⌨️ Shifting

One challenge with the Planck that I did not anticipate is that I have trouble hitting the (little) left shift key, and I miss having a right shift key (the Planck has none). It is especially surprising to me because I rarely used the right shift key before I made it a goal last year to use right-shift all the time, rather than stretch my left pinky crazy distances. I think one reason left-shift is more difficult to hit is that the Colemak-DH layout keeps my fingers on the home row all the time. When I type QWERTY, my hands fly all around the keyboard like a concert pianist’s, so it feels more normal to shift my entire left hand to press the shift key.

To mitigate my shift problem, I enabled the AutoShift feature of my keyboard’s firmware. If I press and hold a letter key—which feels a bit like a firm press rather than a ling press—a capital letter is produced. It is a really smart feature, but I am still getting used to it, and it interrupts my flow.

⌨️ Chunking

I have been typing more and more each day with the Colemak-DH layout on my new Planck keyboard. I basically know where all the keys are, but my typing is laborious and slow. I have to think very hard to type every word. At my best right now, I make a plan for the word I will type next, then try to execute that plan without making too many errors. At worst, I look down at the keyboard and hunt and peck.

I remember when learning QWERTY that, after learning where all the letters were, I started to memorize certain patterns to type particular words or parts of words. In other words, I chunked it. Typing fast was a matter of stringing along series of predefined multi-key movements which acted like mental macros.

I see myself at the very beginning of the chunking process right now. It will take a lot more practice to get fast, but I plan to stick with it; hopefully it will be worth it in the long run. If I can type more efficiently I believe I will incur less RSI going forward. That is my main goal in switching keyboards and layouts.

Lost sleep

Tomorrow is my daughter’s first day of school—in-person school—since March 2020. Thinking about the sleep schedule changes this will require for all of us has been nerve-wracking all day. Remote learning and remote work have, for the last year and a half, given all of us in my family an extra hour of sleep every night. Because my daughter and I are all night owls, it will be impossible for us to make up the lost sleep. We will just have to adapt to getting less, I’m afraid, and the transition will be difficult.

Another humbling thought

We are all replaceable. That is written into our biology. Our social and economic structures reflect it, too.

We are all unique. A human life is irreplaceable. But a human is replaceable.

Humbling thoughts

You don’t have to be smart to be right.

Just because you are smart doesn’t mean you’re right.

Rosh Hashanah

L’Shana tova for all those who celebrate. Let’s hope for a better year ahead.

Bias doesn’t make sense. That’s why it is bias.

When I was in business school, back in the early aughts, I did a team presentation project on the topic of the male/female wage gap. To this day, I am embarrassed at my work on this project. I was young, hard-working, and idealistic, but I was unknowingly naive to the world and think I got it all wrong.

At the time, I worked at an insurance company, and there was a huge number of women in the departments I worked with at manager and director levels. I was just starting out in my career, so I was lower in rank than almost every woman I worked with, too. That may have clouded my thinking a bit, because I lacked the perspective of someone who worked in a more exclusively male-dominated work culture. I didn’t see how women were treated at other workplaces.

To prepare for our project, which was a group presentation, I did a lot of reading on the wage gap issue. It didn’t make sense to me that it could exist. I could understand if compensation amounts averaged out with a gap between male and female average wages, but I thought there had to be a sensible reason for that. It must come down to things like the type of job taken, the number of hours worked per week, the number of overtime hours worked, employee performance, and on asking for a higher salary when applying for a job. The literature I read on the subject supported that, conditionally, but was noncommittal about whether a wage gap really existed, and about what the average male and female wage numbers actually reflected.

My main logical argument against the wage gap actually meaning that there was a male/female bias in the workplace, was that if women made less money for a particular job than men, I, as a rational employer, would predominantly hire women for that job, to save money on labor. That isn’t happening; therefore, the gender pay gap did not really exist. My project team was mostly young corporate women. They agreed with me. We didn’t even really argue about it, though I remember acting a little embarrassed about the conclusion I had come to when I presented it to them. We presented on the topic based on my conclusion, and otherwise had a successful, if uneventful, presentation to our class.

The problem is, my idea of rational hiring decisions does not reflect how the world works. People make hiring decisions—and all kinds of other decisions—for reasons that don’t make rational sense at all. At the heart of these decisions are preferences, and preferences are largely affected by bias. Bias is, essentially, a preference that can’t be adequately explained. Put another way, bias just doesn’t make sense. No sense can be made from it because it doesn’t depend on sense.

I came to this conclusion shortly after my team completed that project. I have thought a lot about it since. The thought of it pops into my head unexpectedly sometimes, like the memory of a time I sang the wrong line of a song in the high school musical, in front of everybody on closing night, and it crowds out memory of the rest of my performance, across all the performances, where I made no mistakes. It’s easy to dwell on the times you get things wrong, I suppose. At least in this case I learned something.

Now that I am older and have more experience with and exposure to the world, I notice that bias is everywhere. Bias is the sort of thought virus that nibbles away at logic and replaces it with something that feels more right or more comfortable to the thinker or decider. You do not choose to be biased; if anything, bias, soaked up from the society around them, chooses you.

Since I made that business school presentation years ago, my conclusion on the topic has completely reversed. Bias must affect hiring decisions and wages to the detriment of traditionally underserved or discriminated against groups of people, including women, because it affects everything else. Moreover, you can’t go looking for it with logic, because bias is inherently illogical.

Teaching YA Lit in High School English Class

In the 1990s, the old guard of educators—mainly white men like Harold Bloom—decried the decline and of the Western canon. In general, the Harold Blooms of the world lost that argument. High school reading lists today are far more diverse and are—as my high school English teachers feared—diluted in quality. The classics have been pared back, to make way for new ideas and more diverse voices.

Case in point: my wife is teaching The Hunger Games to high school juniors this school year. I have read The Hunger Games and could probably craft a few lessons based on its material, but I don’t think of it as literature; it’s a fun Y.A. beach read devoid of subtext. The dilution in quality is not a function of the increase in diversity. It’s a function of trying to hold kids’ attention.

I think it must be possible to make classic literature interesting and relevant to high school students. That said, it is a challenge I do not face.

I am proud of my wife today

After getting very upset at our daughter’s elementary school’s plan for lax COVID safety protocols announced during a webinar last night, she woke up at 4 AM this morning and wrote impassioned emails to the superintendent of schools, the school board, and the principal. She emailed and talked to other teachers at the school, our rabbi, our pediatrician, and her doctor friend to ask for advice. She and I seriously talked about disenrolling our daughter and home schooling her. After a lot of thought, though, we decided that we have to accept more risk than we are really comfortable with, for the sake of our daughter’s mental health. It was a stressful day, and we did not get what we wanted, but I am proud of all the effort that my wife put in to try to push for something better.

As for me, my main contributions today were cogent conversation and homemade chicken noodle soup, fresh baked bread, and salad.

I didn’t get everything I wanted to do done this week. I’m OK with that. Life intervened. Stressful things came and went. I did right by my family each day. That has to be the most important thing. It’s time for a holiday weekend and then Rosh Hashanah. Onward.

I am trying a new keyboard layout, Colemak DH, and have switched around keys and reprogrammed the Planck EZ to enable it. Colemak is proving easier now that I can look at the key legends for the correct letter.

COVID mask mandate temperature exceptions make a mask requirements a joke

My daughter’s elementary school will not require masks if the outside temperature is 75°F or over. They said that means masks will effectively not be worn on classrooms for the entire month of September, and probably through October as well. In general, the COVID measures are based on outdated conjectures about how the disease is spread, and will be ineffective against an airborne pathogen. My wife wants to pull our daughter out of school. I’m not sure what the right call is, because I’m not sure how to quantify the risk or be sure about what would be equitable for my daughter.

Vulnerability

Vulnerability is a new ideal masculine trait. Being open, honest about, and comfortable with your flaws is nontraditional, unexpected, and disarming.

But that isn’t vulnerability. It’s invulnerability. You need to be tremendously self-assured to take social risks and not be flummoxed if things do not go your way.

The philosopher next door

When I was in college, I longed not to be learned but to be wise. I was learning rapidly, and soaking up new ideas all the time. I was making connections between all sorts of different systems of thought and culture. I thought I had human nature all figured out.

I was, however, wise enough at the time to know that I would be foolish to consider myself wise. That paradox never really resolves itself. The moment you think yourself wise, you have made a fool of yourself. Go ahead…try it, then wait a while.

Still, I must have shot my mouth off about how wise I was, because some people thought I was wise, and would ask me to help them sort out problems in their personal or academic lives. I was foolish enough back then to try to help them.

Now that I am middle-aged and raising two children with my wife, I feel both smarter and more foolish than ever. It is hard to feel wise when you can’t get your kids to do the simplest things most of the time. I find people–even the ones I am closest to–to be, at turns, more predictable and more inscrutable than ever. It is much easier to predict what people will do than it is to understand why.

What does it really mean to be wise? It’s certainly different than being smart, clever, or quick–though all those things don’t hurt. Being wise is about seeing the big picture, especially when those around you have lost sight of it, and using that viewpoint to help others help themselves.

I have a voice but nothing to say

I can write. I always could.

In high school, I wrote cogently and forcefully, like someone who read the up-Ed pages of two newspapers every day. Unlike most of my peers I had figured out how to revise and shape text—how to edit out hedging and weasel words and unfinished thoughts. Essay structure and organization fascinated me.

In college I wrote passionately with explosive figurative language. I wrote and put on a play: a farce poking fun a dorm life at my school. My seniors honors theses had jokes in them and won awards. My prose was called “airtight” in creative writing class.

As a young adult, I thought I might write professionally. I wrote four or five nights a week, at the local library, after work and dinner were done. I worked on short stories and screenplays that, sadly, didn’t end up going anywhere.

Writing was a lonely hobby for me. I had no community. I lived in the suburbs and didn’t think I could even find a writing community near me. I envied friends who lived in cities and could join writing classes or groups. The worst part of it was that I couldn’t figure out how to create interesting plots. I could write stories, but I had no stories to tell. I have no gift for plots—only for telling. Eventually I stopped writing entirely, in favor of business school and other things.

So, I can write. I have a voice. But I don’t have much to say. I never know what to write about. I lack ideas, which is frustrating when I have the ability (perhaps the gift) to shape and communicate them clearly.

Recently, I decided to write and publish…something, maybe something small, maybe a whole essay…every day, to force myself to think, write, revise, and publish even when the ideas don’t come. I think that the activity will help me get over whatever block or self-editing has been standing in the way of my writing endeavors for so long.

Full Decaf

My caffeine experiment is almost at its end. For the past week, I have only drunk decaffeinated coffee. One funny thing I noticed is that decaf coffee is not nearly as disappointing when you are no longer addicted to caffeine.

My caffeine free (or almost free) lifestyle thus far has left me with no downsides: my energy level is just fine all day. I am not tired at all during work hours, and I no longer desperately crave an afternoon coffee each day. I do fall asleep earlier at night and more easily, which is a benefit. Instead of not being able to sleep until 2 A.M. most nights, I am ready to turn in by midnight, and sometimes even earlier, which puts me more in sync with my wife.

All in all, after a rocky start with three days of withdrawal symptoms, my experiment has been a success.

Oryx, Wally, and Planck

Today I started flashing custom layouts to my new Planck EZ keyboard. It runs QMK firmware, but the manufacturer has tools call Oryx and Wally that make customizing and flashing simple. On a software level, it is the best keyboard I have ever used. On a hardware level, it is solid, too, but I am not used to the ortholinear layout yet or the layers system. Typing with my left hand, especially the letters C and X, is a little problematic for me, because the Planck requires the use of different fingers than what I use for those keys on staggered layouts. Also, I my fingers tend to land in between the keys sometimes when I have to stretch my index finger or pinkie to reach a key.

I have been taking Matt Gemmel’s blog posts about the Planck as an inspiration for customizing it. Following his example, I created a numpad layout today, which will come in handy for work. I also turned on automatic capitalization, which capitalizes letters if you hold them down a tiny bit longer than a normal keypress. It is a cool feature, and may be more important for ergonomics than the layer system is for me.

I have also been practicing the Colemak layout on Keybr.com. Strangely, I could not get the web app to understand my keyboard layout unless it is in QWERTY mode; I have to emulate Colemak in the app, which is kind of a mixed blessing for now, when I could not even log into my computer in the Colemak layout.

All in all, it is fun to try something new. I wonder if I can actually learn the Colemak layout well enough to use it full time.

What do you do? I help people.

I always used to dread meeting new people. They always asked “what do you do?” And what I do (for work, naturally) has mostly been nebulous and boring and unglamorous.

When I worked in corporate systems, I was too young to be an interesting (read: rich) tech nerd. When I worked in management consulting, no one really knew what that meant, and neither did I. When I worked in internal audit, no one wanted to hear about it. (Let’s just say people like to complain about auditors.)

For much of my career I’ve had the same kind of job: an ill-defined amalgam of consultant, auditor, and regulatory examiner. When I met someone new, we would be inevitably get into conversations like this:

“Do you work in insurance?”

“No; not really.”

“Do you work in audit?”

“No; not really.”

“Do you work for the state?”

“No; not really.”

You would basically need a weeklong seminar in an absurdly dull hotel conference center to understand what we do at my company and why it is important. It is technical. It is dull. It involves financial solvency (yawn). It involves close reading of legislation that even the legislators probably don’t understand.

Recently, I figured out a better way to express what I do: I help regulators make sure insurance companies are doing what they are supposed to do. That simple, vague explanation seems to be the best one I have come up with yet. Insurance may be dull, but it has the benefit of being, well, hated by a lot of people. Everyone wants to make sure insurance companies they are customers of do what they are supposed to do.

I think the best answer to “what do you do?” is always “I help people.” Because if you don’t help people, then what purpose is there to anything you do.

📺 Ted Lasso Season 2 Isn’t In A Slump, It’s Headed For A Breakdown: This is a great analysis of what’s going on with the tonal shift in Ted Lasso season 2.

We stayed at the beach until it got dark tonight, which was a first for us. We like to go at dinner time and stay until dusk. It is quieter and cooler then. Sunset was pretty, if a bit subdued compared to the last couple times we have gone. This time, I brought my camera, though.

Work has become stressful again. I don’t have enough time to do everything I have to do—not just work, but taking care of my family and house, too. I’m taking my wife and kids to the beach tonight to just hang out, which is wildly irresponsible, but may be the thing I need to clear my head.

Colemak

I have started to learn the Colemak keyboard layout on my new ortholinear keyboard. Colemak is a modern keyboard layout designed to reduce finger travel (and overall hand movement around the keyboard), while preserving the position of some keys that are vital for chording with the Command or Control keys: C, V, X, and Z.

It has been brutally slow going. I have been a touch typer on normal, staggered QWERTY keyboards for over 30 years. I taught myself touch typing on my mom’s electric typewriter from audio tapes she borrowed for me from the library. Those tapes dated from the World War II. They were Army training tapes, and their oft shouted message was that good typing skills would help defeat the Nazis, which was a pretty crazy idea to me as a child in the early 1990s. When I was in high school, I took up guitar and played all the time. As an unexpected side effect, my typing speed increased dramatically, thanks to increased dexterity honed in guitar practice.

My typing speed probably peaked in college at about 100 words per minute. It has slowly diminished since, due to repetitive stress injury, acute injuries to my hands and forearms, and generally bad genetic luck when it comes to wrists. I believe my typing speed now ranges between 40 and 75 WPM, at about 95% accuracy. That is certainly good enough for me, most of the time. What isn’t is that sometimes typing hurts, and often when that is the case, I don’t have the luxury to stop, because I have to type for work.

Right now, on my new keyboard, with Colemak layout, my typing speed is about 8 WPM, and that’s with only five letters in the mix! It is interesting to be tackling something I am this bad at. I feel the struggle as I practice typing. Even when I know the correct key to push, I end up pushing the wrong one (the QWERTY one) sometimes. YouTube videos on the subject have taught me to focus on accuracy rather than on speed, so that us what I am doing thus far. I plan to practice daily for a while before changing my layout permanently.

I typically argue that one should further develop strengths rather than try to eliminate weaknesses. It is far better to be great at a particular thing than to be average at a ton of things. At this task, though, my goal is to be average rather than a typing speed demon, just not in pain while doing it. I have been a good typer, and probably could be again if it weren’t so painful to type blazing fast for more than a new minutes at a time.

A COVID vaccine for under-12 kids cannot come soon enough. It looks like Pfizer is a few months ahead of Moderna on this front, but it has been a frustratingly long wait. The Delta variant, which seems to be more virulent in children than o.g. COVID, has made me quite anxious.

My birthday present arrived a couple months early: a Planck EZ 40% ortholinear keyboard. Please excuse me for a while: I need to relearn how to type. 😅

The reason we should study literature

In college, I studied literature. What I learned about literature is that history, religion, and general knowledge are all wrapped up in narrative. So are our memories. We are the story we tell ourselves, as individuals, as nations, as peoples. Narrative is memory, and sometimes the narrator is an untrustworthy one.

I learned a lot about literature there, but I missed the important lesson: Why do we study literature? To learn empathy.

Lack of empathy is a fundamental problem in our society. Blame social media. Blame political polarization. Blame whatever you want. You could argue that society fractured in large part because we no longer share a common literature. We don’t read the foundational texts that, in part, make up our culture. We don’t read the foundational texts that make up other cultures—which may just help us understand other people. In school, whatever books we do read, that are “taught” to us, are dissected and analyzed, but not often enough put back together again and connected to anything real.

I think literature should be taught to teach empathy to students. Students should be told that is what it is for, and stories should be compared to real life events—not just personal experience, which is limited—as much as possible. We should think about making connections to ourselves and others, not just about connections between texts and ourselves.