Category: essays

My Bad Habits

I have some bad habits. Some I notice myself, others people notice on my behalf. Kelly cannot stand that I bite my nails. This a habit that I’ve had most of my life. I don’t even realize I am doing it, which makes it all the more pernicious. I broke the habit for close to a decade, from 2001 – 2011. But it snuck back in, as bad habits tend to do.

I have a bad habit of always wanting to add something to a conversation. Often I feel like I am interrupting, or cutting off others. I don’t mean to do this. I just get excited about what we are discussing, and I can’t help myself.

Other bad habits I have:

When I pick a line at the grocery store checkout, I won’t budge, even if there are other lines moving faster around me. I dig in, and become more and more cemented in my utterly ridiculous position that I picked the line and by God, I’m going to stay in it. Kelly finds this one more amusing than annoying.

Add to that the bad habit that I can’t stand still. No matter how hard I try, while standing, I’ll begin gently swaying from side to side. If I realize that I’m doing it, I’ll stop myself. But standing perfectly still doesn’t not feel natural to me, and no matter my resolve, the swaying will begin all over again. When speaking, I try to avoid this by placing my hands on the podium. That works long enough to get through the talk. But I usually end up tapping my fingers to keep moving.

On elevators, I pull out my phone to avoid small talk with strangers. It might not sound like a habit, but believe me, it is. My mind can be a million miles away, and I’ll look up to find myself checking email or Twitter, and avoiding eye contact with anyone else on the elevator. When I’m conscious of it, I try to stop myself, but walking into the elevator car, my hand immediately goes to my pocket.

There are some habits that I have managed to break. I mentioned that I stopped the nail-biting for a decade. I also used to hum constantly. I’d even hum at dinner. I can remember my parents’ pleas for me to stop with the humming at the dinner table. In my early years at the day job, I’d hum as I walked the hallways. People took this as sign that I was happy. Eventually I stopped humming. I have no idea how or why I stopped, but I still feel happy.

New Year’s is a time for resolutions. It’s a fresh start. A clean slate. A tabula rasa (which means “clean slate”). New Year’s is a time for breaking bad habits and starting good ones. If you’re a regular at your gym, you dread New Year’s because the place fills up with people who have no idea what they are doing. You look forward to mid-February when things have returned to normal. Everyone is starting something new, or stopping something old.

I think breaking a bad habit is harder than starting a good one. It was far easier for me to begin writing every day than it was for me to give up the nail-biting for 10 years. That’s how my brain is wired. The wires stretch, but they eventually snap back into place. I have no plans to break my bad habits in 2016. After nearly 44 years, they are a part of me that I’ve learned to accept, along with any shame that goes with them. The best I can strive for is to bite my nails when Kelly isn’t looking, and avoid spreading my bad habits to the kids.

My Ideal Home Office

The other day, while walking, I daydreamed about my ideal home office. If money was no object, and the office could be designed as part of the house, I thought about what I’d want my office to look like. I like a lot of light, so there would have to be a lot of windows. In the spring and fall, when the air is cool, and refreshing breeze is blowing, I wouldn’t want to be stuck inside. I’d want a screened in porch on which to do my work. A fireplace would be nice for those cold winter days. And it would be convenient to have a bathroom close by.

When I returned from work, I sketched something out very roughly:

PaperPlan

I then used the Paper App by FiftyThree to turn the sketch into something that looks more like an office design floor plan:

Ideal office floorplan

I didn’t worry about the scale.

I decided that I would need two desks. On desk would be for the computer and the screens. I’d need at least two good-sized monitors in my office. I’d want a good chair of the computer desk. Even so, I think the desk should convert to a standing desk so that I don’t always feel lazy sitting in front of the screens. The camera for video calls would be placed such that the fireplace was in the background, giving my video chats a homey look. There would be only three books on the desk:

  1. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
  2. Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary
  3. The American Heritage dictionary.

The second desk would be clear of anything. It would be a flat surface for doing stuff that I didn’t want to do at the computer desk. Writing long hand, perhaps. Reading manuscripts. Thinking deep thoughts while staring out the windows.

I’d have a couch for napping, or for talking with visitors to the office. It would be a plush, comfortable couch. Recessed ceiling lights would allow me to illuminate the parts of the office that I happen to be using. The lights would be bright enough so that I wasn’t straining. But I wouldn’t need any lights on sunny days. Somewhere in the office, I’d have a mini-fridge stocked with water, as well as my favorite soft drinks.

I’d have a scanner, to scan in any paper I might receive, and a printer for those rare occasions where circumstance requires I print something out. But I would not have a phone in the office. I prefer email, chat, or video chats.

On the walls I’d have maps of the cities that I have lived in. I think Minted’s foil-pressed maps would be ideal for this.

I wouldn’t have a TV in the office. I wouldn’t have a lot of bookshelves either. I’d want the office to feel like a working space, albeit a very comfortable working space.

Most importantly, the office would have a door, which would remain closed during the hours which I worked.

The office would look out onto a wooded landscape. It would be far away from the sounds of traffic or construction.

Since I don’t play the lottery, this office will have to wait until I become a bestseller. I can live with that. I have a much better change of becoming a bestseller than I do of winning the lottery.

Vacations and Retirement

When I am on vacation, my thoughts turn to retirement. At 43 years old, I still have 22 years to go before arriving at the magical 65. As I have been with the company for 21 years, I have my entire career-to-date stretching out in front of me. We take a long vacation in December and head to Florida where we can visit with family and enjoy the warm weather. The vacation is long enough that I occasionally forget what day of the week it is, a symptom similar to that suffered by retired persons.

Vacation view

Kelly likes to have a plan for each day. Having a plan helps keeps the kids entertained, but it chips away at some of the vacation-like feel of our time off. I like waking up to no particular plans. I’ll eat something for breakfast, maybe take a walk on the palm tree-lined bike paths before the sun gets too high in the sky. I’ll come back to the house and do nothing for a while. When I am ready, I’ll do some writing. I’ll make a sandwich for lunch. Ham and turkey with Swiss cheese, and maybe mayo and honey mustard. At some point, we’ll head over to the pool, but there is no rush. The water is warm, and the skies are clear.

I try to forget about work when I am on vacation. Usually I succeed too well. It is hard to go back into the office. Email doesn’t interest me. Excitement that I’ve had for my projects has faded over the course of sun-filled vacation days. I’d rather stay on vacation.

Today I am tied to the calendar. Everything centers around Google Calendar. We have a family calendar there. We have our own calendars. The kids’ school calendar is there. Cubs Scouts calendar, and sports activities are there. One look at the calendar can be overwhelming. I used to default to a monthly view, but found it to be too overwhelming. Now I default to a weekly view of the calendar, but even that sometimes seems like a lot. I looked at the calendar for this week, and it was much better.

Vacation Calendar

On those vacation morning walks I sometimes imagine what it would be like to be retired. I could write full-time. I don’t mean I’d write 8 hours a day. But I could write for a few hours a day, and still have most of the day to enjoy other things. I wouldn’t be as tied to the calendar as I am today—or so I tell myself. There would be a certain freedom in knowing that I didn’t have to go into the office the next day. Weekends would be no different from weekdays.

I suppose if I was a full-time writer, instead of a software developer, I would never really retire. It makes working toward that goal that much more appealing. I suspect that if I gave it my best effort, it would only require about 22 more years of trying.

Simple UI Design Is Like Clockwork

I have a theory that the best user interfaces are those proven useful over a long period of time. User interfaces, or UIs, are most often associated with operating systems, applications, and web sites. Over the course of my career in software development, I have built quite a few UIs and I find they tend to get complicated quickly.

UIs have been around longer than computers. Cars have had a user interface (the instrument panel) for over a century. Elevators have user interfaces. The baseball scoreboard is another user interface. So is the ticker for the New York Stock Exchange, or the departure and arrival board in a train station. The best user interface, in my opinion, has been around longer than any of these. The analog watch face remains, to this day, the simplest, most efficient user interface I have ever interacted with.

Recently, I decided that I wanted a watch. I haven’t worn a watch for at least a decade. I explained my requirements to Kelly:

  1. Twelve large Arabic numerals on the face.
  2. White letters on a black background.
  3. Date is nice-to-have, but not required.
  4. Sweep second hand is nice-to-have, but not required.

I’d been eying an L. L. Bean watch that seemed to meet most of these requirements. For Christmas, Kelly found me a Timex that did the same1.

Analog Watch

While watch interfaces can get pretty complicated, I like this one for its simplicity.

First, it is easy to read. Because all twelve numbers show on the clock face, I don’t have to guess at the time. I also don’t have to convert Roman numerals, which I work with very infrequently, to a set of numbers that I work with every day.

Second, the watch face has a consistent user interface. Three of the four pieces of information it provides—hours, minutes, and seconds—run on the same dial.

Third, it is clutter-free. There are plenty of watches that add more information to the watch face. They give the time in multiple time zones. They have compasses. They give you military time. They inform you of high or low tides. But I don’t need this information. I just want to know what time it is, and occasionally, what the date is.

Digital watches might have more compact user interfaces, displaying the digits of the time. But the simplicity of an analog watch gives you more. Instead of seeing the time as 5:25 pm, you see it relative to all of the times on the face of the clock. You can see the distance the minute hand has to travel to get from the 5 to the 12, and intuitively get a sense of the time that must pass. Similarly, you can see the distance that the minute hand has traveled to go from the 12 to the 5, and get a relative sense for how much time has already passed. Digital watches that display just the numbers don’t provide these visual clues.

I have been wearing my watch for a few days now and I love its simplicity. When I look at the time, I am not distracted by other things like how many email messages I have waiting for me. There is also something a little thrilling in knowing that it is the same basic interface that generations before me have used to parcel out the days of our years. And whether intentional or not, the analog watch is a metaphor for time as reflected in the physics of the universe, the earth rotating on its axis, the planets running their courses around the sun. It is a user interface that has stood the test of time.


  1. It doesn’t have the sweep second hand, but I can live without that.

My Old Office Chair

Sometime in 1999 or 2000, the entire company received new office chairs. One day, a brand new Aeron chair was delivered to my office, and my old chair was taken away. Someone came by to make sure that my new chair was adjusted properly, that it was ergonomically correct. They tried to adjust my posture more than the chair, but in the end, the chair fit very well.

That chair saw me through the final months before Y2K. I was sitting in that chair one Tuesday morning when a coworker called to tell me she’d heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Rather than go through the experience of having a new chair readjusted for me, I had the chair shipped across the country when I moved from the Santa Monica office to the Arlington, Virginia office in 2002.

I lost count of the number of computers I went through in the years since I first got the chair. At least a dozen I’d guess, each one supposedly better than the next. Each time a new computer came along, I had to transfer all of my data and programs, a process that often took days, and left me with a productivity debt that was hard to dig out of. My chair required no such costly maintenance. It just worked, happily taking my weight each morning, and never once complaining when, after years at the same slim weight, a steady increase began to take place.

Eventually the wear and tear took its toll. I noticed the chair slumping down to the lowest setting. I’d pull the lever on the side to hoist it back up, but after a few minutes, I’d find myself with my chin in my keyboard. The wheels on the chair no longer rolled smoothly across my office carpet. The bearing had worn down. The right arm rest would not stay in position either, and would rattle as I typed. I tried to overlook these things for a few years, the way one might overlook the slow, but steady decline in a pet.

Finally, it got to the point when I could no longer ignore it. Early in December, I walked over to the Facilities manager’s office. “Fifteen years ago,” I said, “I got a new chair, and it was the best chair I could have wished for. But it is sick now, terminal, and I think it is time to do the right thing, and put it out of its misery. She agreed.

I expected the weight of bureaucracy to give me a week or two more with my old chair so that I could let it down easily, but that isn’t how it worked out. About 10 minutes after I talked to the Facilities manager, someone came by and took my old chair away. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. I stood in my chairless office, uncertain what to do. I fidgeted. I tried to check my email, but it didn’t feel right, squatting in front of the keyboard. It lasted just five minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.

A new Aeron chair was delivered. At first glance, it looked no different than the old chair. The differences came when I sat in it. It was firm. It rolled smoothly across the carpet. The right armrest didn’t jiggle when I typed. The chair didn’t sink when I raised the seat to the appropriate height.

I tried typing an email message and it seemed alright.

This must have been what it was like when I got the first Aeron chair back in 1999 or 2000. It felt good. I wondered, fleetingly, where my old chair had gone, and if was at peace (or in pieces). Then the phone rang, and I took the call, seated in my new chair, but I wasn’t paying attention to whoever was on the line. I was staring at my desk. I’ve had the desk for over 13 years, ever since I moved into that office. I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t time to face facts, and I made a note to myself to seek out the Facilities manager and see what could be done about my aging, decrepit desk.

My new office chair
My new office chair

A Thousand Words on Shopping at the Outlets

Once a year I voluntarily head to the outlets with Kelly and we spend some time shopping together. This year we went as soon as the outlets opened, at 9 am, and already the temperature was close to 80 and humid. We took my in-law’s Prius. The Prius is a marvel of energy efficiency—if, that is, you can figure out how to start the thing. We had trouble and had to make a humiliating call for help from the garage. Not a particularly auspicious start to our morning of shopping together.

We arrived at the outlet mall, and found a parking spot in the shade. As we walked toward the outlets, I wondered if we’d manage to get the car started again.

At 9 am on a weekday, the place was pretty empty. Kelly had a plan, and I simply followed her lead. Our first stop was The North Face. I was excited because I have a North Face jacket, and I recognized the brand. We walked in and were assaulted by the air conditioning. Someone asked if they could help us. They couldn’t because apparently, the North Face did not have what Kelly was looking for.

Our next stop was Eddie Bauer. Kelly thought they might have the watch that I want. Why Eddie Bauer would carry an L. L. Bean watch is something that Kelly was not able to explain. We walked into an empty Eddie Bauer and a clerk said, “What brings you in today?”

Let me pause here for a moment to explain that on those rare instance that I do shop, I want to do my shopping in peace. I lost count the number of stores in which we were asked what we were looking for upon entering. I had no idea how to answer the question. Fortunately, Kelly did.

“Do you carry watches?” she asked.

“No,” the clerk said.

And we were out in a flash. We headed over to Gymboree, where our first purchases of the morning were made. There are elaborate sales at all of these stores, and I guess we saved some money. Kelly thought it was a good deal. It was hard for me to say. The signs are confusing. For instance, at Gymboree, the sign said ENTIRE STORE, $12.99 OR LESS.

$12.99 or less

When you look at the fine print, you see that it really isn’t the entire store. “Some exclusions apply.” What’s excluded? Is there a list?

The Nike outlet was more crowded, but we didn’t buy anything there. Instead, we headed over to the Bass outlet. I told Kelly I’d meet her inside. I wanted to take a picture of the sign outside the Bass outlet that indicated BLOWOUT SAVINGS

Blowout Savings

Because—naturally—exclusions apply.

I walked into the store to find Kelly. Before the air conditioning could hit me, a clerk rushed up to me, “Can I help you find something today?”

“Yes,” I said, “my wife.”

Next we walked into Fossil to see if they had any watches I would like. They didn’t. For some reason, non of Fossil’s watches had all of the Arabic numbers on the clock face. They either had twelve Roman numerals, or 4 Arabic numerals. They also had half a dozen other things on the watch that I had no need for. Fossil watches might be good, but they have pretty terrible UIs.

We went to Banana Republic, which is one of Kelly’s favorite stores. How we got out of that store without buying anything is something that I still don’t understand. I was amused, however, by their non-iron shirts, which, to my eyes, looked as though an iron would do them some good.

Non-Iron Shirt

At the Gap, I bought a pair of jeans. They were $60. But they were 50% off, meaning that they were only $30. I thought that was too expensive, but Kelly had a card that gave us an additional 30% off. That was confusing. Did it mean the jeans were 80% off (or $12); or was it 30% off whatever the 50% discount was (or $21). It turned out the jeans were $21, but I bought them anyway.

Let me take a moment to note that there was not one, not two, but three Sunglass Huts at this mall. Why three I can’t quite explain Two were relatively close to one another, and one was on the other side of the mall. I suppose with a name like Sunglass Hut, the stores have to be small. Perhaps if they rebranded to Sunglass Pavilion, they could afford a single store triple the size of the “hut” model.

In Ann Taylor’s Loft, Kelly scored a few t-shirts and a pair of sunglasses. These stores make seasonal pricing so difficult. There are signs all over indicating sales: 50% off, 30% off, etc. But the items are tagged with the original price, and all of the signs indicate that the “Reduction is taken at the register”. This makes sense. It avoids the need to reprice the items individually, but it complicates figuring out how much you’ll pay for your 2 t-shirts and sunglasses. Next time the Little Man asks why he has to do boring math homework, I’ll tell him it’s so that he can figure out the discount he’ll get when he shops at the outlets.

Our final destination was the Osh Kosh outlet. As we walked into the store, Kelly said to me, “Let me know if you see a 4T sweatshirt.”

I glanced at the dozens of clothing racks about the store, and replied, “That is a task that I have no idea how to perform.”

We made it out by 11:30 am, and Kelly was happy at how well-behaved I was. I didn’t complain once about shopping. Part of the reason is that I spent much of the time taking notes so that I could accurately render my shopping experience here on the blog for you.

I can’t believe it is over. I have to wait an entire year before I hit the outlets again. It’s hard to describe the feeling that gives me, but it is remarkably similar to the feeling I get when I leave the dentist after my semi-annual cleaning.

Using Notebooks

It might seem strange that, as the paperless guy, I find myself using old-fashioned notebooks more and more frequently. But that’s just what I am doing. I wrote a post over the summer about the qualities of useful paper. Since then, I have continued to use notebooks to capture quick thoughts, ideas, to-do lists and other things.

I use two types of notebooks: An Evernote Moleskine notebook, and a Field Notes memo book.

My notebooks

The Moleskine notebook goes with me to every meeting, whether it is a work meeting, a homeowner’s association meeting, a meeting with an editor. I also use it as a kind of lab book while writing code or planning requirements for projects. And I use it for taking notes when I am reading articles, or learning something new. I try to maximize the use of each page. I single line across the page separates one thing from another (meetings, notes, sketches). A double-line indicates a change of date. I try to record the date for each day I have notes. Eventually, I use Evernote’s Scannable app to get these pages into Evernote for longterm safekeeping.

I carry a Field Notes memo book with me wherever I go. I use them so much that I have taken to wearing shirts with pockets just so that I have quick access to my notebook and pen.

Pocket shirts

This memo book has become a substitute for my short term memory. I’ve found that, as I get older, I remember things better if I write them down, as opposed to typing them in. Besides, these are short-term things. They are not the kind of notes I’d store in Evernote, as they would just clutter things up. I capture blog post and story ideas, to-do lists, and things I need to remember in the very short term—like the office number of the person I need to visit. A typical page will often combine many of these things.

Field Notes pages

I don’t worry about dating the field notes because they are short-term notes. But I do check off boxes and cross out ideas once I have used them.

Most apps that I have tried for taking quick, disposable notes have not worked well for me. Even Evernote, which I use for many other things, puts up too many barriers to taking quick notes. I am much more likely to record a note if I can just pull the notebook out of my pocket and start writing.

I have gotten used to pulling out my notebook in public to write a note, or capture an interesting observation. I suppose this is something that journalists are used to, but it took me a little while to get over the looks that I sometimes get. I did get over it. When I look back through my notes, I find that I have often captured everything I need, and no longer have to flex my memory to try to remember a particular fact. This comes in handy for things like writing blog posts. It also makes Kelly happy when I come back from the store with everything she asked me to pick up.

This may seem like a step backwards—going from digital notes to paper notes—and perhaps it is, but I enjoy jotting things down in my notebooks more than I ever did on my iPhone.

The Essential Geography of the USA Map

Last night, I finally had time to sit down and explore my new Essential Geography of the United States of America map. Produced by Imus Geographics, the Essential Geography map is designed to bring out basic geography of the country, and is different than traditional maps in several ways. I got the folding version of the map, and when it is unfolded, it is huge—53” x 35.3”. I settled down with the map for about an hour last night, and the amount I discovered about the country that I didn’t already know was astonishing. Here are 5 of them.

Three Mile Island is in Pennsylvania!

For some reason, I thought that Three Mile Island was in New Jersey or New York. Perhaps I confused it with Fire Island. But as I browsed the map, I spotted it, right there not far from Hersey.

Three Mile Island

The highest point in Florida.

Anyone driving through Florida can’t miss the utter flatness of the state. The Essential Geography map includes the high point in every state, so I searched Florida until I came across Britton Hill in the panhandle. At an altitude of 345 feet, Britton Hill is only about two-thirds the height of the Washington Monument.

Florida High

Route 66 begins in Chicago

Here’s another tidbit I learned. The old Route 66 begins in Chicago. For some reason, I thought it spanned the entire country, from east coast to west. Perhaps I was confused by I-66 which is the toll road that goes into and out of Washington, D.C.

Route 66

Idaho has some strange time zone boundaries.

There is a place in Idaho where the time can be 5 pm where you live, and be 4 pm to the east and west of where you live. Don’t believe me. Check this out:

Idaho

It’s not Purdo Bay!

What I’ve always through of as “Purdo Bay” Alaska is actually Prudhoe Bay. I feel like an idiot for referring to it as Purdo Bay as many times as I have.

Prudhoe Bay  

I can’t wait to spend more time pouring over this map, and discover more things bout the geography of the country that I don’t already know.

The Evolution of Road Trips

Having driven 900 miles over the last two days, I have been thinking about road trips. When I was a kid, the longest regular road trip we made was from Warwick, Rhode Island to Spring Valley, New York. The trip took about three hours each way. We talked, and looked out the window. We counted the number of Volkswagon Bugs we saw. We called them Beetle Bugs. We listened to the radio. Kasey Kasem’s American Top 40 was a favorite of mine. Around 1982 or so, we played variations of handheld electronic games, like Coleco’s Electronic Football.

Driving from northern Virginia to central Florida, we spent about seven hours in the car for each of the last two days. The kids watched shows on the iPads. Kelly watched shows on her iPhone. Sometimes the kids played games on the iPads, or colored in coloring books. For a few hours each day we listened to the audiobook version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Occasionally we listened to the Holiday Traditions channel on Sirius XM. While I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, my favorite part of the drive was when the devices were silenced and I could look at the windows and watch the country roll by.

Trip Map
All of the trips we’ve taken since 2013, via our Automatic Link.

The kids are probably still too young to just look out the window and observe, but as I drove, I tried to keep my eyes open. We drove on Interstate 95 for most of the way, and despite it being a big interstate, there is still plenty to see. I was fascinated by how the road changes from one state to the next. I-95 is 3+ lane highway through Virginia. Somewhere in North Carolina, it squeezes down to 2 lanes in each direction. It stays that way pretty much through South Carolina. In Georgia, it becomes a 3-lane highway again, and it remains at least three lanes as far as we took into Florida.

There are lots of interesting roadside signs. I wish I could have grabbed some photos of some of the signs, or jotted down notes about them, but I was driving. The signs vary by region, too. In North Carolina, the adult store signs (Adam & Eve) compete with a variety of religious signs (“What if you died tonight?”). Approached the border of South Carolina, there is a Burma-Shave series of signs leading up to the famous South of the Border roadside attraction.

I’m always fascinated by vast farmed fields on either side the highway, and the single house that always seems to break up the farmland, as if someone absolute refused to sell their home. Dilapidated barns dot the countryside as well, fossils of an earlier time.

We zipped through countless small towns where life goes on as usual, while cars zip by on the Interstate. Henderson, Oxford, Dunn, Hope Mills, Lumberton, Ridgeland, Dock Junction. We zoomed along at 70 mph listening to audiobook, and watching shows, and these towns rolled behind us, virtually unnoticed.

I look forward to the day that cars are entirely self-driving. The kids could play their games, or listen to audiobooks, or nap, or color. Freed up from driving, I could pull out my Essential Geography of the United States of America map, and keep my eyes out the window, looking for the places the landmarks that show up on the map. It would feel less like driving, and more like experiencing the road trip.

The Slow Demise of Check Books and Fax Machines

We had our office holiday party a week ago. There is a nominal fee of $5 adult and $1 per child. The money goes to pay for the next year’s holiday party alcohol. I’d waited to the last minute to get my tickets. When I stopped by to pick them up, I realized that I had no cash on me.

“That’s okay,” the person in charge of distributing the tickets said, “I takes checks.”

She might take checks, but I am less likely to carry a check than cash. Checks are rapidly going the way of the dodo. We write just two or three checks a year, usually for miscellaneous things at the kids’ school like a t-shirt for basketball. When I got the Little Man his Class B shirt for Cubs Scouts, I paid for it via PayPal. When a place asks us to send a check for something, I always ask if there is an alternative. Who uses checks anymore?

Well, a few places, I suppose. I still receive checks when I sell something to Analog or InterGalactic Medicine Show. When I wrote for The Daily Beast, my payments were direct-deposited. When I wrote for 99U, I received my payment via PayPal. Almost anything is easier than writing a check. Banks have made it pretty easy to deposit checks when they come in. But I still prefer direct deposit or PayPal when it is possible.

The week after the holiday party, one of our telecomm specialists was in the office completing the final migration to IP phones. It wasn’t a hundred percent transition. They still need to support the fax machine.

“Fax machines?” I said. “Do people really still use fax machines?”

Apparently they do.

Thinking about the slow demise of check books and fax machines made me wonder what else had vanished in my lifetime. Here is a list of things I came up with, good and bad:

  • Telephone booths.
  • Smoking sections on airplanes and in restaurants.
  • Pagers
  • Typewriters.
  • 7-digit p.hone numbers. When I was kid in New Jersey, I could dial my best friend’s house by picking up the kitchen phone and punching 846-3835. Today, I have to add four additional digits for country and area code.
  • Baseball cards. What happened to baseball cards? I see them at Target near the Pokemon cards, but I never see kids trading baseball cards, or even talking about them. I have feeling they have no idea what baseball cards are.
  • Good FM radio. Like 92 PRO FM, Providence, Rhode Island, circa 1981. Or KQLZ “Pirate Radio” in Los Angeles, circa 1989.
  • The White Pages. It’s been years since I’ve seen a copy of the White Pages. I’d love a copy of the White Pages. It is a great source of names for characters in stories.

I’m sure that when the Little Man is in high school, he’ll say to me, “Who uses WordPress anymore?” Serves me right.

Blooper Reels

Blooper reels always crack me up. Whenever I am feeling a little down, I can sit down and watch blooper reels and almost instantly feel better. Watching a blooper reel has never failed to cheer me up. In most instances, I get to laughing so hard that I begin to cough and my eyes begin to tear.

While blooper reels are funny for funny’s sake, I suspect that part of what makes them funny is watching professionals make mistakes. Too often, we try to hide our mistakes when they can, in fact, help us learn. The entire history of science is a history of mistakes. We might be afraid to make mistakes ourselves, but we enjoy it when others make mistakes. And as we have a tendency to idolize those we see in the movies and on television, seeing them make mistakes can be refreshing.

The Little Man is going through a phase where he will repeatedly tell us, “Don’t laugh!” He is referring to us laughing at something he’s done. Telling me not to laugh will almost guarantee laughter, but the Little Man doesn’t understand this, and takes offense when he feels it is directed at him.

Watching blooper reels, you’ll see actors laughing at their mistakes as much as I laugh when I watch them make the mistakes. It is humbling to laugh at your own mistakes.

I wish there were blooper reels for things besides just movies and television shows. It would be great to see the President practicing a speech and flubbing the lines. If other writers end with amusing infelicities in their manuscripts as much as I do, it would be a amusing to be able to see the “blooper reels” version of the manuscript.

Doctors and dentists must make innocent mistakes every now and then. And how do we not have outtake reels from court sessions. Lawyers and judges must flub their lines from time-to-time. Sports tend to have their own blooper reels. They end up in ESPN late at night, but if you happen to be up, you can watch players who make millions of dollars a year allows a simple ground ball to roll between their legs.

Plumbers probably can tell some stories. And I imagine the military has its share of bloopers from basic training that we would find amusing. Lecturing college professors will make a mistake that will get the class roaring with laughter every now and then.

There were all kinds of bloopers I heard over air traffic control back when I was a pilot. And you should read some of the comments I’ve embedded in code that I’ve written!

I suppose there is a fear that exposing trivial mistakes makes a professional look less professional. But what better lesson is there for those just getting started, who don’t yet have the confidence they need, to see professionals make mistakes.

Blooper reels might seem like trivial afterthoughts, a marketing gimmick to help make the actors feel more human and relatable. In addition to finding them funny, part of the joy I experience comes from the evidence they provide that everyone makes mistakes now and then.

One day, I’ll go through the various version of posts I’ve written and post the outtakes. Some of them, I imagine, must be pretty funny.

Going to the Movies

I am not what you would call a movie-goer. I enjoy movies, but I don’t enjoy the experience of going to a movie theater to see one. For the last four years, I only get to a theater about once a year, usually in December, when we are visiting family in the southern gulf coast of Florida. I don’t mind that. There is a huge theater nearby and because all the locals seem to leave the warm weather for more winter-like climes, we generally have the place to ourselves. When you think about it, that’s really not much different from watching the show in your own home.

A movie costs a fortune to go see. A ticket averages $8.61 in 2015. Popcorn, candy and drinks can easily run $25. Then there’s the babysitter, who gets $10-15/hour. If Kelly and I go to a movie, we can plan to spend $80. Or, we could wait of the movie to come out on Netflix and pay substantially less.

I suppose if the movie-going experience was different I might be more interested. My grandfather always referred to movies as “pictures” as in, “The Goonies was a great picture.” I like that. There is a glamor to the metaphor that “movie” lacks. When I think of going to see a motion picture, I imagine getting dressed up, being led to our seats by an usher. Seeing a picture was an experience, like going to a Broadway show.

When I do get to the movies, if the showtime is listed as 7 pm, I can expect 10 minutes of advertisements followed by twenty minutes of previews. Then the lights dim and clever cartoons remind me to silence my cell phone, and refrain from talking during the program. “What program?” I wonder, “the movie hasn’t even started yet.”

As ironic as it may be, movie theaters seem antiquated to me. In an age when we can watch movies on our ultra-high definition, 3-D flat screen television sets, what is the point of driving to a crowded theater to watch a movie? Certainly not for the glamour of the experience. It would not surprise me if, within the next decade, studios and distributors realize this, too, and decide to eliminate the middle man entirely. I’d pay more than $8.61 to be able to sit in my family room, with my a bucket of popcorn I made in my own microwave, and beer from my refrigerator , and watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the day it was released. It doesn’t have to be a solitary event, either. I can invite my friends over and we can all watch the movie together. No fighting for parking spot, or jockeying for an ideal showing time.

Going to the movies sounded fun in its heyday, when it really a night out on the town. Going to the movies even sounded fun in the days before every house had air conditioning and the movie theater did, thus offering a cool reprieve to hot summer days. Those days are gone. Theaters have evolved, as has theater-going. The next logic step if for the theaters themselves to take a bow, and head off into the wings of history.