How should I start my morning?

My morning routine has only changed a bit over the years.

When I was at IBM, I’d read the paper with breakfast, check my email (work and personal), and then rush to work, where I’d once more deal with my email (personal and work, usually in that order – I guess I can admit that now), be on conference calls, and, if I was really lucky, get something done before lunch. Sometimes, of course, I’d have a conference call (or two) early enough in the morning that I had to call in from home; on those days, I’d never get anything accomplished before lunch.

Now, I get up, read the paper with breakfast, check my email (personal only!), check Facebook, read blogs, and on good days, get a walk in before sitting down at the computer to check my email and Facebook and blogs again. I only need to leave the house early for Toastmasters meetings or when I’ve got an appointment with my trainer, so often I sit at the computer until lunch. And I almost never get anything accomplished before lunch.

Very little in my email is time-critical; perhaps I should get something accomplished before I look at the email. Perhaps a blog posting would be a start….

I am my mother’s child

My mother used to do something which drove me crazy – she lied to her checkbook. If she wrote a check for, say, $12.67, she’d enter it as $15 in the check register; similarly, if she deposited $280, she’d enter $250 in the register. When I asked her “why?”, she said she liked having a “cushion” in her account.

I keep my check register as accurate as I can – but I lie to MyFitnessPal, and for the same reason. As an example, I went to the gym this morning and spent 35 minutes on the elliptical trainer. My Wahoo heartrate monitor claims I burned about 500 calories, but it’s not integrated with MyFitnessPal; my Fitbit is, but it can’t tell how hard I worked, so it only credited me with 200 calories during that time, and that’s all I show in MyFitnessPal. I also try to overestimate serving sizes by a little bit. Why? To have a little “cushion” in case I forget to log something I eat during the day.

I don’t know if my mother ever got her checkbook in sync with reality, but I’ve lost 10 pounds and 2 inches from my waistline since starting to use MyFitnessPal this summer. Maybe lying isn’t always so bad!

Things I learned practicing golf today

I am consistently hitting the ground too soon, and therefore hitting up on the ball instead of down on it. I do this when I’m practicing without a ball (I ground the club behind where I’m aiming), and even more so when there’s a ball to hit. The result is thin hits and no consistency in aim.

I also noticed that I still don’t always finish my follow-through, especially when taking a practice swing; I have a better chance of hitting the ground later when I do finish completely, so I need to make finishing a stronger habit.

Proust had madelines; I have signs

A long time ago, I had to use TSO on a daily basis. One of the parts of the login process was being told the last time you logged in – you were supposed to check the last login time and make sure no one was using your account covertly, but I never bothered, partially because the date in the login message was presented as a so-called Julian date (yy.ddd). It was easy enough to figure out the human-friendly date in January, and even in February or March (especially in a leap year), but by the time April started, my interest in converting day 103 into the 12th or 13th of April (depending on whether it was a leap year) was zero. I’m sure someone made the decision to use the Julian date for a reason, but it never made any sense to me.

I was reminded of this today when I saw that the restroom cleanliness form at the place we had lunch had “1–14” as the date; I wonder if the person who set it up had been a mainframe user at one point.

Communication Matters

I recently got a Facebook message from a friend who’s about to go on a two-week trip to Ireland and Croatia and wondered if I had any advice for him on staying connected while he was there. As it happens, I got that message while sitting in Edinburgh Airport, waiting to get on the first of three flights which, with any luck, will get me home today after a sixteen-day vacation in France, Ireland, and the UK, where connectivity was a constant concern. And as I write this post, I’m sitting on BA 297, currently at 38,000 feet over Greenland, completely (and happily) disconnected. So I am more than willing to give advice about connectivity in Europe.

There are three parts to this rather long post:

I hope this helps you stay as connected as you want to be on your next trip to Europe.

My general recommendations

There is no single best answer for everyone – you have to weigh cost, convenience, and reachability. But here’s my advice anyway.

  • If you don’t need voice or text, just data, and are OK with intermittent connectivity, put your phone in Airplane Mode, turn wifi on, and use hotspots (McDonalds and Burger King are both good choices for this, if not for food). (Thanks, Lisa Strand.)
  • Using your carrier’s international bundle plan is by far the easiest way to go, both for you and for people who want to call you. Estimate your usage and buy the appropriate package – find out what will happen if you go over the package limits (you don’t want a $20/megabyte surprise). Forward your phone to a US voicemail number before you leave if you don’t want people to call you.

  • If you only plan to use your phone in an emergency, go with your carrier’s default plan. Forward your phone to a US voicemail number and turn off data roaming (or all cellular data) – you do not want to pay $20/megabyte.

  • If you are only going to one country and have an unlocked phone, a local SIM can save you money (but realize that there can be considerable hassle involved, depending on the country, and that you’ll have to give your contacts the foreign number if you want to be reached). Do the research to see how much pain is involved for the particular country you’re visiting.

  • If you’re going to more than one country, the hassle of local SIMs is multiplied, and the savings are reduced because of breakage.

Plans and Realities

Our trip this year was complicated. We started with six nights in Paris at an apartment with excellent wifi (thanks, Airbnb!), followed by eight days on a cruise ship:

  • Two days in France
  • One day at sea
  • One day in Dublin
  • One day in Wales
  • Three days on small Scottish islands

The Plan

I intended to pick up a Lebara SIM for France at the airport and a UK SIM in Wales. I expected to be disconnected at sea (the ship offered slow, pricey wifi via satellite) and was willing to take my chances in Dublin.

The Reality

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. And there was.

In France

I didn’t see anywhere to get the SIM before I left the airport, and when I asked for Lebara SIMs at shops in my neighborhood in Paris, no one carried them.

Our apartment had great wifi, and I had a Paris tour app with a good offline map; I was also able to find wifi at various stores and restaurants in Paris. I kept looking for the Lebara SIM without success – on our fourth morning, I found a cellphone shop in Les Halles which might have had one, but they only spoke enough English to point me to the Orange shop down the hall.

Orange sold me a “mobicarte” SIM for 10 Euros plus another 10 Euros for 500MB of data which took care of my communications needs (voice, text, and data) for the rest of our time in France (including the time on the cruise ship). If I’d bought that SIM on the first day, I probably would have had to add another 10 Euros to get another 500MB of data – as it was, I used over 400 MB of data in the time I had it.

In Dublin

I found free wifi at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Storehouse, and outside a Burger King. That was all I needed that day.

In the UK

I never even looked for a UK SIM – we did have a little time in shopping districts, but looking for a SIM was much lower priority than looking for other things. I found free WiFi at the port in Holyhead, Wales, and in Tobermory, Scotland, but was basically disconnected most of the time until I got to Edinburgh Airport this morning. If someone had really needed to reach me, they could have called the French phone number – voice coverage was OK.

So it all worked out, just not as I’d expected.

The Option Game

There are many ways to stay connected while traveling out of the US. I’m going to look at several of them in some detail, and I’m sure there are even more choices.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s Default Plan

If all you need is a few minutes of voice and a few texts, your cellphone carrier’s default plan may be just fine. They charge something like $1.50/minute for calls (incoming and outgoing), and about $0.30/text (outgoing), with incoming texts probably being free. Data is prohibitively expensive, though – AT&T would have charged me over $20 per megabyte, so you’ll need some other way to get to the Internet.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works – anyone who has it can call or text you as if you were at home. They pay nothing extra.
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone.

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call or text you as if you were at home. This includes junk callers.
  • Callers probably won’t realize that you are many timezones away.
  • You can’t afford to use cellular data. Really. $20/megabyte is $20,000/gigabyte.

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your cellphone to your home phone (if you have one) or a Google Voice number; that way, people can leave voicemail and you can retrieve it when you have a data connection and reply at your convenience.

Conclusion

Go this route only if you don’t plan to use your phone on your trip unless there’s an emergency.

Your Cellphone Carrier’s International Bundle Plan

Your carrier probably will sell you a bundle of data (or data and calls) at a more reasonable price than the default plan. AT&T, for example, offered me 120MB for $30, 300MB for $60, or 800MB for $120, and I know they have packages which include voice and text for a bit more money. This can be a good deal if you’re going to be in more than one country.

Advantages

  • Your US phone number works (as above)
  • You can use your bundled data (and calls) in more than one country
  • You don’t need an unlocked phone

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can call you and won’t be aware of the time zone issues (as above)

Variations on the theme

  • Forward your incoming calls (as above)

Conclusion

This is probably the best choice if you want to be easily reachable from the US (if not, forward your calls to a voicemail service), especially if you’re going to be in more than one country. In hindsight, this is what I should have done.

Get a local SIM

If you have an unlocked phone, you can get a Pay-as-You-Go (PAYG) SIM from a local provider. I did this in France on this trip, and have done it in the UK on previous trips. If you’re really clever, you can get the SIM in advance (I wasn’t that clever).

Advantages

  • This is the lowest-cost route (well, other than going without a phone). I paid 20 Euros (about $27) for an Orange PAYG SIM in France, which got me a local phone number, 500 MB of data and 5 Euros of credit for calls and texts. Incoming calls and texts were free. Outgoing calls in France were about 40 cents/minute, calls to the US (if I’d needed them) about $1/minute, and outgoing texts were pretty cheap, too. If I’d run through my credit, it would have been easy to recharge the SIM, either over-the-air or at almost any grocery store or tabac.
  • I gave my French number to those who I wanted to be able to reach me. Anyone calling my US phone got voicemail.
  • I could use my phone for calls and texts in other European countries for a reasonable price (50 cents/minute for outgoing calls, 15 cents/minute incoming calls or outgoing texts, incoming texts free). Data while roaming would be expensive, but packages were available.

Disadvantages

  • I didn’t have my French phone number until I bought the SIM, and it will expire in a few weeks.
  • I had to find an Orange shop. Fortunately, there was someone there who spoke English, knew the plan I needed (mobicarte) and was able to set me up so that I had voice and data before I left the shop (hint: bring an ID – a driver’s license was fine). I had tried an SFR shop but no one there that day knew English, and my French was definitely not up to this task.
  • If you’re going to more than one country, you will have to repeat the process in each country. And it will be different in each country.
  • You need an unlocked phone.
  • Your US phone number goes dead when you swap SIMs. You can forward voice calls (as above), but I don’t think there’s any way to forward texts.
  • The local plans may have interesting wrinkles; as an example, the plan I used in France disallowed VOIP (Skype), Usenet, and POP3 access to mail (but the Gmail app worked fine).

Variations on the theme

  • In some countries, there are vendors who specialize in catering to travelers (for example, Lycamobile or Toggle in the UK, and Lebara in France). If you can get their SIM at the airport (or even order it in advance), that could be a big win.
  • If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you could buy a new PAYG phone instead of just getting a SIM.

Conclusion

  • If you’re going to spend most (or all) of your time in one country, this is a very cost-effective solution.
  • If you’re going to make repeated trips to the same country, you can probably buy enough credit to keep your local number active between trips.
  • This is much easier if you speak the local language!

International SIMs

There are companies who will sell SIMs which charge more-than-local but less-than-roaming rates all over the world; I think they’re primarily intended for voice and text, not data. I didn’t research this for my trip, since I cared more about data. If you want more information, Google is your friend.

See Ron Woan’s comment for more info on Telestial’s International SIM.

iPhoneTrip.com

If all you need is data, this company offers a variety of plans ranging from $8-$16/day for “unlimited” data (they seem to have a 500MB/day soft cap, though). The price varies depending on whether you need one country, one continent, or the whole world. I used them last year for our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Advantages

  • You set the whole thing up before you leave the US.
  • You pay a fixed price per day.

Disadvantages

  • You need lead time – they send you a special SIM, and if you need it in less than a week, the shipping is expensive.
  • You need to figure out what countries/regions and dates you need because you have to set it up in advance.
  • You need an unlocked phone; last year, they supported AT&T-locked phones, but this year, such phones seem to need their “world” plan (at the highest price per day, of course).
  • They only support data, not voice (although they do allow VoIP). And when you put their SIM in your phone, your US phone number goes dead (as above).

Conclusion

I used them in 2012 and was happy. Enough had changed in 2013 to make me go elsewhere. Check their website and talk with their help desk before making a decision.

Three Years

Three years ago, I started the first full day of my post-IBM life. I had vague ideas of taking a few months off, then finding a new job.

I got the first part right.

In the intervening three years, I’ve had major heart surgery, gotten very involved in Toastmasters (I’m standing for Division Governor for 2013-14), taken some interesting trips (with more on the agenda), and have rarely found myself bored.

Does that mean that I wouldn’t go back to full-time employment if the right opportunity arose? Definitely not; there are advantages to having a real job, but it would have to be a very good fit.

Stay tuned!

Launch Services did it!

For quite a while, I’ve noticed an odd pattern whenever I open Activity Monitor on my Mac – something was writing to my disk every 2 or 3 seconds, at a peak rate of 4.5MB/second. Over time, the total data written would climb into the terabytes (far exceeding the total data read from the disk) – but my free disk space wouldn’t diminish. Looking at the system logs didn’t enlighten me, and nothing was obvious in Activity Monitor. I’d shake my head and ignore it.

This morning, I noticed the pattern again, right after rebooting the system, and I decided to try to find out what was causing the I/O.

First step: ask Google. In particular, I asked it what process is doing i/o mac and found many potentially-useful pages. The one I chose to pursue was an Ask Different question: Which process is periodically writing to the disk? because the screenshot in the question matched mine almost exactly.

The accepted answer to the question led me to try iotop(1), but I kept getting errors from DTrace (even though I ran it as root). So I tried what looked like the next best answer, using fs_usage(1):

sudo fs_usage -w -f filesys -e grep  \
   | grep -i ' write ' > /tmp/iouse.txt

and then looking at iouse.txt showed me that a process named lssave was doing a ton of I/O. A quick Google for lssave led me to this Stack Overflow page, which led me to this macosxhints discussion, which made it clear that I needed to rebuild my Launch Services database. I used Onyx to do the job, and voilĂ  – no drumbeat of writes!

Doing without

I had an interesting experience at Next Step Toastmasters today. I had signed myself up to “Sell a Product”, which was supposed to be a 10–12 minute talk. I decided to sell a real product, 1Password, which solves real problems for me.

I verified that a projector would be available, and I built a copiously-illustrated PowerPoint deck, even including a short screencast demonstrating how to log in to the Toastmasters member site using 1Password. I was set.

Until I arrived at the meeting, when I found out that getting a projector and screen from the venue would cost the club $150 (yes, we meet in a hotel!), and that it wasn’t going to happen. I decided to press on anyway, and got up to speak as scheduled.

Needless to say, I had to rework my talk substantially; instead of relying on slides, I had to paint pictures in the minds of my audience. That meant that I had to use magic words like “imagine” and “consider”, instead of showing them exactly what I meant.

And then, long before I expected it, the timer showed the green light, indicating I only had two minutes to go. I sped up my delivery and got through my critical points, leaving the audience with a call to action just as my time expired. I left the stage to applause (as expected – everyone gets applause at a Toastmasters’ meeting!) and sat down.

At the break a few minutes later, the timer apologized to me; he hadn’t noticed the “10–12 minutes” on the agenda and had given me the green light in accordance with the timing for a normal speech, at 5 minutes, not 10.

I was surprised when my evaluator said that I’d met all of my objectives, and that I’d convinced him to buy 1Password, even though he didn’t know he had a password problem before my speech! And several other people told me they were going to buy it, too. One person even praised me for spending so much of my time looking at the problem rather than focusing on the product I was selling; she said it made me more effective and more believable.

The time I spent putting together the PowerPoint presentation wasn’t wasted; it forced me to think through my material. But I was better off not being able to use it – that forced me to connect with my audience instead of hiding in front of my slides. And doing without 5 minutes of my time slot made me step up my game in real time – though if I’d been using my slides, I would have been in trouble.

Next time, though, I wouldn’t mind if things went according to plan.

Things I may regret finding

I’ve just discovered what may be the most addictive Internet radio stream available: Just A Minute. I am strongly tempted to use this format the next time I’m the Table Topics Master at my Toastmasters club.

We were in Tucson last week, and the hotel gave us the Wall Street Journal. I managed to avoid the Opinion Pages (and so my blood pressure stayed in three-digit territory), but I did discover “The Numbers Guy“, and have added him to my RSS feed. Very interesting, and so far, not politically slanted.

Summer’s almost over; it’s time for the fall garden update

It’s been a while since I reported on the garden (or wrote anything else here, for that matter!). The fall garden is started, though the summer garden isn’t quite finished, so it seems like a good time for an update.

Summer Garden Results

The first cucumber showed up on July 5th, a little under two months after planting; I think it was a “Slice Max” (rather than a “Diva”), but I can’t be sure. We’ve had a steady stream of cucumbers ever since, and there are still a few to come. I expect to plan cukes again next summer.

The red peppers were very tasty and fairly productive, though they took longer than claimed; the yellow peppers were also tasty, but far less productive. Both pepper plants have given up the ghost; I suspect it would have been cheaper to buy peppers from the supermarket or at the farmers’ market, but it’s fun to grow them, and I’ll do it again next year.

We’ve had a good crop of tomatoes (both the Early Girls and the cherry tomatoes), and they have been delicious. We harvested some today, and a few more may ripen, but the end is near if not already here…until next year.

Watermelons were not as successful; we had a bunch of 4" melons, many of which were completely white inside. We did get four or five edible melons, but they were tiny and not terribly sweet. We took the last melon today, and I’ve ripped out the vines and repurposed the EarthBox.

Fall Garden Plantings

We didn’t do anything with our actual dirt garden patches over the summer, but we planted lettuce seeds there today (after adding a half-bag of planting mix to each patch).

We sowed one patch with about half a packet of “Chef’s Gourmet Spicy” mesclun mix; the other patch has the other half packet, plus a full packet of “Asian Salad Greens”.

And the EarthBox that hosted watermelons over the summer now has six arugula seedlings; I kept most of the dirt, but did add a bit of new potting soil at the top.

I’m not sure what we’ll do with the other two EarthBoxes when we take out the last of the cukes and tomatoes; we’re not really big pea eaters, which is the obvious thing to plant. I’m thinking of putting strawberries in one of the boxes in hopes of an early spring harvest, but maybe that’s foolishly optimistic. On the other hand, it would be really tasty if it worked!