Nov 21, 2014

The un-phonetic alphabet

Karl Fogel started this on the whiteboard in building 43 at Google in early 2006. The goal was to come up with an alphabet that, when used to spell out words, made it near impossible for the listener to puzzle out the word being spelled. Most people didn't quite get the spirit of the alphabet, so on the night of the Google Dance, Karl, Ian Hickson, a few others, and myself completed the alphabet.

A few of the letters could be improved on, but it's pretty darned confusing--try to spell out a word using it. :-)

A as in Are
B as in Blank

C as in Chute
D as in Django
E as in Ewe
F as in Four
G as in Genes
H as in Hour
I as in Iago
J as in Jeans
K as in Knot
L as in Listen
M as in Mnemonic
N as in No
O as in Our
P as in Phonetic

Q as in Qatar
R as in Repeat
S as in Sea
T as in Tsetse Fly
U as in Underscore
V as in Vowel
W as in Why
X as in Xenophobic
Y as in You
Z as in Zero

Aug 29, 2013

The Lie Factor

In the last few days, a lot of my Chicago friends have been posting links to a graph showing how Chicago Catholic High School students ACT scores exceed those of Illinois and the nation.  Here's the graph that the Chicago Archdiocese provided (click to go to their page with more info and a much bigger graph):

Assuming the data behind the graphs is true (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), it looks like the Catholic school students have a very impressive lead on everyone else--the Catholic students seem to have done twice as well as everyone else in several of the skill areas!

But if you look closely, you'll notice that the bars in the graph don't actually cover the full range of the possible test scores, but instead start at 18.5.

This is a great example of what Edward Tufte called the Lie Factor in his book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.” Tufte says:
The representation of numbers, as physically measured on the surface of the graphic itself, should be directly proportional to the quantities represented.
In the above graph, the representation is anything but proportional to the quantities represented--it's only showing the tips of the bars. Here's the same graph with the Y axis starting at zero instead of 18.5:

There's still an obvious lead for the Catholic schools in question, but hardly the massive lead that their graph seems to show.  Looks to me like the Catholic schools are doing great, so why stretch the truth?

Dec 14, 2012

Avoiding Burnout: How to take a vacation from your email (and more!)

If you're like me, you have an assortment of devices that beep, buzz and blink at you all hours of the day with emails, tweets, and more.  If this is the case, you're probably reaching a point where you don't feel like you can just step away and get some peace and quiet.  As a former email addict, I'm here to tell you that it's possible to escape this tornado of digital stimuli, but it's not easy because you're not just dealing with technology, but probably fighting an addiction as well.

Note that I can only speak to what has worked for me after I burned out (burnout in this case meaning when my stress got to a point that I just couldn't function anymore), so your mileage may vary.  After my second burnout at Google (which, I'm happy to say, was almost six years ago, so I think I've figured out how to avoid it), I realized that my massive swings from "work work work" to "burnout" to "stare at the wall and drool" was not only unsustainable, but it was making me miserable and killing my overall productivity.  So I started experimenting with ditching various communication media, and with all of the joy and excitement that these amazing devices bring into my life, it's hard to describe how awesome it is to be able to step away from them, but I'm going to try to anyway.

First, and foremost, I really do believe that cold turkey is the only way to go if your technological interactions are getting the best of you.  No one in their right mind tells an alcoholic "Hey, just have a small drink," so as a recovering info addict, I'm here to tell you that you really need to quit.  100%.  As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step.  After you've done that you can act to deal with the problem.

Here are a number of tips and tricks that I've found to be effective, particularly around work-related stuff. Most have to do with the mechanics of stepping back, and some have to do with the emotional repercussions that will hit you like a brick to the head.

The core assumption of this post is that you're trying to take a vacation from work.

Disclaimer: I'm sure that my career as engineering rabble rouser at Google is different than yours.  Add salt to taste.

A week before you start your vacation

Set expectations: Warn people that you're going offline and won't be responsive.  You might want to ask people to not contact you during this time as well.  This probably includes:

  • Sending an email to people at work who may want to contact you letting them know you're going to be offline
If you're trying to take a vacation from personal email/social media/etc as well, this may also include:
  • Sending an email to frequently-contacted friends from your personal email account letting them know you're going to be offline
  • Tweeting that you're going offline soon
  • Writing a Facebook, Google+, and/or blog post letting people know that you're not going to be around

The day before your vacation

Repeat the above, reminding people that you're going to stop checking things at 5PM today.  Picking an exact time not only gives people a concrete time to expect you to disappear, but also acts as as a forcing function to make you step away and not keep reading "one more thing."

The moment your vacation starts

Turn off automatic sync on your phone

No, really.  I use text messages only with my wife and close friends, so I enable only text message sync (Google Voice in my case) and calendar sync since I still want to see my calendar, but I disable all calendar notifications too.  This worked so well at calming me down that it's now the default state of my phone--my wife and a few close friends can always get at me via text message, but no one else bugs me this way.  My phone doesn't buzz and flash and basically distract me all the time.  I'm now the master of my phone instead of the other way around.

Set your away message for your mail accounts(s)

Here's a typical example of one of my away messages (somewhat snarky because when I told my friends that I wasn't going to check work email on my vacation, many of them laughed in my face.  Yeah, I had a problem):

    Greetings, programs!

    I am out of the office on vacation and will not be checking email at all until 8AM on Monday 11/29.  I intend to read all of my mail as usual when I return, but I won't even be peeking at it in the meanwhile.  Not even at urgent messages.  None.  Zero, zip, nada, I'm going cold turkey for nine days.  Think I can't do it?  Well, you're not alone and I intend to prove you wrong :-)

    Despite my lack of net connectivity during this time, I can be reached in case of emergency on my cell phone.  If you don't have my cell number, then I assure you, you're not having an emergency that I can help you with.  If you do have my cell phone number, then I would encourage you to make sure that you understand the definition of "emergency" before calling.

    That said, if you do need help, odds are that one of the following people can help you:

    - For Data Liberation Front-related matters contact "Name Two" <>.

    - For press-related matters, please contact "Name Three" <>.

    - For anything else, please contact my assistant "Name Four" <> or our site director, "Name Five" <>.

    - For foosball-related advice, please contact "Name Five" <>.

    Thanks, and here's to nine straight days of no work email,


Now close your mail clients on your laptop and do something, anything, away from your computer.

The Hard Part

Those are the basic mechanics of preparing for the process.  The mechanics are actually the easy part.  The hard part is getting over the dopamine high that I get from getting all sorts of fun emails and tweets and facebooks(?) etc. that reminds me that I'm Important (well, I'm not really important, but these things make me feel important).

This is what happens to me just about every time I take a vacation and quit email (tho it gets easier each time).  Let's say that Friday is my last day before going on vacation:

Day one (Saturday): I go through serious withdrawal--I feel disoriented and distracted, constantly nagged by the feeling that I'm missing something, or that something will blow up while I'm not looking.  I pull my phone out of my pocket every 5-10 minutes to check my mail notification, realize that I have no mail notifications because I turned off sync, and--oh yeah--I'm not checking email--then I put my phone back in my pocket.  I remind myself that I'm serious about this and go off to do other things, like work on my house, nap, watch movies, cook, catch up on reading--basically something to replace the mail/media fix.  I can't just drop a habit, but I can REPLACE a habit.

Day two: Much better, but still a little twitchy.  Check phone every few hours.

Day three: Forget where I work, what my Twitter password is, and what the @ sign means.

Day three is when my vacation really starts.

This is the reason that when I take a vacation to go somewhere, I take off of work three days before I actually leave on my vacation.

A few ways I rationalized NOT doing this in the past:

Rationalization: If I stop checking work-related mail/media stuff will break

Response: Yes, stuff will break, but most things will get fixed within a week (which means that if you're gone for more than a week, most crises will be resolved except the ones that happen in the last week of your vacation).  Anything that breaks hard will result in (worst case) someone contacting you or you having to fix it when you return.  Treat this as an opportunity to find weak spots that you can fix for the next time you take a vacation away from email.

Rationalization: But I'll have a gigantic pile of shit to deal with when I come back.

Response: If you're gone for a week, spend 4 hours catching up on your email/social media the night before you intend to "restart".  If you're gone for more than a week, lie about when you're coming back--for example, if your vacation ends on Sunday, say you're coming back on Tuesday and spend Monday holed away somewhere catching up.  Write emails that you save as draft and send later.  Same goes for tweets etc., then send them all Tuesday AM and start your day with an empty inbox.

If this still feels overwhelming to you, feel free to let people know that you're going to delete all mail (and ignore all tweets/facebook messages, etc) when you get back.  Put this in your away message and blog post too.  I personally find this a bit extreme, and since I have a good system for dealing with huge volumes of mail (see below), I still process my inbox when I get back.  Even after being away for almost a month, I managed to go through all my important mail in under five hours.  I also make heavy use of mail filters so that I can ignore tons of unimportant crap.

Rationalization: But I've got a million things going on and I don't know what I need to finish between now and vacation.

Response: I'm a huge huge fan of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" (GTD) and recommend reading it. If you can get into this process and keep yourself at inbox zero (which you may think is impossible, but it's not), then you can leave at least knowing what's in your queue and what can wait.  I've read the book three or four times now, and it took me over four years to get to a point where I'm on the GTD wagon more than I'm off, but any system is probably better than the one you have right now (and yes, no system is a system).

The Good News

I first did this process for 9 days over Thanksgiving many years ago (when I was teetering on the verge of burnout) and it was amazing--I came back more focused, relaxed, and productive than ever with the side effect that I was much happier in general.  I've continued to do this for every vacation I've ever taken since, including one that was 24 days, and I'm about to do it for 18 days over the Christmas holiday.

The Bad News

I discovered a few things in the process of doing this:
  1. I really was addicted to importance and stimulus.
  2. I'm not as important as I thought I was (yep, pow, right in the ego).

There is a never-ending torrent of crap that I can react to.  I can be more productive and effective if, instead of freaking out and keeping on top of everything, I choose what to react to and when to react to it.  This means that I do less work, but the work that I do is way way more effective.

Note that I used to treat my inbox as my TODO list that anyone can add an item to by emailing me.  This was a terrible idea and I had to come to terms with:
  1. Not using my inbox as a TODO list, but shuttling action items to a separate folder that I work out of, and
  2. The fact that it's OK to just archive (or delete) messages that I don't absolutely have to deal with.  This was crazy hard because I feel like a jerk if I don't respond to everyone who emails me, but it's just not something that I can do and live a normal life, so I've chosen not to.  If I haven't responded to an email that you sent me, sorry, I'm a jerk.
Well, that's about it for now.  I'd love to know what you think, and even moreso, if any of this works for you (esp. any suggestions for improvement).

Oh, and take a copy of Clay Johnson's The Information Diet with you on vacation.  When you get the overwhelming urge to check your mail, pick it up, leaf through a few pages, and then whack yourself on the head with it (seriously though, you should read the book).

Good luck!

Thanks to Rick Klau, Vanessa Fox, Matt Cutts, Clay Johnson, John Bracken, Baratunde Thurston, Marcin Wichary, Joe LaPenna, and News Foo 2012 for ideas, suggestions, and inspiration to write this post.

Nov 18, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chicago Winter

I've now had the same conversation with two different people in the course of a week--the same conversation that I seem to have once every couple of months--the "Chicago winter isn't going to kill you" conversation with someone who has just moved here from warmer climes.

So, let's start by getting that out of the way:

The Chicago winter isn't going to kill you.

I'm from New Orleans, so I'm used to spending my summers wading through molten tin and having the air conditioner running on Christmas Day (which, by the way, was great when you got a new bike or Big Wheel for Christmas). I grew up having to mow the lawn nine months out of the year, with the grass growing so fast that you had to cut it every five days in the summer (in 100 degree weather with close to 100% humidity no less).

Yeah, I don't miss that so much.

Digression: When people ask me how I can stand the Chicago winters after growing up in New Orleans (and my family asks me this every year, right after we have our first sub-zero temperature in Chicago), I tell them this: When it gets freezing cold, you can always put more clothes on. When it gets ridiculously hot and humid, there's a point at which you have to stop taking clothes off or you'll get arrested.

I'll take the freezing cold over the blistering heat anytime.

But beyond that, Chicago has radically different weather at different times of the year, and I really love the change of seasons here. For one, I never saw snow before moving to Chicago for school, and quickly discovered that there’s great fun to be had in the Chicago winter. And then there's a tremendous amount of excitement when you see the first flowers poking up through the ground in the spring, and then we truly celebrate the great outdoor weather in the summer with numerous festivals, concerts, and block parties (most of which are free). But for me, autumn in the Midwest is a magical time. Autumn is the time when I first moved to Chicago (and started college), it's when I met my wife (and later married her), and, having grown up where the fall colors are green and brown, I never cease to be amazed by the brilliant reds and golds of the trees when autumn is in full force. For me, autumn in Chicago is what makes the winter months worth it.

That said, when I first moved up here I was completely unprepared for the winter--I had a crappy old army field jacket, no scarf, cotton socks, and a pair of cheap gloves that I'd bought in New Orleans (i.e. paper-thin). If it hadn't been for luck, liberal applications of antifreeze (i.e. cheap beer), and an overheated dorm room, I probably would have died from exposure.

But now that I've been here for 22 years, I cruise through the Chicago winter effortlessly, thanks to the combination of advice from a wife who was born and raised here and some great technological improvements in cold-weather wear (namely Thinsulate and SmartWool socks).

The Weather

Many Chicagoans are obsessed with the weather, and I mean really obsessed with the weather. If you own a TV, you’ll quickly get to know Tom Skilling, who has been the weatherman on WGN for over 30 years. Tom is a serious weather geek and has tons of fans in the city and, yes, even his own branded Snuggie.

There are two types of winter in Chicago: Snowy, and Cold, and the good news is that they rarely happen at the same time. Cold Winter will occasionally dip down below zero (Fahrenheit), but usually resides somewhere above zero and below 20. You’ll hear a great deal of discussion about wind chill, and high winter winds are where you’ll really feel the chill unless you dress for it (see below). Cold Winter comes mostly in January and February, but I think that the first time the temperature gets below freezing is the hardest--after that, your expectations are set and you’re typically more prepared for the cold air.

Snowy Winter typically happens when the weather is closer to (but below) freezing, and then the snow tapers off as it gets colder. Despite being known for cold (and windy, although that's mostly due to the politicians) winters, Chicago doesn’t get a lot of snow compared to other places like Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The bulk of the snowfall usually falls in December, January, and February, with lighter snows coming as early as October and as late as early May (very rare). The early and late snows don’t typically stick around for very long and are usually very wet and slushy. When the weather hovers right around freezing, we can get sleet and freezing rain which can coat tree branches, power lines, and roofs, causing power outages and various property damage due to the massive weight of the ice. Fortunately these kinds of storms happen somewhat infrequently.

The closer you live to Lake Michigan, the more likely it is to affect your weather. In the spring, you’ll frequently hear that the weather is “cooler by the lake” (and, of course, it’s often a little warmer by the lake in the autumn). The lake acts as a huge heat sink to retain both the winter cold and the summer warmth and can affect temperatures within a few miles of the lake by several degrees if the wind is coming across the lake. The lake can also cause
lake effect snow
, which can dump up to a foot or two of big, fluffy snowflakes on the city, but lake effect snow from Lake Michigan typically hits Western Michigan and Northern Indiana harder than Chicago.

A lot of snow is a snowstorm. A lot of snow and a lot of wind is a blizzard. Whenever the forecast is for more than a foot of snow or a blizzard, you should prepare to possibly be stuck at home for a few days (although this is unlikely, it’s best to plan for the worst). This usually means a grocery run to get staples and plenty of food and a battery check for your flashlights. I’ve only lived here through one blizzard, and I laughed when my girlfriend (now my wife) camped out at her mom’s house and practically begged me stay over as well. I told her that I was only three blocks away, and if the streets weren’t plowed I’d just walk over the next day.

First, I had to leave my apartment through my landlord’s apartment since my door was snowed in. Then it took me 50 minutes to “walk” the three blocks--through the middle of the street, wearing full ski gear (including goggles). I learned my lesson: blizzards are a great time to stay home and keep warm.

The Basics: Behavior

Before getting into the proper clothing, let's review how you'll act when the weather is freezing: You're not going to be sitting in the park reading the paper when it's 5 below outside. Much like a New Orleans summer, you're mostly going to minimize the time that you're outside in a Chicago winter unless you're doing something fun outside (more on that later). Make sure your hair is bone dry before heading out in -10F weather (or your hair
break, I kid you not). If you have metal-framed glasses, you might want to not wear them when it's below zero because they'll pull heat from your head and cold from the air and promptly spot-weld to your temples. Plan your errands so that you'll take fewer trips out of the house and spend less time moving from store to store. Before it gets cold (if you have room), stock up on dry goods like paper towel and toilet paper, canned goods, and other sundries that aren't going to spoil. Believe me, you don't want to have to run out to the grocery to get toilet paper when it's fifteen below zero.

The days get really short, so take every opportunity you can to get a little sunlight. You can fight Seasonal Affective Disorder by heading over to the Winter Garden at the Harold Washington Library or Crystal Gardens at Navy Pier. Or get out and about with friends. Join the Chicago Sport & Social Club, or Sports Monster if you’re more serious, and play some indoor sports.

I also highly recommend taking a few days (or a week if possible) in late January or early February to go somewhere warm--I don't care if it's for work or pleasure, a short break outside of the frozen tundra is a tremendous help to making it through the depths of winter. Some people will recommend you actually go somewhere colder so that when you return to Chicago, the winter seems more mild, but I much prefer the shot of warmth--it’s up to you.

Dressing appropriately

Disclaimer: I work as a software engineer/engineering manager, and the dress code at my office is "you must wear clothes." I'm not going to focus on what to wear that will make you look good and keep you toasty warm because sometimes those two things are mutually exclusive. Also, I don’t cover things like how to wear pretty boots, how to not get your hair smooshed under a hat, or how to deal with frozen mascara, etc. Sorry ladies. If someone else cares to write an essay on that, I’ll be glad to link to it from here.

What I am going to cover is what you'll need for the worst case days in the winter: when it's blowing snow off the ground and 15 below with a -30 wind chill--if you're prepared for that, you're good to go for the rest of the winter.

The first thing that most Chicagoans will tell you about winter is the hackneyed "Dress in layers!" Well, it's true, you should dress in layers. This means that on your torso you should wear an undershirt (or long underwear), a regular shirt, a sweater, possibly another layer (like a fleece), and then an outer jacket with a liner. On your legs you should wear long underwear and pants that are thicker and preferably wool (I admittedly have a weakness for flannel-lined jeans). Layers are helpful for two reasons: They allow you to adjust for daily fluctuations in the temperature as well as gross inaccuracies in meteorological forecasts, and sometimes it's easier to layer than to wear one giant overstuffed down poofy coat. The poofy coat, however, has the advantage of being really warm and easy to take on and off, which is easy if you’re running in an out of stores or going to a party where you don’t want to spend 5 minutes peeling off layers in your host’s foyer.

Let's work our way down from head to toe: For starters, you should have a hat, usually either wool or fleece (not cotton). You should wear a scarf or, even better, a fleece neck gator which you won't have to fiddle with or keep tucking in (as long as you don't mind pulling it over your head). I also recommend 180s ear muffs as a way to really keep your ears warm--they're really warm, small, low-profile, and fold up to almost nothing. That said, don’t go overboard and don a ski mask unless you want to look like a burglar or a bank robber. The important thing here is to keep cold, air away from your head, ears, and neck. And get some lip balm and some lotion and use them both liberally--in cold weather, your lips (and your skin!) can dry out and even crack.

A note about cotton: Cotton does not keep you warm:* not cotton sweaters, not cotton socks, not cotton undershirts, not cotton anything. Cotton is not a good insulator. When you sweat (and you will sweat, even though it's five degrees out), cotton will hang onto all that moisture and hold it right up against your body where it will make you feel cold and clammy. This is the reason that you never want to wear cotton socks while skiing--your feet will sweat (since they're encased in non-breathable plastic boots and you're exerting yourself), and cotton will soak up all that water and hold it right up against your feet. While cotton sheets are lovely in the warm summers, cotton is evil (like the fru-its of the dev-il) in the winter and is out to kill you and steal your Xbox. If you wear a cotton layer, just remember that it's not going to help keep you warm (and you really don't want it right next to your body when it's insanely cold out). You've been warned.

*There's always the exception to the rule: flannel is OK, even if it's cotton.

For a lighter jacket or inner jacket, most people have a warm fleece. Get one with a zipper front and maybe a pullover as well. What you’ll discover pretty quickly is that in the winter we spend most of our time inside, so when you get to work you might be hot if you’ve got too many inner layers on. A fleece is pretty flexible

I'd like to talk more about the jacket you should wear: For starters, you should buy your jacket in Chicago. Attempting to get by with that winter jacket you bought in San Diego is a recipe for misery and frostbite. Your jacket should be heavy duty with a zip-out lining, cuffs that you can cinch closed, preferably an internal lining that gathers around your waist (to keep cold air from coming up the bottom of the jacket), and it should be long enough to at least cover your ass. Keeping cold air from coming up the bottom of your jacket is key when the temperature gets down well below freezing (this also applies to cold air coming in through your sleeves and up your pant legs). Some people like to go with the full-length down coats that go down to their knees, and these are very warm (although you’ll sacrifice a little mobility. If you get a jacket that is a warm shell with a zip-out liner (which likely is down), you'll get a lot more use out of your jacket over the course of the winter and both layers will keep you warm. Lastly, even though you have a hat and scarf, it's nice to have a jacket with a hood (typically zip-out) that you can pull up and cinch tight for when you're commuting in a snowstorm.

I'm a big fan of Columbia's jackets, but Patagonia, REI, Eddie Bauer, and many others have great heavy-duty winter coats. Remember, if it feels like a flimsy piece of crap, it probably is--avoid it. A good winter coat is going to have some heft to it.

Gloves or mittens are important because if your fingers are cold, it doesn't matter how warm your torso is--you're still going to feel cold (They can also help keep the dry winter air from drying out the skin on your hands). Mittens will let your fingers cluster and touch each other, so they'll retain heat better, but you're sacrificing movement and diligence for this, and let's face it, most people feel like a little kid when they're wearing mittens. If you decide to wear gloves instead, just make sure that you have some lined with something like Thinsulate or wool and that their outer shell will break the wind. They should also be pretty heavy, and long enough to go past your wrist and "tuck into" the cinched cuffs of your jacket, or every time you move your hand, you'll feel the kiss of cold air on your wrists. You might even want to have a couple of pairs of gloves that are various weights depending on how cold it is.

Moving on to your lower body: Plain old jeans are going to feel like sheets of ice slapping against your thighs when it's really cold out (because jeans are made out of that ev-il cotton stuff), so either wear wool pants, long underwear under whatever else you're wearing, or flannel-lined jeans (which are one of the greatest inventions of the... well, of whenever it was that they were invented). Oh, and also, when it's snowing, you probably want to wear darker pants whenever possible because you're eventually going to get some street muck on the backs of the lower leg of your pants and lighter fabrics really show that.

Let's talk for a minute about long underwear (or "long johns" as you might hear them called). People swear by a variety of types of long underwear such as those made of silk, merino wool, or Capilene (which is made out of polyester), but as long as they're not cotton, you'll be fine. Some people swear by
Under Armour
, but any brand will do (I got mine from REI). Many people think that they need thick long underwear to keep them warm, but on the contrary, usually the thinner stuff is better because it both insulates you and wicks sweat away from your body. In a bad winter I probably bust out my long underwear 5-10 times, so even though you're not wearing them often, they're a lifesaver when the weather guy is talking about temperatures in degrees Kelvin.

And now onto socks. I could wax poetic for hours about socks: wool socks, wool blend socks, etc. etc., but I'm going to cut that short and say this: You need to invest in some SmartWool socks. I say "invest" for good reason--they're about $18 a pair (although you can often get them on a "buy three get one free" sale or some such. They're made out of treated merino wool, super thin, very soft, and you can thank me later. You're welcome.

Now for shoes, or more specifically, boots. The city of Chicago is really great about snow removal in the streets--we can get 30" of snow on Saturday and everyone will be happily commuting on Monday. The problem with snow lies in three places: when it's coming down, homeowners that don't shovel their walks, and transition points like where you leave the sidewalk and enter the street. You're going to encounter slushy black puddles, ice patches, loose snow, and everything in-between. You need some boots that will not only keep your feet warm and dry, but that will give you some traction and help you navigate icy patches without landing on your ass. Do not make the mistake of thinking the slushy black puddles are frozen over and you can walk on them. That will only end in tears.

If, after all that, you still think you're going to freeze to death, give Old Man Winter the finger and buy North Face's Summit Series Himalayan Parka with matching overalls. They’re pricey, but you could sleep outside wearing that get-up and stay toasty warm.

Fun Stuff To Do in the Cold

Chicagoans don't just sit around inside and mope when it's cold, we embrace winter. As a result, there are tons of fun things to do in Chicago throughout the winter when it’s cold (20F-40F), but not super-chilled. Here are a few things you can do in Chicago that you can't pull off in other, more temperate locations:

Go to The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival right before Thanksgiving and see them turn on over a million lights on Michigan Avenue. I also highly recommend warming up with some food and drink at Chicago's Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza which is a great German tradition in the city. Also see the massive Christmas Tree at Daley Plaza, and another at the Museum of Science and Industry. You can spend a fun day walking around downtown just to check out the Christmas decorations in the hotels and department stores (and stopping for the occasional hot chocolate to warm up). If you're into Christmas lights, there are no shortage of neighborhoods where people go crazy decorating their homes. Make your own blown glass Christmas ornaments at Chicago Hot Glass. Embrace Winter Sports--there’s a reason we have both Summer and Winter Olympics to protest against! The Chicago Curling Club puts on great Learn2Curl sessions (and it’s really a lot of fun). It’s flat outside, so get some Cross Country Skis and tool around Waveland Golf Course or Palos Forest Preserve. Skating rinks abound, from an outdoor public one at Millennium Park(with a backdrop that can't be beat) to hockey action at Johnny’s Ice House. Go for a horseback ride on the trails at Fitzjoy Farm in Palos Park (no relation to me, I swear). If you have kids or you're a big kid, sledding is loads of fun. On the best sledding days the weather is actually moderate, the snow is fluffy, and you can ride like the wind.

If you’ve got the space, get a portable fire pit to huddle around. Cook on an open fire using a Dutch Oven or buy a smoker and make some awesome BBQ. Take a day to cruise around H Mart, the massive Asian market in the Northern burbs and track down gargantuan Korean chestnuts to roast.

Head to the Beaches of Lake Michigan. Not surprisingly, they'll be pretty well empty, but the ice formations are often quite beautiful. The sound of the ice when the lake freezes over is eerie and captivating, but I wouldn't recommend trying to walk on it.

And if you decide that, after all this, the cold doesn't bother you one bit, you might want to join the Polar Bear Club and have a swim in the lake. In January. You can’t make this stuff up.

Streets, Driving, and Cycling (yes, Cycling!)

Chicago has a fleet of hundreds of salt trucks and plows that often start salting (yes, salt--none of that inferior “sand” stuff they use in other parts of the country) even before the first snowflake falls to make sure that you can get safely from A to B in your car even when the city gets hit by a blizzard. Alleys get plowed last, if at all, so you may find yourself with your car temporarily stuck in your garage if it doesn't have four-wheel drive and we get a ton of snow.

If you have a car that you park on the street, you should be aware of a Chicago, um, "tradition" that you'll witness after big (i.e. more than 12") snows. You can spend a half-hour or even an hour or more digging your car out of a spot after a big snowstorm, so, in the neighborhoods, Chicagoans don't want to give up that freshly dug out spot. Rather than leave their car in the same place all winter long, people will dig out, pull out, and "mark" their spot with something as a way of saying "This is my spot, I dug it out, and if you take it, I'll key your car" or something similarly friendly. The "markers" that I've seen take the form of old tables, chairs, milk crates, 2x4s, sawhorses, bar stools, old coffee tables, and--I kid you not--a recliner. Is this legal? No. Will the Chicago Police be there to help you when you take someone's spot and they come after you? No. Is this crazy? Maybe. Is it worth it to pay for a garage space in Chicago? Probably.

Driving in the snow and ice is an acquired skill. Know whether your car has anti-lock brakes and skid control as these can all help you to drive through snow and ice. While four-wheel drive can help you drive through snow and ice, it does not help you stop at all, and every year I watch people plow into other cars when they drive their SUV too aggressively on an icy street. Give the car in front of you plenty of room, don't tailgate, and when the roads are treacherous, don't drive unless you have to. If you want to get used to driving in the snow and ice you might want to spend some time driving around an empty parking lot getting to know how the car handles in snow.

If you relocate your car here from a warmer place, take it to a mechanic to get a winter overhaul: make sure you've got appropriate antifreeze and that it's topped off with windshield wiper fluid (water will freeze solid, so you need to use real wiper fluid). You should have the following in your car from October to April: a combination ice scraper/brush/squeegee (I recommend a telescoping one like this one), an extra gallon of wiper fluid, a small telescoping snow shovel, and maybe even a small bag of rock salt. These will go a long way to helping you get through most winter weather that strikes. Lastly, some kind of roadside assistance will come in handy when your car dies in -10F weather (of course, the worse the weather gets, the longer they'll take to come).

Lastly, if you love to bike, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a big contingent of folks who ride bikes all winter long. It may sound completely insane, but 90% of the time the streets are totally dry and clear of snow and ice. You simply need to dress like you’re going skiing--good gloves, windbreaker, and balaclava and you’ll warm up fast enough if you dress appropriately. That said, you might not want to bike when the streets are wet or you’ll find yourself covered in a thin film of road salt, and that’s no fun at all.

Sidewalks and Walking

If you live in a house, you're required by law to shovel your sidewalk, but unfortunately, many people don't shovel despite this. For snow removal, your basic tools are a snow shovel, a broom and something to melt snow. If you've got a lot of walk and/or driveway to shovel, you might want to invest in a snowblower*, but it's usually not necessary. Whatever the case, the most important thing to know is that you need to buy these supplies well before the first snowfall. Despite the fact that Chicagoans have figured out how to live in the city, every year, the first snowfall results in a run on snow shovels, snow melt, and snowblowers, so unless you want to be clearing your walks with a lawn rake, plan ahead.

* Yes I know it’s technically a snowthrower, but it’s just so much easier to say snowblower. Snowblower snowblower snowblower snowblower. See?

There are different kinds of snow shovels: L-shaped handles or straight handles, metal scoops or plastic scoops, metal handles or wooden handles. I recommend finding a light one that won't flex too much and that feels right for someone of your height. While the metal and metal-edged ones are nice, they can get stuck more than the plastic ones if your sidewalk has a lot of cracks. When it’s colder, snow is light and fluffy and easy to shovel. When it’s closer to freezing, snow gets wetter and heavier, and many people call this “heart-attack snow” because every year a few people overexert themselves shovelling this kind of snow and die from--yep, you guessed it--a heart attack. No kidding.

After you shovel your walk, there will probably be a little bit of snow left, and maybe even some ice stuck to the walk. If the remaining snow doesn't look like it's melting on its own (and it's not likely to get above freezing that day), you might want to help it along. The most common thing to use is salt, but that is typically only effective down to about 5F. Beyond that, there are other products that melt snow down to lower temps, but many of these (even salt!) can damage concrete and stone walkways. In addition, it usually doesn't snow when it's really cold, so I've always done fine with plain old rock salt. Besides, it's cheap and easy to find if you buy it before the rush. One last word on applying salt: you shouldn’t salt if it’s still snowing or likely to continue to snow because you’ll just wind up picking the salt up (and probably throwing it onto your lawn) the next time you shovel.

While a snowblower isn't necessary, I’ve discovered that there are a few tricks to buying a snowblower. Most importantly, get out and buy it before the first big snowfall. After the first big snowfall, your only choices are going to be the cheapie plastic ones that run on 9 volt batteries and the $1,500 ones that, in addition to removing snow, can also rip up sod, shrubs, and 200 year old redwoods.
A few tips for walking on snowy sidewalks: most important of all, keep in mind how long it’s been since the last snow. Unshoveled snow turns into slush, which turns into lumpy ice after being trampled, which can be deadly when covered with a fresh coating of soft snow. With experience, you’ll start being able to detect the different stages of sidewalk snow and alter your footing and walking technique to accommodate the uneven surface.

If you watch the news, you'll sometimes hear about certain conditions forming
black ice
on roads and sidewalks. It's not completely invisible most of the time, so keep an eye out for it as it's basically frictionless and very dangerous.

Home Is Where The Heat Is

Whether you have an apartment or a house, there are a few things you can do to make the winter months more comfy and cozy without turning your thermostat up to 80.

There are tons of comfortable and warm things you can wear around the house, from flannel pajamas, to loungewear, sweats, sweaters, and fuzzy socks. There are also all sorts of slippers you can get to keep your feet warm, including down slippers that are so warm you’ll probably have to wear them with socks to keep your feet from sweating non-stop. Fleece throws or
are also great for sitting around reading or watching TV.

If you’re used to wearing your outdoor shoes around the house, you might want to get a boot tray and shed your winter boots at the door, else you’ll track snow, ice, and salt across your floors and carpets. This will help keep your house a lot cleaner through the winter months.

In the bedroom, there are tons of great products to make your bed warm and cozy (calm down there, I’m talking about sheets and blankets here). The first thing most people get is a warm down comforter, and there are different weights, so get a heavier one if you want the most warmth. Flannel sheets are also a great way to retain heat while sleeping, although be careful, because if you wear flannel pajamas with the flannel sheets, you might roll over in the middle of the night and start a friction fire (Kidding!). If all that’s not enough, you can get a feather bed to go under the sheets as well for the ultimate in bedtime warmth and coziness. This will enable you to sleep in a cooler room, which usually is better for sleeping, but does make getting out of bed in the morning just that much harder.

There are two ways that most houses are heated these days: forced air and radiant heat (usually radiators). I’ve alway found that forced air heat is a very dry heat, and once the heat goes off, your house will immediately start getting cooler. Radiators, on the other hand, usually have a tremendous amount of metal heat mass, so they’ll continue radiating heat well after the heat turns off. There are two kinds of radiators: steam and hot water. Steam radiators are the ones that you hear hissing and clanging and bumping and banging when they’re on. Hot water radiators have a closed loop of hot water (much like radiant floors do), and should be completely silent. I love hot water radiators as they provide a quiet, consistent heat and don’t stir up any air (which makes them great for allergen sufferers).

If you don’t have a humidifier, you might want to get one: The dry winter air can make your house a desert, and a humidifier isn’t only good for humans, but things like musical instruments and some furniture can get damaged if the air gets too dry. Radiators often have water trays that you can periodically fill to put some humidity into the room, but you can pick up a cheap humidifier at most home stores.

Lastly, fireplaces are great to sit around on cold winter days. Wood-burning fireplaces smell amazing, but are finicky, messy, and tend to be used less frequently. Gas fireplaces will warm you up just as much, make almost no mess, and can even be controlled by remote (although vent-free gas fireplaces can generate a ton of water vapor, so you might want to crack a window). One caveat on fireplaces is that while they’ll warm the areas near the fireplace, if your thermostat is in one of those areas, the rest of your place will likely get cold as the heat won’t come on while the fireplace is on.

Helping Others Stay Warm Will Warm Your Heart

Despite all of the moaning and groaning about Chicago winters, there are a lot of people that have it a lot harder. Give them a helping hand. Gather up all your old unused gear, and give it to someone in need. Donate money to homeless shelters. Cook a little extra, and share it with someone who’s hungry for a hot meal. Don’t like giving change to panhandlers? Fill your pockets with handwarmers, and hand them out instead. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Donate coats to the coat drive. Participate in gift-giving for the less fortunate. Being cold can be pretty miserable when you don’t have a choice.

That’s a Wrap

That should just about do it to keep you warm through the Chicago winter. I should note, however, that the winter really isn't that bad: If you've never had a white Christmas, it's a magical time regardless of your age. It's typically only bitter cold in January and February, and most indoor spaces are heated to a very comfortable level, so it's not like you're never going to get warm for six months. And remember (and you'll hear Chicagoans say this often), the weather here builds character. And you could probably use some, buddy.

Welcome to Chicago!

Thanks to Marie Fitzpatrick, Adrian Holovaty, Zach Kaplan, Moshe Tamssot, and Ben Collins-Sussman for reviewing drafts and contributing tons of great advice to this article.

Oct 9, 2009

Blogging and writing, just not here lately...

I'm still around, despite the dust and cobwebs around here. I've been doing a lot of writing, mostly on other blogs, though:

Launched on the Google Public Policy Blog

Launched the Data Liberation Front's very own blog

Wrote about why I think Data Liberation is important on the Huffington Post

I also had a really nice interview with The Guardian to talk about Data Liberation and the Open Web.

And if that's not enough of my blathering for you, I'm @therealfitz on Twitter if you're into that sort of thing.

I'm hoping to find the time to write here more often, but since I'm busier than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest, I'm not making any promises.

Feb 14, 2009

Not Too Far From the Truth...

I wrote this to Marie in an email last week:

Please don't wait for me to get home to eat... from 5-6 I'm hosting a high school student as a favor to a friend. I'm going to show him around the office and give him some career advice (yes, yes, stop laughing).

Marie's response:

Tell him you drank, didn't go to class, and bummed around Europe for two years as an excuse to avoid full time work. That will be very attractive. How you got to where you are today is still rather a mystery.

Oh, and then pull the horseshoe out of your ass and give it to him.

I probably would have taken offense at that if it wasn't so true...

Jan 27, 2009

Failure IS an Option

One of my best friends works for NASA and a few years ago he gave me a Mission Control shirt that says "Failure is not an option". That's a fantastic motto if you're working in a situation where a mistake can cost lives, but a terrible motto if you're trying to innovate and invent. I've often half-joked around the office that our motto should be "Failure is an option". If you want to really push yourself, you've got to know that it's OK to fail sometimes. You pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and try again--failing is often the fastest way to learn. We've also been conditioned to think it's the most painful when it isn't--not by a longshot.

Scott Berkun blogged about the following video, which is basically a soft-sell ad about Honda, but at heart it's a story about the importance of failure. Well worth a watch.

Jan 20, 2009

For Sale: 1 Button, Used

I won't be needing this anymore:

I've been waiting for this day for eight years.

Jan 15, 2009

Greatest. Christmas Card. Ever.

See Jim and Rachel's Christmas Card. We showed it to everyone who came over to our house over the holidays.

Jan 7, 2009

Bloxes Rule

I just wrote a post for the Google Blog about some of the cool things we've done in the Chicago office with Bloxes. Check it out.

Jan 6, 2009

What Happens When You're Out Of The Office for Two Weeks?

You get, um, downgraded:

This was on my desk when I got back to the office on Monday morning. I think it was absolutely hilarious, and even better, it was a Mac SE, which was my very first Mac that I got back in 1991!

Thanks to Trow for pulling the outstanding prank, and especially for telling me where he hid my 30" monitor afterwards.

Jan 4, 2009

Datacenter sticker spotted in New York Times

My friend Steve spotted one of my datacenter stickers on the laptop of my colleague T.V. Raman, who is the subject of an article about web accessibility, among other things. T.V. has really done some amazing work to make the web more accessible for everyone, not just the blind and the vision-impaired.

T.V. and I started at Google on the same day and worked across the hall from each other for my first few weeks (until I returned to Chicago). He's an all-around great guy, an emacs guru (he wrote emacspeak, and
can never be found far from his yellow lab, Hubbell, who is a real sweetheart (be sure to ask permission before petting Hubbell though--it's best not to pet a work dog while their harness is on and they're "working").

Congrats on the press coverage, T.V.!