John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Standing desk update

December 22nd, 2011

So it has been about two months since I got my standing desk built and installed, and I have to say… this is one of the best work-related decisions I’ve ever made.

I won’t lie – there was quite a bit of pain in the transition. My leg muscles were not used to any kind of exertion, and suddenly they were in use for 10 or 12 hours a day. There was a good week of outright burning, and stiffness for another week after that. After the pain comes gain, and I am definitely feeling some muscle growth in the legs. Heck, they’re probably the firmest muscles on my body now!

This muscle growth is translating to a practical advantage too – I can now walk up hill all the way down town without feeling the slightest sting or shortness of breath (yeah, I guess I was pretty out of shape, but in my defense I’ve never really lived next to a hill! Florida really is that flat.)

I think I’ve even lost a little bit of body fat. Standing burns about 40 more calories per hour than sitting, so I’ve watched my gut flatten out without actually going out of my way to change my diet or exercise. Of course, my diet was already pretty good and I really do need to get to that exercise, but this is some great multitasking on that front. Now, instead of just playing video games, I’m playing video games while burning a bit of extra calories and building a bit of muscle.

Then again, you don’t just have to stand still, either! Sometimes a great song will come on and I can’t help but dance a little bit in my own awkward, uncoordinated way.

My feet weren’t so happy at first, either, but I’ve learned to stand a bit more on the wider ball of my foot instead of the heel. A comfortable pair of shoes goes a long way, too.

I’ve got a tall stool for those all-nighters (like tonight!) but it seems a little bit too short to be an ideal seat. If you and your desk are a little shorter than six feet tall, the 29″ stool would probably be a perfect fit. I might need another one but the few I’ve seen in the 33″-36″ range are incredibly expensive.

So, other than being very easy to find, what were the advantages of a traditional sitting desk again? I really can’t remember… but I do cringe a bit when I remember the lower back pain I was starting to feel the first hints of after 29 sedentary years of school and jobs that required sitting at an old-fashioned desk.

ECU lockdown updates – “gunman spotted!”

November 17th, 2011

6:49 pm

By now, the panic and frenzy of yesterday’s campus lockdown at ECU has turned to laughter and jokes about the wild over-reaction to what turned out to be an umbrella.

Here the student can be seen crossing an intersection where the ECU campus and downtown Greenville meet:

The traffic cam picture that sparked a campus wide lockdown

And another picture from that intersection, displaying exactly what the focus of attention was:

Student with umbrella spotted near down town Greenville - sparks panic

In addition, Youtube has the actual video footage these pictures were taken from:

And finally, here’s a picture of the police surrounding a bus in downtown Greenville, near the ECU campus. Some witnesses in the area and internet rumors had suggested a gunman had taken hostages aboard public transport. These leads, as well as those pointing to hostage situations inside campus buildings, turned out to be nothing but fabrications crafted of fear.

Greenville police surround a bus after internet rumors that a gunman had taken hostages on public transport

If there had actually been a threat, there wouldn’t have been much of a chance to escape. Within minutes, police from three jurisdictions had swarmed the area and locked down all movement. Luckily, there was no actual threat this time.

***Apologies to any news outlets who feel their images are being used inappropriately. This website has no monetary purpose or marketing plan. It exists as a digital scrap book I can access from anywhere, and these events are the mile markers by which we remember our lives. If you still have a problem, deal with it.

Police lock down ECU campus – over an umbrella

November 16th, 2011

3:35 PM

A tense morning turns to disbelief and groans as officials announced the individual who sparked the lockdown was carrying an umbrella.

Around 10:15 AM on November 16, 2011, police received a call about a man carrying what appeared to be a gun at an intersection between downtown Greenville and the main campus of East Carolina University.

After inspecting local traffic cameras, the police ordered an immediate lockdown of campus, sending students hiding for cover and locking up classrooms. A tense three hours followed with very little official update.

However, speculation on the web ran rampant. The rumors of a gunman on campus turned in to rumors of four gunmen on campus. Someone reported that he was seen getting on a bus and several officers swarmed all of the buses in downtown. As three police helicopters swarmed overhead, the lockdown was expanded to nearby elementary schools and rumors escalated to talk of a hostage situation.

Meanwhile, pictures and reports from students locked up on campus started to leak out as well. At one point this picture was posted to Twitter and people were claiming that the suspect(s) had been caught.

Police officers stop and search ECU students during a lockdown

Around 12:30 PM, the police were apparently listening in on Twitter for information because they began to evacuate and search several buildings named in the online rumors of a hostage situation. After a half hour of playing whack-a-mole with Twitter leads, the search stood down, the lockdown was lifted, and students were sent on their way back home (or to their next class!)

The massive over-reaction to a non-event is emblematic of the mood in our society today. Paranoia runs strong despite the fact that we are relatively safe when compared to historical standards of even just a few decades ago. There isn’t actually more crime, yet we’re bombarded with the worst of the horror stories and thrown in to panic over an umbrella.

Will anyone flinch by the time there actually is a wolf?

Had a great morning, stuck in a classroom for several hours with nothing to do while the campus police, the city police, and the state troopers with assault rifles, helicopters, dogs, shut down the city with swat teams surrounding a house, a small business, and several buses, all searching for a white male with a bookbag and an assault umbrella.

-Eyewitness Account

My Custom Standing Desk

November 10th, 2011

Sitting down all day was literally turning in to pain in my ass, so I decided my new desk at my new house would be designed for standing.

Unfortunately, you can’t really just go up to the furniture store and pick up a standing desk. There were a few decent desks that might have been convertable, but Aisling decided that the easiest way to create one would be to start from scratch.

I didn’t have a whole lot of demands other than getting the height of the keyboard and monitors right, so about $35 worth of wood, paint, and screws from Lowe’s was enough to get the project rolling.

Now instead of sitting around all day on the internet… I can stand around.

Practical Concerns

In general, it is probably healthier to stand than sit. You’re burning more calories throughout the day, and there’s less pressure on the spine and hip bones.

However, there’s a lot more pressure on the feet. So you’ll need some really comfy mats, or as I’m improvising now a lot of pillows and blankets. The downside to that, of course, is that my dog thinks I’ve made her a new bed next to my feet. Then again, the dog always seems to think that my feet are her bed.

For the first day, I felt a lot of strain in my leg muscles and pain in my feet. I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.

On the second and third days, things got even worse. I was pretty tempted to sit down with my laptop on the kitchen table and give up on the whole experiment.

But on the fourth day I was starting to feel pretty good about it again. Sitting down felt a little… weird… like my legs wanted something constructive to do with themselves.

After a couple weeks, I’m definitely glad to be standing. I’ve still got the laptop for whenever I’m feeling lazy or sick, but for the most part I’m writing and working from an upright position. It is like years of bad posture have started melting away!

A Day in the Life

September 19th, 2011

With so few schedules to keep, I often find myself wondering exactly what I do all day.

Today, I’m going to actually write it all down so I can remember what takes up the time – and how I can be more efficient with what needs to be done.

Monday Morning, 9/19/11

Morning might not be the exact right word because I didn’t roll out of bed until about half past noon.

The house smells like sausages but there’s no sign of Aisling. Her computer hasn’t gone to sleep yet so I must have just missed her. Damn.

First order of business is to start up the coffee. When the beans are ground and the water is poured, I flip the switch and head outside for a cigarette. I haven’t managed to quit, but so far I’ve done pretty good at cutting back on the nicotine so I just smoke half of the thing. (A few months ago I managed to switch from analog cigarettes to electronic ones, but at some point during the move I lost track of all the parts and chargers so I switched back.)

A few minutes later the coffee is done and I settle down to check my emails.

Ah, a letter from Aisling: it seems like she headed to campus early to make copies of our drivers’ licenses for GEICO, sort out some financial aid stuff, and get a head start on her welding for the day. Damn, I did just miss her, but she left me some (gluten-free) pancake batter in the fridge.

Accounting for sleep

Looks like I got another important email too: an affiliate sale notification from Hostgator. When all of the morning’s income is counted, it looks like I made about $60 while I was asleep from 6 am to 12:30 pm. Not a bad payscale for dreaming – especially since most people don’t get paid almost $10 an hour to snore.

Then from about 1 to 1:30, I went through my most popular websites to sort real comments from spam. Guess what? 100% spam this morning. Oh well, real comments are nice but ad clicks and affiliate sales are even better.

The Black Hole

1:30 to 2:30 pm kind of just disappears in to the black hole known as Reddit. This used to be my fix for the hard news of the day, but lately the site has been overrun by a new culture of lulz and irreverence. Looks like the markets are down again today and everyone still hates everyone else in politics. Nothing really changes, so maybe the switch to lulz and irreverence is more useful to me than hard news after all.

Work? I’ll give it a shot

At about 2:30 I’m starting to feel too lazy and unproductive to enjoy myself, so I clock in to my contract job and start checking out the to do list.

Looks like there are about 28 database entries that need a review before going live, and another 161 that I need to update myself. The work load definitely piled up over the last month as my typical 15 hour weeks turned in to about 3 – when I was lucky! It really was a crazy summer, after all. Taking inventory of the work to be done, it looks like the editing might get finished this week but the updates will take a good while to see completion.

“The Grind”

By about 4:30 I passed $100 for the day. Not bad when I’d only been awake for four hours. In that four hours, I also managed to clean a load of laundry, fry up those pancakes, fix an issue with my desktop computer, edit a few entries, make a few phone calls, and respond to a few emails.

Around 5 I get a text message from Aisling. She’s working on a last minute paper and she has ceramics until late but I’m glad to hear from her. It is also my favorite time of day: Now that people start to get off work I can start to think of other things, myself. It has been a tough four and a half hours today, after all!

An Evening Stroll

By six, I was feeling a little restless. I was also running out of cigarettes so I took a quick walk around the block and up to the neighborhood convenience store. Traffic in Greenville near ECU is almost non-existant compared to what I’m used to for this time of day. Things get a little congested to the south of us, but the college corner of town is pretty sleepy between early afternoon and until the sun goes down.

After stopping to chat a bit with the neighbor, I came back in to make a second pot of coffee and check out any web developments that might have happened in the short half hour I was walking. Surprise surprise, I made another big hosting sale in that time frame and my daily income had just passed $240. Definitely not bad for what amounts to four hours of actual work (and I absolutely count laundry and cooking as work!)

At this point, I haven’t gotten any texts or calls from the usual suspects, so I feed Caoimhe (our dog) and take her out for the second leg of the walk. I tried to run a little bit, but Caoimhe wouldn’t have anything to do with that.

Recovery and Conquests

Now for the fun part: by the time we came in from walking around 8, there’s a message from Josh about wanting to play a game of Civilization. We fire up Civ 4 – the Colonization version – and race to revolution.

Found a new nation and lead it to independence

And not long after, Aisling came home from class. We sat down to watch some Star Trek while I worked on dinner and took turns in our Civ game. On the menu: chuck eye steaks, lima (butter) beans, and some steak fries.

Around 1, we saved up the game and Aisling headed to bed. I came back to finish up this post and count my final earnings for the day. As of 1:30 am, I’m up to about $260. Very excellent considering there were only about four and a half hours of anything that could be considered “work” in the day. Now at about 2 am, I’m starting to think of some sleep myself.

Not bad at all for a boring Monday. These are the tough days, after all!

A chance to write… (summer 2011)

September 18th, 2011

In school, writing often seemed a dreaded chore.  Today, it is a sign that life has granted a moment of respite from the frenzy of work, change, and crisis.

And indeed, it is the summer months that provide no shortage of things to be done, new beginnings, and terrible calamity.

A Nervous Excitement

Shortly after the UNF iron pour, the summer started in a big way with a life-altering decision.  Aisling was accepted to a few graduate programs for sculpture, and after a bit of travel all along the east coast we decided on a school we could both appreciate.  She committed to attend East Carolina University for her MFA and I committed to living in a strange and tiny town.  Not only would it be her chance to take her life’s work to the highest academic level, it would be my excuse to finally get out of Jacksonville, FL.  Greenville North Carolina isn’t exactly the kind of place I imagined leaving for, but there was something peaceful and calming about this tiny college town.

For a while, the excitement of a new adventure was bliss, but as summer arrives so do the storms – and in this case, the storms were actually more literal than figurative.

In June, a powerful storm ripped through Jacksonville, and several downdraft tornadoes were reported in our neighborhood.  While the house was spared any damage, the yard was devastated.

A tree goes down in the back yard, taking parts of the fence and smaller trees with it.

At least no one was hurt, but it certainly began a hot and hectic summer. The next few weeks were crammed with chopping wood, calculus exams, summer camps, and packing. Unfortunately, the brief but intense storms didn’t do much to put out the fires that had swept across the region. A heavy black smoke sat over Jacksonville on the hot, drier days, and I was definitely ready to get away.

A few of the fires burning around the Jacksonville area in summer 2011

And a Vacation?

Perhaps unintentionally, I met this chaos with some more of my own. I thought a day trip to St Augustine would be better as a weekend escape, so I began planning it out. By that Saturday night in August, I had surprised Aisling with a claddagh ring and a proposal of marriage. She said yes! (And no, we don’t have a date for the wedding)

To Greenville

And no, not the Greenville you’ve heard of in South Carolina. This is the smaller one surrounded by even smaller towns.

We filled a U-haul truck with as much as we could take, and hit the road in the last half of August. The trip itself was exhausting but relatively uneventful. It was the first major move of my life since age 4, so there were definitely some strong emotions and worry attached, but I’m mostly glad to open a new chapter in this adventure of life.

Another interesting phenomenon was even there to welcome our arrival: we felt the shocks from a rare mid-Atlantic earthquake. Again, we were lucky that no one or no thing was hurt, but it was definitely a first for Aisling and I.

The next storm

One thing I feared I’d miss from Jacksonville was the storms – but North Carolina has not dissapointed in the least. Less than two weeks after pulling in to town, Hurricane Irene decided to pay us a visit.

The storm didn’t seem so bad on its own, but it managed to take down so many trees that we were left without power for about three and a half days. Luckily, the new house has a gas powered stove and water heater so we still had hot food and hot showers, but half a week without electricity is still quite the recipe for boredom and restlessness.

Back to Florida

You’d think the engagement, moving across three states, a hurricane, tornadoes, an earthquake, and fires would be enough excitement for the summer, but our work wasn’t done.

On September 3rd, 2011 my cousin Donald Lee got married in Tampa at the city aquarium. It was a beautiful ceremony and there was quite a view while waiting for and during the event:

Shark in the Tampa Aquarium

Unfortunately, we didn’t have long to hang out in Tampa before we had to drive back though Jacksonville to pick up the remainder of our stuff. With two more small trucks packed up with pieces of art, supplies, and the last of our furniture, we made the final uneventful trip back up to Greenville, NC.

By now the weather has started to turn colder and the crazy pace of the summer has slowed down just a bit: Aisling is back to classes and I seem to have found a few moments to write.

100 hours without a cigarette

April 1st, 2011

While I’m not ready to claim a victory over the greatest addiction in my life, I am sitting with a slightly cocky grin tonight as I’ve passed 100 hours without a proper cigarette. As its Friday night (err… Saturday morning?), that means I’ve even made it past a night of moderate drinking without falling to the temptations of tobacco.

A long history

And I’ve been smoking for a long time. Around 12 or 13, a friend’s sister offered me a dollar if I could snag a smoke from my mom and deliver it to her. Except, when I did provide the cigarette and collected my dollar, she didn’t actually want to smoke it so her brother and I split it.

It was pretty good.

I’ve always had a bit of anxiety lingering in my mind, and with Celiac Disease there was a constant unease in my stomach that tobacco seemed to calm better than anything else I’d tried.  So while we weren’t of the legal age to acquire more smokes, that didn’t stop us from slipping them in to pockets when no one was looking, or asking the homeless vets who hung out by the gas station to pop in and buy us a pack.

So school would let out, and we’d all congregate behind the convenient store and wait patiently for someone who was willing to indulge or nicotine fix.  The regular price for a pack of smokes included a quart for the buyer, so we got our cigs and they got some beer.

Everyone was happy.

Except that shit will kill you…

But that just isn’t something you worry about when you’re 13 years old and picking up a horrible addiction.  Youth makes us feel immortal, and it is only 10 or 15 years later that one really starts to feel the consequences of such a vice.  It wasn’t just the congestion, but a soreness and stiffness around the sinuses, throat, and mouth. It wasn’t just my own desire to be healthy, like the impulse that has led me to watch my diet and exercise regularly, but also the constant pressure from friends, family, and other loved ones who couldn’t stand to see me hurting myself for the sake of a quick and cheap buzz.

And the odds (for quitting) are stacked against

But even when I realized I wanted to quit, that wasn’t good enough.  I’ve tried several times before – both cold turkey and with nicotine patches.   A single day without cigarettes was pure torture, no matter how much exercise, food, or how many patches I tried to put in their place.  It seems like I wasn’t alone in that hopeless feeling, because the research suggests a slim 3% of people who attempt to go cold turkey manage to go an entire year without more cigarettes.  Even with nicotine replacement therapies, the success rate only tops out around 15%.

Enter the electronic cigarette

Sliding under the regulatory scene is the electronic cigarette.  These portable vaporizers atomize a nicotine solution in to a gaseous fog.  They’re shaped like cigarettes and activated by sucking on the end so everything about the process mimics smoking while strictly controlling what is actually inhaled – mostly pure nicotine minus most of the secondary compounds of burning plant matter.

Of course, the nicotine itself isn’t exactly good for you.  It can increase heart rate, and some nicotine derivatives of the chemical are found in the tumors of smokers who eventually succumb to cancer.

But not all of the health consequences of smoking are directly tied to the inhalation of nicotine itself.  There hasn’t been a whole lot of scientific research in to this particular phenomenon, but the little bit I could find was quite interesting:

The rats breathed in a chamber with nicotine at a concentration giving twice the plasma concentration found in heavy smokers. Nicotine was given for 20 h a day, five days a week during a two-year period. We could not find any increase in mortality, in atherosclerosis or frequency of tumors in these rats compared with controls. Particularly, there was no microscopic or macroscopic lung tumors nor any increase in pulmonary neuroendocrine cells. Throughout the study, however, the body weight of the nicotine exposed rats was reduced as compared with controls. In conclusion, our study does not indicate any harmful effect of nicotine when given in its pure form by inhalation.

Does that mean electronic cigarettes, or smokeless nicotine devices are harmless? Well, probably not, unless you’re directly comparing them to cigarettes which are known to be horrible for your health without any room left for debate. They’re just bad for ya, even if they make ya feel good!

So, for the last four days and some change, I’ve been puffing on a cheap disposable electronic cigarette. It definitely isn’t the same, and even though I’ve kept nicotine running through the blood there has been some brutal feelings of withdrawal. For the first day or two, every action and thought I had was followed up by the idea that “Oh, I should have a cigarette!”

Even right now, I keep thinking about how nice and warm it would feel in the lungs to light up a fresh smoke. Every time the e-cig needs to go down for charging, or after finishing a meal or a glass of rum, I have a hard time getting past that craving.

I’ve acted like a jerk, and thrown little tantrums at my girlfriend like I was some kind of child. She’s had a tough week of her own, and instead of being there to support her I’ve been like this needy & clingy bundle of shaking nerves.

But it is so worth it…

The first benefit of not smoking was the clearing up of sinus pressure. I’ve always had stuffy sinuses, but after just a day of not smoking I started to feel them clear up for the first time in a long time. At two days, I took a walk after it rained and was amazed at how fresh and vital the world smelled. From the wet dirt to the blooming spring flowers, I was amazed at the distinction and potency of these fragrances. Of course, the best smell of all is walking in to my own house without the stale smoke stench, or not tasting the alkaline film in my mouth all day.

Excited and looking forward

Primarily, the electronic cigarette has helped me break the quitting process down in to more manageable parts.  On the first few days, I broke from the secondary chemicals in the smoke, and the feeling of deeply inhaling a burning substance.  Even with the nicotine flowing, things weren’t the same.

After two or three days, that particular feeling started to pass.  It so happens that the cheap e-cig I bought also started to lose its ability to keep a charge, and it doesn’t refill very well.  So the third and fourth day have involved a gradual stepping down in that availability of nicotine, but I think I’m largely past the intense desires I first felt.

All in all, this is by far the longest I’ve gone without a smoke, and I think it is starting to get just a little easier with every additional hour that ticks by.  The withdrawal is bad, and I haven’t even faced the worst part yet, but the benefits of not inhaling a burnt plant are starting to become apparent and my desire to go back to the hacking and coughing have faded pretty fast.

I hope I won’t spend the next fifteen years puffing on an electronic cigarette, but for now, I feel like I’ve accomplished one of those goals that seemed so extreme as to be out of reach.  

Good luck to everyone else out there who is trying to quit – it might take a few tries and a lot of different methods to accomplish it, but it is really worth it when you can finally pull it off!

Back online with a new design

October 19th, 2010

Like this small plot of land that the city calls a road, there was nothing here at this site for the last few days. In my rush to upgrade to a dedicated IP address and a new website design, I might have overlooked a technical step that added a few extra hours of delay to the DNS propagation.

Once I figured out something was up, though, Dreamhost had the tools and documentation I needed to rebuild my domain records for the new IP address. So after almost three years of hosting with them, I still can’t actually comment about their customer service team because every time I get close to putting in a ticket the automated system helps figure out what is wrong and points me toward the solution.

In addition to getting back online with my own IP address, I’ve also now got a new design on the site courtesy of the Theme Foundary. Now I can’t take any credit for this one because it is working great out of the box, but the last one I was trying to update had just fallen too far behind in terms of old functions and CSS rules.

Rather than worrying about all that right now, this Titan WordPress theme is beautiful in the latest verions of Firefox and IE – and it looks pretty decent in Chrome, too.

Things have been pretty hectic lately, but I’m at least glad to have this site back up and looking sharp. There are a lot of things going on at the moment but I’ve still sit aside time to head to the Rally in D.C. at the end of the month, as well as Art Basel in Miami this December. Hopefully my camera and memory card serve me well, and I can bring back a whole bunch of interesting pictures (and video!)

That first battery charge is the worst

September 14th, 2010

So I finally joined the rest of America today – I finally got myself a digital camera. It is a Canon SD1400 IS and I have to say from what I’ve seen so far it is pretty slick:

The camera is pretty tiny but it is a powerhouse too.  Even at 14.1 megapixels, I should be able to fit about 2,000 pictures on my 8 GB memory card.  Even at 720p high definition video, I can still record more than an hour of 30 frames per second.

Theoretically of course, because as I hinted in the post title here I haven’t actually got a chance to use it yet.  Since a lot of rechargeable batteries depend on that first battery charge up to set the pace for their useful lifetime, I’m going to test my patience one more time with a little bit of charging overkill.

Now, I’m going to have to learn how to use this thing too, but it looks like for most of my purposes all I’ll need to do is point and click.  In fact, I chose this model because it seemed to be the best one for taking pictures indoors when you’ve got no clue what you’re doing.  Aisling assures me that if I’m serious about quality, all digital photos should go through PhotoShop before publication, but I’m hoping that this new gadget will be “good enough” in the automatic mode.

Anyway, I think it is time to stop rambling and get back to work.  That first charge though, it is a killer!  I can’t stop thinking about how much I’d rather be taking pictures.

Oh joy, no AC again

May 3rd, 2010

This air conditioning unit is starting to be a real pain…
So we’re all just standing around playing a fun game of Wii Bowling, but despite my winning score I couldn’t help but feel something was wrong.  The house kept getting hotter despite my half conscious adjustments to the thermostat.  Steve was sitting directly under the air vent, so when I verbalized my complaints he assured me that it was indeed working (for him at least.)  And unfortunately, when I went to check the vents in the other rooms there was virtually zero pressure coming out of them.

Step outside and sure enough – the copper pipe that runs the freon around inside the machine is frozen over and probably leaking whenever it finally melts.

At least its still May, instead of July or August… I guess…

Honestly, its time to get a completely new AC unit, but who wants to invest five thousand bucks into a house that’s already underwater?  Maybe its time to act like the billionaires and walk away from our debts…