Sunday, July 27, 2014

July 2014: Road Trips

On June 26, our first grandchild, Aris Gabriel, was born.  We were absolutely delighted.  We absolutely had to get to DC.
      Upon getting the news that his birth was imminent we began looking for flights to Washington DC.  Yikes!  Sticker shock! The prices were outrageous.  They were at least double what we were spending the last time we flew to DC.  Of course, we were buying the tickets the day before we were leaving and planning to head to DC during the most busy tourist times of the year:  the 4th of July.  Still, it was shocking.  This was not an isolated sticker shock.  We have noticed over the past year in any of the air travel we were planning.
     In the post Great Recession world, there have been many changes.  One of them has been the increase in airfares due to a number of factors.  First and foremost, the airlines have consolidated.  The three main carriers in the US are American, United, and Delta.  All airlines have trimmed their fleets and routes, taxes have increased, and jet fuel is at an all-time high.  It used to be useful to check several different airlines and travel sites to find the best deals.  The market has become more efficient in terms of pricing and all the various travel websites reporting the same prices per airline per route.  Even with these higher fares, the planes are all full.  The pricing clearly reflects the supply and demand.
      As a result of not being able to find reasonable airfares, we decided to drive to Washington DC to welcome Aris Gabriel to this world.  It was 728 miles each way and it took about twelve hours with two stops for gas, food, and to wash our hands.  Except maybe taking our children from Connecticut to South Bend and Ann Arbor for school, we have not regularly made car trips of these kinds of distances.  We flew.  But, times have changed and such road trips may become more the norm than the exception.
     We drove south through Chicago and into Indiana where we caught I-80.  We took I-80 east across Indiana and Ohio.  We then took a right turn onto I-76 just before entering Pennsylvania.  We proceeded into Maryland and into DC.  We left on June 26th and returned on July 6th.  The weather was good and scenery was very nice especially in Pennsylvania.  Surprisingly, there was minimal road construction and the traffic was moderate.
     When I was a kid, there was never a question of fly or drive.  The answer was always to drive.  With a family of six, it was simply more economical.  We used to travel every year from Detroit to Watertown, MA to visit my paternal grandmother.  We never went to Boston, we always went to Watertown.  We would go through Canada taking the 401 to the QEW.  We would connect to the New York Thruway and then the Massachusetts Turnpike into Boston.  On those trips, I used to read the signs and see all the various places we could stop and see interesting things none of which come to mind as I write this except Niagara Falls.  I never thought to ask because my Dad was not one for stopping, he wanted to push and get there.  Mom packed food for the trip so we never bought anything at the rest stops.  I always took note of all the touristic tchotchkes that we never bought.  We travelled according to our budget and our means.
     When I first became a business road warrior, I always bought these tchotchkes back.  I bought them because they were fun.  I bought them because I could easily afford what we couldn’t back in the day.  I bought bottle openers, refrigerator magnets, miniature hour glasses, key chains, and other useless things for our kids or the kitchen.  After a while, as travel became a routine, and I stopped doing that due to a combination of getting buying that silly stuff out of my system and realizing that we did not really need any more bottle opener, egg timers which we never used, and refrigerator magnets which we used all the time.  My travel purchases moved upscale to more memorable, meaningful, and less frequent gifts.  
     In business travel, I liked to visit attractions when time allowed.  I could not do everything I wanted usually due to wanted to get back to the family.  I do recall some memorable weekends in Brussels, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Costa Rica, Lima, and Guatemala to name a few.  My friends and colleagues took me around and showed me some wonderful sights in these countries.  
     This car trip to DC was kind of a throwback.  It was also a study in what was the same and what has changed.  We stopped in four different places:  Indiana, Ohio, and twice in Pennsylvania.  The stops in Indiana and Ohio were rest stops on the toll roads.  In Pennsylvania, we exited the Interstate to stop at those chain gas station mini-department store complexes that are all over the place these days.  In the old days, any gas station we exited the expressway to refuel sold only gasoline, oil, and a few other automotive products.  Maybe they had a gumball machine.  Now, at these department stores, you can purchase groceries, ready to go food offerings that boggle the mind, a full ultra-casual wardrobe, tchotchkes galore, and a full array of automotive parts and accessories.   One place we stopped at have a massive array of jackknives, LED flashlights, hot dogs, pizza, a Subway store within the store, seventeen different varieties of coffee, cell phones, cell phone holders, cell phone chargers, cell phone cases, and clothing from hats to boots and everything in between.  Not surprisingly, every single offering in the place excluding food and automotive parts could be bought in camouflage.  
      The rest stops had the look and feel of the older rest stops and plazas.  One big difference is that the toll road, turnpike, and thruway authorities smartened up in the 1970s and leased out the food service to name brand fast food restaurants.  That was a wise move both for the states and the consumers.  More recently than that the more frequently visited toll road and turnpike rest stops have gone to the food court concept. 

Should have gotten a brochure for the RV/MH
Hall of Fame
The rest stops still had the racks for brochures for all the local touristic places.  These racks are in hotels and rest stops everywhere.  I have seen people browse, but I am not sure if I have ever seen anyone take a brochure with them.
     Back in the day, gas was much less.  We drove cars that took leaded regular gas.  Regular gas was in the 20 - 30 cent range.  Wherever we stopped, they would pump the gas, check the oil, and was the windows for us.  Now, the car we took on this trip, required premium gas.  Every gallon of gas we bought was over $4 per gallon.  In DC proper, I saw one station that was charging $4.99 a gallon.  Needless to say, we did not buy gas there.  We have been hearing about $5 per gallon gasoline for the past few years.  It may really happen this year.  Even at these prices our out of pocket travel costs were a fourth of what two round trip tickets would have cost.  This did not include the extra miles on our car would cost us.
      There are certainly all kinds of movie and sitcom skits and jokes about the various odd roadside attractions in these United States.  There is Carhenge in Nebraska, the largest ball of twine in Kansas, a giant turtle made of car rims in North Dakota, and many others.  There were a few in Detroit that I had actually seen including the Giant Uniroyal Tire and the Giant Stove at the State Fairgrounds.  There are three sites in Illinois, one in a town just a few miles away from my home, which I have not seen.  There is a Giant Bottle of Catsup in Collinsville.  The town of Griggsville has a natural and pesky mosquito problem due to its marshy surroundings.  The town built the largest Purple Martin house to attract these birds that can eat two thousand mosquitoes a day.  In Niles, the town close to me, they have a half scale Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Why most of these attractions start with “The World’s Largest” or “Giant” is, I suppose, to attract people to the venue.
      We have never really stopped at these places.  I joke about it with my wife and the kids when they were with us, but truth be told, we didn’t ever really have time to make a long car ride longer by stopping to the Largest Frying Pan in the world.  We used to drive by all kinds or serious tourist attractions too.  I would have loved to visit Presidential Libraries on our travels.  The only one I ever visited however was the Truman Museum and Library in Independence, MO.  I found it quite interesting and thought to visit as many as I could.  That was in the 1980s, and I yet to visit another.  We did visit the Lincoln home in Springfield, IL.  When we lived in CT, I meant to visit the Franklin Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY.  It was on 63 miles away… never made it.  I did visit Yale University a few times.  I loved it there.  Because of my fascination with all things nuclear, I wanted to visit the USS Nautilus and Museum in Groton, CT.  When we finally went, the Nautilus was under upkeep and not available for tours.  
      Since our children married, we have taken a few side trips on our way to Detroit.  We always wanted to stop at the famous century old Win Schuler’s Restaurant in Marshall, MI.  As most of our trips were for weekend visits, football games, or particular family events, we seemed to be on a tight schedule.  We finally dined there a few summers ago.  In that same summer, we also visited the Amish town of Shipshewana, IN.  Maybe stopping to smell the roses or to see the Giant Catsup Bottle is something older folks due when their schedules are freer than they once were.  
      On this recent trip to Washington, we passed something that I had not seen before on the Indiana Toll Road:  the RV/MH Hall of Fame.  Really, there is a hall of fame and museum just for recreational vehicles and mobile homes?  Yes there is.  The reason I never noticed it before is because it was founded in 2013.  It is brand spanking new and I have to admit that I had no interest at all in exiting the Toll Road for a quick tour.  Not surprisingly, a Google search revealed their website.  It seems to be a serious place and they have an impressive collection of vintage RVs and mobile homes.  Clicking through the virtual tour was interesting, but really it was all the RV/MH history I would ever need.  This is one roadside attraction I will easily be able to drive right on by.

Shoe Shine Machine... really?
I saw something in one of the rest stops that I have not seen in a long time.  It was a shoe shine machine.  It looked vintage and well worn.  The cost was $1.  I wondered how many people used it these days.  People dress so casual, especially all the folks I saw in the rest stop, that very few people wore the kind of footwear that required polishing.  We also saw one of those machines that flatten out pennies into copper ovals embossed with words and logos of whatever tourist site you were at.  Normally these machines, called Penny Press Machines, cost 51 cents.  The machine keeps the quarters and you get the smashed and embossed penny back.  I got one of these from the NY Thruway years ago, drilled a hole in it, and had it on my keychain for at least ten years.

Penny Press with Pay Phone
A week after this “go see the new grandson” trip,” I had the occasion to go on another kind of classic road trip.  Our band drove from Chicago to Belleville, IL (think St. Louis) to provide listening and dancing music for the annual church dinner of the Holy Virgin Mary and Shoghagat Armenian Church.  As there are five of us and we have a lot of equipment, we load up a minivan and an SUV and make the five hour drive.  We listen to music.  We call other musician friends.  We stop for coffee, food, and bio-breaks.  We reminisce, exaggerate, and laugh a lot.  Oh, that is on the way down.  Being kind of tired after the gig, late hours, and perhaps a libation or two, we are more subdued on the longer trip home the next day.  Needless to say, there is no touristic stops on these kinds of band road trips.  It is all about getting there one day and all about getting home the next.
      Wanting to see the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina, we got up early on Sunday morning and hit the road.  Coffee and some kind of bready, doughy, breakfast was an absolute necessity for all.  For some reason, I am going to call it fate, GPS took us on side roads longer than we thought it should have before getting on the Interstate.  We saw a Krispy Kreme Donut store and knew that is where we getting coffee and “breakfast.”  GPS guided us another few miles north on whatever road we were on before having us turn right on the road that would take us to the Interstate.  I used the word fate because shortly after making that right, we saw the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle.  Cool.  Check that off of the list.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The New Google Docs App

I just downloaded the new Google Docs and Sheets app onto my iPad.  There is an app for Slides coming out soon. Clearly, Google is making a move to better match up with Apples office suite of Pages, Numbers, and Keynotes and Microsoft's Office 365.  

  • Google's offerings of Drive, Docs, Sheets, and Slides is entirely free.  While there is limit on file storage, but the free storage provided is such a generous amount that it would serve anyone's needs who is not using Drive for videos and photos.   Drive works very well with Google documents and it can store any kind of files but seems cumbersome and awkward with Microsoft files.  MS files are easy to store but very difficult to open them from Google Drive in the MS application.  Drive opens them in Google’s equivalent.
  • Apple offers their Pages, Numbers, and Keynote suite of products.  These apps work very well.  99% of the time I am using Pages.  When I am done in pages, I copy the final work into blogger, Google Docs, or word depending on what my end goal for the writing is.  

    Their cloud storage seems to work well on Apple devices but it is not accessible, as far as I know, on non-apple devices.  Lastly, the Apple Cloud is only for apple file formats. So, the Apple Cloud cannot be used for general file storage.  The capacity is limited but I have no idea what the limit is or the charges when the free limit is reached.  Apple used to charge $10 each for the three office suite apps.  That is what I paid a few years ago.  Since September of 2013, they have been providing it for free on new iOS devices. 
  • Microsoft 365 small business, which is what I would get, offers the very comprehensive and ubiquitous MS Office Suite of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  The charge for the software, on up to five different devices, and base cloud storage of 1 TB per user is $12.50 a month or $150 per year.  This gives unlimited video conferencing, skype, and more.  One gets Notebook, Access, email, file sharing, and more.  It actually sounds like a very good and very attractive deal.

This Google Docs app is a little confusing in name because Google first called their cloud based equivalent to MS Office Google Docs.  Last year or the year before, Google renamed the file storage and cloud part of this offering Google Drive.  Now it is offering the named products for their office suite independent of Drive.  They are doing this after Microsoft has leapfrogged them in terms of offerings and features.  Microsoft charges and it seems to me that they are providing more value than what Google is providing for free.  
I am writing this little bit on the Google Docs app.  It has the kind of the same feel as Apples Pages app but it is definitely missing some features.  Specifically, I was looking for word count so I can keep track of how much I have written.  I tried to find and turn on a ruler bar so I could indent paragraphs.  As I could not find the ruler bar, I am using left justified paragraphs and putting a line space between at the end of each paragraph.  I can certainly cut, copy, and paste using this app but only on the touch screen.  Control x, c, and v do not work with my Zagg keyboard.  In reading reviews online, I have come to find that it is not currently possible to copy and paste photos in this Google Docs app.  I am sure that Google will close the gap and the most used functionality of MS Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.
Google Docs is a very simple typing app without even some the basic tabs and formatting features found on mechanical typewriters.  I did not try to use Sheets but the reviews I read noted that there are almost no features one expects to see in a spreadsheet program.  Both seem be suited to capturing minimum thoughts or data for further editing in the online version of Google Drive.  
While Apple Pages has a lot more functionality, it can be very slow to load.  Sure, I can cut and paste quotes or photos from other apps or the internet, but I switch back to Pages, I have to wait until it is ready for me to resume... like it is coming out of hibernation.  This may be the price I pay on an iPad2 for a modern app that is dragging a lot of functionality along with it.  

Both Google Sheets and Google Docs are very bare-bones and basic versions of what's available online. Rather than useful tools, both apps appear to be rushed-to-market responses to Microsoft Word and Excel for iOS. While Google Docs can at least be used to do drafts of documents and share them with other individuals while mobile, Google Sheets has nothing to commend it as a true spreadsheet other than the fact that it presents cells on a page.

Anyone who is looking at getting real work done on an iOS device at this point will be better served by Apple's Pages and Numbers (US$9.99 each, free to owners of new iOS devices) or Microsoft Word for iPad and Microsoft Excel for iPad (free, but requires an annual subscription to Office 365 at $75+ per year).  ~

Right now, on my iPad, Google Docs and Sheets rank third behind Apples Pages, Sheets, and Keynote which I have and Microsoft's Windows 365 which I am seriously thinking about getting.  
     Note:  For the final edits of this piece, I used a laptop and the online Google Docs.  The word count is:  960… LOL

Thursday, July 17, 2014

To Bee or Not to Bee...

There is a problem with honey bees in this country.  Each winter for the past ten or so, 22-30+% of them die.  This death rate has many government officials and agriculture experts quite concerned.  Bees and bee colonies have always experienced losses in the winter but the rate used to in the high teens.  This made for a stable overall population.  These current rates are causing worry because the bee population could fall to the point where it impacts our agricultural output.
Over the past few years, bee populations have been dying at a rate the U.S. government says is economically unsustainable. Honey bees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans, including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, according to government reports. ~ Reuters
When the increase in colony deaths was first noticed, the causes for this were a mystery.  Thriving colonies were abruptly empty or all the bees in the colony were found dead. Scientists dubbed this phenomena Colony Collapse Disorder.  Given the importance of bees to our food supply, the same scientific community got to work trying to discern the cause for the Colony Collapse disorder.  
Over the years, several theories were hypothesised and tested.  There does not seem to be one root cause thus complicating the situation.  The contributory causes seem to be viruses, parasites, and pesticides.  There seem to be two primary causes.  First is a class of modern insecticides called neonicotinoids.  These pesticides are made by both Bayer and Monsanto and are used to increase the yield of corn and other crops. The second is a parasite called the Varroa mite which has come to the US from Asia.  Bayer and Monsanto argue it is the mites lest they lose sales in their pesticides.  Bayer also makes and sells a mite control.
In May of this year, the Harvard School for Public Health published the results of a study showing that neonicotinoids “appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies over the winter, particularly during colder winters.”  ~ Reuters
Europe is implementing a ban on neonicotinoids.  Our government is also taking actions in this regard.  Most recently, on June 20, 2014, the US Department of Agriculture announced an $8 million Conservation Resource Program that will help set aside lands to restore and provide habitats for honey bees.  
The honey bee population in the United States has been declining for decades. The number of managed U.S. honey bee colonies dropped from 6 million in 1947, to just 2.5 million today. This week, President Obama issued a memorandum directing U.S. government agencies to take additional steps to protect and restore domestic populations of pollinators, including honey bees. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy will co-chair a new Pollinator Health Task Force to focus federal efforts to conduct research and take action to help pollinators recover from population losses. This includes a public education campaign to teach people ways that they can help pollinators in their own homes or businesses.  ~ Farm and Ranch Guide News
Harvard is also involved in other research that might mitigate this problem.  The School of Engineering and Applied Science has a National Science Foundation grant to develop robotic bees.  These bees would have a variety of applications of which pollinating crops would be central if no other solutions are found to eliminate the Colony Collapse Disorder.  I can only imagine the environmental consequences of unleashing millions of robot bees on the environment.  I can envision the military applications of swarms of these mini-drones armed with  toxic stingers.  I can certainly imagine the business opportunity at a $1 a bee. This YouTube video makes the future look very plausible.
In 1970, Joni Mitchell wrote a song, Big Yellow Taxi, in which she wrote these prophetic lines.
Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT * now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
As bad as DDT was in it’s day, the warning should be about neonicotinoids.  Lets hope a good solution can be found to this problem before we have to rely on swarms of robotic bees.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Getting Things Done

I got an advertisement in the mail from the Harvard Business Review.  They were offering me a subscription for $109 for one year of print and iPad editions along with some other freebies.  They claimed that this offer would save me $320.90... if I subscribed now.  It was very generous offer and perhaps something I might have taken advantage of if it weren't available online and in print at the Brandel Library of North Park University.
It was the headline of the brochure of one of the featured freebie books that grabbed my attention:  How to Get More Done.  I have been thinking exactly about that recently.  Actually, I think about that almost every day, sometimes several times during the day.  I have thought enough about and read plenty of articles with similar titles.  I have read all kinds of articles offering all kinds of various tips and easy to use tricks with the promise of increased productivity and improved task management.  The articles have been in newspapers from the USA Today to the New York Times and magazines like Fortune, Inc, Fast Company, Forbes, and many others.  I may have already read similar pieces in the Harvard Business Review.
This is a popular subject because many people struggle with exactly this issue.  Setting goals and achieving them.  The scope changes from the most strategic major lifetime goals to the very tactical as in “what do I want to accomplish in the next hour.”  My recent focus has been on the more tactical side of this question.
I have two basic thoughts in this regard.  First, the most important thing is to simply get started.  I tend to procrastinate and easily lose too much time doing all kinds of mundane things like getting ready to work, reading the news, checking email, and all kinds of silly diversions.  It is best to follow the advice of good people at Nike with a slight modification:  Just Start Doing It.  There is an old German proverb that applies in this case:  Start sewing and God will supply the thread.  
Secondly, I am always underestimating the amount of time these tactical tasks will take to accomplish.  By far the majority take me longer to finish than what I allocate or plan for them.  I am like how the US Airlines used to be.  They set departure and arrival times and were always late.  When the government started track on-time departure and arrival rates, the airlines got much better, and more realistic, at the times set in their schedules.  The airlines set theoretic schedules that assumed that everything would go perfectly with no delays.  I do believe that is what I do.  There are always distractions and delays that I just do not account for.
Along the way, I read about something that resonated as very practical.  The idea or technique is called “5 before 11.”  The concept and goal is very simple:  complete 5 high value tasks before 11 am each and every day.  It is something to track each and every day.  I Googled the term in order to be able to attribute the concept to the right person.  As far as I could tell, it comes from a time management system called The 7 Minute Solution on  The technique is called "5 before 11®" and apparently trademarked.  The website recommends setting the tasks the night before and then to track the accomplishment of the five tasks.  When as task wasn't accomplished the reason why should be given.  Over time the reasons why tasks were not accomplished can be analyzed and changes can be made to increase the rate of accomplishment until the "5 before 11®" method is part of ones daily routine.  It makes a lot of sense.
      I tried it this morning.  My accomplishment rate was a paltry 2 out of 5 or 40%.  There is definitely room for improvement.