Thursday, December 31, 2020

COVID-19: Working from Home

When the company I work for closed its office for COVID, it was meant to be temporary. In March, we were told that the stay-at-home order would be for only a few weeks. A few weeks became a few months. Then it became the new normal. As of now, our current return-to-office date is July 2021.

It took a while to get used to working at home full time. In the beginning, I worked off of my laptop, at the dining room table. Then I moved to a side table/bookshelf, on which we displayed potted plants. Around July, I made arrangements to retrieve the full-size monitor from my desk at the office. That made a big difference.

When my company extended our stay-at-home policy in the Summer, I bought a little desk. This helped greatly, because although the bookshelf was a flat surface, I had to sit on the floor to use it. The little desk was foldable, so I could move it around. We experimented with a few locations. I first worked out of an unused hallway. When my daughter went to college, I moved it into her room. Today I work out of the master bedroom.

All throughout these changes I had regular meetings and calls which took place over Zoom and Slack. I first took these calls in my closet, valuing sound and reception. Then I became mildly obsessed with my video calls' background and lighting. My tips: 1) sit next to window, 2) stare at the camera, not your thumbnail, and 3) instead of playing with the 'mute' button, just leave it on.

Other high-tech companies have begun to embrace an all-remote model, though I'm not sure I'm ready. One reason: my wife already works from home for an all-remote company. Her normal is me being in an office all day. Another reason: I like my office campus amenities, which include free bicycles, a table-top multi-game arcade machine, and a half basketball court.

It'll be interesting to see where I'm working 365 days from now, but one thing was proven this year: my office is truly wherever my work laptop is open and plugged in.

Monday, November 30, 2020

With the Beatles

A few years ago, I requested and received The Beatles Anthology, a DVD set containing a television documentary about The Beatles that was broadcast in the US in 1995.

Only recently have I started watching this documentary. So far, it is fantastic. I'm through the first three parts, taking me up to 1964 of their history. The Beatles have returned from conquering America, and released their movie, A Hard Day's Night. The documentary contains footage from television appearances, concerts, and old interviews. From their early days in Germany, to their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, it's a marvel seeing the young John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. In the documentary they're playful, sardonic and seemingly well grounded. There is no interviewer or host or voice-over narration, which somehow makes the footage more immersive.

Growing up, we had the red and blue Beatles compilation albums on vinyl. It would have been something my parents bought as I don't remember clamoring for it. And while I no longer remember the exact moment I heard about The Beatles, I can say with good certainty that the radio brought them to my attention. Radio was still king when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

My appreciation of them has only grown over the years. I have a box set of their music, and I made it a project to listen to every album. Their songs, progressively complex as they grew, are still catchy, potent and accessible. It's effortless to dip into their music. My favorite album of theirs (and a Top Five album of all time) is "Revolver", released in 1966 and featuring "Eleanor Rigby", "Yellow Submarine", and "Taxman".

I'm fond of saying that The Beatles are firmly in humanity's subconsciousness. Their music will be played for centuries, passed on from generation to generation, and constantly interpreted and performed by musicians. Paul McCartney was recently interviewed and when asked about The Beatles he said (in a massive understatement) "It was a great group." Indeed!

Friday, October 30, 2020

Musings on Facebook

Facebook is going to cancel their notes feature, which is where some of you read these postings of mine. The 250 or so notes I have posted here will remain, but if I want to post my writing on Facebook in the future, I'll have to copy them into Facebook posts ("What's on your mind, Rick?"), or post a link to my BLOG.

This update from Facebook had me thinking about how different things were before Facebook. Back then, in order for people to share their thoughts they'd have to post on specialty websites, or post on pre-browser communities like email lists, IRC or even USENET. In the end, the mass audience ended up on Facebook. And everyone wants the audience.

Mark Zuckerberg succeeded in making the web a lot more relatable, by creating a platform that was so easy to use that practically everyone I know in my immediate and extended family is on it. I was naive back in the 1990s, thinking that everyone would have their own websites, and people would largely communicate by email or through links.

I remember a co-worker in the early 2000s complaining that he'd have to get on Facebook eventually, because he kept missing out on party invitations. I did a quick check and sure enough he's on Facebook. Eventually, people succumb to the network effect: the more people on a network, the more useful the network. Facebook has become a mandatory online destination.

I do admire people who have managed to stay off of Facebook, despite its wide reach. One of my favorite pieces of writing is Steve Pavlina's 30-day Facebook fast. It's worth reading for its reminder that Facebook isn't everything: cultivate and cherish your real relationships, your real experiences.

All that said, I'm still on Facebook, perhaps now a bit more begrudgingly.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

COVID-19: Getting Tested

I had a colonoscopy this month. My original appointment was for April, but a few weeks before the gastroenterologist's office called me and said they'd need to postpone. Many doctors at that time stopped performing non-emergency procedures to help flatten the rising curve of COVID-19 cases.

Fast forward to September, and the gastroenterologist office said that before I could come in for my rescheduled appointment I'd need to have a COVID-19 test, with a negative result. The testing office called me separately and scheduled an appointment for a few days before the colonoscopy. "It's at a drive-thru facility. You won't even need to leave your car."

The day of the COVID-19 test, I drove to a medical building in North Cambridge, and pulled into its garage. The "facility" was a folding table and a few rolling storage cabinets by a side door. There were signs that indicated I was in the right place however. A technician signaled to me, and he walked over to my car.

The tech confirmed my identification. He then put on some gloves, pulled out a labeled test tube from his smock, and broke the seal on what looked like a small cotton swab. I had heard that some tests just need to scrape a sample from my mouth, or just the first 1 or 2 centimeters of a nostril. The way he was holding the swab, I thought it was going to be the latter.

"I'm going to insert this into your left nostril, and twist it around for 10 seconds," he told me. "Now, if you could look to your right at those trees in the distance." I did as I was told, and then he proceeded to insert the swab. Suddenly, it seemed to telescope to about 10 inches because I felt it reaching and probing all the way to the back of my left eyeball.

I didn't dare look at the tech. He started counting down from 10, twisting the swab with each number. It was a very uncomfortable process, and I was glad when he pulled the swab out. My nasal passages and left nostril felt irritated when it was all over. It took 3 to 4 hours before my head finally felt normal.

A few days later, I got an email from the testing facility. Negative. A mild relief. I kept thinking that for my next invasive procedure, the colonoscopy, I would be blissfully sedated.

AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

Monday, August 31, 2020

Sunday Driver

Of late, I've been taking long meandering car drives over the weekend.

In the lazy part of the afternoon, I'll jump into my car and start driving. No GPS, no set plan. I only decide what direction, then I take a highway and take an exit. I generally drive lost until I can find a familiar highway exit.

We moved earlier in the year, so these drives are helping me become more familiar with the area. I know all the nearby towns and cities by name: Billerica, Carlise, Bedford, Chelmsford, Woburn, and Reading. Driving through them is another matter.

GPS has made all of us expert navigators, but we shouldn't fool ourselves. We've become good at following a computerized navigator but our sense of direction, our sense of orientation is fading. GPS inhibits our ability to develop our sense of direction.

The GPS in my pocket (in the form of my smart phone) is a lifeline, but I resist it so that I can practice dealing with uncertainty. I am rewarded when I see the same landmark from previous trip, perhaps coming from another direction, and I feel my internal map becoming larger. More and more of the surrounding area is becoming familiar.

It's my afternoon adventure these days, but it's hardly strenuous. I'm not in the wilderness after all. If I get really lost, or if I truly uncertain which direction to take, I'll use that lifeline. Often I'll find I was near some place I already knew!

Friday, July 31, 2020

Coffee and Bananas

A few weeks or months ago (it's hard to tell during these COVID times), I forgot to eat my banana at lunch, so I decided to eat it with my afternoon cup of coffee.

Before COVID, I pack my fruit with my lunch, so I don't forget to eat it. An hour or so after lunch, I grab an afternoon coffee (usually decaf). I usually sip it alone but if I'm lucky, I'll enjoy it with a piece of candy or dessert leftover from some earlier meeting. Yes, I miss corporate America.

I did not set out to experiment combining my banana with my coffee. I was going to eat the banana first while letting my coffee cool. But somehow I started sipping my coffee as I was munching on my banana. This is what passes for crazy at my age, but guess what? The flavors work great together!

My taste buds perked up, as the coffee blended with the banana. It was a distinct flavor pairing, one that I can't remember ever experiencing. The coffee's boldness matched up with the sweetness of the banana. One wouldn't confuse a banana with a piece of cake, but the pairing made sense. Banana is nature's dessert.

I didn't dip my banana in the coffee, although I considered it. I refrained because I would never do the same with cake! Coffee and banana, like coffee and cake, are best when they're taking turns. Sip of coffee. Bite of banana. Maybe two bites of banana, if the coffee is still overly hot. You get the picture.

Enjoy this, Internet!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Covering #BlackLivesMatter

This past month I tweeted out four song covers honoring #BlackLivesMatter. Here are some notes from each song.

"Wake Up" performed by Brass Against with Sophia Urista (original: Rage Against the Machine). This great song is a warning and wake up call for those agitating for change. The cover goes toe-to-toe with the original. Lots of credit goes to all those brass instruments, but especially to the charismatic singer who punches the chorus in an eloquent scream.

"41 Shots" performed by Living Colour (original: Bruce Springsteen). This is a song Springsteen wrote about the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City. The police union there decried the song at the time, with some reporting suggesting they hadn't even heard it. Bruce's version is a fine example of his unquestioned relevance, but Living Colour's version is sad, spare, and powerfully personal.

"Blackbird" performed by Alicia Keyes (original: The Beatles). Paul McCartney, who sang the original, has said this song about a black bird with a broken wing is about the American Civil Rights movement. The imagery from the lyrics suggest a rising up from something that hasn't done so before. McCartney's version is spare. Ms. Keyes' version is more soaring, giving air under those wings, willing it to fly.

"Southern Man" performed by Merry Clayton (original: Neil Young). There's no mistaking Neil Young's lyrics above that brooding beat and crackling guitar solo: "Southern Man, when will you pay them back?" Merry's version feels hipper but no less serious. She's demanding respect with her delivery. Neil's version is an outsider's scold, Merry's is a fervent demand.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

Since early April I've been playing the video game Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead. It's a roguelike, the kind of ASCII-oriented game that first appeared on computers from the mid 1980s. Those original games normally present dragons in dungeons, but Cataclysm dishes out zombies in a post-apocalyptic New England.

You control a character who finds him or herself at the start of this terrible future. You have to avoid zombies and mutated animals. You have to find food and shelter, and then make or find weapons to protect yourself. Your character has to navigate a harsh landscape to the refugee camp, and it's difficult to find working vehicles.
The game has very primitive graphics. I use a setting where small icons represent the objects in the game. Since nothing in drawn, the imagery takes place in my mind. It's been quite a while since a video game captured my imagination like this one.
I'm drawn to the detailed survival scenarios. I'm drawn to zombie combat. But I'm also drawn to the permanent death of my characters. Once they die, that's the end of them, and all that they've learned and achieved. I've had lots of characters die on me the last few weeks. The game fits my mood these days.
Check out my reinvigorated Twitch channel to watch me play the game! And stay safe out in the Cataclysm.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

COVID-19: Handouts

When I was a high school kid on a family trip, we were at a rest stop getting gas when a couple came up to our van and approached my Dad. I overheard them saying that they were out of money, and asked if we could spare them a few dollars. I don't know what my Dad said, but I remember they left without anything.

In my diary entry for that moment, I wrote "We could've [helped] but could we trust them?" Was I always this cynical? I grew up in a city so I have seen the homeless and the destitute up close. Perhaps at a rest stop with other tourists was the last place I expected to be reminded of those down and out.

I think about this in light of the news that 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits over the past few weeks due to COVID-19. The graph is remarkable: a flat line representing decades of 'normal' unemployment (hundreds of thousands jobless), and then a massive spike: 22 million people suddenly jobless. I have this image of hundreds of people coming up to me, holding out their hand.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, yet there have always been people holding out their hands. And now COVID-19 makes it much more so. Do I trust their motives now? With normal economic life shut down, I rue the fact that our economy is based on competition. Even though I'm not losing, I certainly don't feel like I'm winning.

Graph from Vox.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020


Earlier in the month, I was still skeptical about COVID-19, the disease that has now become America's central focus. Back then it was still far away, and I thought that everyone was overreacting. I was persuaded by the "it's just another flu" argument. The lack of urgency from the federal government kept me pessimistic.

I changed my mind when I looked at the death tolls from Italy. Then my daughter's college announced that students should not return to campus after Spring Break. Instead, students would resume their Spring semester work online. Soon after, the company I worked for announced an indefinite work from home mandate.

Since then, major aspects of American life have shut down: all professional sports leagues, college sports, movies, churches, casinos, restaurants and retail centers. It is stark living out without these non-essentials. I would love to be able to go to the library, to the gym, or to the movies. I think all of us would.

Until then, we are practicing social distancing. We go out for groceries, but not with the same frequency as before. The hoarding and insanity of that initial shut-down weekend seems gone, but being in a supermarket feels risky. The virus is invisible. Is this cart wiped down?

We still enjoy take-out, but picking it up from empty restaurants is disquieting. Our take-out orders are a small way of helping local businesses, but they are absorbing a big economic hit. I wish the country were better set up to help people on the edge. Of late, I've been pondering the brutality of capitalism.

As I write this, we're in this situation for at least another month. I hope that we continue to follow the guidelines so that we can flatten that curve. Next time COVID-19 comes around (if indeed it's seasonal), we'll be closer to a vaccine, have more hospital equipment, and have way better protocols. Until then, hunker down, America.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Asleep with Cats

I visited my younger brother a few weeks ago, and I slept on his sofa. He has two cats, and as I was settling in for the night I wondered how these cats would react to me sleeping in their space. My brother said that cats are nocturnal. Well, that's good to know.

I had some trepidation sleeping with the cats. I grew up without pets, so I had to work to become comfortable around them. My wife and an old roommate of hers had a dog and becoming friends with that dog helped me overcome my childhood fear of dogs. But cats? I was vaguely worried about getting scratched. Also, my mother-in-law had a cat and I had a mild allergic reaction to it.

One of my brother's cats is shy, but the other one, Soxs, liked interacting with people. When we got home from dinner it seemed that Soxs was seeking my attention. She kept rubbing my legs with her head. When I sat on the sofa, she would climb up to get closer to me.

After the lights went out, I heard the cats padding around. They seemed to avoid me, so I drifted off to sleep. After midnight Soxs climbed up on the sofa and she started gently pawing at my arm. Then she climbed up on my chest and sat down. She was looking off into the dark with her nocturnal eyes. I was awake by then. I liked the feeling of her on my chest, and her demeanor of utter comfort.

She climbed on me a few more times that night, and each time I welcomed it. I told my other brother, another cat owner, about Soxs pawing at me while I slept. "That's really the cat petting you!" Thank you, Soxs, for your evening company.

Soxs (l.) and Brendan (r.)

Friday, January 31, 2020

My 2019 Books and Movies

In 2019, I finished 17 books and 70 movies.

My favorite fiction from the past year: The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen) and The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). Both were vivid and dramatic, and I loved them, and I highly recommend them both.

My favorite non-fiction: Guns, Germs and Steel. I'm coming late to this book by Jared Diamond. I remember a co-worker reading this in the mid 1990s, and I had put it on my radar back then. I managed to finish it last year as an audio book, but the material was so compelling I bought a used copy. This is a sweeping book about the key drivers behind the formation of modern societies.

For the movies, my favorite by far was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Humor, emotion, music, and amazing action. But a close second was Incendies, a story that rocked me just like it did the children depicted in this brooding movie about family and history.

Nickel Boys