Our gas furnace has been loud for a while, and getting louder. We got a furnace check-up this fall and the technician said, that noise is your inducer motor. They fail often on these furnaces and your furnace is old. Sounds like yours is on its way out.
I started researching electric replacements for gas furnaces, i.e., heat pumps. That picked up in early January, when my friend George sent me the hot-off-the-press guide from Rewiring America, Electrify Everything In Your Home.
The day after I started reading it, I woke up to a chilly home. The inducer motor had failed.
The last time I sat down at the blog it was to declare that I was going to attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in November. Since then I’ve written a lot, just not here. To be precise, I met the NaNo word goal a day early and finished the month with 51,553 words in my story, writing substantially on each of November’s thirty days.
It was a blast! The story has tumbled out. At times I feel like I’m reading it as it materializes in front of me. It will definitely need editing, but I think I was right about having an interesting plot, and my prose has not been as wretched as I feared it might be. I type fast and my natural tendency is to be wordy in both my speech and writing, so NaNo let me play to my strengths and pile up the words.
(There is a metaphor that makes the rounds in NaNo circles along the lines of, writing your book is like building a sandcastle. The first draft is digging up the sand to work with. Don’t worry about the quality yet, just get it out so you can shape it as you revise.)
Lessons learned include:
The targets and progress tracking were hugely motivating. This, plus talking with people about what I was doing, was the magic of NaNo.
I’d thought dialogue would be hard to write. Turns out it flows much better for me than descriptions of scenery.
Beginning with an outline that described 25+ chapters was essential. Once a good idea for a chapter was in place I was comfortable telling its story in detail.
Many of these ideas and plot points occurred when I was walking my dog and would tell her the story. Now if I get something juicy, I take care to dictate to my phone so there’s no risk of forgetting it.
I had success with an old digital typewriter (an AlphaSmart Neo) I’d had lying around. I wrote everything on there, transferring it to a computer later. The featurelessness of the Neo deterred me from editing, which kept my words flowing, and it entirely blocked me from getting distracted by the internet.
Despite having 50,000 words, I’m not done writing my story. I want to finish it, in part because I want to know how it ends! (I know the general ending, but want to know the details I’ll only think of while writing).
I’m guessing I’m three-quarters done with the story and I fear that if I take a day off, I’ll lose steam. So I’m going to continue writing, setting a target of averaging 1,000 words a day for the first half of December. That would take me to 67k, which might be enough.
I guess if I’m not done at that point, I’ll keep going. During NaNo I averaged 1,700 words per day. Sometimes that was difficult, and I relied on a few vacation days where I racked up several thousand. But averaging 1,000 per day feels sustainable.
Then I’ll take a little break before I come back and re-read what I’ve written. Editing will be a whole ‘nother ordeal. But that’s for later. For now, here’s to my story – it ended up drawing on many of my interests, experiences, and dreams, and it’s a weird little story no one else could have written, for better and for worse.
P.S.: I typically edit blog posts for a while without making them better. One lesson I hope I’ve learned from NaNo is to rein that tendency in. So this post gets merely a quick read-through.
For the longest time, I wanted to write a book. My “bucket list” evolved over my teenage years and adulthood, but this item stayed constant. Eventually, I removed it, for two reasons. I didn’t feel I had material worth writing about and even if I did, my prose would fall short.
This year, I finally had an idea for a story worth telling. The smallest seed for it was planted a few years ago, as a book someone should write. I kept turning the idea over, growing it slowly. Then I had a breakthrough this summer during a chat with my ten-year-old – we settled on the main character’s quest and her path to victory. The plot is genuinely compelling (in my eyes) and while it’s not my personal story, it’s a mix of settings that I have a bit of familiarity with.
Soon I had my eye on National Novel Writing Month, “NaNoWriMo,” which begins in a month. The timing was great: I could sit with my story in September and October and see whether I lose interest or stick with it and keep plotting the story and characters. So far it’s been the latter. So I’m signed up and planning to give it my best shot! The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. I’m not sure how long my story might get once I unspool it, but my guess is that 50k words could be enough to tell it all. I have read a few books of ~200 pages this year and it’s a nice snappy length, so that’s my current vision.
I would love to talk NaNoWriMo with others as it approaches and gets underway. Anyone out there want to take the plunge with me this year? Everyone else: if I stick with this you might see less from me as I put my extra energy into the book.
I’m still not sure my writing will be any good – I’m a rank amateur. But I’ll have fun telling the story I’ve dreamt up so even if the result is lousy, I’ll have enjoyed myself and the experience of taking on this challenge. And I can check it off my list.
The biggest challenge I foresee right now is not editing. The idea with NaNoWriMo is to pump out a draft as fast as possible and hit the word count. Then you go back and edit it in future months. When I write here and professionally, I spend more time editing (on the fly and afterward) than I do writing. I’m not sure it always improves my writing, and it slows my blogging down considerably. So perhaps if I can embrace the NaNoWriMo mode of write-without-editing, it’ll lead to more blog posts in the future. Time for me to stop re-reading and publish this post!
I received this piece of mail from Chase and it reminded me to finish this blog post, which I started on Earth Day 2021:
It’s well-established that one of the best ways to fight climate change is by divesting from the big banks that fund fossil fuel projects. HEATED’s list of “How to Move Beyond Recycling” includes “Divest your personal assets from fossil fuels.” The more money you can move away from them, the better, though every account closure is important. Moving money can be tedious, though, since you need to redo all your bill payment information and do lots of paperwork like an adult.
What you can start and finish in a single afternoon is to get your child off to a good start by opening an account for them at a credit union or other institution that does not fund fossil fuel projects. (The HEATED link above has info about how to find one for you, a credit union near you is a good bet.) Then inertia will be on the side of good: the more banking they do at their first institution, the more likely it is that their future earnings will not be used to finance fossil fuel projects that will make their world more ghastly and unsafe. Big banks are wise to how powerful this move is; that’s why they sent me that mailer, hoping to get their hooks into my kids.
I got that mail because I used to bank at Chase and haven’t yet closed my account. JP Morgan Chase is “by far the worst banker of fossil fuels and fossil fuel expansion” (Forbes concurs). I’ve been moving my money away from Chase for years now. In my case, I’ve moved my checking and savings to Lake Trust Credit Union. I’ve also given up my Capital One rewards card for a Lake Trust credit card, and when I refinanced my mortgage I moved from a private bank to Mortgage Center, which is owned by credit unions including Lake Trust.
Lake Trust does not have investors, it does not make a profit, and it does not fund fossil fuel infrastructure (in response to my inquiry, they replied, “The Lake Trust investment portfolio does not hold any corporate bonds in fossil fuel companies.”)
Doing all of that paperwork and changing all of my billing information has been tedious and slow. I got the idea to change banks during Occupy Wall Street, which began ten years ago this month, and I still need to finish closing my mostly-unused Chase and Capital One accounts.
But opening accounts for my kids at my local credit union? Easy. The kids biked over there, poured a bunch of change into the coin counting machine, and were given stickers and hot chocolate. Now I manage their allowances and purchases through transfers in the Lake Trust app. This was much easier than moving my own money has been, and climate-wise should be a great return on my time.
Open an account for your kid at a credit union now, even if you haven’t moved your own money over yet. That will put inertia on the side of good, while also normalizing for them that they should belong to a credit union. And if you need to open an account for yourself to do so? Bonus! You’ve taken the first step on your own longer but important journey.
(Standard disclaimer that individual actions will not solve the climate crisis on their own, we need systemic change, etc. – of course. This is part of a mass divestment movement and this blog post, my action, and your action are all part of that.)
Update October 2021: I finished divesting from my Capital One credit card and closed it today!
On Sunday I ran the Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon (DX-A2)! In my goal time of under two hours (1:56:44) and feeling good.
It all came together: enough training, perfect weather, and good strategy in terms of pace, nutrition, etc. I even got a bib number that was an omen of good fortune: 777. Going into the race, my longest run ever had been 10 miles just a couple weeks earlier. This Sunday was the longest run of my life.
It was hard to pick a pace target to aim for. An online calculator suggested that based on some old Turkey Trot 5K times, I could run 13.1 miles in 1:12:00, and I’m more fit now than I was in those races. On the other hand, most of my training mileage was at speeds of 10-10:30 per mile, so it seemed like a stretch to think I could maintain 8:35/mile for two hours. In the end, I shot for the classic target of sub-2 hours, and I’d felt good running big chunks of my long runs at that pace.
I didn’t want to go out too fast and jeopardize my chances of finishing, but it turns out I could have sped up. The race felt surprisingly easy, which felt bizarre then and still feels strange to type. I chatted with one of the 9:00/mi pacers during miles 6-12, agreeing around mile 10 that based on how I felt I should speed up in the last mile. My pace over my last 1.1 miles was more like 8:15/mi, uphill.
I knew this race was a big deal for me, but I was surprised by how many friends and family encouraged me, and how much that meant to me. My wife and kids cheered me at the finish line (“daddy you ran so far, good job!”); my extended family asked questions and gave me props as I trained; my friends at the office and online congratulated me; and tons of strangers along the course shouted encouragement. Especially when I can look at runners who run faster and longer and think, maybe this wasn’t a big deal, it’s validating that friends and family show love.
I’ve been doing a lot of “mental blogging”, no actual blogging, so here’s an attempt to break that and get something written.
Skateboarding is suddenly popular around here. As a family, we watched the 2021 Olympics skateboarding: all of the women’s final and the condensed version of the men’s final. My kids were surprisingly into it. It probably helped that the women’s winners were so young – the gold medalist was just 13 years old.
That got them interested in skating themselves. We purchased a kid’s board last year, during the height of COVID, but it soon got shelved. It was a nice board, too. The one I’d learned on as a teen had low-quality bearings and I could hardly coast on it, which made it a lot less fun. I compensated for that experience by buying my kids a good starter board. It’s out of the garage and rolling again.
Speaking of my experience, I’m interested in skating again, for the first time in twenty years. I dabbled during my teens, logging maybe a couple of dozen hours on skateboard and longboard before giving up. I remember walking to the park in the summer and practicing my ollie by myself. And just not getting it. Between a lack of progress and having no friends who skated, I soon called it quits.
I continued to enjoy the aesthetics of street skating, though. I got most of the way to completing every achievement in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 – “considered one of the greatest video games of all time, as well as the highest-rated sports video game” – searing the soundtrack into my brain (“lights out, guerilla radio!”). And I watched skating videos, rarer in the pre-YouTube days. Rodney Mullen was my favorite.
Fast forward two decades and it’s easy to rediscover his highlights. Here’s a nice reel; I’m starting it at my favorite kind of trick, with elegant manuals and grinds on street objects:
All of this has been enough to get me back on a board. I bought one off Craigslist this week along with some safety pads. I’m hopeful that I’ll learn more quickly this time around. I had terrible balance as a kid, but since then I’ve done a ton of cycling and fair amount of snowboarding and skiing, so I think I’ll be better. Plus many years of learning new things has made me wiser and more patient. I’d love to be able to ride well, manual, and (stretch goal) ollie over something small.
We’ll see how it goes. If nothing else I’ll have some fun outdoors with my kids.
The utopian vision of 3-D printing and communal knowledge sharing came true this week, in one small instance. For years I’ve loved the idea of 3-D printing a replacement component when some plastic bit snaps in a machine I’m using. Especially when the manufacturer doesn’t sell that widget and intends for you to junk and replace the whole thing. But in practice, I’ve not found myself in a situation where that would be viable…
Until this week. Last year my mother upgraded her food processor and handed me down her previous model, a Cuisinart DFP-14 (DFP-14BCN to be precise). The machine had seen years of hard work and at last, the little plastic interlock piece at the nexus of the complicated safety mechanism broke.
I spent maybe 90 minutes last weekend trying to fix it. This involved cutting a reinforcement plate out of scrap plastic, epoxying it on, and mounting it with a machine screw (part of the plastic housing had shattered, too). I had tried my best but it was not going to last. Here’s the kludge fix at the point where I called it quits:
Today is Earth Day. It may be co-opted by brands posting on social media, but I think it’s still worth celebrating in its original spirit (see Emily Atkin on what Earth Day is supposed to be). I was considering posting about divesting from for-profit banks as a not-obvious but critically-important way to help the planet. I hope to do that, still. But here we are and I haven’t written it, so instead I’ll briefly report and muse about swapping seeds.
Yesterday I hosted an informal seed and seedling swap. It was just three of us, standing around a table in the cold, but it was a blast. One person brought chard seedlings, plus all kinds of seed packets including white corn and tiny cantaloupes. Another shared tomato seeds and seedlings of a family heirloom cultivar that his father has saved and replanted over many years.
After the swap, with plant life on my mind, I dug around in a five-gallon bucket of dirt. It’s a special bucket of dirt: my two-year-old and I filled it in the fall, then gathered acorns and mixed them into the soil. Our experiment was to see if they’d sprout after overwintering outside. And at least one of them has!
Sharing seeds and plants and stories and tips and excitement on a cold spring day left each of us energized about plants and the earth. It renewed my sense of possibility, about plants and how humans are made to help each other. I plan to keep casually swapping seeds this spring and summer and then maybe run this swap again next year, with more planning and advertising to make it bigger. I hope to start seeds indoors next winter to contribute seedlings of my own.
In the meantime, I have a ton of pawpaw seeds on hand that need new homes. I processed dozens of fruits in the fall, setting aside the seeds. They’ve been kept moist and in the fridge all winter to give them their requisite cold hours and now should be ready to sprout when the soil warms up.
Pawpaws are unusual fruit trees, native to Michigan (among other places). The New York Times wrote a couple of stories about them last year. Their seeds are slow to sprout and not the easiest to grow, but I’m taking it on as a challenge.
Next month, if all goes well, Ann Arbor will be overrun by millions of Magicicada septendecim, the seventeen-year cicada. I am giddy with anticipation.
Why am I so excited? I think the cicadas are arriving at just the right moment in my life, in terms of both time and biophilia.
The timing is fortunate. At 3, 6, and 10 years old, my kids will be old enough to appreciate the insects and still young enough to feel wonder. My oldest is already on board: she amassed a collection of cicada shells from more regular “annual” cicadas that emerged in recent years. The next time these cicadas emerge, my kids will be grown, and I may be an empty nester. My oldest will be the age I was when she was born.
I’ve experienced periodical cicadas twice so far, in both cases Brood XIII in Chicago. I was 6 in 1990 and vaguely remember the insects’ ubiquitous noise and bodies. When that brood resurfaced in 2007, I was 23, and have no memories of cicadas from that year. I lived in a 24th-floor apartment in downtown Chicago – maybe there was too much concrete to support any cicadas. I remember my friend Boyu, who was working in the western Chicago suburbs over the summer, telling stories of brushing his car off before getting in and still ending up with cicadas inside. But for the timing to work, I think that would have been stragglers emerging off-year in 2003, which I would have missed in the city.
Now the reverse is true: I’m in the right part of the state for this year’s Brood X emergence. Much of Michigan will miss the cicadas, but Ann Arbor should be as reliable a place as any to experience them.
This will be my third visit with periodical cicadas. Brood X will next emerge in 2038 (I’ll be 54), 2055 (71), and 2072 (88, if I last that long). After this summer, half of my cicada seasons will be behind me.
The cicadas are also coming at the right time for me to appreciate them. In the last year or two I’ve become more appreciative of, knowledgeable of, in love with the natural world. I’m learning about animals, trees, and as much of life on this wondrous planet as I can, cultivating my biophilia. It blew my mind to learn about oak trees evolving to have mast years, where in some years they sync up and together produce an unusually-large crop of acorns to overwhelm predators. Periodical cicadas have evolved a similar mechanism of using staggered timing to their advantage: when they emerge in such great numbers, predators can’t eat them all.
What an incredible feat of evolution, to lie in wait for seventeen years and emerge in concert! I find that outcome especially neat given that at this point, they only reproduce as often as humans do. When the parents of this year’s Brood X cicadas walked the earth, George W. Bush was still president. They wait so long for just a short couple of months above ground. It reminds me of tree time or rock time, timescales slower than our human experience. This strategy has been slowly optimized over millions of years. What to me is a rare, long-awaited, blog-worthy event is just the next repetition of their experiment.
I feel lucky to be living in the right place and right moment for this event. It’s a six-in-a-lifetime occurrence and I don’t even have to leave my neighborhood to enjoy it. This weekend, I’ll pick up a book on cicadas from the library to prepare myself, and look forward to May and June. May this brood be as thick and deafening as ever.
One thing led to another. In early 2016, I was participating in discussions on the #rstats Twitter hashtag, a community for users of the R programming language. There, Andrew Martin and I met and realized we were both R users working in K-12 education. That chance interaction led to me attending a meeting of education data users that April in NYC.
Going through security at LaGuardia for my return flight, I chatted with Chris Haid about data science and R. Chris affirmed that I’d earned the right to call myself a “data scientist.” He also suggested that writing an R package wasn’t anything especially difficult.
My plane home that night was hours late. Fired up and with unexpected free time on my hands, I took a few little helper functions I’d written for data cleaning in R and made my initial commits in assembling them into my first software package, janitor, following Hilary Parker’s how-to guide.
That October, the janitor package was accepted to CRAN, the official public repository of R packages. I celebrated and set a goal of someday attaining 10,000 downloads.
Yesterday janitor logged its one millionth download, wildly exceeding my expectations. I thought I’d take this occasion to crunch some usage numbers and write some reflections. This post is sort of a baby book for the project, almost five years in.
By The Numbers
This chart shows daily downloads since the package’s first CRAN release. The upper line (red) is weekdays, the lower line (green) is weekends. Each vertical line represents a new version published on CRAN.
From the very beginning I was excited to have users, but this chart makes that exciting early usage seem miniscule. janitor’s most substantive updates were published in March 2018, April 2019, and April 2020, with it feeling more done each time, but most user adoption has occurred more recently than that. I guess I didn’t have to worry so much about breaking changes.
Another way to look at the growth is year-over-year downloads:
Ratio vs. Prior Year
2020-21 (~5 months)
Download counts are from the RStudio mirror, which does not represent all R user activity. That said, it’s the only available count and the standard measure of usage.