries to filter out anything that isn’t good storytelling is a nonstarter. Such an award won’t give us better stories. It will simply provide another window into how our culture thinks about stories, how it classifies them, and ultimately, how part of that culture is desperate to cling to the past.

14 Years Later…

And I still can’t watch the news footage of the World Trade Center smoking, and eventually collapsing. It still seems profoundly surreal. A new building has risen from the ashes, but I still see the ghosts of the old twins when I catch a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. I think those ghosts live in my eyes, like floaters. And like floaters, they are here to stay.

The Difficult Art of Undistracted Reading

Over on Medium, Hugh McGuire has an interesting piece asking, “Why can’t we read anymore?” The first line of the piece immediately triggered my skepticism radar:

Last year I read four books.

Uh-oh, I thought, this is going to be one of those pieces bemoaning the fact that there just isn’t anything good to read out there anymore. But of course, that is not at all what the piece was about. In fact, I found McGuire’s article an interesting argument for what happens to us in an instant gratification, attention-grabbing culture. Reading is harder because there are more distractions. Reading is harder because we compare reading to other exercises that grab our attention and reward it quickly (but often trivially). I might not have believed this, if I hadn’t experienced it myself more and more frequently.

Last year, I read 37 books. This year, so far, I’ve read 21 books.

Sounds like a lot, but these days, the vast majority of my reading is done while doing other things. Of the 58 books I’ve read in the last 21 months 51 of them (88%) were audiobooks. Audiobooks allow me to read while I walk1. They allow me to read while I do my chores. Without this time, the vast majority of my reading simply would not get done.

But there is a plus and minus to listening to audiobooks. The plus is that it can be done while doing other things. The minus is that I have found myself more and more distracted when I am not doing other things. If I am just laying in bed listening to an audiobook, I find myself catching up on blogs or Twitter at the same time. The result, of course, is that I miss passages, I have to rewind, or I only pay half-attention to what I am listening to. Why this happens has a lot to do with what Hugh McGuire writes about in his article. I started listening to audiobooks as a way of finding more time in the day to read. But it has ended up being my primary method for devouring books, even when I am not doing other things.

Part of this is the lure of the narrator. A good narrator adds a dimension to an book that is lacking on the page itself. But the reason I started with audiobooks was to take advantage of the low-brain power time–like my daily walks, or on long drives. I should not be listening to audiobooks before bed because the other distractions become too tempting.

McGuire proposes five things he has started doing to change his behavior and get more out of his reading. I’ve tried a few of those things myself, but the one thing I haven’t tried is “No smartphones or computers in the bedroom.” Because I listen to audiobooks, I have my phone with me.

McGuire reads with an e-ink reader, however, and this was the key insight for me. I have a Kindle Paperwhite, and the big benefit of this device is that it is not connected to the Internet. I can read on the device without being tempted to look at Twitter or Facebook, or catch up on blogs. So I am going to try to read (as opposed to listen) more in the evenings using my Kindle Paperwhite in an effort to have more distraction-free reading time. We’ll see how it goes for a while, and I’ll report back in month or two.

  1. As I have said elsewhere, I use the term “read” for simplicity. I understand that there is a difference between reading off the page and listening to a narrator read off the page.

Two Days in West Virginia

We have been doing more short, mini-trips lately. Often, these are one day jaunts, like our recent trip to Monticello, or our trip into the mountains of Maryland last weekend. I like these mini-trips. A good experience on such a trip can be completely revitalizing.

For Labor Day weekend, we decided at the last minute to head out of town. We wanted to avoid crowds and traffic, so we settled on Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, which we have visited on several occasions in the past.

Driving there, we avoided the highways and took backroads, passing through some beautiful farm country. We did the same on the drive home this afternoon, making even drives pleasant (to say nothing of traffic-free).

On Saturday, we arrived in Berkeley Springs, and headed over to Tari’s for lunch. We’d eaten there a couple of times before, but what stuck out most in my mind was their French Dip sandwich. I ordered it again this time, not having had it in years, and nervously wondering if it would live up to my memory of it.

It did.

French Dip at Tari's

We wandered around the springs with the kids, pointing out the George Washington’s bathtub (much to their disbelief).

George Washington's Bathtub

Back at the hotel, the kids had a chance to spend an hour in the pool, cooling off, as well as burning off excess energy accumulated by sitting in the car for a few hours earlier in the day. For dinner, we made our way up to Panorama at the Peak, where we had eaten with friends exactly six years earlier. It was a little overcast when we arrived, but we still had a rather striking view of the confluence of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania below us.

Panorama at the Peak

This morning, after an early breakfast, we set off for Cacapon State Park. We took the kids on an early hike on the Piney Ridge Trail. We nearly walked into a deer on that trail. Both kids were pretty excited about that.

We arrived at the lake at about 10:30 am, right when it was opening. We found a shady spot on the beach, and for the next three hours, the kids played in the sand and water, while Kelly and I relaxed. The shade and breeze kept us cool. It was, for me, the most relaxing part of the trip.

Lakeside Beach

We were back home around 4 o’clock this afternoon, and I think we all considered the trip a success. We liked the beach so much that we are considering going back next season and staying at the lodge for a few days, or perhaps getting a cabin. The trip took my mind off work, and allowed us all to spend quality time together. The fact that it is a long weekend helps. We got back this afternoon knowing that there is no school tomorrow, nor is there work for Kelly and I. Instead, we’ll be doing more relaxing, and visiting friends.

August Was a Busy Month – Just Look at the Numbers

It certainly felt busy, what with the projects I am juggling at the day job taking up so much of my time. But I didn’t realize just how busy August was until I looked at the numbers.

RescueTime tells me that I spent nearly 300 hours in August on the computer:

RescueTime - August 2015

More than a third of that time was spent on various software development projects. A mere 7% was spent on social networking, which is low for me overall, and which probably helps explain how quite I’ve been online recently. Oh, and that spike you see on August 14? That was an 18 hour and 40 minute day. Put another way: there were 744 hours in the month of August. Nearly half of them, I was working on the computer.

That much work has its affect on other parts of my life. I wrote a total of about 13,000 words in the month of August, and so far as I can tell, for the first time since February 2013, I did not crack more than 1,000 words in a day for the entire month1.

Writing in August 2015

I spent a total of 9.5 hours writing in August. Meaning that of those 300 hours I spent on the computer, only about 3% of the time was spent writing. Still my writing streak remains intact, and with my writing finished for today, I have 772 consecutive days of writing under my belt.

My stress level increased tremendously in the month of August. I can tell this because my shoulders and neck are tight to the point that they are painful when I wake up in the morning. Part of my stress relief used to be getting out for a walk a few times a day to clear my head. But I’ve been so busy that I’ve neglected those walks. Last August, I managed to walk nearly 300,000 steps (135 miles). This August–wait for it–191,000 steps (87 miles).

I also managed to read only 2 books in August. Again, my time was taken up by work.

I find myself in a crunch that I’ve never experienced before, with three major projects converging at the same time. Hopefully, things will lighten up a bit at the end of this month, as two of the three projects wrap up. In the meantime, I am looking to get back into my regular walking routine. That walking was a great way to relieve tension and stress throughout the day, and the way I’ve been feeling lately, I could use that kind of relief.

  1. Compare this to June, when I wrote nearly 30,000 words in the month.

A Heatmap of Over 900 Days of Writing Data from My Google Docs Writing Tracker

A few days ago, I mentioned that I was looking to add a Github-style heatmap feature to the Google Docs Writing Tracker code. Well, I’ve got something to show for it. Keep in mind that I am still experimenting, and none of this code has been checked into the Google Docs Writing Tracker repo as of yet. But, here is what all of my writing data looks like going back over 900 days:

900+ Days of Writing Data

For each year represented above, the rows are days of the week (top row is Sundays, bottom row is Saturdays), and the columns are weeks of the years.

The scale goes from 0-250 words (the lightest green) to 1,500+ words (the darkest green). You’ll also note that in July 2013, there are two white cells. Those are the only days that I had no writing. The last day, July 21, 2013, was 770 days ago. I have not missed a day since then.

This was relatively easy to do thanks to the Cal-heatmap JavaScript library. After installing the library files, I exported my writing data (dates and words counts) to a JSON file. Once the JSON file was created, the rest was easy. The entire rendering of the heat maps looks like this:

Heatmap Code

The bulk of the code is customizing how I want the heatmaps to look. Now that I have the look I want there is only one more thing to do, and that is to automate the process of generating the JSON file from the Google Docs Writing Tracker spreadsheet. With that done, anyone who uses the Google Docs Writing Tracker will be able to render a heatmap like the one above.

You can see my writing heatmap in action. If you hover over the cells, you’ll get the word count for that day. Check it out, play around with it. Let me know what you think.

ETA (8/31 @ 1:30 pm): I managed to automate the process of generating the JSON file from the Google Docs Writing Tracker spreadsheet. In the near future, I’ll post the code to a new repo on Github since it isn’t directly related to the code for the Google Docs Writing Tracker itself.

First Days of School, Last Days of School

Remember when the Little Man was born? It seems like it  was yesterday. Turns out it happened over 6 years ago. This morning, the increasingly Not-So-Little Man set off for 1st grade.

First day of 1st grade
First day of 1st grade

First grade is a special milestone, because it is the earliest grade for which I have a pretty clear memory of things. I remember snippets of preschool, and bits and pieces of Kindergarten. But I still remember the songs we sang in first grade. I remember my first grade teacher’s name (Mrs. Sapala) at MacAfee Road School in Somerset, NJ. I remember playing (and intensely disliking) soccer1. I remember walking to school with my best friend. I remember going to the school library, and discovering a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley–a book which set me on the course of becoming a science fiction writer, although I didn’t know that at the time.

Naturally, I wonder what kind of things the Little Man will discover in first grade that will set him on his own course. I don’t remember being particularly frightened in first grade2, and I suspect the Little Man won’t find anything to be frightened of either. He goes to a small school, Pre-K through 8th grade, but only one class per grade. That means that most of his friends from Kindergarten will be back in his 1st grade class. He’ll have a new teachers, but the teaching assistant from Kindergarten will be in the 1st grade class. I’m already excited to hear how his day went.

Today also happens to be the Little Miss’s last day at the Montessori school. Next week, she’ll start attending St. Ann, just like her brother. The Little Man started at St. Ann in Kindergarten. The Little Miss will start in pre-K4. Our kids have attended the Montessori school across the street from our house since the fall of 2010. So today concludes a 5-year period during which we had one or both of our kids in the school. This weekend, we met the Little Miss’s Montessori school teacher for ice cream, to say goodbye. It is the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

  1. Sorry, the baseball gene formed early in me, and baseball snob that I am, I do find other sports lacking.
  2. With the exception of a short period during which I had a to-do with some humongous third graders.

What I Have Been Reading, End of Summer 2015 Edition

I have not written much about my reading lately, so I figured I should say something about it, now that the summer is rapidly coming to an end (the Little Man starts 1st grade on Monday!). The list of books I have read since 1996 has grown by about 7 books over the summer. 4 of the 7 books have centered around Theodore Roosevelt. One of the books was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which I can’t recall haven’t read prior this reading. One of the books was Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which I read to the Little Man, and which I hadn’t read since I first encountered it in 3rd grade. Last, but not least, was Dreaming In Code by Scott Rosenberg.

You’ll see that I have not read any science fiction. The last original science fiction book I read was Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home back in April. While I won’t say the science fiction gene has withered within me, I will say that my interests have been moving in other directions. Nonfiction, and particularly good biographies (like Edmund Morris’s bio of Theodore Roosevelt) or journalistic books like Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code star has risen in my view. That said, the science fiction/fantasy world is by no means off limits to me.

At present, I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind1. I started this book once before and got sidetracked with other things, but I have made it far enough this time around to where I think I am hooked. This is fantasy, and it wasn’t until I read George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones a few years back that I really enjoyed fantasy novels. But I’m enjoying this one, so far.

In another branching out of sorts, I am going to try Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath, when it comes out. I think it will be the first time that I have ever read a tie-in novel to some movie universe2. If I enjoy Wendig’s book, I may end up reading it to the Little Man, who has grown fonder of Star Wars than I am.

Otherwise, I don’t expect these trends to change much in the near future. The bulk of my to-be-read list consists of nonfiction books: biographies, histories, more journalist takes on various subjects.

What have you been reading? Anything to recommend? Drop your lists and suggestions in the comments.

  1. Which was published on my birthday back in 2007.
  2. I read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and Jumper by Steven Gould, but I read both of those novels before the movies came out. And besides, they are not really tie-ins.

A Dashboard for the Google Docs Writing Tracker

A while back, I created a kind of dashboard into my writing statistics, courtesy of my Google Docs Writing Tracker tool. I never made the code for the dashboard available on Github mainly because it was highly tailored to me. Recently, I have been thinking about better ways of dashboarding my writing data, and it was my use of Github itself that provided a useful insight. I’ve created a heatmap of my writing in the past, and I liked the concept of it. So began wondering how I might produce a heatmap that would be a good representative of my writing. Then I remembered that just such a heatmap exists on Github to show my contributions:

Github contributions

What if I could produce a similar heatmap for writing, using data from my Google Docs Writing Tracker? So I have started to experiment with this. Turns out, it is probably relatively easy. Github uses the D3.js object model for producing the year-long calendar interface for the contribution chart, and that library looks fairly easy to use. I’ve started to experiment with some sample code. Once I have something that works, I’ll post the code to the Google Docs Writing Tracker repo under a new branch and other people who use the tool can mess around with it and see if it works for them.

And as a reminder: my Google Docs Writing Tracker is freely available on Github to anyone who wants to use it, or improve upon it.

The Perfect Project Storm

If you are wondering why it has been so quiet here, the reason is pretty simple: I am inundated with day job work. This has been building over the last few months for a variety of reasons, but the main crux is that I am project manager and technical lead on 3 projects, all of which appear to be converging for a simultaneous rollout. How I will manage this is still a question. Mostly, I have been focusing on one task at a time whenever possible just to get through the day.

It has, obviously, affected my blogging. It has also affected my writing. A glimpse at the last 3 months of writing data paints a pretty clear picture, and brings to very real life the bare fact that there are only so many hours in the day.

Last 3 months of writing

Where as I was coasting along pretty smoothly at 800 to 1,000 words a day, these days, I’m lucky to hit 500 words. My consecutive day streak is still unbroken (767 days as of this writing) but the pace has slowed dramatically.

So what is this perfect story of projects that is keeping me working through the day, and often well into the night?

One of the projects is an implementation of a conference room reservation system. This project was supposed to rollout back in February, but enough critical bugs were uncovered that we went back to the software manufacturer to get fixes before we could release it. We got some (but not all) the requested fixes, and are now doing our own internal regression testing in preparation for rolling that software out by the end of our fiscal years, which happens to be the end of September.

One of the projects is outsourcing our building information software to a cloud-based system. This requires ensuring that we can generate the same types of reports we get today, but also requires us to build integrations with internal systems, which complicates things somewhat.

And one of the projects is a data warehouse project, in which I am acting as project manager, technical lead, and sole developer. It’s a great project, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. Unfortunately, this is one of those great ideas that keeps getting pushed off for more urgent things, and this is one of those now-or-never situations.

That’s not all I am working on, but that is what is keeping me most busy in the day job. This is leaving me very little time for writing, and no time for blogging. But I do want to change that. I miss posting here, and I want to get back into the habit of it. This November marks 10 years that I’ve had this blog, a pretty significant milestone. I’d love for that milestone to be a jumping off point for new and exciting things here. But first I need to get through this storm.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the worst of the storm is yet to come, and so, while I will do my best to drop in here more frequently, if you don’t see me, you can safely assume it is because I’ve been sucked into a project tornado, and whisked away to some kind of Oz of Project Land. Hopefully, by October or early November, all of this will be behind me.