Retrospective: 2016

Retrospective: 2016

As has become my custom, I take a look back at the previous year, the good and the bad, the surprising and the obvious, and reflect on the year as a whole. Many would agree with me that 2016 was not a great year. It saw turbulence across the globe, in all aspects of daily life. From the unfortunate events leading to Black Lives Matter, to the impossible-to-predict effects of the Brexit vote, the huge political upset in the United States where a TV reality star and business mogul won the Presidency, and technology became not just an effect on everyday life, but became responsible for affecting actual change. It has been a year for the record books, and not necessarily in a good way.

As for myself, I’ll be happy to put 2016 in the past, and move forward into the future.

This year, looking back, it was clearly about one thing for Jenny and I: my parents. By the end of this year, I was feeling the effects of the stress and weariness of the pressure of dealing with my father’s deteriorating health, and my mother’s need for assistance with the same. It’s never easy to see your parents getting older and dealing with their age; I’m learning how difficult that is first-hand.

Still, I’m gratified by the fact that Jenny and I are in a position to provide the assistance they need; things would only be more stressful if we weren’t.

So breaking down this year falls into a few distinct categories: Mom and Dad; Mom’s Health; Dad’s Health; and Jenny and I. I’ll also throw in the Things That Changed category, where I detail all the things that changed in our lives (other than the clearly obvious ones).

Mom and Dad

By the end of 2015, it was clear that Mom and Dad needed to move closer to family, whether that be myself, my brother Don, or Dad’s family in San Antonio. Their secluded property in East Texas was not healthy for them, and they could no longer rely entirely on each other for their daily needs.

On January 8th, we paid the deposit on an apartment for them in Houston, and the move was officially on. Over the next few weeks, I would make nearly weekly trips up to the property to help pack, and prepare things for the move.

 

On January 24th, during one of those trips, we nearly lost Freckles (one of our two dogs) when she got loose during a bathroom run. There was an enormous open field that she could have run for miles and miles, and she was not at all interested in returning to us. Fortunately, there was another man walking his dog nearby, and she decided to run and bark (and torment) that dog, rather than run off, or run the other direction into traffic. The man helped us capture Freckles, and we were able to get her back into the car, and ultimately, home. We were upset with her for several days afterward, but she wormed her way back into our good graces with her cuteness. Hopefully we never experience that again—it was frightening.

On February 5th, Mom and Dad officially put the property up for sale, as it was clear that they would no longer need it, and would need the money at some point in the future.

On March 5th, the movers arrived at the property, and loaded up the majority of what Mom and Dad needed for the apartment in Houston. We got everything into the apartment, and settled enough for them to spend their first night back in Houston that evening. Of course, the next few days (and weeks) were spent getting them all settled into their new home.

On April 16th, I was able to take Dad out for lunch for his 75th birthday. While we were out, we drove over to the old neighborhood and looked at the house we lived in for so many years.

On May 7th, I took my mother out for lunch for her birthday, and just kind of enjoyed an afternoon with her. The very next day, on May 8th, Mom, Dad, Jenny and I all went to an Astros game at Minute Maid Park, where we had fantastic seats in the Crawford boxes. The game was played on Mother’s Day, so the Astros were decked out in pink. Sadly though, I was not able to get a ball.

In July, Dad took a trip to Michigan to stay with Don and Saundra for a couple of weeks. He left on July 16th, and returned on the 31st. It was kind of a miracle that he was able to go at all, as he was in the hospital up until the day he left—more on that in the Dad’s Health section.

While Dad was in Michigan, Mom adopted a new dog named Honey. Though he’s got his issues, he has helped fill a void in Mom’s life, since the passing of her dear dog Buddy, in late 2015. Honey has become a full member of the family, for sure.

On August 19th, Mom and Dad were having some issues, and Mom moved in temporarily with Jenny and I, giving her some time to have space from Dad. She didn’t intend on staying that long, but surgeries, and other issues prevented her moving back until October 22nd.

On August 29th, Dad decided to take the Mini out for a drive, just to see if he could still drive. He couldn’t. He hit a tree and got lost, and ended up calling the police, who took him home. Mom and I retrieved the car the next day and returned it to the apartment.

As a result of many factors, Mom and I broached the topic of assisted living with Dad on September 7th. He wasn’t completely against the idea, which surprised both Mom and I, and so we began a search for a place for him in earnest.

The very next day, September 8th, my grandmother, and Dad’s mother passed away, at age 94. She had been suffering from dementia for years, and had been on her deathbed for quite some time, so it was not surprising to anybody, really. Still, it was a sad day. All four of us traveled to San Antonio on September 12th to attend her funeral. We let Dad stay for a few days to visit with family afterward, and I returned to pick him up later in the week.

Later in September, on the 24th, Mom and I toured a place named Brookdale Shadowlake for the first time. It was immediately obvious it was at the top of the list for assisted living for Dad. We would look at some other places, but none of them were as nice or helpful as Brookdale.

While trying to make plans to get Dad into Brookdale, Mom’s wallet was stolen on October 3rd, while she was shopping at Walmart. Then, on October 6th, when trying to get the Mini fixed, we found out the car was totaled, since the repairs would cost more than the car was worth. This would lead to an actually positive result, but at the time, was less than ideal.

As a result of Grandma’s passing, the inheritance allowed Mom to afford a brand-new car, which she purchased on October 15th. It was her first-ever brand-new car, and she absolutely loves it. She purchased a Kia Sportage, which is large enough to fit Dad’s wheelchair, and easy enough for him to get in and out of. It also happens to have some very nice features, like an enormous sunroof, and leather seating.

On October 30th, we moved Dad’s belongings into Brookdale (he was still in a physical rehab facility during this time). His new home was settled, and all of us eagerly awaited his arrival there. We were excited for him, as he would get the help he needed, as well as some social interaction with people other than Mom and I. He officially moved in on November 7th, when he was released from physical rehab, and was much stronger and more alert than when he arrived there. The very next day, on November 8th, we brought over a replacement TV stand for him, as he fell and destroyed the existing one after less than 24 hours in his new place.

Mom moved in with Jenny and I officially on November 4th, and we spent the new few weeks cleaning up and removing items from the apartment, before turning in the keys by the end of November.

In all, it had been a whirlwind year, but finally, things have begun to settle down to a new normality, which we all need desperately.

Mom’s Health

Mom was really quite healthy all year, but had several surgeries, and a couple of mishaps during the year.

On May 20th, she had a tooth removed, which required some minor surgery.

On July 7th, she had surgery for carpal tunnel in her right hand.

On August 18th, she was admitted to the hospital for observation, after I took her to the ER for chest and neck pains. She was discharged the next day, but it was never clear what the cause was, other than low magnesium.

On September 15th, Mom had a major surgery for a hysterectomy, which required quite a bit of recovery, and limitations to physical activity. This was one of the main reasons she stayed with Jenny and I, rather than returning to the apartment.

On September 20th, Mom and I returned to the ER believing she had internal bleeding, as a result of the surgery. Fortunately, this turned out not to be true, and she was sent home without being admitted.

On October 7th, the day we were clearing out the Mini, Mom fell and hurt her knee rather badly. Fortunately, nothing was broken, but the swelling and bruising was quite considerable, and took several weeks to clear up.

Lastly, on December 8th, Mom had her other carpal tunnel surgery, this time on her left hand, which will hopefully allow her to live pain-free in both hands.

Dad’s Health

Over the past couple of years, Dad has suffered from numerous UTI’s, leading to hospitalization several times. 2016 was no different, and like clockwork, he suffered from the same conditions.

On March 12th, less than a week after moving to Houston, he was admitted to the hospital with a UTI.

He was back in the ER almost exactly 2 months later on May 13th with another UTI. He was not admitted this time, but sent home with antibiotics.

Almost exactly two months later (again), he was admitted to the hospital on July 14th with a UTI. This was just a couple of days before his scheduled trip to Michigan, and we feared he wasn’t going to be able to go. Fortunately, he was given a good bill of health, and released on the 16th, just in time to get to the airport and make his flight.

On October 3rd, Dad had his first visit with the VA doctor, who is his Primary Physician now. It was a great visit, and something that we should have done sooner. The VA has been great.

Unfortunately, on October 15th, Dad was admitted to the hospital once again for a UTI. This one was nearly 3 months to the day since his last hospitalization for the same. This also happened to be the same day we were out with Mom buying her a new car. We had to go straight from the dealership to the hospital, as his condition noticeably worsened over the course of a couple of hours. This was the worst UTI he’s had in quite some time, and resulted in his being sent to a physical rehab facility to help him get his strength back.

On November 1st, Dad had an appointment with the VA hospital in the Houston medical center for a mental evaluation. It was a chaotic and stressful day, and not one of Dad’s finest. He was officially diagnosed with Dementia, which Mom and I had suspected for some time, but was finally confirmed.

Now that he’s been in Brookdale for over a month, he’s doing much better, though the cost of the facility (which is increasing January 1st) will prevent us from keeping him there indefinitely. Already, Mom and I are having to look at alternatives.

On November 8th, the check for the property arrived, closing the door on that chapter of their lives. The trailer was (literally) buried and gone, and the next chapter for Mom and Dad has begun.

Jenny and I

Though 2016 was a rough year, it wasn’t without its moments. As is usually the case, Jenny and I had our own things we wanted to do this year, and were able to accomplish some of them.

On January 16th, I hosted my first LAN party at the house. This is a party where my friends and I get together and play computer games. It takes over the whole house, as it’s filled with men, their computers, and lots of swearing and yelling, but it was a lot of fun, even if I’m getting too old to play games for hours on end without sleep.

On March 1st, I flew to Dallas, TX to receive my performance review. It was nice to get to meet some of my co-workers in person for the first time there. I got a good review, which I’ve come to be proud of, and overall, it was a nice day-trip.

On March 8th, Jenny got into a tiny car accident, causing minimal damage to her car, and none to the other, so no insurance claim was filed by either party.

On March 12th, Jenny and I went to the Livestock Show to visit with some friends of Jenny’s, who were in town.

Later, on March 19th, I was the ‘official’ photographer for Jenny’s Aunt Beth’s 90th birthday party. I got some excellent photos, and the family was very appreciative of my efforts.

April 7th through the 10th, Jenny and I traveled to Memphis, TN for a trip we had been looking forward to for quite some time. We rented an Airbnb for the first time for the trip, which worked out pretty nicely. Unfortunately, Jenny had a severe migraine for most of the trip, so it wasn’t as enjoyable of a trip as we’re used to taking, but we still had a good time. We visited the Lorraine Motel, and the Civil Rights museum, as well as walked along Beale Street, and ate once again at Rendezvous, which was just as good as I’d remembered.

On May 31st, I headed out for a trip to Chicago for work, where I got to meet several of my colleagues from Canada, who were in town for their annual meetings. We had a large group that went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, which was very fun. The Cubs won the game, too, which was nice.

On June 26th, my brother Don and his wife Saundra came to town to visit Dad. They stayed with Jenny and I and were around through July 4th, so got to take part in our first fireworks display at our house. It wasn’t much, but was still fun.

While here, we went for a road trip with Don and Saundra to Waco, TX, where we visited the Magnolia Silos, made famous by the TV show Fixer Upper with Chip and Joanna Gaines. Neither Jenny or I had seen the show before going there, so it didn’t mean all that much to us, but Don & Saundra were excited.

Later in July, on the 24th, we got a group together to go see the new Star Trek Beyond film, but shortly before the movie started, the power at the theater went out, so we ended up having to take a rain-check. We would end up seeing the film the following week.

On September 23rd, I began an epic teardown of all my LEGO modular buildings, in preparation for putting my my annual LEGO Christmas village. The only place we had to put it up this year was in my office, and so I had to make room somehow.

Jenny went back to Waco on October 7th, along with her dad, hoping to get copies of a book written by a family member decades ago. Unfortunately, it’s still under copyright, so only 30 pages or so could be photocopied. There are only two known existing copies of the book—one of which is in Waco, and the other is in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

On October 22nd, history was made when the Chicago Cubs won the NLCS and advanced to the World Series for the first time in 71 years, and went on to win the World Series on November 2nd, in an epic Game 7, giving the Cubs their first championship since 1908 – a 108 year wait. Needless to say, the city of Chicago, and all Cubs fans across the country went nuts. The fact that I was able to attend a game at Wrigley during their winning season helps me feel a part of it.

On November 8th, the country took to the polls, and Mom and I watched the returns closely for most of the night. When it was all over and counted, Donald Trump had won the electoral college (though not the popular vote) to become the next president of the United States. It was one of the biggest upsets in modern history.

November brought other things to our home, like a baby shower for Jenny’s cousin, Tamara on the 12th. We spent a lot of time preparing the house, cleaning, and getting things ready. Once that day arrived, I left the house to avoid all the ladies, and went and visited my dad at Brookdale.

On November 13th, I finally convinced Jenny to let me get a drone. I’ve been wanting one for a long time, but since my ‘helicopter’ accident back in 2010, Jenny wouldn’t let me near anything that flies. I got an insanely good deal on a DJI Phantom 3 Standard, which I couldn’t pass up, and so we bought it. I was immediately hooked by how awesome drones are, and am a huge drone enthusiast now. I’m always on the lookout now for places to fly it. I even used it at Thanksgiving for a family portrait. Speaking of which…

Later in November, we celebrated Thanksgiving at home, with many family members, including Mom and Dad. We had about 19 people at our house for the holiday, and it worked out pretty successfully. It wouldn’t be the last holiday we hosted this year though.

Moving into the final month of the year, there was still a lot on the agenda. On December 7th, Jenny got her early birthday present, the Cozmo robot, which is a nifty little piece of technology. We went out for her birthday on the 10th, eating at The Melting Pot for the first time. It was quite the experience.

On December 17th, Mom, Jenny, Grandma Phyllis, Zach and myself went to see “Star Wars: Rogue One” on IMAX 3D. It was an amazing film, and I would go on to see it a couple more times in theaters.

On the 22nd, Don and Saundra flew in to Houston for Christmas. I picked them up at the airport.

On the 23rd, I had an eye exam, and I ordered a new pair of prescription glasses, as well as a pair of prescription sunglasses (my first ever.) I haven’t really had a pair at all since September, when my existing pair got destroyed by one of the dogs.

On the 24th, we brought Dad to the house to have Christmas with us, and we opened our gifts, ate some fantastic food, and just enjoyed the holiday. Everyone really enjoyed their gifts, including myself.

Don & Saundra’s visit came to an end on December 27th, when I took them to the airport. They were headed back to Michigan to enjoy a few more days off, before having to return to work.

Jenny and I also took a much-needed vacation to Austin, leaving on the 28th, and staying at the Lakeside Resort Spa, where we relaxed, and enjoyed a top-notch hotel. We tried eating at Franklin Barbecue, but long lines prevented us from doing so, so we went to our old standby for great Austin BBQ, The Salt Lick. On the way home on the 30th, we hit up Round Rock Donuts.

Finally, we capped off the year with a New Year’s Eve get-together at our house, where we played Cards Against Humanity, drank alcohol, and I took my drone up before Midnight to capture the fireworks from up high.

Things That Changed

On February 6th, we ordered all-new living room furniture, including a couch, love-seat, recliner, coffee table, and entertainment center with piers and bridge. Most of it got delivered on February 11th, but some of it didn’t arrive until March. Overall, it’s a very nice addition to our home, and feels a lot more ‘grown-up’ than our other furniture.

On February 24th, I once again started using Mint for my financial software. I’ve had problems with Quicken, and was never all that crazy about YNAB. Mint has always had its roadblocks for me too, but I finally gave it another shot. It seems like I am constantly looking for a decent financial software.

On May 5th, I made a big change to my daily to-do lists, abandoning Todoist, and switching to using Outlook (for work) and the Apple Reminders app on my iPhone/iPad/Mac. The ability to add tasks hands-free by voice was the main reason for this, and I’ve been very happy with it since making the switch.

On June 21st, I found out I was getting a new boss at work. This was mostly an organizational change, as one of my colleagues was getting promoted, whom I got along with very well. This didn’t really change much from a day-to-day basis.

On July 12th, I bought a set of Philips Hue light-bulbs for home. These were the color-changing bulbs, which are actually pretty unnecessary. Still, being able to automate lights, and voice-control them is pretty nice.

In August, I finished a project I had been working on for some time, getting all our movies digitized, so we could watch any of our films without having to dig through boxes of DVD’s.

On September 9th, I pre-ordered the new iPhone 7 for Jenny and I. I chose to go with the larger model this year, the iPhone 7 Plus. It took some getting used to the larger size though.

On September 28th, I got my new LEGO Christmas set, and our new iPhones arrived the same day.

On October 22nd, I painted Mom’s room (what used to be our guest room). She picked a nice purple color, and the room turned out quite nice.

Jenny had a lot of problems with her new iPhone 7, and so we took it into the Apple store on November 13th, where they exchanged it for another unit. Unfortunately, the problems would reoccur later in December.

And lastly, with the new data limits ISP’s have been placing on home internet connections, we were entering our 3rd month of going over the limit. As a result, I upgraded us to Gigabit internet through AT&T, which comes with unlimited data, so bandwidth isn’t a concern any more. Unfortunately, the 1Gbps speeds are a bit underwhelming. I get about 500Mbps (at most) through a hardwired connection, and only about 90Mbps via WiFi. Still, it’s a lot faster than the previous connection of 24Mbps I was getting, so streaming 4K video is an actual option now.

Summary

All in all, 2016 was a stressful and event-filled year, where I was going full-tilt for most of the year. I was glad for things to finally stabilize a bit in December, though. 2017 looks to be interesting for any number of factors, including the inauguration of a new president; our 10th wedding anniversary, Dad’s continued health deterioration, and settling into our new normal, with another member of the household.

Still, I can’t help but feel immensely grateful. Grateful for my wife, who is understanding, supportive, and puts up with my and my quirks. Grateful that my parents are close-by now, and regularly able to be a part of my life. Grateful that I have a great job that allows me to afford both the type of lifestyle that I’ve become accustomed to, and presents me with the challenges to keep my engaged and occupied by my profession. Grateful that my health is still reasonably good (even though I could afford to lose some weight, and learn to eat healthier).

Here’s to putting 2016 behind us, and moving into the new year. Here’s to 2017.

What I Read in 2016: The Year In Review

What I Read in 2016: The Year In Review

For the Goodreads graphical version of this report, click here.

Over the past few years, I’ve set myself fairly aggressive reading goals, and managed to hit those goals. 2016 is the first year that I can remember falling short of my goal, and not by a little bit—but a lot.

My challenge to myself this year was to read 20 books, and I’ve only managed 19. That’s down almost in half from my total last year (itself down significantly from the year before). In fact, it’s the smallest number of books I’ve read in over a decade, and probably longer (I started tracking in 1999).

My staggering decline in reading started with my new job, which eliminated my daily commute. I used to let my Kindle read to me while driving to and from work, which allowed me to get through books at a more prodigious rate than simply reading when I had free time available. Add to the fact that 2016 left me very little free time at all, other than just before bed, and I end up with the low numbers overall.

Still, that’s not to say there weren’t some great books I read this year, because there were. Unfortunately, there are more books on my to-read list than I’ll probably ever get to. When I ended 2015, I had 84 books on this list. As of the end of 2016, the list stands at 96. At my current rate of reading, it will take me six years to finish them all—and that’s assuming nothing else gets added to the list, which most certainly will happen.

Looking forward to the next year, I’ve got some series that I want to both begin and continue, as well as some standalone novels that look really interesting. My choices lately have been difficult to make, partly due to the fact that I want to spend my limited time reading good books. As a result, I’ve shied away from some books that I might otherwise have selected.

Still, it’s time to look back at what I read this year:

Books

Books Read: 19
Pages Read: 7,650 (20.95 pages/day)
Average Length: 403 pages
Shortest Book: 332 pages (Old Man’s War)
Longest Book: 583 pages (Leviathan Wakes)
My Average Rating for 2016: 4.1

  1. Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt (370 pages | 1/1 – 1/11 | My rating: 4/5)
  2. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (498 pages | 1/11 – 1/31 | My rating: 5/5)
  3. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (400 pages | 1/31 – 2/16 | My rating: 3/5)
  4. ** Morning Star by Pierce Brown (545 pages | 2/16 – 2/28 | My rating: 5/5)
  5. ** Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (583 pages | 2/29 – 4/7 | My rating: 4/5)
  6. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (332 pages | 4/8 – 4/19 | My rating: 5/5)
  7. Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer (366 pages | 4/21 – 4/29 | My rating: 4/5)
  8. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (467 pages | 4/30 – 5/21 | My rating: 4/5)
  9. Star Wars: Bloodline by Claudia Gray (352 pages | 5/23 – 6/24 | My rating: 4/5)
  10. The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (400 pages | 6/25 – 7/10 | My rating: 4/5)
  11. ** Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters (336 pages | 7/10 – 7/18 | My rating: 4/5)
  12. Star Wars: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig (448 pages | 7/18 – 8/7 | My rating: 4/5)
  13. Written in Fire by Marcus Sakey (348 pages | 8/8 – 8/15 | My rating: 4/5)
  14. Join by Steve Toutonghi (336 pages | 8/24 – 9/17 | My rating: 4/5)
  15. Death Wave by Ben Bova (414 pages | 9/17 – 10/9 | My rating: 3/5)
  16. ** One Second After by William R. Forstchen (351 pages | 10/10 – 11/27 | My rating: 5/5)
  17. Star Wars: Catalyst by James Luceno (352 pages | 11/27 – 12/9 | My rating: 4/5)
  18. Star Wars: Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston (400 pages | 12/10 – 12/15 | My rating: 4/5)
  19. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed (352 pages | 12/19 – 12/31 | My rating: 4/5)
    ** Denotes highly recommended titles

Looking forward to the new year, I suppose I should set myself a new reading goal for 2017. Considering I shot for (and missed) just 20 books this year, I will endeavor to read at least that many next year. Therefore, if I can finish 20 books in 2017, I’ll be very happy.

Why I’m Excited About the iPhone 7

Why I’m Excited About the iPhone 7

On Wednesday, September 7th, 2016, Apple announced the latest generation of iPhone, which they’re calling the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Ironically, the rumors on the internet indicate that Apple will radically re-design the iPhone in 2017, for the tenth-anniversary of the iPhone’s launch. However, the iPhone 7 is technically the 10th model of the iPhone, if you include the original. But technicalities aside, I’m actually quite excited by the iPhone 7.

This year, I’ve actually decided to upgrade to the larger model, the Plus. In fact, I actually decided I would go with the Plus model before the new phone was announced.

I got up super-early on September 9th, at 2 AM to pre-order my new iPhone. After (not so) patiently waiting for the pre-orders to open, I managed to secure a pre-order for the iPhone 7 Plus Jet Black in 128GB capacity. Unfortunately, the launch quantities were already sold out (in just a couple minutes), but my pre-order pages indicates it should ship by 9/23/16—one week after the initial launch. Considering that anybody who waited until later in the morning to order the same model are having to wait until mid- or late-November for theirs, I don’t feel so bad about having to wait an extra week. As for Jenny’s pre-order, we went with the regular iPhone 7 in matte black, 256GB (now she can put all her music on her phone, and replace her iPod Classic (if she wants to).

But pre-order issues and waits aside, I’m actually quite excited for the iPhone 7. Why, you might ask? Several reasons:

  1. Better camera – This can’t be understated, as the cameras on our phones have become so crucial to capturing moments in our lives. The better the camera, the more often we tend to use it.
  2. Waterproofing – This isn’t exactly something that I expect I’d have to worry about too often—after all, my phones have never suffered water damage before—but it will be nice to not have to be super-careful with my phone around rain, or in the bathroom, etc. I could even feel comfortable placing it on the shelf in the shower and listen to music. Which leads me to my next point…
  3. Stereo speakers – Finally, Apple has included stereo sound in the iPhone. Granted, one of the speakers is placed where the earpiece is, and yet, early reviews indicate the sound is much better, and the speakerphone is much-improved. I look forward to watching videos on the iPhone 7, and taking advantage of the improved sound.
  4. Home Button – Okay, actually, the lack of a home button is what’s new. I’m sure it will take some adjustment, but I’ve never been really happy with the feel of the home button. Sometimes it feels way too stiff and clicky, while other times, I can barely tell I’ve pressed it. I’m looking forward to testing what Apple has done with this iteration.
  5. Dual Cameras – This should actually be higher on the list, but since it’s exclusive to the iPhone 7 Plus, I waited to add it. Still, this is going to be a huge addition, with the 2x optical zoom, and the upcoming depth of field effects that should allow for some interesting photos. I really look forward to testing and using this.
  6. New color – My first iPhone was the 3Gs, way back when, which had the shiny black back. If nothing else, the Jet Black version this year provides a sense of nostalgia, if nothing else. Yes, it’s more prone to scratching, but I’ll put a case on it. Even though I won’t be able to see the color (most of the time), it makes me feel better to know I have it.

Yes, there are things I haven’t mentioned, like the lack of a traditional headphone jack, the slightly improved display, the faster processor and improved battery life. They certainly impact the desirability of the phone, but they’re not things that make me want the new iPhone.

One thing, however, has me more excited than anything else: the Airpods. Yes, I said I’m excited about them, and here’s why:

  1. Sound quality – One thing I’ve read and heard over and over since Apple announced the Airpods is that they don’t sound any better than the existing wired Apple Earpods. I happen to think the Earpods sound quite good, however, and if the Airpods are even close in sound quality to those, they’ll be the best wireless earbuds I’ve heard. I’ve tested several, and while adequate, I wouldn’t say any of them sound particularly good.
  2. Price – Yes, I think $159 is a perfectly reasonable price for these things. I’ve tested Bluetooth earbuds that cost $25 (Anker sound buds) and $150 earbuds (Jaybird X2) and neither provides sound even close to the EarPods. If the Airpods match the sound quality of their wired counterparts, I’d consider them a bargain.
  3. Comfort – I’ve always really like the fit and feel of the EarPods. While they can become slightly uncomfortable after extended periods, pretty much all in-ear headphones suffer the same problem. All of the different earbuds I’ve tried have been the same, with few exceptions. Again, if the Airpods can match their wired cousins, they should be great.
  4. Ease of use – Bluetooth pairing has never been all that painful, but trying to use wireless headphones with more than one device has been. Apple puts their “it just works” methodology to good use here, allowing the Airpods to automatically switch between devices, whiteout having to re-pair them, or without having to even do much of anything at all. I am really looking forward to this feature, as I regularly need to use headphones with both my iPhone, and iPad. Being able to also use these with my iMac will be fantastic, too.

While there are definitely some drawbacks of the Airpods, namely the fact that you have to use Siri for everything, including changing the volume, I look forward to these devices. Being a first-generation product, it’s entirely possible they won’t live up to the hype, but they’re a product I’m genuinely excited about.

I’m also trying to look beyond the changes Apple has made to the iPhone this go-around, and look toward the future. I’m not the only person that believes the changes they are making are actually to prepare people for the next iPhone, which will likely do away with the home ‘button’ entirely, and be too thin to support the 3.5mm headphone jack that they ditched this time around. Rumors point to an all-display front, with possible curved-edge screens on the 2017 iPhone. I’m not sure if I believe all of the rumors, but I’d be willing to believe some of them.

Now if Apple would just make an iPhone with wireless charging, I’d be completely happy.

Retrospective: 2015

As 2015 ends, I take my yearly look back, at what has happened, not happened, and try to determine how happy I am with the previous year. 2015 has been quite a year, with mostly some very significant ups, and the downs being fortuitous in that they could have been far worse.

2015 could be summed up with the following: weddings, travel, and changes to our house. But of course, just these three things barely encapsulate the entire year’s events. There are far more events that make up the past twelve months’ happenings that really tell the story of how it went.

We lost loved ones this year, made some great new beginnings, and set the stage for a hopefully bright future. Of course, lingering beneath it all is that constant dread: that the worst is inevitably just around the corner, and it could all come tumbling down.

I thought this year, it would be interesting to recap events month-by-month, rather than by topic alone. This will give an idea of how the year flowed.

The biggest events didn’t occur until the 2nd half of the year, but there’s still plenty of noteworthy items early on.

January

  • 1/1 – Kicked off the new year with a wedding (one of several this year) by attending Jenny’s best friend’s brother’s wedding in an out-of-the-way (aren’t they all, nowadays?) venue. It was a pretty typical wedding, except for the date, and the lack of a wedding cake. Still, Jenny and I had a good time, and got to spend time with friends and family.

  • 1/17 – My brother Don’s mom lost her fight with cancer, and passed away. I’d only met her a couple of times, but she was very nice to me. Don was understandably devastated, as is natural, and makes me appreciate the time I have with my own mom that much more.

  • 1/24 – I started using an app on my computers called F.lux, which limits the blue light on your screen in the darker hours of the day. At first, I was just curious, but now, I can’t stand using anything without it. Health benefits aside, it’s a very useful tool.
  • 1/29 – I’ve never been very happy with how our house got wired for Internet, resulting in everything being in our master bedroom closet. So I finally purchased a network power line adapter, which lets me have an actual cabled connection between my home office, and the modem upstairs. This made life immeasurably easier for me later in the year.
  • 1/31 – Capped off the end of January with my 2nd sleep study.

February

  • 2/1 – Bought a new desk at IKEA, a sit/stand model, which allows me to raise the entire desk on a motor, and use it as a standing desk. This was the perfect option for me, as I have tried to get healthier in 2015.

  • 2/5 – My neck started hurting again, and would do so several times throughout the year. Still, this was a sign of things to come.
  • 2/7 – My Dad was hospitalized for another UTI. This would be the 2nd time in as many months, so it was worrisome.

  • 2/8 – Jenny and I went to the movies to watch “Casablanca” on the silver screen. I had never watched the movie in its entirety, so it was an interesting experience.
  • 2/23 – Finally started using a CPAP machine on a pretty much daily basis. It would take some time before the results were apparent, but this was a life-changing event.
  • 2/28 – We had some new neighbors move in across the street. It would take us some time to get to know them, but they’re very nice, and have a beautiful little daughter, and a little boy on the way!
  • Throughout February – I decided it was time to re-design BKB Designs. I ended up creating not one, but two new logos, before settling on the 2nd to use as my new brand for the site. So far, nothing has materialized, but I’m not exactly promoting the site right now either. Still, it was notable to me.

March

  • 3/1 – My Dad was hospitalized yet again. This for yet another UTI and sepsis. This was a pretty severe one, and would require a 2-3 week stay.
  • 3/8 – Probably the most devastating event of the year. We lost Jenny’s grandpa Gene on this day. This of course set off an emotional roller coaster, and altered lives of many people, on many levels. Gene’s funeral followed on 3/12, and I was asked to be a pallbearer, which I couldn’t refuse. It was the first time I’ve had the honor to perform that duty for someone, and it was an emotional moment. With almost all of my living grandparents passed, I considered Gene as much my own Grandpa as anybody else. He welcomed me into the family without reservation, and for that I will always be grateful. He was a great man, and one that I will miss dearly.

  • 3/22 – Jenny and I decided to re-do our flowerbeds (perhaps unwisely) and learned how much work a seemingly small project can entail. The fruits of our efforts looked fantastic, but would be short-lived. Summer would take its toll, and kill off all we did, and much of what already existed.
  • 3/23 – A big moment for me. I received my official offer letter at work for my new position with the company as a Project Manager. This is a new career, which I’ve posted in more detail about in Career 4.0, but was still a highlight of my year.
  • 3/27 – We were in Austin for another wedding, and decided to try In-and-Out Burger for the first time. None of our group were particularly impressed by it though, myself included. After being able to eat Whataburger for so many years, most everything else pales in comparison.
  • 3/28 – Jenny’s cousin Tamara had her wedding on this date, which we attended. Though it wasn’t without its issues, the wedding itself was very nice, and the reception was a lot of fun. I walked around taking LOTS of pictures, and essentially turned into an unofficial wedding photographer. I got some GREAT pictures, which I shared with the family.
  • 3/31 – Dad finally returns home from this latest hospital stay. A complete month away from home was a long time.

April

  • 4/19 – Jenny and I chose to upgrade our living room television setup. We had long had a 720p plasma television, and I had wanted to upgrade for some time. We broke down and bought a 55″ LG 4K television, and sound bar, which we absolutely love. Now if only more 4K content were easily available.
  • 4/25 – Our 3rd wedding of the year to attend, this time to Jenny’s cousin Brad. It was an event filled with lots of people, lots of booze, and lots of noise. Still, we had a good time, though we did bow out a tad early.
  • 4/27 – I was notified of a substantial raise from work, though it wouldn’t be effective until July 1st. Still, it was commensurate with my new position, and in line with what I felt I deserved.

May

  • 5/1 – I officially started my new position at work. While it would be a while before I could work from home full-time, it was nice for this half-a-year-in-the-making event to actually occur. This culminated on 5/4 with my meeting my new boss in person for the first time, when he visited Houston as part of the transition in the company.
  • 5/1 – The Houston Astros had a great month of April, and I predicted that the Astros would make the post-season this year.
  • 5/14 – I started using a new app for my journaling called Day One. It took me some time to commit to it, but once I did, I was glad, and it’s got a lot of nice features. I’ve also found cross-platform options for it, which allow me to use it, even if I’m not on an Apple device. I would spend the rest of the year working on migrating all my previous journal history to Day One, and still not be completed, but it’s my journal tool for the forseeable future. There’s just something considerably easier about doing everything digitally.
  • 5/21 – 5/26 – Mom & Dad came down to visit for a few days for my birthday. It was nice to see them, and we had a good time. There wasn’t a lot on the agenda, other than a birthday party I was having on the 23rd, which a lot of people came over for, so it was nice.
  • 5/28 – Google launches Google Photos, which I immediately sign up for. It’s been one of the greatest products they’ve launched so far, in my opinion, and has really made finding the photos I want easier than ever. I love this product, and can’t recommend it enough.

June

  • 6/6 – Making Jenny sad, yet proud, we attended the high school graduation for her cousin Jordan. Seeing another generation grow into adults is kind of staggering, really.

  • 6/8 – I was struck by an odd pain. Though brief, it was quite severe, and would turn out to be a kidney stone. This was the first sign that I had of something brewing, and it would make things interesting in the days ahead.

  • 6/12 – I was finally able to pick up my seats from the Astrodome! We had bought these back around the time of my birthday, but at last, I had two genuine seats right out of the Astrodome. To make matters even more unique, I actually got row BB, seats 5 and 7 (randomly handed out), so it was a neat coincidence.
  • 6/22 – 6/25 – Spent a few days at Mom & Dad’s as my father had knee replacement surgery on 6/23. He would need quite a bit of recovery time, but it made a significant amount of progress in helping his mobility.
  • 6/30 – Kicked off vacation season for Jenny and I, as we flew out of Houston to Newark, NJ and then drove to Cooperstown, NY.

July

July is where our year really took off. We had been planning a trip to New York for a couple years, actually, and really got serious about it early in the year. Finally, that trip became a reality, and we flew out for quite an adventure!

  • 7/1 – We spent the morning in Cooperstown visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which was quite the museum. Sadly, we had to leave behind the picturesque village of Cooperstown to head for Middletown, NY, the location of our next event.
  • 7/2 – Our 4th and final wedding of the year, my cousin Renee married her now-husband Otto, in a beautiful ceremony and reception in Middletown. This was actually our ‘excuse’ for going to New York at all, but it was great to see her (especially so happy) and some other family members I hadn’t seen in a while.
  • 7/3 – 7/7 – We finally made it to New York City! We timed our trip to coincide with being in the city for the 4th of July holiday, hoping to see some amazing fireworks (we did not). It was not only memorable because we were in such an amazing city, but also because I ended up in the emergency room on 7/5 with a kidney stone attack. We didn’t let it ruin our trip, and it only shaved a few hours off our sightseeing. If you’d like to read more about this trip, see my vacation post.
  • 7/12 – Due to my kidney stone issues, this was the day I finally gave up soda completely. I haven’t a one since–one of the hardest things I’ve done.
  • 7/17 – Began another project a long-time coming. Since we built our house, we had wanted to close in our formal dining area and turn it into a dedicated home office space. We finally had the money to do so, and I began seeking quotes to get the work done. I didn’t realize how long this process would take, but it was worth it, in the end.

  • 7/23 – Our most expensive home repair to date, our water heater stopped working. After having someone out to fix it, and $450 later, our water heater worked again. I’m sure I could have gotten better pricing had I shopped around, but we were eager to get it repaired quickly and to take hot showers again.
  • 7/24 – My website died–the one you’re reading this on. I had some backup issues, and feared I had lost the entire site for good. With luck, I was able to get most of the site restored fairly easily, though it took some significant effort to get everything back up and running. As a result, I took advantage to re-brand with a new logo, color scheme, and theme, etc. The new Brad World website re-launched on 8/5.
  • 7/31 – Dad ended up in the hospital for a UTI once again. This was his 4th hospital visit of the year, and 5th going back to December 2014.

August

  • 8/1 – Having realized the frustrations of Jenny’s aged camera in NYC (still got great pictures, just missed a few), we purchased a new camera, the Sony A6000, which is still a highly-regarded unit. It’s a mirrorless camera, so much smaller than Jenny’s, while still getting fantastic pictures.
  • 8/6 – Having settled on a contractor for our home-office build, we went and ordered custom doors for the office from Lowe’s.

  • 8/12 – After going through bouts of pain and numerous doctor visits, I had surgery to remove my kidney stone. The recovery was actually pretty rough for a few days, but once I started feeling normal again, it was great.

  • 8/15 – Our new dining room furniture was delivered! We had needed a decent dining room set for a while, and we finally found one we could agree on. We absolutely love it.
  • 8/20 – Our 2nd big vacation in as many months, we flew to Chicago. This was technically a business trip, but we decided to make a vacation out of it, and see the Windy City. It was my first trip to my company’s home office, where I got to meet all my new colleagues, as well as meet some people face-to-face that I’d been working with for a long time. It was a great visit, and I had a really good time while up there.
  • 8/21 – 8/23 – We stayed in downtown Chicago, and visited lots of great city sights, ate some really good food, and enjoyed what I wasn’t expecting to be such a nice city. The weather was absolutely perfect, too!
  • 8/27 – Back home in Houston, shortly after returning, Jenny and I attended An Evening with Kevin Smith, which was a fun romp, and unexpectedly-long night.

September

  • 9/14 – The doors for my home office finally came in, ending an excruciating wait, and letting the work on the office begin two days later on 9/16.

  • 9/21 – Mom & Dad had to put their dog Buddy to sleep. It was a difficult decision, but ultimately, they had to do what was best for themselves, and for Buddy. He was a great little member of the family, and Jenny and I miss him already.

  • 9/21 – This was also the date that construction on my home office was finally completed, and I was able to move into it and get things setup the way I wanted.
  • 9/23 – My first day of work in my new home office. It was nice to be able to close the doors, and shut out the outside world for a little while to get my job done. By the next day, I had finished painting, decorating, etc. and the office was completely finished.
  • 9/25 – Jenny and I upgraded to the iPhone 6s. We both love our phones, and are now on plans that will let us upgrade each year to the latest version.
  • 9/27 – Finalizing some of the home renovations, I finished the painting downstairs, and so our entire first floor is finished being painted and we can focus on other parts of the house.

October

  • 10/4 – As predicted on May 1st, the Houston Astros made the postseason for the first time since their World Series appearance in 2005. They would continue in the postseason after beating the Yankees in the Wild Card Game.
  • 10/6 – We received a device called Kuna (www.getkuna.com), which is a WiFi-equipped porch light with camera built into it. Since our front door has no peephole, we had no real way to see who was at our door. This solved that problem, and also provided us with the ability to record video when motion is detected. It has not only provided us with convenience, but with a higher sense of security.
  • 10/11 – I attended the first postseason baseball game in Houston since 2005, when I saw the Astros host the Kansas City Royals in Game 3 of the ALDS. Houston won the game, and very nearly won the next game to advance, but ultimately lost the series in Kansas City on 10/14.

  • 10/13 – Dad goes into the hospital for a 5th time of the year, this time for a heart-valve replacement. Fortunately, there are no complications, and the surgery was a success.

  • 10/16 – Jenny and I attended the Oddball Comedy Festival in The Woodlands. This was my 2nd consecutive year attending, but the first that Jenny went with me. This year they had Amy Schumer, and Aziz Ansari headlining, and both were quite funny. There were a number of really good acts, and we both enjoyed ourselves a lot. I can’t wait to see the lineup for 2016.
  • 10/17 – We had our first garage sale! Our neighborhood only has (sanctioned) garage sales twice per year, and this was the first time we felt we had enough stuff to put into a garage sale. Various older computers, accessories, furniture, etc. allowed us to do fairly well, not only getting rid of a lot of stuff, but making about $500 in the process.
  • 10/31 – The new Apple TV, which I had been waiting a LONG time for, finally came out. I immediately got one and it’s become our primary interface for television ever since.

November

  • 11/1 – Jenny finally talked me into renewing our Sam’s Club membership. We bought a few things then (and since) but I still don’t know if it’s worth the money, for the way we shop. We also bought our new Christmas tree this day, getting a good deal on one at Michael’s, and replacing our broken tree from previous years.
  • 11/6 – After Mom & Dad’s medical issues, Don and I have been concerned about them. I ordered them medical alert units, so hopefully if anything happens, help with only be a button-push away. So far, they haven’t needed to use them, which will hopefully remain the case for a long time.
  • 11/8 – We made our annual trip to the Renaissance Festival, this time taking our neighbors, one of whom had never been before. It was a cool day, but one without rain, and everyone had a good time. I actually ate far less than I usually do, which surprised me. In fact, we came back with money left over!
  • 11/11 – Remember that app named F.lux from way back in January? Well, they finally found a way to make it available to iOS users rather easily! I immediately installed this on my iPhone, iPad, etc. Sadly, Apple forced the developers to remove the app a day later, but not before I got copies of it! Just as it did for my computers, it became a necessary app for my iOS devices as well.
  • 11/15 – While attending a birthday lunch with friends, the discussion of a Podcast came up. Luis and I decided to move forward with it, but the origins began here.
  • 11/20 – 11/28 – Mom & Dad came down to visit for Thanksgiving. I had the week off from work, and so we were able to get lots done while they were here, and really just enjoyed a nice week together.
  • 11/20 – I’ve struggled with my financial software in the past, and once again, I’m back to using Quicken. I really liked You Need A Budget (YNAB), but for actual budgeting I found it too finicky, so switched back to Quicken–for now. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I change software.
  • 11/23 – After doing some research and reading a lot about podcasts, one thing that was clear was that we would need good microphones. I bought the Blue Yeti microphone, and was immediately impressed by the quality.
  • 11/27 – Thanksgiving was an odd holiday this year. It was our turn to go to Mom & Dad’s for Thanksgiving, but we all decided to do it at our house this year. Not only that, but then Jenny and I did something we never do–Black Friday Shopping–on Thanksgiving night, no less! Jenny finally relented, and let me buy the Apple Watch as my Christmas gift, so we waited in line, and I was lucky enough to get the last of the model I wanted. I’ve actually been really happy with it, and am enjoying the functionality it brings to the wrist.
  • 11/30 – Finally found a name for the podcast (of which we’ve yet to record an episode): Shut The Tech Up! It’s got a nice humorous yet catchy name, and wasn’t in use by anybody else. Bought the domain shutthetechup.net, and started working on our plans to record and launch the podcast. Hopefully coming soon in 2016!

December

December is where things kind of went off the rails, and unfortunately closely mirrors another year not too long ago.

  • 12/6 – We bought a ceiling fan for our living room, and while installing it, I fell and hurt my knee again. Something quite similar happened in December back in 2010, so I kind of knew what to expect, and it wasn’t good news.
  • 12/8 – Had MRI’s taken (my knee, and my neck) to determine the level of damage to my knee, and the status of my herniated disc in my neck. When I got my results a couple days later, the neck showed pretty much the same results as back in 2009, so I was referred to a pain specialist for a steroid injection. My knee was diagnosed with a possible tear of the ACL. It was decided to go in and scope the knee, to see the extent of damage, and replace the ACL if necessary. However, it was considered unlikely that the ACL would need to be replaced again.

  • 12/9 – I gave Jenny her birthday present – a new Kindle Paperwhite. She was due for an upgrade, and she seems to like it very much.

  • 12/10 – Jenny’s car exhibited some issues after an oil change, so she was stuck driving my car for several days while we had to wait to get hers fixed. Fortunately, it was completed on 12/14.

  • 12/16 – This was a big day for our household, as I received my latest computerized gadget: a 4-bay NAS. For a while now I’ve been wanting to consolidate all our household data and media to a single device. I’d half-way done this through my computer, but I wanted something that provided both redundancy (for data loss) and that wouldn’t require a computer at all. We now have something that will last us a very long time, and lets me host all our media from a central location. This will also allow me to digitize our entire movie library for easy access.
  • 12/17 – Went and saw an early screening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be.
  • 12/19 – Saw “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” a 2nd time, this time in IMAX 3D, along with Grandma Phyllis and Zach. This was also Jenny’s first time to see it. I liked it a lot in 3D, though I’ll probably see it again in 2D going forward. I still want to see it a 3rd time, but I haven’t had an opportunity to.

  • 12/23 – Had surgery for my knee, in which it turned out the ACL had been ‘shredded’, and indeed needed replacing. This of course puts me off my feet for a significant period of time, and affected all else for the rest of the year, and into the new one.

  • 12/25 – Christmas was hosted at our house this year–at least partially. Jenny’s immediate family spent the day with us this year, and it was nice. It was kind of relaxed, and quiet, and peaceful. The food was excellent, no thanks to myself. The work was all done by Jenny and Martha, and they did a great job.

  • 12/29 – To cap off the year, I had a procedure to inject a steroid into my spine, to assist with the herniated disc issues I experienced throughout the year. Fortunately, all of this was covered 100% by insurance, as I’d hit my out-of-pocket maximum for the year back in October. It’s part of the reason we pushed through so much in such a short period of time.

  • 12/31 – As a last act of the year, I used my Christmas gift cards to get a new iPad.  I find myself using my iPad more and more, and wanted something that would hold up a little bit better than the 2 year-old model that I had at that point. I wanted to get the mini 4, but nobody had them in stock, so I ended up getting the iPad Air 2. So far, I’m not sure if I really like the larger size. Maybe it’ll grow on me.

For New Year’s Eve, we hung out at the house, and called it a night early. I guess we’re too old to stay up all night anymore.

Looking Forward to 2016

2015 was a year with its very high ups, and very low downs, it’s been one of the best years of my adult life; certainly one of the most professionally rewarding. I don’t think I’d trade any of it for a different result.

Looking ahead to the next year, and what it will bring… it’s hard to say. I’ve got the obvious physical therapy ahead of me, we’re hoping to get free of our credit card debt once and for all, to do a little more renovations at home to our kitchen, and to take at least one fun vacation, while trying to save some money for a MUCH bigger one in 2017. We plan to spend Christmas 2016 in Michigan with my brother Don and his wife, and Mom & Dad should be moving back to Houston in 2016 (hopefully early in the year).

But otherwise, I know work will keep me immensely busy, and that life’s unexpected challenges will continue to throw their curveballs my way. Still, I look forward to each and every day, and what it will bring with it, good or bad. So long as I keep waking up, I’ll keep looking ahead.

What I Read in 2015: The Year In Review

For the condensed, graphically pretty version of this that Goodreads provides, click here.

While my reading rates continue to decline, my to-read list certainly hasn’t kept pace; it has grown by a full 20 books this year, which means nearly every book I read got immediately replaced by another added to my list–not the trend I was hoping for.

Still, I read some great books in 2015, and some that were just mediocre. I’ve been using Goodreads to track this data for a while now, and I really like it. In fact, the site really makes this review almost unnecessary. However, I still like to force myself to ponder what I’ve read, and what I plan to read, and this review does that nicely.

So looking back at 2015, I did manage to exceed my reading goal of 25 books. I actually ended at precisely 30 books finished.

I ended 2014 with 62 books on my to-read list, and have added 22 more so my list stands at 84 books. This is actually conservative, as a couple are the first of a series, that might entail more books, should I enjoy the introductory volume. Factoring in the less ‘captive’ time I have to listen to or read books, it might be a very long time before I make my way through this list–in fact, if I ever do.

All books this year were eBooks, though I have some physical novels lying around, I’ve yet to read them. I even managed to collect some of my past reading list into electronic form, and have a pretty complete catalog of them. While I certainly don’t have everything I’ve ever read in eBook form, I’ve got a large percentage of it that I’ve been tracking for the past several years.

So let’s break down the year, using Goodreads’ metrics:

Books

Books Read: 30
Pages Read: 10, 208 (27.96 pages/day)
Average Length: 352 pages
Shortest Book: 60 pages (Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon)
Longest Book: 880 pages (Seveneves)
My Average Rating for 2015: 3.6

  1. Golden Son by Pierce Brown (464 pages | 1/1 – 1/8 | My rating: 5/5)
  2. Final Days by Gary Gibson (384 pages | 1/9 – 1/19 | My rating: 3/5)
  3. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (200 pages | 1/19 – 1/23 | My rating: 2/5)
  4. A Murder of Clones by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (362 pages | 1/23 – 2/2 | My rating: 3/5)
  5. Brilliance by Marcus Sakey (434 pages | 2/2 – 2/9 | My rating: 4/5)
  6. A Better World by Marcus Sakey (390 pages | 2/9 – 2/13 | My rating: 3/5)
  7. * Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (393 pages | 2/14 – 2/24 | My rating: 5/5)
  8. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (349 pages | 2/25 – 3/6 | My rating: 3/5)
  9. K-PAX V: The Coming of the Bullocks by Gene Brewer (195 pages | 3/6 – 3/11 | My rating: 2/5)
  10. Search and Recovery by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (221 pages | 3/17 – 3/24 | My rating: 3/5)
  11. The Peyti Crisis by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (351 pages | 3/24 – 4/4 | My rating: 3/5)
  12. Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno (228 pages | 4/4 – 4/10 | My rating: 3/5)
  13. Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne (305 pages | 4/10 – 4/21 | My rating: 4/5)
  14. Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress (192 pages | 4/21 – 4/23 | My rating: 4/5)
  15. * The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (640 pages | 4/23 – 5/8 | My rating: 5/5)
  16. Star Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp (320 pages | 5/9 – 5/20 | My rating: 4/5)
  17. The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson (304 pages | 5/21 – 6/3 | My rating: 5/5)
  18. The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt (354 pages | 6/3 – 6/20 | My rating: 3/5)
  19. Depth by Lev A.C. Rosen (304 pages | 6/20 – 6/25 | My rating: 4/5)
  20. * Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (880 pages | 6/25 – 7/27 | My rating: 5/5)
  21. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (480 pages | 7/28 – 8/12 | My rating: 4/5)
  22. The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (368 pages | 8/13 – 9/5 | My rating: 3/5)
  23. Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (346 pages | 9/5 – 9/18 | My rating: 2/5)
  24. Power Surge by Ben Bova (368 pages | 9/18 – 10/5 | My rating: 3/5)
  25. Vigilantes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (262 pages | 10/7 – 10/24 | My rating: 3/5)
  26. Starbase Human by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (338 pages | 10/25 – 11/16 | My rating: 3/5)
  27. Masterminds by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (384 pages | 11/16 – 12/6 | My rating: 4/5)
  28. Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon by Delilah S. Dawson (60 pages | 12/8 – 12/8 | My rating: 4/5)
  29. Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft by Multiple Authors (12/9 – 12-24 | My rating: 4/5)
  30. Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster (272 pages  | 12/24 – 12/29 | My rating: 4/5)
  • Highly recommended titles.

Looking back, I’m also a little bit surprised how many books I read were ‘series’ books, in one form or another. Looking toward 2016, while there are some really good standalone books I’m interested in, there are also a lot of series books in my list, many of which will get prioritized. While I have a few that are a little bit off my beaten path, most are straight down the science fiction path that I tend to adhere to. For yet another year, the Culture series remains on my list, as well as Orson Scott Card’s Shadow series.

At last it’s time for predictions. My 2016 reading goal is for 20 books, which is by far a very small goal for me. However, considering my reading pace had slowed drastically, and I don’t envision a lot of extra time spent reading over the next year, I feel it’s a realistic expectation for how much reading I can get done.

I'm Back!

Brad World is back and better than ever! I was fortunately able to restore nearly everything, and get it all back up and running again. That said, I have a much better backup plan in place this time. Hopefully that never happens to me again.

Since I had to rebuild the site from the ground up, what better time than to give the site a fresh new look. New logo, new theme, new color scheme–it’s all new!

Feel free to take a look around, and let me know what you think of the new digs. I can’t promise I’ll update more often, but at least it will look nice when I do.

Vacation 2015: A Tale of Three Cities

Note: This is necessarily a long post, since it will contain lots of detail about a lengthy and detailed trip.

Preface

If you’d like to see full highlights from our trip, I’ve put together a Google Photos album, which you can view here.

This vacation story begins way back in 2013, when we received a Save-the-Date from my cousin Renee, whose wedding was held on July 2, 2015. It was a long way away when we decided we would go, and between now and then there were several times it looked like we weren’t going to be able to make it. And yet, make it we did. It’s a vacation that felt much longer than it was, but was fun, eventful, and will be remembered for a long time. I’ve also included our original itinerary for each day, as some of our plans changed (as you’ll read), but we still managed to see and do nearly everything we had planned.

Day 1

Original Itinerary:
6:56 AM – Flight to Charlotte, NC
11:16 AM – Flight to Newark, NJ
1:00 PM – Pickup rental car & drive to Cooperstown, NY
6:00 PM – Check-in to hotel in Cooperstown, NY

The day started exceptionally early, as we had a 7 AM flight out of Bush Intercontinental in Houston. The itinerary called for a connecting flight in Charlotte, NC before arriving in Newark, NJ. There, we needed to pick up our rental car, and then drive about 4 hours to Cooperstown, NY (more on that in a bit). Needless to say, it was going to be a long day, but one we were excited about.

The flight to Charlotte was uneventful, and not terribly bad. As for the 2nd flight into Newark, the plane was hot, there wasn’t much to see out the window, and it felt more crowded than the earlier flight (though it actually wasn’t.) After arriving in Newark, we could see the Manhattan skyline a little bit, off in the distance. We were excited, but wouldn’t get to see that skyline up close for a few more days.

The car rental company picked us up from the airport terminal, and shuttled us over to pick up our ‘luxury’ car. The website described it as a “Jaguar, or similar”, which was accurate; we were given a BMW rental. Unfortunately, it was a 2007 BMW in which the power steering wasn’t working, the tire pressure monitor was malfunctioning, and the best way to describe the car was “very used”. We were expecting luxury, and got none of it. To be fair, the car did have keyless entry and push-button start, along with lots of other ‘luxury’ features, but it at no time felt luxurious at all. Still, it got us where we wanted to go, and back, without too much difficulty, so I supposed if that was all that went wrong with the trip, it would be alright. Now, some may ask why we didn’t simply exchange the car for another, and it’s a fair question. First, the rental company is named “Rent-a-Wreck” which I thought was a cute name for a rental car company, but was apparently quite aptly named. Second, the pickup was actually from a parking lot, where there was no actual rental company. It would have been quite difficult and much of a hassle to exchange the car for something else, if even possible.

So off we set for our next destination: Cooperstown, NY, and home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a few hours drive, so we thought it would be a good destination to visit while in that section of the country. After all, when would we have another chance? The drive was interesting, but felt long, as there are a lot of winding roads and mountainous terrain to navigate in up-state New York. Add to that a large portion was driving on unfamiliar toll-roads, and a road system that was rather different than that in Texas, and the drive seemed a long one.

Now, Cooperstown, NY is a small town, visited mostly by tourists during the summer months, and so has a pretty extreme lack of luxurious hotels. Most of the rooms in town are at small motels, or hotels that barely meet the requirement of the name. They were exceedingly expensive for their value, yet I found what appeared to be the only true ‘hotel’ in town, named the Otesaga Resort Hotel. At not a lot more than the rest of the ‘motels’, it appeared to offer a much better accommodation than the rest. It turns out the Otesaga is a magnificent hotel, with an unbeatable view of Lake Otsego, and was one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever visited. Both Jenny and I were heartbroken when we had to check out, but we promised each other that we’ll go back, to spend more time just relaxing, and enjoying the wonderful scenery.

We were given an excellent room overlooking the north grounds, and a partial view of the lake. The room was very nice, with a historical feel, but included all the modern amenities. Here are a few photos of the room itself:

The view from our hotel room.

The view from our hotel room.

After checking in, we took the opportunity to explore a bit, taking pictures of the grounds, and the lake, etc. We drove into town (though we could have easily walked) and explored a little bit of the main street, stumbling across the Hall of Fame building. In fact, we went inside briefly, to use their restrooms. We had planned to actually visit the museum the next day, but we did our souvenir shopping then, figuring it would save us time the next day. We both got Biggio induction t-shirts, and caps–Jenny’s of the current Astros hat with the induction patch, and I got a HOF cap. After exploring a bit, we ate dinner at a tiny diner, named, appropriately, Cooperstown Diner. The service was nonexistent, but the food was amazing, and the prices were more than reasonable.

By now, we were growing tired and ready to get some rest for the next day, so we returned to the hotel and our wonderful room and prepared to call it a night on Day 1.

10,070 Steps / 5 Miles

 

Day 2

Original Itinerary:
8:30 AM – Check-out of hotel in Cooperstown, NY
9:00 AM – Visit National Baseball Hall of Fame
3:00 PM – Leave Hall of Fame and drive to Middletown, NY, then check-in to hotel
7:00 PM – Rehearsal Dinner @ SoHo Bar & Grill

Both Jenny and I hated that we had to check out of the Otesaga so soon. Our stay included a breakfast in the Hotel’s Glimmerglass restaurant, which turned out to be a fancy breakfast buffet, with omelet station, and really pretty excellent food. The service was excellent, and made us feel like very special guests. We wandered around and took some more pictures of the hotel, grounds, and the lake, before finally checking out, and heading for the car.

We parked at the Doubleday Field parking lot in downtown Cooperstown (really only a couple blocks from the hotel), and made our way to the Hall of Fame Museum. After purchasing our tickets, we were almost immediately greeted by a Craig Biggio display, which included several items from his playing career. The other upcoming inductees were also on display, but as Houstonians, we had eyes only for Biggio. We spent time looking at the plaques in the main hall, and I managed to get photos of each and every plaque, including the location where Biggio’s will go later this month. We then made our way to the 2nd floor of the museum, and spent time marveling at all the amazing artifacts that they have on display. From Babe Ruth’s uniforms, to actual lockers used by baseball’s best players, to bricks from stadiums, to some of the original rulebooks used by baseball clubs back in the very foundation of the sport, the Baseball Hall of Fame has some of everything; it’s truly remarkable. In fact, there was so much to see and read, it was a little overwhelming. We spent only a few hours there, but could easily have spent many more.

Once we finished with the museum (a little earlier than I expected), we decided to grab a bite to eat at a small restaurant directly across the street from the museum. The food wasn’t bad, but was a far cry from the excellent meal we’d had the previous evening, and the service was just so-so. Still, the weather was perfect, except for a small rain shower, and we sat outdoors and enjoyed the cool temperatures. In all, it capped off a wonderful start to the vacation, and by this point, it was almost impossible for us to believe that just the previous day we had been in Houston.

At this point, we hopped back in our ‘luxury’ rental car, and made our way to Middletown, NY where my cousin’s wedding would be held the next evening. The drive this time wasn’t as circuitous, and was a bit shorter, as Middletown is only about a 1.5 hour drive from NYC. We arrived at our hotel at about 3:30 PM and checked in, then had a chance to rest for a bit, and take a brief nap before we had to meet everyone for dinner. Fortunately, the restaurant was within walking distance of our hotel, so we didn’t have to drive anywhere.

Dinner was fun, though loud, and we got to see a few of my direct family members, as well as introduce Jenny to Renee for the first time, and we both got to meet Otto her (then future) husband, who was very nice and welcoming. Both of them seemed very happy together, and they make an excellent couple. The food was pretty good (for Tex-Mex in New York, that is), and we all had a wonderful time. Jenny and I left a little bit early (around 9 PM), as we were both very tired from having gotten up relatively early, and from driving several hours that day. We went back to the hotel, and promptly crashed. We were both happy that we could sleep in the following morning, as we had nothing planned but the wedding, which was at 6 PM the next night.

6,544 Steps / 3.2 Miles

Day 3

Original Itinerary:
6:00 PM – Attend wedding

At last, the wedding day had arrived. This was literally our primary reason for traveling all the way to New York, and we both were looking forward to the party. We slept until about Noon, since we had nothing else planned to do. We searched for something close by to eat, and settled on a Mac & Cheese place, which I drove to but found closed for the holidays. Since just about everything else in the vicinity was a sit-down restaurant, I instead picked up Chipotle and took it back to the hotel room for us to eat.

At 5:15 PM, we were both dressed and ready to party, so we hopped on the “school bus” that shuttled all the wedding guests to the venue–a nicely-appointed historical home–where the wedding was to take place. The weather cooperated nicely, and everything seemed to go off without a hitch. The ceremony was very nice, the location was beautiful, and everyone had a fantastic time at the reception. Otto and Renee really seem like a very happy couple, and Jenny and I couldn’t be happier for them.

Around Midnight, the buses took everyone back to the hotels, and we pretty much immediately crashed. Fortunately, we didn’t need to check out super-early the next morning, so we were able to sleep in a little bit.

Day 4 / NYC – Day 0

Original Itinerary:
11:00 AM – Check-out of hotel in Middletown, and drive to Newark, NJ
1:00 PM – Turn in rental car in Newark, NJ
3:00 PM – Check-in to hotel in NYC
4:00 PM – Walk to Washington Square Park in NYC
5:00 PM – Get a slice from Joe’s Pizza in NYC

This was the day I was very excited for, as we would finally make our way to Manhattan, and get to experience the liveliness of New York City for the first time directly. We woke up and got ready faster than I expected, so ended up checking out of the hotel a couple of hours earlier than planned. My hope was that we wouldn’t have any problems checking into our hotel early, but my worries turned out to be unfounded, as we ran into some issues navigating the mass transit system, which delayed us getting to our hotel.

Once we turned in the rental car, we were shuttled back to the Newark Airport, where we had to figure out how to catch the bus to New York, and the correct one that would take us to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. There were two reasons we needed to go there, one of which was to pick up our CitySights NY tour bus passes, so we could then ride that bus to the vicinity of the hotel. We finally located where to get on the NJ Transit bus, but we weren’t exactly sure where we were supposed to transfer to the next bus that would take us in to Manhattan. The bus driver was nice, and made sure we got off at the correct stop, but then when we finally saw the bus we were supposed to take, they drove right past us, and dropped off across the street. The next bus was scheduled for 18 minutes from then, so it took us a while to finally locate the correct bus stop, but we managed to catch the next bus. It was very crowded, and we had little room to sit, let alone hold onto our luggage. It was a fairly lengthy bus ride as well, so it was really very uncomfortable.

Once we arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, it took us several minutes to locate the business where we were to pick up our tour bus passes. We had to ask directions several times, but kept getting mixed information, so went the wrong way several times. At last, we found the store-front, and got our passes. Because we had a 3-day pass, we would miss out on one day by getting them then, but we had no plans to come back to that portion of town for a couple of days. They offered us a VIP pass, which would add 2 more days to our bus pass, as well as VIP boarding, at a cost of $50. This turned out to be a mistake to purchase, as we expected to use the bus passes far more than we did. Our original plan called for taking the subway to a station near our hotel, but instead, we chose to ride the tour bus, which went near our hotel, and we would get off there.

The weather this day was quite warm, and we were both very hot and sweaty at this point. The temperature itself wasn’t all that bad, but any direct exposure to sunlight was particularly uncomfortable. Jenny was wearing a sleeveless shirt, and we spent a long time waiting for the bus to get going again at each stop. As a result, Jenny got quite sunburned on her arms, and I got a hefty dose of sunburn on my face and forehead. The bus finally arrived at its closest stop to our hotel, so we debarked, and hoofed it over the several blocks to our hotel. This was by far the worst part of the trip so far, as we had to navigate our (very) heavy suitcases across several blocks of Manhattan, the uneven concrete, crosswalks, etc. to finally arrive at our hotel. The journey that morning started at something like 9 AM, and we finally arrived at the hotel some six hours later, at nearly 4 PM.

It was heavenly to get to our room, where we had an air conditioner, bottled water, and a fantastic view.

The view from our hotel room.

The view from our hotel room.

At this point, we wanted to get out of the hotel, and make the most of our time in the city. We were committed to wasting as little time as possible, so we could experience as much of New York as possible in our limited timeframe. We had only 3 full days to see a lot of tourist sites, so time was of the essence.

By now, we hadn’t eaten in several hours, and I was famished, so our first itinerary change occurred. Instead of going to Washington Square park first, we instead went to Joe’s Pizza, and had a couple of slices. On the way there, we were greeted by an active ‘scene’ with police and a roped-off road. 6th Avenue was closed, and we later learned that it was due to a tour bus hitting and dragging a pedestrian several feet. The pedestrian was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, as a result. When we had arrived, there was a shoe in the street, blood on the pavement, and many police. At the time we weren’t aware of the specifics, but the people around weren’t acting as if it was all that unusual. In fact, our first thought when seeing all of this was that there was some type of filming going on. Still, we proceeded on with our plans. We made our way to Washington Square Park, where we saw the chess boards, and those wanting to play, were subjected to some ‘art project’ where people were in their underwear moaning and writhing on the ground while soaking wet, and just kind of took in the New York atmosphere.

Not quite ready to call it a night yet, we decided to check out Magnolia Bakery, where we got a few cookies, and Jenny got a cupcake (which she didn’t care for when she finally ate it a couple of days later); the cookies were very good though. At this point, we’d walked over a mile, and were ready to get back to the hotel and relax. We had a somewhat early morning, and wanted to be as refreshed as possible before hitting NYC in earnest the next day.

 

Day 5 / NYC – Day 1

Original Itinerary:
9:00 AM – 9/11 Memorial
11:00 AM – Eat lunch at Shake Shack
12:20 PM – Catch CitySights NY ferry to Battery Park
5:00 PM – Walk across Brooklyn Bridge and see Brooklyn Bridge Park
8:00 PM – Watch Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks from Brooklyn Heights Promenade

It was with great excitement that we got up and prepared for our first full day in New York City. This was actually supposed to be our ‘relaxed’ day in NYC, as we had just a few minor plans, but were filled with expectation. We searched for, and eventually found, the subway station indicated by Google Maps on my cellphone, and rode to within just a block or so of the 9/11 Memorial. This was our first subway experience, and it was immediately obvious that it would be the way we got around for the remainder of the trip. It was so fast and convenient to get to where we wanted to go, it seems hard to believe people would use just about anything else to get around. Taxis were fairly expensive, and even a five-minute wait for a Uber felt exceedingly inconvenient, especially after seeing how long it takes to get anywhere in NYC traffic.

We made our way to the Museum, and entered to see the exhibit and memorial. This was also our introduction to the enhanced security in NYC since the 9/11 attacks nearly 15 years ago. We had to go through metal detectors, and it was much like an airport security screening: shoes off; belts off; pockets emptied; bags through an x-ray machine; etc. Once through security, we then had to leaves our bags in a bag-check area, before we could enter the museum proper. And what a museum it was. It was an immediately sobering experience as they displayed photos of the Twin Towers before the attack, and then you enter the subterranian section of the memorial. The original slurry wall of the North tower is visible, along with the ‘final column’ and even the original foundation and support columns of the tower. The no-photography portion of the exhibit displays countless artifacts from the 9/11 disaster, but also tells the stories of many of the victims, and more-so the heroes of that tragic day; both those who sacrificed their lives, and those who survived to help others. It was highly emotional, very respectful, and one of the most hard-hitting museum experiences I’ve ever been through. The fact that we were there on July 4th was not lost on us either, especially as we stood not far away from the new World Trade Center building, standing a proud 1,776 feet tall.

Once finished with the museum, we ascended to street level to see the memorial’s dual reflecting pools. There were Memorial members handing out small American flags to be placed into victim’s names around the reflecting pools, so Jenny placed them for both of us. It was a really poignant moment, and put both of us in somewhat of a melancholy mood for most of the rest of the day.

Once finished with the Memorial, we made our way the few blocks to the next item on our agenda: Shake Shack. By now we were both hungry, and were curious to try what we’d heard was a great burger joint. We both ordered burgers, fries, and shakes, and were NOT disappointed. The burgers were some of the best I’ve ever had. The shakes were thick, and very flavorful, and I practically needed a spoon to eat mine. The fries were both crispy and tasty, and overall it was an excellent meal–a little pricey, but not overly so.

After lunch, we got turned around briefly, and circled the building before making our way in the correct direction to hop on our ferry, and head for Battery Park. This was where our first major change to itinerary occurred. We were both a little bit tired, and needed to rest our feet, so we decided to ride the ferry for a while. We stayed on it for a couple of hours, experiencing all kinds of weather, including hot sun, windy rain, cold winds, and then very nice weather toward the end of our ride. We did however, get some excellent views of Manhattan, many of the sites, and some fantastic pictures of the Lady herself, the Statue of Liberty. Our original plan called for us to get off at the southern tip of Manhattan and walk to Battery Park, then all the way across Brooklyn Bridge and to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Instead, we got off at the DUMBO pier, and went immediately up onto the bridge. Rather than walk all the way across, we made it to the first big tower, and got some great pictures from there. There were a LOT of people on the bridge with us, so it was often difficult just to walk around, but we still had a good time.

We were both tired and cranky by now, so we decided to get something to eat. If there’s one thing I learned about NYC is that there are a LOT of places to eat. Trying to find something good isn’t difficult, but you have to know almost exactly what you want in order to find the right place. We settled on Grimaldi’s, a pizzeria practically underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. We had to wait outside in line for quite a while before finally getting a table, but then we got to sit for a while, waiting for our food to be ready. It was very crowded inside, and our table felt uncomfortably claustrophobic, so we didn’t stay long after eating. The food was good, of course, but nothing revelatory, since we’ve had Grimaldi’s here in Houston before, and the food is pretty much the same. Being tucked back in a corner with no views to the outside kind of ruined the ambiance of eating in Brooklyn though.

Jane’s Carousel was one of the attractions that I was looking forward to seeing in Brooklyn Bridge Park, so we made our way there, only to find it closed early due to the holiday. Brooklyn Bridge Park was supposed to be one of the best places to watch the 4th of July Fireworks from, so we elected to find a place to sit down, and wait for the fireworks. This was shortly after 5 PM, and the fireworks weren’t scheduled to start until about 9 PM. So we prepared ourselves to wait several hours. Knowing that things would get crowded, we figured we had a great location to watch from. The majority of the fireworks were to go off further up the East River (to our right) and another set from just south of the Brooklyn Bridge (to our left). 9 PM came and went without any fireworks, and we were both growing antsy, and ready to see some awesome fireworks.

Finally, about 9:30 they started, and it was immediately obvious that we picked the wrong place to watch them from. The huge tower of the Brooklyn Bridge blocked most of the view of those south of us, and the fireworks further up the East River were mostly occluded by the buildings in the way. We could see the top half of them, but not much more. Those that were closer weren’t all that impressive, and hundreds of thousands of people were all on the move, trying to get a better view. Once we realized we weren’t going to get a good view of them, we decided to beat the crowds (or so we thought) and get back to the subway and get out of there. The crowds were like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and reminded me of what Mardi Gras in New Orleans must be like. It was kind of like one of those disaster movies, with everyone milling around, and trying to make your way through them while explosions go off behind you. Really, it was not an experience I would like to go through again. As we made our way to the subway station, we made the determination that we probably would have had a better view of the fireworks from our hotel room. Live and learn, I suppose.

We did finally make it back to the hotel, were able to catch a replay of the fireworks on television, where I was again disappointed–they weren’t really that great, and the music was TERRIBLE. We ordered some delivery from a deli, and went to bed, having felt like we wasted four-and-a-half hours in NYC. Still, it was interesting to see so many New Yorkers gathered for the fireworks, even if we did all pick the wrong spot.

Day 6 / NYC – Day 2

Original Itinerary:
10:00 AM – Central Park and Central Park Zoo
3:00 PM – FAO Schwartz
3:30 PM – Apple Store
4:00 PM – Discovery Times Square
5:30 PM – New York Skyride
6:00 PM – Empire State Building 86th-floor observation deck

This day our trip really went off the rails. We decided to shuffle our plans a bit for the day early. After dealing with large crowds the night before, neither Jenny or I were in a rush to repeat the experience. We decided to visit the Empire State Building first thing, to beat the lines (or so we hoped).

I woke up about 6 AM in pretty extreme pain, to the point I was doubled-over, and felt like vomiting. The pain eventually passed, and I felt fine, but it returned a few minutes later with a vengeance, making me vomit twice. Jenny nearly broke her leg trying to get out of the shower while I was folded over the toilet evacuating a very empty stomach. A couple of weeks before, I had something similar happen, though it wasn’t nearly as bad, and I determined I likely had a kidney stone affecting me. Unfortunately, it had chosen NYC to make a reappearance. I finally felt well enough to get out of the hotel, so we headed for the Empire State Building.

We beat most of the lines, and made our way to the 86th floor observatory, where it was very crowded, but had a pretty magnificent view. The only bad thing about the day was the view was pretty faded, due to dust or dirt in the air. Still, we could see for miles and miles around, and I got what I felt were some pretty excellent pictures. As we got ready to leave, I was in pain again, and went to the restroom, where I noticed blood in my urine. I tried struggling through, but by the time we got to the New York Skyride (a movie-theater ride) and the seat bounced me around an induced pretty bad motion sickness (in me, not Jenny), it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to be able to go much further that day. Jenny insisted that we go see a doctor, so we tried an urgent care clinic, but they told me to go to the ER for a CAT scan. By now, I was mostly feeling better, but we walked several more blocks to the NYU Hospital emergency room, where they took me back almost immediately, and hooked me up to an IV, and worked on getting me what I needed. I gave a urine sample (clearly blood in it), and they performed a CAT scan. The doctor eventually came back and let me know that I had two kidney stones (a 5mm and a 4mm) and the larger one was the one currently affecting me. They prescribed me Flomax to help the stone pass, and Percocet for the pain. By the time we left the ER, I was mostly feeling fine again, and we were both very hungry. In all, we spent about 3 hours in the ER, but those were hours in NYC that I’ll never get back.

NYU Langone Hospital Emergency Room

NYU Langone Hospital Emergency Room

Before resuming our sightseeing in NYC, we decided to eat at a bar we had passed on the way to the hospital, called Joshua Tree Bar. Mainly, this was due to its having our nephew’s name Joshua in it, but also, because it looked intriguing. We were the only patrons in the bar, so got to talk to our barkeep/waitress for a while. She told us that NYC was pretty dead, because of the holiday. We had thought it was crowded (and compared to Houston, it was) but not so, according to the locals.

After eating, and feeling much better, we decided it was time to see Times Square (during the day). Though not at crowded as the fireworks area the night before, this was by far the most crowded area we’d yet seen in NYC. Times Square had been described to me as “not worth it”, which I would say isn’t far from the truth, and yet it’s still one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. There were lots of shops, and countless other things to do there. We went to the Discovery Times Square, where we wandered through the Hunger Game Exhibition. It was pretty cool, though not as interesting as I would have hoped. Still, it was indoors, not very crowded, and air-conditioned. After the exhibition, we went to the Hershey’s store, then M&M’s World, both in Times Square. I was determined to get a street-vendor hot dog while in NYC, so did that in Times Square; it was really pretty good, and I told myself I should have gotten two of them. By now, our feet were just about ready to give out, and we didn’t have much more in the gas tank. We decided we’d go to see the Apple Store and FAO Schwartz, before heading back to the hotel. Most of the things we wanted to see the next day were very close-together, so we figured we could squeeze Central Park into the day fairly easily.

The Apple Store didn’t disappoint; it’s an amazing piece of architecture, or at least the gas alone is. We didn’t shop, and barely looked around, I really just wanted to say that I’d been there, and get a few pictures. We then went to FAO Schwartz to see that it had already closed for the evening. Jenny was disappointed, but I promised her we’d go back the next day. After all, the store closes for good on July 15th, so it was urgent that we see it.

We made our way back to the hotel, and to a restful evening. I took my medication, and almost immediately passed out.

19,252 Steps / 9.5 Miles

 

Day 7 / NYC – Day 3

Original Itinerary:
8:30 AM – St. Patrick’s Cathedral
11:00 AM – Top of the Rock observation deck at Rockefeller Center
1:00 PM – New York Public Library
2:00 PM – Grand Central Terminal

Our final full day in NYC, and boy were we already exhausted. Our updated plan for the day was to start at Rockefeller Center, and the Top of the Rock observation deck, followed by some time in Central Park. Just the thought of all that walking was overwhelming, but I just couldn’t go to New York City without visiting Central Park.

We also got to see NYC as it usually is. We hit the streets around 9 AM, which is apparently the start of the workday for most, and it was immediately clear that foot traffic was up considerably. It was also much clearer who were locals, and who were the tourists, as those working were dressed appropriately, while tourists like Jenny and I were dressed in tourist clothes, lugging around cameras, and stopping to snap photos of things that New Yorkers had likely seen a billion times before.

We made our way to Rockefeller Plaza, and up to the 67th floor and the Top of the Rock. This was composed of 3 levels, one of which was indoors and air-conditioned. Jenny chose to stay on this level, while I explored the upper decks. The views from here were far better than those at the Empire State Building (or so I believed), and I got some amazing panoramas of the New York skylines. Central Park was much more visible from this vantage point, and all of Manhattan was spread out before me. It was a little nerve-wracking on the top-most level, as there weren’t as many guardrails, etc., but it was a really neat experience, and one that I’d easily do again, if we went back. It would be fun to go up there at nighttime, when the city is all lit up. In fact, I’ve heard that’s the best time to go.

After Top of the Rock, we hopped across the street and wandered around St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a little bit. It was a gorgeous church, marred only by the ongoing renovations. Still, the stained glass windows were incredible, and the architecture was world-class. Then it was back across the street, and to Rockefeller Plaza, where we stumbled upon the LEGO store there. We browsed around, but strangely, their prices were elevated above MSRP, so we didn’t buy much. We did get a small Statue of Liberty LEGO set (which is apparently nearly impossible to come by.)

At this point, we made our way to FAO Schwartz, which turned out to be an amazing toy store, but with very little selection. It was pretty clear that their impending closing had affected their inventory. The shelves weren’t exactly bare, but they didn’t have a whole lot to choose from. We got to see the giant keyboard from the movie “Big”, but there was a line to play on it, so we passed.

After the toy store, and before we wandered into Central Park, I got a pretzel from a street-vendor, and it was actually really good. We elected to forego the Central Park Zoo, mainly because we couldn’t handle any more walking, but we did see a little corner of the park. It was immediately obvious why the Park is so popular, and I could easily see spending a lot of time there. There’s so much to see and do in Central Park that if/when we ever go back, it’s going to be my primary target, and one that I plan to spend at least a full day or two exploring. We considered taking the horse-drawn carriage ride, but they were pretty outrageously priced, so we passed.

By now, both of us could barely walk without limping, and the thought of much more walking was far too daunting to contemplate. But we had two big items left on our agenda: Grand Central Terminal, and the New York Public Library. Both of them were quite close to each other, but were a short subway ride from where we were. We made it to the Grand Central Terminal, where Jenny’s energy finally gave out. We found a table to sit at in the Dining Concourse, and I went and got her some Shake Shack (so good, she had to have it again) and I got some food from Tri Tip (just okay, nothing amazing). She elected to wait there while I hoofed it over to the NY Public Library that was just a couple blocks away. The outside was amazing, and people were all over the steps, lots of photos being taken, etc. I was there for a couple very specific photos, but the main reading room was temporarily closed. It turns out we missed being able to see it by just a few days, and it won’t re-open until early 2017. It was a big disappointment, but I still got to see some amazing architecture, and the elaborate decorations that a public library in New York can provide.

I made my way back to Grand Central Terminal, and Jenny and I decided it was time to call it a night, and head back to the hotel. We had seen nearly everything we had set out to see in New York on this trip, and we just didn’t have any energy to do anything else.

On the way back to the hotel, Jenny noticed a flyer on a doorway that said “Mr. Robot”, which is the name of a new TV show that I’m very interested in. It turns out they would be filming for Mr. Robot the very next day, starting at 8 AM in the area. This was literally one block from our hotel. I hoped maybe I could be inserted as an extra, or a background character, but we were scheduled to leave New York the next day around Noon. Still, it was pretty neat to run into such a coincidence, especially in a city as large as New York.

Once back at the hotel, we ordered Chinese delivery to our room (which was REALLY good), and once again passed out with little difficulty.

19,921 Steps / 9.8 Miles

 

Day 8

Original Itinerary:
12:00 PM – Check out of hotel in NYC, then take Subway and Bus back to Newark, NJ
3:35 PM – Flight to Atlanta, GA
6:35 PM – Flight to Houston, TX
8:50 PM – Flight arrives in Houston, TX

At last, and sadly, Going Home Day arrived. After having been to Cooperstown, Middletown, and then New York City, the vacation had felt like we’d been gone for weeks, not days. And yet, the idea of getting home to familiar surroundings was exciting. We got everything packed up, and while Jenny got ready, I went to a corner market to get her some breakfast, and picked up some donuts from a street vendor (surprisingly good). I checked out the film trucks and crew down the street from the hotel, as they worked on getting things prepared for filming that day. Most of the natives walked past it like they had seen it all before, as they apparently have. Filming in NYC is pretty common, from what I’ve heard from other New Yorkers. We got everything packed up, ready for the trip back to Houston, and eventually made our way to the Hotel lobby.

After our rough experience getting to the hotel, I had booked a shuttle van from the hotel back to the airport. The driver was very friendly, though a little hard to understand. It took a couple of hours getting to the airport (there were a couple other people to be picked up first), but once there, we grabbed a bite to eat, and got ready for our plane. Originally scheduled for 3:35 PM, it was delayed until 4:14 PM, and didn’t take off until nearly 5:15 PM. Fortunately, our connecting flight in Atlanta had a fairly lengthy layover, so we landed with about a half-hour to spare. We were given the chance to upgrade our flight to First-Class for a reasonable fee when booking, so we were excited about flying in “luxury”. The seats were nice and wide and I had lots of legroom, which made the flight much more comfortable than any other I’ve flown before. We got our drinks in real glass cups, and they kept asking us questions by name. “Mr. and Mrs. Brown, would you care for anything before we take off?”. I almost partook in the free alcohol, but decided not to. Considering my kidney stones were mostly behaving since the hospital, I didn’t want to take any chances.

We landed in Atlanta, got off the plane, and almost immediately figured out that we had to get right back on the same plane to go home. The next flight crew wasn’t nearly as nice as the first, but we still had our excellent seats, and it was nice to stretch out a bit on the flight. It’s going to be very difficult to fly anything other than first-class again, but it was an experience worth having, and made the flight home actually pleasurable, for once.

Once we landed, Jenny’s mother Martha picked us up, and we partook in our travel ritual: the Chick-fil-a drive-through on the way home. We picked up our dogs, drove home (which felt strange after not driving for several days), and got back to our comfy Home Sweet Home.

So ended our trip to New York, and I have to admit that I almost immediately missed it. I could easily see living in New York City, but I’m not sure our feet (or the dogs) would be up to it. The most surprising things I learned in New York City though: it’s surprisingly dog-friendly (lots of parks, and the only places dogs aren’t really allowed were restaurants), and the subway is an amazingly easy way to get around the city (once you figure out how to use it). If Houston had a subway system like New York, it would make daily commuting SOOO much easier.

Still, it was an amazing trip, and one that I’m extremely glad we made, and can’t wait to go back another time. Jenny and I promised each other that we’re going to go back just to the Otesaga Hotel to relax for a few days. There’s no other place I’d rather go to just spend a few days lounging around, reading a book, and maybe getting out on the lake in a boat. I can’t wait to go back there.

7,508 Steps / 3.7 Miles

 

Career 4.0

I’m about to start a new career.

It’s been a while coming, but beginning in April, I start a new job. I’m still with the same company that I’ve worked for over the past 7 years, but with a new position. I will no longer be doing IT support, but instead will be a Project Manager.

For the first time in any of my careers, I’ve been provided an excellent opportunity to not only do what I enjoy, but to actually achieve my goals and be rewarded for doing so. So many large companies ask for your long-term goals, but never really do anything to help you get there; it’s a requirement that it be on your review, but not that they attempt to help you accomplish it. Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. is different. This company has helped me at every turn to get where I am. I believe I’ve earned it, and that the company is more successful as a result of my work.

In December, 2014, all IT across the company was informed that things were changing–not a little, but a lot. We had all kind of expected the news, but it was still a shock. Our jobs were effectively eliminated, and we needed to apply and interview for new positions within the new organization. Though some people have been through this type of shuffle before (myself included), there’s always trepidation and uncertainty about what the future holds. For my part, the timing literally could not have been better.

Back in late 2010, I was given my first large-scale project within the organization. The task was to coordinate the deployment of Microsoft Office 2007 to our division. This comprised some 5,000 plus computers, so was a fairly substantial responsibility. Unfortunately, licensing restrictions, and delayed rollouts caused this project to sputter out somewhat, but it was an excellent learning experience for me. But it was just the first step. Over the course of the next five years, I would be given more and more important projects, and led them successfully to conclusion.

I realized fairly early on that I enjoyed the work associated with project management, and wanted to move in that direction. In my yearly evaluations, I indicated that I desired more responsibility and to take on bigger challenges. I’m fortunate that my managers gave me those opportunities. In late 2014, I began studying for a project management certification.

Getting Certified

There are several formalized project management certifications, but the most common is the Project Management Professional (PMP). However, PMP requires 7,500 hours of experience in various areas of responsibility. This equates to close to four years of full-time project management work–which I do not have. There is, however, an entry-level certification called Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). CAPM certification has much less restrictive requirements, which I was close to meeting already.

I approached my managers, and asked if they’d be willing to help me pay for the education I needed to obtain the certification, and they agreed. I took an exam preparation course, which did little to teach me the material, but definitely prepared me for how to study. What I learned is that the CAPM and PMP exams are extremely tricky, and designed to confuse you. Add to that the fact that there’s no actual score, only a pass/fail grade, which makes me want to be sure I’m ready before I take the exam. As a result, I am still studying.

Perfect Timing

As I prepared to become a Project Manager in credentials, my thoughts turned to the future. While I had chances to work on projects for my group within the company, a true Project Manager role was my ultimate goal. When the announcement came in December that we would have to apply for new jobs, I was immediately excited to see that Project Manager was one of the positions open. Naturally, I submitted my (newly updated) resume, and applied.

Finally, toward the end of March (a tortuously long wait for everyone involved), the official announcements came out, and I was offered Project Manager. My new job begins on April 1st, 2015, and I will have a new manager. Best of all, the job doesn’t require that I actually be in the office, and I’ll be working from home, full-time, though I will occasionally need to travel. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of work to be done to transition my current responsibilities to a new group. I’m still not sure exactly when I’ll begin all of my new responsibilities, but I look forward to the day when I do.

What is a Project Manager?

I’ve gotten this question a lot from the people I’ve told about my new job, and have come to realize that most people don’t actually know what Project Managers do. In fact, it’s a lot of organizational work, requiring constant communication, juggling changing priorities, etc.

I’ll give you an example: a company uses a specific piece of software, but wants to upgrade to a newer version. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, this company has built many other programs that tie in directly to the current version of this software. By upgrading to the latest version, it may break all of these other programs they use, which are critical to the business. Now this project becomes much more complicated.

The desired end result is that everyone in the company gets the latest version of the software. To get there however, the Project Manager is responsible for putting together a plan that does a lot of things. In this instance, everyone that owns a program that ties into the new software has to be involved in testing, to ensure those programs work. If they don’t, further development needs to be done and tested to make problems will come up during and after all this work, and that has to be managed somehow, as well.

This is just a simple example of a project. Many projects have budgets associated with them, and it’s important to manage timeframes to get projects completed on time. The Project Manager’s responsibility is to ensure the project is done properly, on time, and on budget–not always an easy task, especially when relying on others to do most of the work.

It definitely takes a “very particular set of skills” to be a successful Project Manager. While I feel I have those skills, and have demonstrated that in my current role, there’s always the possibility that I will fail at this new job. The thought of failing isn’t exactly exciting, but that’s what makes new endeavors worth pursuing. Yes, I might fail, but I also might succeed beyond my wildest dreams. Either way is an adventure, and one I look forward to.

Here’s to my newest career, and all it brings, pass or fail.

Another 24 Hours with a Windows Tablet

In February, 2014, I wrote a post titled “24 Hours with a Windows Tablet“. I had purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet, with the intention of using it primarily as a media consumption device, and having the added benefit of it being a full-blown computer that could run Windows applications. Within 24 hours, it was immediately obvious that Windows wasn’t ready to be a tablet OS, and that it simply wouldn’t work for my needs. So it was that my Windows tablet was returned, and I purchased an Android tablet instead.

Since then, I’ve moved on to using an iPad Mini as my main tablet device, supplemented occasionally by my older Android tablet, and my 3rd-generation Kindle as my primary reading device. But recently, I stumbled across a deal that was too good to pass up: the $79 HP Stream 7 tablet.

For $79 (plus tax, with free shipping), Microsoft was offering a tablet that typically costs $99, but also came with a year of Office 365 Personal (worth $69.99), a $25 Microsoft Store gift card, and 60 free Skype minutes per month. In all, these freebies were worth $95, which is more than the tablet itself cost. For this rock-bottom price, I was willing to give it a try, since I wanted to play around with Windows 10 in this new form-factor anyway. It also had the benefit of being a “Signature Edition”, which means no manufacturer bloatware, crapware, or any unwanted software at all. This was purely Windows on a piece of hardware.

The rest of this article describes my experience and impressions of Windows itself. For my review of the HP Stream 7, click here.

Requirements

Since my original post, my requirements have changed somewhat. Most of my needs are the same, but some of the applications have changed.

  • I use my tablet for both personal and work email.
  • I use Feedly to read news on my tablet often. I usually check Feedly several times a day.
  • The Kindle app is regularly used on my tablet, usually at work during lunch breaks.
  • TeamViewer I occasionally use for remote support.
  • Netflix, Hulu, and now Plex are used regularly for watching television shows or movies.
  • I’ve moved from Evernote to using Microsoft OneNote, which has excellent tablet apps.
  • Since I use primarily Apple devices, I use the built-in Apple apps for listening to music, and the built-in video apps for movies or TV shows.
  • I’ve started using Duet to utilize my iPad mini as a secondary monitor on my computer.
  • Any.do has been replaced with ToDoist for keeping track of my to-do list items.
  • Chromecast has become my go-to way of getting video onto other screens in my house. I use this a lot in the bedroom, when watching video.

So those are my main requirements for my tablet.

As an example, here are the homescreens of my iPad mini, and Nexus 7 tablets:

Windows 10

Almost immediately after getting the tablet, I upgraded it to the Windows 10 Technical Preview. I was curious to see how this new version of Windows would work on a tablet device. Though still early in development, it’s clear that Windows 10 is far better as a tablet than Windows 8.1. Some of the biggest improvements so far include:

Notification Center

The latest version of this is easily accessible with a swipe from the right, and provides a handy list of notifications. Unfortunately, there’s currently no way to dismiss individual notifications, and they don’t seem at all actionable, but it’s a huge improvement over previous versions of Windows–even earlier versions of Windows 10. It’s also nice that many commonly used toggles are accessible at the bottom of this notification window.

Tablet Mode

Though this build of Windows 10 doesn’t yet automatically prompt for toggling between modes when a keyboard/mouse is connected, enabling tablet mode immediately makes the touch interface work properly for tablet purposes. Where getting the keyboard to appear properly in Windows 8.1 was a challenge, it works exactly as you’d expect in Windows 10–if tablet mode is active. It takes a little getting used to, in remembering to enable it though. There are also some strange design choices once tablet mode is enabled. For example, all of the taskbar buttons disappear, and the “desktop” gets kind of dimmed, even when all windows are closed. A swipe from the left opens the new “alt+tab” replacement, which allows switching between open apps, and even for closing existing windows. It all works, but seems strange to eliminate the taskbar icons, when it’s not entirely necessary.

In all, Windows 10 does seem to be making some huge improvements over Windows 8.1 both as a tablet OS and a desktop OS. Since it’s still in development, I’m not ready to unilaterally say if it’s going to work out the way the company hopes, but I can say that it’s a far better option than their previous efforts.

Here are some screenshots of Windows 10 Technical Preview running on the HP Stream 7, and the difference between tablet mode, and desktop mode:

As a Tablet

Despite its improvements, Windows is still not a great tablet OS. Many of the same problems I had before still exist: good tablet apps aren’t available for Windows, or they rely on their desktop counterpart to get the job done.

  • ToDoist has apps for virtually every platform on earth, except for Windows as a modern application. No touch-friendly version is available, which means relying on the standard Windows desktop version, which isn’t great on a 7″ touchscreen.
  • No official Feedly app (and no decent alternatives) means relying on the website within Internet Explorer. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but in a touch-first interface, it’s not as easy to navigate as it should be. Performance is also pretty poor here on cheap tablets.
  • There are still essentially no Google apps available for Windows, and there likely never will be. Those heavily invested in Google’s ecosystem (which is basically everyone these days) are left out.
  • TeamViewer’s modern app is still terrible, and in fact, I had to Ctrl+Alt+Delete to even get it to close properly.
  • Amazon’s Kindle app is perhaps even worse than it’s ever been. Users still can’t read personal documents, and I couldn’t even locate a way to change the font size within the app. Considering most people would want their tablet to double as an e-reader, this is a huge problem for Windows tablets.
  • Netflix worked pretty much as expected, yet the taskbar remained visible the entire time while playing video. There didn’t seem to be a “full screen” option, which was odd. It was also surprisingly slow to buffer video before playing.
  • I never could get Hulu to work at all. This may be an incompatibility with the Windows 10 Technical Preview, but it was still disappointing.
  • I didn’t test out Plex, since the app costs $5, which I wasn’t willing to pay to test.
  • None of the Windows apps have native support for Chromecast, which is a huge disappointment. Both iOS and Android devices support Chromecast through apps like Netflix, Hulu, Plex and many others. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker to most, as many people would be content to watch video on their tablet itself, though.
  • Keyboard typing in Windows as a tablet also leaves a lot to be desired. There’s no double-space for periods, and though Windows will automatically capitalize the first word in a sentence, it treats it as an autocorrect, rather than immediately placing the keyboard into capital letter mode after a period. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but just different from how other mobile devices function.
  • The Start Menu makes a return, with a kind of hybrid form of menu and of the Windows 8.1 Start Screen. It works much better than the old Start Screen, but is still a hodge-podge that I’m not crazy about. I still don’t have much use for the live tiles, and having to configure the Start Menu like I would the homescreen on an Android tablet feels wrong, somehow.

That said, there were some highlights that I found while using Windows 10 on this tablet:

  • Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps are excellent. Touch-friendly versions of Office that are pretty fully-featured show the promise of good software on these types of devices. Unfortunately for Microsoft, these same apps (with the same capabilities) are already available for Android and iOS devices. While this will keep users hooked to the Microsoft Office software, it doesn’t provide a valuable incentive to stick with Windows.
  • OneNote for Windows tablets is just as good as the Android/iOS versions, but again, not a Windows exclusive at this point.
  • Snapped windows and split screen functions are probably the killer features here. While watching Netflix, I was able to snap it to one half of the screen, and browse the web on the other half. Some Android phones have this type of functionality, but on such a small screen, it’s pretty much a gimmick. Here, it actually works–well, sort of. Performance on small, low-power tablets was poor enough that it made it virtually impossible to actually do both activities at the same time, but it is at least theoretically possible. Perhaps with further optimization, Windows 10 will handle this better in the future. Still, this is a feature that is apparently coming to iPads, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Android adopt something similar in the future. I would certainly welcome being able to have 2 windows open side-by-side on my iPad.

Conclusion

So after spending another 24 hours with a Windows tablet, I plan to keep this one, though I’m not sure how useful it will be. I’m primarily interested in how Windows 10 progresses, and will update it with the latest versions as the development continues.

However, unless software developers make dramatic improvements to the availability and functionality of Windows apps for tablets, I can’t see it making much difference. My initial conclusion is pretty much the same, Windows doesn’t work well as a tablet OS, and small devices don’t work that well for using the desktop interface. Windows 10 has made great strides so far, but it may not be enough to overcome its competition.

That said, for a $79 tablet, the functionality that Windows provides is outstanding. This is a full-fledged computer, that will run the full version of Microsoft Office, if you’re willing to put up with some idiosyncrasies of dealing with a screen this small.