Life Uncategorized

Eighteen months on a treadmill desk

Since April of 2014, I’ve owned a treadmill desk. Each day, I plod along at a glacial pace—just active enough to keep my metabolism simmering. Meanwhile, I’m typing, mousing and taking calls—all the little tasks you’d typically do at the computer. After walking 4,500+ miles, sitting down to work feels wrong, somehow.

Here are some observations and recommendations from my eighteen months “on the tread.”

  • Your feet will hurt—at least at first. During my first few weeks, I leapt into treading full-tilt, powering through fifteen determined miles each day. My feet protested, but I ignored “hot spots” and developed some ugly blisters. My advice? Treat any irritation as a warning sign so that it doesn’t fester into something worse. A little duct-tape, skillfully applied, makes a big difference. Before long, you’ll build up some blister-proof callouses.
  • Along these lines, proper footwear is key. Don’t expect to wear typical work or office shoes. You’re better off lacing up an old pair of running sneakers. If your workplace allows, consider trying sandals—or even going barefoot. But, again, whatever you wear, listen to your feet!
  • A treadmill desk can help you lose weight, if your expectations are realistic. In the first few months of treading, I lost thirty pounds, give or take. But then the weight loss flatlined. Since then, I’ve had trouble shedding (and keeping off) the ten extra pounds that lie between me and a healthy BMI. Eventually, it seems, my body adjusted to the enormous extra calorie burn that an all-day tread provides. Or, more to the point, I ate more. So, as with any other weight loss regime, be prepared to count calories and feel hungry at day’s end. The treadmill raises your calorie ceiling, but you’ll still need to exercise some dietary self-discipline.
  • Treadmills are noisy. Although I bought one of the quietest walking treadmills available, it’s far from silent. There’s the whir as the belt makes its endless rotation. The whine-whine-whine of the motor under strain. The rhythmic thud-thud-thud as footsteps hit the deck. Of course, my home office sits in a quiet patch of woods, far from the nearest thoroughfare. That makes the slightest sound seem loud. At your busy workplace, you may hardly notice the treadmill’s steady noise. Still, respect the ears of those nearby—whether fellow office drones or your sleeping spouse. Also, if you’re on a conference call, be aware that others can probably hear your pacing. Make judicious use of that self-mute button!
  • Vary your speed. Different work tasks require different paces. For me, 2 miles per hour works well for light emailing and web browsing. Fine design work demands a slower speed—something in the range of 1.5 MPH. Conversely, you can move faster when consuming content; I’ve pushed the treadmill up to 3 MPH when watching training videos or listening in on conference calls. Anything faster, though, and you’ll stray dangerously close to exercise. It’s hard to concentrate on work when you’re panting and dripping with sweat.
  • Static electricity can be nasty. Dragging your feet across a treadmill belt, you quickly build up a charge, especially in drier weather. Last winter, my earbuds (plugged into my grounded PC) would shock me every few steps. If this happens to you, find a way to discharge the electricity more steadily. It doesn’t take much to ground yourself; I simply connect a spare USB cable to my PC and tuck it into my belt line. No static build-up—and no more painful shocks.
  • Get the extended warranty. I’ve had issues with my LifeSpan treadmill ever since it arrived. Their regional technician has visited my house at least four separate times; they’ve replaced the motor twice. Fortunately, the problems have been covered under warranty; I’ve paid nothing extra. In fact, LifeSpan agreed to foot the bill for a five-year extended warranty. There’s little doubt that I’ll need it again.
Life Uncategorized

Human puzzle

Yesterday, my work colleagues and I trekked to downtown Seattle for a team-building exercise called “Puzzle Break.” After arriving at street level, we were led down a long-unused car ramp and into a dimly-lit conference space. An enthusiastic staff member then prebriefed us on the experience to come. We would be locked in a room chock-full of clues, and we’d have one hour to solve the puzzles and (hopefully) find our way out.

We entered the puzzle room, the clock started counting down, and we scoured the space for clues. Every cranny and cupboard hid seemingly-unrelated items: slips of paper, stuffed animals, knickknacks. But as we laid them side-by-side, we realized that some items belonged with others. Smaller groups splintered off to solve these individual puzzles, and each small victory eventually contributed to our overall progress.

Of course, the real point of games like this isn’t the game itself, but the group dynamics that emerge in that context. Corporate culture frequently demands that employees become “leaders” to advance in their careers. That expectation bleeds into an unstructured event like this. What if multiple team members try to assume that “leader” mantle? Who backs off? I’m always fascinated to see who emerges as a “general,” who embraces the “footsoldier” role, and who wanders around cluelessly.

I was definitely a clueless wanderer. While I wanted to contribute, I just wasn’t sure how. I flitted back and forth between puzzles, looking over my teammates’ shoulders timidly. I hadn’t met these colleagues until a few hours earlier, and I felt self-conscious about inserting myself into their well-worn patterns of cooperation.

A more outgoing, energetic personality probably would have overcome such hurdles. For my part, I hoped that others wouldn’t notice my limited involvement. When I had something to add, I piped up. When someone asked for my help, I pitched in. Mostly, though, I watched quietly and scoured the room for clues that others might have missed.

We didn’t escape from “Puzzle Break.” In fact, we weren’t even close, despite the staff’s positive debrief afterwards. Consensus among our team was that we would have needed at least another half hour to finish the puzzles and get out. But we weren’t too discouraged; apparently less than 20% of teams escape this particular room. And, chances are, they had their nervous wallflowers, too.

Life technology Uncategorized

Buy myself an iPad—and some talent.

Once upon a time, I drew.

When I was twelve, I’d fill the margins of my school notebooks with doodles. These were ridiculous sketches: severed heads, floorplans for elaborate secret lairs, and goofy-looking comic characters. Just the sort of thing you’d expect from a pre-teenage boy.

Unfortunately, that was the pinnacle of my artistic career. I would have loved to take drawing classes, but my underfunded little school offered no fine arts instruction for high schoolers. Over time, any artistic sense atrophied, and my drawing skills calcified at the level of a middle schooler.

Still, twenty years later, I missed drawing. I’d daydream about starting an online comic strip. So, time and time again, I’ve tried to rekindle that long-extinguished interest. I bought instructional books and sketch pads, but those failed to keep me engaged. I splurged on a WACOM pressure-sensitive drawing tablet. That worked—for a little while. But I found the disconnection—my pen moving on the pad, the drawing itself taking shape on screen—to be irritating. Then, when I bought my first iPad, I purchased a cheap stylus and a popular drawing app. But those didn’t do the trick, either; the iPad couldn’t tell the difference between a light touch and a bold, firm stroke.

With each attempt to kickstart my artistic drive, I grew more discouraged. But if I’m honest, the fly in the ointment here wasn’t a subpar tool; it was my subpar passion. A new toy—however feature-rich—is no replacement for discipline. If I hadn’t been drawing with paper and pencil before buying a WACOM or an iPad, what made me think anything would change afterwards? The perfect drawing tools didn’t make me an artist, any more than a Louisville Slugger would make me a ball player.

And yet, I’m still tempted. I still buy into the same delusion—that I just haven’t found the right tool yet. For example, last week Apple announced its jumbo-sized tablet, the iPad Pro. Unlike my WACOM tablet, the new iPad allows you to sketch on the screen itself. And unlike my current iPad, the Pro’s pressure-sensitive “Pencil” accessory allows the user to lightly sketch, tilt the stylus and shade, or bear down for a bold stroke. It’s closer to the pen-and-paper experience than any other digital drawing tool.

And part of me wants to try—one more time—to spend my way into skill.

games history Life Uncategorized

Invented adventure

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I attended a private Christian school. After nine years, that sheltered environment felt familiar and comforting. It was also expensive; by the summer before my freshman year of high school, my family could no longer afford the tuition, and I was forced to transfer to the local public school.

It was a rough transition. I now had 150 classmates instead of twenty; I felt lost in the crowd. To my naïve astonishment, kids brazenly smoked in the restrooms. Fist-fights broke out on the lawn outside the school almost daily. Like clockwork each day before lunch, snickering bullies shouldered me into the lockers. Worst of all, I knew absolutely no one in my class; I had to start new friendships from scratch, years after most cliques had set in stone.

Starved for social contact, I treasured those few friendships I had outside of school. In particular, I clung to a younger neighbor from our low-income neighborhood. We rode the same bus (he attended the junior high), so each day we’d hunker down in the same seat.

And there, on that bus, we’d invent worlds.

Over time, we had developed a sort of spoken role-playing game that translated well to the bus trip. My friend would talk his way through an interactive adventure that I imagined and described. I’d place his character in some godforsaken place—an abandoned warehouse, a subterranean lair, a tall tower—and he’d have to “battle” his way out. He’d tell me each move he wanted to make, and I’d explain him what happened as a result. Each bus ride became an impromptu, oral performance of a text-based adventure game—think Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide.

This imagined world was haunted by pop culture’s most famous arch-villains: the Joker. Chucky from the Child’s Play horror movies. Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger. My friend’s avatar faced off against each in turn—a series of “boss battles,” advancing from the least threatening to the most vile.

Who was that chief bad guy? None other than the Terminator, everyone’s favorite homicidal android. We so adored the Terminator films that we even named our game “Zzz-ching”—the noise the robot made as it stalked my friend through deserted corridors. Zzz-ching became our default pasttime, on the bus and off.

That year in public school was scary. I felt lonely and overwhelmed by an unfamiliar, chaotic context. As silly as it might seem, our little game represented a welcome escape. It was a world I could control completely, when the real world seemed dangerously unpredictable. It was creative work that someone else appreciated, when I felt ignored in the mass of other students. For a few minutes each morning and afternoon, Zzz-ching provided some distraction and camaraderie—just enough to make public school a bit more bearable.

Life Uncategorized

Living in Lilliput

I’m 6 foot, 2 ¼ inches tall—above average for an American man.[1] All my life, people have pointed this out, cooing “You’re so tall!”. There’s only one answer to this: “Yup.” And one inevitable response from them: “Lucky!”

Am I?

Yes, there are some perks to my height. Friends very quickly yield the shotgun seat when we carpool. Women (including my wife!) often prefer taller men. My height gives me an advantage in some sports.

But being tall isn’t all slam dunks and fawning females. There are real-life disadvantages to above-average height:

  • Clothes never fit right. I can’t buy pants off the rack (unless I’m going for the capri look). Shirt-shopping makes me feel like a teenaged girl—all too-short sleeves and exposed midriffs. I’ve been waiting a full year now for a particular ski boot to restock my size.
  • Traveling is a nightmare. As the airlines squeeze seat rows closer together, flying grows more and more unbearable. When passengers sitting in front of me recline their seat back, they mercilessly crush my legs.[2]
  • You bang your head a lot. When my wife and I moved to DC, the only apartments in our price range had very low ceilings. At one we visited, I literally couldn’t stand up straight in most rooms. Even in the basement unit we settled on, walking to the kitchen required me to duck. And older houses are even worse; every door represents a concussion, waiting to happen.

    Another household annoyance? Every work surface sits a little too low. Cutting veggies for dinner? To reach the counter, I’m forced to hunch over awkwardly. Washing up in the bathroom? Same thing: Quasimodo City. It’s no wonder that many tall people struggle with back problems.

So don’t assume tall people love their height. The world was designed for shorties.

  1. Four inches above, to be more precise.  ↩

  2. Common courtesy tip #1? Never, ever recline your seat without asking the passenger behind you.  ↩

internet Life technology Uncategorized

Mountains cure iPhoneitis.

This video made the rounds this past week. It depicts a twenty-something woman, moving through her day sans smartphone. All around her, tiny glowing screens transfix her friends and family, leaving her to experience real life all alone. It’s an effective commentary on how consumer technology isolates us, even as it connects us virtually.

When we moved to West Virginia last year, we brought our brand new smartphones with us. We soon discovered (with disappointment) just how useless those gadgets are without decent cell service. We couldn’t make a phone call inside any local building. Data coverage was nearly non-existent; Tucker County lagged three generations behind the industry standard, and what connection we had rarely worked. Downloading an email took full minutes; photos were downright impossible.

But, as with many rural “inconveniences”, handicapping our smartphones also had its blessings. When we went out to dinner, we weren’t tempted to steal a peek at Facebook. No unwelcome calls interrupted our pleasant hikes through the mountains. When taking photos, the phone slipped quickly in and out of its pocket—with no long pause to Instagram the moment.

And local culture, we noticed, adapted to fit this technological landscape. Scenes like those from the video above—so common in suburbia—were rare here. Neighbors, we realized, actually met your gaze as they passed on the sidewalk. Some (wonder of wonders!) even smiled and said “Hello.” After years in Boston and D.C., this friendliness felt both strange and welcome. The area’s lackluster cell coverage kept iPhoneitis at bay and preserved Tucker County as a small oasis—a bubble of hospitality and awareness.

That bubble just burst. In recent weeks, AT&T has upgraded its cell service in our little town. It’s not unusual to catch a whiff of 4G here and there. And that’s not all bad; improved wireless will link Tucker County to the wider world, help visitors find their way around, and encourage tech-minded professionals to move here. But even if we appreciate the advantages of ubiquitous connection, we’ve can also mourn what we’ve lost.

Life technology Uncategorized

Amazon Prime: the rural escapee’s best friend

When we moved to rural West Virginia last year, we knew the remote location would pose some challenges. There aren’t many doctors nearby, for example. It takes an hour to reach the nearest hospital. We drive twenty-five miles just to get our oil changed.

But the biggest headache? Shopping. Like all good Americans, we had grown accustomed to certain “retail conveniences.” Groceries stores with decent produce. Outdoor stores catering to our taste for adventure. And, of course, Big Box Mart for everything else. But our little mountain town boasts none of these niceties. It takes forty minutes to reach the nearest shopping center.

Amazon Prime to the rescue. For $79 a year, we can have just about anything delivered—for free—to our doorstep. We’ve ordered household items (e.g. an adapter for our grill), food (especially dry goods, like cereal and dried cranberries), clothes, backpacking gear, car parts, vitamins… and all that in the last few months. Most of these items simply aren’t available anywhere near where we live.

We could make rural life work without Amazon, of course. Build up a shopping list, then buy our crap when we’re out of town. But with Prime, household life rolls on here, pretty much like it would anywhere else.

Life Uncategorized

Tatooine mornings (faking the sunrise)

We’ve wandered too far from home. Although our species evolved near the equator, we’ve migrated well beyond our natural habitat, colonizing the planet’s extreme northern and southern latitudes. And our bodies aren’t well-suited to handle this displacement.

More specifically, the short days of winter wreak havoc on our circadian rhythms, our internal clock. Typically, these rhythms wake us up at sunrise, then and settle us down at night. But when the days grow short, this clock compensates; soon, we feel tempted to sleep through the long nights.

Fifteen-hour naps don’t fly for the working man, unfortunately. To counteract the effect of winter’s too-short days, I use two gizmos. The first, a “light box”, does exactly what its name suggests. It pumps out 10000 lux of full-spectrum light, (supposedly) calibrated to imitate the sun’s wavelengths. By sitting in front of the light box first thing every morning, I trick my body into thinking the sun has risen.

The other device, a radiant space heater, produces a warm, orange light. It may not have clinical effects (like the light box does), but it’s a pleasant sensation, akin to a fire’s glow or the sun’s rays. Plus, it keeps me warm on cold winter mornings.

Together, these two gadgets help me to counteract seasonal affective disorder. I haul myself out of bed, plop down in front of them, and soak in the light while meditating or reading the news. Then, I’ll often keep the devices powered while I write or draw before work.

In other words, I remake the sun.

Life Uncategorized

Rooting for snowstorms

For as long as I can remember, I’ve rooted for snowstorms.

As a kid, I wasn’t alone. What student doesn’t celebrate when school gets cancelled? Lying half-awake in the pre-dawn dark, I’d switch on the radio. The newscasters rattled off local cancellations, and I desperately hoped to get lucky.

But that doesn’t explain why I still love a good blizzard, even as an adult. After all, working stiffs don’t get many “snow days.” No, I love snowstorms because they feel apocalyptic. A taste of catastrophe from the safety of my living room.

My love affair with any given winter storm starts long before it strikes. I spend the season tracing the jet stream, hoping for an expressway to open up between the moisture-rich Gulf and my Appalachian home. I pray for cold air to tumble down from the frozen north.

As a storm approaches, my obsession grows more severe. I watch the radar constantly, willing the darker blues to slide my way. I curse the weatherman who downplays the storm and venerate his hyperbolic colleague. When local newscasts (inevitably) freak out, their reports from the empty bread aisle fill me with glee.

Once the first flakes begin to drift down, I stop watching the radar and start watching the window. The car’s hood measures the accumulation totals for me, and as long as the pile keeps growing, I’m in heaven. I love how snow mutes traffic. How it shrouds winter’s grim pall and the skeletal trees. How familiar streets feel abandoned and hostile as the snow falls.

Storm-love has its dark side, of course. A similar impulse drives me to YouTube every time a major weather event strikes elsewhere. Asia tsunamis and California earthquakes enthrall me, entire divorced from any compassion for the victims.

But as long as no one gets hurt, apocalypse in miniature feels kind of fun.

Life Uncategorized

Package design 101

I love cereal. Breakfast cereal nears culinary perfection–appropriate for any meal, snack, or dessert. But certain situations do require certain cereals. Sometimes you need Froot Loops’ frivolity, austere moods demand bran flakes, and so on. The secret to eternal happiness may well lie in one’s ability to discern the right Cheerio for any given moment.

Imagine my frustration, then, with this pantry travesty:


Hannaford, my local supermarket, uses one fixed template for their entire off-brand cereal line. And, whether by design or diabolical plan, my favorite varieties share this purply-blue hue. Every time I go to pour a bowl, I have to re-read the box labels–or risk substituting granola for raisin bran.

If your customers only recognize your packaging after a close inspection, something’s gone wrong. Make your product lines iconic, differentiated, unmistakable. Make them like this:

Ever grabbed Sprite when you meant to grab Coke? Yeah, me neither.

Ever grabbed Sprite when you meant to grab Coke? Yeah, me neither. Courtesy teachernz.