Category Archives: Grab Bag Posts

Weekly Saturday posts an a variety of miscellaneous topics.

For Want of a Paperclip

I was helping the Little Miss with her math homework the other day. This second-grader of mine is learning statistics. I don’t recall learning statistics in second grade. The thing I recall most about second grade was learning to churn ice cream. The page she was assigned in her math book had a circle divided into four equal parts. Two were shaded black, one white, and one grey. The instructions said to spin a paperclip in the circle twelve times, and note how many times it pointed to each color. These results would then be used to complete a set of fractions.

A paperclip is a wonderful invention. Even its shape is elegant, rounded as it is on both ends. This led to the first problem. The instructions, presumably written for a second grader to understand, did not explain how we should know which end of the paper clip was pointing to color in question. Both ends look the same.

This would have been a serious showstopper, but we were saved this embarrassment because I could not locate a paperclip to save my life. Where have all of the paperclips gone? I went about the house in frantic search of a paperclip. I spent twice as long trying to locate one than it would have taken to complete the entire assignment.

Usually, I can find a stray paperclip or two in a desk drawer. But my desk no longer has drawers, and hasn’t now for five years. There is almost always a paperclip attached to the back page of the Field Notes notebook I carry in my pocket. Alas, my current notebook has no paperclip. It was lost at some point, and I haven’t replaced it (probably because I haven’t been able to find a paperclip).

I used to keep a paperclip in the car for reasons that now elude me. Out to the car I went, but no paperclip there either. There is often a paperclip or two along the floorboard behind my desk, but since we had the carpets replaced, that carpet is pristine and free of paperclips.

The funny thing about paperclips is that I almost never use them for clipping paper–Field Notes notebook excepted. Often I bend them out of shape and use the pointy end for resetting a device, or scrapping dust bunnies from the charging port on my iPhone.

According to a 2011 piece in The Atlantic, Americans buy 11 billion paperclips a year. That’s close to a hundred billion paperclips in the years since, and not one to be found anywhere. I couldn’t even find a paperclip to photograph for this post! Who’s hoarding all of the paperclips?

The Little Miss eventually reminded me that she needed to get this homework done. To do it, we needed to generate 12 random numbers between 1 and 4. Since I couldn’t locate the paperclip we were instructed to use, I did the next best thing. I ran downstairs to the game shelf. The Little Man had a new (and so-far, unused) Dungeons & Dragons starter set. I figured I’d grab the 4-sided die and use that. But the games had already been packed away for our upcoming move.

Frustrated, the Little Miss and I sat at the table and twelve times, we asked Alexa to pick a random number between one and four. What could have been done with a paperclip, now required an entire neural network.

I started to worry, as I finished writing this post, that “paperclip” might not be spelled as one word. I reached for the dictionary, forgot that it was packed away (probably with the Dungeons & Dragons set, and all of the paperclips) and with a reluctant sigh, pulled up the Merriam-Webster site and looked up the word. Turns out, it is two words: paper clip.

I’m not going to change it though. I’m too worn out from running around the house in a failed attempt to locate a paperclip.

My Cluttered Desk

There are some things in life that you just have to accept. For me, it is that, no matter how much I will it otherwise, my desk will always be cluttered. Each spring, I de-clutter my desk. Each spring, I make a solemn vow that this time, my desk will remain uncluttered. Thus envowed, my desk remains uncluttered. I think the record is about a week. Then it resumes its natural state of clutter.

My cluttered desk, today
My cluttered desk, today.

I’ve come to accept this as one of those things about myself that I cannot change. I remind myself of that clever epigram:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what is the sign of an empty desk?

What, then, can I change? Why, the desk of course! I used to have a great big wooden desk. Despite its size, there never seemed to be enough surface area for my needs. I got rid of it years ago, and switched to a smaller, glass-topped desk. This made it easier to have two computers, but still, there is never enough surface area.

The problem is that I don’t use both computers at once. But I often have a notebook open to take notes. Meanwhile, books and things pile up. My spare glasses are there. A stack of critiqued manuscripts that I got back from my writers group two weeks ago. Atop one pile is the smoke detector from our bedroom. The battery began to give out the other day, and is sitting there awaiting replacement.

I tried solving this problem a while back by adding some wall-mounted shelves above my desk. Frequently used things went there: my dictionaries, The Elements of Style, my Field Notes notebooks. What happened was that within a week, those shelves were cluttered too.

At the end of the month we’ll be moving to our new house. There, I’ll have a brand new office, more than twice the size of my current one. I plan on giving this cluttered desk to the Little Man for use in his room. I will buy a new desk. I need one with a lot of surface area. I started browsing around for possibilities: there are small desks, large desks, sit-stand desks, computers desks, executive desks. But I have yet to see the one that I am looking for.

That would be the Uncluttered Desk.

The Night King (Spoiler-Free)

The most recent episode of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night,” has been coming back to me again and again over the last six days. It is the music that has me thinking about the episode. When she watched the episode, my wife, Kelly, was not impressed by the music. But I found it to be a unique and emotionally important part of the episode. In particular, the track titled, “The Night King” has stayed with me. The track is available on the iTunes store and I’ve listed to it about a dozen times. I think it is about the best music I have heard from the series thus far. Ramin Djawadi has created something remarkable.

I was listening to it late this afternoon, and my older daughter, the former Little Miss, said that it sounded like music you’d hear going into a haunted house. I think what she meant was that the music was haunting. And given the context of the music in the episode, I’d say she was spot on. What I find remarkable about this is that none of our kids have seen Game of Thrones so they had no idea what the latest episode was about. And yet she thought the music was haunting, too. I think that says a lot about the power of the music, that it draws out exactly the right emotions, even for someone who has no idea what the show is about.

Caffeine Free

I have been caffeine-free for 17 days now. The hard part is over. The headaches and muscle aches of caffeine withdrawal have passed. All that remains is a mid-afternoon weariness that I fight with physical activity, usually a walk to get my blood flowing.

I gave up caffeine during the peak stress period of our house-hunting. I was stressed and anxious that I suspected all the caffeine I consumed contributed to that anxiety. I don’t know this for certain. But I had given up caffeine before, for over seven years, and I seemed to recall feeling less anxious during that time. So I gave it up again.

I have never been a coffee-drinker, although I’ve tried to be once or twice. My caffeine of choice is a can of Coke. For a while, a few years back, I’d also drink Red Bull, but gave that up over a year ago. Still, I drank a lot of Coke–to the point where I could have a Coke before bed and it wouldn’t really affect me. I’d doze off as soon as my head hit the pillow.

When I gave up caffeine the first time, sometime on Valentine’s Day 2003, I recall that I went through withdrawal symptoms (mostly headaches) for about three weeks. That is what I expected this time, and it proved to be slightly less than that. As for the anxiety, that seemed to easy more rapidly than the headaches. Of course, that could simply be a placebo effect, but it doesn’t really matter since I feel less anxious than I did.

Still, I enjoy Coke, and I can only tolerate Sprite in small doses. So, like I did during my first 7-year stint off caffeine, I’m back to drinking Caffeine-Free Coke. As far as I can tell, it tastes no different than regular Coke, just without the caffeine.

I find it interesting how I mentally build up to these changes. I thought about giving up caffeine for months. I knew that I would do it eventually, I just needed to built up enough mental rational to do it. Then, I woke up one day and decided the time was right, and I went cold-turkey. I was probably a bit more moody during the two weeks or so it took for my brain to get used to life without caffeine, but that was mitigated somewhat by the reduction in anxiety as well.

Now, with our house sold and the new house purchased, with all that’s left is the move itself, the stress of that process has also dropped dramatically and I feel a whole lot better. Yet I have no desire to go back to caffeine. I don’t know at this point if I will make it 7 years, or 7 more days. This is a day-by-day thing. But I’m glad I did it. I feel better without the caffeine.

Why It’s Been So Quiet Here

If you have been wondering why things have been so quiet here lately, permit me a few moments to explain. We have recently sold the house we’ve lived in for the last 10 years and bought a new house. Our old house is a townhouse. Our new house is a single family home with a yard that backs up to a local park that we frequent. The new house is slightly bigger, has 4 bedrooms, and an amazing room that I’ll be using for an office. It has an updated kitchen, a brand new 350 sq. ft. deck, and is an improvement in almost every respect. This has therefore been a very busy, and exceedingly stressful month.

It turns out that in our area, at least, it is a seller’s market. Our house sold on the very first day it went live. We put offers on 2 other houses, and despite raising our offers, we were still outbid by a considerable amount. This has made things stressful over the last four weeks or so, to say nothing of time consuming. So I have had little time to write at all, let alone here on the blog.

We now have our settlement dates, and while things are still a bit busy preparing for our move, we are at least through the most stressful part and I should be able to write more here.

30 Days Off Social Media

Yesterday marked 30 days off social media for me, and the verdict is in: I didn’t miss it. I opened up Facebook and Twitter on my laptop yesterday and it took all of 30 seconds of browsing to realize that I could easily go another 30 days, 30 months, 30 years without it.

This is not to say that I don’t miss the people I interact with on Facebook or Twitter. I just don’t like the medium anymore, and I’m looking for other ways to interact. I have, for instance, been carrying on a letter-writing campaign with a friend who lives across the country. This isn’t as speedy as Facebook comments, but it is always a delight to get an actual letter in the mail, read through it and reply thoughtfully.

And, of course, it is more difficult to stay up-to-date with friends and family, although my wife helps in that regard. She pointed out, for instance, that my brother and his family were on vacation. She’d seen the pictures on Facebook.

I’ve enjoyed waking up in the morning and not reaching for Facebook or Twitter first thing. Instead, I’ll peruse the L.A. Times for a little while (a paper I still enjoy reading even though I no longer live in L.A.). I’ve also enjoyed not interrupting the even flow of life by the need to make an update. That is perhaps one of the biggest benefits I’ve seen. Many times in the last 30 days, I’ve found myself looking at something–a tree in full bloom, an interesting cloud formation, a brilliantly-colored bird perched on a rock–and thought, this would make a great picture to post. And on every occasion but one, I’ve resisted the urge to take photo let alone post anything. Instead, I take a little extra time to just admire what I am looking at.

(The one time I did take a photo was so that I could print it out and paste it into my journal.)

At this point, I don’t expect to return to social media anytime soon. I am not canceling my accounts, but they are essentially dormant, save for things like the automated posts that get made when a new blog post appears (like this one). You can always reach me here on the blog, or by email, which I am not giving up, and to which I try my best to respond quickly.

Interrupt-Driven

High school is 30 years in the rearview mirror, but I was thinking about the bus ride to school recently. I typically did one of three things on the bus: slept, listened to music on my Sony Walkman, or read. The ride took about 45 minutes and during that time, whatever activity it was I chose, it went uninterrupted. I can remember listening to music, watching the Los Angeles landscape roll by. If I chose to sleep, I fell asleep within a minute or two and slept until the bus hissed to a halt at my stop. If I read a book, I had 45 uninterrupted minutes of reading.

I was thinking about this, because today, aside from sleep at night, I can’t think of any activity that goes 45 minutes without an interruption. I can’t think of an activity that goes 22 minutes without an interruption. On the rare instance that I watch something on my phone–a 22-minute episode of a sitcom, for instance–I cannot get through an entire episode without some kind of interruption. This is true for reading. It’s even true when I work.

For a time, I thought this was mostly related to the interrupt-driven style of social media, not just its notifications, but the desire it creates to proactively stop what you are doing and check what’s going on. However, I am into my third week of a complete social media blackout, and the interrupts are still there: email, text messages, and the need to go down rabbit holes, triggered by something I was reading.

Not all of the interrupts are digital. Having three kids provides plenty of interrupts. If the Internet had never been born, the family-based interrupts would still exist. I generally don’t mind those (although if they happen to pile onto the other interrupts it can sometimes be maddeningly frustrating). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given up on an activity simply because it loses continuity thanks to all of these interrupts.

Some of the interrupts are self-inflicted. Often, if I am reading about something, I will pause my reading to go look it up on the Internet to get more information, diving in Wikipedia or other sources. I think that might have seemed like a luxury to the kid riding the bus who was always curious about things. Looking back, however, I was perfectly happy filing the questions away in my mind, and seeking out answers later at the library.

I have been looking for ways to reduce the interrupts. It isn’t easy. I’ve eliminated the social media interrupts, but texts and email still remain. Under certain circumstances, I can ignore them, but as much as I hate to admit it, they are the primary forms of communication I use these days, and can be hard to ignore. When I go for a walk in the morning, I leave my phone behind. This makes phone interruptions impossible, but it also means I can’t listen to my audiobook while I walk. That’s probably a fair trade, as it allows my mind to wander for half an hour or so.

Still, I sometimes miss the days when life wasn’t as interrupt-driven. Sure, there was no streaming video, and TV programs had commercials, but those commercials served as natural breakpoints. You knew you had two minutes to run to the restroom, or grab a can of soda from the fridge. I miss laying on the couch with a book, and reading for hours at a time, the world slipping away, and me with it, to some other time and place, without being yanked back by a Facebook notification, text message, or alert from a weather app telling me that it has started to rain.

Remarkably, perhaps even ironically, I managed to write this entire post in one sitting without ever leaving my editor or pausing for some interruption.

Digital Declutter

Effective immediately, I am beginning thirty-day break from social media. I just finished reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and I liked a lot of what I read. The only way to know for sure if it will work for me is to give it a try, and so that is what I am going to do.

Why? There’s no reason other than the fact that I feel I want to scale back. Eleven years on Facebook is a lot, and I’m tired of it. The time I spend on social media can likely be put to better use. I also want to see if a month entirely off social media will give me a generally better sense of well-being.

A few things that I took away from Newport’s book that are important to note:

  1. The thirty day break is a break from optional technologies in my life. Right now, I see those things as: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It does not mean giving up digital technology as a whole.
  2. Along those lines, I still plan to writing blog posts during this social media break. My blog is setup to automatically announce new posts on Facebook and Twitter. Those announcements will continue, although I will not be monitoring Facebook or Twitter for responses. I will be keeping up with the blog, and will respond to comments posted here.
  3. I am also trying to get into better habits with email. To that end, I’ll be checking personal email first thing each morning, and again in the evening, but not in-between. Keep this in mind if you email me and don’t get an immediate reply.
  4. When the 30-day break is over, I will start to look at Facebook and Twitter again, but only from my computer, and only once or twice a week. I’ll see how I feel about them at the end of this break and decide if I will be actively using them at that point.

This is something I have been thinking about doing for some time, and is part of the reason I decided to read Cal Newport’s book. I was impressed by his arguments, but need to see for myself if I get the benefit he suggests comes from digital minimalism.

This is something I want to do because I think it will be good for me. I may or may not write about the experience, although I’m leaning against writing about for one simple reason: it has been written about by many, many people already and I’m not sure I’d have much to add.

I am happy to answer questions about this experiment, however, so if you have any, drop them in the comments.

R.I.P. Janet Asimov

I learned last night that Janet Asimov died on February 25. Janet was a psychiatrist, and a writer of books and essays. She was married to Isaac Asimov for the last 20 years of his life.

Over my many readings and re-readings of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies, I felt like I came to know Janet as I came to know Isaac, without ever meeting them in person. Unlike Isaac Asimov, who died before I really started reading his works, I was fortunate enough to have a brief correspondence with Janet in the late 1990s. My correspondence began with my desire to express how much Isaac’s writing–fiction and nonfiction–meant to me, and how it shaped me as a writer. Janet sent me a courteous letter in response, dotted with stickers here and there across the page.

Sometime later, prompted by a 400th science column that Janet Asimov wrote on Isaac’s behalf for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Isaac Asimov had a regular science column in the magazine for decades, completing 399 columns before he died), I wrote to Janet urging publication of the remaining uncollected science essays. I told her that almost everything I learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. Janet wrote back briefly, saying that she liked the idea. Alas, nothing ever came of the uncollected essays.

I’m sad to learn of Janet’s passing, but I know she lived a long life. She outlived her husband by nearly 27 years. I haven’t read Asimov’s memoirs for several years now, but I think I might crack them open again this spring.

Baseball’s Latest Rule Proposals

Allow me to channel Andy Rooney for a few moments.

Major League Baseball is at it again, considering three rule proposals that chip away at the history and integrity of the game. One proposed rule would add a 20 second pitch clock. You read that correctly: a clock. In baseball. It shows just how far Major League Baseball had drifted from the roots of the game. I’m reminded here of presidents who don’t know the price of a gallon of milk. There is no clock in baseball. That’s part of what makes the game unique, and it is at the core of how the game is played.

Another proposed rule would require any pitcher to face a minimum of three batters. This cuts down on platooning, but in reality, it speeds up the pace of the game because you don’t have as many pitching changes.

A third proposal would make for a “universal DH” bringing the dreaded DH to the National League beginning in the 2019 season. The DH allows for more potential hitting, but takes away more of the subtle strategy that makes NL games so interesting.

What do these three proposals have in common? They attempt to increase the pace and action of the game in order to keep the attention of viewers, who might change the channel when they feel a game is moving too slowly.

In reality, I don’t believe any of these changes would significantly speed up a game. A pitch clock might hustle the slower hurlers on the mound, but it would have no effect on the pitchers who have a quick delivery. Maybe you shave a minute or two from a game. The same is true for pitching changes. You shave a minute or two here and there. A better way would be to require a pitcher to be ready when he leaves the bullpen. He gets to the mound, and starts to pitch, no need for additional warmups. In reality, this is not about speeding up the pace of the game but providing the illusion that the game is moving faster.

And for what? Isn’t the pace of life fast enough already? One thing I love about watching baseball is that life slow down for a while when I watch a game. I immerse myself not just on the action on the field, but in the history behind all of that action.

These rule changes put baseball in danger of morphing into something else entirely in order to retain viewers and fans. The irony is that those viewers want to see a baseball game. With the way things are going, what they’ll see is something that doesn’t take quite as long to play, but it won’t be a baseball game.

Lunch Breaks

A BLT I'm particularly proud of
A BLT I’m particularly proud of.

Lunch breaks have long been a favorite part of my day. When I first started working at my company, way back in 1994, I would have lunch every day with a group of colleagues. We’d walk over to Third Street in Santa Monica, and eat at an international food court–one that is no longer there, alas. We’d do this nearly every day, regardless of the weather. Often we’d talk about work, but we tried hard not to talk shop. This went on for years.

When I transferred to our Washington, D. C. area office in 2002, things changed. Most of the people I worked with on a day-to-day basis were still in Santa Monica. I began spending my lunches by myself in my office. It was a quiet time I looked forward to. I would read, but often, I would quickly eat my lunch and then put my head down on my meeting table and nap. I’d fall asleep within a minute and sleep for half an hour, almost always waking feeling refreshed.

Somewhere in early 2013, when I began to listen to audiobooks, my lunch habits changed again. I often ate my lunch while I worked, and then, during my lunch hour, I’d walk two or three loops around the the block listening to books. These were, I think, my favorite lunch hours, with the exception of those first few years in the mid-90s when I’d hang out with my work friends.

These days, I work mostly from home. Each evening at dinner, my older daughter asks all of us what our favorite part of the day was so far. Often, mine is my lunchtime. I usually dash over to Subway for a six-inch turkey sub, which I bring back home. I sit at my desk and listen to a book, or catch up on a magazine article. I close my work laptop during this time and avoid looking at my phone. It’s not Thoreau’s Walden, but it’s probably as close to it as I’m going to get for some time.

Feeling My Age

Every now and then, I look in the mirror and begin to feel my age. I’m no longer ten years old, when dreams of becoming a Major League baseball player or NASA astronaut were still possible, if unlikely. I know, for instance, that I am pretty much past the point of competing with twenty-somethings at a baseball tryout. Playing shortstop for the New York Yankees is no longer in the cards (which I why I wrote a story about a fictional Hall of Fame pitcher a few years back).

Sometimes, staring into the mirror, I wonder if I will ever get into shape again. It seems an uphill battle. I’ve grown to despise working out for the sake of working out, and would much prefer some kind of practical activity (wood-splitting comes to mind) from which I can derive both exercise and useful material. But where’s the time?

That’s why I was delighted by an article I read in the February issue of Down East magazine last night. (I love Maine, we often visit during the summers–summahs–like true summahpeople, and I’ve subscribed to Down East for several years now as a way have having a bit of Maine with me all year round.) The article, “Ocean’s 7” by Will Grunewald is well-worth reading. It’s about Pat Gallant-Charette, and her efforts at completing the Ocean 7 challenge–7 different open water marathon swims that few people have managed to complete.

What I found most remarkable about the story is that Gallant-Charette really didn’t get started with this kind of swimming until she was 47 years old. She competed in her first Peaks challenge at 48, and for a time, held the record as the oldest person to swim the English Channel. When she attempts the final of her Ocean 7 challenges in New Zealand, she’ll be 71.

This came across as something of a relief to me. It told me that age matters much less than will-power. I can sometimes summon the will-power to do something when I really want to, and knowing that made me feel better about looking in the mirror, and at my 47th birthday, looming this March.