Christmas Letter 2015

This is the letter that went out with our Christmas cards this year (usually just to family), but it’s been such a year that I thought I’d share it here as well.


2015 christmas cardApologies for this Holiday card arriving late this year – December got away from us, and truth be told, looking back, the whole year was a bit of a jumble!

You’ll notice this year there are no bunnies on the card, that’s because this year we lost our two furkids Gus and Betsy. Gus left us in January after a bout of illness and Betsy did not wake up from the anesthesia after a routine procedure in August. They had been with us for over 10 years and despite the often-costly path of destruction they left on both our belongings and bank account (chewed-through power cords? Check. Hole dug in the carpet? Check. Penchant for expensive organic salad mix? Check. Disappearing into some random spot in the house causing a panic. Check.), we miss them to bits. It’s highly unlikely we will be bunny-less forever, so 2016 may see 2 more bunnies fall into the lap of bunny-luxury at 18 Erskine, stay tuned!

Early 2015 we escaped some of the epically cold NJ winter weather by heading back to Australia in February to celebrate our niece Penelope’s first birthday.  As only Amanda’s sister Kate could pull-off, it was a jungle-themed party complete with handmade animal tails, masks, a treasure hunt, tee-pee and balloons!  It was an exhausting but super-fun day and Penny had a ball. Turns out February is a great time to visit Adelaide as the Fringe festival is on – we caught a few shows and even took the kids through a maze in Victoria Square (OK so the kids were terrified, but the adults had fun!). There were some lovely dinners out with family, strawberry picking at Beerenberg with the kids and trips to the beach. The end result of the trip was that Dexter, now 4 years old, is completely enamored with Uncle ‘Keef’ (much to Auntie’s dismay – she wanted to be the favorite!). Though Auntie was the one who bought all the toys, it was Uncle Keef who would sit for hours tirelessly playing trucks in the sandpit or sit and fixing Dexter’s LEGO toys.

After returning to New Jersey and seeing out the long, cold Winter we embraced Springtime as quickly as we could, with Amanda pretty much camping out at the garden store buying plants. Like carful’s of plants. Pretty much every weekend. By June all the employees at the store knew her by name.  Her war cry became “but there is a sale!” On sale or otherwise, while lots of lovely plants sound like a great thing, Keith often was left to dig the holes needed to put said-plants in the ground, which was a massive undertaking, and as Amanda would time it, was often done in oppressive humidity.  We added some larger plants (skip laurel’s, crepe myrtles, and magnolias) as well as smaller perennials that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and dragonflies. The resulting display this Summer was fantastic and we have 2 hummingbirds that now visit the front garden, and butterflies throughout the Summer.

During late Spring and early Summer we decided to execute Amanda’s Dad’s suggestion that we finish the garage with insulation and drywall/gyprock. This was the biggest project we had ever undertaken and it nearly got the better of us. Six months’ post-project we can look back and be proud of the end-result but it was a tough, tough frustration-inducing slog (and for a long time we wouldn’t even talk about it). Amanda will never forget Keith in the garage at 8pm one Sunday night after working 5 days nonstop, the plasterwork had been sanded and despite extensive use of the broom there was such fine plaster dust everywhere that we needed to get out so we could start to prep for paint. “Why don’t we just use the leaf blower?” Amanda suggested. What a nightmare! Within minutes of firing up the leaf blower the dust curled out from the garage looking like a plume of smoke and debris you would typically see from a building demolition or disaster movie. You couldn’t even see Keith in the garage it was just dust. Everywhere. All over the driveway, the cars, the plants in the front garden!

Late this Summer we were fortunate to have David and Ana (Amanda’s Uncle and Auntie) over for a visit, we spent a lovely day looking at the sculptures at the Grounds for Sculpture here in NJ, we also had some lovely dinners in NYC and even toured Princeton University which was really interesting and not something we would have thought do even do.

Obviously forgetting the fatigue and frustration of the garage project, we decided to build a shed in the backyard (we call it our tiny house). This project took up most of the autumn and quickly became another “this is a lot harder than we thought” experience. We ended up having to hire help with raising one of the walls – at over 9 feet (3 meters) tall and VERY top-heavy we just couldn’t lift it up ourselves. But with help from paid random strangers Amanda found online (that’s a whole other story…) at 9pm we did get the wall up, and now we have a lovely shed that matches the style of the house – and can also act as an emergency shelter if needed.

Amanda has this great habit of injuring herself at the beginning of any large project and rendering herself less than 50% operational usefulness.  So let’s be honest, Keith pretty much built the shed… To Amanda’s specifications of course.

With the shed watertight with a roof, and a promise to each other to take a break from projects around the house, the end of 2015 wrapped up with a lovely Thanksgiving spent with Keith’s Mum and then in early December a 5-night stay on the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos (Turks and Caicos is a 3.5 hour flight from Newark New Jersey). While we usually like to get our and explore on our Holidays, this trip we did absolutely nothing but read, swim in the ocean and relax. It was wonderful.

It’s been a bumper year and activity on the house is slowly winding down – Keith’s excited at the thought of less projects in 2016 but Amanda’s parents are visiting and there is that patio paving that needs to be done … so stay tuned!

Happy Holidays! We send you and your family our best wishes for the Holiday break and wish you a wonderful, prosperous and fulfilling 2016.

The Struggle

Every day is a struggle… a different kind of struggle, sure, and varying wildly in intensity, true, but a struggle nonetheless.

Struggles against fear & frustration, loss and abandonment, or even just struggling with getting out of bed or running out of coffee.

Yet it is these struggles that define us. Like the lines that define a picture – without struggles we are just empty space.

Without these struggles, we are just consumption machines; mindlessly turning food into waste heat.

We all struggle – each and every one of us. We face our own struggles, every day, but we face them together.

So take heart, my friends, and struggle on…

Just People

It’s all too easy in this day and age to give in to a subtle (or not-so-subtle) fear of “foreigners” but it is important to remember that these are still just people like you and me.

Every time someone talks about fear of foreigners I just want to shake them & say “These are PEOPLE! They eat & sleep just like you; they have hopes and aspirations just like you, they love and they dream just like you, and putting aside different clothes and traditions they are STILL JUST PEOPLE who are not scary and should not be treated with any less decency than you would want to be treated with yourself.”

It is all to easy to group people you don’t know and apply simple stereotypes and pretend you know them – and always but especially in this day and age this is a terribly dangerous way to think; all the more so because it is so easy to do without even realizing you’re doing it. If you ever catch yourself using the phrase “those people,” you’ve probably just fallen into this trap.

But someone isn’t “those people” any more than you are “these people.” The lines we draw are arbitrary, regardless of what they’re based on. At the end of the day, we are all just people – different people to be sure, there’s all kinds of people – but still people all the same.

So the next time you see someone different from yourself, before you slap a stereotype and your preconceptions on them and convince yourself that you know that they are like and what they think, stop for a moment and remember: though they may look different or behave different, they are JUST PEOPLE and they are almost certainly more like you than you’d think.

It’s dark in here

It’s dark in here… did you hear that? I know there’s something here. I can see it, can’t you?

It’s dark in here
But only for the camera
I can see what’s in here, oh yes
The shifting, grotesque figures in the air;
The eyes, the eyes, over in the corner
LOOKING
RIGHT
AT
ME-

Turn the lights on and they’re gone
It’s not the same now
But they’ll be back, oh yes
As sure as sunrise
As sure as night falls
Heavy, like that thud – didn’t you hear it?
I’m sure it came from over there.

It’s light in here
FOR NOW
But the dark’ll be back
And I’ll see what’s in here, oh yes
I’ll see.

Windows 10: FINALLY

Finally!
Finally!

I’d been playing around with the Windows 10 Preview on my virtual machine and I liked what I was seeing, so as soon as the “reserve your copy of Windows 10” thing popped up on my computer I filled in my name so I would be able to upgrade when it was ready. Despite this fact, it’s been over a month now and my main computer still hasn’t been notified that the upgrade is ready (even though everything is downloaded and seems ready to go).

My laptop was in the same position, but I got tired of waiting – so I tweaked a single registry setting to force my laptop to upgrade immediately. The upgrade started without a hitch and about a half-hour later, it was done. Other than re-arranging some icons on the Start menu and doing some slight preference tweaking, it was ready to use as soon as it was done and there have been no problems with it so far – everything that worked before still works just the same after.

So, now that I’ve finally got Windows 10 running on real hardware, what do I think of it?

Honestly, I think it’s pretty good, though there’s nothing to get particularly excited about. There are no earth-shattering changes or improvements to performance, just lots of small improvements and little tweaks all around. Essentially it’s just “Windows 8, but a little bit different.”

That said, there are a fair number of small things that have been improved and when you add them all up, it does come out to a pretty nice version of Windows – and definitely one I’d recommend over Windows 8 or 8.1. With that in mind, let’s go over some of the most noticeable changes and improvements!

(Oh, and a quick disclaimer: this is all from the perspective of a desktop user; if you’re running Windows on a tablet then I can’t really say how the tablet-specific stuff will have changed for you. Sorry!)

Start Menu is OK

Yeah, yeah, it’s nice to have the Start menu back, but honestly did we really need it back? I’m not so sure.

The Start menu is back... but will anyone really care?
The Start menu is back… but will anyone really care?

I know I’m going to get reamed for saying this, but I thought the Windows 8.1 Start screen was just fine. Yeah, it took up the whole screen but it was simple and elegant – all your icons in a nice, even grid. Power and logout options at the top and all your other apps easily searchable or you can click the little arrow at the bottom. You could give the Start screen a separate background, or let it be transparent to your desktop (which is what I always preferred).

Windows 10 sort-of brings back the old Start menu… kind of. It still has icons as tiles (and for some reason all tiles now all have the same background color, instead of being based on the icon color as they were in 8.1), but there’s sort of a side-section that kinda/sorta functions like the old classic Start menu. But I don’t really see the point – the icons here are smaller, making them harder to click with the mouse, and most people only use a few programs regularly so why have the full list taking up space when you don’t need it?

Still, I don’t hate the “what’s old is new again” start menu, and it does have some nice touches. I like being able to customize what folder shortcuts are on it, and it’s nice to be able to arrange the tiles for program icons.

Oh, but one thing I do not care for is that the Start menu and start screen now scroll vertically instead of horizontally. With most monitors and screens being wider than they are tall, why would you do this?? The horizontal scrolling of the Start screen in Windows 8 and 8.1 was one thing that actually made a lot of sense. Changing it back to vertical scrolling does not make sense, and sadly there is no way to change it back through options. Not the biggest deal in the world, but still, I really wonder why they made this particular change.

Cortana is “Meh”

windows 10 cortana
Still not quite HAL 9000

Windows 10 is meant to be used on tablets and it seems like having a “digital assistant” thingy is a mandatory requirement these days, but on a desktop the new Cortana thing is just… meh.

Maybe if you use the built-in Windows calendar and mail and whatnot it’d be more useful, since it can look up and search your appointments and so forth, but if you don’t use those built-in apps, it’s basically just a glorified Bing search with speech recognition.

Also, I don’t like how much space the Search box takes up on the taskbar – it’s huge! Fortunately you can shrink it to an icon (or remove it entirely).

Multiple Desktops are Neat

It’s been possible to do multiple “virtual” desktops for years – I remember using them back in Windows 2000 – but it’s nice to finally see them available and supported natively in Windows. However, I do really think that most people will never use this feature. Instead, it’ll be used mainly by the more techy types. Still, it’s nice to have and I’m glad they (finally!) added it.

Double the desktop, double the fun!
Double the desktop, double the fun!

Perhaps once I’ve had a chance to use this feature on my main desktop while actually working (rather than just casually on my laptop) I’ll have more to say about it, but for now, it’s just a “nice to have.”

Notifications At Long Last

It is good to see Windows finally get a unified notification system but holy cow has this been a long time coming! Now we just need to wait for more applications to take advantage of it, instead of using pop-up boxes/balloon tips/etc. for their notifications.

If a notification center has no notifications, does it make a sound?

I also like the new “action center” bar, which I tend to think of as an extension of notifications (since that’s where they show up after). It’s a very nice touch and a long-overdue addition to Windows (especially for those using it on mobile devices – tablets, laptops, etc.).

More Consistent Control Panel

The Control Panel was long overdue for an overhaul, being an inconsistent mish-mash of Windows 7-style and Windows 8-style. Fortunately, Windows 10 goes a long way towards dragging it into the future. The main screen of the Control Panel is simple & clean, and most sub-screens are also done up in the same Windows 10 “flat” style, with lots of slider-type switches (instead of checkboxes) for options.

windows 10 control panel

Resizable Windows

Not being able to resize certain Windows 8-style windows used to drive me absolutely bonkers. It was a very jarring break from the standard Windows UI experience, so I’m very glad they fixed this and allowed all windows (including the “it’s-Windows-style-not-Metro-style” ones) to be resized (like they should’ve been from the beginning).

Flat UI is Getting Better

I’m still not a fan of the overall “flat/tile” visual style that started in Windows 8, but at least it is improving. Someone over at Microsoft finally realized that when you make everything flat & monochromatic you need to add other visual cues to help people know what can be clicked on. Too many things in Windows 8 and 8.1 were just completely undiscoverable unless you actually tried clicking on them. In Windows 10 at least things have outlines and hover effects to clue you in to the fact that they can be interacted with.

NO MORE STUPID CHARMS BAR

I’m not going to lie; I hated the charms bar – with a passion. It was perhaps the stupidest idea in all of Windows 8/8.1 and I am glad it is gone. If the charms bar had a grave, I would be dancing on it right now. (And, I would assume it’s buried right next to everyone’s other favorite bad idea, “Clippy” the Office Assistant.)

In Summary

All of these little improvements add up to a very nice experience in Windows 10. Sure, it’s nothing that’s going to blow your mind, but it’s worth upgrading for. Some people have had trouble upgrading, but this can usually be attributed to driver issues and not Windows itself. (As usual, many manufacturers take their time updating drivers and correcting problems – but this is true with almost every new Windows version.) My upgrade on laptop was quick & easy, and eventually I assume it’ll be just as easy on my desktop as well… eventually. (I’m still going to try and hold out until it tells me that the upgrade is ready – I’d like to try it without having to hack the registry to force it to happen!)

Windows 10 - like Windows 8, but more so?
Windows 10 – like Windows 8, but more so?

Overall, Windows 10 is a solid upgrade and if you were holding out because you didn’t like Windows 8 or 8.1, I’d say give it a go. And if you have Windows 8.1, upgrading is a no-brainer – at the worst, you probably won’t even notice much of a change, and at the best you’ll appreciate some of the little changes & improvements that have been made.