Archive for category Tips & Techniques

Sous Chef

Trying to prepare for the baby itself is nigh impossible. There’s just too much you can’t know about the little ball of chaos. You can’t know about personality, illness, temperment, sleep schedule and on and on. You just can’t really ever prepare fully for the big arrival. What you can do, though, are rack up little victories where you can.

There are some things you can say very concretely you are ready for. You either have a crib or you do not. You either know how to install the car seat or you do not. You either know how to prepare a meal, or you do not.

I did not, but I wasn’t thrilled about it.

I’ve been pretty lucky to live my life to date with good cooks. My Mom, my Dad (who was not the primary cook in the house, but as I got older was called in to reveal some of his signature items) and Janelle. Growing up, I didn’t do any cooking, because, well, how many kids do the cooking in their household? In college I ate as most college kids do. I prepared typical college meals that consisted of dumping a couple of packets of something into a pot and then mixing and heating them up. After Janelle and I moved in together I didn’t cook because I wasn’t really allowed to.

Janelle really enjoys cooking and baking. Janelle also really enjoys having things done her way, dammit. So, every night, almost without fail, I would ask “Do you want me to help you make anything?” and I would get a “Nope” in response. It’s basically impossible to complain about this arrangement, but it’s my way of justifying that I am 28 years old and don’t really know how to prepare anything but the most basic dishes for myself.

I can follow directions, so recipes are certainly something I could tackle. However, I’m a bit of a nervous learner. When dealing with something where I cannot very easily wave a wand and undo my work, I’m very hesitant to proceed. So, despite the fact that if I ruined some food I could just go out and buy more ingredients and try again, I’d be very reluctant to start out uncoached just because I’d mess it all up the first go. True or not, the feeling would be impossible to escape. Plus, what I want is the ability to throw down spontaneously. I would like to pick up Janelle’s ability to walk into a kitchen, look at what she has in front of her and just freestyle it into something tasty.

I first got the idea into my head that I wanted to cook more after watching a video from Robert Rodriguez (warning: harsh language) where he talks about how every man should know how to cook, and then proceeds to give a lesson on cooking one of his favorite dishes. The thing I found most appealing was his concept of having his own personal menu. I’m a fan of it in an intangible way, but it’s pretty awesome that he also has a little laminated menu guests can look it. I would like to have myself a signature set of dishes.

Being able to cook is a huge boon. It will keep you healthy when there’s no one else around you who will cook. It makes for great romantic evening fodder. And it sure as hell is going to help when, for months after the birth of our baby, Janelle ends up needing to be up all night long, every couple hours, to feed the baby. It’s nice to think about prepping and freezing meals in advance to make it easier to cook when the baby is here, but our freezer is big enough to hold maybe three days of food. Maybe.

So, I’m on a journey to learn how to be a better cook. I need to, in a couple month’s time, be ready to be able to cook a full, balanced meal and to do so in a manner that doesn’t involve my nagging Janelle for help every couple steps and doesn’t leave her sitting on the couch mulling over how I’m probably in there messing everything up.

I have no idea what I can expect from the baby. What I do know, though, is that I can make a pretty tasty side of asparagus spears, rice and boil some eggs. They may be small victories, but they are victories nonetheless. Maybe this weekend I’ll make some chicken.

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The Doldrums

I’m going to be taking a quick break from our regularly scheduled baby programming to talk about homebuying. I’ve griped about the process before, but now I’m going to temper that gripe with actual information.

Janelle and I are currently in escrow, as of the first of this month. And, with this period we have also entered into what is probably our most stressful and least happy time since we have known one another. We’re not unhappy with each other—but the escrow process is more or less sucking our will to live. And here’s why:

When we started looking for homes, we were in really great shape. We had been watching shows about real estate shopping and home renovation for a couple of years on and off. We had gotten a good sense of what made a good deal not only in Southern California, but anywhere. Before we worked with an agent, we scouted all of San Diego county and picked our area of interest, and then we canvassed that neighborhood, seeing open houses and sampling neighborhoods. Seven months ago, when we started working with an agent (after interviewing a handful and carefully selecting the one we liked most), we were well ahead of the game. We understood the pitfalls that homes could present and could grasp the intangibles that sometimes elevate a home beyond its apparent worth.

Once we actually had a bid accepted on a home, though, all our preparations were for naught. Buying a home isn’t really something you can practice, and there aren’t too many television shows that cover the intricacies of escrow week after week. Our failing point was our assumption that, come the start of escrow, that our agent would be able to shepherd us through the process. For whatever reason, this isn’t really the case. Some words of advice:

– Aim for a 45 day escrow: We find ourselves in a 30 day escrow (which we assumed would be standard and no problem at all because we are apparently fools) and it’s killer. Why 30 days is standard when just about every bank on the planet lists 30-45 as the average close time I have no idea. Oh, and try not to have your escrow start January 1 when January 1 is a Friday. That timing meant that we couldn’t really start out 30 day escrow until January 4, making it a 26 day escrow.

– Select all your helpers prior to entering escrow: You’ll want to make sure that you’ve selected the services you want to use for insurance, inspection and loan prior to escrow. You can do it during, like we are, but expect your stress to ramp up exponentially. When picking an inspector find out if they will be climbing on your roof or just visually inspecting it. Find out if they are insured and accredited and look for sample reports on-line to see if you like how they are formatted. You want thoroughness, so don’t just look at the numbers and fees. For a broker, however, it’s all numbers and fees. The interest rate they can offer will change daily and just about everyone will offer you the same, assuming you have good credit. The fees they charge, however, will vary wildly. You will save a lot of money typically with a bank or credit union, but may be looking at more lead-time required in the escrow process. Local brokers will end up charging more, but will be faster and may be more flexible in terms of the number of options they can present you with.

– Be sure to read all your paperwork: This is something that we, thankfully, are not realizing in hindsight. Always read the papers you are sent, even the legalese. You’re likely to end up signing something you don’t understand otherwise, and your agent is very likely to not think anything of it. Discrepancies are a big deal and very likely. There are a ton of things you need to remember, and even more that the seller has to catalog and disclose to you. They probably messed at least one thing up.

Overall, you need to be prepared to be stressed. Escrow is a process that can have a lot of emotional and financial investment from you. It’s likely the largest debt that you will ever enter into, and the entire thing can fall apart through absolutely no direct fault of your own. Be fearless with nagging and be stupidly over-prepared.

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Early Resources for Dads

I’m probably studying harder for having a baby than I should be. It’s not terribly difficult. I mean, I don’t technically have to do anything. Well… I had to do one thing, but I took care of that a few months back. Checklist is now clear.

Moms need to worry about their food intake, their exercise, their vitamin levels, their sleeping position, their exertion level, their shrinking wardrobe and on and on. For a Dad, getting educated is pretty much the way to be involved. Talking with the baby and tagging along for doctor’s visits and being generally supportive are a way of being involved, but that’s the fun stuff. That’s like sitting down to eat a meal your wife made for you, and then later recounting the tale of the delicious meal you made the other night. Unless you’re in the kitchen doing something that looks like work, you’re taking some liberties.

So what kind of stuff is out there for you to get edumacated with?

As with all things, don’t listen to the internet. The internet is tricksy and filled with things like this and this (don’t click that first one, by the by). The internet is a silly place. Let’s not go there.

If you must internet, visit a well established site like The Bump, but as with all places on the internet, may God have mercy on your soul if you read the comments. And if you must read the comments, think about them this way. You’re walking down the street. A person that you have never seen before and you know nothing about is standing on a street corner and telling the world around them that when they had a kid, they found that he slept better after they rubbed butter on his eyebrows. Would you take that person seriously? Exactly. Just because they wrote it down doesn’t mean they’re any more reliable a source.

I would like to toot my own horn and say that you could consider this site a reliable resource for you, but it’s a pretty scant resource at this point in time. So, bear with me and hopefully it will become more utile.

Books are the way you should go when you’re dealing with media. With a book that you find at any major retailer, you know that someone actually checked into the author and trusted them enough to spend a bunch of money on having them write something and then printing the hell out of it. Books written for Dads are few and far between. General guides about babies and child-rearing, while typically written with a slant towards the mother, are by and large neutral and filled with info. Here’s a look at a couple I’ve been reading:

Your Baby’s First Year: Week by Week – This book is basically a catch-all for baby info. Janelle is reading the version regarding the pregnancy itself, and I’m reading up on the aftermath. This book will tell you a ton that you won’t need to know (you can skip sections regarding twins or preemies entirely if you’re not in that particular scenario). It’s also hideously organized. Each chapter deals with a particular week, but only some of the information is arranged in a manner that tracks week to week. I’ve read information in Week 48 that is actually only viable for children under 12 weeks. Best to read things in advance and not as you go.

However, the book is great for information on health and diet schedules. There are sections regarding illnesses for the child scattered throughout the book that list causes, symptoms, home treatments and signs you need to call your doctor. Other areas deal with good foods for your child and ideas for how you should be adapting and changing their food schedule as they go. Useful stuff by and large.

Secrets of the Baby Whisperer – I’ve only just started this book, but it seems to be a very practical guide for dealing with your baby not as an object you need to be curator for, but as a little person who is always learning and trying to communicate with you in the ways it understands. I like the message so far, and it seems to be providing a mindset for dealing with a baby that I think jives very well with me. I’ve also found some great practical tips early on in the book (such as, pre-opening packaging for baby items since it’s hard to open things with a baby in one hand or cooking and freezing meals in the week before the due date so you can take it easy on cooking right after the birth).

Waiting in the wings I have What to Expect the First Year and Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, both encyclopedic tomes that I imagine I will be skimming through more than reading. And that’s the thing to remember about books. They need to be written for the masses, and they need to be written to deal with the extremes. This means that they more than likely will scare you far more than you need to be about your upcoming baby and that they will tell you a great many things that you will be able to figure out on your own. They’re best for reference for the items I’ve covered earlier: illness, treatment and diet. Even those areas will vary child to child, but they’re a bit more overarching – and something you’ll want to be prepped for more than the rest. Don’t overthink too much of how you’re going to be raising a kid in terms of playtime and discipline, but you had best know what a sick kid looks like and that you had better not feed them honey.

In the end, your best resources are going to be yourself and your parents. Trust in your instincts, and trust in your family to give advice that has been field-tested by people that you hopefully don’t think are insane. Take advice when you want it, disregard it when you think it doesn’t apply to your unique situation. There is no baby and no parenting situation like yours anywhere in the world, so you are by and large going to have to make it up as you go no matter what. Your family knows who you are though, and they’ll be able to tailor their words to match your parenthood as best they can. And don’t discount the in-laws out of hand (unless they are insane). Just as advice from your parents can help smooth thing for you, advice from your partner’s parents will do the same. Even if you have to trade back and forth on who gets listened to this time, try to find a balance.

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The Babymoon

A babymoon has become a new, vogue concept for parents-to-be. The idea is that you have one last hurrah before you crank out a little one who will make considerable demands on your time for quite awhile. Trips to the spa, vacations to tropical resorts, jet-setting for a bit. That sort of thing. I don’t think that Janelle and I will be planning any specific babymoon action. We were able to take a trip to Italy earlier this year, and I think that covered us for major travel for at least the entirety of this year (which is, admittedly, drawing to a close).

My concept of what will comprise our babymoon is a bit different from the intended definition. To date, a lot of my commentary regarding the baby has been guarded. I profess my excitement over certain matters, but what I’m really discussing are the things that preoccupy my mind. It’s created a bit of a skewed perspective. I’m not really that terrified. I’m looking forward to a renaissance for myself. I’ve talked at a fair length on the blog about my concerns regarding having enough time to fulfill my semi-professional, personal and social concerns. My babymoon should help take care of that. I may not be traveling the world, but I will be taking a lot of time for myself.

Part of why I’ve decided that 2010 will be a big year for me (baby, home, writing projects galore, etc.) is that the introduction of your baby to the world can afford you a lot of free time that you never had before. Yes, babies are demanding and require near-constant attention when they are awake—but that’s when they are awake. Adults likely sleep about eight hours a night, as a rough average. A baby will put you to shame in this category.

Newborns sleep around 17 hours a day. Between 1-6 months, around 15 hours. 6 months to around 2 years is about 14 hours. Babies get a bad reputation for sleep because they don’t rest through the night in a consistent chunk. It’ll be tough for both parents, but moreso for Mom, if she’s breastfeeding (more on this in a later post). As a Dad, take advantage of this time to continue to sleep. It’s better you be sharp and ready to help out during the day so that Mom can catch some rest when she can manage.

You’ll also want to learn to nap when your baby is napping, but my point is that babies sleep a lot. It’s one of the only things they know how to do. When they sleep, though, it’s time for you to get in touch with your hobbies. Board games, video games, reading, writing, drawing, DVDs, television. The general assumption is that these are all things that need to be given up once a child enters into the picture. But why? You’ll be busier and you’ll have more errands to run, but there is downtime and you should to fill that with the things that you enjoy doing.

Naptime aside, there is a fair amount of free time to be found with a young child. The time leading up to the birth date will incapacitate the mother more and more. She’ll get tired more easily, joints will be stiff and sore. Depending on the overall quality of her health, she may end up bedridden for weeks ahead of time. This places a fairly large damper on your usual social plans, so you’ll likely be at home a lot, taking in a quiet evening. Try not to spend all that time just zoning out.

The same goes for after the birth; you’ll be hanging out at home a lot. Friends will come to you, relatives will drop in to visit. It’s important you are spending time early on with your baby to bond, but as the child gets older and you have friends and family who are available and willing to help you should take advantage of that help. It’s good for the kid and it’s good for you.

Try and think about the number of things that having a child will help you start doing (even if it just gives you a good reason to finally start watching Saturday morning cartoons again) and don’t think of how you might not be able to stay out late as much.

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Tummy Talk

A pregnancy seems as though it should be a concrete thing. A fact. Either you ate that sandwich, or you did not eat that sandwich. Either you are pregnant, or you are not pregnant.

It has started out for me as a very abstract thing.

Janelle is very lucky. So far, after 16 weeks of pregnancy, she has had virtually none of the troublesome side effects. There have been no bizarre food cravings (something I was actually looking forward to her being seized by)—the extent of her new tastes has been a desire to avoid chicken. She has experienced slightly more heartburn than would be normal, but we’re in the midst of the holiday season and traveling a lot, so our normal schedules and diets are in upheaval anyway. There has been no sickness for her at all.

Couple this with the fact that we’re still too early on for her to be showing (first-time moms tend to take longer to show a bit of belly—the body is basically busy going, “Wait, you want me to do what? You’re telling me I have to move all this stuff around? Did you put in a work order? A month ago? Shit.” And so things take some time while it hunts down the appropriate permits for the expansion project), and it has been pretty hard to really call the pregnancy a tangible thing.

Ultrasounds, which are run of the mill wonders not unlike “Oh, right. We put MORE people into space to live for months at a time. Whatever,” are the first real evidence that you are, in fact, carrying a baby around. They all haven’t just been playing an elaborate prank on you. At first you will just see a smudge on a screen and have to be told by someone with a degree on the wall and a lab coat on their body that you, in fact, are looking at a baby. And then they’ll let you hear the heartbeat. This was my first “Oooooooh” moment. Partially I was unaware they even had that ability, but it was also amazing to see the forcefulness of life present in something about the size of a pea. At that size, the baby seems very literally to be all heart. It beats very fast. It’s hard at work. The next ultrasound will show you the beginnings of a baby as we recognize it [see last Monday’s post for examples].

These are just glimpses. For something that is about to dominate your life and very likely alter it permanently, you may have almost no tether to grip and tell yourself its all real. I’ve tried to start talking to Janelle’s stomach as well, but it still just feels like I’m talking to a stomach. However, the baby has ears. In fact, it’s around 16 weeks that the baby will not only be able to hear, but will also react to sounds. The reactions are basically just the baby gyrating around or having its heart-rate change, but it does hear.

I’m going to start trying to talk to the baby more. I think that will help everything feel more real throughout and it won’t all of a sudden be “Oh, there you are” in a couple of months when Janelle will be definitely showing. Treating the baby as if it is already here and already a part of my life and routine will, I hope, make for an easier transition come June when things really will get turned upside-down.

An added benefit of talking to the baby is introducing yourself to it as much as the other way around. You’re going to have an advantage when that baby comes out. You’re expecting it. You know what’s up. That baby will have no idea what the hell just happened to it and who you people are. But it will recognize, even if only on the most fundamental level, your sound. The Mom has a clear advantage here, the baby will hear her voice as often as the mother talks—and it will hear it better, as the sound is conducted through the body. A Dad will sound a bit more like the parents from the Peanuts cartoons (“Mwa wah wah wah wah. Mwa wa wah wah.”), but it’s better than nothing.

My schedule is already becoming something I’m trying to delineate more and more. “Spend some time reading a novel. Read a chapter in the baby book. Write the blog Mon/Tues/Wed. Write the novel Tue/Thur. Watch TV off the DVR.” I’m going to add on “Talk to the baby.” We’ll sit on the bed, I’ll prop myself up on my elbows and the abdomen and I will have a little chat.

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The Club

I’m not a fan of smoking. Smokers… it’s a mixed bag. Depends how cognizant you are that it’s a habit that affects people around you. One thing I gotta give smokers, though, is that they stick together. There’s an unspoken bond forged between smokers in the fires of shared ostracism and hardship. They share cigarettes and lighters. They gather together and stand around, chatting. They recognize one another in a crowd and nod, knowingly. There’s probably a secret handshake. I’m going to say it involves pounding one hand into the other like you’re settling a pack of cigs, coughing, spitting on the ground and then doing a chest bump. What I’m saying is that they’re in a club.

There’s another club. The Parent Club. It’s the same type of arrangement. You band together almost instinctually with other parents. They’re going through or have gone through the same things as you. Maybe they have supplies you need to borrow. Certainly they’re accustomed to the smell. In a time when you are very likely to be self-conscious about the new level of mess and noise that comes out of your little cabal when you are out and about, the Club will help you realize that you’re not alone and that, no, you can’t really do much about all the ado. There’s war stories to share and the kind of stories to relate that are only amusing to people who have lived through the experience.

Not everything about being in the Club is awesome. There are assumptions that will be made. One is that because you are a parent or will be a parent that you want to hear advice from and have conversations with random strangers concerning your and/or their child. Another is that at some point in time, once your partner has begun showing enough tummy for it to be clear that she’s pregnant and not just exuberant about HoHos, her stomach region will become public domain, like a park or the Old MacDonald song. It will belong to everyone. They will rub it and say hello to and place their hands on it and hold them there while they talk about the little baby inside. The thing about talking to someone when your hand is on their belly is that you need to avoid all Western notions of personal space to do this.

I’m trying to come up with a way to staunch the flow of belly touching. I have some front runners. Yelling, “She’s just fat!” as people lay on hands, for example. Or “She’s contagious!” Maybe I’ll just carry a riding crop and swat at hands.

You will also hear horror stories from pregnancy experiences of others. Tales of days-long labor and things ripping in ways that make me want to curl into a ball forever. The whole thing will be awkward for both of you, but mostly awkward for her. This is something a dude will never experience. Try and think about walking through a supermarket and having an old lady sidle up to you, rub your stomach and then talk to you about how horrible she had gas when she was pregnant right before she asks you if you’ve had any problems with gas lately. Horrifying, right? Maybe next she asks if it’s twins and then you realize you’ve just been told you look fatter than you already thought you were. Not exactly a party.

It’s worth coming up with a little system with your partner. Maybe it’s not a riding crop to the back of the hand, but quick look at a phone or a watch and a declaration of “Look at the time, we’ve got to get going” or simply an exasperated “Hey, let’s go, babe. I don’t want to be here all day.” People already expect you to not be sensitive about the pregnancy, so let your douche-flag fly to spare your lady the trouble.

The trick with The Club is not to make it exclusive. It’s all well and good to gravitate towards other parents or expectant parents, but your Club should include your friends. They can handle the occasional icky bit along with all the cute baby stuff, and if they opt to not want to put up with it, then it’s not terribly likely they were very good friends to begin with. It’s become an eye-roller to cite “It takes a village”, but it does, however I don’t mean it in the typical usage. I wouldn’t necessarily say you need a ton of people to raise the child, I think that gets you quickly into a too-many-cooks kind of situation. The village is your village, your support structure. You’ll spend all your time assuming that all your attentions must be on raising a baby and having everyone help with that. But remember that healthy, happy parents are a critical part of a healthy, happy child and for that, you’ll need your Club.

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A Journey of 50,000 Miles…

…certainly begins with a single step, but it also consists of all 50-damn-thousand miles. Don’t delude yourself with helpful little platitudes. Starting to work is not the battle. Continuing to work is.

This was the principal lesson I took from my own little journey to 50,000 words in 30 days as a part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The trickiest part of the process was, predictably, being consistent with the work. The biggest revelation for me was how easy it actually was to put together.

For the week prior to the start of the month, I focused on trying to cobble together a loose outline for my work, and I told myself that for the 30 days of November I would be sure to write 1,666 words each and every day to keep things manageable and paced well. I kept to that schedule until my trip to Boston in the middle of the month, which took me a few days out of the game and dropped me about 8,000 words behind schedule. However, once I was back from the trip, I just upped my daily writing count, cranking out 3,000 a day over the Thanksgiving break.

1,666 words is something that, if I’m in a groove and in a spot of writing that I’m not too unsure how to phrase out, I found I can do in about 30 minutes. More regularly, it will take me from 60 to 90 minutes. This is a pretty acceptable timeline. I had nightmare visions of needing to spend 2-3 hours a day just to scrape by. I also benefited from deciding that I would try to do most of my writing before bedtime. This ensured that my writing time was at the end of the day when chores and distractions were out of the way. It meant I went to bed a little later, but not so much so that I felt it impacted me at all. For a writer who is constantly worried about how his work will fit into the timing of everyday life, this was another pleasing discovery. Much like my view of many social events (traveling downtown to a club or concert, heading to the stadium for a game, etc.), my expectation for roadblocks and drama before I can get to the creamy nougat center of fun was totally blown out of proportion.

The other thing about a really large journey is that you can’t know what it looks like (not that you don’t—you can’t). You can know where you start, where you plan to end and where your waypoints are along the way, but the trip will change and deviate as it needs to regardless of your input. I found myself many times over the last month convinced that I was writing some truly shitty stuff. A page later, and I’d be golden again, the crap I was shoveling previously leading me to a new jumping off point. Getting discouraged about your work before it is complete is silly. It’s inevitable, but it’s silly. How can you say it’s bad? It’s not even done. It’s Schrödinger’s prose at that point. It’s good and bad all at once and you can’t open the box to see what it actually is until you’ve finished.

I’m not done with my novel yet. I’ll probably need to get to at least 80,000 words before I’m done. I’m confident I’ll get there because I’m allowing myself to just let what I’ve done so far exist in its undecided state. I’ve been forcing myself to only read the paragraph or two before what I wrote previously to pick up my thread. I’ve not stopped to edit or adjust anything. The one time I went back a few pages to make a change, it was only to add an extra couple of paragraphs—I wasn’t editing so much as amending. I think this has been really critical for me as well. A first draft should remain a first draft until it is totally complete. NaNoWriMo places you on a timeline to force this issue and it’s a really critical lesson. If you want to drive from San Diego to New York you don’t keep driving back and forth over the Arizona state line.

This is something to really commit to. There is a gaping plot point in the center of my novel that needs changing. As I was writing, I began to set my protagonist up to get embroiled in a full-fledged Lord of the Rings style war—but as I wrote I became more and more sure that I hadn’t set up a conflict of that scope properly. I’m not a Tolkien or a Martin. I don’t think I could pull that off, but I had at least 5,000 words that thought I could. At about the 45,000 word mark, I decided I was just going to change the conflict to something more personal and manageable—a rescue mission. So I just started writing as if that’s what I had intended the entire time. I didn’t hunt back through and adjust the text for continuity, and why should I? It’s a first draft. It’s not supposed to be good, it’s supposed to get done. It shouldn’t be good until a third draft, really.

I’ll be continuing on with my writing on a 3-days-a-week basis for the novel. I’m going to shoot for about 2,000 words a week now. A much more modest pace, but one that will allow me to continue to work regularly on the blog, keep my novel going and not feel like it’s controlling my life.

Blog announcements coming up on Friday!

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First Impressions: Google Wave

Google Wave is an interesting animal. Similar to the much ballyhooed Google Chrome OS, Wave has been the “it” thing for a while among select geek circles. To date, Google knows almost no wrong and so announcements of new products from the company are all treated as the coming of The Next Big Thing™. Compound this impression with the fact that just about any product beta (the name for a software product’s final test phase—the very earliest test product is known as an “alpha”) is an invite-only affair, being able to get in and use something as highly publicized as Wave was sort of like being on the VIP guest list to the hottest club in town. It doesn’t matter how it looks on the inside, being invited is all that matters.

I finally got my invite into the Wave beta recently (first from my brother-in-law—Thanks, Todd—and a day later the official one direct from Google, coincidentally enough). The juxtaposition of paragraph one and this makes it seem as if I’m saying I’m the cool guy in the club, but really I’m coming in at the very tail end of the early adopter train here. Wave’s been in beta for a month or two already, so I’m not exactly bleeding edge. Besides, the point of the intro was more the hype over the app than how I awesome I am (which is not something science can currently quantify).

Google Wave is, in a nutshell, Google’s re-imagining of e-mail. Instead of keeping e-mail in the basic format we know and love—which is rooted in the days when computers couldn’t do anything but display text—Google is opting for a dynamic and powerful collaboration tool. The problem they’ve run in to with Wave might be that they’ve created a tool too niche to really draw in the masses, and without the masses the application has minimal usefulness.

What are the key features for Wave?

– The Wave Itself – The Wave is so-called presumably because of the way it flows and adapts to conversations and participants. Messages in Wave and displayed in the standard way.

Message

Reply

Message

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But instead of being locked into this rigid structure, you can also at any point scroll back and add comments to earlier items. Things will then be indented thusly.

Message

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—-Another Reply

Message

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Inviting participants also isn’t a matter of CCing them on a message and then forcing them to hunt backwards through a message to see what’s happening. They are essentially just brought in to see the entire Wave show. They can scroll through the entire talk. The idea here is that you want them to see everything—and not just the talk starting from where you messaged them. To this end, our second feature.

– Playback – The Playback is a way to review the conversation in the proper order. Because Wave allows you to backtrack and add comments where you please, it could get tricky just reading things top to bottom. What if a comment at the top requires knowing of some details shared down at the end? Well, Playback is literally watching a text movie of what everyone in the Wave has been saying in the order they said it. It’s a neat feature to get newbies to a Wave up to speed, and probably my favorite aspect of Wave so far.

– Message Widgets – Gmail has already blazed a trail of add-ons and widgets. In fact, if Wave doesn’t support many of the features I’ve come to know and love from Gmail, it will likely be a deal-breaker for me (I mean, come on, Gmail actually has an add-on where, at certain times of day, you can require it to ask you a series of math questions before you send a message. It’s to prevent drunk, late night e-mails. You can’t beat that). What Wave offers, though, is more features embedded into the message itself. The intro messages you get when you sign into Wave for the first time have embedded YouTube videos, for example. I recently got a message from my brother-in-law showing an embedded Google Map of a place we were supposed to meet up, with an option below to register with a Yes/No/Maybe for our “event”. Who needs Evite anymore with slick built-in action like that?

– Live Typing – This is currently something that cannot be turned off, and very desperately needs to be something that users can toggle. Wave is really a hybrid of e-mail and instant message. If you are sending a Wave to a friend who is currently also using Wave, they will be able to see what you type to them in real time. This means that every single typo or slip will be something your Wave buddies will see. The idea from Google is that in conversations on-line, much of the time spent is just waiting to see your buddy’s message. But the ability to view their typing live will allow you to formulate and begin to respond while they’re still writing, making the conversation speed along better. But, along with the notion of giving new invitees to the Wave access to the entire message instead of just what has happened after they were invited in, Wave isn’t about privacy. The notion is that you want everyone involved to see everything at all times. So if you accidentally write “I go tit” or “I’ll look into the details of that user acocunt”, your friends will get to see that before you can correct it. A small thing? Yes—until you’re using Wave to communicate as a professional. And let’s not think about the nightmare scenario of not realizing you’re in the wrong window and copy/pasting your password into a Wave. You don’t have to have sent it to someone for them to be able to see it. Bad news.

The major killer for Wave right now is how limited it is. Right now you can only communicate with other Wave users. It stands alone. E-mails cannot be sent to other services or received from them. This seems like a major feature to be missing even if you consider this is a beta product. I’m a big fan of the Wave format, the playback and the features embedded directly into messages. I’m not a fan of the way Wave forces you to be into full disclosure at all times, mostly due to the embarrassment factors in play. However, if Google can integrate Wave smoothly into the rest of the world, it could be awesome.

Here’s a video explaining Wave with some nice, you know, video to it:

And an amusing screen for maintenance I got tonight:

maint

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Marathon Writing Techniques and You

This post title originally featured the typo “Marathong”. I had an amusing and uncomfortable vision of a lot of long-distance runners experiencing a lot of chafing.

More importantly, this awkward little non sequitur is a perfect example of a good thing to do when you’re trying to write, and write a lot. Writing smaller pieces (such as blog posts) benefit from careful thought and adjustment as they are being created, writing something much longer though requires you to essentially spam the page. You need to overwhelm yourself with words on a page. It doesn’t matter if it’s all perfect, because chances are if you agonize over a sentence for five minutes before completing it, it will just end up being something you want to change when you come back later on and give your work a first review.

Slow, measured, edited-as-it-goes writing is something for an accomplished (and compensated) author. When you’re still trying to get your chops, the finish line is your target, no matter how ugly and filled with vicious cheating and swearing the race may have been. You’re a busy person, and if you’re not being paid for the work (chances are that you’re not), it’s happening during your free time—and you can’t spend ALL of that time on your writing. Write too much and you miss out on the life that informs and improves that writing. You need to write like a maniac until you’re done to ensure that you have time for yourself and nothing jumps in the way and distracts you from your project.

So, like any race, you should prep before you sit down to write. In my recent NaNoWriMo fervor (16,130 words and counting, thank you very much), I have honed my method.

Before You Start

– Check all your e-mail accounts. Respond to anything that catches your eye. This way you can avoid thinking about it.

– Check all your social networking sites. Anything where you might want to talk to you friends or can refresh obsessively to see the next new bit of information.

– Cue up your music playlist. Make sure whatever it is is long enough that it covers the entire time you’ll be writing. You don’t want a search for new tracks to distract you from the task at hand.

– Grab a snack, or have a snack at hand. Same for some water. Typically I’d say avoid something that will make you twitchy like caffeine—but that doesn’t always apply. I can really only handle coffee when I’m IN a coffee shop. Being in one is Pavlovian for me. I only go there to write, so I’m immediately in writing focus mode, caffeine or no caffeine.

– Set your writing program so that it covers your entire computer screen as best it can. It should appear to be the only object worth focusing on in front of you.

While You’re Writing

– Be disconnected from the internet.

– Be away from a TV.

– Have your phone on silent.

– Don’t get up.

– Don’t rewrite sentences (unless they’re just nonsense).

– Don’t stop.

Just keep writing. If you get into an ugly spot, you’ll get out of it by powering through it. If you stop short, the problem doesn’t go away, it just gets more cemented. Thinking too hard about the writing is, oddly enough, not helpful. You’re far too close to the material at this point in time to know if it’s good or bad anyway, so what’s the point in agonizing about it?

Allow yourself to write anything and everything and have the faith that you’ll be able to make it work. After all, even if you have the best outline in the world, there comes a point in time where you’re making it up as you go. You’re improvising, so take it all the way there. When a thought occurs to you (like how “marathong” could make a funny intro sentence), go with it and let yourself find the way. You’ll gain confidence and get closer to being done without slowing down.

And on that note… I’ve got another few hundred words to cram onto a page.

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Flash Games and Life Goals

I’ve learned quite a bit in my short time working in Flash gaming. And I use that phrase in the loosest of senses. I’m at the absolute fringe of the industry, but even from this vantage point there are some axioms I’ve picked up regarding how people work. Of course, this information may be skewed by the preponderance of 12-year-olds zerg rushing the internet, but I think its fairly useful and fairly telling regardless.

People on the internet don’t really want quality, at least not in the realm of flash games. They want kudos. I’ve seen more than a few pretty decent to very good games get buried and ignored simply because they don’t offer gamers what they want, which is very different from what many developers think they should be providing. A quality game experience very frequently isn’t as welcomed as one that is familiar. And a lengthy experience will almost certainly be glossed over.

Internet gamers want titles that they can pick up and play immediately. They want fast input and fast output. They also want a steady trail of breadcrumbs to entice them to play. Take what I will call the “kitty cannon” style of games. This is a game where you basically launch an object, using a cannon or slingshot or something similar, and attempt to reach maximum height or distance. Kitty cannon games are almost always huge hits on flash portals. Toss the Turtle recently had 1,152,388 plays on Kongregate.com. It has 1,820,189 on Newgrounds.com. On both sites the game has won player ranking awards. It is not, per se, a good game. It is a very mediocre game that simply applies a new graphical skin to a kitty cannon game concept. There is absolutely nothing original about the game and it even has some faulty controls (the game says you can steer in mid-air — I was never ever to figure out how).

So why is this game such a smash? Nearly 4 million plays on only 2 websites. The breadcrumb trail of positive reinforcement is the trick. The game has 40 different trophies you can earn, and this is separate from any point incentive the site hosting it might give you to increase your ranking as a member on their site (both Newgrounds and Kongregate use this concept—voting on games and reaching certain gameplay milestones will earn you points which gives you higher levels on the site—what does it earn you, functionally? Absolutely nothing).

The awards in Toss the Turtle are essentially entirely passive. With the exception of a couple, there’s virtually nothing you can do on purpose in the framework of the game to earn them. The idea is just to keep you playing the title, and to keep you coming back to it after you’ve stopped the first time. (This is the real value of any Flash game, by the way. No one cares how long you play it once, they care how often you play it again) When you hit a certain number of obstacles, you get a trophy. When you play the game a certain amount of time you win a trophy. If you hit the dancing banana you win a trophy. Since placement of these objects is random and you have no control over the character that can be meaningful (the game blurs nearly everything you could see except background to simulate speed) you’re not really earning these trophies. They’re just sort of appearing for you. And you love it. You love it more than 4 million times.

I could spend a good deal of time griping about how this is going to lead to a collapse and, if we’re lucky, eventual Renaissance in flash gaming, but for now back to my point: this tells me something about people. And, since I’m people (and I earned 37 of the 40 trophies in the game, dammit), it means I’ve learned something about me.

I like to be rewarded. I like presents. I like it when they show up and I don’t expect it. This is why I enjoy getting mail so much. “Oooh. What is it? What is it?” This is also why, on the other hand, I still find myself dangerously addicted to checking things for updates (e-mail, forums, applications, etc.). However, life doesn’t really have fun waypoints with treasure set up for anyone. And that’s why I believe it’s important to provide them for yourself.

It’s a point I’ve made briefly before, but I’m going to spend a bit more time on it here. Most goals in life are not simple to achieve. Otherwise they would just be “stuff to do” and not “goals to accomplish”. I recommend, to avoid lowering the dropout rate, that you either set up points along your journey that you’ll be rewarding yourself (a new comic book, a movie rental, a milkshake, whatever) or you recruit someone else to help shower you with praise and goodies for fighting the good fight.

We see things as a game. It’s not just because it has a cool name that game theory is a growing field. We like to balance pluses and minuses and figure out what our maximum gain and enjoyment will be. And, surprise surprise, many game theory experiments show that people will get themselves into a very bad situation early on by trying to maximize short-term gain irrelevant to long-term dangers. For many hard projects, the short-term gain is just to quit. So hide some Easter Eggs around to discover. Come back for a few more plays, that’s where the real value is.

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