Category Archives: essays


Despite being isolated because of the pandemic, I find that more and more, I look forward to the days when I don’t have to go out and do anything. We try to share various responsibilities, among them they days we take the girls to school and pick them I. Kelly gets Monday and Wednesdays and every other Friday. I get Tuesdays, Thursdays, the Friday’s that Kelly doesn’t have. On Sunday evenings, Tuesday evenings, and every other Thursday evening, there is a moment when I am grateful that I don’t have to head out the door first thing the next morning.

I’m writing this on a Wednesday evening, which means I am less grateful about tomorrow morning, than I would have been yesterday evening.

We’ve had a lot threats of snow so far this winter. When the weather people threaten snow, I am reminded of parents who threaten their kids with consequences if they don’t behave–and then never follow through on those threats. We’ve ended up with maybe 5 inches of snow so far this year–which is five inches more than all of last year. When the threat of snow is in the air, we head to the stores early to stock up. This morning I picked up extra firewood because there is a threat of snow for the next five days. Indeed, I saw some snow falling late this afternoon, but it was too warm out for it to stick.

I am especially delighted by the threat of snow on a Monday or Wednesday evening because it means I may be off the hook for school drop-off and pickup duty the next morning. More often than not, I end up feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away as I try to kick it.

If you ever wonder how many procrastinators there are in the world, you need look no further than a grocery store the night before a snow storm. The store is filled with all the people who waited until the last minute to stock up on whatever they need to weather the storm. Do the grocery stores and the weather people have some kind of side deal, I wonder? Has anyone ever investigated this?

These days, I feel much more relaxed when I know I don’t have to go anywhere. Even Kelly, who likes being out and about, has recently commented on how being at home all the time has grown on her, and especially on cold, blustery days, she is glad when she doesn’t have to leave the house.

“Leaving the house” is a loosely-defined term. I don’t count running to 7-Eleven for a newspaper first thing in the morning “leaving the house.” Sure, I could have the paper delivered, but I’ve found that when I have the paper delivered, it accumulates unread. But when I seek it out each day (or most days, anyway), I read it and recycle it the same day.

(I generally don’t bother with the paper on Saturdays. The Saturday Washington Post is called the “Early Sunday edition.” You get the front page and metro sections, but all of the other sections are the same sections you will get in the Sunday paper, meaning you are essentially paying for the same newspaper twice. And since the news is never particularly interesting on Saturdays, I just catch up on Sundays.)

For a while, activities for the kids were curtailed, but they are picking up again. The Little Man just finished a flag football season, and just started a basketball season. For the former, I didn’t need to leave the house. Kelly took him to his games, and as they limited spectators due to COVID, both of us going would have required us to take the girls, and pushed us over the allotment. The Little Miss has gymnastics on Wednesday evenings, but I get out that by (a) giving the Littlest Miss a bath during that time, and (b) making dinner.

Oxford defines a homebody as “a person who likes to stay home, especially one who is perceived as unadventurous.” I don’t think of myself as unadventurous. I think of myself as worn-out. I prefer Merriam-Webster’s definition: “one whose life centers on the home.” Merriam keeps it simple; there is no stigma of dullness.

Sometimes I will look ahead on the calendar just to reassure myself that there is nowhere to go for a while. I can remember a time, a year ago or so, when it seemed that there were multiple daily activities every single day of the week. It wore me down, and I remember thinking how nice it would be to have a month or so where we could stand down. I’d say “be careful what you wish for” except that I am enjoying being a homebody.

Do You Know Who I Am?

Why are people often surprised and disgusted when you don’t recognize someone they think you should? As a kid, if you couldn’t name the members of the band you liked, it meant you weren’t a true fan. (I memorized the names Joe Elliot, Rick Savage, Rick Allen, Phil Collin, and Steve Clark when I was 9 or 10 just to make sure I could prove I was a true Def Leppard fan.) I figured this was a kid-thing, but I see it all the same as an adult. Occasionally, I am even guilty of it myself.

Last week I decided to watch the Muppet Movie. It had probably been decades since I’d last seen it. It was much funnier than I remembered it, but the truly great thing about it was all of the notable cameos. Big Names wanted to be a part of the Muppets. There were newer (circa. 1979) names like Steve Martin. But then there were people like Dom Deluise, James Coburn, Telly Sevalas, Milton Burle, Richard Pryor, Orson Well, Mel Brooks, and Bob Hope to name just a few of them.

My kids only recognized Bob Hope–they didn’t remember his name, but they knew he was the guy from the Road movies that we’ve watched. Part of me couldn’t believe these actors no longer had the recognition they once had.

A week or two earlier, reading the paper, I announced “Oh no, Hank Aaron died.”

“Who is Hank Aaron?” came the reply from my kids. Really? You mean you weren’t born knowing who Hank Aaron was? That’s how I feel at least. It seems to me there was not a moment in my life when I didn’t know who Hank Aaron was. I explained who he was.

Still, I sometime run into people who are incredulous when someone else has never heard of someone or something they feel is important. What’s the big deal, really? We complain about fame, and then we chide people when they don’t know who someone famous is. It makes no sense.

Besides, it goes both ways. My youngest daughter went on and on about Jojo Siwa and A for Adley before I knew who she was talking about. She didn’t roll her eyes at me because I didn’t know who Jojo Siwa was.

There is, of course, the reverse phenomenon, which has become almost parody at this point. You know what I am talking about? The famous person, at their wits end because they are not getting their way, letting loose a barrage of “Do you know who I am”‘s at some poor sap.

We all have our areas of interest, and I suppose it is natural to think that other people know what we know. I’m reading a biography of Walt Disney and I suppose there are animation fans that could rattle off the names of all of the top animators at Disney in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Even though I am reading the book, I couldn’t name one specifically without refreshing my memory. (Well, that’s not quite true. I can name Ub Iwerks, but only because his name is so unusual, I can’t help but remember it. There’s another one that will come to me eventually.)

Saying to someone, “I can’t believe you don’t know who John Lennon” is just like saying, “I can’t believe you don’t know what Avagadros Number is.” Each is a fact that is important to its own subculture and if you aren’t part of that subculture, why should you know it? Indeed, other than for chemistry class, and as a punchline in stories I co-wrote in high school, knowing what Avagadro’s Number is has been utterly useless to me. What useful information might I have replaced that number with? RIght now, it would be the name of that other Disney animator on the tip of my tongue.

At some point, every last one of us will be unknown I suppose. Then what will people look for to find fault in others? Probably their spelling mistakes. I’ve often thought that every single person who died before April 1564 had no idea who William Shakespeare was. And Bill had no idea who Albert Einstein was. And Al had no idea who Derek Jeter was.

When I become famous, I want to assure you all that I will take no offense if you don’t know who I am. But I implore you not to pester friends and family with look of horrified disdain when they don’t know who I am either. And whatever you do, don’t ask them, “What do you mean you don’t know who Jamie Todd Rubin is!?”

WARD KIMBALL! WARD KIMBALL! I knew I’d remember his name.

What’s Happened to the Television Season?

What’s happened to the television season? Back in 1961, there were 30 episodes of the first season of the Dick Van Dyke Show. At an average of 25 minutes per episode, that made for 750 minutes of television in the season.

The recent phenomenon, The Mandalorian, has 8 episodes in a season, each coming in, on average, at about 40 minutes. That’s 320 minutes of television per season, or less than half of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Why are streaming seasons so short?

I first noticed this years ago with shows on HBO, when seasons were anywhere form 12-18 episodes, but generally hovered around the 13-episodes-per-season mark. The trend seems to have taken hold, but I don’t understand why. You’d think people would want more of a show, not less. After all, we went from 30 episodes in the 1960s, to 24-25 episodes in the 1970s, to 20-22 in the 1980s. There’s be a declined, but it seems that things really took a drop with streaming services.

Is this because of costs? Since the streaming shows don’t generally have commercials, they have to rely on subscriptions for revenues. Maybe subscriptions don’t support more than 8-12 episodes per season?

Or is it that the production quality is better now? I’ve read that television today is more like film than classic television and that adds to the costs, I imagine. A better product costs more money.

I’m not a big television-watcher, but I think there could be a better balance between quality and quantity when it comes to television. I don’t need my shows to be film quality. A well-written show can mask a lot of low-quality set costs and effects. Maybe the problem is a dearth of well-written shows? 8 shows per season hardly seems worth investing in. 30 may be excessive. I think somewhere between 18-22 is the right number to aim for in a season.

And why do we still call them “seasons”? These shows are not seasonal anymore. They come out when they come out. They often drop all episodes at once. Gone are “sweeps” weeks (remember those?) Remember how the new “season” started in the fall, and after Dallas and its “Who Shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger, we all had to wait 4 months or so on the edge of our seats to find out what happened?

The British call a “season” a “series” but I’m not sure that is right either. (The British used to call a trillion a billion. I think they changed that finally.) Series implied the entire run, not just a single year. Given that there is usually one “season” per year, maybe a better term would be “year.” As in Seinfeld, Year 1, Night Court, Year 3, and The West Wing, Year 81

Series that are serials (where you have to watch an earlier season to understand a later one) versus those that are anthologies, where you can dip in almost anywhere should have a different naming convention. Maybe instead of “episode” a single part of a serial would be a “chapter.” I don’t know what you’d call a single part of an anthology. Episode?

I guess the up-side of a shorter season is that I don’t spend as much time watching TV as I used to. Indeed, with a Mandalorian season taking the time that the Dick Van Dyke Show took to air, I can watch TV twice as fast as I used to.

  1. Yes, I know the West Wing ran only 7 seasons, but I can dream, can’t it?

Automating My Daily Notes with Obsidian

For nearly a week now my Daily Notes file in Obsidian is generated automatically each night after midnight. I wrote a Python script that creates the note, and having the script running as a Launchd job–which these days is recommended on Mac OS over cron jobs. So far, this has been working out beautifully for me. Of course, this is in large part because Obsidian itself works so well for me.

I use my daily notes in much the same way as I used daily notes in my Bullet Journal days. Indeed, I store my daily notes in my Obsidian vault in a folder called “Bullet Journal”. In addition to having reference information right up front, I use the Today’s Notes section of my notes for jotting various notes down throughout the day, that serve as a kind of log of activity, ideas, and things to do.

The basis of the design of my Daily Note drew inspiration from this post on the Obsidian forums.

Here is a look at my annotated Daily Notes file for today, Monday, February 8.

An annotated version of a daily notes files automatically generated by my scripts.

1. Note title

My Python script generates a note title for the note in format. I used this format back when my Bullet Journal was on paper and so I’ve kept it going here.

2. Navigation/weather bar

My script generates a navigation bar to the previous day’s notes, and to tomorrow’s note (which doesn’t exist yet, of course). It also make a call to a weather app to pull in a very short version of the weather for the day for my location.

3. Agenda

Next, the script generates the “Agenda” section of my note. It does this by calling a command-line program called “icalBuddy” (for Mac OS) which allows you to grab information from your calendar. The published version of icalBuddy had an issue with accessing calendars from a cron job or launchd, but I found post where a person was provided with an updated version of the binary that fixes the problem. The only place I’ve been able to find that binary is in that post, but it worked perfectly once I replaced the original binary.

Each night, a call to icalBuddy is made and the resulting events on that day’s calendar are returned. I then render those events in the Agenda section of my Daily Note.

4. To-Do

This section lists all of the tasks I have that have not yet been checked off. This was a little tricky. The script searches for all tasks in my notes and splits them into 2 groups, completed and incomplete. It then hashes the tasks and removes any “incomplete” tasks that appear in the “completed” task list. This prevents seeing uncompleted tasks that were completed on a subsequent day. The result is that I only see tasks that I haven’t completed.

4a. Illustrates what happens when tasks are carried over day-to-day without being completed. My script appends a note indicating how long the task has been open. For instance, that “Add functionality for notes timeline” task has been open for 2 days (since Saturday).

Throughout the day, I’ll check off tasks here and add new ones and those get incorporated into the next day’s runs.

5. Reading

I try to read at least one feature article from the various magazines I subscribe to every day. This is where I record what I read. I’ve actually developed a fairly elaborate reading and book notes system in Obsidian that I will write about in a future post. What I do here is jot down the article title, author, and source in a specific format (e.g., “Article Title” by Some Authors | Source: Magazine (Month Year)) and a separate script adds this information to my Library notes.

6. Today’s notes

This is where my bullet journal-style daily notes go. These can be virtually anything that I think is noteworthy. As you can see, when I opened the paper this morning, I saw that George Shultz died, and noted that here.

I’ll put to-do items here. If I am working on a something, I’ll make notes about what i am working on. Ideas get logged here. Funny remarks I hear throughout the day might find their way here. It can be quite a mish-mash of stuff, but it ends up being a useful reference.

I suspect that some people will ask if I can share my scripts. I am happy to do that, but not quiet yet. I tend to write scripts the way I write stories, the first draft is quick and dirty and functional. The second draft is cleaned up and organized. Once I get the “second draft” written, I’ll post what I’ve written on GitHub and anyone who wants can make use of them.

Some of this functionality is built into existing Obsidian plug-ins, but it is either not automated, or not quite the way I wanted it, so the scripts that I have written are tailored to my specific needs and behaviors. It’s nice to wake up in the morning, open Obsidian, and see my daily notes file waiting for me.

Super Bowl LV

My parents were football fans when I was growing up. My dad still watches football, but perhaps with less enthusiasm than he once had. My brother and both brothers-in-law are football fans. As it happens, none of their teams made it to Super Bowl LV.

It’s hard to believe that the Super Bowl is only five years older than I am. It’s a baby compared to the World Series.

Somehow, I never really got into football, beyond playing touch football with friends in empty fields when I was a kid. My most exciting football moments came on the long car rides between Rhode Island and New York in the early 1980s, when my brother and I would exercise our fingers and football prowess with Coleco Electronic Quarterback. (I wrote about these games back in 2015 over at SFSignal).

Monday Night Football increased my disdain after we moved to Los Angeles and I discovered the game would often preempt TV shows I enjoyed, like MacGyver. When I got older, I used to try to spend Super Bowl Sunday at Disneyland because the park was relatively empty on that day.

I grew scornful of football, and would cheerfully announce how happy I was that the season was over the Monday after the Super Bowl.

Decades later my views have mellowed. People get set in their ways, but I find that a good dose of empathy can and often does change my mind about things. No, I’m still not a football fan, but I try not to complain about it anymore, especially around those I know who enjoy the game. In this instance, it was a short essay by Andy Rooney from way back in 1980 that I came across a few years ago that changed my mind. In it, Rooney pleads:

Could I ask a little favor of some of you tonight? Please don’t sit there saying you hate football and you’re glad it’s over. Don’t say that. Some of us are very sad. There’s a hole in our lives you could drive a truck through, as Frank Gifford might say.

While some of what he wrote in that short piece was in jest, it reminded me of how I feel when anything I enjoy is over: the baseball season, a good movie, a great book, the end of a vacation. I really do feel left with an emptiness inside that isn’t easy to fill. This, perhaps, is why it is so difficult to pick a book after finishing a great one. Nothing will live up to it until that hole is filled.

I won’t be watching the Super Bowl today, but I hope that those of you who do watch it enjoy it, and that you get an exciting game. I know that Super Bowl Sunday is as much about the experience as it is the game itself, so have a great Sunday. As Hawkeye Pierce might say, “Take two wings out of petty cash.”

And while I don’t have any skin in the game, I’m rooting for Kansas City, since my friend Bart is from Kansas City, and he is awfully fond of that place.

Spelling Snobs

Why is it that people who can spell really well so often lord it over those of us who make spelling mistakes? I make frequent spelling errors. Many are masked by dictionaries, Alexa (if I am feeling lazy) and spell-checkers. Others are caused by auto-correct, and an acknowledged willingness to trade accuracy for speed when typing–also know as the “typo.”

We seem to put a high value on accurate spelling, even though our meaning and intent is often no less diminished when we make a mistake. A misspelled word, is not, for instance, like a bad line of code that will stop a program from running, or compiling. We see it, note it, recognize it for what it is, and move on, with a more or less clear understanding of the intent. And yet it has been my experience that Very Good Spellers scorn with contumely those of us whose memories for combinations of letters are not as refined as their own.

It would be one thing if spelling involved something beyond strict memorization. If, for instance, there was a concrete set of rules to follow, then I could see chalking poor spelling up to laziness. But spelling is the epitome of the rule-breaker. “I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh.” I see a spelling “rule” like that and I am reminded of drug commercials and the long list of contraindications that Saturday Night Live parodied so well with “Happy Fun Ball”

Good spellers have good memories for long strings of letters. People who are good at trivia (another annoying group lording it over the rest of us) have good memories for random facts. It’s amusing how we celebrate both. Jeopardy has been going strong now for 37 years–a show that puts a spotlight on trick memories. Spelling bees, according to Wikipedia, have been around since at least 1808, when attempts were being made to standardize spelling. (When you are attempting to standardize something, regardless of what it is, you’ve already lost the war.) A spelling be is nothing more than a very specific type of trivia game.

I am well aware of my faults when it comes to spelling. Plenty of people have been good enough to call them to my attention ever since I first learned to spell, and continuing right down to this very day. Nothing is more annoying than writing what I think of as a very good piece, and the first feedback has nothing to do with the content, but the spelling: “There in the third paragraph, you misspelled, ‘their.'” Good spellers and snobs are notorious for pointing out the felonies of “there” vs. “their” vs. “they’re” to say nothing of “your” vs. “you’re” and “it’s” vs “its.” (“To” instead of “too” is just a misdemeanor.) The utter ridiculousness of spelling can be summed up by a conundrum my grandfather used to try to get me to ask my grade-school teachers.

“Ask ’em how to write, ‘There are three to’s in the English language.”

What is it about a misspelled word that drives these people batty? When I’m not sure about how to spell a word, I do what most people do and pick a completely different word to misspell. If it is really important, I crack open Merriam-Webster and look it up. “Oh, that’s how you spell ‘bureacracy.’ Five minutes later, I’ve forgotten how to spell it. So what? Does spelling really matter in an email or text message when most of the messages I see look like, “idk. brb. thx.” I’m sus.

I’m not convinced schools teach kids how to use dictionaries anymore. At least, I’ve never seen one of my kids open a dictionary. I’m not sure they know what a dictionary is. And guide-words? Forget it!

Good spelling shows attention to detail? Phew! I’ve been told that I have a pretty good attention when detail is concerned. Attention to detail has nothing to do with good spelling. It seems to me that the mental faculties involved in spelling–recall, pattern matching, separation of sight and sound, hearing–can all vary based on how an individual’s brain is wired. I will never be able to spell erythromycin without looking it up. On the other hand, I’ve memorized the lyrics to more than 160 Bing Crosby songs. Different wiring.

I think Ben Franklin was on to something when he proposed all words be spelled phonetically. We fool ourselves into thinking there is a right way and wrong way to spell a word, but there are too many exceptions in the dictionary to make that argument. Wikipedia lists a couple hundred of them for English alone.

Perhaps that is the crux of it. Spelling, like trivia, can be boiled down to something that is right or wrong, something beyond reproach or debate. Giving an opinion on a piece of writing can be a challenge. You have to think about what is there on the page. You have to interpret and make judgments, and comparisons. With a misspelled word, you don’t need to do any of that. It’s either right or wrong (unless I write “cancelled” which, according to Merriam-Webster, is just as valid as “canceled.”) Who’s the lazy one now?

If variety is the spice of life, than Mark Twain said it best when it comes to spelling:

I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing. I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells Kow with a large K. Now that is just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope. It suggests to the mind a grand, vague, impressive new kind of a cow

He said that while giving a speech at a “spelling match” in Hartford, Connecticut way back on May 12, 1875.

5-Star Rating Systems

We have too many rating systems and they get confusing after a while. I was browsing Amazon and, while I hate to admit it, I think the 5-star system is the way to go. This is a big change for me, as I’ve been generally opposed to a 5-star system. Our primary numbering system is base-10 and so I’ve always felt that a rating scale of 1-to-10 was more aligned with our behaviour. But the more thought I’ve given it, the more I think that the 5-star rating is the way to go. In fact, I think we should convert all of our rating systems to 5-star systems.

Let’s start with grades in school. A 5-star grading system makes a lot of sense. It aligns with the 5-grade system we have A through F, skipping, for some reason, E. In my new 5-star grading system, 5 stars would be equal to an A, 4-stars a B, down to 1 star, which would be an F. The system lends itself to pluses and minus with half-star ratings. I would eliminate the concept of an A+ however. There would be no 5-1/2 star rating my system. If you are getting an A you are exelling. No need to show up the team by stealing an extra base–or half-star as the case may be.

We tend to get lazy with deportment. Though we rate grades with A-F, deportment is often 3 gradients: 1-3. For consistency, I’d keep the 5-star rating for deportment as well. On these scales, I would have gotten 4 and 5-star ratings in school, and 3 and 4 star ratings in deportment, except in those classes that I never turned in my homework, in which I might have gotten one or two stars for laziness.

How’d you score on your driver’s test? I passed mine on the first try with a score of 78 (out of 100) or something like that. Converting this to stars, I’d have gotten 3-1/2 stars. Three stars were required to pass the test. I got 5-stars on my written test for my pilot’s license, and 5-stars on my practical test. I’m was a better new pilot than I was a new driver.

Surveys that rate on a scale of anything other than 5-stars would become the object ridicule among their peers. While we do have a base 10 system of numbering, I’m always flummoxed when someone asks me to rate something on a scale of 1-10. If I liked the thing I was rating, I’d almost always give it an 8. I rarely gave 10s because I feel you really need to work for that. a 9 seemed too much of a hedge. So 8 it was. But if someone asks me to rate something on a scale of 1-5 stars, it gets 4-stars if I really liked it, and 5-stars if it is an instant favorite. 3-stars is perfectly adequate. You are doing just fine.

Performance reviews should be based on a 5-star system. Our system uses a scale of 1-5, but for consistency, we should change our unit to stars. In our system, you are meeting all of your performance goals if you get 3-stars.

This brings up an important point. There seems to be much fuss made around Amazon ratings less then 4-stars, as if the product is bad because it received a 3-star rating. In my book, 3-stars means that the product, whatever it was, met my expectations. Indeed, when I think of a 5-star rating system, I think of it thus:

  • 1-star: Distraught. Way below my expectations.
  • 2-stars: Disappointed. I’d expected more.
  • 3-stars: Satisfied. Met my expectations.
  • 4-stars: Delighted. Exceeded my expectations.
  • 5-stars: Blown away. Far exceeded my expectations.
My 5-star rating system bell curve
My 5-star rating system bell curve

We all need to recalibrate our scales of rating toward these measures of expectation. Everyone’s expectation going in is different, but if something meets your expectations, it should get 3-stars, not 5-stars. 4- and 5-star ratings supposedly help products sell better on Amazon, and perhaps that is true. But I envision my 5-star rating system as a smooth bell curve with the peak right at the 3-star mark. If you’ve ever looked at Amazon ratings, you find that the bell curve is skewed heavily in the direction of 4 or 5 stars. Every product on Amazon cannot exceed everyone’s expectations.

When we rate something with our 5-star system, we need to be clear about what we are rating. Amazon provides a single rating for a product, which causes confusion. People rate products with 1-star because they don’t like the price, when the price itself has nothing to do with the quality of the product. Amazon should do what Audible does: split its rating into parts. On Audible, there is an overall rating, a rating for the story, and a rating for the narration. Amazon should have at least a rating for product expectation, and a second for price.

I would like to see Amazon do what Uber does: rate the raters. Amazon should provide a rating to everyone who rates their products. People who provide constructive feedback, even for 1-star ratings, would get a 5-star rating for their rating. People who give a product a 1-star rating because they didn’t like the price would get a 1-star rating for not following instructions.

A 5-star system is better than a “Like” or “Heart”. Facebook and Twitter should replace their Like and Heart systems with a 5-star system. I’m willing to allow Facebook to use 1-5 thumbs-up icons instead of stars, and Twitter can use 1-5 hearts.

Credit scores are one of the more Byzantine rating systems I’ve come across. They seem to go from about 300-850. Why not just make it 0-550? Credit scores should be changed to 5-star ratings. This could be done quite easily by something by 11-year-old son has already learning in school: ratios. In this system, a credit score of 750 would translate into a 4.09-stars–but let’s just call it 4-stars.

I’d like to see favorability ratings used in political polling to go away as a silly things to measure. But if they must stick around, let’s convert those to 5-star ratings as well.

I’d automatically give 5-stars to any product, service, or system that did not repeatedly asking me to give them a 5-star rating.

Car Trouble

Cars used to break down a lot more in the past than they do today. I take this as a clear sign of progress in quality improvement. Parts are made better and last longer than they used to. I read recently in Scientific American that cars last 12-15 years these days. I often hear someone talking about how they’ve had their car for 20 years and its running just fine.

Incidentlly, our CR-V is coming up on 18-years old and is running just fine. Soon it will be eligible to vote.

I was thinking about break-downs when I pulled into the driveway the other day, driving our Kia minivan. The Honda was parked there, covered in snow, and I wondered if it would start, or if it would need a jump. We don’t drive it often and during the first few months of the pandemic, I didn’t start it at all–and found that the battery had drained and needed a jump.

Getting out the Kia, I was reminded that not everything is perfect. The sliding door on the driver’s side doesn’t always close all the way and you have to give it a little extra shove. I’ve sprayed WD-40 on the mechanism and that seems to help for a time. It’s on my list to ask the mechanic about it the next time I take the car in for its regular service.

Anyway, we’ve had Kias for over 10 years now and they have been great cars, with great service, never a problem.

Yesterday morning I went to start the car, pushed the start button, and nothing happened. At least, the engine didn’t turn over. It is always an unsettling feeling when a car doesn’t start when expected. It’s not unlike a smoke detector chirping in the middle of the night.

The electronics in the car came on so the battery wasn’t completely dead. I looked at the side door, and noted it hadn’t quite shut all the way the previous night. I wondered if that somehow drained the battery enough that it wouldn’t start the car. Kelly was dubious. But I decided to jump the car to see for myself.

Fortunately, the CR-V was already parked facing the Kia (we have a kind of horse-shoe driveway). Unfortunately, it was completely covered in several inches of hard snow. I removed the snow, pulled the car closer, opened hoods, attched jumper cables, started the Honda, and then started the Kia.


I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve jumped batteries. Whatever that count it, it seems like I never get it right the first time. I get the postive and negative leads in the right spot on both cars. But for some reason, the car being jumped never starts on the first try. I have to jiggle the connections and make sure they are solid at least once each time. I got out of the Kia,adjusted things, got back in, and pushed the start button.

The car roared to life.

It has been fine ever since. Kelly is still dubious that it had anything whatsoever to do with the sliding side door. While it would be nice to know exactly what caused the problem, it was just a relief that it wasn’t anything more serious than a discharged battery. We have enough headaches as parents navigating a global pandemic without throwing car trouble into the mix.

Smart Smoke Detectors

Forget the smart phone. What I want is a smart smoke detector1. I’m not talking about a Nest device. That’s too smart. The one we have in the hallway turns on a dim light when it detects motion. This foils my attempts to sneak off to the kitchen undetected for a late-night snack.

My smart smoke detector would be like the average smoke detector. If you saw them sitting beside one another at a bar you wouldn’t be able to tell which was the smart one. But my smart smoke detector would do one crucial thing that the average smoke detector can’t seem to do: when the battery runs low, my smart smoke detector would wait until daylight before nervously twitching and chirping about it. After all, you’d think the last think you want to do when power is draining is waste that power on frivolous chirping.

We all know that smoke detectors announce low battery power at night when everyone is asleep. There are good scientific reasons for this. Last night the detector in our bedroom chirped sometime after 1 am. It’s an odd feeling when it happens. I lay there for a moment, and think to myself: Did I just hear the smoke detector chirp? Or did I dream that? I lay perfectly still, thinking that if I don’t move, my smoke detector won’t chirp anymore, but thirty seconds later–CHIRP!–and now there’s nothing to do but get up and rip out the battery.

The makers of smoke detectors might make a product that save lives, but they are sadists at heart. It’s not enough to chirp battery warnings in the middle of the night. When I went to remove the battery so that the entire family could get back to sleep, I discovered that door to the battery slot was held shut by a screw! Now, I had to trudge downstairs to the utility closet and make my best guess at which screwdriver would be the right one to get that screw out. I took the offending device into my office at the opposite end of the house from where everyone had been sleeping peacefully minutes earlier. The screwdriver fit! I unscrewed.

And unscrewed. And unscrewed. In the time it took me to get that screw out, the detector chirped twice, as if to say, “Come on man, what’s taking so long? Don’t you know we’re all trying to sleep around here?” Who puts a screw on a battery case for a device known to chirp when the battery is dying? Who makes that screw 3/4th of an inch long? Sadists, that’s who! After all that effort, it took me another hour before I could finally fall back asleep.

If I can tell my smart phone (so-called) not to disturb me until morning, I should certainly be able to find a smoke detector that can do the same. I’m not asking for much. These are, after all, lifesaving devices, and I recognize that. It’s for this reason that I freely give designers of future smoke detectors the following simple requirement to follow:

Do not disturb me for anything–unless the building is on fire.

  1. Is it a smoke detector or smoke alarm? What is the difference, I wonder?

Mickey Mouse’s Finances

It is established fact that I rarely make it through a book or article without some kind of interruption or distraction. Usually these are mundane interruptions: chores have to be done; dinner has to be cooked; children have to be put to bed. But sometimes, they make for delightful distractions.

Take last night, for instance. I sat in bed determined to make significant progress on Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. I’d been slacking off in my reading lately, and nothing was going to move me from this task.

I read perhaps three paragraphs before I came to an interesting footnote concerning some early Disney contracts in the late 1920s or early 1930s. I like footnote. Sometimes, I like them more than the book itself. This was a juicy one, packed with financial information about contracts. I got to the end of it and there was a citation to an article in Harpers called “Mickey Mouse’s Financial Career1.” The article appeared in the May 1934 issue of the magazine.

It so happens that I subsribe to Harper’s. I began subscribing several years back after reading E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat collection, which originally appeared in Harper’s in the late 1930s and early 1940s. And it so happens that, as a subscriber in good standing, I have access to Harper’s complete 170-year archive.

I considered my position of just a minute early, when I was determined not to let anything distract me from making progres on the Disney biography. It seemed that my position had changed. I went to Harper’s website, found the article, and proceeded to spend the next 25 minutes reading and enjoying it. It was well worth the distraction.

When I started the article, I promised myself that I would return to the book just as soon as I finished. When I finished the article, however, I was tired. It was after 10 pm, which is past my normal bedtime, so I set all book and articles aside, and went to bed.

Today, I will most certainly make good progress on the Disney biography. I think.

  1. This link requires a subscription to Harper’s but I figured I’d include it because I was sure someone would ask.

The Day the Snow Days Died

On a snow day, outside looking into my office instead of inside looking out.
On a snow day: outside, looking into my office, instead of inside, looking out

We are witnessing the beginning of the end of snow days and it has nothing to do with climate change. We had enough snow yesterday (and more projected for today, although it has yet to arrive) that schools are closed. Of course, the public schools here were already closed for on-site students. Distance-learning is the order of the day. The Catholic school that our girls attend, however, is open and we shuffle the girls off to school each morning and pick them up each afternoon. The school is closed for a snow day today, but there are ominous signs that the end of this practice is nigh. As a message from the school read:

Now that we are able to do distance learning, we will only use one snow day at a time.  Any day after one that is unsafe to get to school will be a distance learning day.

Which means, for instance, if schools are closed again tomorrow, the kids won’t have a snow day, but will have a distance-learning day. Instead of getting outdoors to make snowpeople, and sled down the awesome sledding hill that is our backyard; instead of an unexpected day of fresh air and white snow, they will be stuck at the kitchen table, eyes fixed on iPads and Chromebooks, listening to repeated cries of, “You’re muted! You need to unmute!” and “I can’t hear everyone so everyone needs to mute!”

In addition to everything else, COVID has run the death null of the snow day, at least in those parts of the country where snow days are a fact of winter life. I’d predicted as much last spring, and for some reason, Kelly didn’t believe me. At least, she didn’t think schools would do away with snow days simply because they’ve managed to make use of technology and distance-learning. But I’ve been reading more articles in the papers about schools doing away with snow days now that Zoom and Teams allow for virtual classrooms.

Probably my age is showing. I grew up in New Jersey and New England, where snow was frequent in winter, and snow days were a delight. I can remember early New England mornings, laying in bed, listening as the radio announcer rattled off (alphabetically) the school districts that were closed due to snow. We lived in Warwick, so we had to endure nearly the entire list in great anticipation before we finally heard the words, “…Wahwick, West Wahwick…” at which point my brother and I would cheer in glee. It took quite a bit more snow in New England in those days to close schools than it does in northern Virginia today. A bare 3 inches closed schools here. In “Wahwick”, it probably required a foot at least.

It meant that there was a lot of snow for playing in, and on those days, we’d get into our snow suits and, it seemed to me, spend the entire day out in the snow.

This is just what our kids did yesterday when the snow arrived. Almost as soon as they’d finished breakfast, they were in the backyard, making using of our steep backyard hill for sledding. The girls made “invitations”to a family snowball fight, which took place to everyone’s great delight after lunch. They were out again later on, sledding on an even bigger hill at our nearby park. They had a fun, we had fun, everyone got plenty of fresh air. It was a pleasant reprieve from all of the extra screentime the last year has brought us.

Snowball fight invitation
Snowball fight invitation, posted with permission of Grace (the Little Miss)

And now, it seems, the practice, which was falling ill thanks to technology improvements even before COVID, is finally coming to an end. It makes me sad. Each time I think about it, I am reminded of Isaac Asimov’s short story, “The Fun They Had.”

But at least they have the day off today, and from the sound of it, they are planning more sledding and snowball fights, which means a little less time on screens, Zoom, and Teams meetings. From my office I can see them in the backyard, racing down the hill, and hear their sqeals of delight as one or another wipes out.

Even as an adult, snow days are great and I will miss them.

Plotting Software, Pantsing Stories

A screenshot of some code I've been writing
Some code I’ve been writing

I just completed a demo1 for software that me and my team have been working on for nearly a year. It isn’t quite done yet—we still have a few months of work left, but it feels good to get to the point where you have something to show. Indeed, it’s not that different from getting a story out into the world.

When it comes to writing (when I can even manage to write these days) I am “pantser” as opposed to a plotter. That is, I don’t plan out my stories in detail. I have an idea of where the story is going, and I figure out how to get there as I write. Sometimes, I end up somewhere else entirely.

With software, I am the complete opposite. Over the decades I’ve worked on increasingly more complex software and I’ve found that my brain doesn’t have the capacity to build it without plotting it out first. I hadn’t really considered it much until now, but I suppose that designing software is a lot like outlining a story. You start with the high level goals and requirements; you identify the tools you can use to meet those requirements; and then you figure out how everything will fit together to make a cohesive and self-consistent thing.

The day-to-day work is writing code, small fragments, akin to scenes in a story or novel. Often you write something that gets the job done but isn’t particularly elegant, so you rewrite it and rewrite until it purrs. The world fades around me when I get into this mode, my focus is completely on the task at hand, and an 8- or 9-hour day can fly by in what seems like the blink of an eye. This happens when writing, too, but I can’t consistently write for 8- or 9-hours the way I can work on code.

I often had the impression (from comments I’ve heard in various places and times) that non-writers think that writing is easy. I find it difficult, and I’m fairly worn out if I manage to writer for more than 2 hours. Writing code is equally difficult, but I come away from these long stretches in what I call a “code-coma.” It’s hard to re-engage with the world around me, and I have to ease back in.

When I have something on the page that works, I’ll review it, often out of context of the rest of the piece (often because “the rest of the piece” doesn’t exist yet). I’ll find typos here and there, little misspellings, or autocorrects that don’t work. Same thing when writing code. Punctuation is just as important and I can stare at a small piece of code for an hour wondering why isn’t working, only to realize I was missing a semi-colon somewhere.

Sometimes, you get pretty far along in a story only to realize that you’ve uncovered a major hole in the plot. This happens with software, too, but it happens less frequently for me these days because I “outline” the software and try to eliminate plot holes in the design before we actually start building the thing. Still, other things may trigger major changes forcing rework.

When I think a story is ready (always after the second draft, never after the first) I’ll send it out for critique by fellow writers. It’s no different with code. We sit down for code reviews where it becomes our job to ask each other (and ourselves) tough questions about the choices we made. These are both incredibly useful and incredibly disheartening. Code is always improved in these reviews, but I find it disheartening that I couldn’t think of some of the elegant ways my colleagues suggested for improvement in the first place.

(In the movie business, I think the information that comes out code reviews would be akin to “notes.”)

The draft of a story that goes to the editor might be considered a beta (or a golden master) in the software world. It is almost good enough for the world, but subject matter experts (editors, copy editors, publicity people) will look at it and offer some final polishing suggestions.

Finally, the book or story is out in the world! Hurray! And of course, the first slew of reader comments, and reviews start coming in. They are all pointing out the typo on page 5. How did anyone miss that?

It’s really no different than the day the software you’ve been working on for a year or two goes live. You’ve run millions of unit tests. You’ve demo it, you’ve made it as easy to use as possible. And 2 hours after it goes out, someone finds a bug that should have been caught 6 months ago.

I think the biggest difference between creating software and creating stories is that with a story, more often than not, you have something to hold in your hands, the product of your long hours of labor. It might be a printed manuscript. It might be a copy of the magazine the story appeared in. It might be a book. It always gratifying, on those rare occasions when it’s happened to me, when someone hands me one of these things and asks for an autograph.

With software, there’s nothing to hold, nothing you can grasp in your hands that represent all the blood, sweat and tears that went into its creation. It’s probably for the best. In thirty years of making software, no one, not a single person, has ever asked me for an autograph. If they did, I’d be a loss: there’s nothing on which to sign my name.

  1. Which explains why this post is coming out at nearly 7pm instead of much earlier in the day