About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/verityreynolds

Everything on My Patreon is Free Right Now Because #*$& You, COVID-19

Today I relaunched my Patreon. With one difference:

Everything I post on Patreon for the near future is free. 

Welcome to my PATREON RELAUNCH BLOG PARTY, brought to you by SOCIAL DISTANCING! Here’s what you need to know.

patreon relaunch (1)
Why relaunch Patreon?

Two reasons. One is selfish, the other is…mostly not.

THE NON-SELFISH REASON: Right now we are, as a species, in the middle of a crisis that the vast majority of us now living have never seen the like of before. And while each of us is responding in our own way, one source of comfort and connection many of us have turned to is art.

Yes, TikTok videos and memes count.

The recent explosion of creators dumping works to the Internet for free underscores art’s importance to humanity, particularly in times of great stress. Art gives us an outlet for our feelings. It brings us together. It helps us maintain perspective.

THE SELFISH REASON: I’m going more than a little stir-crazy under this shelter in place order. I’m sure you can relate. By relaunching my Patreon, I put pressure on myself to stop scrolling Twitter or dwelling on my potential demise and MAKE ART.

After all, you’re all counting on me.

Is It Really Free?

Yes. Every post will be public for the foreseeable future. I don’t intend to paywall anything until the vast majority of us are back to work.

I’m aware this means I may be making public posts for a long time. It may be as long as 18 months, since that’s the current best estimate for a working COVID-19 vaccine.

What if I Want to Pay You Anyway?

You are welcome to subscribe at any tier, at any time. I appreciate the vote of confidence, and I’m glad you have the disposable income to help support art!

Be aware, however, that tier perks will be postponed as long as everything on the Patreon is public. I’ll get back to them once I return to paywalling work. So if you, say, join the $50 tier now, you’ll get the books listed – just not until the shelter in place order in my home state is lifted, at the earliest.

Want to send financial support, but can’t commit to a monthly subscription? You’re welcome to send me what you can, when you can via Ko-Fi.

Want to show support, but have even less money for essentials that usual? Share the Patreon link with your friends!

Does This Mean ALL Your Work Is Free Right Now?

Alas, no.

The work I post to Patreon is free. My blog has always been freely available. And you can, of course, follow my brain-dumpings in real time on Twitter.

My published books, however, still have price tags on them. That’s because the books support more than just me – they also help my publisher and editor keep their doors open and the lights on.

I do, however, highly recommend following my Patreon if you’re curious about the books, or if you’re not ready to commit to buying them for any reason. You’ll get a good look at what goes on in my published works before you decide to acquire them.

This FAQ Doesn’t Answer My Question.

Drop me a message in the comments here, or DM me via Twitter. I’ll do my best to answer between handwashing sessions.

Stay healthy. Enjoy art. Take care of your loved ones. ❤

Today’s Sanity Level: Bananaphone

Our winterguard state championships were scheduled for yesterday. They were, of course, cancelled.

In the spirit of getting together apart, we (the members and staff) decided to create our own winterguard shows. Since the staff do this professionally, we decided to do the most ridiculous ideas we could find.

(I hope. That’s what I did, anyway.)

Performing their 2021 show “Bananaphone,” Winter Guard International is proud to present….

bananaphone

Music

The name kind of gives it away:

“Bananaphone” will be a Regional A show, since it’s both (a) ridiculous and (b) not long enough to be used in any other caption.

Floor

Since no one gave me a budget, I’m getting custom everything for my brand-new guard performing silly work on multiple pieces of equipment. As we all know, high production values totally make WGI judges ignore bad technique!

(Note for non-winterguard readers: The above is sarcasm. Nothing makes WGI judges ignore cringey technique. Especially not in Regional A, the literal training class.)

Anyway, did you know that “banana phone” stock photography exists? It does! Here’s what I’m getting printed on our amazing custom bananaphone floor:

abstract-idea-colorful-banana-phone-600w-1062212057

Minus the watermark, of course. And we’ll need to expand the sides, since we’re getting a 60 by 90 floor to accommodate all 30 of the performers I will definitely have once word about this once in a lifetime show theme gets around.

Also, you can expect a sort of “confetti” effect over the whole thing, once all my brand-new guard members are done marking every single spot in their drill with their very own color of electrical tape.

Does this banana phone look kind of like a tampon to you?

I’m sure it’s fine.

Props/Sets

Props and set pieces are my nemesis. I never know what I want or what I want to do with it once I have it.

But every good budget-breaking show needs ridiculous quantities of unnecessary props, so I Googled “banana props.”

We are SO getting these banana couches:

03f19f34eab1480bff6307b32eb1530a

Also, WHY. WHY DOES THIS EXIST.

I don’t care, we’re getting ten:

inflatable-mobile-phone

What are we going to do with the giant inflatable bananas and phones? No idea! In my world, that’s what we call “the choreographer’s problem.”

Equipment

Props are great and all, but it’s not winterguard unless we’re spinning regulation equipment.

I really wanted banana-colored Arcs, but since I can’t remember whether Arcs count as equipment (I know Airblades don’t), I’ve decided to throw some rifle wraps on and call it good.

Rifles that actually look like bananas seem a little on the nose, so we’re going with these stock wraps from McCormick’s:

3500071-2

That leaves flags. Since nobody keeps a banana-print flag in stock (I know, I looked), I’m ordering custom flags with another stock photo image on them. Here are our ending feature flags:

Banana wallpaper (2)

And because I don’t want to hear any crap from the upstairs judges about why our floor is pink when nothing else is, the opening flags are going to alternate between the yellow and pink Genesis flags from Band Shoppe:

Uniforms

I expected costuming to take the longest of any of these. But then I was procrastinating on Facebook and I found this image from Beavercreek HS’s 2020 show:

91220821_10221784078567884_889178863018442752_o2926825436896288348.jpg

And I said, “THAT’S IT. THOSE ARE OUR UNIFORMS.”

Count Sheet

For the uninitiated: Every winterguard show starts with a count sheet. We listen through the music and conceive it in blocks of counts, which become the basis both of individual choreographic phrases and of the changes in staging, equipment, mood etc. from beginning to end.

Here’s my count sheet for Bananaphone:

Intro (16 cts): Entrance/dance thingy

Verse 1 and 2 (64 cts): Yellow flags (Group A), dance (Group B)

Verse 3 and Bridge (64 cts): Yellow flags (Group A), pink flags (Group B)

Instrumental (64 cts): Rifle & dance

Verse 4 (32 cts): Ending flag feature

Repeat & End: Mostly dance, some flags

Budget

I haven’t even tried to budget this. For a guard of thirty people, we’re probably looking at:

Large Custom Floor:   $2,000
Inflatable Nonsense:   $500
Rifle Wraps:                   $450
Stock Flags:                    $1,050
Custom Flags:                $1,050
Uniforms:                       $3,000

TOTAL:                              $8,050

Once we get done paying staff (because OF COURSE I’m going to pay well for the proper execution of this artistic vision), we’re well into the five figures, which is where I wanted to be. That trophy for “Most Overproduced Winterguard Show About Bananas” shall be mine!

….I’m being informed there is no such trophy.

Boo.


Both WGI and DCI 2020 aren’t happening, so if you wanted to help by buying me a coffee or sharing this post with your nerdy marching arts friends, I’d love that.

 

My Favorite Creativity Tools Online, Not Ranked

I like to make things. They don’t even have to be good things. In fact, I’m often happiest when I’m churning out piles of terrible art.

Here are some of my favorite online creativity rabbit holes to fall into. Each of these is free unless otherwise noted.

creativity

Botnik

If you’re unfamiliar with my love affair with Botnik‘s predictive-text keyboard, it’s because you’re new here. (Welcome!)

Basically, Botnik is your phone’s predictive text on a much larger scale and with a potentially much larger dataset that isn’t confined to things you text most often. Botnik has dozens of pre-loaded keyboard options ranging from “John Keats” to Radiohead lyrics or The Joy of Cooking. You can also feed it your own text banks as UTF-8 encoded .txt files.

For examples of the fun nonsense you can make with Botnik, check out this list of predictive-text New Year’s resolutions or this predictive-text history of Mother’s Day.

Noteflight (freemium)

If you’ve ever wanted to write music but (a) don’t know if you can, (b) don’t play an instrument and/or (c) hate having to draw all those little dots on manuscript paper which you (d) don’t even own anyway, Noteflight is the obsession for you.

Noteflight is web-based music notation software, which does what it says on the tin: It allows you to write music. Also to play it back immediately, change/edit instruments and voices, and so on.

Check out examples of music I wrote in Noteflight in the Bad Carols series.

The full version requires a subscription, but if you’re new to writing music you can get a lot of mileage out of the free version before you make the switch.

As an occasional music teacher, I especially appreciate features of Noteflight that are annoying af at first, like its insistence on subdividing measures for you. It’s really helpful if you’re not already 100 percent comfortable with the concept of how many beats go in a measure and what that should look like.

Soundation (freemium)

If you want to write music but the previous paragraph’s mention of “subdividing measures” made your eyes cross, try Soundation. It allows you to create music mixer-style, by stacking, looping and editing tracks.

Again, you can pay for a subscription or not, but the free version lets you do quite a bit before you decide whether or not an upgrade is worth your money.

I’ve found that Soundation is highly accessible for middle schoolers and older, whether or not they have any kind of previous music-related education. So put some headphones on your kids and let them mix away.

Scratch

Scratch is an MIT project designed to teach kids how to code, but even as an adult in my 30s I find it’s a lot of fun to put together my own animations and games.

The interface is very user-friendly and intuitive. If you’re super intimidated by anything with the word “coding” in it, though, there’s also a series of tutorials that will walk you through every aspect of Scratch.

Scratch is the kind of thing I would have killed for when I was ten years old and programming my Apple IIGS in BASIC that I learned out of my fifth-grade math textbook. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to make goofy things to share with friends.

Canva (freemium)

Canva is a graphic design tool for those of us with zero graphic design chops.  It offers hundreds, maybe thousands, of templates for social media images, blog post headers, invitations and a bunch of other things.

I use it primarily to make graphics for this blog, but there are plenty of other options for Canva use. Many of the templates and images are free, but some of them require payment or a Canva subscription to access – though I’m not sure you need one if you’re only using Canva for amusement.

An alternative to Canva is Snappa, which does basically the same things except with an arguably more intuitive (and definitely more touchscreen-friendly) interface. Canva’s one major failing is that it’s not optimized for touchscreens, so if you’re creating on a tablet, consider giving Snappa a go.

Micro Marching League (freemium)

Micro Marching League might be in the running for most nerdy niche option on this list. It’s basically Pyware but for kids.

…If you’re thinking “there’s no way you can make Pyware kid-friendly,” you’re right.

Micro Marching League (MML) allows you to design your own marching band drill and watch it play out…more or less effectively? It’s not a tool I’d actually use to write drill I would actually put on the field or floor, but it’s a fun introduction to drill-writing for anyone who hasn’t actually tried it before.

The free version offers enough scope to get started. You can pay for options like inserting your own uniform colors or creating indoor drill, but if you’re that serious about writing drill I’d recommend just switching to Pyware.

Master MML and your learning curve for Pyware won’t be any shorter, but at least you’ll have some idea what you want certain forms to look like.

Seventh Sanctum

I’ve been messing around on Seventh Sanctum since…years? The site’s biggest draw for creatives is probably its massive collection of idea generators, from sci-fi plots to made-up 1980s cartoon heroes.

It also offers a huge list of resources for creatives, including stock photography sources, publishing outlets, online portfolio hosting sites and so on. It’s a decades-old standby of the creative community, but I’ve included it here in case you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000.

Springhole

Like Seventh Sanctum, Springhole is also (a) ancient (in Internet terms) and (b) full of creativity resources. Springhole, however, is geared almost entirely at writers.

In addition to various generators, you’ll also find a wealth of writing advice, from how to know when you should write a novel to how to determine whether your main character is actually a “Mary Sue” or just being called that by disgruntled dudebros who haven’t realized that “being female” is a default state for half the population.

I used to get lost in Springhole for hours on end. It’s still one of my favorite online rabbit holes.

Zompist

Zompist is Mark Rosenfelder’s personal website, and it’s absolutely fantastic if you’re into any kind of worldbuilding or conlanging.

Rosenfelder is the author of several books on how to construct conlangs (which I also recommend). The website both provides an introduction to those books and hosts many of the in-depth examples that didn’t fit on the physical pages.

If you’ve ever wanted to build your own fantasy world/language, or having built one you now have no idea what to do with it, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. It’s where I found the format for this Niralan culture test, for example.

Lexiconga

Lexiconga is the other Extremely Niche tool on this list. It’s a dictionary compiler, which means it’s probably most useful to folks who are already in the vocabulary-building phase of conlanging.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with using an Excel spreadsheet for vocabulary purposes. I do. But I appreciate the way Lexiconga is built to manage your word hoard. My Excel sheet for Niralanes, for instance, has nearly a thousand entries currently. That’s a lot of scrolling, and it’s scrolling Lexiconga doesn’t make me do.

One of my favorite parts of social distancing/sheltering in place so far is that I feel even freer than usual to spend hours making terrible art (like this abomination my brain woke me up at 4 am to write). I cannot encourage it enough. Making terrible art is how we make good art (eventually) – but more importantly, it’s just plain fun.

Go forth and make terrible art. ❤


Support an artist: buy me a coffee or share this post with all your online friends.

 

 

Aabie: A Text-Based Game for Entertaining Kids (and Adults) At a Distance

I teach, so I know how much work it is to keep kids both entertained and learning. It’s even harder during the COVID-19 era, where public health also demands we keep our space from one another.

I hesitate to set up face to face events, but I also feel for kids, especially my nieces and nephew. With schools closed in our state as of last Friday, I know they’ll be climbing the walls in short order, – if they aren’t already.

So I started thinking of ways to play with them without either of us having to leave home. And Aabie was born.

game

Aabie is a trivia game that can be played over text, messaging apps, social media or even email. It can be adapted for players of any age, though I recommend a minimum age of “has started spontaneously sharing interesting facts they know.”

Because it was inspired by my eldest niece, I also named it after her. Specifically, “Aabie” is named after her initials: AAB.

Here’s how to play.

You Will Need

  • At least two players
  • A means of messaging for each player: Smartphone, access to email, etc.
  • Internet connection (optional but recommended; see “challenges” below)

Taking Turns

A turn begins when one player gives another player a Topic. Topics can be just about anything, but do try to choose a Topic the second player is likely to know something about – at least at first. For instance, I might text my 11 year old niece the Topic “Butterflies.”

On hearing the Topic, the second player responds with three facts they know about it. For instance, my niece might reply with:

  1. Butterflies drink nectar from flowers.
  2. They grow from caterpillars.
  3. Butterflies love rock music.

The responding player gets one point for every fact they provide that is in fact a true fact.

The responding player then gets to announce a Topic to the first player. If more than two people are playing, set up a round-robin so that Player 2 then gives a Topic to Player 3 and so on.

Play continues indefinitely or until we can all return to our usual lives.

Challenges

If the first player (the one who provided the Topic) thinks one or more of the responding player’s “facts” are suspect, the first player can say “Challenge,” followed by the number of the challenged fact.

In this example, I might reply to my niece with “Challenge #3.”

To get the point for that fact, my niece will have to provide some evidence that the fact is true. For instance, she might send me a photo of a page from her science textbook, showing the results of a study on butterfly music preferences. She might send me a link to an article. And so on.

If the responding player can back up the challenged fact with evidence, they keep the point for that fact. If they can’t, the player who challenged them gets the point.

Disputes over the veracity of sources are settled by a discussion of what makes a trustworthy source in the particular Topic area. If the dispute cannot be settled, neither party gets the point.

Sample Rule Adaptations

Some options for adapting the rules in order to accommodate younger players, encourage further learning, and so on:

  • Allow research. Open up the list of available Topics and encourage curiosity by allowing players to research three facts about any topic they don’t already know three facts about. For instance, I would definitely allow research if I’d decided to ask my 11-year-old niece for three facts about the Federal Reserve.
  • Simplify points (or play without them). You can do one point per turn instead of one point per fact for easier scorekeeping. Or simply play without points.
  • Set a timer, or ignore time altogether. For synchronous play, requiring players to answer within a set time can raise the stakes. Or ignore time entirely, text out a Topic at 2 am and get a response a week later. It’s up to you and your opponent(s)!
  • Free for all. Instead of a round-robin setup with 3+ players, let anyone give anyone else a Topic at any time.
  • The “don’t be a d*ck” rule. Sure, it’s fun to nail your nerdy adult friends to the wall over typos like “martial” vs “marital,” but if you’re going to do that, make it clear that’s an element of the game from the start. Don’t do it to anyone who would ordinarily be in a K-12 classroom right now; the point of this game is to keep those players interested and learning new things, not to destroy their curiosity and joy. Don’t be a d*ck.

Feel free to adapt the rules as needed for whoever you’re playing this game with. Remember: the goal is to keep players interested, talking to one another, and having fun. If it’s not fun, it’s time to take a break.

Oh, and please wash your hands.


If Aabie helps you stave off cabin fever, feel free to buy me a coffee of thanks. And please share this post on social media!

How to Practice Social Distancing Without Losing Your Mind

“Social distancing” is a way of life for me. My parents’ fondest dream was to move as far away from other people as they could reasonably get without sacrificing my education, their careers, or family relationships. I’m as introverted as they are, and for many years I dealt with health issues that kept me in my house for several weeks at a time.

So with the WHO and CDC recommending that we all keep our distance from one another as a way to control the spread of COVID-19 (here’s why that’s important), I’d like to share some of my tips for living a life of solitude in the midst of one’s fellow humans.

how to social distancing

Consolidate Your Errands

When I was a kid, my mother and I did all of the week’s errands in a single day. Typically, that day was Saturday, and the errands included the grocery store, general store, butcher and laundromat – but if one of us had a doctor’s appointment or similar errand during the week, all the other errands got done that day as well.

During the years I was stuck at home for medical reasons, I consolidated my errands to one or two trips a month, usually coinciding with my doctor’s visits.

Consolidating errands may require you to rethink how you get things done:

  • Consider an average week. How many times do you leave the house? Where do you go when you do?
  • Target multiple trips to the same location. If you’re buying produce three times a week, for instance, consolidate all of those into one trip (see the next point for tips on how).
  • Group errands together when they’re located close to one another or when you can map an efficient route from your house, through each location, and back. For instance, my childhood grocery-meat-laundry-general store run was done in that order because that order formed a convenient little loop through the neighborhood. The gas station is in the grocery store’s parking lot, so it often became part of the loop as well.

For COVID-19 purposes, consider keeping hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and a trash bag (to collect used wipes) in your car as well. This way, you’ll be able to clean up and/or wipe items down between errands, which can help you avoid carrying germs from place to place.

Plan Ahead and Buy In Bulk

Planning and bulk buying are essential to a good social distancing program. My family used to order through a multi-family food co-op, which meant that most of our groceries came by the case, once a month. I grew up assuming flour came in fifty-pound bags and that soymilk could only be purchased a dozen at a time.

We also grew a great deal of our own food. In summer, produce came from our garden, supplemented by a once a week trip to the local farmer’s market for items we either didn’t grow or didn’t grow in bulk (like peaches, which we bought and canned). In winter, we’d make a once a week produce run – but if the weather got bad enough to prevent it, we could go for a month or more on canned and frozen produce and other staples.

To cut your grocery shopping down to once a week or less:

  • Identify your “must-have” foods. These are the things you either use in a lot of cooking, or that help you feel food-secure. For us, garlic, carrots, and rice are “must-haves” because they feature in a lot of the dishes we make. Peanut butter is a “must-have” because I feel safer knowing we have it – it’s a cheap source of protein, but it’s also a psychological support for me.
  • Consider the meals you make most often. Which ingredients do they have in common? These are your targets for bulk purchases. Aim to have at least one item in every major food group (grains, proteins, fruits, veggies, herbs/spices, and fats/oils) that commonly appears in your cooking and that you can stock in bulk. You may not always have exactly what you want to eat that day, but you’ll likely have the ingredients to make something palatable.
  • Explore shelf-stable replacements for certain ingredients. Currently, the grocery store at the end of my street has almost no canned beans – but the shelves of dry beans are fully stocked. Why? Dry beans are cheaper. They’re more shelf-stable. They last longer, and you’re not paying for the extra water used in packing. Reach for the more shelf-stable options when you can.
  • Buy extras only of things you’ll use before they expire. Here’s where choosing the most shelf-stable version is your friend: The longer it lasts, the more likely you are to use it before it expires. Things you won’t use before they expire are a waste of money.
  • Take advantage of the weather. In many parts of the U.S., it’s still cool enough to store things like apples and potatoes in spaces like the garage or back porch. They’ll keep longer without wasting refrigerator space.
  • Repeat this process for other commonly-used items, like cleaning products, pads/tampons, toilet paper, and so on. My “staple-buy” list, for instance, includes one-subject notebooks because I write prolifically.

For me, the central foods have always been rice, potatoes, garlic, onion, carrots, broccoli, apples, navy beans, peanut butter, vinegar, basil, rosemary, and olive oil. If I have these things in my house, I know I can eat appealing, balanced meals with very little work. Work up a similar list of your own, using the foods that appear most often in your own cooking, and find ways to buy at least two weeks’ worth of them at a time.

Make Yourself an At-Home Workspace

If you’re working from home, an at-home workspace is a must. But it’s also important even if you’re not bringing your job into your house.

Once you’re stocked up on essentials, you’re ready to stay in the house for longer periods of time. Here’s the next challenge: If you’re not used to staying home, how do you do it without feeling trapped?

At-home social distancing time is the ideal time to tackle projects you’re curious about or have been meaning to get to, and it starts with having a workspace for these projects.

Set aside some area in your house to work on the thing you’ve always wanted to get to. Cover your dining table with a 5000-piece puzzle. Put a card table in the basement and stack all your cheese-making tools onto it. Park your laptop beside your favorite chair so you can work on that novel you’ve always wanted to write.

The goal is to have your project where you can easily reach it. This way, it’ll be on hand to occupy your time, and you won’t face the exhaustion of pulling out all your materials every single time you want to work on it.

My Space Is Too Small!

Not only were my parents big on introverted social distancing when I was a kid, but we also lived in a very small house – less than 750 square feet for three people. My own bedroom was 6 feet by 9 feet. There was barely space for my bed and clothes, let alone for big, sprawling projects.

In this case, your “workspace” may need to be a box or basket that holds your stuff. If you’ve decided to try watercolor painting, for instance, keep your paints, brushes, palettes and so on in a box near the space you’ll actually use when you’re painting (such as your kitchen table). It’s not quite the same as being able to spread out entirely, but it does keep your tools in your line of sight and make them easier to access when it’s time to amuse yourself.

Even in a very small space, you can find ways to divide your activities and locations to feel as if you’re actually transitioning from one to the other. In my 6 foot by 9 foot childhood bedroom, for instance, I used to do my reading and homework while sitting at the foot of my bed. This was enough to trick my brain into thinking that my reading-and-homework space was somehow different from my going-to-sleep space, even though they were literally two ends of the same twin bed.

Social Media Is Your Frenemy

Social media is a double-edged sword when you’re sequestered from the rest of meatspace.

On the one hand, social media is vital. It keeps you connected with friends, family and co-workers. You can share information, update everyone on how your life is going, and communicate with others who might need help.

We have more options for communicating with others – without sharing germs – than we have ever had in the history of humanity. Using them will help us maintain the sense of connection we’ll need to take care of ourselves and one another. Definitely use social media for this purpose.

But, at the same time, pay attention to how you’re using it.

The flip side of social media, when you’re stuck in your house for weeks at a time, is that it can suck you in. During my convalescence I would scroll Facebook and Twitter for hours at a time – a situation that turned out to be terrible for my mental health.

In COVID-19 world, there’s a fine line between “connecting with your loved ones” and “getting totally overwhelmed by all the virus-related news.” Use social media mindfully and proactively. Log on with the express purpose of updating your social circles or checking in on them.

Then, log off. Go take a nap, make a healthy meal, do some push-ups, play with your dog, talk to your family, work on a hobby, read a book or play a video game. Maintain balance in order to maintain your mental and emotional health – which you need just as much as your physical health.

It’s “Social” Distancing, Not “World” Distancing

I’ve made several references to “being stuck at home,” but the fact is that for millions of Americans, social distancing doesn’t actually require us to stay in our house/apartment.

If you don’t live in a large city (or even if you do), you can still leave your house without increasing your risk of catching coronavirus, as long as you go places that have no or few other people. In rural areas, most forests, nature trails, and the like are likely to be pretty safe, as long as there aren’t a lot of people around.

With schools and businesses shutting down over the virus, a lot of urban public places will be eerily empty as well. Parks, college campuses and the like offer an opportunity to get out, go for a walk, and stave off cabin fever without ever getting close enough to another human being to risk transmission of a virus.

Again, pack along your hand sanitizer, and wash your hands thoroughly before you leave your house and when you return. If you run into other people, smile and wave from a distance. It’s more polite to shout “How are you?!” across a park than it is to give someone COVID-19 or get it from them.

This All Kind Of Sucks

Yes, it does. But it’s doable. I’ve lived large parts of my life without leaving my house or sharing physical space with a non-family member for a month or two at a time.

Even if you’re a major introvert, though, it’s hard on the mental health. That’s why having defined spaces and projects is so important – as is getting out of the house in a safe and healthy way when you can.

Take care of yourselves and each other. It’s how we beat this thing.


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How to Work From Home If You’re Not Used to Working From Home

Today four universities in my home state announced a temporary shutdown due to COVID-19. A number of U.S. businesses are arranging for workers to work remotely, rather than risk coming into the office or commuting on public transport.

Working or studying from home takes some adjustment if you’re not used to it. I made my adjustment back in 2009, when a medical condition prevented me from leaving my house – sometimes, for weeks at a stretch.

I’ve worked from home for over ten years now. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it successfully.

how to work from home

Create a Dedicated Workspace

It’s tempting to sack out on the couch when you’re working from home. (I’m on my couch right now.) Working where you relax, however, can have two negative effects: It can distract you from work, and it can make relaxation time feel like a chore.

Instead, create a space to work in. If you’re lucky enough to have a separate room, use it. If not, set up a desk or a card table or a corner of the kitchen. Put a TV tray at one end of your couch and use that end for work; when not working, sit on the other end.

The goal is to have a place you can do your work and store work things (papers, your laptop, etc). Choose a place you can focus on work and that you can walk away from when work time is over.

Schedule Your Work Time

Carving out a space in which to get into “work mode” is important. Carving out time to do the same is just as important – if not more so.

You may not need to stay on your ordinary work schedule while working from home, especially if you typically have a lengthy commute. It is a good idea, however, to stay on a regular work schedule that parallels your ordinary schedule. You’ll be available to co-workers and clients (see below), and you’ll be able to retrain your brain into a work/home schedule more easily.

Try to work during the same block of time each day. Alert your family that you are working and are not to be bothered. Don’t respond to things like the front door or personal phone calls while you’re working. You wouldn’t be home to answer the door if you were at the office, and you’re still not available during work hours even if you are physically home.

Communicate With Your Team (More)

One of the biggest things that surprises new telecommuters or remote workers is how much more electronic communication is necessary when you don’t work in a face to face environment.

Communicate with your boss, co-workers, staff and clients even more than you think you need to. Get into the habit of sending a check-in email at least once a day, updating others on your progress. If you lead a team, make the check-in a part of everyone’s work day.

Communication also helps maintain relationships. You’ll be able to help co-workers adjust to working remotely, and you’ll maintain the human connections we’ll desperately need should COVID-19 seriously destabilize social and economic functions.

Use Multiple Channels

To boost communication, use or recommend using multiple channels and types. Skype, FaceTime, teleconference calls, shared Google Docs, email, text, Slack, Messenger, WhatsApp, and the like are your friends in a remote-work situation.

Each of these tools performs a different role, and the combination of roles can help a team complete tasks they might struggle with on any one channel.

For example: I’ve worked with a remote content marketing team for nearly two years now. We communicate daily via Slack and email. We meet on GoMeetMe, and we work in shared Google Drive files when we need to collaborate on particular tasks.

Each of these channels performs a specific function that would be clunky over any other, if not outright impossible. Emailing documents back and forth is a nightmare compared to working in a shared Google Doc. Having voice conversations really helps us with idea generation as a team and helps us support one another (and I say this as someone who struggles with auditory processing). And I appreciate that the pet photos and bad puns stay on Slack, where they aren’t cluttering up my inbox.

We have more tools and channels for communication at a distance than we have ever had before in human history. Apply the strengths of several to help keep yourself and everyone else on track.

Back Up Your Data – And Yourself

Automatic backups are ubiquitous these days. If you typically work with an office computer or tablet, chances are good that your company has some kind of automatic backup system in place, in addition to the ones embedded in programs like Google Drive and Microsoft Word.

At home, however, you may need to do your own backups. Keep all your work information backed up to an external drive, if possible. Use a thumb drive or an external hard drive for large projects.

In addition, it’s important to “back up” yourself. Should the worst occur and you find yourself infected with COVID-19, you may end up requiring hospitalization or at least extensive bed rest.

In this situation, you may need someone else to contact your boss, co-workers, or clients in order to let them know what has happened and how you are doing. Make sure someone trustworthy has a way to contact someone on your work team. For example, give your spouse your boss’s email address or phone number.

The goal of working remotely is to reduce your chances of contracting or passing on COVID-19. Ideally, you won’t need a backup person – but it’s best to have one just in case.

Clean Your Devices

Our laptops, tablets and cell phones are surprisingly dirty – more than your average pet toy or toilet seat. Washing your hands religiously doesn’t do much good if the first thing you touch is your germ-ridden keyboard.

I’m certain my keyboard was one of the dirty ones. I know exactly when my toilet seat was last cleaned with bleach (this morning). My laptop? I also know exactly when that was last cleaned: Never.

(Well, almost. I fixed that before I started writing this post.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of online guides to cleaning laptops and other devices. If yours has been to the office or commuted with you, clean it as soon as possible.

Walk Away At the End of the Day

Last but not least, when you’re done working at your newly-remote or newly-telecommuting position at the end of the day, leave work behind.

Leave work behind physically, by shutting down your laptop or tablet, depositing it in your workspace, and physically leaving that space (even if that just means shifting to the other end of the couch). Leave it behind mentally by focusing on other tasks, like making dinner or playing with the dog. If a work task continues to bug you mentally, write it down and put it on your work pile to deal with in the morning.

One of the great disadvantages of working from home is that it enables us to work all the time. Because we can work all the time, we start to think we should.

We should not. Working nonstop is unhealthy: physically, mentally and emotionally. If all you do is work, you can’t be fully present for your own needs, much less for those of your friends, family and neighbors – people who will need each other, and whom you will need, if things get worse.

Set a schedule that includes your quitting time for the day, and stick to it. You can tackle the next task tomorrow.

Working from home takes some adjustment, and it’s not ideal for everyone. By planning ahead and maintaining good communication, however, you can ease the transition and protect your own and others’ health at the same time.


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I Interviewed Three AIs for a Job and I’m Hiring All of Them

I do a lot of predictive-text creative pieces with Botnik, but it’s not the only AI-generated text option available – by a long shot.

For instance, check out Talk to Transformer, which generates text based on the massive GPT-2 dataset. Write With Transformer is also based on GPT-2, but acts more like predictive text: You ask it to autocomplete a phrase or sentence, and it generates suggestions.

I decided to compare Botnik, Talk to Transformer, and Write With Transformer head to head: I forced them all to interview for a made-up job as my personal assistant.

Botnik, of course, is at a disadvantage. No matter which keyboard I load, Botnik is interviewing on a much smaller dataset than the massive GPT-2. To give Botnik a fighting chance, I loaded the “Jeff Bezos quotes” keyboard. GPT-2 is still a larger dataset, but at least Botnik is now a billionaire.

Here’s how they did.

interviewtransformer

Me: Tell me about yourself.

Botnik: Datacenters would work on behalf of customers if we understood technology. Research is still worth emphasizing because it adds glue to our shareholders.

TTT: I have a game where I can make some really great single-player games for Linux with just Unity 3D. And to me, that’s most exciting. And the least exciting is checking other people’s games.

WWT: A: My name is David L. Miller. I’m a lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia . I started my law practice on August 2, 1987. My firm has been practicing law for 35 years, so that’s nearly 30 years of practicing law.

Me: Why do you want to be my personal assistant?

Botnik: For fulfillment. Innovation follows reality, and our failures are not hypothetical. Indeed, if you count our current results, we are incredibly amazed.

TTT: Because I can totally handle that! You’re gonna be Super Legal Department!

WWT: Oh, you’re really good at this stuff, aren’t you? I think I can teach you to do better. Can you help me with something? You know how to do that.

Me: Tell me about a time you failed.

Botnik: I would argue toward shorter decisions. Anytime you make something, hundreds of customers download hundreds of millions of questions to your business model. Decisions ultimately limited our approach.

TTT: It’s a tough one. I have to admit, I’m a bit of a character breaker. I wish I had a question.

WWT: You said you were never happy, and then you failed, and now you’re going to get it right. I know how much that means to you. But it’s also what makes you a failure.

Me: What would you do if you caught a co-worker stealing?

Botnik: Shouldn’t you eliminate the source of the problems? We never designed a business model to share.

TTT: Of course they would want to know.  Of course they would want to talk.  Of course, there would be talking.

WWT: You’d probably do the same thing as he did. If he was a thief, you’d ask him why he was stealing things and maybe even file a complaint.

Me: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Botnik: We expect to deliver substantial progress in customer service. We believe that focusing on insurmountable excellence implies impossible success.

TTT: Will they look even better? Will they be even stronger? Those are the questions most people wonder about right now in Washington, D.C.

WWT: I want to be a director for television and I’ve always liked movies. My dad said to me, “Do you think you can make an honest film like this with your money?” and I said, “Well, it’s just so fucking hard.”

Me: What’s one thing you can do better than anyone else in this job?

Botnik: Somewhere, they are growing families with a crisper display. That’s easy. Our job right now is to deliver functionality.

TTT: An alcoholic, who almost lost his freedom on the road.  In prison, spent twenty-three hours on his hands, 19 days in solitary confinement.

WWT: We have to be better in the way we talk to each other. This means talking to each other in a professional way and using the language that’s appropriate.

Me: What’s your biggest weakness?

Botnik: Satisfaction. They never claim that our fulfillment is more efficient. The first major goal for 1999 will be a bold decision to invest in smaller packaging.

TTT: Probably that I’m not a practical planner (which I am not). For some reason, I always make plans for a good day after work, but don’t follow through.

WWT: My biggest weakness is my tendency to think on my feet. As much as I try to avoid it, I have to admit it makes me uncomfortable. I just can’t do it every day.

Me: When can you start?

Botnik: Instantly. I can assure you that I’d even contemplate a significant bump in profit dollars through this channel.

TTT: Well, it’s October 16th, so I guess that’s a question for another blog post. Okay, who am I kidding? I never get a blog post finished on time.

WWT: What can I do to make sure my baby doesn’t feel alone? How can I be a good baby? Why do I get so upset when my baby cries? Most of these questions have a good answer, but the best ones are rarely given.


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