Category: observations

Recommendation: UsesThis

I am fascinated by how people work. It is part of the reason I love reading biographies. I’m always on the lookout for little nuggets of inspiration and ideas that I find when reading them. In a biography of Thomas Jefferson I learned about commonplace books. In a biography of John Quincy Adams, I stole his line-a-day diary idea as an index for my own diary. I’ve tried sharing my own methods on this blog, to say nothing of the interview I gave in Lifehacker’s How I Work Series back in 2014.

You can imagine, therefore, how delighted I was to come across UsesThis the other day while doing a Google search. UsesThis has short interviews with hundreds of people from all walks of life, talking about how they work and the tools that they use.

The site has interviews beginning way back in January 2009 and right through the present. It is fascinating to see how rapidly some tools change over that 12 years span.

If anyone has an interest in how people work and the tools they use, I’d urge you to check out UsesThis. It’s a whole lot of fun.

Q-tips and Other Afternoon Musings

We were out of Q-tips and I went to the store to buy more earlier today. I wasn’t entirely sure which aisle they were in, but figured they’d be in the same aisle as things like medicine and nail polish remover. There was store employee stocking shelves on that aisle and I asked where Q-tips were.

“Where what is?” he asked.

“Q-tips,” I said.



This went on a for bit. Masks protect us from death and dismantle much of our person-to-person communication system. Finally he said, “What is it?”

That gave me pause. I stood there realizing that I had no idea how to describe what a Q-tip was. “A stick with a cotton part on each end,” is what came to mind. I imagined him directing me to cotton candy mix.

“What’s it used for?”

Again, I was stumped. After a pause I said, “Uh, for cleaning things.”

“You’ll probably found them on aisle nine,” he said, clearly relieved.

I thanked him and headed back the way I’d come to find my way over to aisle nine. I got ten feet and found the Q-tips.

Thinking about this made me wonder. Q-tips is a name brand, like Band-Aid. I don’t know what to call the things other than Q-tips, but this guy had no idea what a Q-tip was, even after my feeble attempts at describing it. Looking at the box of Q-tips afterward, I see they describe themselves as “cotton swaps.” That’s not how I would have described them. If I’d asked for cotton swabs, I’d have expected to be directed to cotton balls, which is not what I was looking for.

Q-tips are also described (on the box) as “The Ultimate Home and Beauty Tool.” No offense to Q-tips, but it is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a home tool. A screwdriver, a hammer, a wrench–those are the things that come to mind. I think the good people at Unilever are exaggerating a bit when they refer to Q-tips as the “ultimate” home or beauty tool.

The box indicated that Q-tips have a variety of uses, and they call out four:

  1. Beauty
  2. First aid
  3. Baby care
  4. Home & electronics

With the exception of the last item (I have used Q-tips to help clean small electronics), I’ve never used Q-tips for any those other uses. In fact, the one thing I do use Q-tips for–cleaning my ears after a shower–isn’t even listed as use.

My quarterly issue of UCR Magazine (UC Riverside being my alma mater) arrived in the mail today. When this magazine arrives, the first thing I always do is turn to the in memorium pages to see who died and if I knew them. I suppose this is no different to my starting the morning paper with the obituaries, but it still seems a little morbid to me.

Next, I turn to the class notes to see if anyone I know has been mentioned. I was in the class of ’94 and I rarely see anyone mentioned from that class. When I do, I rarely recall the person mentioned. It seems that our class was relatively unremarkable.

I’ve always wondered about those class note. I used to think that the staff of the UCR Magazine kept tabs on the names of alumni and would write brief notes about things they discovered. At some point, however, I noted that at the bottom of the page, there is this message:

“Have an update? Submit a class note at…” followed by a website. Which means the people themselves are submitting updates. I’ve seen updates about people with new books coming out (3 of the updates in the current issue are about forthcoming books), but never realized that the author’s themselves were submitting these. I don’t think I could have brought myself to submit a note saying that my latest story was appearing in Analog Science Fiction. On the other hand, I would be up for submitting parodies of updates. Here is one update that I could imagine submitting today:

Jamie Todd Rubin ’94’, was asked by a store clerk what a Q-tip was for. He was unable to come up with a good answer. So much for that 4-year education in a top-tier California university.

Hotel Alarm Clocks

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

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

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

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

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

Incongruities on the Bike Path

A Florida bike path

Yesterday, I saw something on the bike path that I’ve never seen before in the dozen years we’ve been coming down to this part of Florida. In pre-COVID times, the bike paths here are busy, and they haven’t been empty this time around either. I’ve seen unusual things on these paths: strange bikes, unusual attire, older couples on hover-boards.

Some of the bike paths are narrow, especially those within the planned communities. But alongside the roads that connect those commute the world at large, they are roomier, wider. We were driving along one of those roads yesterday watching the bikers and walkers when suddenly we saw them: two ladies atop full-sized horses, trotting lazily along the bike path.

Horses? On a Florida bike path?

We past them in an instant, and they were gone, out of sight. But last night, while laying in bed, I thought about those ladies on the horses. Did they wake up that morning, and say to themselves, “Instead of biking, let’s take the horses out for a stroll this morning!” It occurred to me that I know of nowhere nearby where the horses might, well, horse around. Do they keep these horses in their back yard? In the Florida Room, perhaps?

And as I drifted off to sleep, my last waking thought was: If I thought horses were on odd site on the bike path, what of the biker, zooming along around a gentle curve, who suddenly rides through a large, steaming pile of horse dung?

Flicker Vertigo

Earlier, I mentioned our recent spate of warm weather in December. As pleasant as unexpected warm weather can be (if you enjoy that sort of thing a week before winter officially begins), there can be unpleasant side-effects. A case in point took place on Saturday.

Around lunchtime, I had a craving for a ham and cheese sandwich, but lacked any ham in the refrigerator to throw a sandwich together. The weather was warm, so I decided to walk to the local Subway and get a sandwich there. I stuffed my Kindle into my back pocket, and made the short walk to Subway.

Subway was packed, but of course, it was Saturday right around lunchtime. I ordered a cold cut combo (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, honey mustard, mayo, oil and vinegar, and salt and pepper) and took the sandwich and drink to one of the few empty tables, where I sat to eat.

I can’t just sit and eat, so I pulled out my Kindle, set it on the table beside my sandwich, and began to read. After a minute or so, I noticed that it was difficult to read because my screen was flickering, and that flicker made it uncomfortable to look at the virtual page for long.

The source of the flickering was not my Kindle. The ceiling fans in the restaurant had been turned on, and someone had the brilliant insight to place the fans so that the fan blades swung just below the pocket ceiling lights. The rapid spinning of the blades in front of these lights caused a flicker throughout the seating area of the restaurant. It reminded me of the flicker vertigo I was warned about back when I was learning to become a pilot.

This design is not ideal, but in December it shouldn’t be a problem because the ceiling fans aren’t typically running in December. Instead, the heat is on and there is a sign on the door reminding customers to close the door behind them so that the cold air stays outside.

But on Saturday it was 70 and the restaurant was crowded and that meant that the ceiling fans had to be turned on to keep the air circulating. The poor design of placing those fans just below the light fixtures caused the flicking that made it impossible for me to read while eating my sandwich.

You can see why I prefer my weather to stay within its seasonal boundaries. When it drifts, we get chaos.

June in January

You wouldn’t know it is mid-December by the look of things here in northern Virginia. On Saturday night, we went with friends to a Christmas light show where you walk through gardens decorated with all kinds of Christmas lights. We attended this event a few years ago bundled up in coats and hats and glove. This year, we didn’t even bother with jackets. The temperature had reached 70 during the day.

Sunday was much the same, and we did not want to waste it indoors. After taking the kids for “summer” haircuts in the morning, we walked to the local park, and the kids played for a few hours. Once again, jackets were optional as the outdoor temperatures were at or near 70 ℉. In both cases, everyone else seemed to be enjoying the weather. Lots of people were in their yards raking leaves. The playgrounds at the park were full. The bike paths were busy with traffic.

Last year at this time temperatures were often down into the single digits. I have to admit that in December, I prefer the cold to the warm. I like having seasons. December is supposed to be cold. It is a time for wool coats and hats and gloves. You can walk outside and fill your lungs with a deep breath of cold air.

Then, too, we head down to Florida for a weeks in December for the holidays. We drive, and there is nothing I like better than to pull away from the house while it cold and a light snow is falling, only to arrive in Florida a few days later, with the sun shining and the temperatures in the 80s.

Warm December weather messes with that. It’s not the same when you leave a place that is 70 degrees for a place that is 80 degrees, as it is when you leave a place that is 7 degrees for a place that is 80 degrees.

I have lived in climates where there is not much variation in temperature and season. Los Angeles was hot in the summer and fall, mild in the winter, and pleasant for a few weeks in the spring. I like summer and winter, but I also enjoy the transitions between them. I like especially like spring after a particularly cold and snowy winter. I don’t know how else one comes to appreciate spring without such winters.

Fortunately, we only have another day or two of this June in January weather. It looks as if, by the time we are ready to head for Florida, we’ll be back in to the 40s by day, and the 20s by night. Cold enough to enjoy the gradual temperature change as we make our way south on I-95.

Rounding Up

On Saturday, the yellow “low fuel” warning light blinked on in the Kia, and after picking up the Little Man from a friend’s house, we stopped to fill up. A local station had gas listed for $1.96/gallon, which is about as low as I’ve seen around here. We stopped. I pumped. I filled the tank—about 16 gallons—for under $30.

Gas Prices

My grandfather and three of his brothers ran a service station in the Bronx for thirty years. He taught me many things about cars, but the lesson that sticks our first and foremost in my mind is that people tend to overlook the 9/10 at the end of the price listed for gasoline. This is why I said I paid $1.96 per gallon, not $1.95.

Rounding up might not seem like much of a difference, but it is a more accurate reflection of what you really pay. I paid about 16 cents more than I would have if the gasoline was actually priced at $1.95 (in which case it would have been listed at $1.95 and 9/10). People think of first three numbers, my grandfather assured me, and ignored that last fraction of a penny. Not much difference on an individual transaction, but consider how much gasoline is purchased each year, and that mental difference adds up.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says 136.78 billion gallons of gas were consumed in the United States in 2014. Assume the price of a gas was $2.00 per gallon ($2.00-9/10). Assume that most people ignore that fraction at the end and believe they are paying a flat $2/gallon. Based on this, we would assume that $273.56 billion worth of gasoline was sold in 2014. We would be wrong. Tacking on that addition 9/10-cent per gallon adds $1.23 billion to the total. Claiming I paid $1.95 and ignoring that 9/10-cent/gallon adds up to over a billion dollars a year.

This is why I always round up.

You would think this gimmick, which works so well for the gasoline industry, would work well in other industries. But I haven’t seen it adopted anywhere but gas stations. And I have yet to see a gas station buck the tide, and say, you know what, we’re going to round up to the nearest penny, and to hell with the 9/10 nonsense. I’d buy gas from a station that listed their price as an even $1.96 over a station that listed it as $1.95 9/10.

Still, it is a neat trick. I wonder if it would work for writers. Could I ask for 25-9/10th cents per word, instead of 25 cents? That would mean an extra 9 cents for every ten words that I wrote. Even in a short piece like this, it amounts to an additional $4.50.

Just enough to get me 2.297 gallons of gas.

Answering the Telephone

Somehow, I have managed to accumulate four phone numbers. There is the land-line at home; my personal mobile number; my work mobile number; and my Google Voice number that I use in freelancing work. I try to consolidate things. My personal mobile number forwards automatically to my work mobile number, since I don’t want to carry around two mobile phones. My Google Voice number forwards to my personal mobile. So in actuality, calling one of my numbers will virtually always reach me on my mobile number.

I dislike talking on the phone, and as time has passed, I find that I no longer answer phone numbers that I don’t recognize. With four phone numbers from which to attack, the number of unrecognized numbers goes up, despite having enrolled each of the four numbers in the DO NOT CALL registry.

The phone is there for my convenience, and there is no reason I have to take a call when the phone rings. This has virtually eliminated my interactions with telemarketers. I never recognize the number, so I never answer. If they choose to leave a voice mail message, I’ll listen to it, but it is rare that they do. And on those occasions that I find an automated message in my voice mail box, it confirms that it was a telemarketer, and I can block the number on my iPhone so that they can no longer reach me.

Many people I know seem to feel compelled to answer every call that comes in. I ignore most of the calls I get. Unless a name that I recognize flashes on my screen, I send the call to voicemail without a second thought. It is too easy to get trapped on the phone by an unrecognized number. Inevitably, I’ll see a number that I think looks familiar, and decide to answer it. Invariable it is some organization looking for money. “Consider a small donation of $50,” they ask. “Alright, send me the information, and I’ll consider it for next year’s donation budget. This year’s budget is already set.”

That does not deter the caller. “How about $25?” they ask. To which my response is, “We have a set budget for donations each year, which gets allocated before the first of the year. Since all of the money has been allocated, there isn’t an addition $25 to give, I’m afraid. I’m sure you understand the importance of a budget and danger one gets into when they overspend their budget.” This usually ends the call. But it is waste of time to go through in the first place, which is why I stopped answering the phone for numbers I no longer recognize.

I don’t lose any sleep over this. In an emergency, if someone couldn’t reach me on the phone, they would certainly leave a voice mail message. So far as I can tell, I have not missed anything important since I stopped answering numbers I don’t recognize.

Email is my preferred method of communication. It is brief and direct, and it leaves behind a record that I can easily refer to. It is more efficient than a phone call. This is why I try to answer an email I receive as promptly as I can.

I wish that Siri was capable of handling my calls. If a telemarketer called, and I foolishly answered the phone, I wish there was a button I could tap in the Phone app on my iPhone that would transfer the caller to Siri. I don’t mind letting telemarketers talk to Siri.

The Architecture of Time Travel in a Role-Playing Video Game

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about following along with the progress of Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is the peek I’ve gotten into the process behind the scenes of video game development. The Ultima games were my absolute favorites as a kid, and as a software developer (by profession), I’ve always been curious about how they are made. It’s not so much the three-dimensional environment that interests me, but the game on the macro scale. The interweaving stories, and the various games states, and how it is all managed.

My thoughts had drifted to this while eating dinner this evening, and I began to wonder if time travel had ever been an integral element to the architecture of a game universe. I wondered if it was possible to architect the game model to support time travel as an action in the universe. For instance, a player could cast a spell to go back in time to a certain point. Once at that point, they would see the events of the game unfold, as they actually occurred. But now, there would be two instances of the player in the world. The “past” instance would now be an NPC, with a predefined course of action based on what has already happened. The “current” instance would be played from the player’s perspective.

Beyond the plot aspects, I wonder what the architecture of such a game model would look like. It would grow more complex the longer the game is played. And how would you account for changes in the past. Would a new “game universe” be spawned. Could a player cross universes at that point?

I’m not really going anywhere with these thoughts. But I was mostly curious if anything like this had been implemented in a large-scale RPG before.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s story “A Death” in the New Yorker

Stories like Stephen King’s “A Death” in the March 9 issue of the New Yorker go a long way to explaining why I love short fiction. I have this sense–perhaps a false one–that while there is no such thing as the perfect novel, there is a perfect short story. It is as rare as a perfect game in baseball, but it is achievable. Of course, it is not quantifiable the way a perfect game in baseball is. To twist an oft-used expression: I can’t say exactly what makes a story perfect, but I know it when I see it.

I can probably count perfect stories I’ve read on one hand. Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”; Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”; and Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” are three. After reading “A Death” I think I could add it to the list of perfect stories.

What makes a story perfect? Again, it’s hard to say. For me, the voice plays a big part of it, but not all of it. Another element is efficiency, or perhaps a better word is “compactness.” I don’t mean length. I mean the story has just the right amount of each ingredient, not a grain more or a drop less. That, plus the voice, are the two things that jumped out at me when I finished reading “A Death.”

Stephen King has often said that in his second drafts, he takes out everything that isn’t story. “A Death” is a great example of that. There is nothing I could find in it that isn’t story. Everything, every word, every image, every line of dialog contributes to the telling of the whole. It is a story that rests in a precarious balance, like a pitcher who has two outs in the 9th inning of perfect game, and full count on the batter. Take away anything from the story, and it is no longer perfect. Add anything to the story, and it is no longer perfect.

In many ways, while reading “A Death,” I kept thinking to myself that it is a Writer’s story. I enjoyed the story as a reader. But almost enjoyed more as a writer. I enjoyed in the same way a rookie ball player might look over at a seasoned veteran and see the smoothness of their swing, the fluid motion they make ranging for a ball in the field, and think, I want to be able to do that one day. Recognizing this as a writer means that you also recognize that you have the individual skills to make it happen, but not yet the experience to put them together in the right combination to achieve that level of perfection.

Beyond the entertainment value of “A Death,” beyond my awe at the seemingly effortless execution, I finished it thinking, man, I want to be able to do that one day. It’s why I keep reading. And it’s why I keep writing.

4 Elements That Make the Apple Genius Bar Experience Effective

Having been in I.T. for more than twenty years, I am loathe to call technical support numbers or take hardware in for technical support issues. A few months back, when I cracked the screen on my iPhone, I took my phone to the Apple Store and it was fixed in under an hour. A very positive experience.

Recently, I noticed that my iPhone was not charging. I’d plug it into a charger, but nothing would happen. If I spent 10 minutes jiggling the cable I might get it to connect and the phone would charge, but it was a pain. And it was getting worse and worse. So on Tuesday, I made an appointment for the Genius Bar at my local Apple Store. I took the phone in at the appointed time, and ten minutes or so later, I left the store with my phone charging properly again.

Apparently, dust, and grit can accumulate in the cable slot. They blew it out with compressed air (something I should of thought myself, but something which I didn’t happen to have handy, even if I had thought of it), and it has been charging good as new ever since.

These two positive experiences at the Apple Store have impressed me. Ultimately, what we want when we go to technical support is for our problem to be resolved, but I think what we really want is for it to be resolved efficiently with as little hassle as possible. I was able to make my appointment online, for a time that was convenient for me. That was the first positive moment of truth.

I have a real pet-peeve about asking customers for information which is available elsewhere. So when I checked in, I was asked to provide my iCloud account information. I was then asked for which device I needed help. That was all I needed to provide. They had information about my phone and my Apple Care plan without having to ask me to provide the information again.

When I arrived at the Apple Store, it was crowded. I was directed to a person to check me in. This is always slightly nerve-wracking because in the back of my mind, I think, “What if they don’t have my appointment?” But they did. They told me where to wait, and a few minutes later, an apple technician came out to assist me, identified the root of the problem in under a minute, took my phone back to resolve the problem, and returned with my phone five minutes later.

She then did something very important, and often missing in customer service calls: She verified that the problem was fixed in front of me, and before I left the store. The problem was indeed fixed, and hasn’t recurred since.

What I think made the process so painless and effective was four things that Apple has identified that other customer support organizations can learn from:

  1. Make it easy to request help.
  2. Ask only for the information necessary to identify the problem and the hardware (or software) involved.
  3. Have people on staff who know how to triage and resolve problems quickly and accurately.
  4. Verify the fix before the the customer leaves the store.

So kudos once again to Apple. Not only do they make great products and software, but they support them with some of the highest level of customer service that I’ve seen out of a large organization.

All of this has happened before…

While reading about the life of the people of ancient Rome in Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ this morning, I came across this brief, but rather remarkable passage concerning music in Roman life:

Old men mourned that recent composers were abandoning the restraint and dignity of the classic style, and were disordering the soul and nerves of youth with extravagant airs and noisy instruments.

In other words, grown-ups complaints of “that hideous rock-n-roll” (or disco, or rap, or fill-in-your-own-genre) are nothing new, and never have been. Indeed, I’d guess that some wise person living in ancient Rome shook her head ruefully at the thought that the reaction of the elders to the music of the younger generation was nothing new; that it happened in ancient Greece before, and Egypt before that, and so on, and so on, back to the dawn of music’s history.

Or, put another way, grown-ups have been telling kids to get off their lawns for as far back as recorded history can take us.