Support your local groundhog

Weather is a local phenomenon. Oh, weather systems can cover half a continent, but the weather on the north edge of a huge weather system will be entirely different from the weather at the south edge. And any particular spot on the planet sees a unique sequence of weather systems, somewhat different from those seen by other nearby spots, and entirely different from those seen by more distant spots.

This is why I’ve always been completely baffled by celebrity groundhogs.

It makes no more sense to pay attention to the shadows of distant groundhogs than it makes to pay attention to the forecasts of distant meteorologists. In fact, it makes much less sense—a distant meteorologist has the skills and technology to produce a useful forecast for your local area. But I have no more interest in what some celebrity groundhog sees when he emerges from his burrow than I have in the local weather report for Hong Kong or Timbuktu.

What matters is what your local groundhog sees when he emerges from his burrow this morning! Pay no attention to the shadows of distant groundhogs, whatever their celebrity status!

Hereabouts, it’s rather foggy, assuring us of an early spring.

Electric power

I’m taking a course on electric power. The instructor, Debbie Insana, lived through the blackouts and brownouts in California produced by the intersection of partial deregulation of the energy markets with corrupt individuals at the (also corrupt) Enron corporation. Prompted by that experience, when she moved to Illinois, she wanted a house that required no net energy inputs to function. That was hard to scale for a single house, so she ended up developing a whole subdivision of energy-efficient houses in Urbana. (The instructor’s title was “The Changing World of Electric Power,” but the people administering it decided pimp it up a little and listed it as Shocking Events in the Changing World of Electric Power. )

It’s of particular interest to me, because I’ve studied much of this same material long ago. Back in 1976, when I was in high school, I attended a National Science Foundation workshop on the energy crisis. The physics hasn’t changed, the politics has probably gotten worse, but the technology has changed, and with it the economics. It’s all very interesting.

Yesterday’s session was on wind power. The installed base of wind power is growing very rapidly (albeit from a low base). A good bit of the installation is happening in Illinois—but for an odd reason. As a source of power, the wind here is rated only fair-to-good. The big win is that we have excellent interconnections to the rest of the country, with major transmission lines that let us deliver power to the east coast and to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But Illinois is only slipping in here because of an odd intersection of those grid connections, adequate wind, and tax breaks that encourage building now rather than later. The future of wind power going to be off-shore installations. The wind there is stronger and strong closer to the ground. And, it blows strongly during the daytime, when the power is needed, rather than blowing most strongly at night, the way it does on land.

I’m learning about all kinds of new stuff, from technology such as rare-earth magnets making generators smaller and lighter (easier to install on a wind turbine) to lots of obvious-once-you-think-about-it ideas, such as co-siting a wind farm with a gas turbine generating plant: reliable (gas provides electricity when wind isn’t blowing) and cheap (no fuel needed when the wind blows) and flexible (can operate both to serve peak demand).

Wind turbines only function for a certain range of wind speeds—a minimum speed to begin generating power and a maximum speed beyond which wind load can damage the turbine. In excessive winds, they’re designed to feather the blades, brake to a stop, and then lock in place. The teacher shared a video with us of what happens when these mechanisms fail:

I’m looking forward to the next couple of classes in particular, one on solar and one on balancing power in the grid.

Rolling my own coworking space

Over the course of my career as a software engineer, I only accepted job offers from employers that provided their software engineers with real offices, because I expected I would be less productive in a cube. When my last employer moved us from offices to cubes, that expectation proved correct. However, the situation turned out to be more complicated than that.

For certain kinds of work—certain phases in code generation, certain phases in prose generation—I need large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. That was hard to come by in a cube. When I spent the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 building the necessary state in my head to be able to generate code to solve a particular problem, and then had my manager come by at 10:10 to ask whether I was on schedule, I could quite literally lose a whole morning’s productivity—there was no point in starting over at 10:15, knowing that I’d want to break for lunch at 11:30.

For large blocks of uninterrupted quiet, an office with a door that closes is very much to be preferred.

Because I knew I needed an office—which I have in my apartment—I was surprised to find myself taking an interest in coworking. But it turns out that many phases of my work don’t require large blocks of uninterrupted quiet. In particular, when I pretty much know what I want to write, and it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing it out, a certain amount of activity in the surroundings actually makes it easier to get something done.

I have a few theories about why some surrounding bustle helps:

  • I think it’s good to have other people around me who are also working—modeling good working behavior.
  • I think a little activity makes it easier to just get a first draft down—making it easier to get past my internal critic that would otherwise insist on perfection.
  • I think a little stimulation makes it easier to be creative—providing some randomness that my brain can use to generate new ideas and make new connections.

Whatever the reason, sometimes I want to work in a place where other people are working.

There was a coworking place in Urbana a couple of years ago, called Collective Turf Coworking. I don’t know if they’re still around or not (their website seems to be down just now), but they were much too expensive for me.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of local public spaces that serve the purpose very well.

Both the Champaign Public Library and the Urbana Free Library provide a wide variety of spaces where work can be done:

  • Coffee shops
  • Large tables in the main library area
  • Divided workspaces in the main library area (Champaign Library only, I think)
  • Quiet rooms
  • Four-person study rooms

In my experience, the quiet rooms are quiet enough for me to be productive even on things that require quiet, the spaces in the main library area are only a little noisier, and the coffee shops are pretty noisy. The 4-person study rooms are great when two or more people want to work either individually or together.

The other place I’ve used to roll my own coworking space is the University of Illinois. Its various libraries provides an array of workspace options similar to those in the public libraries, but the main place I like to work is the Illini Union. It offers spaces ranging from the Pine Lounge (a very quiet place with desks and chairs), the South Lounge (just a couple of desks, but many chairs and sofas), the vending machine room (a bunch of long tables with chairs), and a very large Espresso Royale coffee shop.

Both libraries and the University offer free WiFi to the public. The University also offers secure WiFi to anyone with a NetID (which I have through OLLI). Not every space has power, but there are plenty that do. (The Pine Lounge has power at every desk, as does the quiet room in the Champaign Library.)

The main downsides are:

  1. Spaces aren’t reservable. On a day where there’s high demand, it’s entirely possible that all the prime spaces will be in use when you show up.
  2. Spaces aren’t secure. I’m unwilling to leave my computer and other stuff unattended even long enough to go to the bathroom and get a cup of tea.
  3. No off-hours access.

Those issues aside, each of these venues actually offer more options than any but the best coworking space is going to, in terms of a full spectrum from quiet space for individual work, meeting spaces for collaborative work, a coffee shop, outdoor spaces, and so on.

The politics of providing services

In many places with repressive governments, nascent political parties (unable to achieve political power via the ballot box, because elections are rigged or the group is banned from participating) provide public services as an organizing tactic. They provide food for children, health care, mediation services, neighborhood watch, financial aid to victims of government actions, and so on.

This tactic has proven to be effective, so I’ve always been a little surprised that we don’t see more of it in the US. So, I was interested to see a post about the Black Panther’s free breakfast program, and the FBI’s concerns about it.

Upon reflection, I figure that the main reason we see little of this in the US is that in the US we really do have public services. There are government programs to feed hungry children, provide medical care to the sick and injured, police the streets, adjudicate conflicts, and so on. They’re flawed and limited, but they do exist. They’re good enough, that it would take a lot of money to compete—and if you have that much money, there are better ways to seek power, especially since our political system is reasonably open.

But this is becoming less true. With constant pressure on public services, holes are opening up that can be—and are being—filled by private organizations. So far, those organizations are mostly charitable non-profits, but there’s no reason that a political party couldn’t join in.

I think we’ll see it pretty soon, especially at the local level. People who have felt disenfranchised will be very willing to support political parties that directly provide what the government won’t and ask nothing in return except that you consider voting for their candidates.

The Unconstitional Enemy Expatriation Act

There’s a bill, the Enemy Expatriation Act, that aims to strip US citizens of their citizenship if they are accused of “engaging in, or purposefully and materially supporting, hostilities against the United States.” (The term “hostilities” is defined to mean any conflict subject to the laws of war.)

This is almost certainly unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court held some years ago that it was impossible for a US citizen to unintentionally give up his citizenship. In particular, formally renouncing your citizenship in front of a foreign official was not enough to actually lose your citizenship, because maybe you intended to retain your citizenship (and were just going through the motions of renouncing it as part of obtaining citizenship of some other country).

Now, the Supreme Court has become pretty unreliable on this sort of thing of late, but it seems to me that if formally renouncing your citizenship is ineffective, just in case you didn’t really mean it, then a whole lot of things that fall under the general heading of “supporting” (such as donating money to a charity that is later found to have been diverting some of that money to groups that are in some way connected with other groups that are accused of) hostility certainly don’t qualify as intentional renunciation.

Drew Breunig on “Content” Creep

I think of myself as a writer, not a “content creator,” so I find Drew Breunig’s warnings of doom to anyone whose business is built around “content” to be hopeful. Those same warnings ought to terrify the owners and managers of those businesses.

My writing for Wise Bread has given me a particular perspective on this. The Wise Bread admins have done a pretty good job of seeking out and paying for high-quality writing. They have fallen prey to the idea that winning in this niche is all about SEO and monetizing, but that’s not so bad.

The SEO thing tends tends to work in favor of a writer who wants his work to be read. A Google search for budget categories finds my article Refactor Your Budget Categories, despite a lot of other articles on budgeting. (I was going to say that I wouldn’t do so well if I just posted the article on my own blog, but when I tested that theory, I found a Google search for rich country finds my article How to Have a Rich Country just fine. Maybe I could do as well on my own site.) In any case, there’s nothing wrong with SEO, as long as it’s in service of good content—good writing.

The monetizing thing is more of a slippery slope. If you let your browser do so, it’ll run scripts from at least 15 other domains every time you load a page on Wise Bread. I haven’t looked at what they’re all for, but most of them either serve ads or provide some sort of analytics or tracking of who’s viewing what. As a reader, I don’t care about any of that stuff, so I generally don’t let my browser run those scripts. As a writer, I tolerate it as a way to make more money, but I don’t think it makes my posts look better. (Wise Bread does at least avoid the very worst of the interstitials and floating boxes that cover the page and so on.)

So, as I say, I hope Drew Breunig is right. I’d very much like to see the revenue potential of a content farm article fall to zero. Or, at least, low enough that there’s no point in paying some semi-literate buffoon a nickle to cobble together a few paragraphs that look like prose and are stuffed with keywords. Not that I begrudge the semi-literate buffoons their nickles; I’d just like to see the incentives in the system shift so as to make it pointless to hire writers who can’t write.

It would take a lot of those nickles to add up to a reasonable wage, but there are a lot of those nickels. A world in which we swapped 10,000 worthless articles for one worthwhile article—and paid one writer $500 instead of a thousand buffoons 50¢ each would be a better world.

A fitness goal

Jackie and I hiked at Allerton Park last Saturday. We walked for about two hours, covering about six miles. About midway through the hike, Jackie said, “We should stay in shape so that we can bicycle to Allerton, do a walk like this, and then bicycle back home.”

On the road during one of our 2005 training rides preparing for the Kalamazoo century. Jackie's lost a lot of weight since then. I haven't lost as much, but I am slimmer than here.

Jackie and I hiked at Allerton Park last Saturday. We walked for about two hours, covering about six miles.

About midway through the hike, Jackie said, “We should stay in shape so that we can bicycle to Allerton, do a walk like this, and then bicycle back home.” (For those of you who aren’t local, that’s roughly a fifty mile bike ride.)

Although that seemed like a great idea, I felt compelled to point out that we didn’t have the option to stay in that shape, because we weren’t in that shape.

We have been before. Back in 2005 we got in shape to do a century ride in Kalamazoo. Three of our longer training rides that summer were to Monticello, including one where we went all the way to Allerton Park. We didn’t hike six miles while we were there, but we did go on to do our century ride a few weeks later.

I think we have a shot at that level of fitness this year, mainly because we’re building our fitness over the winter. With a little luck (and plenty of long hikes this winter), we’ll be able to jump right in and do some longer training rides as soon as the weather permits. In that case, we can work up to fifty-mile round trips in just a month or two, meaning that we’ll be able to ride to Allerton as early as April or May.

I’m looking forward to doing long rides all summer, instead of just a few weeks at the end.

On Submitting Stories to Editors—a Useful Exercise

I wrote the following for my teenaged nephew, who is also a writer:

I understand that you’re ready to move beyond just writing stories for yourself, and to start submitting them for publication. There are a lot of articles with advice on this topic. You could spend a few hours reading a bunch, but I can save you the time. Their advice boils down to this: “Read the submission guidelines. Follow them.”

In the time I’ve just saved you, I suggest that you do a little exercise. It will take a couple of hours, and it will teach three or four very useful lessons on what it’s like to be an editor—and once you know that, you’ll scarcely need any of those articles.

Set aside two hours during which you can focus, and do this:

  1. Go to ralan.com. It has lists of markets to which you might submit sf or fantasy stories, organized by how much they pay per word. The top two categories are of markets that pay 3¢ a word or more. These are the markets that you’ll soon be submitting to. But for this exercise, we’ll be focusing on the lower tiers: Pay, Token, and Expo.
  2. Click on each of those lists. Look for markets that publish stories in your genre, and that publish them on-line.
  3. Make a list of 10 or 20 such markets. Pick ones that look like they’ll have the sort of stories you’d like to read. In your list, include the URL that will take you to each market’s most recent stories.
  4. Read 50 stories from those markets, and pick the two best.
  5. Write two quick notes about why each of those stories is superior.
  6. If you have time, write another 48 notes for each of the stories that didn’t make the cut, explaining how they fall short.

That last step, of course, is a joke. Obviously you won’t have time. In fact, if you tried to read every story all the way through, you’ll have used up your two hours long before you were done.

Now you know a bunch of things from an editor’s perspective:

  • You’ll know they start each submission they read hoping it’ll be great. They want it to be awesome, because that’ll mean that they get to read an awesome story—and then they’ll be able to print an awesome story in their magazine!
  • You’ll know that they can usually tell in just a few paragraphs that a story isn’t going to make the cut. Oh, they’ll read a bit further—they’ll be hoping that you’ve hidden an awesome story behind a weak opening. But they only get to accept two stories, and if your story isn’t better than the best ones they’ve read today, it’s not going to make the cut.
  • You’ll know why they’re so picky about the format they want submissions in. Editors don’t want submission stories to look awesome. They want them to be awesome, but they want them to look all the same. (How much time did you waste, just getting through each new market’s front page to find the stories?)
  • You’ll know why you aren’t going to get any useful feedback from editors. (How many of those 48 rejected stories did you provide notes for?)

Hopefully, you’ll also know a few new things from a writer’s perspective. You’ll know that there are a lot of crappy stories out there (and those are the best crappy stories—the ones that got published). There’s some consolation in that, but not much. It’s not good enough for your story to be better than the crappy ones—it’s going to have to be better than the great stories, and there are some of those too.

I’m sure you’re going to figure that you can get most of the benefit just by thinking about this exercise, without actually doing it. This is not true. Do the exercise. It only takes a couple of hours, and you won’t believe the things you’ll learn.

A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.