Keeping Busy

Posted by TechyDad on April 22, 2016 under Life

Machovka-Write-300pxI haven’t been posting here that much, but I don’t want anyone to think I’ve dropped off the face of the Earth. I’ve just been keeping very busy with a few things.

Friends Outing and Emotional Rollercoaster

We had an emotional rollercoaster starting with Bar Mitzvah Incident. The next week, NHL had an outing with a friend of his. After seeing NHL sad because he was excluded, it was so wonderful to see him playing and having fun with a friend.

They ate out at Puzzles bakery in Schenectady – which we love supporting because they’re a local business and they hire people on the Autism spectrum. I even let NHL get dessert – a half pound peanut butter and fudge brownie which we split.

After eating, we all went to the Museum of Science and Innovation. It was wonderful seeing NHL having fun with a friend. The butterfly house was still out so we all went in it. Now, normally, NHL doesn’t like going in. He overemphasizes with the butterflies and winds up afraid that he’ll hurt them. This usually means we go in without him, but today he voluntarily went in. More than that, he was enthusiastic and loved seeing all the butterflies all around. He even went in a second time before we left. We’re definitely doing another get together soon.

Writing My Book

Back in high school and college, I was a voracious reader but I also loved making up my own tales. I wrote down many short stories. Over time, though, I stopped writing. Partly, this was because I sent a story to be published and it was rejected.   The rejection was your average form letter saying they weren’t publishing my story at that time.  There was nothing extraordinary about it and definitely no "your work stinks" text in it.  Still, I was a college kid and took rejection to heart too much.  I had decided that being successful as a writer meant being published and this one rejection meant I’d never be published so why try at all.  (I’d like to go back and slap some sense into younger me.)

A few months ago, JSL told us that he was writing a book.  This wasn’t a surprise since JSL loves making stories.  Whether it is written stories, playing with his toys, or even with the magnets on the fridge, he’ll have whole storylines pouring out with heroes, villains, and epic battles.  When he told us he was writing a book, had illustrated the cover, and was giving out signed photocopies of said cover, it sparked something in me.  I decided to take up writing again.  I have had two story ideas bouncing through my head for years.  I chose one and mapped out a long tale – then quickly discarded it.  I decided to start small and work on a short story instead.  Also, I decided not to map the story out but to just write and see where it took me.  (Though, sometimes this meant needing to go back and rewrite a section to make everything fit better.)  My "short story" grew and grew.  Before I knew it, I had 5,000 words written.  Then 10,000.  My most recent count puts me at almost 32,000 words and the story is only around halfway over.  I figure that, when it ends, the tale will be 50,000 words long.  This is in the "long novella/short novel" territory.

It doesn’t end there. As I was fleshing out the world while writing this story, I realized that the tale would extend to multiple storylines.  So when this story ends, I can start "Book 2" and expand it more.  I also have built a world where I can tell side stories that don’t involve the main characters at all.

As I’m writing the story, I’ve been reading it with JSL. First of all, this helps me spot typos. I’ve been writing this in Google Docs on my computer and on my phone.  When I’m writing on my phone, I can go quickly, but often the wrong word gets put into the story. As I’m reading with JSL, I can spot "he turned his fact and looked at her" and quickly correct it to "he turned his face and looked at her."  Secondly, it helps me spot sections which don’t work either due to how it was worded or because later story points contradicted this earlier segment.  When I encounter this, I can quickly correct the section before moving on.  Finally, it lets me gauge JSL’s reactions to see how good the story is. Granted, he’s a biased audience, but given his begging to hear more, demanding I answer many, many questions about the characters, and getting frustrated when I say "I can’t tell you that, it’s a spoiler", I think I’ve got a hit on my hands.  At least with JSL. (Then again, he’s one of my three most important readers along with NHL and B. Sorry everyone else.)

Oh, and remember that whole "you need to be published to be a successful writer" thing that I believed as a college student?  Well, I might have been wrong, but it so happens that it’s much easier to publish nowadays than it was twenty years ago. Back then, to get published, you needed to submit your work to publishing companies who would critique your writing and likely reject it. Now, I could publish it on my blog – giving it out for free. I could post an ePub file for everyone to download. I could even use CreateSpace to make an actual, physical book for people to buy. I’m planning on taking this last step. I’m under no illusion that this will sell like crazy (though I do allow myself the occasional fantasy where my book becomes the next "Harry Potter") but it will be satisfying to give someone a copy of my own book for them to read.

Cleaning For Passover

Passover starts tonight. During December, I’ll sometimes laugh when my Christian friends talk about the pains of putting up all of their Christmas decorations.  I’ll respond with the "pain" of decorating for Chanukah. "You take out the menorah and some candles. Done."  Unfortunately, Passover is when Karma kicks in. Passover preparations begin weeks in advance as you buy special foods (that cost a lot of money) and try to use up all the foods you can’t eat during Passover. Yesterday, I started the main preparation of cleaning the kitchen. Counters were scrubbed, ovens were cleansed, refrigerator shelves were taken out and put under hot water and soap.  Today, I need to finish cleaning everything and THEN I get to go to the attic and carry our heavy Passover pots, pans, and other various equipment down from our attic.  Once that’s all done, I get to "relax."  Normally, this is where I’d cook a huge meal, but we’re going to someone else’s Seder both nights so I get to take the night off from cooking.  The downside?  Dinner won’t start until after 10pm.  Saturday and Sunday morning are definitely going to be sleep in kind of days.

 

So if I don’t seem to be around much, don’t think I’ve deserted the online life to become a digital hermit.  I’ve just been extremely busy.  I do promise to stop by and write a post once a week or so, though, and will definitely post updates on my might-be-a-novel.

NOTE: The image above, "Write" is by Machovka and is available from OpenClipArt.org.

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Feeling Excluded

Posted by TechyDad on April 7, 2016 under Aspergers, Autism, Parenting

excludedNOTE: I wrote this post this past weekend with the event fresh in my mind.  I originally wasn’t sure if I was going to post this, but it felt good to get it all out.  After a few days, though, this still bugged me and I decided that I needed to publish this.  Hitting publish isn’t going to help my child, but it might get people thinking about how children with special needs can be excluded from events.  I’d also like to thank JSL for loaning me his rubber duck collection for a quick photo shoot (even if he was asleep when I borrowed them).


Today, my heart broke.

As many of you know, I was bullied as a kid.  (If you didn’t know this, read My Bullied History to catch up.  The rest of us will wait.  Done?  Ok.)  Anyway, due to bullying and Asperger’s (undiagnosed and definitely not known about when I was in school), I always felt like the outsider.  I longed to communicate with people, to have friends like the other kids had, and (once I was in high school) to maybe even have a girlfriend like many of my schoolmates had.  Unfortunately, I always felt like everyone was judging me.  Every word I said, I immediately wished I could rewind and delete from existence.  Friends?  I had one.  He was a great friend (still is), but I wanted a huge social network of friends.  Not a ton of acquaintances and one good friend.  As for the girlfriend front?  Not even close.  (Those embarrassing details I’ll save for another post – and trust me, they are incredibly, scar-you-for-life embarrassing!)

Anyway, when NHL was born, I knew many things I wanted to provide for him in life.  Love, food, shelter, an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, a love of Looney Tunes.  You know, the essentials.  But there was one thing I didn’t want him to ever experience:  Bullying or feeling left out.  When we got his Asperger’s diagnosis, it broke my heart.  Not because we knew he had Asperger’s.  That was fantastic knowledge that turned helping him from "stumbling in the dark" to "action plan that would make Hannibal from the A-Team proud."  Instead, it was the actual report.  There were lines about kids rolling their eyes at NHL.  Girls moving their chairs away from him.  In short, kids were looking at him as if he were a pariah and an outsider.  NHL was blissfully unaware of all of this, but we knew it was only a matter of time before it struck him.

Today, my heart broke again.

We went to temple like we do on many Saturdays.  NHL is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah and it’s important for him to be exposed to the whole Shabbat Service experience as much as possible.  Pulling in, I noticed a lot of cars in the driveway.  This is odd as our Temple isn’t usually packed.  Oh well, I figured there must me some event or celebration going on.  I even looked forward to it because these events usually mean a good Kiddush afterwards.  (For you non-Jews out there: After services, there’s a "Kiddush" where we all eat and socialize.  It’s a practically a contractual obligation in Judaism that any celebration needs to be accompanied by a metric ton of food.  And, yes, I’m shameless about motivating NHL to go to temple via promises of attending the Kiddush afterwards.)

As we walked in, we realized that it was a Bar Mitzvah.  Not only that, but it was the Bar Mitzvah of someone in his class.  Someone who hadn’t invited NHL to his Bar Mitzvah.

I didn’t feel weird walking in on this because Bar Mitzvahs are public affairs.  Yes, you invite family and friends, but anyone from the temple can attend the service and Kiddush afterwards.  So we would attend as "members of the Temple", not as "invited friends of the Bar Mitzvah boy."  No biggie.

As we sat down, I noticed a huge group of kids in the crowd.  Again, not a big warning sign.  It’s the boy’s Bar Mitzvah and many invite every friend they have from school.  I didn’t recognize most of the faces so I figured they were from his regular school.  We did notice some kids from his Hebrew school but it’s not a requirement that you invite EVERYONE.  We certainly hadn’t been planning on inviting every kid in NHL’s Hebrew School class to his Bar Mitzvah.  So we stayed until services were almost over.

That’s when it happened.

The rabbi invited all of the Bar Mitzvah boy’s friends and family up on the stage.  NHL started to rise, but I stopped him.  This was for the people invited to his Bar Mitzvah, I reminded him.  We weren’t invited to be there.  We were just there as temple members, not as his friends.  So NHL got the "wonderful" experience of seeing all these kids get up on the bimah (the stage/platform where the service is led from) while he was excluded.  Did I mention that there were a lot of kids?  It took a good three minutes for all of them to get to the stage and get up the stairs.  When it was all done, the Bar Mitzvah boy was surrounded by friends/family and NHL was alone.  (Yes, I was there but I know enough to know that your dad never counts in these mental equations.)

NHL excused himself to go to the bathroom.  There were only three prayers to go in the service, so I stayed while I let him go.  I couldn’t pray, though.  My insides were wracked with nerves.  Was he really that upset?  (A combination of NHL not being good at showing his true emotions and me not being good at – and doubting my ability at – reading emotions didn’t help.)  Should I race after him?  Should I stay here in case he comes back?  Will he be coming back?  I was paralyzed.

The second services ended, I raced out of the room.  Thankfully, I can be single-minded to the point of ignoring social protocols at times.  I didn’t get caught up in any hand-shaking or "how is your family doing" moments.  I just barreled out of there and headed right to the bathroom.  NHL wasn’t there.  My next guess was that he finished up and went right for where Kiddush would be held.  I went down the stairs, dodging people who had caught up to me after my brief check-the-bathroom side trip.  I was a man on a mission and nobody was going to stand in my way of making sure NHL was alright.

Sure enough, NHL was there already saving a table.  I asked him if he was alright and he assured me that he was.  He was upset only that I prevented him from immediately digging into the food that was laid out.  I felt that social protocol demanded that we at least wait for more people to arrive instead of just piling on food and stuffing our faces.  (Not to say that piling on food and stuffing faces didn’t happen, but it happened when more people were doing the same.)

NHL seems fine now, but again there’s that whole hiding his feelings thing.  He seems to have inherited a really bad habit I have.  He takes his most horrible feelings and covers it over with an "I’m fine" attitude.  He’s perfectly fine until that moment when the veneer crumbles and he lets everything spill that he’s been holding in.  And then he replaces the veneer and is "fine" again until the next crumbling.

I, on the other hand, am definitely not fine.  I’m not sure how I appear on the outside.  I probably seem fine.  Maybe a little quieter than normal, if you really pay attention.  Still, the sickening feeling is sitting right in the pit of my stomach.  I know this feeling well and can even predict how long it’ll be there for.  I’ve seen this kind of thing affect people who aren’t on the spectrum and they seem to get over it quickly.  A day later and it’s ancient history to them, or at least not something that they seem to obsess about internally for hours on end.  For me, though, I’ll be reliving every second of this event for the next three days, at least.  I’ll replay the scene hundreds of times, each time pausing it and criticizing my decisions.

"Now, see.  Right here?  Where you did A?  You should have done B!  How could you be so stupid as to have done A?  What were you even thinking, considering that A was an option?!!!  Sheesh, you’re such an idiot."

Yes, I will insult myself also.  I’ll let my internal critic rip my self-worth to shreds.  Ironically, I’ll self-exclude myself from social interactions because engaging in them means crawling out of my own head and this will seem about as easy as scaling Mt. Everest.

"Sure, I’d love to have a conversation with you.  Let me just get out some ropes and scale this sheer rock wall, first."

Eventually, I’ll get over it.  Where "get over it" means I’ll internalize it enough to not think about it and will "be ok" until the next event pushes me back into my self-criticizing hole.

The worst part?  The feeling that NHL is going through this too.  Maybe he’s perfectly ok.  Maybe he had his upset moment and moved on.  If so, I seriously envy him.  Or maybe he’s secretly ripping his self-confidence to shreds as well trying to think of what he could have done to have been a better friend so he’d have been invited.  Maybe he’s thinking back on every "wrong" action he’s ever taken (regardless of whether he was really wrong or not) and criticizing himself about it.  And, if he is doing this, then I have no clue on what to do to help him.  How do I help my son defeat a demon that I myself have yet to slay?  One that, right now is sitting on my shoulder telling me that I’ve failed as a father and obviously have never helped my son with anything ever.  (A complete lie, I know, but the demon is persistent and says it until I begin to believe it.)

How do I make him feel ok with being excluded when I still feel that pain of being left out?

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Backing Up With BackBlaze

Posted by TechyDad on March 31, 2016 under Computers, Review, Technology

computer-on-fireDisclaimer: BackBlaze gave me a year of free backups for this review.  However, all opinions below are my own.

Backing up is probably the most important step anybody can take with their computers. It’s also likely the least performed step anybody does.

Over the years, my backup routine has changed. I used to backup everything to CDs, then to DVDs when I had too much data for a group of CDs. Eventually, I had too much for DVDs and I moved to external hard drives.  I copied my important files to an external hard drive and copied that to a backup drive (in case the first one failed).

There were just two problems with my backup routine. First of all, it wasn’t automatic. I had to remember to connect the drives and run the backups for each of our computers. Frequently, I’d forget for months on end leaving important data vulnerable. Secondly, while I would theoretically take the second drive to an off-site location (i.e. somewhere other than my house), practically I’d never get around to it. This meant that one burglar or house fire could mean the loss off everything.

I’ll admit, for the longest time I scoffed at cloud backup services. Why would you pay so much for a tiny amount of backup space? For the amount I would need to pay to backup all of my important data (photos, videos, documents, etc.), I could get a new hard drive every year.  Recently, though, I started to realize how vulnerable my backups were. External hard drives were good for a local backup but without the off-site component, we could lose everything in a matter of minutes.

I researched online backup services and many of them suffered from the same flaw: I had over 1TB to back up and they were all offering plans starting much smaller and quickly riding in price. It looked like my scoffing days might continue and my data might continue to not be as safe as to could be.

Enter BackBlaze.

For only $5 a month, BackBlaze gives you unlimited space to back up your files. Unlimited means that you don’t have to worry about extra files pushing you over a limit and costing you extra.  If you have 3TB of files to backup, it will cost you the same as if you have 100GB.

When you sign up for BackBlaze, you download the BackBlaze Control Center.  This application will let you decide which files are backed up and which are skipped.  It can also manage how fast the backup runs, since you might not want to flood your Internet connection with backups and have nothing left to stream Netflix.  You can also get an estimate on how long your backup will take.

At this point is where I hit my first roadblock.  You see, where I live my available high speed Internet isn’t that fast.  Right now, we get 15Mbps down and 1Mbps up.  I had about 880GB to download.  Even if I flooded my entire 1Mbps with the backups and ran them 24/7, it would take 82 days to complete my initial backup.  At a more reasonable half-of-my-available bandwidth, it would take me 163 days.  If you have a faster Internet connection or less to download, you will complete your backup much quicker.  After that, subsequent backups will run quickly since BackBlaze won’t need to upload ALL of the files that you want to backup – just the new and changed ones.

So what happens if your files are lost?  After all, a backup service without a decent recovery option isn’t worth anything.  To this end, BackBlaze gives multiple options.  First of all, BackBlaze’s software can download your data just like it uploaded it.  Of course, while this option might not cost extra, it could involve extra time depending on your Internet speeds and how much data you are backing up.  In my case, if I used my entire bandwidth every hour of every day, I could get everything back in five and a half days.  At half of my bandwidth, it would take about eleven days.

The second option involves BackBlaze sending you a flash drive containing up to 128GB of data.  This costs $99.  BackBlaze can also send you a 4TB USB hard drive with your data for $189.  The drives are yours to keep or you can return them within 30 days and get refunded the entire cost.  Yes, this does mean that the flash drive and USB hard drive options would wind up being free after the refund goes through.

So would I recommend BackBlaze?

I have two main reservations about the service – one that is in BackBlaze’s control and one that is completely out of their control.  Their software operates on a "backup everything except for exceptions that you list" basis.  This means that, by default, it is trying to back up way too many files.  Sure, they exclude your Windows system folder by default, but still your hard drive is filled with files that you don’t really care about.  It would be better if their software allowed you to choose whether you want to backup everything except for exceptions or only back up folders of your choosing.

The factor that BackBlaze can’t change is ISP upload speeds.  As mentioned earlier, this can turn any online backup service from useful to "too slow to do any good."  After backup up constantly for a few weeks, BackBlaze is still estimating another 120 or so days until my initial backup is done.  I understand that there’s nothing that BackBlaze can do to fix this on the ISP end, but it would be nice if that USB hard drive option worked the other way as well.  BackBlaze could send a hard drive (with a refundable $189 deposit to make sure people didn’t just keep the drives), have you copy your files to the drive, and then mail it back.  Once the drive arrived back at BackBlaze, they could upload the data much quicker and issue a refund for the drive.  This could turn six month long initial backup sessions into one week long initial backups.

Still, even with these limitations, I would still recommend BackBlaze.  The service seems very fast and stable and the price is definitely right.  For the same price as a year of unlimited space at BackBlaze ($60), I would need to pay $120 for 1TB on Google Drive or Dropbox or $84 for 1TB on Microsoft OneDrive.  All three of these require me to pay more for less space.

No matter what you do – be it cloud backup, saving to external hard drives, or burning to disc – backups are a vital part of keeping your digital data safe.  Make sure that you come up with a plan that protects your files from as many different threats as possible. 

NOTE: The image above is a combination of "Cartoon Computer and Desktop" by DTRave and "Fire" by matheod.  Both are available from OpenClipArt.org.

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The Right Age For Social Media

Posted by TechyDad on March 25, 2016 under Parenting, Social Media

Social-Media-2-300pxRecently, I saw my sister, brother-in-law, and my nephews to celebrate my nephews’ birthdays. While there, we played around with a fun new app called MSQRD (as in "masquerade") that changes your face to look like someone – or something – else’s.

After taking a few photos of my nephew with it, he asked me to email him the photos. It turns out that both of my nephews have Gmail accounts. Although they primarily use these for school, it got me to thinking. NHL and JSL (who are around the same age as their cousins) didn’t have email addresses. I began to wonder whether it was time to introduce them to email? If so, then would the introduction to social media be far behind?

I’ve long compared the Internet to a city. There are some great places to visit, great sights to see, and a lot to learn. Unfortunately, there is also a lot that is inappropriate for children (at best) and harmful to children (at worst).

Recently, Microsoft released a chat bot named Tay onto Twitter. It would interact with people online and learn from them. A mere twenty four hours after it was released, though, the chat bot turned racist. It started making racist comments about Hitler and President Obama. Needless to say, Microsoft took it offline.

The chat bot was essentially the equivalent of a small child and it was released onto the electronic equivalent of a seedy bar. Was anyone surprised that it learned some less than appropriate phrases?

Then there’s the bullying factor to consider. When I was young, I was tormented by bullies and they didn’t have access to social media. Social media can be a positive experience . Unfortunately, the same power that lets people from far away connect based on similar interests, also gives bullies a global platform from which to terrorize.

All of this means that, while NHL might be a year away from qualifying to sign up for social networks, we’re not likely to allow him to sign up soon. Even when we do, there will be limits and supervision at first. We’ll be required to have the password to his social networks so we can monitor the conversations. If anything raises red flags with us, we can talk to him about it and help him decide the best course of action.

How are you handling your children and social media?

 

NOTE: The image above is "Social Media 2" by GDJ and is available from OpenClipArt.org.

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A Cord Cutting Anniversary

Posted by TechyDad on March 9, 2016 under Television

image

A year ago, we made a very momentous move. We disconnected our cable boxes, returned them to Time Warner Cable, and cancelled our cable TV service. By doing so, we joined the growing ranks of people who – fed up with the ever-rising cost of cable TV – have decided to cut the cord.

So how has this year of no cable been?

I barely miss cable anymore. For some events – for example, the MythBusters finale or the Presidential debates – it would be nice to watch it as it happens. In the latter case, though, there are often streaming alternatives. In the former case, I’ve found that I can wait until they arrive on streaming.

B has adjusted well also. She’s viewing some old TV series that she missed the first time around. Her big worry was that she liked using the TV as background noise while she slept. Nick At Night was our go to channel for this, but we obviously don’t get that anymore. Luckily, our antenna picks up some a station called “Laff” that broadcasts old comedy shows at night. I’ve come into bed after B has fallen asleep only to see Abbot and Costello on the TV.

My oldest son, NHL, has adjusted nicely. He’s completely fine with watching various series on Hulu or Netflix. His latest addiction is The Batman – which recently came on Netflix and which I introduced him to. He also likes devoting his attention to video games so he has less of a need for alternative video entertainment.

JSL, on the other hand, never lets a moment pass to complain about the lack of cable TV. He’s sad that his friends get to watch various TV shows as they air while we often need to wait until the series is over. To counter this, I plan on buying the complete seasons of one or two of his TV shows from Amazon VOD or Google Play. Even with this additional purchase, we’ll still come out far ahead.

So how much did we save? After all, the main purpose of cord cutting is to save money.  Well, even after deducting some hardware purchases, a Hulu subscription, and some VOD/DVD buys, we still saved over $660 last year. Not too shabby. We might even buy a new HD TV to replace an aging standard definition set using our savings. As the cost of cable rises, we’ll only save more.

What about the downsides? Surely cutting cable isn’t all fun times streaming, right? No, it hasn’t. There have been some challenges and setbacks along the way.

First of all, we lost our DVR when we cut cable. This means that any broadcast show we want to watch, we need to either watch live or catch on Hulu. For most shows, this isn’t a problem, but CBS shows don’t go to Hulu. They go to CBS’s own streaming service: CBS All Access. We tried this service and were underwhelmed. It got cancelled after the free trial period was up. I’m looking into building my own DVR with a HD HomeRun tuner and a laptop, but that’s been slow going. So for now, we’re missing a few shows we’d like to watch.

Another downside has been increased reliance on Time Warner Cable’s Internet service. We only get the standard Internet service from TWC. In our area, that’s 15Mbps down and 1Mbps up. Lately, however, we’ve had nights where the speeds slow to a crawl and streaming refuses to work. TWC initially blamed our wireless network, but a technician they sent confirmed that our network is running fine. Still, though, TWC insists that nothing is wrong with their lines even when our upload speeds drop to 100Kbps. If we had an alternative ISP in our area (e.g. FIOS or Google Fiber), we’d jump to them. Unfortunately, though, TWC is the only wired, high speed ISP in the area. Like it or not, we’re stuck with them and they know it.

Overall, though, cutting cable has been great. I’m actually watching more TV now than with cable TV. The difference is that I’m choosing which shows to watch, when, and I’m watching them either ad free or with greatly reduced commercial breaks. I’d definitely recommend that everyone at least explore the cable cutting option. (My Cable Cutting Guide could help.) Nowadays, cable TV isn’t the only game in town and you can save quite a bit of money by cutting the cord.

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