Black Friday

When it comes to Black Friday, we tend to be rule-breakers. For one thing, we did our Black Friday shopping this morning, on Thanksgiving Thursday. For another , we did it from the comfort of our house. I woke up early and was browsing email, and noticed that the Amazon Echo Dot (2nd generation) was on sale. I thought it might be nice to have one of those sitting in the living room. But I didn’t buy it. I wasn’t sure it was something Kelly would be keen on, despite the Black Friday price of $39.99.

Kelly woke up, I played with the baby for a while, the kids came into our room, and eventually, Kelly started browsing her email. She said, “What exactly does an Amazon Echo do?” I explained. She thought it would be a good idea to try one out. So I ordered one. It arrives Saturday. As the cool kids say, “Achievement unlocked!” Our Black Friday shopping is done!

I have never understood the appeal of Black Friday. Why black Friday, for instance? According to Wikipedia, the “black” in Black Friday is an indication that it is the day that many retailers go from operating in the red to operating in the black. That makes sense, but it still makes me think of a stock market crash every time I hear the phrase.

While I don’t hate shopping, I’m not fond of the experience. Finding a parking spot, navigating through the complex maze that is the modern box store, waiting in long lines for checkout. Or waiting in seemingly short self-checkout lines that take just as long because no one can ever use them correctly. When the lines are long in store, the extra seconds it take for the chip card reader really begins to add up.

When I go to the store, I tend to go early. I try to do the Sunday grocery shopping before 7 am. I never have a problem finding a parking space. There is rarely a line. I get to chat with Paul, the fellow who checks out my groceries. About the only drawback is that the deli isn’t always ready for me at 7 am. The store is quiet, I have the wide aisles all to myself.

Our neighborhood is right next to a Target. We can walk there in five minutes. I walk more often than I drive because I don’t have to find parking. But the crowds still bug me. When I go to Target, I go in, get exactly what I came for, and head out. I try to see how quickly I can do it. Target opens later this afternoon for Black Friday (even though it will still be Thanksgiving Thursday). When I walked by yesterday, I noticed that they had the metal barricades all lined up against the outer wall in preparation for what I assume are the vast crowds of people they expect to shop on Black Friday.

Hey, if you enjoy it, if you get good deals, and don’t mind the crowds and the parking, and the race for the last deeply discounted Vizio television, then good on you!

We’ll be spending our Black Friday hiking around a local lake. But don’t think for an instant that I won’t pull out my phone and check three or four times during the course of the hike to see if our Amazon Echo Dot has shipped.

Flying vs. Driving

According to AAA, 1.3 million Virginians will travel 50 miles for more from home this Thanksgiving holiday. About 90 percent will travel by car, 7 percent by air, and the remainder by some other means. I am glad that I am not one of them. We are hosting Thanksgiving at home this year. But the article got me thinking about travel in general, and how my travel habits and preferences have evolved specifically.

Flying somewhere used to be fun. There was something exciting about going to the airport, and seeing how baggage was moved from here to there. I loved watching the planes move about the taxiways. I thrilled watching them jump off the runway, or glide to a smooth landing. Onboard the plane, I looked forward to a window seat, and watching the world roll by below me.

That is no longer the case. These days, I view flying with a special kind of dread that has nothing to do with a fear of heights or airplane crashes. The dread begins with the price of the airline tickets. It moves next to the cost of a parking space at the airport. It is rapidly followed by the jarring experience of navigating the airport itself; ticket counters with brusk ticket agents; baggage and its propensity to arrive somewhere I am not; security lines and their relative lengths; gate waits, and the potential for delays and cancellations; boarding and whether or not there will be room in the overhead by the time I get on the plane.

On the plane, things only get worse. I’m crowded into ever smaller seats; mediocre, over-priced food; being asked to close my window shade so that others might enjoy the movie. I can’t even enjoy the view out the window anymore!

It is no wonder, then, that I haven’t flown in more 16 months—the longest stretch I can recall as an adult. And you know what, I am better off for it. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and for me, it all boils down to giving up control completely, and being at the mercy of the airlines, which is something that I am unwilling to do right now.

Driving, on the other hand, is different.

When I lived in L.A., I grew to hate the 20 mile commute from Studio City to Santa Monica, and disliked the return commute (although not quite as much). I got turned off to driving for a long time. But since our kids have been born, driving has become my preferred method of getting from place A to place B, when walking is out of the question.

Each year, we embark on two long-distance trips: from Virginia to Maine and back in the summer; and from Virginia to Florida and back in the winter. The travel portion of each trip would be made substantially shorter by flying, but I won’t hear of it. I’ve learned to love the drive. The kids have gotten used to the driving, and we rarely do more than 6 hours of driving in a day. We typically take 2 days to get to Maine, and 3 to get to our destination in Florida (although last year, we did that in 2 days as well).

Driving isn’t nearly as expensive as 4 roundtrip airline tickets, even factoring in staying a few nights in hotels. Packing is easier when we drive. We don’t have to worry about cramming suitcases into overhead compartments, or whether we’ll be charged extra for heavy luggage. Our car can comfortably carry all five of us, and our luggage. There are no brusk ticket agents, no TSA inspectors, no x-ray machines. There is, occasionally, some traffic, but we can often divert around it, and see something new in the process. The seats are comfortable. The kids can watch movies, we can listen to audiobooks or music. And then, there’s the drive itself. The skyscapes from 35,000 feet are often stunning, but I’ve grown to prefer to see the country up close and personal.

Driving doesn’t dictate our schedule the way flying does. We’ll leave on particular day at a particular time, and we don’t rush. We don’t even plan the return trip until a few days before, deciding relatively late when we want to start he drive home and where we’re going to stop along the way.

Unlike flying, driving puts us in almost complete control of all aspects of our travel. If we lose our luggage, it’s our own fault; if we get lost, ditto. But we’re in control. That makes the experience much more relaxing and enjoyable. Even when my flight is on time, I can’t wait to be off the plane and at my destination. The same isn’t true when we drive. I like the journey, as much as the drive. Still, there are times when even driving can be stressful. Like major holiday weekends.

There are many things I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, but on the list somewhere just below family and friends, is the fact that I don’t have to travel anywhere this weekend.

The Twilight Zone Dream

I have been going through a spell of particularly vivid dreams, and last night, I had a truly terrifying dream. It was one of those dreams where something impossible happened, but it was so subtle, and believable that it made it all the more terrifying. (No, I am not talking about the election.)

When I woke from the dream, I lay in bed thinking about it for a long time. I realized that the dream, as “filmed” in my head, would make a perfect episode of The Twilight Zone. Then I realized, with sudden urgency, that it would also make a great short story. I was too tired to jot it down, but Kelly was awake, feeding the baby, and I told her about the dream, knowing that in doing so, I’d remember it in the morning. I thought about the story some more, trying to figure out how I’d handle one particularly tricky angle to the story. That was around 3:30 am. Eventually, I got back to sleep. And then an even stranger thing happened.

I had another dream. In this one, I was eager to write the story that derived from the first dream. I dreamt that I had gone out to the car to drive somewhere, and was thinking about the dream, and the story I’d write. So I’m driving along, and all at once, it hits me! I know exactly how to tell this story, from which character’s view point it should be told, and how, by telling it from that particular viewpoint, it will make the story that much stronger. I’d been looking down, and when I looked up, the car had drifted over to the opposite side of the road. I jerked the steering wheel and woke up.

Now, several hours after waking from the original dream, the story is still fresh in my mind. It even has a working title: “The Long Way Home.” (I was originally going to call it “The Mirror” because the story involves a mirror, but “The Long Way Home” is better.) I don’t know when I’ll actually end up writing it, given that I am working on the novel now, but I’ve jotted down some notes so that I don’t forget anything.

It is extremely rare for me to dream something that turns into a story. And this story is a rare diversion for me in that it is essentially a horror story, something I’ve never really tried to write before. It should be fun to give it a try.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

This has been an unusually busy work week, considering that it is a short work week and usually fairly slow. As a result, I haven’t been able to write as much here on the blog as I’d like to. So I thought I’d share a few things I’ve been working on, but haven’t yet completed, as a kind of coming attractions as to what you can expect here in the near future.

  • Going Paperless: 5 Years Later. I’ve been going paperless for about 5 years now, and have written up some thoughts on how the experience has been, and how things have changed nearly 5 years after I started.
  • Initial thoughts on Todoist as a task manager. I recently started using Todoist. I needed a little more oomph in my task management. I’ve been using it long enough to have some initial impressions to share.
  • Machine learning and where we go from here. I was talking with a coworker recently about machine learning, and the science fiction writer in me began thinking about where this is all leading.

There’s more, but three is about all I have the time for right now. Of course, if there’s some topic you’d like me to write about, or write more about, please let me know in the comments. I’m always open to suggestions, guidance, and advice.

I’ve Got Nothing

I am wiped out today. Busy day in the office. Spent the morning debugging some code, then meetings, then project planning. Then to the airport to pick up family coming into town for the holidays. By late afternoon I was feeling tired. After dinner, I was beat. Now, I’m just plain old worn out.

So I hope you’ll forgive the fact that I got nothing to post today. I’m just looking forward to crawling into bed and getting some sleep.

Errands, Todo Lists, and Pinecone Turkeys

Today was fairly productive. The Little Miss had swimming lessons this morning. The Little Man and I stayed home and did some errands. We raked leaves, which was an effort in futility given the strong winds we’ve got today. I changed some lightbulbs that needed changing. I cleaned out one of the cars.

I’ve been playing around with Todoist, and so far, I really like it. But in order for it to replace my to-do workflow in the day job, I need it to be able to do a few tricks on the command line–things that allows me to do some automation. So today, I installed the Python libraries for Todoist, and gave them a test run. They were easy to install, and I could access my data no problem.

The Little Man and I are just back from a scouting event. The Wolf Den made 60 pinecone turkeys last week. Today, we took them to a local retirement home, and the boys handed them out to the residents, wishing them all a happy Thanksgiving.

And now, I look forward to relaxing for the rest of the evening, and finishing up the last few chapters of Die Trying.

How was your Sunday?

Upcoming Reading Through 2016

It’s that time of year when I am figuring out what I will be reading through the end of the year. I recently finished reading John Le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. With that finished, I was looking for something escapist, so I started reading book 2 of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, Die Trying. I read the first book in the series last year, and decided it was time to give the second book a try. Much to my surprise, it is a page turning that I am having difficulty putting down. It’s just the thing I needed.

So, I imagine there will be a few more Jack Reacher books before the end of the year.

What else is on my list?

Next up is likely going to be Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. I heard Cathy on the most recent episode of Postlight’s Track Changes podcast. She was fascinating and they talked about the book in the episode and I felt I had to give it a try.

In early December, the audiobook version of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, comes out. The book has been out for a few weeks already, but I held out for the audiobook in the hope that Springsteen would narrate it. Turns out, he did, and so I look forward to reading that book when it comes out.

Kelly and I both like the HGTV show Fixer Upper, and it turns out that the hosts, Chip and Joanna Gaines, have written a book called The Magnolia Story about the show, and how they got started. The audiobook version is 5 hours long, which is the perfect length for the first leg of our drive down to Florida in mid-December.

So these books, coupled with a handful of Jack Reacher books, and perhaps one or two surprises, should get me through the end of the year. The current Jack Reacher book I’m reading is the 655th book I’ve read since January 1, 1996. If I had to guess, I’d say I’ll finish the year with 662 books since 1996. That would give me about 32 books read in 2016.

What will you be reading through the end of 2016? Let me know in the comments.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life by John Le Carré

There is something delightful about a well-spoken British accent, and even more delightful when the person with that accent narrates an audiobook. Neil Gaiman does an outstanding job at this. Simon Vance is another. And now, I have learned, so does David John Moore Cornwell, or as most readers know him, John Le Carré.

I just finished reading/listening to his newest book, a memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life, and I really enjoyed it. I knew Le Carré mainly from the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier,Spy, but his name was familiar to me even before that. I have a memory of seeing one of his books on a shelf in our house when I was growing up. I can’t recall what book it was, but I remember it, in hardback, sitting on the shelf with assorted other books like Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett.

The experience of listening to The Pigeon Tunnel was like sitting across a small table in same intimate restaurant in Europe, with Le Carré seated across from you, sipping at drinks, and listening to him tell you stories from his life. I knew Le Carré was a writer, of course, but I’d had no idea he’d actually been a spy for MI6. His stories were fascinating, often sprinkled with humor, and some of them had me laughing out loud. (One in which, while in Moscow, the KGB men assigned to follow Le Carré while he dined with his brother, got drunk on a bottle of Vodka and followed the wrong brother back to the hotel was hilarious.

I also found it interesting how the “stories from my life” morphed into the stories he wrote for publication. In many of the anecdotes Le Carré tells in the book, he often concludes with how a person, or event in that particular anecdote ultimately led to a novel, or a character in a novel in one of his book.

His meetings with world leaders, or celebrities, were equally fascinating. And, of course, his smooth, and natural narration of the tale gave the stories an additional dimension. This is not Ian Flemming’s MI6, packed with action, but it was at least as interesting.

The New Dining Room Table

Over the weekend, the family headed out to a furniture store to browse the dining room sets they had. Our existing dining room table was small, and well, we wanted a table that didn’t come from Ikea. We browsed tables, found one we liked, did some research, and then ordered the table. That table was delivered today, in plenty of time for Thanksgiving next week.

New Dining Room Table

I have this imaginary chart in my head. There are three columns in the chart. The first is an action or event, the second is “Childish” and the third is “Grownup.” Tick-marks in the “Childish” column tend to out-number the “Grownup” column by 10-to-1 or so, depending upon who you ask. But getting that dining room table, well, that felt very grownup of us, and I put a mental tick mark in the “Grownup” column as I drove into the office this morning.

Writing in Beautiful Places

A beautiful place to write
Castine, Maine: One of my favorite places to sit and write.

Isaac Asimov once described his home office. It was on the 33rd floor of an apartment building overlooking Central Park. But Asimov setup his typewriter (and later, his word processor) facing a blank wall. He would draw the curtains in the room, and that was how he preferred to write.

As much as I admire Asimov as a writer and scientist, as much as I’ve tried to learn from his well-documented example, his writing place is a bridge too far for me. In an ideal world, I’d want to write in a beautiful place.

My office is really my oldest daughter’s bedroom. She doesn’t sleep in it. Instead, she shares a bunk bed with her brother in his bedroom. But her clothes and book and some of her other belongings are in “my office.” The walls are a light pink. (The color they were when we bought the place.) There is a window overlooking the backyard, and the houses across the way. Not much of a view, but the window does face east, and the room is bright, and that is one thing that I like about it.

That said, it is also very ordinary. When I think of places in which I’d love to write, I have my sights set somewhat more majestically. For instance, I’m currently listening to John Le Carré’s memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. In one chapter, he describes a house he has somewhere in Cornwall. His office overlooks a hill that slopes down to the sea. He complains that it is often foggy and rainy, but occasionally, beautiful blue sky breaks through.

There is something so delightfully beautiful about a place like that.

Sometimes, I imagine a similar scene, except this one on a cold, gloomy New England coast, in a house overlooking the seas.

Sometimes, it’s a cabin in remote Montana, with a few of mountains in the distance.

Why do these places appeal to me as a writer? Why does the perfectly adequate (to say nothing of functional) office that I have seem to ordinary?

Perhaps part of the draw is more than just the setting. Perhaps it is the thought that if I had the means to write in such a setting, it implies that I could spend my days (or whatever part of the day I could manage) writing.

Then, too, part of the draw is the sense of isolation these places hold in my mind. I could get away from the distractions of the day. I could sit, and stare through the fog at the crashing waves and think. I could let my mind wander, and not feel rushed.

But, of course, I could do that in my perfectly adequate home office, too, if I put my mind to it.

No, more than likely it is simple day-dreaming on my part. I like to think about isolated places, perhaps as a result of the hyper-connectivity we experience these days. The fact that I imagine these beautiful places as places I can write merely reflect an activity that I happen to enjoy. After all, the places are beautiful whether or not I happen to be there to write.

Initial Thoughts on the FitBit Charge 2

I got my first FitBit device, a FitBit Ultra, I believe, way back on March 9, 2012. I had that device clipped to my belt for about year before it went missing. Shortly thereafter, in May 2013, I got a FitBit Flex, and I used that device for well over three years, until a few weeks ago, when I finally replaced it with a FitBit Charge 2. Over the course of 4-1/2 years, I’ve logged more than 16,600,000 steps on my FitBit devices, and have found the data that comes out of them to be very useful. Here are my initial thoughts on the FitBit Charge 2.

1. The wrist band is a big improvement.

If there was one thing that bugged me about the FitBit Flex, it was the flimsiness of the wristband. Over the course of 3-1/2 years, I think I had to replace that band four times because of cracks and wear. That was annoying, especially early on when bands were backordered.

The wristband to the FitBit Charge 2 is, compared to the Flex, a vast improvement. It is wider, more comfortable, and a buckle-band, much like a watch band.

FitBIt Charge 2 Buckle
The buckle band on my FitBit Charge 2

2. The heart rate data is fascinating and terrifying.

The FitBit Charge 2 constantly monitors your heart rate, which is a piece of data that I didn’t have with the FitBit Flex. For someone who is trying to get back into good shape, this is a valuable piece of information. It is also a little terrifying. When I get stressed I can see it reflected in an increased heart rate. I can see that my resting heart rate (currently 70 BPM) is somewhat higher than what I’d like it to be. Still, it provides me with a target to aim for, and a way of tracking changes to the measurement over time.

FitBit Heart Rate

3. The automatic exercise recognition works pretty well.

One of the features of the device is that it can automatically recognize when you are doing some form of exercise. If you are doing the activity for more than 15 minutes, by default, it attempts to figure out what you are doing, and adds it to your exercise log.

I take 30 minute walks a couple of times a day, and the Charge 2 never fails to recognize these as walks and records them in my exercise log. I have also started using the elliptical machine several times a week, and much to my delight, my Charge not only recorded these exercise sessions on my exercise log, but correctly identified them as “Elliptical.”

FitBit Exercise Log

It is not perfect, however. One way that I calm down our two-month old when she is upset it by sitting on an exercise ball and gently bouncing her in my lap. She loves this and calms down almost at once. Recently, however, I noticed that with each gentle bounce I take on the ball, a step is added to my step count. And if I happen to bounce on the ball for more than 15 minutes, it is added as a “Walk” to my exercise log. This isn’t terrible—after all, I certainly get a good abs workout—but it also isn’t accurate.

4. The automatic sleep logging isn’t quite as good as the Flex.

With my FitBit Flex, my sleep was automatically logged each night, and I can’t think of a time when I had reason to disagree with that the log said. With the Charge 2, there have been some minor problems. Generally speaking, the sleeping logging is good. But occasionally, I’ll find that the device failed to log my sleep for the night, or started or stopped logging at times that seem strange for me. For instance, I go to sleep at 9:30 pm, and fall right asleep, but according to the log, I didn’t go to sleep until 11:55 pm.

5. Battery life is good.

So far, the battery has lasted about 5 days per charge. It charges much more readily than my Flex ever did. I always had to fight with the Flex to get it to start charging. But the Charge 2 doesn’t have that problem. It goes from empty to a full charge in about 2 hours.

6. The alerts and alarms are helpful.

My FitBit Flex could use silent alarms to wake me up in the morning. My Charge 2 has the same capability. It adds, however, silent reminders to get up and move during the day. It also talks, via BlueTooth, to my iPhone. The caller names on incoming calls, and text messages will appear on the screen of my Charge. One nice feature is that the screen will turn on automatically when you turn your wrist to look at the screen. No pushing buttons or tapping of the screen necessary.

7. The device is water-resistant but not water proof.

One thing I really liked about the Flex is that it was waterproof1. You could take it into the shower, swim with it, etc. The Charge 2 is not waterproof, although it is water-resistant. Sweat doesn’t harm it, and getting it splashed apparently doesn’t harm it either, but showering and swimming with the device is not recommended.

8. Floor tracking!

When I went from the FitBit Ultra to the Flex I lost the ability of the device to count the number of floors I climbed each day. With the Charge 2, that ability was restored. It is not a huge deal, but it’s another nice data point to have.

9. I no longer need a watch.

Last Christmas, I got a simple watch because I felt like I was pulling out my phone to check the time, and then getting distracted by notifications. The default screen on the Charge 2 shows the time, date, and step count for the day, so I no longer really need the watch. I wore it with the Charge 2 for about the first week I had it, then gave it up.

FitBit Charge 2 Front

Overall, I am happy with my FitBit Charge 2 so far. I think it is an improvement over the Flex, especially the band, and some of the bells and whistles that have been added to it are nice to have as well. Some of those bells and whistles aren’t really necessary for someone who just cares about step counts. But it was a worthwhile upgrade for someone like me, who dives into the data, and has been using that data in various ways for the last 4-1/2 years.


 

  1. Scott Edelman points out that the device was not, in fact, waterproof, but water-resistant. I’d swear that when it first came out, it was listed as waterproof. I’ve swam with my Flex and never had problem. Apparently, the Flex 2 is the first officially waterproof device.

My Fragmented Days

All I wanted to do yesterday afternoon was sit down and watch a movie. I’d picked Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because I’d been listening to John Le Carré’s new memoir and thought it would make for an interesting pairing. The movie isn’t particularly long. But it took me something like five hours to get through it. Kelly had taken the two older kids to the movies, and I was home with the baby, and so of course there were interruptions. I’d pause the movie, and take care of the baby, then return to the movie.

All of this gave the film a disjointed feel that had nothing to do with the filmmaker’s intentions. Some of the pauses were brief—five minutes to change a diaper. Others were more extended—half an hour as I took the baby out for a walk so that they’d calm down a bit. Each time, I’d resume the film, with less and less attachment to it. Each time, I’d come back with less and less interest in what was happening.

It occurred to me at some point during this process that I cannot recall the last time I watched a movie straight through without interruption. If I had to guess, I’d says it’s been years. Even at the rare times I get to the movie theater, the kids are usually with us, and one or both will inevitably need to use the restroom just as things are getting exciting.

I was struck, at some point yesterday afternoon, with the sudden desire to see a movie straight through without interruption. And I felt a bit of momentary despair at the thought that it would not likely be possible for some years to come. In many respects, I’ve accepted this. In my writing, I’ve adapted to it. I’ve learned to be able to write surrounded by noise, and constant interruptions. But still, it would be nice to be able to put on a movie and watch the whole thing, end-to-end, in a single sitting.

This helps describe part of the reason I rarely watch shows on live television anymore. It’s not so much that commercials bother me—many of them are, in fact, very clever. But commercials are like the fragmentation grenades of story-telling. They make hash of the storylines. Their strategically placed interruptions in the story are thwarted by their increasing length. Sure, I want to know what happens next. But after four minutes of commercials, I really don’t care that much about that story.

Interestingly, this interrupt-driven annoyance seems to apply mainly to television and movies. Consider, for instance, reading a novel. That is almost equally interrupt-driven—at least for me, since rare is the time when I can read a novel cover-to-cover in a single sitting. But I do read them, sometimes just a few pages as a time, other times for hours. The kids will come by and ask for things. I’ll stop reading to take them to soccer games, or pick them up from school. Usually, I can pick up and resume where I left off without much fuss. Unlike with television or movies, I don’t lose interest in quite the same way.

But even with reading, I find the interruptions can spoil the enjoyment on occasion. And rarely can I find the tie to read for more than 30 minutes at a sitting without some sort of interruption taking place.

Often times the interruptions are delightful. My kids want to show me something, or the family is heading out for some activity. But these fragmented days do take their toll on my ability to draw enjoyment from something as simple as watching a movie.

Given the choice, I’d rather be out doing things with the family than sitting at home watching a movie. But every now and then, it sure would be nice to be able to sit down in front of the TV, and put on a movie, and watch the whole thing, end-to-end, without interruption.

I have a feeling those days are mostly behind me now.