My paperless transformation is almost complete!

February 17th, 2014 at 2:58 pm ET

EvernoteI’ve written before about my experiment with Shoeboxed, the service that accepts your paper clutter by mail and magically turns it into scanned documents (which, in my case, magically appear in my Evernote database).

After 6 weeks or so of use, I have to say THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVER!

I’ve shipped roughly 30 envelopes of documents to Shoeboxed, comprising basically every piece of financial or business paper I’ve generated in the past 15 years that’s worth saving, aside from the few documents (like car titles) where having the original document matters. As far as I can tell via my relatively systematic QA process, everything has been scanned accurately and nothing has been lost.

The Shoeboxed metadata markup of the documents (they pull names, dates, and amounts from everything that looks like a receipt, and save them as metadata) is so cursory as to be useless to me (in fact, I’m probably going to turn it off if I can). And I still have to sort the incoming scans as they show up in Evernote. But the scans themselves are showing up reliably, and grouped accurately on the whole into the multi-page documents I requested when I shipped the documents to North Carolina.

I’m happy enough, in fact, that I just turned on the “eco” setting in my Shoeboxed account, meaning that they can now shred and discard my original documents once they’re scanned, rather than taking the trouble and expense to ship them back to me.

A practical exercise in stoicism: losing my wallet (or not)

February 17th, 2014 at 2:51 pm ET

With all the Oliver Burkeman reading I’ve been doing, it’s convenient that the universe saw fit to test me by giving me a lost-wallet scare today. It turns out that my wallet was waiting at home, having fallen out of my pocket into the chair I know I was sitting in immediately before leaving the house. (The culprit: rarely-worn pants with atypically shallow pockets.)

During the two hours away from home that I thought it was lost, I got to test how how effectively I’ve been absorbing the lessons of “don’t agonize over things you can’t control,” “what matters is your reaction to things, not the things themselves,” and “what’s the worst that can happen.” Verdict: I PASS! I was able to get through a leisurely lunch without worrying about the wallet at all, confident that nothing I did during those 90 minutes was going to have any effect on what did or did not happen; I knew what was in my wallet and knew I’d know what to do about it when I got home. And coming home and finding the wallet not lost at all (as I settled down in my accustomed chair to start calling credit card companies) was a relief, but not nearly as much of a relief as it would have been if I’d spent the previous two hours freaking out.

So instead of calling credit card companies, I took a photograph of everything in my wallet so that if I ever really lost it, I’d know conclusively what I was missing and what to do about it. Being stoic doesn’t mean being foolish or unprepared.

“Passions” as a side effect of mastery

February 14th, 2014 at 8:26 pm ET

I’m thoroughly enjoying Oliver Burkeman’s Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. Burkeman, a columnist for the Guardian, has a talent for taking the pragmatically useful elements of self-help literature and leaving the rest behind.

Burkeman referred me to Cal Newport, whose blog includes a refreshing take on the idea of “finding your passion.”

Passion, Newport says, is not something you stumble upon in the course of walking around in the world. It’s something that emerges as a side effect of mastery. So if you’re not “finding your passion” (assuming, obviously, that you consider that to be a problem), the solution is to pick something to get really good at… good enough that you can lose yourself in it.

Certainly this comports with my experience. I have plenty of curiosities and an ample list of interests, but the only things I’m genuinely passionate about are the things I’m good enough at that either (1) I feel genuinely accomplished, or (2) other people respect my level of talent, or both.

I spent a lot of time in my 20s and 30s worried that I wasn’t passionate “enough” about the things I was spending my time doing. But I think I had it backwards. I was doing the wrong things, or not taking them seriously enough to develop the kind of mastery that leads to passion.

My cocktail skills: putting in the time

February 14th, 2014 at 7:25 pm ET

About 3 years ago I set out to develop a taste for, and a competence in making, high-quality traditional cocktails like the martini, an adventure that I wrote about on this blog. It just occurred to me, as I mixed up a Manhattan perfectly to my taste in a natural and organic flourish of motions, that it’s been long enough that I ought take stock.

I grew up without much of an awareness of liquor. Of my two parents, one grew up Jewish in a functionally alcohol-free home, and the other grew up with two alcoholic parents. So although there was good wine around for special occasions, and cheap wine around for routine ones, and my parents had a wet bar they were proud of, nobody drank very much in our house when I was a child. Despite the wet bar, my parents weren’t really entertainers, and their friends who were didn’t do much educating as far as I was concerned.

So I went away to college without knowing much about liquor (without having really been drunk, in fact), and came back not knowing much more. My college friends weren’t big drinkers, and when they were, it was beer.

I learned a bit about wine in my early 20s (as one does), but it was while working with people in their early 20s, a generation later, that it really became clear how much cultural knowledge I was missing. I’d learned what a gin & tonic tastes like, and I could tell good gin or whiskey from the cheap stuff, but on the whole I didn’t have much of a taste for liquor even into my 40s.

So it was intimidating to me to work alongside younger people who not only claimed to have, but appeared to actually have, a nuanced appreciation of the difference between a good rye and a great one, and the ability to mix up complex cocktails out of a short list of basic ingredients. They were fortunate to grow up in a youth microculture that privileged artisanality and authenticity, but to be fair, every youth microculture thinks it does that—the one I lived through just applied it to different things.

In about 2010 I decided to fill the gap in my knowledge, and (to put it bluntly) started paying attention. I bought things and tasted them, and paid attention to what they tasted like. I read a lot about liquor and cocktail culture, both in the culinary (bibulary?) and the cultural-historical modes. I drank a lot, or a lot for me. I figured out what I liked (ryes, bourbons, whiskeys) and what I didn’t like (vodka, which gets you drunk with no point; sticky cordials and liqueurs).

In the course of all that, I developed a feel for what goes together and how to mix it, analogous to the food skill I have in the kitchen. (Walk me into any kitchen with a cross-section of ingredients and some wildcards, even leftovers, and I can make you a meal that isn’t disappointing.)

So now when I come home, I mix up a Manhattan—up if I’m feeling classy, or stirred over ice if I don’t feel like taking the trouble of getting out the shaker. I’ve tasted a dozen gins and a dozen ryes and bourbons, and know the difference. And, most importantly (I think), I don’t feel outclassed by anyone.

The real lesson here is that, in areas of human endeavor that have tens or hundreds or millions of participants, theres no such thing as knowledge or experience that’s closed to you, just knowledge or experience that you haven’t yet taken the trouble and the time to acquire. Obviously there are people who know more than I do (that’s great, otherwise who would I learn from?), but that’s not the point; I’ve gone from incompetent to competent just by putting in the time.


My robot vacuum: how incremental technology improvement plays out in real life

February 9th, 2014 at 5:20 pm ET

I’m sitting in the living room watching my Neato robot vacuum clean the house. I wouldn’t necessarily say it does a great job, and in fact most of the time I can’t quite figure out what logic it’s following to decide where to go next. But this technology is enough better now than it was five years ago that it’s something that I actually want to use in my house.

Robot vacuum

This path across the carpet may not make sense, but let the thing keep running all afternoon, and it does a reasonably good job of cleaning the house.

And most of the time, that’s how meaningful technology improvements play out. Something that’s not quite ready for prime time is released to aficionados, then improved little by little by little, until it becomes practical for ordinary people to play around with. It continues to be improved little by little by little, until it actually achieves something useful for ordinary people. At this point, it’s a product with a market, but it’s not done improving; it continues improving little by little by little until it becomes good, and then great. Or at least that’s what its developers hope.

Updating WordPress

January 28th, 2014 at 9:42 pm ET

Pair Screenshot

Because I’m an old, I run my own WordPress installation (because when I got started blogging, that was more the norm than it is now, what with all the innovative content-sharing services out there these days). But because I rarely find myself on the command line anymore, it pissed me off to learn that my longtime web hosting provider (Pair Networks, which I’m otherwise happy with) makes upgrading my ancient version WordPress so tedious.

It was easy to find out why the WordPress automatic updater wouldn’t run on Pair, and easy to find out the steps I’d have to take to fix it, but on Pair those steps are a pain in the ass involving technical support (because security), so screw that.

Fortunately, the manual update method works fine, and I still remember enough UNIX to get it done. But what a pain in the ass!

I’m hungry!

January 28th, 2014 at 7:12 pm ET

New diet isn’t going so well. Turns out that going from 3500 calories a day down to 2000 calories a day all of a sudden isn’t so easy. I’m obviously not going to DIE, but I’m hungry and pissed off.

My experience from last time tells me that it takes about 8 days to accustom myself to the new intake. So, 6 more crappy days to go, I guess…

I’m on a new diet. Please publicly shame me.

January 28th, 2014 at 9:57 am ET

Having watched myself grow to gargantuan proportions as a result of my slowing metabolism (and, secondarily, as a result of my lack of exercise, although to be fair to me, the effect of the former is much greater), I’m setting out to bring myself back down to what I think of as a healthy weight.

Being a person who is (1) large and (2) more or less at peace with the fact that I will never fit into anything at Topman, the boundaries of what is a healthy weight for me are looser than you might think. Basically, I’ll be happy if I can get myself down below the weight at which I started my last weight loss program in 2010, and I’ll be ecstatic if I can get myself down to the point I reached in 2011. For those of you keeping score, the latter would amount to losing about 40 pounds.

Given where I’m starting, even if I’m successful, I doubt that many of you will notice the difference. But I will.

I do have exercise plans in store (about which you can expect plenty more bitching later), but I know from last time that, at least for me, eating less is really the key. And this involves not just self-denial, but healthier habits.

That’s why there’s a bowl of apples sitting 10 feet away, since everyone knows that on a diet, apples (within reason) are free. They’re low in sugar per unit of bulk (meaning that you’ll probably get full long before you eat too many), and they’re cheap and available. And it’s why I packed four portion-controlled lunches in the fridge on Sunday night, so I wouldn’t be tempted to go out and eat junk.

Last time, I kicked off my portion control program with an initial week in which I adhered to 4 simple rules:

1. Eat meat and vegetables (in small portions), no carbs or sugar. Also no drinking, which I found was easy to adhere to if I was exercising.

2. Eat nothing after dinner. (This is more important than it sounds.)

3. If you’re hungry between meals, make a pot of tea and drink it slowly.

4. Shave a third off each portion before you put it on your plate.

Because I concurrently started a cardio exercise program, I found my appetite dropping anyway, so after the first 3 or 4 days of discomfort I had adjusted to a lower calorie intake.

I’m trying to do the same now. If you see me fall off the wagon, please feel free to point and laugh until I clamber back on. More news as it develops. 

13 months, 4 scars: my motorcycling damage report

January 28th, 2014 at 12:28 am ET

I think of this motorcycling hobby that I took up at the end of 2012 as emotionally and intellectually rewarding and physically fulfilling. But periodically it’s worth taking stock of the negatives. After the last year on the road, in which I tipped over three times (all at low speeds) and all-but-tipped (at zero MPH) twice more, I have at least 4 small scars that I’ll now have forever. I’ve also revived the carpal tunnel problems I was having 20 years ago. And all this while adhering more or less strictly to an ATGATT (all the gear all the time) regimen. (Helmet, armored outerwear, boots and gloves always. I fall short on the pants, although I do wear double-fronts most of the time.)

To be fair, I think I was heading into the carpal tunnel already by 2011 as a result of my bicycling. My high center of gravity (translation: overweight guy on small bikes) sends a lot of weight forward and down when braking and leaning, and I happen to own two bikes with tightly wound clutch and throttle cables, all of which is rough on the wrists.

But even so, it’s sobering to realize that in a good year, when I took care and did nothing reckless and didn’t even really “hurt myself,” I ended up scarred. There’s no telling what a full motorcycle career will do to me.

Hulu Plus: a treasure trove of international TV ephemera

January 26th, 2014 at 6:54 pm ET

We recently added Hulu Plus (via Roku) to our other streaming subscriptions (Netflix, Amazon Prime, and everything we get via Time Warner Cable). We did it because it was the only place to get the final season of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but then we started poking around, and Jesus! there’s a lot of stuff in there. In particular, seemingly dozens of contemporary British sitcoms and mysteries of quality, many I’d never even heard of. (We’re currently watching our way through Whites and Twenty Twelve.)

So, great programming, but GOD is the user interface awful on Roku. I’m hoping that an update is coming real soon now…