How I Work in 2018

It’s been three years since I first did a “How I Work” blog post (at the prompting of Tom McDonald) and since then I moved to a different full-time job and then to another (current) full-time job, where what I do is now almost completely different. And where I work has now shifted to my home office. So, I thought it would be fun to do an update of that post now. Some of the details have not changed, but I will share those that have.

Location:

South of Boston, still, but in a different town. I work from home in a room we’ve set aside as the office, but which is also our primary library and the TV room, so occasionally, usually when the weather’s too bad outside or the kids are sick, I have to vacate and work from another room in order to let the kids watch a video.

Current Gig:

I am now the CEO of the StarQuest Production Network (SQPN), a podcast network whose show explore the intersection of faith and pop culture. I first became connected to SQPN as a listener more than 10 years ago when I started listening to Fr. Roderick Vonhogen’s podcasts and then to other shows on the network after it was formed about 2006. In 2010 and again in 2013, I helped organize SQPN’s Catholic New Media Conference when it was in Boston. Around the time of the second CNMC Boston, Fr. Roderick asked me to co-host the Secrets of Star Wars podcast with him. Later, I also joined the Secrets of Doctor Who in 2014. I became a part-time executive director in 2015 and then as of January 1, 2018, Fr. Roderick stepped down as CEO and I took over, first as part-time, and then on May 1, I took on the job full-time.

One Word That Best Describes How I Work:

Intensely.1

Current Mobile Devices:

iPhone X (256GB); iPad Pro 9.7” (128GB); Apple Watch Series 1 (42mm)

Current Computers:

2017 iMac (Retina 5k, 27-inch), 3.8GHz Intel Core i5 with 40GB RAM and 1TB Fusion Drive; 2015 MacBook Pro Retina 13”, 2.7GHz Dual-core Intel Core i5 with 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD

Attached to the iMac is 27” is a BenQ GW2765HT 16:9 27” monitor at 2560×1440 resolution. You can never have too much monitor display space.

The keyboard is a pre-2007 vintage Apple Keyboard that I replaced my Magic Keyboard with because I prefer the solid key travel of the older keyboard.2 I also use the awesome Apple Magic Trackpad. I swore off mice several years ago when I realized that my hand stopped cramping when I used the trackpad instead of the mouse.

What Apps/Software/Tools Can’t You Live Without?

Why?

I won’t rehash everything I said last time because most of it still applies, although the reason Creative Cloud is indispensable has changed. In 2015, it was because of InDesign and Photoshop for creating bulletins and web site graphics. Today, I spent most of my CC time in Audition, editing podcasts.

The last four are new to this list. Forecast didn’t exist in 2015 and I would haven’t needed it then anyway. It’s a great podcast encoder that takes the big uncompressed audio files that come out of Audition and compresses them down to a manageable size. But that’s not all: It also has smarts in it to identify the audio file and embed the proper artwork, title, and description in the final file. It saves me multiple minutes per podcast as well as eliminates the need for several other programs.

Ulysses is my multi-platform Markdown text editor of choice with plenty of the features I want and no extraneous fluff, plus I can publish to my blog right from within the app, no extra copying and pasting needed. Keyboard Maestro is an incredible automation system that lets me trigger complex scripts with a key combination, at a particular time or interval, or even when it detects a particular piece of equipment has been attached. TextExpander is another automation tool that lets me type a small string of text and it expands it into boilerplate text. For example, every time I upload a podcast file to our online storage, I have to type the same information with a few changing bits. So I invoked the TextExpander snippet, fill in a few fields, and everything fills itself into the proper fields.

What’s Your Workspace Setup Like?

My office setup

You can see in the photo how my desk is setup. The desk is an Ikea Galant3 that is 63” long by 31” deep.I like to have plenty of space to spread out and work. In front of me is is the iMac with the MacBook Pro usually closed and connected to hard drives and power in front of me, ready either to be opened and used or grabbed to go. Next to the laptop is my Scansnap ix500 sheetfed scanner into which every piece of paper that comes into the house and needs to be preserved is fed to go into Evernote. Next to that is my Dymo Labelwriter 450 Twin Turbo with both address labels and e-stamps so I never have to go the post office for the very occasional letters I need to mail.

The microphone boom stand is the Rode PSA 1 Swivel Mount Studio Microphone Boom Arm and the microphone is the very reasonably priced and surprisingly high quality Audio Technica ATR2100 USB/XLR. That is connected to the Mackie ProFX8v2 USB mixer that is on the old TV stand to the right of my desk. Above that is our TV which is mounted on the wall. To the right of those is a bookshelf with a 24-port Ethernet switch, my Synology DS216+II network-attached storage RAID with 3TB of storage and Buffalo TeraStation 4TB RAID.

The phone stand is a Seneo Wireless Charger, which is great for keeping my phone topped up all the time. The speakers are Creative Sound BlasterX Kratos S3 2.1 speakers connected via USB. On the wall behind the computer and display are a bunch of 3M Command hooks that hold cables and headphones and even the speakers for the TV sound system. I particularly like the Cord Organizer. Also on the wall is my Amazon Echo Dot in a wall mount, which I use to control all sorts of home automation stuff, including the lights in this room.

My desk chair is the ErgoChair 2 from Autonomous. It’s not as expensive as the high-end quality desk chairs you can get, but it is very adjustable. I did have a problem where the caster sockets broke earlier this year, but they sent me a new base to replace it. I do sit in this chair most of every day.

Here are the home screens of my iPhone and iPad:

The home screen of my iPad

The home screen of my iPhone

What’s Your Best Time-Saving Shortcut/Life Hack?

I’ll go for a different hack than the one I gave last time. I picked this one up from Dr. Drang a while ago and it uses Keyboard Maestro. Essentially, wherever I type the letters “xfurl”, Keyboard Maestro runs a script that puts the URL from the current tab of frontmost window in Safari in its place. This is very helpful when I’m doing things like writing a blog post, for example. If I have a page I’m referencing in Safari, I don’t have to switch from Ulysses, click in the address bar, copy, switch back, paste. It all happens right there. A similar macro lets me pick from the list of all the open tabs in Safari. And it wouldn’t be difficult to adapt if Chrome is your preferred browser. See what exactly how it’s done in this blog post.4

What’s Your Favorite To-Do List Manager?

It’s still Omnifocus, which only gets better as time goes on.

Besides Your Phone And Computer, What Gadget Can’t You Live Without And Why?

I love my third-generation AppleTV. When they added apps a few years ago, it changed how I use the AppleTV and it is now the primary interface for how I watch movies and TV, especially since I can watch Netflix and Amazon Prime TV on it.

What Everyday Thing Are You Better At Than Everyone Else? What’s Your Secret?

It’s still pretty much the same skills as I said before. I’m not a great typist per se, but I think the ability to type one thing while having a conversation about something else with another person is still pretty cool and unusual.

What Do You Listen To While You Work?

Another one that hasn’t changed since 2015. I don’t usually listen to music while I work, and if I’m listening to anything, it’s to podcasts, usually of the light conversational variety. But when I’m writing, I can’t listen to something else and of course when I’m recording a podcast, I’m not listening to anything else either.

What Are You Currently Reading?

Right now, I’m reading Tom Clancy: Line of Sight (A Jack Ryan Jr. Novel). When Clancy died a few years ago, they had other writers take up his characters to continue their stories, Mark Greaney had been doing a very good job, but they recently switched the Jack Ryan Jr. books to author Mike Maden. I’m not done with the book yet, so it’s not a proper review, but in general, I don’t feel like it hits the buttons. It’s missing a lot of the flash that made the previous novels good and his Jack Jr. doesn’t quite feel the same.

Next on my reading list is S.M. Stirling’s Black Chamber, an alternate history of a fictional second term for Teddy Roosevelt and World War I. I’m also looking forward to Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, A Revolution by Nathanial Philbrick.

What Has Changed Over The Years Since You Started And What Do You Do Differently?

In one way, a lot has not changed, which is that I’ve returned to working from home full-time, except now I’m not alone in the house, but have my wife and five kids outside my office door. So much of the technology has changed for the better and in fact, there’s no way I could have done this job the way I am 25 years ago, or even 15 years ago. The tools just didn’t exist in the affordable and accessible way they are now.

However, the essential aspects of how I work haven’t changed. I still have to be very disciplined about keeping track of my projects, tasks, and to-dos. I still have to sit down at my desk every day and avoid distractions and temptations. On the other hand, I’m still relaxed about finding space in those obligations to be spontaneous and pop outside for a while to enjoy the weather or take in a matinée or go to a museum with my family.

Now that I’ve once again given up the grind of the daily commute and no longer have to account for my every working moment, I’m much more relaxed and more free of stress and happier. And so are Melanie and the kids. Melanie loves that when my work days I’m right there to help with dinner. The kids love that they can see me all day, that I can help with their schoolwork, or have lunch with them. It’s a better life.

  1. In 2015, I wrote “Focused” but I’ve decided it doesn’t adequately convey what I’m like when I get in the flow.
  2. I plan on getting a CODE Cherry MX keyboard someday when I can justify the $150 purchase. If you’re going to be typing 8 to 12 hours per day, it ought to be a good keyboard.
  3. It looks like they don’t make it anymore, but the Bekant seems to be the replacement.
  4. I just used the macro for that link. How meta.

Don’t Delete Facebook

Actually, delete Facebook if it will make you feel better, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter at this point and it won’t do any good.1 Here’s the backstory: A big news story broke this week about a British company, Cambridge Analytica, that used data harvested from a Facebook quiz by an academic researcher to compile profiles on millions of people that it then (maybe) used to target political ads. And because those ads may have been for Trump, everyone lost their minds and said they needed to save themselves from Facebook.

The fact is that you’re closing the barn door after the horse is gone, but you can take control of some of what Facebook knows and shares about you.

I say the horse is out of the barn because this harvesting of Facebook data for political purposes is old news. In 2012, the Obama campaign was openly bragging about the Facebook data it collected on the young users of its app. It’s the same data that Cambridge Analytica was seeing. And keep in mind that the data that Obama got six years ago is still very useful and has probably been dispersed into a bunch of successor organizations. They’re also been collecting all this data for however long you’ve been signed up and they don’t delete it when you quit. They’re also not the only one. This kind of Big Data harvesting is happening every day through Google’s ad networks and Amazon’s sales records and your music playlists and your brick-and-mortar purchases. This is the reality of the world we live in. So deleting your Facebook profile is just one drop in the bucket.

However, as I said, you can take back some control. For Facebook, you can limit what data it shares. For one thing, stop using your Facebook or Google profile to create logins on other sites. It is so tempting to do so because it makes life easier not to have to manage more passwords. For that I say, get a password manager.2 But you should know that if you do use your Facebook or Google profiles (it’s often OAuth or Open Authorization login), you are giving both Facebook and the site you’re signing into access to more data about yourself. In fact, that other site can pull in all kinds of data from your FB profile like your friends, your likes and dislikes, contact info, birthdays and more. This is all Big Data gold.

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Solar Power is in Reach, But the Old Dinosaur Still Stands in the Way

Men installing solar panels on a roof

We finally have an installation date for our solar panels from Solar City/Tesla. As you may recall, we started this odyssey at the beginning of last summer (2017) and signed the paperwork in July. But our local electrical provider, National Grid, had told us that we couldn’t put them on their grid because their local connection equipment wasn’t up to snuff.1 They said that an upgrade would take 16 to 20 weeks!

So nearly six months after that, the upgrade has been done and now our solar panels are scheduled for installation in mid-March. But that doesn’t mean they will be running by then, because after the installation we have to wait for National Grid to inspect them to make sure they are connected to their grid properly. The current wait time is running 10 to 11 weeks. When all is said and done, we’ll have waited almost a year to get up and running on solar, nearly all of that time due to National Grid’s foot-dragging. And because they’ve dragged their feet, they will have sucked an extra $3,600 out of us.

Of course, the electric utilities don’t like everyone going solar because not only do they lose the money for the electricity they were selling us, they also have to buy back any excess electricity we generate. But it didn’t have to be this way.

In fact, they could have avoided all of this if they had been a forward-looking innovator instead of a backward, too conservative monopoly more interested in the status quo. Imagine if the electric utilities themselves had gotten into solar leasing instead of letting companies like Solar City and Vivint take over. National Grid already owns all the infrastructure and has relationships with all of its customers. They could show up one day and say, “Hey, let us put solar panels on your roof and cut your bill in half. It won’t cost you a dime.” Sure, on the one hand, they get half of what they were getting. On the other hand, half is better than none. Even better, they don’t have to buy back the extra electricity: It’s already theirs. And they can then sell that electricity to other customers, having created more capacity in the grid without having to build expensive plants or buying from a regional cooperative.

But old, comfortable companies, especially those with monopolies, don’t think like this. No cable company could have invented Netflix. No bookstore chain could have invented Amazon. No record label could have invented iTunes.

So now, I’m left waiting to get my solar panels up and running as National Grid runs out the clock on their monopoly, squeezing every possible cent out of the system. And no one will mourn them when they are gone someday.

  1. We’d actually tried connecting with a different solar company before Solar City, but National Grid said their local transformer that serves our neighborhood needed an upgrade to serve more solar panels. So they had so many solar customers already and before more could be added, they need to upgrade. They told us that we would have to pay $3,500 for the equipment upgrade. No thanks! I’m not subsidizing giant corporations so they can then serve more customers because once the equipment is upgraded any neighbors who want to go solar in the future would benefit too. When I went to Solar City they agreed to pay the upgrade. I wrote about this last September.

Social Media Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Men in business suits boxing in a ring

The latest tragedies grabbing the headlines and especially the ensuing bluster on social media have reinforced for me why I have lately decided to stop engaging in discussions about these things there.1 In fact, I have been using a browser extension called FB Purity to block any updates that contain certain keywords from appearing in my timeline.

It’s not that I’m a heartless ogre who doesn’t care about making our country safer or protecting it from dastardly forces. Nor does it mean I don’t care about the Catholic Church and her doctrines and teachings and whether some of her leaders are undermining them.

It’s that I don’t believe that bluster and acrimony on Facebook and Twitter are going to change a damn thing. No, wait, it will change something: It will make me more bitter and angry and sinful.

Much of what passes for discourse on subjects like gun control or Donald Trump or Pope Francis consists of straw man arguments, emotional venting lacking in rational thought, failures to engage charity or to give the benefit of the doubt, silly memes that usually contain falsehoods and/or that mock others without engaging them. Then the comments on these posts devolve into shouting matches and insults that drown out anyone trying to make rational, intelligent responses.

Shakespeare could have been describing these “antisocial” social media debates when he wrote in “MacBeth”: “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

And in the end, no one ever has their mind changed about a single thing. I’ve never seen one of these shouting matches result in someone saying, “You know what? You’re right! I’ve been wrong all this time. I’ve changed my mind.”

So what’s the point of it all?

Now, you may ask me why I haven’t just deleted my social media accounts, like so many other people have. For one thing, social media is part of my job. I need to be there to administer and monitor several social media sites associated with my work. For another thing, once I’ve excised the vitriol from my timelines, I can engage with my family and friends in uplifting and fun discussions and share news of our lives and share articles about interesting or uplifting topics. Social media doesn’t have to be a wasteland. It’s what you make it.

I choose not to make it a place of anger and falsehoods and cheap ideological grandstanding.

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I’m not always successful in staying out of them. But I nearly always regret it.

A Million Little Big Brothers

Perhaps you’ve seen this scenario play out online: Someone says something outrageous on social media or does something that’s just wrong. Not criminal necessarily, but wrong from your point of view. The person usually isn’t famous, just someone whose social outburst has gone viral. They could be from anywhere on the political spectrum, right to left, but whatever they said ticked off everyone on the other side. So someone else does some digging into their background, finds out where they work, and announces, “I wonder how their employer feels about having an employee who says this?”, beginning a pressure campaign to get them fired from their job for the sin of saying something stupid in public.

The practice of finding out personal, real life details about people you have encountered online and then using that information against them in real life is called “doxxing”.1 It’s a form of social punishment, a message that if you anger the online mob, the online mob can reach out to hurt you. It has been used against liberals and conservatives, Christians and anti-Christians, people of all races and sexes and persuasions and ideologies. It has become a way to widen the split in our society that has grown, the division that makes everything about politics and impossible to have polite, civil conversations where we disagree.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Everybody says stupid things occasionally. Our duty, if we want to have a civil society, is to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially if (a) we don’t know them personally and (b) this is one statement/incident out of context. Perhaps even if the person has made a habit of saying or doing dumb things.

Most people I know have at least in their lives said something stupid? Would you want everyone at every time now and the future to be able to potentially use that against you?

I have seen Twitter accounts whose reason for existence is to find people who show up in photographs of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer and then try to get them fired for their jobs. No nuance, no understanding. If you were there and you are white, you must be a white supremacist Nazi and you must be stripped of any ability to feed or provide for yourself or your family. And if your employer thinks you have a right to be wrong and to say stupid things on your own time, then his business will be punished.

I’ve seen it used to attack a black woman on Twitter who said white women’s sons should be killed because they are likely to be criminals. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make any sense.) Someone figured out she’s a nurse and suggested she should be fired.

Was she actually calling for people to murder others or was she being outrageous for attention’s sake? I don’t know for sure, but I have seen the most upstanding people say some pretty crazy things in private conversations, not because they really believed it, but to elicit reaction from the people they are with. They’re not exactly joking, but exaggerating rhetorically to make a point or eschewing nuance to be more direct in a conversation with someone who knows them so well that the other person can fill in the context. The difference now is that Twitter and Facebook can trick us into thinking we’re having private conversations with a small group of friends … until suddenly we’re not and our post has gone viral and now the whole internet is attacking us.

A Self-Police State

We used to worry about a George Orwell “1984”-style totalitarian oppressive regime, a police state that monitored its people for any and all transgressions of the party line, no matter how small. It turns out that wasn’t what we should have been afraid of after all. Now we need to worry about an oppressive regime of a million supreme leaders.

Can you imagine a country where everyone has to police their every public and private utterance, no matter how dumb or off the cuff, lest the mob of those ideologically opposed to them find out and ruin their lives? Who needs Big Brother government when you have a million little Big Brothers?

Shake your head at the boorish and outrageous. Criticize them strongly. But don’t seek to destroy the lives of perfect strangers. That’s hardly either Christian or conducive to the building of a good society. And it’s a weapon that targets the good and the bad, the right and the left, those of every stripe indiscriminately.

  1. There are other definitions and perhaps a broader usage of the term, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick with this for now.

More Tales of Social Media Marketing Mistakes

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post1 about college students moving to low-tax states. I wanted to illustrate it with an image of a young person house-moving and found one on Flickr on the account of a small moving company that looks to appeal to young people. The photo was available under a Creative Commons license with an attribution requirement. So I used the photo under the terms they had provided.

Fast forward to earlier this month. I get an email from a marketing company. Thank you, they said, for featuring our client on your web site, but we need you to hyperlink the image so that it directs readers to our web site. They didn’t tell me which photo or where it was on my site. My blog has been around for nearly two decades and has thousands of entries. I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Eventually through some sleuthing, I figured out which blog post and photo. First, I wasn’t featuring their client on my site. I was using their photo—in accordance with the usage restrictions they had listed—to illustrate an unrelated story. Second, I had followed the attribution requirements that they selected when making the photo available. Third, that’s not how my site software works. I can’t hyperlink the “hero” image at the top of my blog posts.

I didn’t want the hassle so I just found another image on a different site that was about “moving” and replaced theirs. Then I sent the PR person an email in reply telling her, “Never mind, I’ve replaced the image with one unrelated to your client that doesn’t have special requirements.”

So instead of free advertising for her client (the logo was prominent in the image), they get nothing. Rather than increase her client’s virality and Google-rank, she decreased it by making a silly and annoying request. If they want people to handle their images differently, then they should say so up front in their rights disclosure.

  1. I’m not linking the post or mentioning the mover because it’s not relevant.

Is the iPhone X worth $1,000?

Here’s the thing about the new iPhone X. Apple needed to create a top-of-the-line, all-the-bells-and-whistles phone because every major phone maker must have one like it. The problem is that unlike most Android phone manufacturers, Apple has to make their phones in immense quantities.

A middle-of-the-road Android manufacturer will sell probably 10,000 to 100,000 units of their top of the line phone. If Apple priced their top phone at the normal tiers starting at $699, the demand would be for the usual 10 million, at least, and perhaps more. Which is great if you can make the phones.

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Solar Power Struggles

My brother had solar panels installed on his house by SolarCity about 3 or 4 years ago now, right near the beginning of the new leased solar panel trend. In the past, you had to buy a solar panel setup outright, often at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars outlay. Even with tax credits and electric savings, you wouldn’t see a return on your investment for years. But the new solar panel leasing allows you to get panels on your roof for a low monthly fee. You don’t own the panels, but maintenance is taken care of by the vendor and, in our case, we’d save about half off our utility bill.

This seemed like a good deal so we contacted my brother’s salesman, but because of a number of distractions we never followed through. Earlier this year, I saw something from Google about going solar where I could enter my information and several different solar companies would contact me about their services. I did and heard from one, Vivint. They gave me their pitch, which outlined what’s involved and how much we would pay.

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iPhone Was More Than Cool Tech

In 2005, I owned a Blackberry Pearl. I thought it was pretty cool. I could type out emails and even access the internet… sort of. In reality, it wasn’t all that great. You could tap out an email after a fashion on the tiny keyboard and the the “internet” was a janky AT&T-specific set of web services in a weird interface.

In 2004, I recall spending an October evening with Melanie as she was dress shopping for a friend’s wedding, even as the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in the American League Championship Series in what would become the greatest comeback in baseball history on the road to an historic World Series win. Meanwhile, I was stuck in a deserted department store trying to follow the game’s box score on my tiny phone and its text interface.

Back to 2005, Melanie and I got married and spent our honeymoon driving through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, much of which was as a desert as far as cell signals went. We spent a lot of the time in the car talking and I recall one conversation in which I told Melanie that very soon we would have ubiquitous internet, where we would have constant access to every web site and be in constant contact with anyone virtually anywhere. It seemed like science fiction then, but two years later it started to become reality.

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Backfire on The Oatmeal

I’ve long been a fan of The Oatmeal, the often irreverent web comic drawn and written by Matthew Inman. Once upon a time, the comics were wry discussions of common points of friction in life, like bad grammar or exercising or packing for a trip, or happy excursions on interesting tidbits of wonder or joy, like the love of a pet or the amazing mantis shrimp or the incredible life of Nikolai Tesla. The comic has become so popular that Inman is a veritable one-man viral campaign. His merest suggestion of support for a cause can raise millions of dollars in days.

Sadly, the comic has declined in recent years, in my opinion, because it has succumbed to that disease that has run amok today, namely that everything is political. So now the comics tend toward rants, mostly liberal, against the dangerous others, primarily Donald Trump and his voters.

In the last day or so, another Oatmeal comic has gone viral, this one on the psychological phenomenon of the “backfire effect.”1 It’s a series of panels that are supposed to show that we are evolutionarily hardwired to believe new information that supports our core beliefs and reject new information that challenges them. His conclusion is that it’s okay to let our emotional selves react, but then we should engage our logic and change our minds so we can all be happy agreeing with one another.

I have a few problems with this.2 First, just because you can make a citation doesn’t make new information true. Yes, sometimes we are actually wrong about a basic fact of reality, e.g. That event occurred in 1945, not 1946. But even as Inman points out, those sorts of facts rarely impinge upon core beliefs. Instead core beliefs—those at the very core of self-identity and understanding—are complex. So a citation can never be simple. It’s often an interpretation or hypothesis or a claim that can admit no easy proofs.
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