All posts by Jamie Todd Rubin

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

Initial Thoughts on the Mac Mini

The new Mac Mini has been up and running for 10 days now and I have some initial thoughts. For context and clarity, I bought the newest Mac Mini (M1 2020), which is running the Apple M1 chip. I bought it with 16 GB of memory (way up from the 4 GB I have on my MacBook Air). The internal disk has 250 GB, but I’ve got two external disks connected to the machine, each of which is 3 TB giving me a total of 6.25 TB of disk space. One of the external disks is for media files and archived data; the other is a local Time Machine backup disk.

As far as performance goes, this machine flies. Applications open so much faster than on my MacBook Air. There doesn’t seem to be any performance hit with backups running and with the various services I have in the background. I really like how fast the machine is.

There are a few downsides I’ve discovered, however.

The M1 chip is the biggest blocker so far. While it is super-fast, not every app has caught up yet, and several still expect an Intel processor. For instance, I use Docker for development work, and I have to run a preview version of Docker Desktop because there is not yet a production version compatible with the M1 chip.

There are some quirks with homebrew as well. Homebrew can be run natively or using Rosetta2 which makes apps compatible, but at a performance cost. Running homebrew natively takes a couple of extra steps to setup, and some bottles have to be built locally to allow them to run natively.

MySQL runs fine on the Mac Mini, but there is not yet a compatible Docker image for MySQL for the M1 chip.

These are relatively minor issues, which only apply to someone doing development work. It appears that most places are working toward making their apps natively compatible with the M1 so I suspect most of these issues will go away with time.

For other tasks: writing, photos, general productivity, I am very pleased with the Mac Mini thus far. Given that it cost significantly less than the newest MacBook Air, it is well worth the cost so far.

I have set up the machine as a home server. I’ve got an internal web server that I am using to build a custom reading list app (that I plan on moving to my domain eventually). I am also using it to host an app for home document archive. Screen-sharing works well with it (I can use screen sharing from my MacBook Air to do development work on the Mac Mini when I am not in my office). I’ll have more to say on these things in a future post.

You can see the new computer in the photo above, peeking between the monitor and the external disks. At some point, I need to clean up all of the cables.

At this point, with the exception of a few development quirks related to the M1 chip, I am very pleased with the new Mac Mini.

Upcoming Reading: January 2021

I spent much of December reading the first 3 books of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series. Early this month, I started on the 4th book, but gave up mainly because I needed a break. For those not aware of the series, it is a fantasy series, and each book is over 1,000 pages long. That’s about 3 times the length of your average book. I wanted a break from fantasy anyway, and to get back to nonfiction, so I started reading Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. So far, I’m enjoying it.

Earlier today I was thinking about what I want to read next. This is often an effort in futility for me because of the Butterfly Effect of Reading, but I went through various lists that I keep. Here, for your amusing, is the list that I came up with. These, book, in no particular order, are the books that I want to read now. We’ll see how many I get through before the butterfly flaps its wings.

  • Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. Attracted by “Field Notes.” I’m not a birder, but I have been fascinated by birders ever since reading “Mr. Forbush’s Friends” by E. B. White in The New Yorker.
  • Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. This book came up in several books I read late last spring.
  • An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H. Paul Jerffers. I went to Cleveland High School in Reseda, California, and it would be nice to know a little more about the person for whom the school is named.
  • Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant (with Mark Twain in the cheering section). This book has been on my list for a while.
  • Rogue Heroes: The History of the S.A.S. by Ben Macintyre. I thought Macinytre’s book The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War was outstanding, so I figured I’d try something else he’s written.
  • My World — and Welcome to It by James Thurber. Thurber was contemporary and friend of E. B. White. I feel like I should read some of his writing.
  • Vactionland by John Hodgeman. It’s about Maine.
  • If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien. I read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried back in 2014 and it was outstanding.
  • Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder. I love Steinbeck’s writing. Looking forward to learning more about the writer.
  • The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. This has been sitting in my ready to read list for a while, and I just haven’t gotten around to it.
  • The Presidents vs. the Press by Harold Holzer. Every president, with the possible exception of George Washington, complained about the press.
  • Land by Simon Winchester. I’m a big Winchester fan, and this new book of his comes out on Tuesday.

Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments.

BREAKING NEWS: Disturbance in Christmas Village

I’ve got a busy day today, but I didn’t want to break my streak of posting every day. So here’s some breaking news. There has been a disturbance in our Christmas Village that I noted when I woke up this morning. Fortunately, there were no casualties. The NTSB is on-scene investigating. This story is evolving.

Footage of the disturbance in Christmas Village

For the record, I suspect the Little Man, who was last seen attempting to fly this plane after dinner last night. The Dairy Queen escaped unscathed.

CrashPlan to the Rescue

We have been using CrashPlan for our home computer backups for nearly 8 years. During that time, it has come in handy on a couple of occasions when I needed to restore a file, or was transferring data to a new computer. Mostly, it sits in the background unnoticed. Backup software is like that. It’s like homeowners insurance for data. You have it and you hope that you don’t have to use it.

This weekend, I was making my way through a bunch of tasks that I’d been meaning to take care of for a while. I was getting my new Mac Mini setup the way I wanted it. I also knew that Kelly’s MacBook Air was behind on its system updates. So on Saturday evening, I set about running an update on her laptop.

By Sunday morning, I knew something had gone wrong. The OS upgrade to BigSur kept getting stuck at the “Less than a minute remaining” mark, and would sit there for hours. Everything I found online said this had happened to many people. Of course it would happen when I was upgrading Kelly’s laptop instead of my own. The only solution was a clean install.

I already had a bootable thumb drive with Big Sur, so I booted from the thumb drive and did the clean installation. It finished smoothly. I keep a set of “bootstrapping” notes in Apple’s Notes1 app and the first thing I did after the installation completed was go to my bootstrapping checklist. The first thing on my list after completing a clean install is to install CrashPlan and restore data, if necessary. I got CrashPlan installed, and started a restore of data, and a couple of hours later, all Kelly’s data was back, she had Big Sur running on her laptop and was ready to go.

And I breathed a sigh of relief.

Back in 2017, CrashPlan did away with their individual plans. If you stuck with them, you moved to CrashPlan Pro. At the time, I decided to stick with CrashPlan for a several reasons, and this weekend proved out the value of that decision. We currently have 3 computers that are backing up to CrashPlan2 and I feel good that the data is there if I need it, or if something goes wrong. CrashPlan has always been easy to use, easy to restore data when I need it, and once again, it came to the rescue for me this weekend when I needed to do a clean install and full data-recovery. It also helps to have a fast fiber optics Internet connection so that it doesn’t take long to restore all that data.

So, nearly 8 years after first starting with CrashPlan, it is still proving its value. I’m glad I stuck with it, and I still recommend it to others looking for cloud backup solutions.

  1. Why Apple Notes and not Evernote? Apple Notes is part of a clean system install, and once my iCloud account is connected, the notes are there. I don’t need to install any other software at this point, so I have access to what I need to finish bootstrapping the rest of the installation.
  2. As my new Mac Mini acts as a kind of home server, in addition to backing up to CrashPlan, I have an external drive on the machine that is setup with Time Machine backups so that I can restore locally, if needed. That external drive is not backed up to CrashPlan, but the rest of the system is, so is provides a level of redundancy in data protection.

Cobra Kai and 80s Nostalgia

A few years back I’d heard vaguely about a new show called Cobra Kai that was a kind of update of the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Specifically, the show starred Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the two rivals from the original film. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I’m not, as readers know, a big TV person.

Recently, however, I’d heard a lot of buzz about season 3 of the series dropping on Netflix, and the buzz was generally positive. I asked around, and the people I talked to liked it. I needed a bit of a break from the reading I was doing, so yesterday evening, I settled down to watch the first episode.

I can’t think of another television show that has surprised me so much by exceeding my expectations as much as Cobra Kai did. I realize that much of it is an exercise in 80s nostalgia, but for me, it hit all of the right buttons. Consider:

In the original film, Daniel LaRusso had just moved to Reseda, California from the east coast (specifically, Newark, NJ). When the movie came out in June 1984, I had been living in Granada Hills, California, not far from Reseda, having moved less than a year earlier from the east coast. So his character, not much older than me at the time, resonated with me, the outsider in a new place.

I went to high school in Reseda, California. My single favorite line from a Tom Petty song is from “Free Fallin'”, when Petty sings, “And it’s a long day, living in Reseda / There’s a freeway running through the yard.” All those places that showed up in the film were familiar to me, as they would be to any kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1980s.

Watching the Cobra Kai episodes brought all of that back in unexpected ways. Ralph Macchio and William Zabka are now in their 50s with kids of their own. (I’m not quite in my 50s but I’m getting very close.) But they are still there in the Valley, and still tied to the people and places they knew growing up. There were clever parallels and reversals that made the show that much more enjoyable. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

The music in the series is perfect, with touchstones to the past. I some ways, I think of the 80s nostalgia in Cobra Kai the way the previous generation likely thought of the 50s nostalgia in Back to the Future. The show is dotted with clever humor. It is, for me at least, a complete delight, a surprise, and I can’t wait to watch more of it. (For those wondering, I’ve made it through the first season, so no spoilers, please).

I’ve been wanting my kids to see the original Karate Kid films for a some time now. They’ve enjoyed other movies from that era–The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Ferris Buller’s Day Off to name a few–and I thought they’d like The Karate Kid and that afterward, the might like Cobra Kai. Having watching it, however, I realize that they’ll lack the sense of nostalgia for the time and place. I think there is something special about The Karate Kid for kids who were around my age and living in the San Fernando Valley in 1984. Everyone else might enjoy the film and the show, but they lack a certain visceral context.

I’m not particularly fond of the trend in movies and television of rehashing what has worked int the past. It shows a decided lack of originality and creativity. But when it is done as well as it has been done in Cobra Kai, it can really be something enjoyable and special.

Tim Conway’s Elephant Story

I know that this is a classic episode of The Carol Burnett Show, and it has floated around the Internet for some time now. But every now and then, when I feel the need for a laugh, something to really revitalize my mood, I’ll turn to a video like this, and it is incredible how well it works for me. They say laughter is the best medicine, and in my book, this video and Tim Conway’s genius (and Vicky Lawrence’s one-liner at the end) prove this adage true. If you are in need of a laugh, well, you’re welcome.

25 Years of Reading

This almost passed unnoticed, but when I was updating my master list of books I’ve read the other day, filling in the counts for December 2020, I realized that I have been keeping my list now for a full 25 years.

I took this data and put some totals together to look through:

A few observations:

  • Wow, I’ve read 1,049 books over the last quarter century. That’s not too far shy of the goal that I originally set for myself back in 1996 of one book per week. (1,300 books over 25 years, so I got 80% of the way there.)
  • I started using audiobooks in February 2013, and it is clear that from that point on, my reading picked up. I broke the 25 years down into 5-year segments and the two largest segments make up the most recent decade: 193 books between 2011-2015; 419 books between 2016-2020.
  • The longest I’ve gone without finishing a book appears to be the last 4 months of 2007, when I apparently finished nothing.
  • The last time I failed to finish at least one book in a month was way back in January 2015. (Although, I came close in December 2020 because I spent most of that month reading Brandon Sanderson’s massive Words of Radiance.)
  • When I started keeping my list, it was to track my goal of reading 1 book per week–something that I failed to achieve for the first 17 years of my list. I finally hit (and exceeded) that mark for the first time in 2013.
  • The most books I’ve read in one year is 130, back in 2018.
  • The most books I’ve read in one month was 19 books back in May 2020.
  • July appears to be the month I do the least amount of reading–or finish the fewest number of books. (I’ve read 72 books over the last 25 Julys).
  • November appears to be the month when I manage to finish the most books (I’ve read 107 books over the last 25 Novembers)
  • Seasonally, I read more in the colder months, less in the warmer months.

As you can see from the first image above, my notebook is already setup to track the numbers for the next 25 years.

One thing I plan to do this year is put together a new site for my reading list. I’ve been hosting it on Github for several years now, but I want something a little flashier, searchable, and easier to navigate. I’ll let you know when (and if) I get that completed.

(P.S.: This post is the first written on my new Mac mini.)

Democracy in America

Yesterday was a remarkable day. It was terrible to see rioters storming the Capitol, interrupting democratic processes. It was horrifying to hear there was loss of life, and injuries. It was eerie when a curfew was put in place in our town, a few miles across the river from the District. But it was also heartening to see Congress come back together hours after to complete the job they started. It was heartening to hear talk of unity, even if it was just for the cameras. Listening to the quavering voices, and seeing the shaken faces, I don’t think it was all just for the cameras.

A lot of thoughts ran through my head as these events unfolded. I thought a lot about John Adams and other founders of the country. I thought of their strong beliefs in a free and open society. John Adams (not the best president we’ve ever had, but my favorite) defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre when no one else would. He did so because he believed strongly in the right to a vigorous defense, even for those he might disagree with. As I watched the rioters try to shout down the news reporter with calls of “fake news!” I thought of how much education and learning meant to the founding of the country. The founders saw education as a fundamental part of democracy. It reminded me of something else Adams famously said:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

I couldn’t help but think of the last time the Capitol building was breached during the War of 1812. I thought of the soldiers who fought defending our freedoms from the Revolution right down to the present moment.

I felt ashamed.

I viscerally felt the judgment of all those who came before us who managed peaceful transitions of power, in times of war and in times of peace in an unbroken chain from Washington’s retirement after 2 terms as President, through Obama’s last day in office.

Our kids watched these events unfold on the TV. They experienced the curfew that resulted. This morning, I can hear my son’s virtual class discussing those events, the teachers helping the students try to understand what happened.

I woke up this morning to see that Congress confirmed the electoral votes, and confirmed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next President and Vice President of the United States. Democracy in America won the day, despite those who tried to see it fail. But I can’t escape that feeling of shame. I feel the eyes of history, the eyes of past Presidents and of future generations looks at us, taking us by the collective collars, and saying, “How could you let this happen? How could you let it get this far?”

Years ago, I used to go for walks along the National Mall, stopping at the various monuments. I especially liked walking through the Jefferson Memorial, and standing in front of the statue of Lincoln at his Memorial. I had an urge to do that today. I feel our entire history when I stand in front of Lincoln and it is a powerful feeling. But I can’t do it now, not because of curfews or rioters downtown.

Right now, I couldn’t bear to stand under Lincoln’s solemn gaze. The shame I feel wouldn’t allow it.

Arriving Today: A New Mac Mini

I am writing this post on the same MacBook Air that I’ve used for my writing since I first got it in August 2014. It is still serviceable, and I am not one to jump to the latest and greatest, just because it is the latest and greatest. Indeed, in someways, I am technologically stubborn. If Word 5.5. for DOS was a still available in a reasonable form that I could use on the Mac (not in DOSBox) I’d still be using it.

But things break down over time. For instance, the down arrow on the laptop keyboard fell outs and I had to awkwardly superglue it back in. Also, the laptop has 4 GB of RAM and Big Sur runs notably slower on it than on my work MacBook Pro. So, in December, I ordered myself a Mac Mini and I was notified today that the Mac Mini will arrive before the day is done.

Why a Mac mini?

Well, for one thing, the price was pretty good. It is the newer Mac Mini with the M1 processor. I opted to bump up the RAM to 16 GB on it, which is why it took longer to ship and deliver. Currently, my MacBook Air doesn’t go anywhere. It serves as the home server in addition to the computer that I write on. I’ve got an external mechanical keyboard attached to it, as well as 2 external hard disks with the archive of documents, photos, etc.

I already have an external monitor, so I figured I’d get the Mac Mini with lots of RAM and let it replace my MacBook Air as the home server. That frees up the MacBook Air to be mobile for as long as it continues to function. My plan is:

  • Use the Mac Mini for all of the writing I do sitting here at my desk.
  • Use the MacBook Air for all of the writing I do away from my desk.

In all honesty, outside of this blog, I haven’t been doing that much writing–something I will be discussing in an upcoming post–but I am hoping to change that.

I am using this opportunity to set up a home archive that I have slowly been cobbling together. Initially, this will be an archive of all of my writing, back to the very beginning. I plan on sticking some kind of UI on it so that it is readily searchable. I considered doing this in Evernote, but it doesn’t have the look and feel that I want for this archive.

I am also using this opportunity to automate all the administrative tasks surrounding writing so that I can focus on just the writing itself. More on that in a future post, as well.

It turns out that delivery today has a silver lining: instead of refreshing the New York Times to see the most current results of the Ossoff / Perdue runoff election, I am refreshing the UPS tracking site for my new computer.

Once the system has been set up and I’ve been using it for a little while, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an ear worm: for some reason, I’ve been humming”Georgia On My Mind” under my breath all morning.

Game Show Trivia 101

We were watching Jeopardy last night, and as is my won’t, I was answering the questions aloud, and more often than not, getting them right. My kids asked me how I knew the answers to all those questions. I paused before answering, flashing back to myself as a youngster in a similar situation.

I was pretty young, probably 7 or so. I remember that my mom would always seem to have the right answers to the trivia questions that they asked on game shows. After a suitable period of being really impressed, I finally asked her, “How do you know all of the answers to these questions?” Even then, I wanted to know things, and I figured she would tell me the secret. She did.

“I took class in college on game show trivia,” she said. Those might not have been her exact words, but her response was in that spirit. I had an ah-ha moment. It all made sense now. This was one of the things you learned in college.

Now, I may know a few things, but when I was younger, I took what people said at face-value. My mom was joking, of course, but I didn’t know that. Indeed, her response seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I remember trying to imagine what that class must be like. I decided that it was probably like spelling: each week, you’d get a list of questions and answers that you’d have to memorize, and at the end of the week, there’d be a test. Maybe there would be a buzzer involved.

I am ashamed to admit that I believed this story for far longer than I should have.

The Final Jeopardy question came and it was a surprisingly easy one that I answered for my kids before (the now late) Alex Trebek read it for the contestants. The category was something like, “Literary characters of the 1600s.” I was sort of appalled by the answers the contestants gave, as none of them were from the 1600s. Anyway, my kids were impressed that I got the answer right and asked how I knew all those answers.

After pausing to consider my mom’s answer to that question when I was younger, I was tempted to provide the same answer as a joke. But a better, more truthful answer presented itself to me. In a coincidence, my brother and his family had gotten me a t-shirt for the holidays, and I happened to be wearing that t-shirt as we watched Jeopardy. You can see a picture of me in the t-shirt above, but in case you can’t make out the legend, it says, “I read and I know things. That’s what I do.”

I pointed to my new t-shirt and said, “Well, I read a lot and I know things. That’s what I do.”

Annual Reminder on Guest Post Policy

Because the requests keep coming here is my annual reminder on my guest post policy. I’ll keep it simple and make it red just to call it out:

If I didn’t ask you specifically for a guest post, you can safely assume that I don’t want one from you. Put another way: If you have to ask, the answer is no.

Why not?

  • Because this blog is my hobby and I enjoy writing for it. I don’t “provide content”, whatever that means. I sit down, and I write. I’m perfectly capable of doing it without unsolicited guest posts.
  • Because I think I know my audience better than you, and I’m 99.9% certain that your “content” will not be something my audience is interested in. Just because I wrote a post on toilets a year or so ago does not mean this is something I write about regularly, or that my readers want to read about regularly.

But other people have written guest posts on this blog!

  • Yes, this is true. But keep in mind the following:
  • Out of 6,538 posts published here over the last 16 years, 4 have been guest posts.
  • I personally requested each of those 4 guest posts. Not one of those writers solicited to put one here.

Many of the requests I get point out how they love my blog, or they loved a specific post. A few even say they checked my site for my guest post policy but couldn’t find one. Which is really strange since I link to the policy on every single post. Just take a look over there on the right-hand side of the screen and you’ll see the Site Policy box with the link. (Of course, if you are reading this post via email, or some RSS reader, you won’t see it, but trust me, it’s there.)

This year, I am adding one important caveat: If we know each other in the real world, or we’ve known each other online for a long time, and you think you might have something interesting you want me to share here–a book release, blog tour–reach out to me. Outside of that, unless I ask for something, I hereby pass in advance.

I realize that posts like this won’t stop the requests from coming in, but it does my heart good to make them, especially when the bulk of the unread messages in my inbox are requests to provide “informative articles” for my blog.

Hotel Alarm Clocks

On the checklist hotel housekeeping uses when servicing a room, one thing seems lacking. It is a small thing, something that would take almost no time (a second or two at the most). But in my experience, it is almost never done:

Check the alarm clock, and if it is on, turn it off.

Usually, I am awake before the alarm goes off, but when we are traveling as a family, Kelly and I are up before the kids to get things ready before the kids wake up. Inevitably, the alarm will go off and wake up the kids while we are getting things ready.

One might argue: if it is so easy to do, why not check it yourself? When traveling alone, I almost always do this. When traveling with the family, we are usually at the end of an 7 or 8 hour drive, during which there is the usual sibling bickering, to say nothing of frayed nerves from traffic, and long hours on the road. Checking the room alarm is the last thing on my mind.

So if there is anyone out there in the hospitality business, a humble suggestion from a fairly frequent traveler: Add checking the room alarm clock to your housekeeping checklist. I think you’ll find that many, many weary travelers will appreciate it.