20 Jul

Useful Tools: Fitbit Blaze sports watch and steps tracker

On Friday, facing a lot of work needing done yet on a rewrite and the house being a bit topsy-turvy with a remodel, summer-time kids running in and out, and a fragile ability to concentrate being a pseudo hallmark of being ADHD, I decamped for a hotel in Columbus to lock myself into a room until the novel I was rewriting was officially over.

Just a couple weeks earlier I’d traveled out to Indy Popcon, a pop culture oriented media convention where I sat at a table for the weekend. While I was there my Fitbit Charge HR gave up the ghost yet again.

I snagged a Fitbit HR last year to solve a couple of problems I had that I felt unsolved by the Apple Watch. I need decent battery life as it’s hard for me to remember to keep something charged. I wanted a sleep tracker, a step tracker, and a way of tracking my heartbeat as I got back into more activity now that I’m cleared by my cardiologist.

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The Fitbit HR was less of a big cost, at $130 or so for me to ease into the idea of trying a watch again (something I’ve never been able to keep on a wrist as a kid or young adult).

IMG 1847Sadly, the Fitbit’s band material (some kind of rubber) started delaminating and pulling away from the top section of the Fitbit. They had some very excellent customer service when I called in and sent me a new one. But while at Indy Popcon it started delaminating again and then just stopped working.

I gave up.

But after four weeks without it a few things happened.

1) Being able to twist my wrist and see my heart rate, even if it may be off by a bit as the Fitbit’s HR device isn’t super super accurate, gives me a general sense of how I’m doing when taking long walks, exerting myself, or just feeling funny. It’s like a quick way to check my pulse and see if I’m roughly where I think I should be. If it’s running high, I have a much more accurate EKG monitor on the back of my phone I can use to get a more accurate reading. But as a first layer of managing my heart health while exercising, it’s great. It’s also something of a security blanket.

2) Being able to track my general resting heart rate over time is a good indicator to me of how my health profile is doing (rested, calm, etc). When things are stressful, or my health is declining, or I am not getting enough rest, my resting HR climbs pretty dramatically and I’m given a clear indicator of how things are going.

Screen Shot 2016 07 20 at 6 30 41 PMSix months ago, before getting cleared to run again and when I first snagged the HR, my resting heart rate was in the high 80s, which is not great. It’s linked to early cardiac death and issues later in life. I’m now rocking more of a mid to high 60s. Better. High 60s when I’m stressing over a novel rewrite with a deadline.

3) Tracking my sleep is helpful. I overslept this morning by a couple hours and did the same the day before. Checking just the last five days of sleep reminded me that I had skipped a few hours of sleep Saturday night. The bill always comes due. Not having a log of sleep hours meant I couldn’t tell if my tiredness came from sleep deprivation or something else. It’s a useful self diagnostic.

4) There is a silent vibrate alarm function on the Fitbit that would alert me at 11:45pm that it was time to get ready for bed. Seems silly to most of you who can follow a schedule, but even after radically changing mine to a non late night schedule, I still don’t have an inbuilt ‘it’s late’ function in my brain. The vibrate at 11:45 was part of my ‘go brush teeth and get in bed’ cue that, once it had been off my wrist a few weeks, meant I started slipping back into my ‘stay up late’ habit and I was falling into some odd sleeping patterns.

Those were four very good reasons to call up customer service, as my Fitbit was still under warranty, and get another one.

But, whether it’s my skin or being out in in the heat, the Charge HR and I clearly don’t get along. And I started looking at the Apple Watch.

Negatives to the Apple Watch that I couldn’t get past:

1) As far as I can tell there is are sleep tracking apps, but they have to be turned on. I’m not very good at remembering to do things. Automatic sleep tracking is where it’s at. So the sleep tracking isn’t as good. And, this leads into the next thing…

2) …short battery life. I’m, as mentioned, ADHD. The responsibility of charging a device once a day in order to use it… that’s just too much. I thought, maybe, every morning, I could get up, take it off, and charge it while I was doing breakfast. And I would need to keep the watch on at night, in order to have sleep tracking. So it would have to be a morning charge. Which means I’d likely get sidetracked and leave it charging. I needed more than a single day’s charge out of a watch that can also serve up my HR and track my sleep without fuss.

So, sadly, I figured the Apple Watch is going to be a Gen 2 or Gen 3 for me.

I went back to Fitbit and took a look at their new watch; the Fitbit Blaze Smart Fitness Watch [Amazon link is an affiliate link, I get a small cut if you order one, FYI]. It had one of the longer promised battery lives out of all the watches, worked with my iPhone, and I already was familiar with their app.

I ordered it to arrive Thursday, but it got delayed and in order to have it for the weekend I literally ambushed my postdude when he was somewhere else in town to ask for it a few hours early as I was headed down out of town to seclude myself and finish rewrites on the afore-mentioned book.

I’ve tried on the Apple Watch, the bands are vastly superior. The device is much nicer.

But the Blaze is rocking all my needs really well.

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It handles all four of my points above. Heart rate tracking at a glance (and the newer technology than the Charge HR means I also see time of day and a graphic ring showing steps goal). Tracks my sleep automatically when I go to bed.

How does moving from a Charge HR to watch do for battery life? Fitbit claims 5 days battery life. I didn’t charge it up when I got it, but it showed a full charge. I got it Friday, it lasted until Tuesday at dinner before I blinked and plugged it in.

That’s slick.

Additionally, and I didn’t know I was getting this functionality, the Blaze can synch up to my calendar’s alerts and buzz me. That has been wonderful, as I use calendar alerts to keep me on task and set aside blocks of hours to do certain kinds of work and warn myself to take breaks (hand stretch breaks, meal times, etc). But in my home office I often mute or do not disturb my phone and put it on a desk, so the alerts have been nice.

I don’t get any apps ecosystem like an Apple Watch, but this little device has been pretty on-point for all my needs and is about $100 cheaper.

I can’t wait for the Apple Watch to hit the points I need, as I really would like a more precise band. My current Fitbit band is either slightly too loose or too tight. A slimmer, smaller profile on the watch would be welcome, but maybe I’m just not used to wearing watches. I also think the glimpse function (where you tilt your wrist to wake the watch up) is VASTLY better on the Apple Watch than the Fitbit Blaze, where a third of the time I find myself repeating the wrist flick.

I feel like there is this GIANT THING on my wrist even though I went for the smaller Blaze. I also felt like having a regular smaller Fitbit Charge HR was this GIANT THING on my wrist, though. I’ve not had anything there most of my life.

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Also, do you realize how long it’s been since I’ve had to read analog clocks to tell the time? I’m having to actually redevelop this mental model. What time is it? I, uh… Seven! It’s seven! And a little bit.

All in all, it’s surpassed my exceptions in the initial run. And that’s nice.

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14 Jul

Status update: still editing a $%&*ing novel

I’m about 100 pages from the end of this edit.

It’s still one of the more challenging rewrites I’ve done, though I did take the last two days a bit slower on it due to focusing in a spreadsheet project that ate up some time. It’ll be way worth it for me down the road, one of those things where I had to build some wheels so I wasn’t dragging a cart around on the ground. In fact, it’s something I should have done some 8 years ago as a teaching tool for myself, but didn’t.

That aside, it’s now back to full grind on this edit. But seeing the end has me somewhat excited. It’ll be cool to see this project out next year.

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10 Jul

Media consumed: Midnight Special

I watched this last night. Directed by Jeff Nichols, this is a strong echo of two of my favorite childhood movies: Firestarter and Race to Witch Mountain.

But like, moodier.Images

The basic tension is the same, with a modern twist. A young boy with what seems like supernatural abilities is on a car race across the US. The news is reporting he’s kidnapped, but it is by his dad. They’re fleeing a cult that seems to believe the kid has some inside scoop on the end of the world. They’re well armed.

The NSA, the FBI, and a couple of well-armed dudes from the cult are all after them (plus tipsters who spot them as they run on).

There’s a lot of sense of wonder. Some core mystery (what is the kid? Where are they going. Why do they have to get there? What’s the ticking clock). The movie is built and crafted quite masterfully to match the structures of Firestarter and Race to Witch Mountain (the original, the remake was a little less exciting, but with 100% more The Rock).

There was some pay off at the end, much like Close Encounters or Race. But the movie held back as much as it could, as long as it could. I read an interview with the director where one of his earlier movies did well because he refused to over explain to the audience.

That’s fine for Indy films, where critics pretty much masturbate over inconclusivity because it lets them ponder. It’s regularly annoying for mainstream audiences who often prefer the story teller have the conviction of the story they’re telling. While Nichols does have the conviction, by holding off so long the cross country chase drags on a bit and it affects the pacing of the film. That’s because it then puts a tremendous load on the two characters who hold this up on their shoulders. And the two adults (until a third joins, a woman, Kirsten Dunst, who has next to no lines or history or personality to add) have all the interaction and spark of a dead fish.

Because they’re all very moody and serious.

Over at Chuck Wendig’s site S.L. Huang pins something that might explain why I think Midnight Special doesn’t work too well: manpain.

When this trope is in effect, The Man’s pain is the one we are focused on, as readers/viewers, and meant to sympathize with. If his family is murdered, if his girlfriend is turned into a vampire — it is still his pain we are shown, his drama that is the important fallout.

There’s an even more disturbing subset of manpain that starts to set itself apart after you see it enough times. It’s the “Man Is ‘Forced’ To Make A Horrible Choice That Hurts Someone He Loves Just To Wring Angst For His Own Emotional Journey” trope.

The whole movie is about the dad, who is all serious and in serious pain about the risks he’s taking by kidnapping his kid to go on this journey to get the kid to a certain location.

Even when it looks like the kid is dying, he presses on. Because, it’s a hard choice damnit.

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…like, the movie is a couple hours of these two guys making these faces. All the time.

What makes Firestarter and Race to Witch Mountain so engaging, particularly to the audience with the disposable income and ability to nag their parents into going to see it, is that the child characters are (and this is important) fully developed characters within their own rights. They react constantly to the crazy shit going down on the road trip. Not so here (even thought the kid is on the poster for crying out loud).

Here it’s 100% focused on the parent character (played by Michael Shannon) and all their feels. Which are fine, but we don’t know if the kid is scared, or even if he loves the dad, and the kid is pretty damn robotic all throughout. Even DARYL in the 1980s, movie about a family that adopts an *actual godamn robot* that looks like a kid that’s on the run from the government, even DARYL has more emotions than the kid in Midnight Special.

As a result, because of both manpain and the exclusion of the kid as a character to us (I’m sure Nichols has answers, as the movie is well crafted), at some level of depth, even despite the well crafted nature of the movies, it therefore lacks a heart it needs to level up as a movie.

It lacks joy. It lacks the full depth of emotions and full depth of characterization of all its characters.

The dark sets, the grim seriousness, the empty characterization of the characters other than the father, it becomes oppressive. Even Firestarter, a straight up horror movie, had more of a sense of joy and depth of character in it.

The movie in some ways is a masterclass in how you can still create something that is an amazing bit of craft but yet still fail to create something with heart.

I wanted to feel something at the end, when the young boy leaves all the people who risked their lives to take him on this trip. But I didn’t.

I’m not surprised that people who watch it rate it highly, but that it hasn’t taken off. Not surprising it only made half of what it cost to make.

I read an article about the directors dreams and hopes for the movie and what he was trying to learn with it. It is why I watched the movie. I was hoping to love it. But it does serve to remind us to put some heart into our projects and remember that audiences need to see more character.

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09 Jul

Open thread Saturday

How is your weekend? I’ve been out writing in a local coffee shop and ran into an old work buddy at the diner at lunch. I also attended a book launch by local mystery author Judy Clemens who had her latest book out from Poisened Pen Press. 

My kids are apparently selling lemonade from our front lawn while I plink away at this rewrite. Thalia seems to have sales in her blood. 

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05 Jul

Media consumed: Preacher episodes 4 & 5

I’ve never read the comic, but while out at Rae Carson and Charlie Finlay’s place last month to spend a week focused on revisions of the current novel, I watched the first few episodes of a TV series called Preacher. I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going, but Ruth Negga is a pretty talented actress and I was psyched to see a vehicle for her. Joe Gilgun on E4’s Misfits was pretty freaking hysterical (he also starred across from the actor in Misfits who went on to play the freakishly easy to hate Ramsay Bolton) and he continues to entertain as a sketchy vampire.

I found the first few episodes a bit slow in getting their threads up and running, but after a few I felt I had the feel of it. Enough to continue watching. There were several pay offs along the way for me (squeal like a rabbit, Tulip (Negga) and her fight with the helicopter being a stand out couple). Last night, the fight scene in the hotel room had to be one of those highlights for grim, bloody humor that for some reason tickles my fancy.

I love it when I see an idea and world building taken to its logical conclusion in a way that makes you cringe and laugh and shake your head all at the same time.

What the fuck is up with the cowboy in the flashbacks to the old west, though? I’ll keep watching to find out.

Side note: well done to Seth Rogen for bringing something new to television. While it may be a bit uneven at times, I’m enjoying myself none the less.

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05 Jul

Summer revisions

I’ve spent the bulk of my day working hard on a novel rewrite due by the middle of summer. This is a weird thing because this is the 3rd novel in the last couple years that I can’t tell you anything about, but is hella fun to be working on.

I’d love to talk more about what I’m up to, but it’s been a weird year and a half in that respect. But, what’s cool about this one is that soon enough I’ll be able to talk more openly about the project. I’m just not allowed to say anything about it until the project’s PR people do their own announcements and handle stuff.

Mysterious? More frustrating. I’ve felt very distant from my readership even though I’m having some of the most fun in the day to day writing and general career side. If I were an introvert, I would have really enjoyed the last couple years.

Sadly, I’m extroverted and love talking about what I’m up to and doing and about to do.

I’m really looking forward to, in a month or so, being able to talk about whatever I’m up to once more. The strictures of the last few projects have not been very aligned with my personality. But, it’ll be fun in the next year to not just get past that, but be talking about them.

And I’m looking forward to being done with this rewrite, which has been the big focus of mine since January. I find big, deep rewrites like this hard to quantify. Did spending a whole day to rewrite a sticky single page mean good things? Yes, if it solves a Gordian Knot in the plot or sets of problems I needed to solve. But I feel better when there’s a page-eating rhythm rather than me sitting there puzzling over tangles in the book.

Yet, this is where I get to make it better yet again, so I sort of take it day by day.

I’m 170 pages into 300 pages here. After the next 30 I’ll get really excited, as it’ll feel like the downhill segment.

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30 Jun

First death of someone while using Tesla Autopilot

We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.

(Via A Tragic Loss | Tesla Motors.)

I mentioned to someone that I thought that this would be the moment that cracks open a lot of angst about autopilots, and could be the inflection moment that either slows down adoption or demonstrates that the polity at large accepts that people will also die in self driving cars with the same equanimity that they do regarding human-driven deaths.

In general, I find humans to be stunningly accepting of driver-controlled car death, my instinct is that it will not cause a setback there. But, there are a lot of people who have been hoping and waiting for just this moment to use against Tesla because they have hated the very idea of an electric, self-driving car.

We are learning that a lot of polarizing political identity is being shaped by tribalism. Even as coal as a technology is dying and going the way of whale oil, there are people right now throwing themselves into the gap for coal because they *identify* as a certain kind of political entity. Support for coal is being against green hippies. So they rig their trucks to blow more pollution (see ‘rolling coal’) and want to dig for coal even though it’s no longer cost effective.

There are similar forces who do not want to see Tesla succeed on general principle. They will be out in force.

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29 Jun

How to collaborate on fiction in 2016 using pair programming, Skype, and Google Docs

I just finished a new collaboration. It’s a short story of nearly 10,000 words that will be in Bridging Infinity (you can pre-order here), edited by Johnathan Strahan “The latest volume in the Hugo award-winning Infinity Project series, showcasing all-original hard science fiction stories from the leading voices in genre fiction.”

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The writer I collaborated with was Karen Lord, who currently lives in Barbados (author of Galaxy Games, Redemption in Indigo, you’re reading her, right?).

There are a lot of different ways to collaborate. I’ve done many of them. But for seamless and rapid writing, one method stands out to me that was first introduced to me by Karl Schroeder.

In 2007 Karl and I spent a weekend in Toronto writing a short story called ‘Mitigation.’ The story would eventually spark my time spent on the novel Arctic Rising a couple years later. To write this story, Karl invited me to spend a three day weekend at his home while we worked on the story (also a 10,000 word story).

We spent the first night there drinking scotch and spitballing ideas, and the next morning in a diner scribbling ideas on the backs of paper mats. The fun, world building stuff that could go on and on.

But back at Karl’s office the work started. Karl had a plan, one he said he’d done with another writer before, where we would share the keyboard. One of us would write a single sentence. Then the other would revise that sentence, then write a next one. Other writer would revise that sentence, then write another.

Starting can be the hardest, but with one line at a time, swapping in and out of the chair, we soon had a few paragraphs. In fact, it was starting to get hard to stick to just a single line. Karl commented that once we started being unable to stick to a line, we’d switch to paragraphs.

This had the effect of blending our styles. It also forced us each to check in with each other, live, line by line, on what we thinking and trying to do. Get stuck? Jump out of the chair and usually the other writer could jump in.

We did this until we had 2-3 pages in short order. We broke for lunch and spitballed some outline ideas, coming up with upcoming scenes.

At that point, we then each took alternate scenes, not paragraphs, concurrently. I’d work on my laptop, Karl on his desktop, and email the scenes into a final document and edit them. In three days we had a clean, tight, 10,000 word short story that ended up being in a Year’s Best anthology.

I’ve done many other forms of collaboration. Handing the document back and forth, outlining for others to write, muddling through it on an ad-hoc basis. But Karl’s method really jumped out at me and I proposed trying to use it despite the fact that Karen and I are thousands of miles apart.

The methodology we used is something programming friends of mine indicated were similar to the idea of ‘pair programming.’ According to Wikipedia:

Pair programming is an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator,[1] reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.

While reviewing, the observer also considers the “strategic” direction of the work, coming up with ideas for improvements and likely future problems to address. This frees the driver to focus all of his or her attention on the “tactical” aspects of completing the current task, using the observer as a safety net and guide.

Karen was willing to try it. To write the document we used Google Docs as we could both use it at the exact same time, creating that concurrent use atmosphere and live ability I found so fascinating when I worked with Karl.

To get the live Pair Programming aspect, we used Skype. To write like this, I really found the live ability to talk to a partner to be killer. The reason is this, in past collaborations, I’ve found a lot of communication can be lost in text, emails back and forth, and people going around in circles without realizing it.

I found that just talking live to the person, I can see their face the moment I suggest an idea and more accurately assess whether we both truly love it, or whether they really love it and I don’t, or whether it’s something we’re both ‘meh’ on and should keep talking about. There is so much more you can figure out, and faster. You can tell when someone is just spitballing, as opposed to really hung onto something.

Karen and I spent a two hour Skype spitballing ideas on the first day, from which we came up with a skeletal idea for plot, some world building, and what we wanted to accomplish from the story.

The second Skype session was a half day of using the same method I described Karl and I did, but with Karen and I meeting over Skype and using Google Docs. One of us wrote a line, the other edited it and wrote the next. Then the other would come on and edit that then write the next. Soon we were doing paragraphs. Then sections.

The next two days we traded off sections, and then we did a series of revision passes that were not done live on video.

It took about four or five days to create a 10,000 word story called The Mighty Slinger for Bridging Infinity. Calypso singers, hard SF megastructures, idea SF. It was a hell of a lot of fun to write and I’m pleased to see that for a second time this process of ‘pair writing’ in a near-live situation works well, and that fact that it can work over great distances was a pretty amazing experiment, I felt.

Writing can often feel isolating. Being able to spit ball ideas and gain energy from another writer’s enthusiasm over the project made this a great experience.

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28 Jun

Dear new writers: you do have the power to speak

Several times a year I encounter moments where a writer, or a new writer, or a writer yet to be, is reluctant to write an essay or talk about a position they are passionate about. This is doubly so if it’s political. They believe that they’ll be blackballed from publishing or their career will falter.

Since it’s a political election season, I’d like to note:

The ‘industry’ of writers/critics/readers/etc are not nearly monolithic enough to blackball you. It’s easier to die quietly in a midlist spiral. Or to never get noticed at all.

This fear of blackballs existed when I was an egg as well. I was told a lot of things to do when I joined up by older writers.

Don’t talk about politics, you’ll lose readers. Don’t talk about controversy, you’ll lose readers.

Don’t lose readers!

Don’t be too ‘strident’ or no one will want to work with you.

I’m not going to lie and say you won’t get labeled. I’m not going to lie and say that you won’t lose readers.

But…

Most readers aren’t online, they’re aren’t involved in the bubble of who’s saying what unless you’re being quoted in major magazines. Most readers want to be entertained. Most editors want to sell a book to readers that will do well. (and, ps, you’ll also *gain* readers).

Speaking up doesn’t preclude a career. If so, some of my favorite writers today wouldn’t have one. And some of my least favorite as well.

Yes, you do have to pick where and when you’ll fight. Choose where to spend your energy. I try to invest most of my energy into the fiction.

Yet, the blackballing thing keeps coming up. Over 15 years observing, this is one of those things that people believe that I try to dissuade. Obscurity is far more a threat to a career than blackballing. You’d also be surprised at the number of voices that people in the field become aware of due to speaking up.

So if you really want to, tell us what you’re thinking. Really.

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