Calorie counting doesn’t work, they tell you. It worked for me, but only because I am a CSI-minded person. If I get weird data, I keep researching and experimenting. I’m married to an aerospace engineer who is willing to humor me with the occasional statistical model. He’s taught me to think about emotional topics like weight loss in a more numbers-based, scientific way. One of the first precepts of this rational model is that when we record data, our instruments need to be reliable. This is where it gets interesting.
I started to notice that I had synced multiple apps to my food log, and it was logging redundant data from the same workouts. I would go on one walk, but I would get separate totals from my Apple Watch and from RunKeeper. I already knew not to trust the alleged calories burned from my workouts, so I tend to disregard those numbers. It took a while for any kind of insight to arise from this.
Then it hit me. People need to know. The number of calories burned that shows up on any kind of fitness equipment can be about as reality-based as the dollars that show up on a hospital bill. In other words, not very.
I set up an experiment. I worked out on my ancient, consignment-store treadmill for half an hour. I tracked it as an Indoor Walk on my Watch. I took photographs of the treadmill data. I logged the manual data into RunKeeper. Then I compared the three results.
Treadmill: 31:32 minutes, 2.081 miles, 361 calories.
RunKeeper: 31:32 minutes, 2.08 miles, 149 calories.
Apple Watch: 31 minutes, 1.86 miles, 163 calories.
Let me summarize. This is me, walking on the treadmill in my garage, and getting three sets of data for the same workout.
Just to make things clear as mud, here’s a fourth data point. MyFitnessPal says that walking 31 minutes at 4 mph burns 143 calories. (I have to set the treadmill at 4.0 mph in order to get my heart rate up enough to impress The Overlord).
I walk a lot, so I have more data points to add. A week or so earlier, I happened to take a walk outside that lasted 33:46 minutes. That includes waiting at the occasional crosswalk, walking uphill, wind conditions, and other variables such as non-workout clothes. It is, however, more reflective of my typical walking workout. RunKeeper says that 34-minute walk of 1.91 miles burned 137 calories. Apple Watch gives 31:12 minutes, 1.88 miles, and 103 calories for that same walk.
You want the truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! Or, maybe you can, but GOOD LUCK KNOWING WHAT THE TRUTH IS!
Okay, I think I have that out of my system. It’s actually more straightforward than it looks.
Compare my indoor and outdoor walks again. What I’m trying to do on the treadmill is to get my heartrate up enough to qualify as ‘exercise.’ Whatever it is about walking on the treadmill compared to walking on the sidewalk, I have to work much harder to get that digital green wheel moving. That’s why there’s roughly a 60-calorie difference in data generated by the same device for the same exercise (“walking”) over the same block of time. (It isn’t the same exercise, not really).
Metrics are just numbers. They only mean anything when we put them into a particular context. The standard model is to want to ‘check the box’ by showing up and doing at least some form of workout, and then, in the face of suboptimal results, being able to claim, ‘I’ve tried everything.’ We’ve only tried everything when we’ve full-on interrogated those data until someone alerts Amnesty International. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!
The most important thing I learned, in two years of tracking every metric I could think of, is that weight loss is both complex and complicated. We have to standardize our behavior patterns as much as we can, at least for a defined time period, so the trend lines start to emerge. I didn’t get the results I wanted for the first six weeks, but I was highly rigorous in my tracking, and I had a partner to do peer review of my results. I learned that if I ate approximately the same amounts of food at the same times of day, it became much easier to tease out the salient points. I learned that, at least on my tiny frame, exercise makes no discernible impact on whether I lose or gain weight. It’s completely about what I eat. If I knew I stood a chance of burning off a special treat, I would definitely do it, because I enjoy moving my body. There are at least a dozen types of workout that I like to do. I could just install a clamp on my elliptical to hold a quart of Soy Dream and tuck a napkin into my collar. Good times.
What I’ve learned is that the subjective elements are more important than the objective factors. I have the same tendency everyone else does, to overestimate the duration, intensity, and frequency of my workouts. I have the same tendency of everyone else in the world to underestimate how much I eat and how often. I have the universal tendency of treating my own Future Self like a poison enemy, sabotaging her life and expecting her to solve problems I’ve created for her. “Hey, Future Self! Have fun burning off this entire box of Thin Mints! Hahahaha! Oh, and by the way, I’m spending our retirement money on books!” What I don’t have is a tendency to care that much about body shaming. My physical appearance is largely irrelevant to me, and I don’t give a [FIG] how “the media” thinks I’m “supposed” to look. I’ve had a worse time getting flak from people since I lost my weight than in all the years I was fat, combined. I don’t care because being strong, fit, and healthy is worth more than not having other women glare at me and occasionally call me rude names. Subjectively, I like being lean more than I care about fitting in.
Objectively, I believe it is possible to maintain a lean physique, and I have the knowledge to do it. This is another way in which my subjective experience of life differs from the majority of Americans.
I work out because after about the 45-minute mark, I feel physically ecstatic. I’m sitting in my pajamas right now, writing this with my hair still damp from the shower. The feeling of resting after a hard workout, a hot shower, and a hot meal is one of the best feelings in life. I was in a mopey mood earlier today, having been woken up by a thunderstorm, but even a half hour of walking was enough to shake off that sad feeling. I know I’ll sleep better tonight.
I eat clean and plan predictable, micronutrient-based meals because my quality of life suffers when I don’t. For me, what came naturally to me, eating what I “felt like” eating and what tasted good, led to dreadful results. Excess body fat was one relatively minor symptom of a larger problem. While I was no longer having issues with thyroid disease, migraine and night terrors were still regular crises for me, and after a certain weight, my fibromyalgia symptoms started to come back as well. Carefully tracking my health metrics helped me figure out which behavior patterns affected my health issues, and which didn’t seem to make an impact. While it may be correlation that both my migraines and my night terrors disappeared two years ago, when I finally got to my goal weight and quadrupled my vegetable consumption, correlation is good enough for me. I’ve finally arrived at a system I can live with.
That’s what it all comes down to. We’re searching for livable systems. Life is complicated enough, and it’s hard to make sense out of conflicting information from our friends, media reports, advertisements from the weight loss industry, and the kind of contrarian stuff written by bloggers like me. Collecting contradictory data from various fitness apps and equipment is not helpful. What is helpful is to take the long view, be as aware of our behaviors and attitudes as possible, and keep on trying to build better experimental models for our own lives.
Queues. Lists. Bookmarks. Playlists. It’s not enough that we can fill our homes with stacks of paper representing stored information. Now we can even fill the intangible world of the Cloud with electronic representations of information! It follows us everywhere. Even in our sleep, the junk mail, spam, email, newsletter subscriptions, and algorithmic recommendations of new TV shows, books, articles, movies, music, and products keep coming at us. They’re etheric arrows aiming straight at our thought bubbles. What are we going to do with it all? How are we going to keep up?
When are we going to get “caught up”?
There is no “catching up” to anything. It’s the Catch-22 of journaling. The more time I spend trying to track the details of my life for posterity, the more time I must dedicate to journaling, until the day I find myself meta-journaling about my journaling habit. There isn’t anything left to write about except the process of writing. The same is true of managing the constant influx of new information. If we genuinely try to “keep up” with all of it, eventually that’s the only thing we’ll do.
This is what we mean when we talk about focusing on the past, the present, or the future. Past Self has made a lot of decisions for us about desirable ways to spend our time. Past Self loves to try to assign us binge-watching episodes, magazine articles, books, and especially recipes. We look at Past Self’s stacks, shrug, and address them to Future Self. My grandmother, for example, has been reading through all the books she already owns but hadn’t “gotten around to” yet. Some are from the 1970s. This gives me pause, because I’m working on the same project, and I have books in my stack that I bought about a decade ago.
On a scale of 1-10, I’m probably at around a 7 for information hoarding. We do paperless billing. I do my writing digitally. I’ve been working on reading through my book collection and redefining what I consider a “reference” book. I’ve been going through cookbooks (my biggest area of clutter) and winnowing them. We don’t have cable, and the most TV we’ll watch is a purchased season of a TV series every couple of months. So I’m getting better. I do, however, still have an ungainly collection of notebooks, loose notes, and more index cards than a casino has playing cards. There are about 3600 recipes in my digital recipe collection. I have 89 e-books and audio books on my digital library wish list. Well, for one library. In the interest of full disclosure, there are 560 on my other library account. As for saved articles, I have no idea, but it’s a lot more than 560.
I understand that I have assigned my Future Self at least three years’ worth of reading. That’s assuming that I never see another book or article that interests me. If snow fell in hell, or pigs flew, there would undoubtedly be articles published about these events, and I would undoubtedly bookmark them and plan to read them “later.” In other words, I haven’t yet gotten my head around the idea that THERE IS NOT ENOUGH TIME. I can only pretend I’ll be able to “catch up.” I can only pretend that time has no meaning in certain circumstances. I can only pretend that there is a wormhole, which I will find, which will enable me to read as much as I want outside the flow of years, minutes, and hours.
My areas of info hoarding are pretty specific. I have no real limits on my writing notes, even though I’ve already determined that paper notes are unsafe. My sole copies of these ideas and bits of reference material are totally vulnerable to loss, water damage, or fire. I can’t access them from remote locations, which is bad, because most of my work is not done at home. This is an example of a specific problem, with a specific solution, for a specific purpose. My issue with no-limit, no-boundary leisure reading is on the opposite end of the scale. I don’t have specific purposes for reading books and articles; I just want to. My stack of paper notes, notebooks, files, and index cards is finite and measurable. My queue of pleasure reading material is more or less infinite.
The sort of info hoarding among my clients is all over the map. Almost everyone has at least a little trouble organizing papers and electronic information, even regular folk who are not chronically disorganized. People who have no other clutter often have paper clutter. There are some common areas of focus, though.
Mail (real, important mail)
Mail (junk mail, often disguised as real mail)
Old academic papers (notes, notebooks, handouts)
Magazine or newspaper clippings
Personal letters / cards / e-mail
Invitations that need decisions
Keepsakes (invitations, event programs, favors, souvenirs, ticket stubs)
The prime question when evaluating information is, WHAT DO I PLAN TO DO WITH IT? Obviously, important mail needs to get processed. Bills need to be paid, checks need to be deposited, bank statements need to be reconciled, subpoenas need to be answered. Invitations can be ignored until the date has passed, a habit we indulge until the day we ourselves schedule something for which we desire RSVPs. EVERYTHING ELSE can sit indefinitely. That’s fine – there’s nothing necessarily wrong with owning a stack of paper – except that paper has a nefarious tendency to get on top of more important paper and hide it. It takes constant vigilance to track and process the important stuff.
What do we think we’re going to do with our old academic papers? I scanned mine and put them on a thumb drive. I have never needed any of them. I think I thought they might come in handy one day, if I met a younger person who wanted an example of a certain type of academic paper. I saved scanned images if they had a grade I liked scrawled on them. “Looky, an A!” Needless to say, though I tend to have a lot of college-aged kids in my life at any given moment, none of them has ever asked to see my old papers. I suspect I’m keeping them as proof that I put myself through school. The point, though, is that we learned that material. Education should be a starting point, not an ending point. It’s true that I’ve gone on to read and learn a lot more about history since I got my degree. I can’t learn much from reading my own papers or my own notes. If I went back to grad school at some point, I wouldn’t be pursuing a master’s in history; I already made that decision. I save my old notes because they fit on the thumb drive, and I don’t have to make the decision to delete them based on space.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the photographs? At a certain point, I transitioned to digital photographs. Everything I have in a hard copy is old. I have at least 100x more photographs of the people I care about now than I did 20 years ago. They’re of better quality and they tend to reflect moments of daily life rather than artificial poses and awkward smiles. I also take scads of photos of random things, because it’s so easy and because I always have a camera in my pocket now. The aluminum box that contains my photo collection is almost never opened. I seem to remember looking through everything in it about 7 years ago, when I did a burning ceremony, but those photos are not a part of my daily life. If they were, I would have put them in frames. (Frames, not flames).
What do we think we’re going to do with all the recipes? I’m probably the worst offender in the world when it comes to clipping recipes. Not only do I have the 3600 digital recipes, I have no fewer than four recipe apps on my phone. I also have a box of recipes on index cards and a collection of roughly 50 cookbooks. I’m not going to run out! The funniest thing about this is that I don’t always use recipes anymore. We tend to cook the same vegetables in the same ways. I probably only test out a new recipe about once a month now. Every now and then, I freak out about how many untested recipes I have. Even if I had done one a day since then, I still would not have made a dent.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the magazine or newspaper clippings? This is a big one for a lot of people. My issue is that I think I’m going to read them all one day. Since I always bookmark more each day than I read, I could only “catch up” if I quit bookmarking anything for the rest of the year. I’m better off giving up on the older stuff and limiting myself to a certain amount of reading time per day. I have yet to make that happen. For many people, the issue is rather one of preserving information they’ve already read. They want to save it. For what, though? What are they going to do with the information? How are they going to let it change their lives? Are they researching a specific project? If not, well, my philosophy is to ‘read and delete.’ I tend to want to forward everything to everyone, but I can’t force other people to be interested in things they aren’t. If I read it and it doesn’t make enough of an impression for me to remember it, change my mind, or change my behavior, eh, easy come easy go.
What do we think we’re going to do with the letters, cards, and email? It turns out that a lot of people get these personal missives and freeze. We can’t bring ourselves to return the favor and write back. When we do this (talking to myself here), we’re effectively rejecting the other person’s gesture of love and connection. They don’t see it as shyness or a desire to wait until the proper attention can be summoned to do it justice. They just see it as a disconnect. Old letters often represent a broken love affair, vanished friendship, or family connection that could have been made stronger. We hang on to these tokens out of grief and regret. Far better to reach out by other means, rebuild connections, and let the tokens go.
Invitations that need decisions are in the same category. Delay the decision too long and the decision has been made. REJECTED AND DENIED. We let ourselves off the hook. Often, our default response is ‘no.’ We have to double check and make sure that ‘no’ is really the setting we want for life. We’ll never know what would have happened if we had shown up, unless we do show up.
Business cards also represent potential connections and decisions that need to be made. So much of the time, we take someone’s card, and then never follow through. That’s fine – a business card is a very inexpensive, low-risk form of advertising – but perhaps we can start making the decisions earlier in the process. We don’t have to keep these cards forever. Most people have some kind of web presence if we look.
What do we think we’re going to do with the souvenirs and mementos? This can be a dangerous area. Almost anything can be construed as a souvenir. I saved an all-day lollipop from a trip to Disneyland for about 10 years. For some reason, I thought that would be a great souvenir, even though I had also saved the ticket stubs. Then I found this sucker again. (See what I did there?) It was melted and stuck all over everything. It had in fact ruined other things I had intended to save. I’m really lucky my papers weren’t swarming with ants. As with many things, keeping clutter left me worse off than getting rid of it.
Dealing with the flow of information is a problem that will never end. It’s like laundry, except that laundry doesn’t follow you into the Cloud. It helps to make categorical decisions. Why would I want to keep old school papers? Why would I want to save clippings or recipes? How often am I going to dedicate an hour of my life to looking through old photos or yearbooks? Which types of events am I never going to miss, and which will I always avoid? When we have figured out why we’re tracking or keeping information, we can start with what arrives from that day forward. Whether we ever get around to going through the older stuff is more of a philosophical question.
I love Sam Cooke. I could listen to his voice all day. It’s not just his vocal styling that marks him as a man from another time; it’s his lyrics. If he wrote “You Send Me” today, the words would have to go more like this:
Darling, unnnnn-friend me
I knew you’d unfriend me
Darling, unnnnn-friend me
The way that you do, way that you do
You always do, whoa
Ill will me
I know you, you, you ill will me
Darling, you ill will me
You always do
At first I thought it was just irritation
But whoa, it’s lasted so long
Now I find myself wanting
To glare at you and block your phone, whoa
What is this all about? Here we are with one of the most impressive technological innovations of all time, which is social networking. Yet, somehow, it seems to have set us back decades in terms of actual communication. I know of siblings who are no longer on speaking terms, a man who was unfriended by the best man from his wedding; pick a family or friend relationship and you can easily find an example of one that was destroyed via social media. Not a single week has gone by that I haven’t seen someone make a public announcement to the effect of: “If you don’t agree with this post, do us both a favor and unfriend me now” or “I just unfriended someone/nearly everyone on my list.” We’re supposed to feel pleased when we’re able to read the announcements that we have “made the cut” – rather than worried about all the times we haven’t.
Friendship means something different now. Apparently, friendship means meeting only the strictest of standards. We can only keep our friends if we continue to manage the tightrope walk of self-expression. Each person has different rules – absolute, relationship-defining rules – about how personal or impersonal, political or neutral, others’ posts are. We’ve started treating each other like TV channels on the far end of the dial, channels we can avoid or click away from if we don’t like the programming available.
I still remember each and every time I have been made aware that I was unfriended. That includes the ex-spouses of friends, with whom I had no issues. It makes sense, but it still stings a bit. “Hey! I wasn’t taking sides!” My policy is only to unfriend someone if I believe I am incapable of staying in the same room and being civil if I encountered the person socially. That’s a pretty stiff criterion that virtually never applies. So it’s possible that I take it more personally than others on the occasions when I’ve been unfriended “for cause,” which means posting something that someone else finds offensive. It goes like this:
What the heck do we think friendship is, exactly?
I think the more socially isolated we become, the more we interact with screens instead of human faces, the more we converse through text, the more we start to base our concept of how friendship works on what we see in fiction. Text can only get across about 10% of a person’s meaning; it cuts off all the facial expressions, tones of voice, laughter, body language, comedic impersonations, hand signs, and opportunities for social touch that happen when we meet in person. That’s why we’ve started to use emoticons and vines and memes as punctuation. We know that even the best writer isn’t going to be able to get the emotions across. At least, a writer can’t do it in small snippets. We like movies and TV shows that give us at least a few hours to learn a character’s arc. We cease to give the same kind of time to our real, non-acting, living and breathing human friends.
I think friendship happens in levels, as it should, and that it’s best to restrict the highest levels to only a very small number of specific individuals.
There are a lot of pitfalls between levels of friendship. One is regarding a work friend as a higher-level friend, and disrespecting professional boundaries by oversharing. Taking a work friendship to another level requires the utmost finesse in protocol; it’s best saved for the time when one work buddy leaves the company for a different job. Over-bonding with work friends is inevitably strained when one of you gets a promotion, particularly to management. It’s better to commit to each other’s success and continued progress up the ladder than to try for personal friendship. More common is to expect casual friends to be as trustworthy and loyal as closer friends, or to expect close friends to be soulmates.
How do you ruin a friendship? Lots of ways. Uncountable ways. NEVER FORGIVE. Expect the punctuality of a walking clock with an AI. Expect total loyalty, especially when you’re in the wrong. Demand that people pick sides. Talk politics. Take your confusion and high blood pressure to a public forum whenever anything in the news distresses you. Expect high levels of personal emotional commitment from everyone in your social circle. Confide things you wouldn’t want to be known publicly. Apologize stingily and regard it as losing face. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “I’m sorry but.”
Societies swing between total individualism on one side of the pendulum, and total collectivism on the other. What is seen as an appropriate boundary between a person and a group depends on our milieu. Right now, we’re on the extreme individual end, which is part of why the unthinkable is happening so regularly and people are murdering strangers to make some kind of personal statement. We’re so polarized that almost every possible choice is seen as a signifier of tribal allegiance, either red or blue, with no alternatives or neutral or non-applicable areas. We don’t trust each other. Our barriers are impermeable. Interactions with other people are high-stakes. We’re now beginning to invoke formal loyalty tests, as in, “if you read this and disagree, sever our social connection. Permanently.” We do not have any kind of social ritual for knee-walking back to someone and asking to reignite the spark of friendship. We don’t accept apologies and we don’t make them graciously. I made a public apology to someone for whom I had high regard; when I saw that she had unfriended me, I cried in my car. Mutual friends relayed my message, which included a description of what I had done wrong and displayed an understanding of the unintentional hurt I had caused. I would never have required such an apology myself, as I ignore posts that offend me. My apology was not accepted. That was years ago, and it still bothers me. What would it have taken? Even a personal attack could theoretically have been forgiven, if acceptable amends were made. It makes no sense to me that we are now disowning people over cartoons or single sentences or perhaps tasteless jokes. When will we start to see how much damage this is causing to our social fabric? When will we start to see how unnecessary this is? When will we learn to adapt to this new, hazardous form of communication? When will the pendulum start to swing the other way?
We can’t make it in this world alone. We like to fantasize that we can. We like the look of a post-apocalyptic landscape, where it’s easy to judge on sight whether someone is “one of us” or “the enemy.” Then we can eliminate them with extreme prejudice, and high-five afterward. The truth is that we’re not capable of survival, speech, or even coherent thought without the contribution of other human beings. We are not the prime movers in our own lives. We are here because our ancestors cooperated long enough to get us here, feed us, care for us, and watch over us until we could start pretending that we can survive without cooperation. We need each other. We forget how much we have to offer each other, how strong we are when we stand together. We have so much to learn about forgiveness and love. We have so much to learn about friendship. How are we going to learn anything if we keep rage-quitting whenever we activate each other’s emotions?
I screamed during “E.T.” I was 6 and a family friend sat with me in the very front row. Needless to say, that movie blew my little mind. One of the things that stood out for me was the contraption Elliott helped E.T. build so that he could “phone home.” Remember? It had a Speak & Spell and an umbrella. Pretty cool stuff. It makes me wonder what they’ll use if they ever do a reboot. They’re welcome to my old iPhone 4S; it would run a Speak & Spell app, and maybe it could do everything else, too. If space doesn’t have wi-fi, I don’t want to go.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much having a smartphone has aided my transition to minimalism. Much of this is due to the fact that it basically serves as a spare brain – a smarter, better organized spare brain. It turns out that more and more of my “stuff” exists only virtually. Most of what I use and most of the work I do lives on this little screen in my pocket. The best part is that if I break it or it gets stolen, the important parts can be quickly cloned and loaded onto a new one. The new one might even be a better model.
Ten years ago, I went everywhere with a huge bag I referred to as my “filing cabinet.” It probably weighed 15 pounds. I would have textbooks, library books, a cookbook, a day planner, my mail, a journal, a bunch of pens, old receipts, a wad of paper napkins, my lunch, gloves, an umbrella, a hat, lip balm, and who knows what else. Now I don’t carry most of those things. Almost all of them are represented digitally. I don’t need to carry as much outerwear because Dark Sky tells me whether it’s likely to rain later. I don’t need to go to the chiropractor anymore, either.
One of the most significant innovations for me has been the advent of the e-reader. Many book lovers are stuck in the 18th century, and they like it that way. I love books at least as much as anyone else, but I’m firmly in the digital camp. I can read in line at the post office. I can listen to an audio book while I fold laundry. No more discovering that my library book has a page torn out. No more food stains or smashed bugs. No more 15-pound carry-on bags just for my vacation reading. No more melted book lights. Even if digital books were the only feature on my phone, it would still have changed my life. The best part is that every year, there will be thousands more e-books available. In my lifetime, essentially every book ever printed will be there at my fingertips. Why, then, would I need to keep hundreds of pounds of printed books in my house, only to relocate them over and over again?
Frequent relocation has been a catalyst for me. It’s helped put my possessions in perspective. Even professional movers will only pack the stuff and move it. They don’t unpack it for you. I’ve realized that everything on my phone is available whether everything else I own is taped inside a box or not. I traded in all my DVDs and CDs two years ago, and I haven’t missed them. The books, including cookbooks, are steadily getting culled. What’s left is furniture, workout equipment, kitchenware, linens, clothes, tools, cleaners, and food. The handmade items I still have cause a certain amount of stress, because it’s so sad when something like that gets ruined during a move. Virtually all of our stuff is functional, rather than emotionally relevant.
Meanwhile, my phone is full of emotional relevance. Any given day, I’m texting my husband, my parents, or a friend, and usually I wind up laughing until I cry over something. I’m playing games with my brothers, both of whom win 99% of the time. I’m skimming Facebook and finding out who’s engaged, who’s pregnant, who’s moving, who got a new job, and who adopted a puppy. I’m obsessively reading the news, playing podcasts, and looking at dazzling nature photography. I’m checking stats on my website, looking at my bank balance, or replying to e-mail. My life is conducted on my phone. It does everything but cook dinner, and I’m probably looking up a recipe for that, too.
This makes it sound like I’m looking at my phone every 5 minutes, which I’m not, but only because my schedule is managed by a digital brain. I set up reminders for everything I need to do daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually. I don’t think about those things anymore; I just follow the instructions from Past Self as a favor to Future Self. I can focus on writing and know that no matter where I am, I can drop everything and take notes, research something, take a picture, or email or text someone. My house is my base of operations, unless it’s temporarily a tent or hotel room. My home is this magical device of portable work, instant information, entertainment on demand, and emotional connection on impulse.
Today is October 21, 2015, the date Marty McFly visits in Back to the Future II. I’m sure most of you were already aware of this. I spend a lot of time living in the future, so I wanted to make the most of this opportunity to write about it. One of the few nostalgic feelings I have toward the 1980s is that science fiction was cuter and more optimistic in those days. At some point, probably right around 9/11, our attitude took a distinctly darker turn, and we’re hopefully nearly through the doldrums of endless dystopias. Dystopian visions are lazy. Imagining different ways to ruin the world is about as difficult as stomping through a sand castle. Imagining a compellingly optimistic future is one of the few truly worthy challenges, particularly because it doesn’t take long before that future becomes the present day.
I’m not going to write a point by point comparison of the technological innovations from BTTFII, because it’s already been done, but also because the stuff we actually have in our current reality is much cooler and more impressive. We’ve eradicated guinea worm, for one thing. I mean, that’s such a big deal that we can basically take a year off and just stand in a line waiting to group-hug Jimmy Carter, because do you know about guinea worm?? Nearly as impressive is the fact that the rate of extreme poverty has dropped, even as the world population has increased by a couple billion since the 80s. In our lifetimes, we’re going to continue to see the standard of living raised for the world’s poorest, and that will include eradication of other parasites and endemic diseases. We’re also starting to see extremely rapid progress with medical innovations, making improvements in treatment for blindness, deafness, paralysis, missing limbs, and even color blindness. Next I’m hoping for something for tinnitus. Whenever I hear people complaining about the news, I know for a fact that they haven’t chosen to follow medical or tech news in their aggregators.
There was no internet in BTTFII. No smartphones, either. Just fax machines everywhere, which, of all the silly things… Complain all you want about how smartphones are turning people into zombies. I talk more to my friends and extended family now than I ever did at any earlier part of my life. Do you remember how expensive long distance phone calls used to be? Remember setting a timer to avoid running the bill too high? Do you remember how we used to drop off rolls of 12 (or 24 if you were lucky) photographs at a time, and pay through the nose for double prints? Now I can look at pictures of the people I love doing the daily whenever I want. If we knew this was coming back in the 80s, we would have cried. I live hundreds of miles away from almost everyone in my life, and it’s social networking, smartphones, Skype, and photo sharing that make this even remotely tolerable. Other people have used social media to reunite with family years after being adopted, and that’s remarkable, isn’t it? We’ve adjusted and learned to take these things for granted very quickly.
Another thing I’ve seen in my lifetime is an astounding drop in the price of airfare. I’ve hopped on a plane three times this year, for my parents’ wedding anniversary, my nephew’s high school graduation ceremony, and a hiking trip with friends 1100 miles away. Flying is so cheap now that people treat it like a bus ride, wearing tank tops, shorts, and flip flops. (Cover your feet and armpits, people, at least… ) As a brief aside, one of the other weird things about our future compared to the fictional future is how extremely casually we dress. We were supposed to be in all this tinfoil couture by now. Back to my main thread, not only can we fly cheaply and easily (and SAFELY), but we can take commercial flights into space, and we’re seriously planning a manned mission to Mars. We put clutter on Mars, yo! Take that, McFly.
Probably one of the best perks of living in the future is the quality and variety of food that is available. Do you remember the orange, flavorless tomatoes we used to get? My pantry is currently full of more things I never knew existed in the 80s than things I did. I routinely cook with curry, pesto, Japanese pickles, seaweed, chard, kale, edamame, quinoa, and all sorts of things I couldn’t pronounce back in the day. Coconut water! Pomegranate everything! Every now and then, I go into a small-town grocery store, and it feels exactly like traveling back in time. The paucity of awesome things I would actually want to cook makes 1980s nostalgia a little mildewed and musty for me.
Another thing we may not be thinking about much is the astounding improvements in the arena of athletic performance. New world records are being set, and almost instantly broken, all the time. Pick a sport, and high school kids are routinely busting what would have been world records in the 80s. This is due to a confluence of training lore, big data, more knowledge about recovery and nutrition, gear, and probably other stuff, such as relative absence of childhood illness. Something that is a big deal in my awareness is how common it is for middle-aged and senior people to compete seriously in sports like ultramarathon. You don’t have to look far to find people in their 80s kicking major butt. Marathons and other distances of foot race tend to sell out, sometimes within hours, and it’s hard to find enough venues for all the people who want to race. In my time, I’ve seen the advent or dissemination of cool fitness trends like adventure racing, CrossFit, Pilates, Zumba, Ultimate Frisbee, and even Quidditch. The future is going to hold a great deal more interesting options for team sports and solo training.
The future is a really excellent place. I could go on and on. Like how nobody smokes indoors anymore. Or how I have a Roomba, a Braava, a laptop, a smart TV, an iPhone 6, an Apple Watch, a 2.5x capacity washer and dryer, a solar powered backup battery and lantern, and a bunch of other things that would have boggled my 1989 mind. I often look at the world around me in 1987 terms (my year of choice, when I was 12) and take it all in for a moment. CGI! YouTube! Wikipedia! Google! Cloud storage! Panorama photos! Any single one of these things would have amazed me for an entire summer. Now I use them all on a daily basis. It’s up to you whether you let yourself take things for granted, or pause and feel true awe and astonishment. Personally, I’m stuck in the middle, between being thrilled by the impossibly fantastic future in which we live, or poleaxed by the possibilities of the unimaginably rad future we’ll be living in another 26 years.
When I was 7, I tried to teach myself to read two books at once, one for each eye. After about an hour of experimentation, I decided it was too hard for little kids and that I’d have to try again when I was an adult. It took a university course in neurolinguistics before I fully let go of that dream. Speed reading apps are a reasonable facsimile.
Note: This review was inspired by my indignation toward the ReadQuick app, toward which I feel the gamut of emotions of a jilted lover. I had a crush on you from afar, I fell in love with you the moment we met, we spent all that time together… and now you want to limit my access behind a pay wall? I paid $10 for you! (Okay, the emotions of a jilted lover plus those of a thwarted skinflint).
Let’s start with ReadQuick as the baseline for speed reading apps. Basically, the app allows you to load news articles and read them more quickly by showing only one word at a time. The technical term for how many words appear on-screen at a time is ‘fixations.’ (Seems legit… ) ReadQuick can bookmark articles, and it can also draw from other bookmarking services such as Pocket and Instapaper. I use it with Pocket. I’ve found that certain articles in my Pocket Queue will not appear in my ReadQuick queue, generally if they start with a large illustration. Some articles would begin at a random place in the middle, or stop at the first page, due to either illustrations or formatting. At least 90% of my reading material was unaffected by these problems. I liked that each article in the queue showed a reading time based on my current reading speed. It’s currently set at 610 words per minute, triple the average unassisted reading pace. I was able to train upward by 10-wpm increments. It would sometimes crash after I had finished a long article, but the new revision seems to have fixed that. The new revision appears to allow increased fixations, but I’m still having a fit of pique about having to pay another $10 for a $10 app, so I can’t confirm it.
When I first got the app, I was frustrated that it would not accommodate books due to DRM issues. Now that I’ve read a few thousand news articles on it, I no longer think it would suit my style to read fiction on it. There are a lot of typographic conventions, such conversational formatting and mid-chapter section breaks, that would seem to affect comprehension. I like speed-reading best for keeping up on the news. I prefer to have the gist of many stories so that I have time to delve into a greater proportion of long-form reportage.
Accelerator (formerly known as Velocity) is the next app I tried. At $2.99, it’s a lot cheaper than ReadQuick. The reading experience is virtually indistinguishable if the two are set on the same speed and background. They each have features that the other doesn’t, so I’ll compare them.
· Same: Black/white, white/black, and sepia themes, just like iBooks and Kindle. Set speed up to 1000 words per minute. Read from Instapaper, Pocket, and Readability. Archive articles after reading. Both apps are stumped by slide shows. Neither app allows sorting the queue with oldest first.
· Different: ReadQuick reads from Feedly and Evernote; Accelerator reads from the web. ReadQuick queue shows reading time and whether article is finished; Accelerator only shows this from reading view. ReadQuick allows deletion as well as archiving. ReadQuick allows web view; Accelerator allows plain text view.
Accelerator is my new default news reader. I do miss a few features from ReadQuick. My favorite feature was the icon that shows how long each article will take to read. Accelerator also neglects to show the source of the original article. The best of both worlds would be an app that combined everything from both apps. It would allow a web view as well as a plain text view; it would show the source of each article and how long it would take to read. Maybe it would also cost $12.98. Eh, no app is perfect. The reading experience itself is the key feature, and that is fully optimized in my opinion.
Acceleread is a different sort of enterprise altogether. It’s designed to train people to read faster and with better comprehension. I took a reading speed test of traditionally formatted text, and it gave me 400 words per minute with 100% comprehension. It comes with some pre-copyright novels, of which I had already read 17 out of 20. As far as I can tell, Acceleread is designed to read DRM-free books, not news articles, so it is a different use case. I tested it out, though. It wants to orient sideways. It allows multiple lines as well as multiple fixations per line. This does seem to be the best way to train for comprehension as well as speed, and it also seems to be a better transition to traditional text on paper. I’m talking myself into giving it a try for fiction, but I’ll have to find something DRM-free that I really want to read.
Sprint is a free iOS app based on Spritz. There are several iterations, including one for PDFs and one for ePub books, called ReadMe!. I about fainted when I saw that. It’s great, but as far as I can tell it does not support my library’s ePub catalog. The Spritz-based style is distinctive, with a logo, user name, reading speed, and playback buttons prominently displayed at all times. Speed tops out at 1000 wpm and can be adjusted in 25-wpm increments. Back to the Sprint app. It can read websites, which is a different use case from Accelerator or ReadQuick. Sprint does not work on everything. I logged into my Pocket account and was not able to Sprint anything. I couldn’t speed-read my own website, though that is probably a good thing, as you really need to pontificate on my magisterial writing skills to get the most out of my scintillating wit and iconoclastic observations. Sprint would be a good supplement for Accelerator, as their draw may be mutually exclusive for a lot of web content.
What I really want is a configurable auto-scroll setting on e-book readers that support DRM content. Kindle and iBooks, I am looking at you. When I buy a book, I should be able to read it in any format I like. I want auto-scroll and I want a ceiling projection display. My old Palm PDA from the year 2000 had an app with auto-scroll, and I could buy e-books from Barnes & Noble with it. Why can’t I have this on my phone? WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY!
Should we speed-read, though? A million new books were published in English last year. The average dedicated reader can enjoy 3000 books in a lifetime. It would be magnificent if we could somehow double this, or triple it, and still get the same comprehension and leisure value, in the same way that we can double the number of cats in a lap. I speed-read, and I also read e-books and print at normal speed. I listen to audio books, sometimes at 1.5 or 2x speed. I listen to podcasts as well. Like most people, when introduced to a new medium of information processing, I add it to my repertoire and continue using all the same formats I used before. Speed-reading is fantastic for skimming through a large volume of ephemera, like the news, though perhaps less so for assessing whether something is suitable for a research project. It would be pointless for poetry or plays or children’s literature or graphic novels. Woe betide anyone who tries to speed-read while learning a foreign language. In short, I adore it, because it suits my temperament, but I don’t think it’s for everyone and I definitely don’t think it’s for everything.
Mr. Awesome Pants bought me an Apple Watch for my 40th birthday. Major milestone and all that. The impressive thing about this is that it’s the second time in our relationship that he’s managed to trick me. The first was the day he proposed, although that might count as two because he also had to trick me in order to go out and buy the ring. Anyway, he made it look like we were going into the Apple Store to waste time while waiting for a movie to start. Even when he had me try one on, I thought it was just for fun. Pretty funny when it finally sunk in. I tend to hyperventilate a little when I so much as hear about cool new tech. I may have cried a bit. So now I have this totally bitchin’ space watch that brings me information via satellite. We call it The Overlord.
I’ve had fitness trackers before. In fact, I pinned a pedometer to my garter on our wedding day. That should tell you quite a bit about my level of interest in performance metrics. (Wait… that sounds a bit different than I intended. Let’s just say I danced a lot). My first pedometer clipped onto my waistband. It was constantly popping off, hitting the floor, and resetting. I remember how excited I was when I reached 1000 steps for the first time. It had taken weeks. Then I was sadly informed that the goal was TEN thousand steps, not ONE thousand. “That’s like not even a quarter mile.” Oh. So that was the first two pedometers. Then I got a Fitbit. It was cool, except that it wanted to track steps, and most of my bipedal activities were bicycling, running, or using the elliptical machine. It never added up right. I used it to make an annual mileage goal and then sold it within 20 minutes of posting it to eBay. Then I got an iPhone and tried various fitness apps, one of which kept telling me I ran 55 MPH. Um, no. I’d be thrilled if I could run 5 MPH!
What’s different about The Overlord? It really is useful as a productivity tool. Most of the stuff I tend to check compulsively on my phone is now on my wrist: my blog stats, the temperature, my daily habit checklist and top three goals, and notifications. The basic info is there, but that’s it, so I don’t tend to get sucked in. I use it to check off my grocery list. Sometimes I use Apple Pay, GPS, or Shazam, which completely trips me out. “My watch just told me what song is playing!” My 1987-era brain does not think this makes any sense. I knew I would be an ideal target user. In spite of everything I had read about the Apple Watch, I am so out of the game this year that I forgot its initial attraction for me was as a fitness tracker.
It taps my wrist to tell me to stand up once an hour, 12 times a day. Okay. I probably get up about that often anyway. Oh. Actually I don’t. So I start planning to get up once an hour. That’s not quite good enough for The Overlord. It wants at least a minute. Okay, that seems reasonable. What is that (dorkily checking 21st-century calculator watch), 1.6% of my time? Oh, but standing up for a minute isn’t enough either. I’ve tried to impress it by doing tree pose or arm circles, only to wind up walking circles around the house until the counter rolls over. The neighbors probably think I’m insane. That is actually a total non sequitur.
Then there’s the exercise quota. (Just interrupted by notification that my bigger half is leaving work). Half an hour a day. Seriously, when I was training for my marathon it would take me that long, at jogging pace, to finish adjusting the straps to my Camelbak and get my audio book started. I’ve spent half an hour running and trying to eat a Nutter Butter without getting it down my bra. Half an hour is nothing. Oh. Or actually it isn’t. It turns out that what I have been considering exercise this year does not impress The Overlord. It won’t register a single minute of my 45-minute yoga routine. On my typical walk to the library or the coffee shop, it gives me about 16 minutes out of 42. We did 45 minutes walking the dog at the duck pond, and The Overlord recorded it as 11. Turns out it measures my heart rate, not the clock. There is no cheating this thing! I just noticed today that a green light shines from one of its sensors when I’m walking fast enough to swing my arms, presumably when my heart rate is up. Unless it’s sweat-activated. It won’t count my walking on the treadmill unless I set it to at least 3.5 MPH. So, while I don’t have any real trouble reaching the daily calorie burn goal, the exercise quota has finally gotten me off my coffin, I mean couch, and starting to do some real cardio again.
The great thing about The Overlord is that it’s a completely impersonal nag. Well, not completely impersonal – it figured out all on its own to address me as “Your Excellency.” I can’t resent it because it’s just a technological embodiment of my own goals and plans. I can’t lie to it and I can’t make it promises because it doesn’t care. All it does is faithfully present me to myself.
Now I have to go. The Overlord says it’s time to stand up. And by stand up, I mean briskly walk a few laps up and down the hallway…
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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