What’s making me happy this week, March 21

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A look at what’s making me happy this week, and how you can enjoy them, too. You’ll find an archive of my “happy picks” here.

A man, a wizard and a shape-shifting badger walk into a bar.

My favorite thing this week is the podcast Hello from the Magic Tavern. It’s a hilarious, fantasy-based improv comedy show that’s set up like this: Host Arnie fell through a magical portal behind a Chicago Burger King into the magical land of Foon. Fortunatley he had his podasting equipment with him, which he uses to record a weekly podcast from the tavern The Vermillion Minotaur, in the town of Hog’s Face in the land of Foon.

Each week Arnie and his cohosts — a blustery wizard named Usidore (his full name is too long to type here) and a shape-shifter who usually resembles a badger named Chunt — add to the “canon” of the show by introducing facts, guests and an ever-evolving backstory.

It’s not for everyone. You might find it annoying. It’s a bit NSFW. But boy, is it funny. The characters are fun and engaging. I especially like when the actors push each other into some tricky improv bit while remaining in character.

If you listen, start from the beginning, as  you’ll appreciate the in-jokes and references as the show goes on. You’ll love it, bay-beee!

What’s making me happy this week, March 7

santaclaritadietImagine a version of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in which Ozzie kills people so that Harriet Nelson may eat them.

That’s Netflix’s The Santa Clarita Diet.

Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant play Sheila and Joel, two successful realtors in the eponymous town. Their problems are typical of upper middle-class American suburbanites: Sheila wishes she were more spontaneous, Joel longs for the nerve to confront his obnoxious neighbor and their teenage daughter, Abby (played by Liv Hewson) wants to be anywhere but Santa Clarita.

Then Shelia (briefly) dies after a staggering bout of vomiting and finds herself riding the high an unbridled id, a revived libido and an overwhelming need to consume human flesh.

That’s in the first 10 minutes.

Drew is fantastic as Shelia, and her performance here reminds me of how well she can do physical comedy. Whether it’s a perfectly timed expression of exasperation or an unexpected prat fall, Drew makes me genuinely laugh.

Liv Hewson is great as the sardonic teen. Fortunately her performance never falls into that of the stereotypically sullen teen with well-off parents. She holds her own against Barrymore and Olyphant, making Abby into an interesting character, not just a caricature.

But really, this is Timothy Olyphant’s show.

As Shelia’s “condition” worsens – she goes from eating raw beef to drinking human smoothies while power-walking in a track suit – the strain on Joel’s face and his demeanor becomes delightfully pronounced. He’s a pot of boiling water whose rattling lid barely contains the bubbling, steaming cauldron beneath, and he plays it wonderfully. From his facial expressions to the forced, almost insane smile and “NO, REALLY, IT’S FINE” demeanor, Olyphant is a delight to watch.

There’s a bit for everyone here: The show is funny, with many quotable lines I won’t spoil. The show is gory. Keep a finger on the fast-forward button if the thought of Drew Barrymore eating a foot turns you off. The show has zombie lore, if that’s something you’re into. Lastly, there are some great cameos.

When the movie Scream was released, I said, “Any movie that kills Drew Barrymore within the first 10 minutes isn’t fooling around.” The same can be said of a TV show that turns her into a flesh-eating zombie in the same amount of time. Yes it’s a little gory, but it’s also clever, witty, funny and fun. Go now and watch The Santa Clarita Diet. Just, you know. After you’ve eaten.

Eliminate little hassles for job satisfaction

I started a new job last September and it’s the happiest and most satisfied I’ve been at work for a long, long time. I’m doing something I know how to do very well, something I’m good at (if I may be immodest for a moment) and something I simply enjoy. Aside from all of that, a huge factor in my current job satisfaction is management of the little hassles.

It’s common to downplay the day-to-day hassles when there are “bigger fish to fry,” but in my experience, these daily hassles can have a huge impact on overall satisfaction. I like to set aside time to tackle them all at once, for two reasons.

The first is time and energy available. Most of these little irritations or minor administrative tasks can be completed with a minimal effort or time commitment. Therefore, I save them for the end of the day when I lack the focus or energy for heftier work. Also, buy “chunking” these issues, I get to experience the rewarding satisfaction of fixing them over and over. It’s an easy win for boosting satisfaction.

Try to identify the minor hassles in your day-to-day, as well as a block of time that’s dedicated to addressing them. You’ll find it’s a very rewarding practice.

Introducing Cereal Sommelier, my new podcast

I’ve got a new podcast about cartoons and cereal. It’s a dumb as you think.

csAbout a year ago I got an idea for a podcast while vacuuming the library at Nauset Regional High School. As usual, I was listening to The Twilight Pwn. It was a great show about The Twilight Zone that featured two hosts, John and Fred. The pair reviewed the landmark TV series one episode at a time. The were funny and smart, and they made a show that was entertaining as well as informative. The “Inevitable MST3K Connection” was a favorite segment, as well as running gags about Robby the Robot and the dreaded “Inflation Calculation” jingle.

At this time Home Work had ended and I was playing with doing something completely different. Maybe I’d do a panel show about something that I loved. I had a lot of lousy ideas*:

  • My favorite Sandwiches
  • The history of the napkin
  • Interviews with random people I admire

Later I was inspired by Scott McNulty’s Random Trek (which I love), in which Scott and a guest review a randomly-selected episode of Trek from the show’s vast history. I played with the idea of doing the same for The Twilight Zone, but really, John and Fred (and others) have that covered.

Finally, I had the worst idea of all. It’s the one I went with.

A guest and I would review a randomly-chosen episode of a Saturday Morning cartoon from the 1970’s and ‘80s. There would be two types of episodes: the odd-numbered ones introduce the guest and the episode that we’d review in the even-numbered episodes. I’d provide a link pointing to where the ep. could be watched online.

Finally, the “cereal sommelier” would pair the perfect sugar cereal with that week’s selection, in a bit of tongue-in-cheek nonsense that lent itself to a very clever name.

Thus, Cereal Sommelier was born.

Episode one is now available. In it, I set up the show, and reveal next week’s cartoon, cereal selection and guest. I sincerely hope you enjoy it and tell your friends.

After nearly five years of discussing working from home and productivity, I’m thrilled to have a show about nostalgia, fun and utter nonsense. Listen, subscribe and share. Yay!

Big thanks to Iconfactory’s Ged Maheux for the stunning logo, and to Hologram Radio for hosting.

*Not made up. These were real ideas.

Dave’s 2016: Board games

“I love board games” is inaccurate because “love” isn’t strong enough a word.

For the past few years, I’ve been getting together with friends every Monday and Thursday night to play tabletop games. Monday is “RPG Night” and Thursday is “Game Night,” where we pull something off the shelves and have at it. It’s my main hobby and I love it.

There’s something about sitting around, laughing, having a couple of beers and playing a game that I truly love. It’s a fantastic way to spend time with friends, make new ones and create lasting stories, especially on RPG night. Like that time with the bear trap, or the grenade in the jail cell. Or the silver letter opener. Trust me, those stories are hilarious.

In 2016 I played a lot of games, and these were some of the standouts.

Concept

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A great party game that’s always good for a few laughs. One person knows a secret word or phrase that he must make there others say. This is done by identifying icons on a board that somehow relate to the target word or saying. You’ve got to get creative and I’ve seen some very clever clue-giving. I’ve witnessed a lot of train wrecks too, and that’s part of the fun.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

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This a worker placement /asset management game that I love to play. It’s got a Mayan calendar theme, so you’ve only got four “seasons” to gather resources, please the gods and earn the most points. Trust me, it’s more fun than it sounds. In fact, this is one game I’m happy to play anytime, over and over. Incidentally, it doesn’t look this nice out of the box. My friend Dave painted this copy, and it’s gorgeous.

A Study in Emerald

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Do you like Neil Gaiman ? Do you like Lovecraftian Elder Gods ? This is the game for you. Close portals and save Earth from insanity-inducing ancient ones. Here’s a little background for you .

Wombat Rescue

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Wombats poop cubes . In this game, you must find the optimal journey between Point A and Point B for your little wombat. How will he find his way back? By pooping, of course. Lay down and follow a clever trial of cube poops.

Ten Candles

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Probably my favorite indie game of 2016, Ten Candles is a nihilist RPG in which all of the characters will die. It’s guaranteed, you won’t survive, don’t try. You will, however, make up a compelling and dark story with your comrades. The mechanic of actually blowing out 10 real candles adds a lot to the tense, somber mood of this very fun game.

There were many, many more of course. These are just highlights. Perhaps I’ll feature RPGs or indie game or something in the future. Until then, pick up anyone of these titles and you’ll have a great time.

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Dave’s 2016: Photos I took while working as a custodian

I spent eight weeks of 2016 working as a school custodian. It was a temp summer gig that I found quite enjoyable. The students were out for the summer so I spent my days painting, waxing, mopping and so on. It was solitary work that let me listen to podcasts and quitely work on my own all day long. I really enjoyed it.

Every now and then I’d take photos as I worked. Here are a few that I like. Enjoy, and be kind to your custodian!

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There you have it.

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Google Pixel XL: First few hours

Sorry, Steve.
Sorry, Steve.

Earlier tonight I picked up my Google Pixel XL from the Verizon store. After a few hours of playing around, I’m figuring things out, including the fact that I’ve got a lot to learn.

First, what’s in the box.

The Pixel XL comes in a tidy box larger than I expected it to be. It’s made of solid cardboard that fits together just so. In short, it feels like quality packaging.

Inside is the following:

  1. A mini quick-start guide
  2. A card on Google Assistant
  3. A card on Google Play Music
  4. A thank-you card
  5. A mini manual (and I mean “mini”)

There’s also an adapter for importing info from an iPhone (a process that worked flawlessly for me), two cables and a big, honking wall charger. Lastly, there’s a tool for removing the SIM card.

To call these "flyers" is generous. Let's go with "cards."
To call these “flyers” is generous. Let’s go with “cards.”

The phone itself

It feels very nice in the hand. The taper that many have mentioned…it’s a wedge shape, thicker at the top and thinner at the bottom…is likely in place to avoid camera bulge and does not affect the feel of the phone. I was afraid it would feel top heavy but that’s not the case. It’s really well balanced.

The sides are nice and grippy and it’s definitely less slippery than my iPhone 6S was. Also notable is that piece of glass that covers the top third of the rear case. I guess Google was going for something distinctive and iconic there, but ultimately it’s unnecessary and kind of goofy. Like a rear spoiler on a Toyota Corolla.

The good

There are a few things I like right off the bat. First is the placement of the fingerprint sensor. It really makes sense on the rear of the phone, as the way I hold the thing places my finger right where the sensor is. The phone is also just as fast as you’ve read. Apps launch very quickly and are quite responsive. Additionally, the power button on the side is textured, making it very easy to find without looking.

The mildly irksome

There are a few things that irk me a bit. Chief among them is the inconsistency among app icon design. Google is pushing circular icons as a standard, and many developers have not updated their icons yet. So you get some that are round, some that are square, some that are simply a logo. It’s messy.

By default, the phone is set to vibrate whenever you hit any button. Type a letter, it vibrates. Hit a home button, it vibrates. It’s extremely annoying but I was able to disable it. Thank goodness.

Lastly, “jiggle mode” is not persistent. If you long-tap so that you can re-arrange icons, you can move one and then you leave jiggle mode automatically. Unless I’m doing it wrong. Which is likely.

So far, I’m happy with this device but honestly I’ve only had it for a few hours. Tomorrow will be my first full day with it. I’ll be sharing everything here so keep an eye out. Talk to you soon.

Switching from iPhone to Pixel

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I wanted to Photoshop a Pixel into Judas’ hand but I don’t know how to do that. So imagine that it’s there.

“You’re a traitor.” – My 13-year-old daughter to me, as I purchased my Google Pixel XL.

After nine years of iPhone ownership, I’ve switched to Android by buying a Google Pixel XL. This article is about why.

Let me begin with what did not motivate my decision. First: I love the iPhone. When I picked up the original model on June 29, 2007, I declared it, “The coolest thing I’ve ever owned.” Subsequent models have only reinforced that assertion with huge leaps in features, design, utility and fun.

The iPhone defined a market and created several cottage industries, from case manufacturers to blogs and podcasts that feature reviews, opinions and discussions around the device’s present and future. The App Store is an economy that provides a sustaining income for developers, designers, copy writers and more.

That little slab of metal and glass has been my constant companion for nearly a decade, providing entertainment, timely reminders, easy communication with friends and family, near ubiquitous, on-demand access to work files, gorgeous photos and more reliably and with grace. I love the iPhone and did not by a Pixel as a reaction to some gripe with Apple. So why did I switch? A few reasons.

The time is right

pixelI’ve always been Android-curious. I’ve taken glimpses over Android-wielding friends’ shoulders over the past few years, but rarely liked what I saw. Android seemed like an OS built for developers, not civilians like me. Likewise, I dislike the model that divorces hardware and software development. As a result, my curiosity about Android remained just that: curiosity.

Meanwhile, I slowly and quite unintentionally added Google apps and services to my iPhone. The Google App for iPhone is fantastic for reminders, scheduling, search and timely news. I check it several times per day and love it. Google Calendar has been my choice for years, and Google Photos has managed my digital image library since it was first released. Likewise, I’ve been using Google Docs and Drive to collaborate for as long as I can remember.

At the same time, I abandoned Apple’s Calendar, Photos, News and Pages. Not intentionally or even consciously. It’s just that Google’s solutions worked beautifully on my iPhone, so I used them.

Enter the Pixel

Google’s Pixel announcement happened just as I was thinking about replacing my iPhone 6S. I was intrigued by a piece of hardware designed by Google, running “pure” Android with deep integration with the services I loved. I held off on the iPhone 7 and took some time to read reviews:

Dieter Bohn liked it.
Walt Mossberg liked it.
Joanna Stern liked it.
John Gruber sent me a brief but glowing “Twitter review.”
Myke Hurley had nice things to say.*

I watched several hands-on videos and listened to – a first here – a couple of episodes of the Android Central Podcast. The hosts were nit-picky but overall enthusiastic.

I felt a stirring inside. The time was right. Which leads me to…

I want the fun of an adventure

I have two children. I try to instill in them a sense of adventure and curiosity about our world. Here’s a quick story.

Recently we spent a long weekend out of state. At one point, we needed to get a new charger for his iPad. He was annoyed that his charger and died, and even more bothered when I told him that he’d come with me to find a replacement. “Why can’t you just go?” he asked.

“You don’t want to come? It’ll be an adventure!”

“Going to Best Buy is not an adventure.”

But it is. We’re in a new state. We’re in a town we’ve never seen before. We’ll travel through new (to us) neighborhoods, see new people and yes, visit a new strip mall. There was a little mom-and-pop corner store that we went into and saw a black-and-white photo of a man in a chicken suit. I got a Coke and we talked to the cashier. He told us about local legend Chicken Man and pointed us to Best Buy. As we drove back to the hotel, my son said, “That was fun.” It was.

Using an Android phone for the next two years will be an adventure. It will be fun. Oh, there will be things I’ll miss, like Twitterrific, Spark, iMessages (I’m REALLY going to miss iMessages) and something I’m calling Knowing How To Operate My Damn Phone, but I’m still looking forward to it. The time is right. The device is right. I might hate it; I might love it. I’m eager to find out.

Of course, I’ll be writing exhaustively about the process here. The adventure begins on Tuesday. See you then.

*Myke offers a bit of “real talk” on the episode of his vlog about his own Pixel XL. He says, in part:

“I can switch phones. It’s totally fine. We’re not fighting a war here, from device to device, from operating system to operating system. Apple isn’t an underdog anymore. Android isn’t an underdog. They’re both levelly placed on this huge playing field…It’s totally fine for people to like two tech companies, three tech companies, four tech companies and enjoy the products that they make.”

Amen, Myke. Now please explain that to my daughter, OK?

Apple Watch Series 2’s shifting focus

watchseries2Apple released the second iteration of its Apple Watch — called Apple Watch Series 2 — about a month ago. This update is in line with the company’s preference of small, steady improvements over huge leaps forward. It looks almost identical to its predecessor and features nice changes like on-board GPS, dramatically increased water resistance, a faster processor and an improved display. All in all, it’s a sweet piece of kit.

Is it enough to warrant upgrading from the original model, which is just 18 months old? I don’t think so. It does, however, offer two things: a renewed focus on athletic owners, and a strong incentive for those who passed on the original. That’s the sentiment I’m seeing in the initial reviews.

Writing for CNN Money, Samantha Murphy Kelly notes that, while still a splurge at $369, “…the Apple Watch is finally getting closer to where it should have been all along.”

I should note here that the original model is still available with a price drop and improved processor. That’s more affordable, but it lacks the swim tracking, superior water protection, brighter screen and built-in GPS that make its successor so appealing.

Over at Ars Technica, Valentina Palladino calls the Series 2 “…still optional, but pleasantly defined.”

Meanwhile, The Verge‘s Lauren Goode hits on something I want to examine further. With this update, she notes, the Apple Watch is first and foremost fitness tracker:

“The Apple Watch Series 2 is exactly [a fitness tracker]. It’s what Apple had resisted calling its wearable for the past year and a half, even declining to categorize it as such when citing industry rankings, opting for the ‘smartwatch’ category instead. It is, definitely, still a smartwatch. But the Watch now has focus, and that’s a good thing.”

Apple even announced a partnership with Nike, resulting in the Apple Watch Nike +. It comes with a few exclusives, including a perforated sport band, Nike-themed watch faces and a list of unique Siri commands, as well as deep integration with the Nike+ Run Club app.

Apple’s renewed focus on the Watch as a fitness device is notable because it contrasts earlier marketing efforts and speaks to its future.

Fitness

When Apple Watch was introduced, Apple positioned it as a fitness tracker but also as a fashion accessory. You’ll remember that model model Christy Turlington Burns joined Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage in 2015 for the device’s introduction. It was a smart move, as Christy — a model and marathoner — represents both fashion and athletics. Christy then posted a series of videos chronicling her use of the Watch in a half marathon.

But really, fashion was the real push.

In October of 2014, shortly after the original device’s announcement, Vogue China featured supermodel Liu Wen sporting the Apple Watch on its October cover. In the following weeks, the Watch appeared on the pages of Vogue France, Vogue USA, Self (USA), and Style (UK). It was a smart move, as it allowed Apple to court an industry that was foreign to the tech giant.

You could argue that is was also a bit of misdirection away from the original model’s deficits: No GPS capability, moderate water protection, a screen that’s hard to read in bright sun. With Series 2, Apple has addressed those issues and is all about touting the device to athletes.

Built-in GPS is great for runners who don’t want to drag an iPhone along. A screen that’s twice as bright as version one means its easier to read outdoors. The real benefit here is for swimmers.

applewatchswimmingApple Watch Series 2 is water resistant up to 50 meters. The Workout app tracks both pool swims and open-water swims, recording laps, distance and stroke. When you opt to start a swim workout, the Watch locks its touchscreen display so that you won’t accidentally engage it during your workout. When you’re done, turn the crown and hit “End.” The speaker then ejects water that was collected while you were in the water.

But really you needn’t be a swimmer to reap this benefit. A water-lock feature is available outside of swimming workouts by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Ever use the shower at the gym? Now you don’t have remove your Apple Watch and pray that no one finds it.

Should you buy?

What does this all mean for making a purchase decision? If you’re main focus is fitness, and you don’t own an original Apple Watch…and you have $400 lying around…Series 2 is a great way to go. Apple’s renewed focus on fitness bodes will for the device’s future.

Those looking for a one-stop wearable should consider the lower-cost Apple Watch. Current models have a faster processor than the those sold in the first go-round and start at $269.

Finally, WatchOS3 has made many original Watch owners — myself included — feel like we got a new device. So I’m happy with my OG Watch.

As for the device itself, it’s just a bit thicker and heavier than the original, but it’s not noticeable on the wrist. It’s still available in the same case sizes (38mm and 42mm), as well as aluminum and stainless steel. Note that a new high-end material, ceramic, has replaced the gold model.

Smartwatches will likely never be as essential as smart phones (especially as long as they rely on a Bluetooth tether for internet connectivity), but they’re maturing into the useful accessory that manufacturers want them to be. Apple Watch Series 2 is a nice step towards that goal.