Thursday, August 20, 2009

On time and attention

Ben Franklin's schedule

Ben Franklin famously divided his day up into sections, some for productive work, some for dining, some for letter writing and conversation, with a few hours left each day to sleep.

He knew that his time and attention were valuable. There were only so many hours in a day, and in order to have the maximum impact, his time was divided according to his priorities.

Many of us don't lay out our daily schedule in so systematic a way. We may have a to-do list or a day's worth of activities planned, but how many of us stick to so rigorous a timeframe?

Lately, though, I could use a Ben Franklin frame of mind. In the last few weeks, my life has become increasingly complicated, and too often I find myself with not enough hours left at the end of the day. And sleep? What's that?

Considering that I keep myself occupied enough as it is, throw in a part-time freelance job, an exercise regimen, a blog, a Pakistani neighbor, and a hobby or two, and time seems to be in short supply. It's no one's fault but my own, but it's a heavy burden to bear.

And still there are things I want to do. I want to learn how to make better web sites. I want to play my guitar. I want to mess around with my Macs. I'd love to do more writing. There are tons of books, magazines, and blog posts that I'd love to sit down and digest. Oh, and eating is pretty swell, too. I'd like to do that.

Which leads me to say there is only so much time, and therefore only so much attention I can pay to any one thing. The key is in prioritizing.

If I were to lay out my own Franklin-style daily plan, it would look something like this:

Schedule (proposed)

There seems like a lot of open space in there, but I have to be realistic. Things come up, I have a great new relationship, and there has to be time for relaxing and sponteniety. This is just the stuff I have to do.

David's list

I use several tools to help me manage all this. My first, and most essential, is probably my to-do list, which I manage with Google's wonderful (and ubiquitous, thanks to my iPhone) Tasks app. With Tasks, I can pop something on my list from wherever (home, work, out and about) I am. When something's done, I check it off. I prioritize when I need to.

Flash drive contents

Secondly, I keep my entire life - my budget, my writing, my necessary files - on a USB thumb drive. It's 128 megabytes of portable sanity, and I keep it around wherever I go. What's amazing is that all of the files I need can hang out on something that's smaller than a CD-ROM.

From my Lexar drive, I transport files, ideas, and pictures from computer to computer, but I make sure to back it up constantly. I've lost it before. If it was gone for good, I want to have a backup.

To manage everything online, I'm a huge fan of my Google account - a combination of iGoogle, Google Reader, Blogger, and my Gmail account.

iGood is like a heads-up display of all the news, weather, stock quotes, to-do list (Tasks), and e-mail (Gmail) that I need. I use Google Reader to keep track of my favorite blogs and sites, and Blogger helps me manage both my personal blog and my Recycling Jackson blog. I used to keep all my Newton Poetry stuff straight with an iGoogle Wordpress widget, but now that I'm self-hosting the blog, that option is gone.

Stuff on my iPhone that I use everyday

My iPhone carries obvious benefits thanks to apps and bookmarks stored on my homepages. With Twitterrific (for Twitter), Facebook, Google Tasks, PocketMoney (for finances), and various blog/web site bookmarks (like my online banking), I keep everything I need on a daily basis confined to the first two screens on my iPhone. Everything after that is stuff I only check once in a while, like eBay and Flickr.

What works for me is to fill little pockets of time, like eating breakfast or waiting in line somewhere, with stuff I like to read and think about, and then have the tools I like handy so I can make sense of it all. When I think about it, I ingest a lot of data over the course of a day. They trick is to have a way to digest it all.

I gave up regular TV watching a long time ago. Now, there are just a few things I watch: "The Office," football, and now "Mad Men." Instead, I read when I eat - even during lunch at work. I write before work. I exercise after dinner. And I fill in random time slots with stuff on my to-do list, like having my laundry going while I cook dinner or do work.

There are big things in my life that get the lion's share of my attention, and deservedly so. Everything else gets taken care of when I have a free second. Lately, I have less "free seconds" to go around, but I make do.

The important thing is to, like Ben Franklin, have a plan. Even if you don't stick to it all the time, something is better than nothing.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Take Back the Beep

[An open letter to AT&T rep, Mark Siegel, in response to David Pogue's "Take Back the Beep" campaign. I sent this in an e-mail to Mr. Siegel at 6:57 p.m. today.]

Take back the beep

Mr. Siegel,

As an iPhone user, I'm lucky. My voicemail greeting does not burden a caller with an inanely-long "after the beep" message. I realize I'm one of the lucky few, however, because I face this message every time I call someone else.

It has to stop. And not just because of the cost to consumers.

I realize that AT&T needs to make money, and while I wag my finger in shame at using a tactic like the beep message, I understand. I work at a financial institution, and we're all about using little things, here and there, to draw in more income.

What's annoying is that it wastes my time. And time, sir, is something I can't get back.

Like Mr. Pogue mentioned in his article, the basics of leaving a voicemail - which have been with us since the dawn of the answering machine - are known to everyone but the Amish and the corrupt. In fact, many voicemail greetings created by users include the words "you know what to do after the beep" or "leave a message after the beep." Adding extra instructions without a user's consent is time wasted.

We're not long for this Earth, Mr. Siegel. You, or me, or your communications professor from college could go at any time. We live in strange times, after all, and one never knows when the mortality clock could stop ticking. It could happen as I type this. Ever heard of ball lightning?

Anyway, the point is - please let us users decide how much of our friends' and family's time to waste. What do you say? Instead of sitting and listening to a laughably-didactic woman tell me I can "page" (is this 1996?) the person on the other end, I just want to leave a message without being accosted by the recorded message. Right?


Dave Lawrence
AT&T Customer
Jackson, MI

PS: Fix your service. Half my apartment gets a mediocre reception, while the other half has none at all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fear & Loathing at Beer Fest 2009

Beer Fest - Dragonmead Ale

It's not hard to see why an idea like Beer Fest would be so popular. Take 8,000 drunks, seclude them in a riverside park, isolate them on all sides, and turn them loose with thousands of kegs of beer.

If that's not an American ideal, I don't know what is.

Thanks to the Michigan Brewers Guild, Beer Fest takes place every summer in Ypsilanti, sandwiched between Independence Day and the end of summer, a vortex of barley and oats and vomit and shouting. There are few who can handle the mad rush of brew-crazy revelers who have been out in the sun and now, for the love of God, just need a beer.

You only live twice, and so Jessie and I headed down into the Huron River Valley to see what the fuss was about.

Beer Fest - Food

The weather was a strange mix of on-again, off-again sprinkles and this year's modest July sun beating down on the party-goers. We saw Meagan early on, her face and arms red despite the SPF 50, and she gave us an early tip that would turn the tide of this whole ordeal.

"Don't offer your wooden nickle immediately," she said. "Wait until the breweries ask for it."

This was sage wisdom given by someone who had obviously ridden this rodeo before. By holding back, we could earn more booze. It was a genius plan.

The trouble was the timing. We arrived at Riverside Park at 4:30, and the event was only scheduled until 6:00. There was a time crunch, so we had little opportunity to learn the lay of the land, or even pick out our favorite breweries in the crowd. We needed a strategy.

(As a side note, the entire event's timing boggled my mind. On Friday night it only last until 9 p.m., and on Saturday it ran from 1-6 p.m. These are not drinker's hours. Ask anyone who imbibes a 12-pack a day when they drink, and the answer is usually the same: at night.)

Beer Fest - Columbia Central gang

From what we did learn, Beer Fest is organized in four or five different tents, each one featuring a gathering of local breweries who would, for a wooden nickel, give you a taste of their wares. For the price of admission, you get 12 nickles and a plastic cup, along with a listing of the breweries. Our small 8 oz. cup would be filled about three-quarters of the way, we were told, just for "a sample," at each stop.

This was true in the beginning. Maybe it was our bad luck, but the first few breweries took our nickles and gave us a "sample" of their beer. Simple enough. But soon we realized that by simply handing over our cup and asking for our chosen brew, the brewmaster would be happy to give back a full glass for no cost.

For Jessie, it was as simple as a smile. Pretty girls have that affect on half-drunk brewmasters world wide. For me, negotiations were far more complicated.

Beer Fest - B is for Brewski

We wondered how on Earth the breweries made any money from this shindig, and the best we could figure is that they got a certain amount of money for each nickle collected. Since we were getting so many free samples, and had plenty of wooden nickles to share, we eventually started to donate our nickles to the breweries. Why not? Someone has to take something worthwhile from this whole mess.

There were plenty of people taking, no doubt. Some of the people stumbling around, their blank eyes searching for a point of focus in the bedlam, had obviously been here since opening - if not the night before, sleeping next to the river or in the bushes leading up the embankment. Their cups were crusted over with gallons and gallons of gulped-down beer, and it was only a matter of time before the event organizers turned them loose on Depot Town in Ypsi.

The kicker is that the event sells more wooden nickles. If you run out, you can buy more, and the brew will keep flowing. The brain recoils in horror at the thought of an all-day drunkfest that sits so close to civilized society.

Beer Fest - the Pissing Wall

Perhaps it's all in the philosophy of the thing. Beer Fest offers an escape from the ordinary. For the office worker who is one nervous twitch away from punching his boss, for the petite hippie who has taken one too many bites of the apple, for the burly, bearded brew snob searching for love in fantasy baseball forums - for all of them, Beer Fest exists. It serves some grand purpose that we dare not question, let alone think about.

Ah, but the quality of the beer made it all worth the effort. Arbor Brewing, Olde Peninsula, Old Hat, Dragonmead, Mt. Pleasant Brewery - these great places where I've tasted Michigan's finest brews were all there. Some had souvinirs, some had giant Elvis taps, the beer flowing from his extended right arm, and some were simple affairs that let the drinks explain themselves. I dig that.

Just as important as the beer was the experience, and chalk Beer Fest up there with one of the best. Seeing thousands of drinkers milling around and organizing shouting contests in the tent, all the while consuming enough calories to skip a meal, was outstanding.

Beer Fest - gurney

Near the end, however, things got ugly. The event security shut the taps of promptly at 6 p.m., but for one poor bastard it wasn't soon enough. Jessie and I both noticed a sickly gray-looking man, middle-aged and seated, being attended to by EMS responders. He swayed in his chair, zombie-like, until a John Deere Gator and, much later, a gurney arrived to take him away. Then he was up on his feet like nothing had happened, the deathly palor not yet gone from his cheeks. He stumbled like a pro.

It was a testament to the constitution of the professional drinker, and in our hearts we both applauded and feared the man. Why waste this moment, I thought, with those fool medical professionals?

There was still drinking to be had. After all, we're finishing up the first recession our generation remembers, and nothing eases the pain and suffering of lost jobs, wages, and dignity like throwing back a few pale ales.

Recognizing that, Beer Fest served its purpose.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Will work for Macs

MacBook Pro - glowing keyboard

For the third time in my life now, I've been directly involved in the purchase of a new Macintosh computer.

The first was my first, an iBook G4 that still serves as my home base computer. The other was helping Katie buy an iMac.

But this one, a 15" MacBook Pro, is strictly professional. It's the result of our credit union's umbrella organization, the Jackson Co-Op, taking a chance on my design skills and hiring me as a contract freelancer.

The deal goes something like this: my design skills will be available to non-profits as a Jackson Co-Op service. I'll make whatever they need, like newsletters, web sites, and - our specialty - giant paper banners. I'll work on my own, away from work, and the entire thing will be run from the new Mac.

Sure, the extra money will help. And I'll get a chance to stretch my marketing muscles beyond the credit union. But the new Mac is really what sealed the deal.

And man, it's a beauty. Fifteen inches of enclosed aluminum, a complete Adobe Create Suite 4 package, the world's most advanced and gorgeous operating system, and something to do with all that free time I have.


I'll be the sole employee of the Jackson Co-Op unless my workload becomes too great for me to handle. If we get super busy, they'll hire someone to work with me.

My freelance work, in the past, has come in fits and spurts. I won't get any jobs (which I get strictly from word of mouth and referrals) for a long time, and then a bunch of people will be looking to get projects done. Just last week I had two going at the same time - one big, and one fairly simple.

The solo freelance work I've done has been more to keep my skills sharp and to help out local non-profits with their marketing. All too often, I've come across a brochure or flyer and though, "Jeez, they need some help." Some organizations are smart enough to realize this themselves, so they give me a ring.

And that's not to say I'm some super local talent. There are tons of way more talented designers in Jackson. You just get what you pay for. I purposefully charge a bare-bones rate just to help the non-profits out. I asked for double from for-profit companies because, hey, they can afford it.

Now, I'll still be doing freelance work, but under the guise of another not-for-profit organization. It'll no longer be Dave Lawrence, for hire. It'll be the Jackson Co-Op, and this fella Dave Lawrence, for hire.

But golly. A new MacBook Pro serving as the base of operations? In this case, it can hardly be called "work."

I'm a bit nervous about the workload. I know I'll have to give up a few things, (Newton Poetry may have a few fewer articles each week, for instance) but the deal works out on a bunch of different fronts. I'll be stashing away extra money, helping out local groups, and...oh yes...the Mac thing.

Here I had planned on grabbing a new iMac after the latest operating system, OS X 10.6, comes out. I'll probably still do that, but now I'll have an easier time paying for it, and I'll familiarize myself with OS X 10.5 Leopard (I've been running OS X 10.4 Tiger on all my Macs).

So things should get interesting. In the meantime, I'll be working on infrastructure projects, like the co-op's web site and mailing lists and so on, while reaching out to local organizations and offering my/our services.

All I need is a "Now Open" sign for my window.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On bird watching

It is remarkable how such a simple thing – an evening walk, a bird in a tree yelling its head off – can manage to cut through so much mental entanglement, can revive you when you are tired, can bring an almost immediate sense of well-being. And it occurred to me that evening that one of the things about the world is that it is largely indifferent to the human stories that we weave.
It's called "biophilia," which means love of living things, and what helped thinkBuddha's author ponder the clamour of life helped me realize why I've grown so fond of birdwatching these past few years.

I can't place the exact time it started, but sometime two summers ago I really started to notice the bird songs around my area. Part of it was waking up to so many songs, since tons of birds live around my apartment complex, and some of it was my reconnecting with nature through walks, runs, and bike rides.

A bird would make a song, and I would - for the first time - wonder where it came from, and from whom.

Anymore, a beautiful birdsong is enough to make me stop what I'm doing and pay attention. It's profound.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On 'Into the Wild'

Americans can be placed in two diametrically-opposed camps: those whoe view Henry David Thoreau's experiment next to Walden Pond as a great idea, worthy of copying, and everyone else.

I've long placed myself in the former category. The idea of spending two years alone in the woods, with a self-built shelter and a bean garden, sounds pretty darned gnarley. Thoreau allowed himself walks into town for shopping and visits with friends, and that would be fine, too. But the romantic ideal behind Walden is enough conjure visions of daily journal entries, long walks in the isolated woods, and lots and lots of book reading.

For that other group of Americans, Thoreau's experiment sounds like a trip into madness. Living alone in the woods? Finding yourself in solitude with just your thoughts? Cue the spine shivers and dry heaving. For some, an idea like that is not in the cards - now or ever.

I've always done well alone. As a child, I could entertain myself for hours. And now, as an adult, I've taken several long excursions all by my lonesome, and no suffering ensued.

"I don't think I could do that all by myself," people tell me. So it is.

But even the idea of Chris McCandless - the 24-year-old vagabond who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness and subject of Jon Krakauer's magnificent Into the Wild - heading out alone and unprepared seems like madness to me.

McCandless, if you're not familiar with the story, was a well-to-do college graduate who gave away all his money and hit the road. He preferred an uncertain life in the American wilderness to a comfortable, normal middle class existence.

I can respect that. I admire someone who takes the ideals of Thoreau and Tolstoy (or Jesus, for that matter) and other ecstetics and lives them out loud. Living close to the bone is, arguably, the only way to live. For some, giving up all their possessions and lending their life to chance makes our mortal existence more worthy. I dig it.

What I don't dig is a life led foolishly. If you're going to take a chance, then you'd better be able to accept the consequences. In McCandless's case, he paid the ultimate price for his ascetic lifestyle. It didn't have to be that way.

Krakauer paints McCandless's tale as a mixture of preperation and cares-to-the-wind gambling, mostly stemming from the kid's stubborn moralism. McCandless came to idolize Thoreau, Tolstoy, and the stories of Jack London so much that common sense seemed an afterthought. Like taking a canoe down the Colorado River, hoping to reach Baja California and the Pacific Ocean - even though there was no direct route. Or sleeping in his car in a salt flat, only to have a flash flood was everything he owned away.

Breathing the neon of life is a fine way to live, but man - there are always consequences. If I take a cross-country driving trip, sure, I take my chances on exact details. But you can bet I've got the general outline planned out, and that I've done my research. Life can be exciting and well-thought-out. They're not mutually exclusive.

All I know is, heading into the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a 10-pound bag of rice and a rifle is far from proper foresight. It's suicide. What's sad is that McCandless probably knew his chance of survival was nil, but the experience? Well, that was everything.

I feel the same pull that McCandless felt, if only to a lesser degree. Tramping off to climb a mountain or hike through the woods in solitude restores some reptilian center in my brain to full health. Thing is, I want to take more trips and experience more adventures sometime in the future. To do that, I need to keep living. I have neither the constitution nor the wherewithal to survive like some Neolithic hunter-gatherer, and I have the humility to recognize that.

It's a shame that a bright, resourceful, strong-minded young man could've had plenty of more adventures if only he hadn't been so foolish. Hubris is a helluva thing in the face of an uncaring, unsympathetic Nature. Odds are, you're going to lose.

But all that is obvious. Any idiot can see how foolish McCandless was. What struck me was that McCandless was such a rigid moralist that it cost him his life. In the face of overwhelming odds, the kid had no sense of pragmatism. Even Thoreau, alone in the woods, built a woodshed for the winter. His character was not lessened by his prep work. But like most absolutists, McCandless picked and chose Thoreau's lessons to fit his worldview. People often pick Bible passages to prop up their evil. McCandless took only those maxims that justified his rash existence.

So he died. Maybe, in his final agonizing moments, he felt justified. The suffering was the living, and starvation brought him closer to the live wires that light the world.

For me, though, I'll take my adventure with a bit of planning. The sights I've seen and the places I've been have brought me closer to some Ultimate Experience. A glimpse over the top was all I needed.

To guys like McCandless, they're not happy unless they're dangling from the edge, rope frayed from rubbing against their own moral scaffolding.

Lots of luck out there.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Devils in the details

Because the specifics matter. It’s one thing to say that Citi wasted some of the money taxpayers sent its way via the bailout; it’s another thing to say Citi wasted some of the taxpayers’ money by upholstering the pillows on the private jet Sandy Weill took to Mexico over Christmas vacation with Hermes scarves. It’s one thing to say Wall Street bankers felt pressure to chase profits; it’s another thing to say they achieved those profits by systematically robbing a whole generation of pensioners and working-class homeowners, under the noses of the politicians they bought with tens of millions in campaign contributions.
This from Matt Taibbi, at his True Slant blog, on Fareed Zakarias's defense of capitalism as it stands.

The devils (plural) are always in the details, but that doesn't matter to those who trump ideological frameworks as Bibles for how we should lead our lives. To some, the Market is an omnipresent, omniscient force of good will that works for the betterment of all. Really we know that not to be the case. Just as communism isn't a perfect idea, or Christianity still has some kinks to work out, capitalism - as a system - is just as flawed as the rest.

It may be the best way, but it's far from the perfect way. The chasing of money for the sake of greed alone is bound to produce criminals. Period.

To say the system is flawed is an understatement, and one that we keep uttering to make ourselves feel better when this kind of thing happens from time to time.