Hurt Back

Yesterday, I was putting away groceries, and I turned for some reason, and I felt a now familiar twinge in my back. I had strained a muscle in my back, much as I have done a few times in recent months. It hurt a *lot* last night, and somewhat less today. I’m hopeful that I’ll be more or less normal later in the week, and I can get back on my running schedule, but I’ll have to take a few days off to recover.

Today I’ve been working on Project Euler problems: I did a few of them a couple years ago, and I’m re-doing those in C, rather than Ruby.

Doing things

Today we did our taxes, and the damages weren’t quite as bad as I feared, so I’m happy about that. We finally got some rain here in San Francisco. I went for a run this afternoon, and it was still sprinkling.

I’ve noticed that the rainy season has been coming late to California in recent years, so we could have a very dry fall and early winter, and then make up at least some of the deficit in late winter and early spring. I’m not saying I think that will happen this year, but I think it’s at least possible that we’ll have a wet February, March, and April. At least I hope we do.

No Instacart, either

Yesterday we almost tried Instacart. Sara did the shopping, and we noticed from the get go that they have a significant markup — for example, a half gallon of Clover organic milk is $5.19, which is more expensive than the little grocery next door. I know that a half gallon of organic milk is less than $4 if I actually *go* to Whole Foods.

Earlier I had complained about the pain of going grocery shopping, and I still believe that it’s annoying. Nevertheless, I realize that you don’t get a big benefit out of doing a large grocery order through a service like Instacart. For one thing, the delivery fee increases with the size of the order. Your best bet is to order just over the minimum for free delivery, so $35 exactly. That way, you’re only paying a few dollars of markup.

When we went to check out, Instacart asked us if we wanted to tip the delivery person. Of course we would — we are always generous to service workers. But up till that point, we had assumed that the tip was included in the charge, as with a service like Uber. We decided to scratch the whole thing and do our shopping IRL. We can’t afford the markup plus a tip.

Working towards to-do list zero

Recently I switched from Things to Wunderlist. I’ve been thinking I’m going to switch my phone from iOS to Android either late this year or early next year, and Wunderlist works on Android. Another thing Wunderlist does is allow sharing of a to-do list. So if Sara is using Wunderlist, too, I can share a list with her. I started a list called “Sara,” but then renamed it “Sara and John,” so she didn’t feel alone doing the tasks on that list. I can do them too!

Anyway, I’ve been steadily shrinking my to-do list, by doing items on the list, by acknowledging that I’ve already done them, and by removing them from the list. Sometimes I move them to a “someday” list, and sometimes I decide that I’m really never going to do them. I think it’s important to realize that sometimes a to-do list item is not going to get done. Obviously some things *have* to get done, like taxes. Others allow for some flexibility.

I have a to-do list item, part of earthquake prep, “Fasten sideboard to wall.” I finally put it in my “someday” list, because it’s been a to-do list item since my now eight year old son was a baby. It’s not getting done! Maybe I’ll be inspired someday and actually do it, but probably not, and that’s OK.

First experience with Blue Apron

Continuing with my outsourcing project, we tried  Blue Apron for the first time this week. Blue Apron is a service where the company sends you a chilled box with ingredients, along with three recipes, and you use the recipes to prepare the meals. My experience was not totally positive, as you’ll read in this post. Nevertheless, it wasn’t by any means all bad, either. I recommend you try it for yourself and see if it’s for you. I think for someone with different needs from ours, it could be truly great.

A friend of mine has been using Blue Apron for several months now, and he loves it, so I asked him if he still loved it — he replied that yes, he did, and he gave me a free coupon to use for one week’s delivery for two — thanks, Frederic! Since we’re a family of four, I ordered a delivery for four, which cost $120, but with half off, it was only $60 for three family meals. Not bad. Although I’ve been going mostly veg lately, I eat pretty much everything that’s put in front of me. Sara, nevertheless, does not eat red meat (unless it was hunted by someone she knows, like Caribou shot by my brother-in-law in Alaska), so we decided to go with the vegetarian option. Apparently in the future they’ll offer more options, which might cater to my family’s specific needs.

Fed Ex delivered the box at about 10am yesterday (Saturday) morning, so we were able to try cooking one of them last evening. Getting the boxes was exciting: it was sort of like opening a present on Christmas morning. Nevertheless, I was a little nonplussed by all the packaging. The box contained some kind of styrofoam to insulate it, and then there were several ice packs on the bottom. I immediately felt that I could not in good conscience use that much packaging every week.

2014-01-11 17.12.14
Go home, Blue Apron. You’re drunk.

When we opened up the box, we found that everything was in its own little plastic baggie, labeled, or in a little bottle, or in a little cup with a lid. I found it enormously wasteful. Blue Apron claims that, “Most cities do recycle,” plastic bags, which sounds like crap to me. I live in San Francisco, which recycles more than any municipality in America, and Recology does not take plastic baggies. “You can take them to Safeway,” Sara mentioned, but who knows what Safeway does with them? Maybe Safeway just chucks them in the trash.

Last night I made Miso & Shiitake Ramen, which is one of those that Sara can eat with no modification — no dairy, or at least no dairy from cows. She can eat sheep cheese. The meals are supposed to take 35 minutes or less. I don’t know if I’m just slow or if this was an extra long one , or what. I started at about 5pm, not really paying attention to the time. By 5:40, I was still washing, chopping, and separating the fresh produce. This was feeling peculiarly like making a meal from regular grocery store ingredients. I suspect that the “35 minutes” time is based on a two person meal, because the preparation of fresh ingredients doesn’t scale. It basically took twice as long to prepare twice as much produce. Chopping the choy sum was rather agonizing, because I had to separate the stems, then chop up the stems. It’s the sort of thing I avoid cooking when I’m choosing a recipe myself.

I think I was done preparing the ingredients by, oh, about 6:20, which is pretty insane. Once that was done, the cooking went pretty quickly. I’m not sure I what I did wrong with the tofu, which I was supposed to cook in a pan on high till it was golden brown. I was supposed to drain it and dry it, which I did, but there was still a lot (maybe a tablespoon or two) of water in the tofu, and that had to be boiled off and poured off. Eventually, it did start sizzling, but all the browned stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan. The instructions recommend a non-stick pan, which we don’t have. Sara suggested in retrospect that I should have used the cast iron skillet, which is close to non-stick.

So, by 7pm, the meal was done, which is certainly not what I had signed up for. But it was good. Even though the tofu didn’t come out exactly right, the whole thing was totally tasty. Lots of flavors from all the fresh produce. I’d love to eat a meal like that three times a week, particularly if the “35 minutes” thing was really true. The broth from the ramen was thicker than I might expect, but that wasn’t bad — just different. Sara thinks it was the effect of the “vegetable demi-glace” that came with the ingredients.

So we’re not continuing our Blue Apron subscription, given that it would be over $500/month, that the recipes don’t really seem to take less than 35 minutes, that Sara can’t eat everything in them, even in the vegetarian version, and that they use too much packaging. I feel as though those issues could be fixed in a future iteration of the service. Who knows — we could be happy subscribers in a few years.

Laundry outsourcing update

Yesterday, I wrote about how we’re outsourcing our laundry as part of my New Year’s resolution, and how we tried a wash, fold, and delivery service. Shortly before our laundry was returned from Prim, I received a notice that the service is closing down. I looked around for other services I could use, and the first thing I found was Washio. I signed up immediately. Nevertheless, I was a little daunted by Washio’s complex pricing scheme. They charge by the pound rather than by the bag, and it seemed to me that it could get pricey quickly.

Someone from Prim came by our house to deliver the laundry right on schedule. I commented that it was a bummer that the service was shutting down, and asked the delivery man what I should do with the “Prim” labeled cloth bags. He said I could contact the company and ask them what to do, or just keep them. One of the loads was in a plastic drawstring bag. I took that one and weighed it, by weighing myself, then weighing myself carrying the bag. It turned out it was only 10 pounds, so maybe Washio would be affordable after all.

It turns out laundry is still a pain, even if someone washes and folds it. For one thing, there are four people in my house, and there were some towels in the load, so I had to separate everything. That wasn’t too bad, except that there are also categories within individuals’ clothes — categories that wouldn’t be clear to someone outside our family. For instance, my six year old daughter’s leggings look a lot like her pajamas, so they all get bunched together.

Prim couldn’t know that we have idiosyncratic ways of dealing with our laundry. My wife hangs all her shirts, and I hang my pants, even jeans. I fold my shirts in an unusual way that I learned from my brother-in-law, who’s in the Coast Guard, and it seems funny when they’re not folded that way.

Prim didn’t really fold womens’ and girls’ underpants — they were just sort of bunched together. I folded Sara’s, but didn’t bother folding my daughter’s, since they’re small. Finally, there was one more disappointment. When I do laundry myself, it comes out of the dryer all fresh and warm, and it’s pleasant to touch and smell. The laundry from Prim seemed clean enough, but it certainly didn’t give me the warm fuzzies.

All told, I probably spent about fifteen minutes dealing with the sorting and separating, for what I think would be the equivalent of 3-6 loads of laundry.

Just out of curiosity, I ran a load start to finish while I was getting the kids ready for bed. I had this hypothesis that doing the laundry doesn’t really take that much time, but rather it’s just so unpleasant that it feels like it takes forever. I ran a stop watch while I was doing the laundry. Our washer and dryer are in the garage, right below our apartment, so I had to carry the loads up and down. Also, our dryer doesn’t finish a load on the first cycle — I have to do a touch up to get everything really dry — so that required an extra trip. All told, I spent about 8-10 minutes running the machines. I accidentally forgot to turn off the stopwatch at one point, so it showed 10 minutes, but it was probably closer to 8. Folding the load took seven or eight minutes. When I was done, the stopwatch read 17’33”.

So at that rate, outsourcing the laundry seems like a wash. Given the annoyance of separating the loads, and the reduced pleasantness of washed clothing, I’m starting to lean back towards doing the laundry myself. I might give Washio a try, just to see how that goes. Also, it might make sense to arrange a pick up from time to time when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Nevertheless, I think it would be possible to manage the laundry by setting some rules, like no laundry during prime weekend hours.

I’m still hopeful about grocery delivery, so I haven’t given up completely on my outsourcing project.

A productive weekend

2014-01-06 00.08.33Yesterday morning, someone from Prim came to pick up our laundry. It really was nice to spend the weekend without a huge pile of laundry to do.

In addition to outsourcing laundry, I have been thinking about trying Instacart or Amazon for grocery delivery, but yesterday I decided to go to the grocery store after a run. I regretted it. I spent about 40 minutes in the grocery store, and then I had to haul four bags up Potrero Hill to our house.

I think I’ll try grocery delivery next time. There was one advantage to shopping in the store. I think walking around the food really jogs my memory, and I got everything that was on my list. I also thought of a few things I decided we needed, but that I hadn’t put on the shopping list earlier. I’m not the sort of shopper who buys a lot of food we won’t eat, so in that respect I do well shopping in the store.

On Friday, our cable was installed. We got a 55 Mbps connection from Astound, and we’ll see how quickly we start having to pay extra bandwidth fees. I love, our previous ISP, but Sara likes to watch a lot of Korean drama on streaming video, and it was buffering all the time. We were getting about 4.3 Mbps from DSL. Apparently their DSL can be as good as 20 Mbps, but we’re too far from the CO: about 7000 feet. Interestingly, I got the best speed I ever saw from — just over 5 Mbps — the day our cable got connected.

After our cable was connected, I was getting about 55 Mbps over Ethernet, but only 18-20 or so over wireless. Eventually, I tracked down the source of the slowness: a wireless printer that only uses 802.11b/g. We’d have to get that off the network if we wanted to see decent speed in the house. Sara was happy with 18-20 Mbps — she could watch Korean drama — but I wanted the full 55.

Our apartment is long and skinny, as many San Francisco flats are: it’s about 25′ wide and about 50′ long. Because we’re planning on turning what is now a study and junk room into JH’s bedroom, I put the wireless in the living room, in the front of the building. That meant the network no longer stretched into our bedrooms. Since someone might want to watch streaming video in bed, I ended up having to upgrade our wireless network, too, adding a repeater in the middle of our apartment, so we get connectivity in the bedrooms.

Unlike our old router, our new router creates three networks: a 2.4 Ghz one, a 5 Ghz one, and a guest network. This meant I could extend just one of the networks, slowing it down but increasing its range, while leaving the other two nice and fast. I noticed that our wireless printer was slowing down our old network as well, so I wired that to the repeater.

It’s working pretty well. The two fast networks are getting pretty close to the full 55 Mbps. The extended network is slower, but the speeds are tolerable: 6-8 Mbps in the back bedrooms and 15-20 in the front of the apartment.

This morning I made the to-do list at the beginning of this post, and we managed to get pretty much everything done. I haven’t done many to-do lists on paper, but I think it was a really good way to go, at least for a one-day list.

New Year’s Resolution 2014

My New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to outsource more unrewarding activities, starting with laundry. I spend far to much time on laundry. We hire cleaners to come every week, and Sara tried to get them to do our laundry, but it turns out they’re not very good at it. They’re OK at folding, but not at actually running the machines.

Anyway, if they weren’t so focused on laundry, they could do a better job on actually cleaning the house. If I weren’t so focused on laundry, I could spend more time on things I actually like to do, such as writing code or hanging out with my kids.

It’s OK to read ten books at a time

For a while I thought it was a bad habit, but now I’ve decided that it’s actually a good thing. In fact, I’m wondering if it’s a kind of intellectual Darwinianism, to read multiple books at once. The one I spend the most time on — the one I actually finish — that’s the one that wins.

There’s a related idea in software design and development: you should wait as long as possible to make important decisions. The farther along you are in the process, the more you know, and the better decisions you will make. It’s similar when you are reading a book. At the beginning, all you know about the book is its cover, title, maybe some reviews, and some blurbs. The more you read, the more you know about the book, and the better decision you can make on whether to commit to reading the whole thing.