Category: essays

How I Read the Newspaper

In fifth grade, at Cedar Hill Elementary school, I was taught how to read a newspaper. We were taught how to identify the lead story, what it meant when a story was “above the fold.” I even recall learning how to read the stock market pages in our math class. I don’t know if they still teach students how to read a newspaper, especially with so many papers succumbing to the Internet. How I read a newspaper has evolved in the three decades since that fifth grade class. Here is how I read a newspaper today

Washington Post

1. I start with the obituaries, which, in the Washington Post, appear in the Metro section. People are always being reported as dead online. I prefer to get news of a death from a more reliable source.

2. I skim the Metro section, reading the digest and skimming the rest, unless something catches my eye.

3. I skim the Style section for entertainment news. I skim all of the shows and movies that I never watch or see. While some of the plots sound interested, they just aren’t interesting enough to get me to the theater.

4. I skim the Sports section. In baseball season, I read all of the box scores. In football season, I look for baseball transactions. If it’s football season and I know I’m going to be meeting someone who follows football, I’ll read through the football news so that I can at least hold my own in the conversation. I like Tom Boswell, but I’ve got to say that the Los Angeles Times covers baseball much better than the Washington Post.

5. I skim the front page section. I probably only read 2-3 full articles on any given day, but I glance at all of the headlines.

It takes me between 20-30 minutes to get through the paper each morning this way.

When I travel, I try to read the local papers. I particularly enjoy this when I’m in a small town. Small town papers are the best. I still maintain the same basic process for going through the paper, but I delight in the insular reporting of small town papers. Especially the crime reports.

Now, some folks may be wondering why I read the news paper when I can get the same articles online. After all, I am the paperless guy, right? The answer is that I read on screens all day, and reading the newspaper is my one way of starting the day without looking at a screen. My eyes thank me for it.

I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who do the daily crossword in pen. Unfortunately, I have no time for the daily crossword, and even if I did, I generally don’t read the articles closely enough to be able to finish one puzzle before the next one comes out.

Dentist Jokes at the Doctor’s Office

I have taken it upon myself to entertain the medical world. Whenever I have a dentist or doctor appointment, I do my best to make jokes. When asked how much I weight, I give my weight in kilograms. When asked how tall I am, I give my height in centimeters1. When a nurse draws blood, I’ll gasp. “Are you alright?” she’ll ask. “Feeling faint?” To which I’ll reply, “No, not all. Just surprised. I expected the blood to be green.”

Sometimes the jokes go over well. Sometimes the fall flat. I like to think there are more of the former than the latter. I also like to think that by making the doctors and nurses smile, I’m making their day a little easier.

My annual physical this morning takes the cake. Never again, I suppose, will I achieve the kind of laugh that I got for a joke I’ve used repeated at the dentist office. And here I was at my doctor’s office.

At the dentist, the person cleaning my teeth will routinely asked me if I floss.

“Yes,” I say.

The hygienist eyes me suspiciously and then says, “How often.”

To which I reply, in complete deadpan, “Twice a year.”

More often than not, there is not laugh. Instead, I get a lecture on the importance of flossing every day. I know the importance of flossing every day. I also know that there are people who are flossers and people who are not, and I fall into the latter category. That my visits to the dentist generally don’t result in the discovery of cavities only bolsters my position. Occasionally I’ll get a smile at the joke—followed, of course, by a lecture.

At the doctor, I didn’t expect to be asked about my teeth. But it was a comprehensive physical. They asked me about when I last got my vision tested, did I have a flu shot, do I see the dentist regularly. I answered yes to all of these.

The nurse, who was standing by a computer terminal in the small exam room, then said, “Do you floss?”

“Yes,” I said.

“How often.”

“Twice a year,” I said.

She gave me an odd look. Half a beat passed. And then she fell to the floor laughing. The reaction took me completely by surprise. She couldn’t stop laughing. She regained her standing position, and returned to the terminal, only to collapse into laughter once again. I was delighted. She was still smiling when she left the room.

Walking home from the appointment (yes, I walked to the doctor’s office), I tried to think why the joke worked so well with the nurse, and only sometimes gets a smile at the dentist’s office. I came up with two thoughts:

1. The delivery was perfect. I hadn’t expected the question, but I had the answer loaded and ready, and there no hesitation between the question and my clear and instant response.

2. It was a completely unexpected answer, after a rash of standard answers. Vision checked? March. Flu shot? October. Regular dental exams? Yes. Floss? Yes? How often? Twice a year. POW!

The incident made me realize just how hard a standup comic’s job really is. The bit that I did that got such a good laugh took about a minute. I’ve been using the line for years, but I finally found the right delivery. If I were writing a standup routine, I’d now have exactly one minute of good material.

At that rate, it would take me years to come up with enough material to do a twenty minute set.

  1. Readers outside the United States might not find this amusing. What you must remember is that the United States still uses the English system of measurement. Which probably explains a lot about our relative conservatism.

Computers Have Terrible Names

Computers have terrible names. Back in the early days, some thought was put to giving a computer a decent name. In 1944 there was Colossus, two versions of which helped break German codes at the end of the Second World War. Colossus packs a punch. There was a wooden roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain named Colossus. If the name is good enough for a thrill ride, it should be good enough for a collection of vacuum tubes. ENIAC was not an inspired name. But Whirlwind, and Pegasus showed imagination.

Around the time the personal computer made its debut, the names became dull. This becomes evident when compared to the names of another popular machine, the automobile. A Ford Mustang has gravitas. A Timex Sinclair 1000, not so much. A TRS-80 (we called them “Trash-80s”) sounded more like a science-fictional robot, than a computer. A Commodore 64 always made me think of a Naval officer in a Metropolis-like bureaucracy. Time did nothing to improve upon these names. An IBM ThinkPad never send chills down my spine the way a Corvette Stingray does. The Dell Latitude makes me think of cold weather.

Why is it that marketing departments have done such a poor job naming computers? Car names never sound like cars, but it is as if adding a lot of digits to the name makes the computer sound more computery. Dell Latitude D6000. IBM ThinkPad x60. Apple has a good brand, but the names don’t inspire confidence. iMac, PowerBook, and MacBook don’t do much for me. Of the three, PowerBook comes closest to stirring something in me.

Good names engulf the thing that they represent. “What do you drive?” someone asks. “A Mustang,” comes the reply. No need to include the manufacturer. Just Mustang. Like Madonna. Or Prince. Sure, you could say you have an Apple. But it isn’t the same. I love my Apple computers, but naming machinery after fruit seems strange to me. After all, when a car doesn’t work we call it a lemon.

The marketing departments of computer companies could have done much better. Ford already had the Mustang, but IBM could have called their PC the Lightning. The IBM Lightning. That has a ring to it. Instead of, “You know what I’ve got in the garage? A ’66 Tempest,” you might have heard someone saying, “You know what I’ve got in the den? A ’84 Lightning. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

As someone who has worked in IT for 22 years, there isn’t a computer name I’ve come across that has caught my attention the way the name of other types of machines do. Even typewriters had better names than computers. My portable Royal QuietComfort DeLuxe rolls off the tongue. Of course, if someone asked me what kind of typewriter I used, I’d say, “A Royal.” And if I was looking to impress that someone, I’d add, “A manual.”

Instead, I’m stuck with my Dell Precision laptop, which I refer to, vaguely, as “my laptop.” At home, I’ve got my iMac, and MacBook. I like to think of these two computers as Fat Man and Little Boy. Both are somewhat dated. I can’t even use AirDrop on my iMac.

Computer manufacturers could have followed the lead of car makers. New models would be recognized by the year in which they were produced. Thus, I might have an ’16 Lightning. And since I tend to be fond of old things, I’d look wistful upon my friend who still manages to operate a classic ’84 Lightning. You know, the one with two front-facing 5-1/4-inch floppy drives and 4 megabytes of RAM.

Yeah, those were the days.

2 Annotated Pages in My Field Notes Notebook

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve been using notebooks more and more. I especially like using my Field Notes notebook. I carry one around with me everywhere. I use the notebook for jotting down things I need to remember, but ultimate can discard. This differs from how I use my Evernote Moleskine notebook. The notes there are things I will refer to again and again.

The best way to explain how I use my Field Notes notebooks is to show you. So below is a snapshot of two very typical pages in my current Field Notes notebook. Each entry has a number, and the number corresponds to the numbers below.

Annotated Field Notes
Click to enlarge

1. A blog posts ideas. If I decide to write the post, I’ll cross it out after it is written (see #8 below).

2. A story idea. In this case, the idea is really something that would fit within another story idea.

3. Things I want to do. Here, the note refers to a spreadsheet I want to create that tracks the number of requests I get to write something vs. the number that actually pay for writing. I thought it would be an interesting metric to track in 2016.

4. When listening to audiobooks, I’ll jot down notes that strike me as interesting. In this case, I was listening to Carl Reiner’s I Remember Me, and was struck by his mention of Allaben Acres, because I knew that to be the place that Isaac Asimov and his first wife, Gertrude, spent their honeymoon—at around the same time that Reiner was there.

5. Another blog post idea.

6. An observation I made while eating lunch at an IHOP near Starke, Florida. All of the waitresses in the restaurant would, when asking the cook a question, refer to him as “Sir.” I thought it was unusual, and might be something I could use in a story.

7. Something I read in Carl Reiner’s I Just Remembered. It was a translation of a German quote, and I wanted to look it up. I did look it up, but didn’t have much success finding the original quote.

8. Another blog post idea. I crossed it out after I wrote it.

9. I always write down the name of our server at restaurants. Otherwise, I won’t remember it.

10. After all of the Carl Reiner reading, I found out that he and Mel Brooks had done an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The note reminded me to watch it.

11. I was going over to Cafe Rio to get dinner for the family, so I jotted down everyone’s order.

12. I had quite a few things I wanted to get done on Sunday, so I made a list. I managed to get all of them done, including changing the tire myself.

13. The Little Miss fell asleep watching a movie. I knew she’d want to start the movie from where she left off, so I jotted down the time of the movie when I noticed her asleep, so I’d know where to restart it when she woke up.

14. I saw an ad for something called “Wipe New” that reminded me I wanted to clean the headlights on the car. I ended up getting Turtle Wax instead.

15. I was running to the store, and Kelly asked me to pick up a few other things.

These two pages are typical of what fills my Field Notes notebooks. As I said, it is all ephemeral, a kind of temporary cache for my aging memory. But it works surprisingly well.

A Fondness for Old Things

In my day job, I work with technology. My desk has two large flat screen monitors, plus my laptop screen. I have a fancy Cisco IP phone that can do all sorts of neat tricks. While writing code, I sometimes listen to music streamed from satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Instead of phone calls, I have video chats. I carry a mobile phone that is often smarter than I am. I am inundated by cables and wires of all shapes and lengths. I am constantly checking to see if this device or that requires charging. All of this technology has creeped up on my in steady increments over the years. Perhaps because I have been part of this explosion of information technology for the better part of 22 years, I have developed a fondness for older, simpler things.

Office Desk

I envy those writers who worked on typewriters. It makes no difference to me whether the typewriter was electric or manual, there is a minimalist quality to the idea of writing on a typewriter. I have written on typewriters, but not since I began to write with the intention of selling what I wrote. I own my grandfather’s Royal QuietComfort Deluxe manual typewriter, and instead of hiding it away as an antique, it sits in our living room, and the kids are free to tap on the keys, and watch the typebars strike the ribbon. Writing used to be noisy.

When I was a kid, we had a telephone mounted to the wall in the kitchen. It’s ring was mechanical. A signal would activate a bell within the phone and produce an unmistakable RING! This sound cannot be reproduced by ring tones on an iPhone today because those rings tones are all digital. The mechanical sound of the bell is unique. My grandparent’s had a rotary phone which took forever to place a call. It seemed like every number I dialed had lots of 8s, 9s, and 0s, and few 1s and 2s. When talking on the phone, you were leashed to the radius of the cord. As I tend to multitask when I am on the phone, only half paying attention to what the person is saying, I think a corded phone that leashed me in place would be a useful feature today to help me focus on the call at hand.

My dad had a pocket calculator that I used to play with as a kid. In high school I had a scientific calculator, but even then I preferred the pocket variety. Our local Target still sells pocket calculators, but I don’t know if anyone actually buys them. My iPhone has a calculator built into it. What’s more, I can simply say, “Hey Siri, what’s 40 times 52?” and she will respond, “It’s 2,080.”

Music is digitally remastered today, but I sometimes miss the sound of records playing on a turntable, with all of the hisses and pops that went along with it. I listened to the Grease soundtrack over and over again on a turntable. I also listened to Spider-Man adventures on 45s. I miss the sounds of records. I noticed recently that Barnes & Noble carries records. These aren’t old used albums, but newly made “retro” albums. I wonder how they sound.

And what I wouldn’t give for the elegance and comfort of a DC-3 over a 737-900. It might have taken longer to get somewhere, but you went in style. First class today could not approach tourist class on a DC-3.

I feel like an old man, complaining how “back in my day…” But many of the old things I am fond of are things from long before my day. They are things I read about in memoirs and history books, or experienced second-hand, through the stories my grandfather told me. The past always seems simpler. Perhaps my fondness isn’t for old things after all, but for simpler times.

I suppose many people yearn for simpler times. Even the people who lived in simpler times probably sighed, and dreamed of the simpler times of their parents or grandparents.

The Flat Tire

We have been lucky when it comes to flat tires. We’ve driven round-trip from Virginia to Florida four times without a flat. We’ve driven from Virginia to Maine without a flat. We’ve driven dozens of times between Virginia and New York and have never pulled over because of a flat tire. We’ve had tire problems. Nails and screws and things like that. I fill up the tire and then drive to the mechanic to have it patched.

Yesterday, we arrived home from Florida, after 1,100 miles of driving in just 2 days. When I got out of the car, I looked to where our second car had been sitting unused for two weeks and noticed a completely flat right rear tire.

Flat tire

Ah, well, I thought. It was bound to happen at some point. We’d just arrived home and hadn’t even unpacked the car. We were in no rush, so I figured I’d deal with the flat the next day. My initial thought was just to call AAA and have them come by and swap out the flat for the spare.

When I woke up this morning, I had a different thought. The one disadvantage to not having the occasional flat tire is not getting the experience of changing a flat. My grandfather—who had been an auto mechanic most of his life—had taught me how to change a flat. But since I never had a flat tire, I never had the need to use that experience. Laying in bed this morning I thought: forget the Automobile club, I’ll do it myself.

I did it myself, the way my grandfather taught me. I jacked up the car just enough so that the tire was about to leave the ground. I loosened the nuts. Then I jacked up the car enough to remove the old tire, and replace it with the new one. It was easy, save one little mistake.

I should have checked the air pressure in the spare before putting it on. It turned out that the spare tire, having never been used, and having been mounted on the car for years, needed air. After removing the spare, I tossed it into the back of the other car, drove to the local service station, and filled it with air, 44 PSI, as recommended on the tire. I got back, put the tire on car, tighten the bolts, lowered the car, and gave each bolt a final crank. And the spare has now successfully replaced the flat tire.

Fixed tire

The whole process, including driving to the local service station to put air in the spare tire, took under an hour. That might sound long, and perhaps it is, but I hadn’t changed a tire since my grandfather taught me how to do it as a teenager.

And you know what? I’m glad I didn’t call AAA. I’m glad I changed the tire myself. If nothing else, it gave me the confidence to know that, when the time comes and we do have a flat on one of our road trips, I don’t have to wait for AAA or a tow truck to help put on a spare. I know how to do it myself.

Oh, and the reason the tire had gone flat in the first place, even though the car had been sitting there for two weeks while we were on vacation? In inspecting it after I removed it, I found a tiny screw embedded in the tread.

If You Ever Take an 11-Hour Drive, Let Carl Reiner Ride Shotgun

If you ever take an 11 hour drive, let Carl Reiner ride shotgun. On Friday, we left Florida after nearly two weeks, and began the 1,100 mile drive home. We decided to try it in two days, instead of three. This made for a 575 mile drive on Friday. Google Maps told me it would take 8 hours and 15 minutes. Factoring in lunch, and a gas stop, I figured 9 to 9-1/2 hours. It ended up taking 11 hours.

On Thursday, having finished both of Dick Van Dyke’s memoirs, I found myself wanting more. Carl Reiner seemed like the natural  choice. I found two of Reiner’s memoirs on Audible: I Remember Me (2013), and I Just Remembered (2014). I began listening to I Remember Me yesterday, and continued listening to it about an hour after we started our drive this morning. When that book ended, I immediately started listening to I Just Remembered.

I Remember Me by Carl Reiner

The books are hilarious. I lost count of how many times I burst out laughing while listening to the books on the drive home. Carl Reiner narrated his own books. I listened to the book for nearly nine of the eleven hours it took us to drive from southern Florida to Santee, South Carolina, and it was as if Carl Reiner was sitting in the passenger seat, regaling me with stories of his more than seven decades in show business. The time flew by.

Part of what drew me to the books was how much I enjoyed Dick Van Dyke’s memoirs. Part of what drew me to it was Carl Reiner’s diverse career in Hollywood: actor, singer, writer, director, producer. Part of what drew me to it is that I enjoy books about hard workers, and Carl Reiner certainly seemed to fit the bill. After all, at 93, he is still working.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Santee, I’d finished the second Carl Reiner book. We checked in to the hotel, and then headed to a nearby restaurant for a late (for us) dinner. By the time we got back to the hotel room, I was beat. But I wanted a little more Carl Reiner. So I watched the episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee featuring Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. After that, I couldn’t stop. I spent about 2 hours watching episodes of Seinfeld’s hilarious series.

On Saturday, we faced a 7 hour drive. Arriving home just before 5 pm, the trip took 10 hours. Still enjoying the celebrity memoirs, I listened, in its entirety, to Carol Burnett’s This Time Together. I enjoyed it almost as much as Carl Reiner’s books. It kept me laughing for much of the drive home. It even produced a few tears.

The best driving advice I have to offer is: always wear a seatbelt.

The second best driving advice I have to offer: bring a celebrity along with you to regale you with stories of Hollywood.

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:


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