Friday Night Gaming, the Corona Virus, and Well, Everything

I have known my friend Dave for almost 50 years. I think about that often. Fifty fucking years. We met on the first day of kindergarten. We haven’t stayed in touch all those years. There is a period of time, like most friends, we lost touch. But, up through college at least, we had a regular gaming group: Dave, Mike, Paul, Kenny, and sometimes Kenny’s brother. We were fast as thieves. It was rare to see one of us and not the others.

Usually Kenny’s messy bedroom, or Dave’s dining room table, was our congregational point. Kenny’s was fun because you could drop a die on the floor and come up with 5 bucks in loose change and your wayward d20. We played a ton of D&D, Traveller, Axis and Allies, and the old Avalon Hill board games. The Losers Club from IT? That was us, man, with our own version of the Barrens.

After high school I went off to college, Dave joined the Marines. Mike joined the Guard and did a tour in the first Iraq war. I lost touch with them and missed them. Then, life took a weird turn. My wife at the time was petsitting for a woman who lived in a duplex. The next door couple also needed a petsitter and during the initial talk my now-ex is asked, “Hey, any chance you are related to Mark Crump from Natick?” It turns out it was Dave’s brother. Dave was getting married in a few weeks. The bachelor party was at a paintball place and I was invited. Dave and Mike still got together on Fridays to game. After that, I also joined in.

This was about fifteen years ago. Life is full of chance moments. I mean, what are the odds that my wife’s petsitting business would hook me back up with my high school gaming group? It’s one of those plot points a reader would roll their eyes at and mutter, “yeah, right” under their breath. The wife is gone; the friends remain.

Since then, most Fridays we still get together. The congregational point has changed. Instead of Dave’s, it’s Mike’s. We still act like it’s the high-school D&D group. It is not a time for deep, reflective conversation about the plight of the common man. Instead, it’s a lot of, “that’s what she said.” It’s the escape from life that we need.

For a few years we’d also try to have a computer game night mixed in there. Sometimes it was playing D&D on Roll20 or whatever MMO we wanted to try. We had a few board games on Steam, but board games were usually reserved for Fridays, in person, moving physical pieces around while Mike and I kept an eye on Dave because Dave is cheating bastard. Some Fridays we would play online — usually when a blizzard hit. The preference, though, was in person.

The virus changed, well, everything.

Now the congregational point is Skype. Instead of a table, we use Steam. We don’t need to police Dave since cheating in an online game is functionally impossible. We don’t wonder who shuffled this fucking deck when five red cards come out in a row in Ticket to Ride. It’s not the same, but, yet it is. We don’t move physical pieces around. Our game options are smaller. We tend to stick to a few board game equivalents on Steam since playing an MMO has a lot of waiting for someone to catch up, or doing a quest twice because someone forgot to grab the fucking quest. There is still a lot of “that’s what she said.”

The virus changed, well, everything.

We are all in this weird Groundhog Day House Arrest mode. Monday through Friday, I get up, plod down the hall to my home office. Traffic these days is a jackknifed cat in the hallway. I look out the window at the woods and my monitors and, well, work. Weekends…. I get up, plod down the hallway and sit in the same chair looking out the same window at the same backyard at the same woods at the same screens and, well, not work. The only difference is my work laptop is now in my bag instead of on my desk. I will think: I don’t want to fuck up my sleep schedule but why bother? Everything is fucked up. My viewport to the world hasn’t changed in three weeks.

The virus changed, well, everything.

Friday nights, though, while a different congregational point and a different medium, are still a sense of the Before Times. Before the virus. Before I haven’t left the house in three weeks. Before toilet paper of all things became a rare resource. Before sneezing and coughing clear out a room faster than a Taco Bell-infused fart. I miss, well, everything but I can still have what passes for the normalcy of a Friday night gaming session.

That’s what she said.

A Very Geeky Analysis of 8 Months of Data Collection on Running Trains

I rejoined my model railroad club in 2016. Over those 3 years, I had a feeling I ran certain trains and locomotives more than others. Since I work as an analyst, I decided to do some data collection on this. This post is a geeky analysis of how I collected the data, the results, and the plan for this year.

The Collection Goals

My goals for this exercise were simple: how often did I run specific locomotives and specific trains1. For example, how often did I run my Erie Lackawanna SD45s, and how often did I run my coal train?

Collecting the Data:

In the beginning, I just kept a Numbers file with the following information:

Date Reporting Mark Engines Train Name
4/13/19 EL SD45s Freight
4/13/19 UP WideCabs Freight

It was basic information. The date the train ran, the road name of the engines pulling the train, the specific engines that I ran, and a generic name of the train. The challenge of modeling two eras is I do need to be specific on the locomotives and trains. I can’t run my Erie Lackawanna power on a modern train since the railroad ceased to exist in 1976.

By the end of the year, I realized the information was too basic. In the case of the Union Pacific train, generalizing the locomotives made sense since I only had two UP locomotives. By the end of the year, I had four engines that were era-appropriate. I had to get more specific, but not screw up my count. If I ran the coal train with 4 engines, I wanted to count the train running once, and each of the engines running once, but I didn’t want to count the coal train running four times. So, I couldn’t list each of the locomotives as running a coal train since that would inflate the count.

I also didn’t want to track how many laps around the layout each train ran. I thought about it, but decided there were too many variables. A good example is a train I am making adjustments too at the club. I may make 5 laps with it, but I am adjusting problematic cars. Meanwhile, the train that runs fine may only make one lap. I decided I didn’t care about that data. I also didn’t care often a specific locomotive ran a specific train.

In the end, I ended up with a Numbers spreadsheet with the following data:

Date Reporting Mark Engines Train Name Train Class
12/7/2019 UP SD70ACE UPFRT1 Manifest
12/7/2019 UP ES44AC DPU No count
12/7/2019 CSX SD40-2 DPU No count

This is a single entry for one train running: UPFTR1. I got away from generic names, and now most trains have detailed names. What this entry notes is on 12/7/2019 I ran my UP Freight. Pulling the train were 3 engines (two UP and one CSX). DPU is a railroading term for Distributed Power Unit — typically power that runs mid- or end-of-train. I adopted it to mean any additional power that runs on a train. This means that I can get a single count for running the SD70ACE, the ES44AC, and the SD40, but keeping the count for UPFRT1 as one. Train class is a higher-level designation to see how often I ran a manifest, passenger, etc., train2. A No Count entry just means don’t count the two DPU units as Manifest train. It’s just a value to filter out in the report. As with the train name, I only care about one train class per train name. Now, if I run two different manifest trains with the same power on each, then I want two counts. There is also a count for running locomotives during the club’s operating session, but I didn’t need much specificity on the usage.

There is also a worksheet that lists all of my locomotives and rolling stock. The rolling stock also shows what cars the train is currently assigned to.

Analyzing the Data

I was just using a variety of CountIF statements in Numbers. When the data I collected was basic this worked ok. As I wanted to do a deeper analysis on this the limits of CountIFs became a burden. Adjusting each of the CountIFs as I changed the naming was a pain. Numbers doesn’t really support pivot tables, and even then, I wanted a little more flexibility and ease of use.

Enter Tableau.

I use Tableau at work infrequently as a reporting package. I was rusty and wanted to try and keep sharp on using the tool. Tableau doesn’t support Numbers as a data source, so I moved it into Google Sheets.

Tableau made short work of filtering out the data. I could exclude the No Counts, filter out a few other things. Counting operating sessions became more of an aside.

While I cared more about locomotives and trains, the rolling stock sheet also lets me easily print out a grouped list for when I go to the shows. This way I can reduce the likelihood I buy a duplicate car.

Results of the data

Train Class Run Count
Passenger 25
Manifest 20
Unit 12
Operations 7
Local 5
Steam 2
Grand Total 71

I am not going to get into the specific trains run. Instead, I will just talk about the high-level view: the train class.

That passenger trains were around 30% of the total train types run does not surprise me. There are two reasons for this: they are my favorite type of train to run, and they are the easiest to set up and run. Each of my passenger trains can be stored and transported in one storage bin, locomotives included. If I am only going to be at the club for a short time, or just want something easy to set up, the passenger train is my usual choice.

There are only three trains that I classify as Unit trains (Coal, Grain, and Intermodal), so I was a little surprised to see them count as high as they did. Numbers-wise, it’s a wash on them. I ran the Intermodal 5 times, the coal train 4, and the grain 3. The grain train was the last train I put together, so it being low is unsurprising. After thinking about it, I like the look of passenger trains, and unit trains — where all the cars are the same type — have the same look.

Operations is just a catch-all that I ran units 6 times at the club operating sessions. From a data collection standpoint, it is hard to define. For instance, if I loan out a locomotive, how do I count it? For now, I am just noting a train class of Operations for the entire day, and counting which units I ran at each session.

Collecting Data in 2020.

The main item I am looking forward to in 2020 is getting an entire year’s data. I decided to gather the data in July 2019, and only had verifiable data from February onwards3.

I also decided I am going to collect data on the laps run. I don’t know what it will tell me due to a lot of variables that affect running trains: how long am I at the club; how the layout behaving; and how well my train is running4. I decided at least for 2020 I would collect the data to see if there are trains that make more laps than others. It’s easier to collect that from the start of the year.

Another goal that I am carrying over from 2019 is to not cook the books and run a train just to inflate a run count. I do track the last time I ran a train, so I will use that to run a train I haven’t run in a while. There is one train I haven’t run since July, so that is a candidate for running soon.

I am also tracking car usage. Mostly the date the car ran, the train it ran on, and its current assignment. Since the Google Sheets roster is kept up-to-date, it’s a quick cut and paste when I run a train. I can also capture if a car ran on multiple trains on a single visit.

Admittedly, this was a solution in need of a problem. It started with just ticking off a virtual sheet running a train and a locomotive and ended with a 5-tab Google Sheet fed into a Business Intelligence tool. Two goals were met: I have some data on running trains, and I got better at data collection and analysis.

If you are curious about the data, I posted the Viz here. There is a lot in the Viz I didn’t cover in the post, and the average laps data is obviously only going to be accurate for 2020.


  1. I didn’t really care about how often specific locomotives ran specific trains ↩︎
  2. I made a late-year change to make trains that ran cars of the same type (Coal, Grain, etc.) Unit Trains. ↩︎
  3. I’m not sure I am missing much. Grad School meant I didn’t get to the club much. ↩︎
  4. A poorly running train could require a lot of fixing, and thus more laps for testing. ↩︎

On Apple’s Earning Adjustment and Upgrade Cycles

Apple today announced expected revenue for the holiday quarter would fall short of expectations. They didn’t miss by much, only by about $5-7 billion1. Tim Cook blamed a lot of things: China’s slow growth, longer upgrade cycles due to the elimination of cellular subsidies, and that people paying $29 to replace old batteries allowed them to keep their iPhones longer2.

What he didn’t mention was Apple raised the prices on everything over the last few years.

Now, some of the complaining about prices wasn’t justified. The new MacBook Air starts at $1,199, up $200 from the old-model’s $999 price tag. That old Air, however, was outdated. No Retina screen. Old internals. It did have MagSafe and USB-A ports, so for a lot of people it was still worth it.

The price increase on a lot of other items, yeah. I bought my 2016 15” MacBook Pro in March 2017. It replaced as my main Mac a 2011 15” MacBook Pro, and an 11” MacBook Air I bought in early 2015 right before Apple released new upgrades. The 2011 I farmed off to a co-worker; the 11” I still have3. While performance was a driver for the upgrade, a large part of it was getting a Retina screen. The 12.9” iPad Pro really made the older screens hard for me to use. I sometimes wonder if I got a 2014 13” Pro instead if it would still be my main Mac. The dual core processor would likely show its age by now. I still use the Air though, when I need MacOS and an ultra-portable computer.

My theme for 2019 Evaluation. For the record, I’m not looking at making major life changes. I am, however, evaluating the devices, apps, and services I use. For now, it’s a lot of data collection. What do I use my Mac and iPad for? I say I want to use x app more, but over the year I use y app instead. I promised myself it was unlikely I was going to upgrade any of my devices. Some of this is price. The increased price of the new iPad Pro may not have completely turned me away, but also needing to buy a new Smart Keyboard and Pencil (also at a roughly 20% price premium) surely did. The same with my iPhone. I used my 6 for three years, and I expect to get 4-5 out of my 8 Plus. New iPhones are more expensive and my existing one works just fine. For me to upgrade I need to see real-world improvement; not just benchmarked improvement.

As Patrick Rhone would say, a lot of people are finding out their current phones and devices are enough.

  1. Since this is the internet, I feel I need to mention I am being sarcastic.
  2. I am not making that one up.
  3. It’s on my desk next to me, actually.

Addendum to the “I Carry Too Much Crap” post: The Rest Of The Stuff

Since the focus on the last article was just the iPad and MacBook Pro conundrum, I thought I’d also summarize the rest of my daily carry. This is mostly what I leave the house with for work. Items with (in a small bag) are in a bag I can throw into whatever larger bag I am bringing if I need them. Here goes:

The Main Load-out:

  1. My main bag is an Ogio Tribune.At some point, I want to get a Goruck, but this fits my needs. I wanted something I could store a few things, like my access badge for work, in a secure, yet easy to get to spot. I also wanted drink holders for my coffee thermos.
  2. My work access badge
  3. A microfibre cloth (in a small bag)
  4. A USB A-USB-C adapter (in a small bag)1
  5. A lightning to audio adapter (in a small bag)
  6. A set of lightning EarPods (in a small bag)
  7. A few lens cleaning packets for cleaning glasses and screens (in a small bag)
  8. USB-C to HDMI adapter (in a small bag)
  9. A Belkin Rockstar with two Lightning Ports (in a small bag)
  10. Advil
  11. Deodorant
  12. A small notebook
  13. Two pens
  14. Hand Sanitizer
  15. Altoids
  16. An Apple extension cable for charging

The Minimal Load-out:

My secondary bag is a Tom Bihn Ristretto. I will use it for when I am not going to work, but need to bring either the MacBook or iPad with me, but not both. The MacBook and iPad are each in their sleeves. The sleeves have the charging brick and cables. If I am just running out to the coffee shop, or something non-work related, I just grab the sleeve and a smaller bag. The Tom Bihn also has a tin of breath mints and hand sanitizer in it.

  1. This only gets used at work, so I might just keep it there.

TotalCon 2018 Thoughts, and a Love Letter to Future Me

As always, TotalCon was a blast. My games ran great, the people I met were awesome and every table I was at yielded a memorable story. As a note point for this post, I am an analyst and work in process improvement. So, I will be talking a lot about things I want to different. These observations don’t have anything to do with the Con itself; they are just personal point for me. The Con staff, and the hotel were amazing. No complaints there.

A HISTORY OF ME AND THE CON

Before I get into what I want to do differently next year, let’s talk about how I got here. This is the 5th year in a row I’ve gone to the Con. The first year, I played exclusively Dungeons and Dragons 4E, with maybe a few Deadlands games mixed in. That year, I also signed up to play Arkham Horror, but the GM was a no-show. Fortunately, I brought my copy with me and we were able to play. This also showed me that you don’t need any special skills to run games at the con, other than an aptitude for teaching it, and helped shape what I did next year.

I’m fuzzy on the next year, but I started running some board games and playing some D&D. Wizards was getting ready to release 5E so the usual organized play was coming to an end. In 2014, I am pretty sure I signed up to run a ton of board games that year. It was fortuitous that I did, because there weren’t a lot of games offered I was interested in and might have skipped the Con entirely. The next year, I did the same thing: ran about 8 sessions of four-hour games. But, I knew I’d be playing games I liked. I was in control of my own destiny. It worked out well.

In 2017, organized D&D came back very strong. I forget if there were Adventure’s League games offered in 2016, but last year they had the big multi-table Interactive I’ve always enjoyed playing. But, alas, I had signed up to run games and couldn’t make it.

This year, when I signed up to run games, I was hesitant and waited until almost the last minute. For the most part, my rule of thumb is if a game I really enjoy is also one my regular gaming group hates, I will run it at the Con. There are a few games like Blood Rage that are quick games where the more players the better that I might run, but more on that later. I almost kept my Saturday open to play the Interactive, but wanted to see how two years in the new hotel went. Naturally, they did run it.

For a variety of reasons, I wasn’t as mentally prepared for the Con leading up to it and realized that Ambitious Me wrote checks that Present Me would have trouble cashing. Each year, I forget that running 32 hours of games in 2.5 days1 is tiring. This year I had the added challenge of a crazy work schedule the weeks before and grad school kicking my ass. When I got there, I realized the corner I had painted myself into and I had no free time to grab a pick up game or get into a different game. That said, all the games went well. It turned out my Saturday night Arkham Horror game was comprised of people who all knew how to play the game and I was able to sit back, play the game, and enjoy it. It was a good ending to the Con.

WHAT I WANT TO DO DIFFERENT NEXT YEAR, GAMES EDITION

This year throughout the Con I kept a running note in Notes2 on my iPhone for things to do different and I hope to hell I refer to it when I go to submit games at the end of the year. The immediate one is to run less games3. I need more flexibility when it comes to my schedule and not to get worn out. By Friday I was getting tired. I ran the same game twice a lot. Next year, the two big games that fall into the camp of “regular group hates it” are Fury of Dracula and Arkham Horror. Both games I can get onto the table fast. Fury of Dracula I will likely run twice, but definitely the 8am Saturday slot. That one had a few repeat customers from previous years. It is also the game the regular gaming group really hates so the only time I get to play it as the Con. I am also adding another qualifier of can I get the game, with no outside the con prep time, on the table in 15 minutes or less. Arkham Horror, believe it or not, with the inserts and organizers I have, I can get on the table in around 15 minutes.

Firefly, a game I truly enjoy, does not meet that criteria. It has a lot of components and takes up too much space on the round tables. I have the Meeple Realty insert which helps with setup and running the game, but it just isn’t working as a formal game at the Con. If it is all experienced players, I can kinda get the game on the board in roughly 15 min. I think if I could use one of the big tables the miniatures people use I could pull it off. This year, I did a little more prep time and prebuilt crew packets that had all the items players need. Next year I am not running Firefly as a scheduled game.

Arkham Horror I usually get a few people who know how to play it. Next year, I am not running it as a teaching game. I will run it for experienced players only. That should help with teaching exhaustion.Blood Rage, maybe. I might do an experienced players only with the Gods expansion.

So, instead of running 8 games officially, I will probably drop that number to 3-4: Fury of Dracula twice, Arkham once, and maybe a Blood Rage. No matter what I do, though, I will stop running games at noon Saturday. The 8am Saturday Fury is a good slot. I will still bring games I like, like Firefly and Star Wars Rebellion.

As you can tell, the theme for next year is flexibility. Someone wanted to get a pick up game going of a game I love, and I just couldn’t get schedules to line up.

WHAT I WANT TO DO DIFFERENT NEXT YEAR, NON-GAMES EDITION

There are a few minor non-game related things I want to play attention to next year. The first is bag choice. I usually bring my Tom Bihn Ristretto. It’s a great bag, but it’s only good for when I go to the coffee shop or into Boston for the day. I ran out of room fast and didn’t have room for my drinks, protein bars, and dice thing. I have a larger L.L. Bean messenger bag I will bring next year.

Food is another one. I want to stop at the super market and grab some deli meat and use the fridge in the room and be able to make fresh sandwiches. The grab and go at the hotel isn’t bad, but it’s not great. The one deficit — other than sleep — was getting decent food into me. I brought a large bottle of my favorite juice, but next year I will just bring some smaller bottles. Eating at the con is a tough one. Even the regular food options at the restaurant are pub food.

I averaged about 4 hours of sleep at the con. I want to try and get more, but it’s hard to get a lot. I’m usually a little ramped up so it’s hard to get back to sleep. That is why my 8am game (if I’m running it) is Fury of Dracula, a game that is super-stupid easy to set up. This was good because Friday I woke up at 7:56 for the game. I don’t want to take a sleep aid because I’m afraid of oversleeping.

Usually, I take a half day the Wednesday before the Con and am off through the following Monday. Because it is after President’s Day every year, I’m seriously considering taking the whole week off next year. It will help a little more with prep and getting mentally ready. I’ll just head up to the hotel around 1-2, check in, and get settled in.

That leads to the last point, which is my laptop. For two years in a row, I’ve brought my MacBook with me and barely used it. Unless there is a clear need for it, it can stay home. My 12” iPad Pro at this point does everything I need.

  1. I run games from 1pm Thursday to 11pm Saturday. I keep Sunday open.
  2. The note is pinned, to make sure I don’t forget.
  3. Spartacus at this point has become a private game. It’s a full table of friends and will not be run as an official game next year. It will instead be a pick-up game.

On Writing for Exposure

Traditional writing advice is to not write for free, or for “exposure.” The idea is writing for free for another outfit cheapens your work, and lets someone make money off your work with nothing tricking back down.

From 2003-2006 I wrote for free, and for exposure. The freelance success I had after that made it all worthwhile. I am the exception to that rule.

In 2003, the web and blogs weren’t what it is now. WordPress was just coming out. Free or low cost web hosting wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now. A lot of blogging type sites required custom CMS platforms. Also, in 2003 I was rapidly approaching my 40th birthday. I didn’t want to be that guy bemoaning I didn’t give writing a chance.

At the time, I was pretty passionate about video games1. Worthplaying was looking for writers and were very clear the gig wasn’t a paying gig. I contacted them because I figured getting my writing out there in a public fashion would help my writing. I’d get used to working with editors, the inevitable commentary from internet readers , and writing on a deadline. It worked. I wrote a ton of stuff for them over those three years.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) were just starting to become the rage then. EverQuest was a few years old. World of Warcraft was close to coming out. Not many writers wanted to invest the time it took to review and understand these games. A traditional game might take 20 hours to form an opinion on, but an MMO was at least 50 hours of base work. I liked these types of games quite a bit and started to become known as “that MMO guy” in a period there weren’t many of us. I was also able to start building up my contacts with developers and PR people.

In 2006, I decided to take the next step: to see if I cold get paid. I sent clips packets off to the three major game magazines: PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, and Computer Games Magazine. I remember standing in line at the Boston Post Office with my manilla envelopes of printed out samples with a cover letter offering my services. I had the weird idea that printing them out on glossy paper would make them look more like they were printed in magazines. These were also magnum opuses of reviews. My EverQuest 2 review was about 8-10 printed pages.

I was almost immediately contacted by the EIC of PC Gamer magazine. He knew of me from Worthplaying and needed someone to write a review of an EverQuest expansion. There was just one small wrinkle: famed Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling usually wrote the EverQuest reviews for PC Gamer. This was good for PC Gamer since they could put “Curt Schilling reviews EverQuest” on the cover. The EIC was torn at the time since Curt hadn’t said yes or no. I called him back a few days later and said something along the lines of: “Hey, if you want me to review this let me know. If not. I’ve got another place wanting me review it and I can just go with them. We can do the next review together.”

He gave me the gig.

This was an immediate eye-opening experience. The reviews editor emailed me and said, “Yep. We want you do the review. Give me 150 words in two weeks.” One hundred and fifty fucking words. My opening paragraphs for a review were 150 words. How the hell was I going to write an entire review in 150 words. I did it, though. A few minor revisions later, a few months later my review hit the newsstands. I wrote for PC Gamer until 2008 or so. I then wrote for WoW Insider for a year, then Gigaom for another five years. I haven’t had a paid writing gig since 2015.

The line for me is clear: writing for free for Worthplaying lead to paid writing gigs. It gave me the experience I needed to go pitch to editors with a body of work from a reputable source. I also got a lot of free games out of the deal. Where the exposure gigs falls flat for some people is no one approached me wanting to pay me to write. I had to go out there, pitch the work and do the legwork to make those contacts. I also established myself as an authority on a niche market that was going through a growth spurt. Even now, spending three years trying to cram massive reviews into 300 words or less has help make me an economical writer at work.

I don’t know if this path would work today. Back in the 2000s, there was a viable print market and publishers would pay for writers. For gaming PC Gamer is the only real gaming magazine these days. CGW and Computer Games Magazine are gone. A lot of the big gaming sites are now consolidated into IGN and Gamespot. The market has consolidated. As I said in my piece about writing, making money creating content these days is hard.

As much as people bemoan the idea of writing for free, I feel you gain some valuable experience. Even if you start your own blog and pump out content, paid writing typically requires collaborating with someone. Be it an editor, or the artist for something you are working on. The ability to create content on someone else’s schedule is invaluable for creators. Obviously you have to weigh the pros and cons. With Worthplaying, it was obvious the site was such a labor of love for Rainier and Judy I didn’t mind helping out. I’d write for them again, even for free.

  1. Still am, to be honest

iPad Life : Apple’s New iPad Pro Ad

“What’s a computer?” she asked.

I love Apple’s new ad for the iPad Pro. It shows a young girl using her iPad throughout the day. It starts with her grabbing it off the floor, working on schoolwork with Word, drawing with Procreate, using Goodnotes, and reading a comic on the way home. At the end, her neighbor asks her, “What are you doing on your computer?”

“What’s a computer?” she replied.

What I love is everything they showed her doing wasn’t bullshit. It’s all stuff you can do on an iPad. It’s all stuff I’ve done on an iPad. It’s not some bizarre video that only works in certain conditions that most people can’t replicate. It shows the iPad isn’t a computer, that boring, old, heavy, kludgy thing her parents use.

It’s not a promise for the future. She seamlessly switches between apps, drags a photo in Message and uses her Pencil at various times during the day. My favorite part is around the 30 second mark where she is using the iPad with a Smart Keyboard on a glass counter at a cafe while she waits for her order. When she is ready to leave she smacks the iPad down into the folded position by lifting it up and giving it a practiced smack down that and folds the keyboard under the iPad. The movement reminds me of an Arthur Fonzarelli moment.

The spot also shows off what I consider to be the canonical iPad setup: iPad with the Smart Keyboard and Pencil.

I’ve watched this spot so many times. It’s everything I love about how Apple markets their devices — a little short film showing how people actually use the damned thing.

App Subscriptions

In August 2017 my favorite writing app, Ulysses, changed from a one-time purchase price to a subscription model. They gave a lifetime 50% discount for existing users. If you just purchased the apps recently you could be eligible for up to 18 months free1. While I don’t use Ulysses every day, it is my primary writing tool on both macOS and iOS.

Even with a generous discount, I still wasn’t happy with the change. So, I looked at other writing tools that weren’t based on subscriptions. I’m not going to go into a lot of that analysis here, but basically none of those apps were as tuned to my writing process as Ulysses is. Most of them would let me write and post to WordPress, or work on long-form writing, but none of them worked for me as smoothly as Ulysses. So, I paid the yearly subscription price and told myself I had a year to see if this worked out for me. My chief problem with app subscriptions is if I stop paying for the app, I have to stop using the app; it’s a rental vs. owning model.

Recently, Clip Studio Paint came out for the iPad Pro. It has a 6 month free trial, and then jumps to $9 a month (or $108 a year to save you the math). I got into a Twitter exchange with Eric Merced about my thoughts on the pricing. Looking back on it, I realized his position on Clip Studio Paint’s subscription model was similar to how I ended up defending Ulysses when I switched to the subscription app. Eric also mentioned to me that the desktop version of Clip Studio is $219, and the iPad version is a near feature-complete version of that app. So, one way of looking at it is that two years of subscriptions pays for the app, with free upgrades thrown in. Eric was correct when he pointed out that most people would pitch a fit over a $219 iPad app.

I liked the old method of software development: I pay you for your effort to create the app and if you create a new version, I will likely upgrade to that. This model, though, doesn’t work for app developers. The App Store itself is a race to the bottom. Users want free updates for life from the 99-cent app they bought and cry foul when the developer releases a new version and charges for it. Apple does not have a system for paid upgrades. Developers are kind of in a lose-lose situation. Users of these apps are also.

I’ve worked at reducing my total subscriptions this year. With apps like Affinity Photo, I was able to eliminate my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. School has an Office 365 account so I can use that instead of needing a personal account. I do pay for iCloud storage, though, because it provides value. Eliminating those subscriptions allow me to feel good about subscribing to Ulysses.

A lot of people — myself included — have argued that the iPad Pro (especially the 12.9”) is a pro-level device, and pro-level apps need to cost more than a buck to sustain development. The subscription model falls into a bad analogy. Typically, the response is something along the lines of: buy a few less coffees a month, you cheap bastard. The problem with that argument — outside of the fact that I buy a high-priced coffee so little it’s not worth discussing2, those $4-8 a month subscriptions add up to some serious money. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. At what point does an app subscription become too much? Does one set a budget on subscriptions? By having a monthly subscription a developer is forcing us to ask each month if their app is worth paying for. When that answer becomes no, the revenue goes away. It’s a bit of of mental overload thinking about this every month.

Desktop OSs are fairly stable at this point. There is little in a macOS upgrade that will break a lot of apps at this point3. iOS upgrades aren’t there yet. Sweeping architecture changes occur every year. New iOS versions frequently break existing apps. Either because they changed how an API calls a function, or the developer hacked together a solution the upgrade breaks, or iOS just changed enough. App developers have to scramble to get their apps upgraded. I don’t think it’s fair to expect free upgrades for life because Apple adds new features to iOS. Subscriptions give the developers a way to fund those yearly upgrades. I’m not 100% against subscriptions. I think the complexity of the app coupled with the pace of feature-rich upgrades factor in to whether I will subscribe to the app. I’d also like it if the app reverts to a model where you can at least export your content if you let the subscription lapse.

  1. This involved whether you own the iOS and macOS apps, and when you bought them. So, if within the month or two prior to the announcement, if you bought both apps you would get 18 months free.
  2. Funnily enough, I’m sitting in a Starbucks drinking one while I write this.
  3. Yes, High Sierra introduced a new file system, but those types of architecture changes are few these days.

Nuke it from Orbit

This is Part 2 of the thoughts behind Sacred Places of Work.

Burn it down, I think. Nuke it from orbit.

My MacBook Pro has been exhibiting some weird signs, well since I got it. Originally I had a problem where menus in Safari or Finder would flash and not let me select them unless I Force Quit the app. I had a few issues after upgrading to High Sierra where the Finder would hang. There is also apparently a bug where the GPU doesn’t respond properly when waking from sleep mode resulting in poor gaming performance1.

Last year, I bared my Air. I got that saying from Patrick Rhone’s Enough podcast, where he would ask, “How bare is your Air?”. Patrick was a big proponent of living on the 64g MacBook Air. When I got my MacBook Pro, I thought about just getting the 256g model. Since the storage is now soldered onto the logic board, I couldn’t upgrade later if I wanted. So, I got the 512g model.

A common theme for me recently is talking about my frustrations with working on personal creative endeavors. On Episode 102 of Under the Radar they talk about Procrastiworking. I had to laugh when I saw the episode title, since me writing and posting about my lack of getting stuff done has felt like I’m being creative in some way. It’s not, but writing is writing, so whatever. It feels good to write about it and bring some order to the chaos that is my mind.

Working on my creative side projects — I always feel I need to keep adding these disclaimers that this does not pertain to the day job — requires a lot of level-setting and honesty with myself. I wrote last year about The Medicinal Value of Fucking Off, and I still stand by it. Some nights or weekend days you could fool yourself into thinking you could draw or write, but, you just don’t have it in you. Better to just take a kind of vacation day, play video games, and recharge. Balancing personal projects during a crazy work week means some weeks the personal project loses the battle. Or, you might have the energy and desire, but you know there is a possibility you could get interrupted in the next hour or so. If that interruption is going to throw you, it’s hard to start. When I start painting a miniature, I know it’s a 2-3 hour shot where I can’t do much else or my palate will dry up. When I write, I rarely get so far into a zone that it’s a hassle to come out. Working on a presentation or a diagram, yes. Even then, it’s still not the end of the world.

I got the PS4 to move game playing out of my office. Games still ended up on my MacBook Pro under the auspices of just seeing how they run. In the same way that the 27” monitor parked on my desk feels like a failure, so does having World of Warcraft sitting on the MacBook Pro.

At work we are Lean practitioners. One of the Lean tools I love is the 5S: sort; set in order; shine; standardize; and sustain. It is a way if making sure your work space is neat and orderly. In Sacred Places of Work, I worked on getting my personal space in order. Now it is time to think about my digital space.

Burn it down, I think. Nuke it from orbit.

It would be the computer created by a sadist: Dere vill be no gamez on dis komputer. Der vill be no fun. The computer would be sorted, set in order, and standardized. The hard part, as always, is sustain. It would be the digital equivalent of throwing everything you own out.

There is a catharsis to this purge. Each addition to the computer should be the result of some analysis: What does this app do that the built-in app can’t? Do you need 3 writing apps? Is this game worth taking up 20g of space?

Scorched earth feels good at the time but it isn’t an optimum solution. I’ve purged the apps, but what about the data? What about the 230 gig of iCloud Drive data that will automagically sync down — and take the entire weekend — when I log back into iCloud? Shouldn’t that be part of the nuke from orbit? Archive the entire drive somewhere and only move the recent files you are working on back into iCloud Drive and your computer. We fret and worry about data loss. We create complicated backup schemes to ensure we can always recover from a complete system failure. What if that near-complete data loss is a freeing thing? If we are not our belongings, then we are also not our data. I’m not even sure what is in some of these folders.

Eighty-three point five (83.5) gigabytes free of a 512 gig drive. That is how much free space I have on my MacBook Pro. Only 16.3% of the drive doesn’t have some form of crap on it. I mostly write and do school papers. Not exactly the type of thing to suck up a ton of data on. My Lightroom library is about 25g. I bet 100g of that is games.

This is why I like using iOS and my iPad Pro so much. The file system is hidden away. When I want to write, I open Ulysses and my project is there2. I want to draw and I open up Linea or Procreate or Clip Studio or any of the other drawing apps I use and my drawings are right there. It is all backed up into iCloud, so if I do need to do a total system restore, it’s all there and I am up and running in a few hours. Matt Gemmell wrote about being done with file systems, and I agree with him. He’s gone iPad-only since he wrote that, and the piece is prescient of his future decision.

I’m not going to nuke the MacBook from orbit. It’s too much hassle for too little gain. Games on it aren’t why I’m having issues getting stuff done. The underlying reasons are something I’m doing a lot of soul-searching with little answers. What writing about it here reminded me of, however, is how few barriers to productivity exist for me on the iPad Pro, and to continue to reach for that device when I want to create.

  1. What a bizarre argument I have here: I’m going to reformat (and likely downgrade) my operating system because a game runs poorly. The main reason I’d burn it from orbit is the game is even there in the first place.
  2. To be fair, since the app data is store inside Ulysses and it syncs via iCloud, it’s also on my Mac.

Learning to Get over Myself Learning to Draw

Thirty years ago I went to Interior Architecture school. It hurts thinking of that. Thirty fucking years ago. I was a great hard-line draftsman but never took the time to learn freehand. Even now, I bet I could sit down at a drafting table, grab a t-square and triangle, and bang out a respectable floor plan.

I miss drawing. I miss designing. I love writing and making music, but I miss creating visual art. Part of the reason I got the iPad Pro and the Pencil was to eliminate excuses. The iPad is always with me, therefore I always have the tools to draw. I’ve drawn some, but not enough. I’ve been having a problem getting motivated to do more than quick warm up sketches.

I was listening to a podcast with Stan Prokopenko as the guest. Stan runs a great website, proko.com where he shows off some amazing beginner lessons. On the podcast, he mentions that to get good at art, you need to spend 40-50 hours a week working on your art. Drawing the same thing over and over. Sketch a gesture. Rip it up. Sketch another one. Learning the fundamentals of guitar was easy. Learn the basic open chords and you can pretty much play most of the three-chord rock songs out there. Hours of entertainment. AC/DC made an entire career out of this. Learning to draw, however is harder. Every time I grab the Pencil and open up Procreate, I think: this thing I am about to create is going to suck. That’s not false modesty. Look at any Master’s output the first time he or she picked up a pencil and it will be laughably bad. It’s hard not to wonder if this is all just a waste of time. Will I ever get good at it? What’s my definition of good enough? Finding motivation is hard when you see an established artist do a quick sketch that is better than anything I could think of drawing.

My experience with architecture school tells me its probably not a waste of time. Even though freehand wasn’t a strength, I could still get the idea of what I wanted do in a sketch. A year ago when I made an effort to learn to draw I was pleased with my progress over a short time.

There is a hard and lengthy fought battle over tracing in art. A lot of people think it’s horrible, and a cheat. Before I continue, let me say that laying down tracing paper over someone else’s drawing, tracing it, and passing it off as your own is theft. However, let me tell you a story about how I created perspectives in school.

In the early 90s, CAD programs were in their infancy. There was a great one for my Mac called MacPerspective or something like that. I started using it when I was having a hard time getting the perspective for an atrium correct. I put in a rough version of the floor plan, walkways, and skylight into the program. I then picked a camera angle I liked, printed it out, stuck it on the drafting table and put my vellum over it. I then did all the little detail work and finished the drawing. I didn’t think I cheated. I just needed to get the damn drawing done. I could screw around for a day or two getting the perspective and vanishing lines done, or I use a tool to get the grunt part done. Norman Rockwell would project photographs onto his canvas and trace over to get the rough sketch done.

Where I’m going with this getting my mind around parts of the process. Some drawings I do I might sketch out from nothing. Others I might put a photograph on a background layers and sketch out from there. Jack Skellington is a basic enough character that it would be fun to use his head as an exercise in circles and shading. A picture of a friend with a sword, though, might end up in a background layer where rough out the anatomy to become an orc warrior.