High Variance

Thinking About Getting a Unicycle?

Some people reach midlife and buy a fancy red sports car to recapture their youth. I bought a fancy red unicycle that was on sale for Valentine’s Day at unicycle.com. I’ve since worked my way up to comfortably riding the six blocks or so between my office and my the parking lot each day. At first, the tiniest obstacles would totally throw off my balance. My messenger bag! A crack in the sidewalk! A slight turn! A breeze! I’m better now and it’s still super fun.

Every day I get smiles, finger points, and questions. The most common are “Where did you get that thing?” and “Is it hard to learn?” This makes me think there’s a nontrivial population of folks out there that are intrigued by the idea of getting and riding a unicycle, but don’t quite know what’s involved or how to get started. Don’t worry–I’m here to help.

There are really cheap (sub $100) unicycles out there, but I had one in middle school and managed to break it in just a couple months. The cheap ones also have really uncomfortable saddles. The good news is that even really nice unicycles are relatively cheap compared to bikes. Mine is a Nimbus 26” Muni (“Mountain Unicycle”). They cost $360 and are completely bomb-proof. The knobby tires look cool and it’s fun to be able to ride on dirt roads and grass.

If you’re pretty tall, then get a 26” wheel; otherwise get one with a 24” wheel. Anything smaller and you’ll be riding slower than you walk. If money isn’t a serious issue and you want something to ride around town, get a Nimbus II ($290)–It’s pretty darned similar to my Muni but with a smooth tire. If you’re on a budget, get a Club 26” ($150). The learning curve with any unicycle is steep, but you make a little progress each day. It might take several weeks before you can ride, and that makes the per hour cost super low.

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Just go to unicycle.com, buy one, and invest some time in learning to ride. You won’t regret it.

AnyList vs Grocery IQ

Jason Snell recently wrote that once he invests the time to learn and get comfortable with a tool, it takes something not just a little better, but substantially better to get him to switch. His examples were software he uses to edit podcasts and his overall computer set up: He edits his podcasts with Apple’s Logic even though many folks think he should move to Adobe Audition. Similarly, he really likes a lot about working on an iPad, but it’s not enough to make him sell his Mac and go whole hog on iOS.

I tend to agree with Mr. Snell on most things and this is no exception. About a year ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find we both used the same grocery list app: Grocery IQ. Sure, it’s kind of ugly and barely maintained and littered with useless coupons, but it worked better than any other list app (general or grocery-specific) I had tried. And yet, when I saw the folks over at The Sweet Setup chose AnyList as their favorite grocery shopping app I was tempted–Could it be worth the switching cost? On the other hand, this is an app my wife and I both use several times per week so the bar was higher than usual. I bit the bullet and checked it out.

The short answer is that AnyList is way better than Grocery IQ and I couldn’t be happier that I switched. Here’s why:

  1. I can add items to the shopping list with Siri; e.g., “Add bananas to my grocery list.”
  2. I can reorder aisles (“categories”) to match my store’s layout.
  3. AnyList makes more efficient use of screen real estate.
  4. No coupons!
  5. AnyList has much faster syncing of shared lists.
  6. It’s under active development. This has tangible benefits relative to Grocery IQ like the fact that it uses the current iOS keyboard instead of a grody old one.

From here on out, I’m going to be more open to trying new tools. In this case, I screwed up the cost benefit calculation on both sides: I couldn’t imagine the app could be this much better than what I was already using, and I over-estimated the switching costs–It’s not like a had a whole bunch of muscle memory invested in checking off items as I bought them.

Adi Gildor (1969-2015)

Adi Gildor was my best friend. He died last week. I still can’t believe it, but this is what I said at his memorial service:

I know I’m not the only person here who thought of Adi as their best friend. He was that kind of guy. We grew up together. We were still growing up together and we were supposed to grow old together. I gave the best man toast at his wedding, but I never ever thought I would be up here speaking today.

I can’t tell you how many times Adi called me over the last few years and said “We should go back to Moab to go mountain biking again” or “Let’s road trip to Mexico again,” and I would say “Definitely, but not yet.” Just like Adi, I’ve got two little kids, but my wife isn’t as cool with me going off on adventures without her as Rose was. We won’t get to do those things together now, but at least we did them the first time.

Adi and I met when we were in high school. We were just a couple of nerdy teenagers who thought we knew more than we actually did. Adi taught me how to curse in Spanish, how to appreciate Shakespeare, and how to recognize the hot peppers in Thai food. That last one, he taught me only after I ate one. He thought it was hilarious. We learned together how to avoid getting stuffed into lockers by the football players. And then we both grew four inches in college and didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing anymore.

There were things about Adi that never changed over the years.

He was the most generous guy I knew. He would literally give you the shirt off his back. One of my favorite shirts is one that Adi left at my house a few years ago. When I said I liked it he told me I should keep it. It was brown and a little shiny and had snaps. Rose remembers it. He would send me shoes and jackets too. We even had an ugly t-shirt club where we would send each other shirts and dare each other to wear them. I think I still have a My Little Pony shirt he sent me.

Adi knew how to have a good time. We went snorkeling in the South Pacific in a tiny country called Palau. We hiked and camped all over the 4 corners. We even bike-packed in Baja California where we drove on some of the worst roads you’ll ever see in my Honda CRX. It was never the same after that trip. I mostly stopped doing these adventures with him when kids were born, but he certainly didn’t stop!

You always knew where you stood with Adi. When he was mad, he would say I’m mad at you. And he would tell you why. Sometimes it was reasonable: I called you a week ago; Why haven’t you called me back? Sometimes it wasn’t: I told you to watch that movie a week ago; Why haven’t you watched it yet?

And he always had a keen sense of justice. I remember one time he was living in Colorado Springs walking his dog Eloise late at night. Some guys drove real fast right by them and Adi ran after them yelling. The car stopped and three of them got out of the car to ask if he had a problem. The guy talking was a lot bigger than Adi, so Adi hit him first. When he went down, the guy’s two “friends” took off. After giving the guy a pretty hard time, Adi felt sorry for him and I’m pretty sure Adi ended up giving him a ride home.

When Adi realized that the artsy Colorado Springs movie theater only gave student discounts to students at four year colleges, he wrote a letter about it to the local newspaper. And just a couple months ago he told me about confronting a couple guys at his gym who had the nerve to be drinking smoothies in the hot tub.

Adi would listen to advice, but at the end of the day, Adi followed his heart. Well after he finished college, he enlisted in the army and went through boot camp. Then he got tired of living in Massachusetts and moved to Colorado Springs. Why? He liked the high desert, the cheap living, and the great hiking, biking, and snowboarding. And it had a very good public library.

Adi figured out what he wanted and just did it. The best example of all is that he married the woman he loved. Sure, she was a lot younger than him. Sure, she wasn’t Jewish. He didn’t care. He loved her so he married her.

I never thought I’d see Adi “settle down”, but he did and he did it on his own terms. He grew up, he took responsibility, but he never stopped having fun. He had two kids, but they only made his life more fun. When I talked to him last week he told me about how had been running in the woods with Henry. They would play crazy make-believe games and when Henry got tired, Adi would put him on his back and run around some more.

Adi never cared about stuff. He cared about his friends, his family, and his lived experience. He loved doing stuff. Snowboarding, hanging out with people, arguing about ideas, making plans, reading. That’s why the way he died is so shocking. He loved living.

In my heart I believe that what happened that night was an aberration. It shouldn’t have happened and it was not who he was 99% of the time. I’m not going to deny what happened at the end, but I’m going to remember the Adi in my heart that loved his family, loved his friends, and loved life.

You can also watch the whole Memorial Service (including this eulogy) on YouTube. You can learn more about Adi and give money to his sons Henry and Arlo at YouCaring.

Growing Up With a Single Mom

A good friend who is a single mom recently published an article about the angst she feels on Father’s Day. She wonders aloud what her son might or might not be missing out on by growing up with only a mom in the house. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there, and wanted to share my personal experience as an only (and male) child of a single mom.

Let’s get the biology nonsense out of the way first. I did not need a man around to teach me how to pee, how to shave, or about the birds and the bees. Holding your penis and aiming it at the toilet just isn’t that hard. Shaving a face is not that different from shaving legs. As for sex, my friends told me about the basics, and my mom taught me to treat women decently. There isn’t any secret knowledge about sex that fathers have to transmit to their sons. Or if there is, I seem to be getting by just fine without it.

I didn’t live with a “male role model,” and I’m not sure what I would have gained from it. People are different in many ways beyond gender. I didn’t have an athlete role model or a computer nerd role model in the house either but still managed to be a decent amateur swimmer and eventually a professional programmer. Then there’s the fact that role models don’t have to live with you. Teachers, neighbors, coaches, parents of friends can all be role models. My local Radio Shack Color Computer Club was loaded with role models. And finally, my mother was a terrific role model as a teacher, an artist, and a lifelong learner.

I did grow up with many “traditionally male” interests, and sure, it would have been nice to have a dad around who could show me how to hold a bat or identify sports cars we saw in the wild. But I had many other interests too. My mom took me to concerts, and plays and museums. She indulged my creative side and brought me to the beach all summer long. I got to have long uninterrupted conversations with her because it was just the two of us.

To be honest, the only thing I feel like I missed out on by having a single mom was getting to closely observe two adults in a healthy relationship. It took me some extra time to figure out how to create and maintain these kinds of relationships since they were new. On the other hand, many kids in two parent families don’t get to see that either and instead learn bad tastes and behaviors that are hard to break. I got to start with a clean slate.

The bottom line is that my mom did a wonderful job raising me, and I think most single moms have all the tools they need: Their kids are in great hands.

In Praise of Dentists

My whole life I’ve hated going to the dentist. The sound of the drill. The smell of decay being ground away. Spitting out shards of teeth and blood. And let’s not forget the often intense physical pain. I know dentists do important work, and I know the world would be a lot worse without them, but I’ll never enjoy the experience of someone digging around in my mouth, and I’ll always dread my next visit.

My goal in this article is not to praise dentists in general, but instead, to express my sincere appreciation for three specific dentists who went above and beyond the call of duty to make my dad’s life better. My father has had problems with his dentures since the day he got them. That’s the downside of picking a prosthodontist because her office is one block away from your apartment. My dad needed someone new to fix his teeth or make new ones, but neither of us knew anything about dentists in northern New Jersey.

Dr. Gerald Alexander is my dentist in New Haven, and he’s the best dentist I’ve ever had. He takes pride in every aspect of his work, his office is spotless, and his staff are top notch. I know he treats them well because he’s had no turnover in the six years I’ve been seeing him. And of course, his actual dentistry is excellent.

Dr. A is well-connected, and I thought he might know someone good in New Jersey that could help my dad. Even though he didn’t, he did make a whole bunch of phone calls on my dad’s behalf, not stopping until he found someone close by that he trusted: Dr. Chetan Patil in Englewood.

Dr Patil is a periodontist and he was happy to see my dad right away. During our appointment his staff were patient and understanding. When Dr Patil finished checking out my dad’s gums, he could have just done the work himself, but he knew someone else who was a lot better with dentures than he was. Dr. Patil’s staff made a quick phone call for us, and Dr Javier Urquiola said he could fit us in as his last appointment that day. We rushed right over.

Dr Urquiola didn’t just throw out the existing dentures and start over. He spent an hour working to repair and adjust the old dentures and got a perfect fit for the top denture. The bottom partial was much improved but it wasn’t possible to make it stable. Dr. Urquiola stayed late that day to make an impression for a new one. Since then he’s worked with my dad (not the easiest patient) to make sure the new denture fits as well as it possibly can.

Thank you Drs. Alexander, Patil, and Urquiola. You are truly making the world a better place.

La La Love Me Like You Do

When this song first hit pop radio, I hated it. It’s unoriginal, it drones on and on, and my kids love it so I can’t change the radio station when it comes on. The worst part is that it’s from 50 Shades of Grey, and makes me think of that creepy guy doing bad things to the girl whenever I hear it. On the other hand, it is catchy, and I do like the trashy Euro-disco stylings of Ellie Goulding. I’ve recently found one more reason to appreciate the song.

I was one of those kids who loved making mix tapes in the 80’s. I recorded my friend’s older sister’s Beach Boys singles with my little Radio Shack cassette deck. I also recorded all my favorite tv show theme songs on a single tape. I once made a mix that alternated Black Sabbath and Beatles songs just because I could. My hobby blossomed in the 2000’s with the arrival of iTunes and playlists. I was a little more mature, so the collections of songs I created then are a mostly more straight-forward; e.g., “My favorite Hair Metal” and “Totally Rockin 80’s Party”.

Perhaps the best play list I ever made was “Stammer Rock”. You would be amazed how many songs make stuttering a key element of the song. You would also be amazed by how many pop genres these songs span and how well they flow together. You don’t have to take my word for it: Now you too can experience the slightly absurd spectacle of Stammer Rock on Spotify. I challenge you listen all the way through without smiling and shaking your head.

Kid Book Review: Are They Laughing With Me or at Me? #IMWAYR

Over the last couple weeks, the most popular book in our house, by far, has been The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak. The gimmick is simple: When someone reads the book out loud, they have to say all the words. No matter how silly or ridiculous or preposterous or even nonsensical they might be. The reader may even have to sing the occasional song about eating ants for breakfast. Novak takes full advantage of this rule to induce huge laughs from the audience. The idea is partially ripped off from (inspired by?) Mo Willems’ We are in a Book, but it’s executed so well I can’t really complain.

Ever since we got this book, both kids (age 3 and 6) beg every grown-up that enters our house to read it. And how can you say to no to a kid begging you to read a book? Especially when you don’t know what’s coming? With many funny kids books, we can all laugh together. With this one, the kids are definitely laughing at the reader. Luckily this is a situation where quantity matters more than quality.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Darn You Taylor Swift!

Dear Taylor,

When you decided to pull all of your music out of Spotify, the economist in me understood. You did a cost benefit analysis and realized the pennies per play you were getting from Spotify just didn’t add up to that many millions of dollars. That is, if you dropped Spotify like a bad boyfriend, enough Spotify listeners would be compelled to pony up for the album to make you even more money.

The catchy pop song enthusiast in me was less excited about your decision–My monthly Spotify fee is supposed to protect me from having to buy any albums at all. When you left, I was okay for a while because even though the first single on 1989 was good, I was able to shake off the temptation to purchase it since at any particular moment, it was playing on at least one local radio station.

Then came your second single which was better than the first. Even though it was on the radio almost all the time, I still had a blank space in my heart since I couldn’t hear it any tine I wanted. Bent but not broken, I stayed true to my principles and refused to buy.

Your third single was the best yet–exactly my style with that Alan Parsons Project inspired pure 80’s guitar line. I could not resist. I wasn’t strong enough. Spotify has my money and now you have another $9.09 (iTunes takes 30% off the $12.99 purchase price).

Your whole album is a tour de force of syrupy sweet catchiness, and I am glad that I now own a legal copy of it forever. It can never be ripped away from me on some artist’s whim like all of my other Spotify favorites. And if I fall on hard times, I won’t need to pay Spotify (or Beats or rdio) to prop me up. My leglly purchased Taylor Swift albums will carry me through.

The problem is I’m not who I thought I was. I thought I was stronger. I thought I could stay true. You made me look in the mirror and see the real truth: A flesh and blood person with flaws and needs.

Darn you Taylor Swift!

Your frenemy forever,

Doug

Kid Book Review: Winter Classics #IMWAYR

Now that we are deep into a winter that will seemingly never end, it’s time to look at a few classic children’s books that can carry us through.

Brave Irene (by William Steig, 1986) William Steig is one of the few authors I know who doesn’t shy away from true drama. He’s better known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble which features parents bawling their eyes out over their long lost son, but in this book Irene has to brave a serious winter storm at night to deliver a dress her mom has made:

Irene pushed forward with all her strength and–sloosh! thwump!–she plunged downward and was buried. She had fallen off a little cliff. Only her hat and the box in her hands stuck out above the snow. Even if she could call for help, no one would hear her. Her body shook. Her teeth chattered. Why not freeze to death, she thought, and let all these troubles end. Why not? She was already buried.

Don’t worry, it all turns out wonderfully at the end, but boy, both my girls (and I) were on the edge of our seats the whole time!

The Hundred Dresses (written by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, 1945) R and I really enjoyed this Newberry Honor winning chapter book about two girls who tease a poor immigrant girl from Poland into moving out of town. Both girls feel bad, but one feels worse about it than the other. I don’t want to give anything away, but the story feels amazingly real, right down to the messy ending.

Moominland Midwinter (by Tove Jansson, 1957) Last week I was a guest on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and I one of my recommendations was Finn Family Moomintroll, another book in this amazing series of stories about Moomintroll and his friends and family which take place in magical land far to the north. The stories and characters are rich enough to appeal to adults but clear and exciting enough to capture kids’ imaginations too. It’s criminal how under-appreciated (and unknown) these books are in the United States.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.

Kid Book Review: Details #IMWAYR

When I was a kid, I liked nothing better then settling down in a corner with a big detailed picture book like Busy, Busy Town and poring over each page looking for things I’d never seen before. My 6-year-old daughter is exactly the same, although the particular books she enjoys are different. Here are three of her favorites:

Crabtree (by Jon and Tucker Nichols, 2013) Alfred Crabtree is a weird dude who loses his false teeth and spends the story searching his belongs for them. This takes a while because he seemingly never throws anything away. The quirky drawings, odd organization, and carefully typed captions are all hilarious. Jason Kottke (Internet-curator-extraordinaire) recommended this book, and he has yet to steer me wrong. The only downside is that it will be hard to find a copy to buy if your library doesn’t have one.

Welcome to Mamoko (by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski, 2010) We actually got this book because we loved the authors’ Maps so much. The story is introduced with a big cast of characters and a question about each (e.g., “Olaf Brown has a big day ahead. Who helps him out of a spot of trouble?”). What follows is a sequence of double page wordless scenes with all the characters in different urban settings. Even my three year-old loves to try to figure out what’s going on.

Incredible Comparisons (written by Russell Ash, illustrated by Stephen Biesty, 1996) My 6-year-old loves books with bite-sized amazing facts, and in this DK book almost every fact is accompanied by a beautiful picture. A blue whale weighs as much as 26 elephants. The moon is as wide as Australia. Angel Falls is three times taller than the Eiffel Tower. The Great Pyramid weighs as much as 16 Empire State Buildings! Highly recommended.

Sheila at Book Journey started It’s Monday! What are You Reading?, and Jen over at Teach Mentor Texts along with Kellee and Ricki at Unleashing Readers host kidlit versions. All three sites are great places to find new books for yourself and your kids.