Give up my news habit? Forget it!

Coffee's drained, news is read ... now I can begin.

I saw this article about a Google engineer that makes a practice of giving up something every year — not so much for reasons of faith, but just to see if he can do it. This year, he’s giving up news.

My first thought was, maybe the guy should try something easy. Like cigarettes or crack or caffeine or something else.

Google engineer Matt Cutts gets on a self-improvement thing every year, and in the past he’s taken up marathon running, gone vegan, grown a ‘stache for Movember cancer awareness, and resolved to do a kind act every day. For March he raised the bar by resolving to give up news.

The rationale, he says, is there’s nothing he could do to change the news when it happens, and he burns a lot of mental resources keeping up.

It’s been rough, he says. At first he felt “unmoored” without all this information he’s used to gathering, then he realized he’s getting more important things done without all the constant stimuli. Besides, if a news event is important, someone will tell him about it anyway.

“It’s also interesting to see which ‘news’ stories are reflected back to me second-hand,” he said. “Evidently Snooki is pregnant and Rush Limbaugh did something that has people up in arms. It’s made me think a lot more about my information diet. We need better tools to distill the river of news – or more often, bread-and-circus factoids–down to the trickle of things that really matter.”

Kind of funny when you think about it. This guy works for Google, which made a fortune out of gathering information (some of it extremely personal, critics sahy) and making it available online. There’s no bigger collector on this earth than Google.

I’ve seen studies about how much information a person soaks up in a day, and trust me. It’s a lot. One study broke this information down to gigabytes and figured that if your brain was a hard drive you’d be filling it up awfully fast.

I can write with some sense of authority here, as I am an information junkie from way back. Never was much for TV, but I often had my nose in a book. And even at an early age I read a lot of newspapers. My mom was mystified why my shirtsleeves were so filthy and couldn’t get clean, and at the time I was a loss to explain it. But the closest I could figure out, it was from reading newspapers. The ink on newsprint never fully dries, and if you’re plunking your elbows on a broadsheet you’re going to be wearing a lot of that ink.

Back then, any kind of information was fair game. Newspapers. Magazines. The copy of the World Almanac I picked up every year, from 1968 to around 2000 when I realized I could get it online. Current events. Batting averages. Song titles. My mind was a vast garbage dump then, and it remains so to this day. I’m too old to change now.

With all these electronic tools, I can really get my news on. My most-visited Web site by far is Google Reader, the repository of all my RSS news subscriptions. My most-used smartphone app is one that allows me to access my Reader feeds, and I went crazy trying to find one that didn’t a) suck the battery dry, b) max out all my system memory or c) overheat the phone. I finally settled on one called FeedMe, but if I find a better one tomorrow you can bet I’ll download that too.

I’m just wired that way. According to the Gallup/Clifton Strengths Finder 2.0 test, “input” was one of my top five strengths — my superpower, as it were. Here’s how Strengths Finder describes the high-input person:

“You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information — words, facts, books, quotations — or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls or sepia photographs …” In other words, my brain absorbs 47 times its weight in excess information.

I needed an assessment quiz to tell me this?

For a person like me, indulging in a news habit can be a dangerous thing. I am prone to depression, and one of the real danger signs I must pay attention to is the tendency to isolate. And when I’m spending a lot of time reading news and chasing information, it’s real easy to slide into that isolation mode. That’s part of why I don’t have an Internet connection at home; this forces me to go out to at least download some news. The smartphone allows me some limited news-grabbing and surfing at home, but it’s not quite the same thing.

My RSS list includes many news sites, both mainstream and alternative. It has a handful of tech sites and some that I use to monitor trends — a must for this writer. And I have other sites geared toward the writing trade.

Then there’s Twitter. I have several feeds for local news, industry news and trends. Of all my social media, Twitter is the one I use the most. Gotta keep on top of things.

When I left print journalism in 1997, one would think I can get away from the constant need for news. But it just wasn’t so. I may not have had professional reasons to keep so up to speed on everything, but I still felt the need to do so. Even after all these years I hate to be out of the loop on anything. I guess you can take the boy out of journalism, just can’t take journalism out of the boy. Or something.

OK. Just call it what it is. I’m a news junkie.

Technology has changed things around some. I don’t buy as many books as I used to — haven’t picked up an armload at my favorite used bookstore in I don’t know how long. I think I picked up one newspaper all year, and I used to read several a day. But my Nook is loaded down with at least a couple hundred books and the RSS feed is always active. If I feel like pursuing a story further for this column or a freelance piece I’ll star it in Google Reader, tag it, take a few notes, and save the link in my editorial calendar.

But most of the news I read is strictly recreational.

So you can just forget it. I’m not joining Mr. Cutts on his latest vow. Are you kidding? I’d miss too much, and some of what I miss might be important.

Or not.




Pardon, your geezer is showing: A bucket list

Bucket lists are real popular these days; so popular you may have found one in your email box or social media platform.

Admittedly they’re fun, and they can be a real eye-opener. The usual response after filling out one of those is something like, “I’m amazed I’m still alive!”

This bucket list is different. The rules are the same as any other — check off those you’ve done — but the results will indicate your true age.

The more you check off, the closer to geezerhood you actually are.

Got that? Have fun.

Have you ever:

  • Changed the channel on your TV without using the remote?
  • Figured out the best position for your TV’s rabbit ears for all three channels?
  • Bought your music on vinyl albums?
  • Bought a single song on a 45 record?
  • Listened to a transistor radio?
  • Put leaded premium gas in your car? (Bonus: For less than 50 cents a gallon?)
  • Stared at a TV test pattern?
  • Licked a postage stamp?
  • Licked a postage stamp that cost less than a dime?
  • Found out how many pages you can stuff in an envelope for one stamp?
  • Written a check for “cash” at the bank or corner store?
  • Played baseball in a vacant lot?
  • Tried switch-hitting because Mickey Mantle did it?
  • Dammed up a creek?
  • Laid your tongue on a cold railroad track to prove your courage?
  • Dialed a phone? I mean really dialed. Punching buttons doesn’t count.
  • (For the ladies) Ever own a princess phone? (If any of y’all guys ever owned one, you automatically flunked. Go away. Quit bothering me.)
  • Used a slide rule to do your homework?
  • Used an electric typewriter for your homework?
  • Or a manual typewriter?
  • Cheated in math by counting on your fingers?
  • Used a hand-cranked pencil sharpener?
  • Brewed coffee in an electric percolator?

The more of these you can say “yes” to, the closer to geezerhood you are. Oh, I already said that? I’m repeating myself? Durn it all. I tend to do that more these days; can’t understand why.

Really, the points don’t matter. It’s kind of like pants on a tool booth collector, no one knows or cares. But it’s fun anyway.

Feel free to post your “score” in the comments section. As for me, I’ll take the Fifth.

— Eric


Talk to me: Any bucket-list items you think totally belong here? Share those in the comments section (along with your scores).



Who pays attention to endorsements anyway?

A good friend of mine mentioned recently that a couple of legislators we both admire — Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Tim Scott — so far are laying off on endorsing anybody in the Presidential primaries. My friend says it’s a good thing; we don’t need to form yet another bandwagon in this campaign. There are enough of those already, thank you.

My initial choice in the Republican primaries, Herman Cain, threw a major screwball in giving his endorsement. Hey, he’s having too much fun right right now, making the politico-comedic scene with Steve Colbert, to be messing with the campaign lunacy.

A candidate with half a brain (I understand that is a requirement to run for office in some states) would covet the nod from a DeMint, a Cain, or even the freshman Scott.

Politicians are funny about endorsements. When I edited a weekly paper in Arizona, a City Councilman kept bugging me about it during the election season. Somehow or other he got the idea I set the policy there — that privilege usually goes to the guy who buys all that paper and ink, and it sure wasn’t me. But the owner and I were on the same page there, so I got to make the endorsements.

In truth, though, I can’t tell you who really pays attention to those endorsements.

OK, I lied. Maybe I can:

  • The candidates themselves.
  • The ones making the endorsements.
  • The drones.

Of course the candidates are interested in endorsements. They’re in a volatile business, and their fortunes are dictated by public opinion. They’re always checking the wind. A good endorsement from a fellow politician (why did I say wind?) shows the candidate he may be on the right track and wowing the right crowd. And a media endorsement is good, too. As laughably ineffectual as the mainstream media is these days, they still have enough muscle to set policy.

The endorser also has an interest here. To a politician making an endorsement, it can be genuine respect, the making of an alliance somewhere along the line, or a favor to be called later. Like it or not, horse trading is still a big part of politics. And a news outlet has thousands of advertising dollars riding on an endorsement — not just in the political season, but after the votes are counted and the signs torn down.

But that’s small stuff. Why did I mention the drones?

The drone factor is important here. Off the election results over the past couple of decades, they may be in the majority by now. More likely they already are; they only recently discovered voting.

I’d have no problem if these drones (y’all know who you are) merely retired in front of the television, watched the newest hottest reality show, kept up with the celeb du jour, got their news from the National Enquirer or TMZ, and left the voting to those who actually care.

The drones pay attention to such stuff as endorsements, and are more likely to base their vote from an endorsement than a person who actually engages his brain every once in a while.

Here’s the straight stuff: If I vote a certain way because my favorite movie actor or athlete says so, I’m a drone.

If I vote for someone because my union/teacher/boss/spouse/authority-figure-of-choice votes a certain way, I’m another drone.  Taking advice from someone you respect is one thing, but giving that authority figure the pink slip to your vote is something else entirely.

If I vote with an eye toward what I would get out of it and screw the rest of the country, I’m the worst kind of drone.


Stay home.

Go away.

Better to handle sharp objects than a ballot.

Oh, yes. That newspaper owner I actually saw eye to eye with on endorsements: We both agreed that to make an endorsement was to insult the voter’s intelligence. I did have the privilige of writing the editorial containing our endorsements, too. After listening to all the candidates bugging me for months and stringing them along a little bit, I wrote something like this:

“Here are our recommendations on how you should vote: Make sure the paper ballot is right side up before you punch out your choices.”

Fun days. But my boss wouldn’t let me write anything urging the drones to stay home.

Oh, well. There’s always this election.




If your phone goes off and it’s nobody, you’re not alone

One of the things that took some getting used to was how active my Android phone gets. It makes noise and vibrates when I get a phone call, an email or a text message. Considering my own online/offline activity — not even counting all those alarms I set to keep my ADHD self on track, that’s a lot of vibrating.

So you can imagine my surprise when I felt my belt vibrate over my right hip, and when I checked it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for anybody. It didn’t ring or vibrate at all. The phone sat inert in the belt pouch, and I only imagined the vibrations.

Welcome to the phenomenon called “phantom vibration,” which a study by the University of Worcester suggests is a sure sign you’re getting goofy about your phone.
It’s akin to those phantom pains amputees talk about, where a nonexistent foot itches or develops muscle spasms. Purely psychological stuff, and hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it.

Shoot, I feel enough like an idiot when someone else’s phone rings and I’m sure it’s mine. I’ve experienced enough of that to realize I get a little obsessed about that phone.
But when there’s no phone ringing anywhere near me, that’s when I know things are bad. What’s even worse is when I feel that vibration over my hip — while the phone is in my hand.

Turns out I’m not the only one who experiences this. I brought the subject up over dinner with a few good friends, all technophiles who would sooner leave the house without their pants than forget their phones. And all of these friends nodded knowingly when I mentioned phantom vibrations. The discussion became a heavy confession time for a few, and you’d swear a recovery group broke out right then and there. Lots of sympathizing but no solutions, but that’s normal. Like they say in recovery groups, we’re not trying to fix anything.

This study, as cited in the UK Telegraph, says workers who are issued a smart phone for on-the-job use, especially feel the stress that seems to trigger these phantom vibrations. They feel they’re not checking their messages often enough.
Psychlogist Richard Balding of the University of Worcester (why is it the British get to do all the cool research?) says it’s a stress thing — stress if you’re getting messages, and stress if you’re not.

According to the Telegraph:

” … this became a vicious cycle in which the more stressed people became, the more they compulsively felt the need to check their phone, the study showed … Balding, who led the research, said employers should seriously consider the burden that smart phones put on their workers … ‘Smart phone use is increasing at a rapid rate and we are likely to see an associated increase in stress from social networking,’ Balding said.”

(Note to employees everywhere: If your company issues you a smart phone, run like your hair’s on fire. Or negotiate a massive salary/wage increase. Your life is no longer your own.)

Others who use their smart phones as their link to social media may also feel the stress of always being “on,” or the anticipation of another message. Hey, if you get a text from Publishers Clearinghouse saying you’d won a few million bucks, you sure don’t want to miss it.

It’s crucial I stay in contact with the outside world. I do some social media stuff but it’s not a big part of my life. It’s not job-related, at least not related to my day job. But as I try to build something of a business on my own, contact is essential. It might not exactly be Ed McMahon calling from whatever realm he’s hanging out at these days, but potential customers and contacts have me keeping an eye on the phone. My own obsessive nature doesn’t help much either, but we won’t discuss that here.

Whoops. My phone is vibrating, and it’s nobody.




Working with faulty equipment: Wait it out

My work handheld and printer are mated for optimum Bluetooth performance. Didn't you know, 10 always goes with 2?

It’s tough to get a job done when you’re using substandard equipment, but you already knew that. In the real live workaday world, faulty tools are just a fact of life. Hold your mud and work with it, right?

I’ve written before about the handheld computers I use on my day job, and though they do the job most of the time, they still have their glitches. Like the printer stalls out at the most inopportune moments.

The truckers I deal with, well, they need those printouts. It’s the only real proof they have that they actually did anything worthwhile. It’s proof they hauled the load. Shoot, it’s their money. They basically cash those printouts in for folding money, to oversimplify things. Plus most of these truckers are paid by the piece instead of the hour, so it’s imperative they have that little strip of thermal paper in hand without delay.

Each handheld (a Psion Teklogix, for those who care) is mated to a printer via a wireless Bluetooth setup, and the handhelds themselves are likewise linked to the office mainframe via another wireles signal. All very effective, most of the time.

The system started going to pot about six months ago, right about when the corporate guys sent out a crew of IT guys to upgrade the computers. I know that’s the root of the trouble. An upgraded system (particularly a Microsoft-based one; these handhelds use Windows Embedded) usually means more features, more bloat, less efficiency.

Now, these truckers (again, paid by the load, not the hour) take a real dim view of this. Of course, myself being on the front line at the day job, I have to have all the answers:

  • We’re waiting for the satellite to come back into position.
  • There’s bird dung on the antenna.
  • The steel plate in my head interferes with the signal. Or the one in the driver’s head. Hey, those are my answers.
  • The trucker’s cell phone is screwing up the signal. This is my favorite answer, as most drivers would sooner give up their eldest son than their cell phones. Plus, many of these drivers are pretty unsafe when they’ve got that phone permanently attached to their heads.
  • Sunspot activity.
  • It’s not bogging down; everything’s fine.
  • It’s all in your mind.
  • It’s only messing with you; it never happens to anyone else.
  • Or something.

You can cuss those handhelds, you can threaten them all sorts of physical violence, you can dance naked in a vat of steaming chicken guts, but none of these things will help. Just wait it out. Work your way down the line of trucks, process them, and eventually you’ll get a long strip of paper with several trucker’s transfers on it, but wait it out.

Except I don’t do waiting.

Patience is not in my DNA. I’d rather take the handheld and printer apart, hack the system, and try again. This waiting just doesn’t do it for me.

Even the perpetually unflappable Alan has trouble.

Surprisingly, Alan has more trouble with those handhelds than anyone in the shop. They’ll bog down on him for 10 minutes at a time rather than the usual minute or two. Then I figured it out. He’s opening that printer up and pressing random buttons when it stalls, thereby causing the whole thing to conk out. But what’s so surprising is that Alan is probably the most patient person at work. Nothing gets him down, nothing bothers him. He flat-out doesn’t give a rip, and he’s quick to say that.

But when the computers act up, Alan turns into me.

Just wait it out. It’ll work eventually.






With the time change, confusion reigns

On Sunday morning, mass confusion entered my household, a neat trick given I’m the only human living there. But I literally did not know what time it was.

At 6 a.m. — my normal weekend wake-up time — the clock radio indicated it was 5 a.m. At that hour my brain is usually too squishy to tell the difference, but I checked my cell phone on the night stand anyway. The cell phone had the correct time; 6 a.m.

Merely a prelude to Daylight Savings Time, when most folks in the United States get to play with the hands on their clocks again. Unless your high-tech toys do it for you.

My clock radio is one of those high-tech toys. Twice a year it automatically changes over. The rub is that it makes the fall-back move on the last Sunday in October, when the change used to occur. Used to. Same thing with my desktop computer, which is not connected to the Internet.

Real helpful. Kind of like the federal government.

OK, so there’s no real easy way to adjust the time on that particular model of clock radio unless you have an engineering degree, and it’s only a week until the actual time change. I’ll live. Reckon I’ll just dim the display, adjust the alarm set time (which is much easier), and leave the time be. Everything will be fine next week.

This wasn’t my only run-in with the time change. When I moved from Arizona from California, I dutifully changed over to Mountain Standard Time from Pacific. But what I didn’t realize — no one told me and I didn’t ask — was that Arizona doesn’t do daylight savings and it was on the same time standard as California for the moment. I spent the whole weekend living on the wrong time frame.

Daylight Savings Timec confuses me enough as it is. When I finally adjust, six months have elapsed and it’s time to change everything over again.

Oh, don’t forget to change your clocks this weekend, and prepare to join me in the confusion.





Yet another way to leave your lover

Let me get this straight:

So this guy in Colorado Springs had a bit of a situation. His girlfriend showed up at his apartment at about the same time as some gal he’d met through Craigslist.

Now most guys in that situation would either lose it, drop to his knees and confess all, hoping the girlfriend never heard of Lorena Bobbitt. Or more likely, try to whip up some totally unbelievable lie and hope it would fly.

But not this charmer.

He got on the phone and called the police and said they’d better come over quickly; there’s a burglary in progress.

According to the Denver Post (amazingly they’re still around), the cops didn’t buy his story for very long. He was handcuffed, taken into custody, and charged with filing a false report.

In the news account, there’s no word about whether the girlfriend bought the guy’s story. Hope not, but you never know about such things.

At least give him points for creativity, or at least a king-sized pair of … something. You’ve got to. But pond scum is still pond scum, and often pond-scumminess knows no bounds.

Like they used to say out west, a scorpion in a jar is still a scorpion.




If statements a) and b) are true, then …

Here is something to get your mind going.
Y’all have heard these two statements every so often; perhaps they have reached the point of cliche. But let’s take a hard look at them:
a) Time flies when you’re having fun.
b) Time moves more quickly when you’re older.

Familiar, yes?
But if these statements are true, then this is also true:
c) You have more fun as you get older.
Trust me on this.

Update: John Wooden dies at 99

Like the man said:
“Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books — especially the Bible, build a shelter against a rainy day, give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.
Other Woodenisms:
“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.

“Don’t give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you.

Those 10 NCAA basketball championships with UCLA seem to be a mere footnote to the man’s life.
The sports scene needs more guys like this. Shoot, the whole world at large needs more guys like this.