The new MacBook Pros…wow!

Today’s new MacBook Pro models are the first in a very long time that seem too “pro” for me. Their processor specs make my M1 Mac mini—which is *fantastic*—seem pretty pathetic by comparison. I’m not in the market for a new machine, but I look forward to reading the reviews.

After a long time it feels great to be a Mac user again, because there are really good products up and down the line.

🎮 I ordered a retro handheld 😅

I was very excited early this month for the release of Metroid Dread so I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube of gamers playing through classic Metroid games. Eventually the YouTube algorithm led me to learn about retro handheld devices. These are emulators that can play games from many older systems. I quickly got obsessed with them and ordered one, an Anbernic RG351MP, despite my history of not really liking many of the classic games available on my Nintendo Switch. So, it may be a waste of money, or something I can eventually give to one of my kids, or it will be something I really love. I am looking forward to setting it up, tweaking its firmware, and playing some classic games.

Working on my slide deck, in the zone

I have been diligently working on my InsurTech webinar slide deck this evening. I was so locked in the zone that I forgot about everything else for the last four hours. I completed 20 slides, which is probably about half of the slides I will end up creating entirely. My presentation team partners will be creating the rest.

I don’t have enough time to make my slides look perfect, which is unfortunate. While I have one good visual that I build up throughout the section, most of the images on my slides are just floating out there next to my text, instead of being full-bleed across the slide or otherwise better integrated with my ideas. At least I am using whitespace instead of bullets.

Popularism

I learned about something new today from three separate podcasts I listened to, and a New York Times article I stumbled upon: popularism. It’s an idea that David Shor wrote about that apparently boils down to this: To win voters, Democrats should talk about what is popular rather than focus on racial tensions, identity politics, and calls to dramatically alter government and social systems (“defund the police,” for example, would be out).

What I wondered about this idea is this: Who determines what is popular? What if what is popular is not good? Plenty of popular ideas are amoral and destructive. Isn’t having principles, and now bowing to public pressure, valued in American politics, too? Or is that just posturing?

Breaking things down

I have tons of different “extra-curricular” projects right now, mostly for my job, but also to satisfy my own desire to build, develop, and share. I have systems projects, programming projects, presentations, and a white paper to write. This is on top of my normal job and home life, and my desire to read a book or play Metroid Dread sometimes, too. I have started to break down each project into discrete tasks, and plan for only the next couple. I know my deadlines, but I don’t have hours and hours in a row to work on any of these things. I think this is the way forward. I don’t want to stress myself out when everything becomes due.

An InsurTech webinar

Tonight I started preparing a slide deck for a presentation on the topic of InsurTech that I, and a couple coworkers, will present online next month. I presented on InsurTech several times before, dating all the way back to 2017. This time is different, however, because I have leveled up my presentation skills. I am excited to get the chance to present again, and am embracing the opportunity to find something new to say about technology, insurance, and investments.

This year I have been presenting so much more than I ever have before. One reason, I think, is that we are not doing training in person due to the pandemic. I hope we keep doing webinars; they could be one of my specialities going forward.

Cake day

It’s my birthday today. My in-laws bought me dinner and my wife baked and decorated a delicious birthday cake for me (her best one yet, I think). I am now in a post-cake coma, and will be taking the rest of the night off.

I fixed my office ergonomics and ruined everything else

A few weeks ago, prompted by a flare-up or RSI pain in my wrists and forearms, I moved my keyboard and trackball from my desk (which is a corner desk that is apparently too high for me) to a siding drawer beneath my desktop. Now I have to sit almost a foot further away from where the monitor was, which necessitated moving my monitor forward almost to the edge of my desk. Overall, the change has been beneficial to my RSI (I stopped using a wrist rest for the first time ever), but it ruined everything else.

Now I have no room on my desk for my stuff, can no longer reach my speakers or headphone amp well enough to use them, and, because my trackball is taller than the depth of the keyboard drawer, I can’t close my keyboard drawer. The always-open keyboard drawer interferes with my main desk drawer where I keep my headphone cables. I stopped listening to music at my desk, which brings me joy, anymore because the setup is unworkable. Also, my desktop is a mess now because the monitor is in a stupid place, and I have no place for my iPad, my computer headset, or anything else.

I need a new and different setup, but that is almost impossible for me to get right now. All my current home office furniture came with my house, is glued together, and takes up two entire walls of the room, so it will take some heavy lifting, literally and financially, to make any changes.

Sex Education

My wife and I have been watching Sex Education season three. True to its title, the show actually does weave sex education into its stories and strives to impart sensible information to its audience.

In one of the episodes, a trans student acts completely confused about which of the two sex–specific (boys and girls) sex education classes that the school’s new, conservative principal set up that they should attend. Because the trans character is new to the show, this scene seemed like a zeitgeisty political statement that the show’s writers crammed in, rather than a story beat that grew organically out of the characters and themes of the show.

In this scene, I thought that the trans character was being obtuse. After all, gender isn’t sex. Bodily organs are not identities. I would imagine a transgender person would understand that better than I would. I thought that the character should just go to one class or the other without making a political statement about it. I’m sure the character could just blow off the class without coming to any harm.

My wife and I discussed this scene after the episode was over. I was annoyed by the scene’s apparent politicism, but came to a conclusion about it that probably aligns with the trans character’s thoughts: Segregated boy/girl sex-ed is pointlessly gendered. Bodies have sexual organs, both external and internal. It would be good to know how they work, whichever ones you have. In fact, because of this, it makes sense to teach everybody, all together, how everybody’s sexual organs work and how reproduction works, too (pregnancy, childbirth, the whole thing). Perhaps that isn’t done because kids are too immature to handle it. I bet, though, that it isn’t done because adults are too embarrassed to do it.

In Praise of Folly

One of the more memorable books I read in college was assigned to me in comparative literature class: Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly. It is an exploration of human folly, written during the Renaissance by Erasmus, who was a philosopher and theologian, as an elaborate inside joke for his friend, Sir Thomas More. Folly is personified as a particularly vain goddess who praises herself (which is itself folly) for all of the great joys and accidental discoveries that folly brings to our lives.

It was memorable to me because, while folly is ubiquitous, it was something that was almost never well explored in my English-major coursework. (It was discussed in my Shakespeare courses when it came to Bottom and Fallstaff, but that is about it.) Little did I know when I was a twenty-year-old college student that understanding and appreciating that I, too, would be capable or folly, succumb to folly, and see folly in others on a daily basis. Life experience, far more than schooling, has taught me that folly is inevitable and inescapable in life, for both good and for ill. As Erasmus’s essay cheekily suggests, if folly is inevitable, you might as well find something to enjoy in it.

My folly, as a very young adult reading Erasmus for the first time, was thinking that adult life, which I was heading into apace, was going to make sense once I got there.

⌨️ Keybr

I have been practicing typing on Colemak-DH on my Planck keyboard regularly all week, after a two week hiatus. Keybr still has not enabled more than the initial six letters in its typing practice. It assesses my confidence on each key, and it still is not high enough for me to move on to the next letter.

It is slow going, even though I have memorized the layout 95% at this point. Looking at my history on the site, however, shows me that I have improved greatly since I started. I keep going, little by little, each day. I tonic it will be worthwhile in the end. The layout makes so much sense to me on my little ortholinear board, because with it I barely have to move my hands to type, which is pretty cool.

ISO 2145

I never knew there was an ISO standard for numbering document sections. I kind of love it and kind of hate it.

I am the sort of person who developed a deep preference for the ISO 8601 date format, so it may be inevitable that I end up adopting it.

Metroid Dread is really fun. I spent a couple hours on it last night. It is really fun. It is weird not having the morph ball right from the start, though, and you pretty much have to figure out wall jumping is possible on your own.

🎮 Metroid Dread

My copy of Metroid Dread was just delivered. I am so excited to play it, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to start. I’ve got to help out the kids to bed and plan to watch the season finale of Ted Lasso tonight as well.

In anticipation for the new game, over the past few weeks, I played through about most of Metroid and Super Metroid to get back into playing shape for it. The first game is pretty rough, but Super Metroid is a masterpiece. I played through it on a 3-day rental when I was a teenager, and always remembered how great it was. I also dug up my old Metroid Fusion cartridge. I own it but don’t don’t think that my hands are up for playing it anymore on my old Game Boy Advance.

Anyway, Dread is waiting for me, and my backlog of Switch games (I am a sucker for sales) will have to wait a little longer.

A boring dystopia

One of my favorite subreddit names is “a boring dystopia”. It is certainly not one of my favorite subreddits to browse—it is too depressing for that honor—but its name perfectly catches the zeitgeist. So many bad things happening right now are so dreadfully mundane that we don’t even want to think about them.

One aspect of our boring dystopia lately has been the failure of global supply chains to keep up with demand. Derek Thompson wrote about this in The Atlantic this week:

The U.S. economy isn’t yet experiencing a downturn akin to the 1970s period of stagflation. This is something different, and quite strange. Americans are settling into a new phase of the pandemic economy, in which GDP is growing but we’re also suffering from a dearth of a shocking array of things—test kits, car parts, semiconductors, ships, shipping containers, workers. This is the Everything Shortage.

The Everything Shortage is not the result of one big bottleneck in, say, Vietnamese factories or the American trucking industry. We are running low on supplies of all kinds due to a veritable hydra of bottlenecks.

There is a shortage in the labor market, resource shortages, shipping problems, and all other sorts of problems due to the COVID pandemic and to climate change. It seems as if all the just-in-time logistics I learned in business school stopped working all at once. People still want to buy things, which is a silver lining economically speaking, but we are all having trouble getting a bunch of different things. The global supply system is no longer working.

I can’t get certain products for my family on a daily basis. I am thankful I don’t need a car or a refrigerator because the wait times in them are very long right now. It is yet another terribly boring way that it feels absolutely insane to be alive today. Due to climate change, I think supply line shortages and delays are going to get worse before they get better.

Breakthrough!

After hours of struggle last night on an automation project I am doing for work, I had a breakthrough today. I feel good about the project for the first tome in months.

In my experience, robotic process automation (RPA) cannot be coded in the same way as, say, VBA to manipulate data. I am very good at coding in VBA, even though it is my least favorite programming language. VBA was built for traditional programmers like me. I am used to using code to manipulate data, which is how VBA works. I am not used to using programming (not even code, but commands) to manipulate the user interface around the data, which is the most important part of how RPA works.

Automating applications and websites to work on data is tricky for numerous reasons. First, unpredictable things happen at runtime, like error messages for the application or the operating system that pop up and interrupt the program flow. Websites change unpredictably, and what you expect to be there suddenly is gone. In addition, if one step in an automation does not work right, and that is not handled appropriately, the automation will just barrel on and do goodness knows what in the wrong place or in the wrong window or application. Lastly, every action takes an unpredictable amount of time to finish, for a myriad of different reasons. It is hard to predict all of the weird things that might happen at runtime, but you have to deal with them as best you can.

The one thing that has been especially bedeviling to me is that, when an automation (or, colloquially, a bot) runs, the amount of time any task within it takes is completely unpredictable. If the bot does not wait long enough after something finishes, what it needs for the next task (typically a window, menu, or other control) may not even exist yet. The bot I am building would run one day, and fail to finish the next day, solely because my computer ran more slowly sometimes.

I found that my bot started working consistently only after I stopped trying to wait a fixed number of seconds between tasks, but instead told it, every step of the way, to wait until the control it needs to interact with next exists on screen. This leads to a lot more steps that I have to add to the automation, but also to a lot less guesswork about how long a pause is necessary between actions.

I also figured out a better way to wait for long-running data tasks and macros in Excel to finish. It’s simple, but I did not know it was possible until I looked for it today: wait for the mouse cursor to change from the hourglass cursor back to a normal one. It’s just what you would do as a user, but my programmer mindset, always focused on the data rather than on the user interface around the data, made me blind to it for a long time.

With these few changes to my coding approach, my confidence, which admittedly had been shaken by the project, has grown. I now feel that a lot more is possible to build with RPA technology. It just will be more tedious to build it than I would like it to be.

Why did I let that in?

This morning, I just had to click on a news story about somebody’s kid who tragically died of COVID. This evening I just had to listen to a podcast about the Supreme Court’s capricious behavior and what lies ahead in its term. These things didn’t teach me anything, or give me any insights I didn’t already had. Instead they leached me of energy.

Now, when I read an article or listen to a podcast that I know, going in will make me upset, or sad, or depressed, and inevitably does make me upset, or sad, or depressed, I find myself asking myself, automatically, “Why did I let that in?” The emphasis in my internal self-admonishment has recently moved from that to in, and I don’t really know why. I suppose that I have conceded to myself that I cannot avoid the daily torrent of news, gossip, hot takes, and both-sides-isms that pervades the internet. Even if I did avoid them myself, my family members bring them to me eventually, because we are all tapped into it. The trick I want to learn is to be able to observe all the frightful noise of each day’s media storm, but not dwell on it and let it bother me. Whether it bounces off me or passes through me, I don’t want to let it in anymore.

Tough conversations

My daughter learned about slavery and the Civil War today in school. We talked about both—mostly slavery—over dinner. Needless to say, it was a heavy conversation—the first of many about race, racism, and the cracks in the foundation of our country. My daughter was, rightly, very shaken up about what we told her.

It made me think of when I first learned about slavery in detail, when I was in high school. I had two American history teachers who covered slavery. One taught us that slavery was wrong, but also taught us that slaves were not beaten and tortured like popular culture had taught us, because—and this is *gross*—slaves were expensive and slaveowners wouldn’t want to destroy their investment in them. He would have us believe that most slaves were treated fairly well for economic reasons. I don’t think my teacher was a racist, but he drank the racist Kool-Aid: The Lost Cause apologists’ dismissal, “Sure, slavery was bad, but that was in the past. We fixed it. It wasn’t even that bad if you really think about it. Anyway, it’s over now. We don’t have to feel bad about it anymore.”

I remember discussing slavery in his class in the context of moral relativism. (Moral realism was a huge school of thought in the nineties.) We debated how to judge people, like the Founding Fathers, who expressed high ideals about the dignity of humanity while, at the same time, they owned slaves. Is it fair to judge historical figures by today’s standards? These are important discussions to have in a history class. Back then I wanted to believe that these historical figures should be judged only by the standards of their time, both because I wanted them to remain my heroes, and because it seemed unfair to hold them to a standard that they might not have been even aware of.

My other American history teacher stated to the class that slavery is morally wrong, across all time and across all cultures. He minced no words about it: there is no moral relativism when it came to slavery. It’s always wrong to subjugate others. Some things are simply verboten; it doesn’t matter what the society accepts or believes, or what the reasons are behind it. Even if we believe that most slaves were not subjected to frequent physical violence, as the other history teacher claimed, and even if we somehow believe slaver were treated very well, it does not forgive their subjugation, for that is psychological torture and is simply wrong. It doesn’t matter even if society deems such a thing acceptable; people should know innately that certain things are wrong.

His simple lesson was the one that stuck with me. It has colored my thoughts about justice ever since. Moral relativism has certain clear limits. From him I learned that we could judge historical figures by their standards and our own. We don’t have to choose, and it doesn’t even make sense to choose. There are people who created my country who did great and terrible things. To understand them, you have to scrutinize them fully as humans, warts and all.

My parents never talked cogently to me about race when I was growing up. I picked up what they, and everyone else, thought about race slowly and organically. It didn’t help that I grew up in a preponderously white and Catholic area of Connecticut. We, as a region, had some kind of race panic over school desegregation (Scheff v. O’Niell) while I was in high school. I thought then that people’s concern was mostly about differences in class between the cities and the suburbs. Now I know I was naive. White people didn’t want their kids to mix with black kids, just like in Boston. I remember everybody being angry about the issue, but nothing ever happened that affected me or my town’s schools, as far as I know.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I lived and worked in multi-racial settings. I learned a lot about how similar we all are.

Don’t mistake domain-specific knowledge for intellect.

While you’re at it, don’t compare yourself to other people.

Gratitude

Today, to thank my in-laws for all the help they give to my family (which is a lot), I cooked them a nice dinner—chili and cornbread, which they love—and my daughter wrote them a thank-you note for the various nice things they do for her. I am trying to teach my children to express gratitude. I’m not sure that part was completely successful, but we all had a great time.

You are not your work

I have two seemingly conflicting ideas in my mind right now:

  • You are what you do.
  • You are not your job.

You are what you do.

Annie Dillard wrote, “how you spend your days is how you spend your lives.” That thought has guided me since I read that, in an A.P. English class my senior year of high school.

Action defines who you really are, but I have learned that it does not always inform who you think you are.

You are not your job.

When meeting somebody new, It have always hated the question, “What do you do?” The question really means, “What is your job?” The answer leads to value judgments about the other person: wealth, intelligence, privilege, and so on. It is unfair and reductive. I am not my job. Knowing what I do for a living doesn’t say that much about what I do in life.

The story is less important than the telling

Today I listened to a lecture that Stephen Fry gave to Nokia Bell Labs a few years ago. He told stories about Pandora’s Box, about the invention of chess, about how doubling grains of rice on each square of a chessboard will eventually lead to counts of rice grains larger than the number of atoms in the known universe, about the founding of Intel, and so on. Stephen Fry’s stories were old, familiar, and, many of them, not literally true—but he connected them together to his ideas about technology and its effect on humanity in ways that were central to his thesis. The overall effect was very compelling to me.

One of the greatest things in life is to hear or read a good story, well told. When a storyteller tells multiple stories, makes connections between them, and links them to new stories and new ideas in an entirely new context, then something new and extraordinary can result from it: One can share new ideas, new ways of thinking, and easier ways for people to remember these ideas and ways of thinking. The stories can be fun and memorable. The connections between them can be intellectually or emotionally exciting.

There are far fewer good stories in the world than ways to tell them. Rather than worry about retelling a familiar tale, find an effective way to tell it, and mine it for ideas and themes that can connect to the story that you want to tell, or to the topic you want to speak about. Narratives are important because they are entertaining and memorable. Facts, when contextualized by being included in or linked to a narrative, are far more memorable than dry recitations of data. Connections between different stories and ideas are the most valuable thing you can communicate, because they are the hardest to come up with, and not everybody makes them on their own. The power of connection is to recontextualize something—or everything—in the audience’s mind.

Perfectionism, or why I blog now

One reason I decided to publish something (even something short, as long as it is creative) to a blog every day was to help me get over the perfectionism that has limited my creative output so much over the years.

I don’t publish because my writing or even my thoughts are “done”. I publish because it is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. That’s what I do. I do this every day.

I write for myself. I am gladdened that a few people on Micro.blog read what I write sometimes. I don’t expect it. It is a bonus. I don’t have an agenda, and therefore am not seeking out an audience. However, if I didn’t publish my little essays as blog posts, they would always be drafts, and would never be done.

Moreover, they wouldn’t be out there on the vast internet for some curious person to discover someday. My words, mundane as they may be sometimes, might help somebody out of a tough emotional spot, or get them to understand something a little bit better. They are my small, insignificant gifts to the world. I don’t care if the world accepts them or not; it’s what I have to give.

This blog post is probably not my best one. I’m not the first person to think that writing every day, with the necessary element of publishing it, is a worthwhile and rewarding exercise for the mind. I’m sure that, if I searched the web, one could find hundreds or thousands more posts just like it. That does not diminish its value to me. This is my blog post. These are my immediate thoughts—today. And if I have not expressed them perfectly, well, tomorrow is another chance to do so.

Sense memory

Every year, when the air starts to get chilly, I flash back to this sense memory:

I am four years old, sitting atop a hay bale in front of a farm stand with my kindergarten class, drinking apple cider and eating a white powdered donut.

I can still taste the apple cider—sharp, sweet, with a distinctive bite because, as I would later figure out, it was turning hard. I can still see the bright white of the sugar on the donut and smell the hay that scratched my skin when I kicked my legs over the side of the bale. These foods, and the whole experience, were new to me. Every bit of it was surprising and delightful.

To this day, the taste of that cider is especially vivid in my mind. Nothing I have tasted since has ever matched that first sip of cider.

Material obsessions

I have two collections that I love but cannot justify: high-end headphones (each is sub-$500, but still really expensive and good) and mechanical keyboards (each is $240 or less). It took ten years to build up these collections, so the embarrassing amount of money I have spent is spread out over a long, long period. I was wondering today if people who spend a lot more than I do on vacations do so because they forego (and don’t care about) material objects like pricy headphones and keyboards.

Getting into these “hobbies” (if buying stuff can be called a hobby) was entirely accidental. I’m part of a product review program where I can occasionally select products I like for no money up front, and then only pay taxes on their value months later. I got my first taste of better headphones and better keyboards through that program, essentially through the luck of the draw. (I’m not in charge of which products become available for me to review.) If not for that, I probably would have no other headphones other than my AirPods, and would probably have a $100 Microsoft or Logitech keyboard that I would have to replace (because of wear) every year or two.

I think I am finally nearing “endgame” in both of these categories. I have fantastic headphones of nearly every type (dynamic and planar magnetic, open-back and closed-back, Bluetooth and wired), and they cover every situation, that I need. Similarly, I have mechanical keyboards for all of my computers, have tried a bunch of different key switches (clicky, tactile, and linear), and have even bought a “weird” ortholinear board that I never thought I would ever want until a couple months ago. Any new keyboard purchases are going to be about fixing something that is broken (my wonderful and unacceptably buggy Durgod tenkeyless) or trying out a different type of keyswitch on my new, hot-swappable ortholinear board. At least I hope that will be the case. Collecting more and more of these objects sometimes feels like an obsession, and is not something I want to keep doing forever.