The Year of Less

This year, after listening to related advice on the Cortex podcast, I adopted a yearly theme for the first time. My life is amazingly good on many levels, and I’ve become even more keenly aware of my privilege and how it has helped me get to where I am. I’m also proud of the hard work I’ve put in over my career and the discipline I’ve maintained to allow for my current lifestyle. Even with this context, I’ve still found myself a bit edgy through these early years of sorta retirement. By edgy I mean I feel like I should be doing more, especially when it comes to business or project related work. “More coaching”, “more freelancing”, “more business building”, etc. This edginess usually leads to more stress. I shouldn’t be stressed.

So, I adopted a theme for the year: The Year of Less. Less what? I jotted down some ideas which I keep in front of me:

Pardon the grammar. “Year of Less/Fewer” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Less scattered thoughts and projects should lead to more focus and, ideally, more happiness and fulfillment.

My first step in January was letting my colleagues know that starting in the fall 2020 I would no longer commute to teach at the university in person. While I love the campus and the people there, I stopped enjoying the commute (70 minutes each way two days a week) a while back and had no plans to move closer. We coupled this change with a strategic plan to offer a fully online version of the Information Systems program so this should be a win-win. This all came down before the COVID-19 pandemic so in insight we look like geniuses for our pragmatic forward thinking.

Our next step was to sell our house in Beaverton, get rid of a bunch of stuff we no longer need, and put most of the rest in storage. We would head to Keuka Lake NY earlier than originally planned (March instead of May) because we necessarily called off our six week Europe vacation. We hauled a smaller trailer with possessions we want closer at hand while living here. Our life here is simpler and more routine. Lots of time spent outdoors, and I’ve taken on home improvement projects that I never dreamed I’d be able to accomplish. Normally not my thing, but it has started to become “my thing” and I’m better for it.

I have a broad spectrum of recreational activities that I enjoy. Hiking, fishing, sailing, golf, wargaming, video gaming, programming, and more. Some of these I care more about improving my skills than others. I like fishing but I’m not invested in becoming an expert fly fisher. Golf is different for me. For many years I’ve felt that I have the potential to be a good golfer, with good to me defined as having a single digit handicap (regularly shooting 4 to 9 over par for 18 holes). I’ve played enough golf in my life to know that improvement to this level doesn’t result from casual play, so I decided to lower my time commitment to other activities while focusing in on golf. I joined a local golf club and their men’s league. I’m playing in more tournaments and traveling with a group of old white dudes to local golf courses every Thursday. I’m reading and watching golf content to learn how to play better and structuring my practice accordingly. I’m seeing some glimmers of hope but the pieces are not yet falling into place. I’m fine with that because I’m having so much fun going through the process.

On the wargaming front I’ve been very focused on playing just two systems: Advanced Squad Leader and the Company Scale System. Doug and I are playing CSS twice per week and we have joined a small crack team responsible for maintaining errata for the system and, eventually, publishing living rules.

I won’t go into more details on the “less alcohol, less meat” side of things in this post. Maybe later in another post. I’m doing better at one than the other.

It is almost halfway through the year and I can say the theme is serving its purpose. It is a touchstone for me when I think about big things I might take on. It is a touchstone when I wake up and plan out my day. Less edgy, less stress!

Distance Feels Close

Julie and I made our drive to Keuka Lake from Oregon in five days. We didn’t push it too hard, but with a trailer in tow the pacing was a bit slower than usual. We are hunkered down in Afterours, aka the grey cottage (shown above), with about 1000 sq ft of coziness.

Two summers ago we had three Mitsubishi electric heat/cool heat pump wall units with a multi-zone outdoor unit. At the time we did it to create a refuge from the heat and humidity in the summer; little did we know it would be the magic that would allow us to move in about 2 months earlier than usual for us.

We did a big grocery stop at Wegmans on our way in from Ohio and are well positioned for about two weeks of easy living. Three or four weeks if we wanted to stretch things into our emergency food supply. Things are very quiet here but we have each other, we have fast reliable internet service, and we have games.

We are being much more intentional about staying engaged with our extended family, especially those that are sequestered in assisted living. Last night Julie and I had a New York / Georgia / Washington state Mexican dinner with Matthew, Jacob, and Kaitlin via Zoom. Tonight we will regroup on Zoom to play some Jackbox games.

It isn’t always easy to coordinate live video chat, so we’ve been deeply engaged with the Marco Polo app. It allows you to setup a group of friends and family to do asynchronous video chatting. We have an extended group of my Florida family and my nuclear family and folks are often checking in multiple times each day.

Given that we will be here until October, with approximately 7 month stays happening each year, we hauled out a bigger piece of our game collection with us this time. This is a subset of what we have here, and not shown is Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 which Julie and I have been playing every day. We are no more than three games away from finishing the season, but we’ve lost the last three games. Next game will be second half of November. Part of me wants to lose so that we can finally open and play with the “only open if you lose four consecutive games” box.

We have a cozy upstairs bedroom that is unoccupied so has become my wargaming den. Here you can see Tinian: the Forgotten Battle setup. I’ll be learning this one today with a solo play of the intro scenario.

I have to close this post by pointing out how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to be in a place like this, to be able to work and generate income as we need it, all while maintaining extreme social distance. We are in the midst of a global crisis, and I predict we will start to resume some sort of “new normal” no earlier than mid May. We recognize and appreciate the extreme privilege we have to ride out this mess in this fashion.

Moving out, ’cause we gotta

Tonight we started our long drive East to our pseudo-home in NY. We were originally scheduled to fly to Milan on Monday, but obviously that all changed. So instead of a 6.5 week trip to Europe we will push up our move to NY for the “summer”.

We were mostly fortunate to get our home in Oregon listed for sale in January which led to a closing in early March. Had we waited it might have been a long time until we would have had offers.

And I say mostly fortunate as we were left with no choice but to get away by this coming Monday as our occupancy ends then. Rather than rent and stay in Oregon we opted to load up our “to the lake” possessions in our car and trailer and start our drive east. We should arrive at Keuka Lake late Thursday.

I’ll write about any oddities I see along the way; any Stephen King’s The Stand moments. Our first hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, seems to be doing all the right things here in Hood River.

AAR: ASL Corregidor: the Rock Scenarios 4 and 10

My ASL friend Doug and I set aside two days at a recent gaming retreat to play the linked scenario campaign in Corregidor: the Rock. This is a highly rated and newish historical ASL (HASL) module focusing primarily on the return of the Americans to the Philippines in 1945. This would be Doug’s first play of a Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) scenario so he decided to play the Japanese side to better understand their nationality specific rules.

There are two campaign options to consider. The first and primary option is a traditional ASL campaign that starts from an initial state and involves several days of game play (in the ASL universe) with reorganization phases between days that allow for different roster purchases by the two players. The second and more flexible (shorter) option is a series of linked scenarios that each stand alone but still walk through the narrative of the 1945 campaign. Given we had only two days to work with we opted for the linked scenarios.

CtR–4 Return to the Rock

Setup before Paradrops

Our first scenario was CtR–4 Return to the Rock, in which the Americans try to conduct airborne landings on Corregidor in advance of the amphibious invasion scheduled to commence two hours later. As the Americans I got to conduct my first ever air drops in an ASL game. How fun! I couldn’t wait to land my 18 squads of elite US Army troops on the rock. Little did I know how much of a bloodbath this would be.

I had to arrange my 18 squads, scheduled to arrive in 3 batches of 6 over the first three turns, into 6 different paradrop wings comprised of 3 squads each. Predesignating these drop points turned out to be a big challenge and, ultimately, an unmitigated disaster for the Americans. The problem is this: with the heavy winds present, the error bands on these drops become both extremely large and unpredictable. Knowledge of the wind direction doesn’t even help much here, as the errors just get magnified even more without regard for wind direction. About the only somewhat predictable event in the drop was where the support weapons would drop as they generally drifted with the wind.

So why are these errors a big deal? First, drops can easily drift off the playing area in this smallish map. Those troops are eliminated immediately. I think I lost about 1/5 to 1/6 of my squads this way. Second, they very easily drift near the buildings and light jungle present. Because of the high winds present, when you land on or near these obstacles the unit takes a 2MC for the landing hex plus any adjacent hex. It wasn’t unusual for a leader or squad to be taking 3 or 4 2MC when landing. With a base morale of 7 (both the unit and the masked drop marker), this meant likely multiple break events and therefore step reductions. Oh, and I rolled a few 12s along the way.

This would be bad enough if there weren’t Japanese shooting at you. But they were of course, so units that weren’t impaling themselves on jungle bamboo were getting shot up by the Japanese. By the end of turn 3, all six of my leaders were eliminated and I believe I had only 4 or 5 squad equivalents left. Several of them were broken and with no leaders around to rally them, I was looking at a very slow return to fighting order. Resignation ensued.

A Bounding Fire Productions representative has done an excellent job on GameSquad providing errata and answering questions on this campaign. He also mentioned that casualty rates of 70% for the American airdrops were not unusual during this campaign, so my numbers are not too far off that. What I don’t understand is how the Americans are supposed to assemble a fighting force to oust roughly 10 Japanese squad equivalents. I’d consider playing it again to see if I can manage the airdrops more effectively, but Doug and I agreed that this may be a 1 in 10 or even 1 in 20 chance for the Americans to win.

CtR–10 Par for the Course

Doug tryin’ to get up that hill

The next scenario was a more traditional defensive position setup (American) vs. an attacker (Japanese) coming on the board. I did a rough count of attacker vs. defensive squad and firepower counts to anticipate balance and challenges for each side. Let’s have a look:

  • Americans with 18.5 squad equivalents to 29 for the Japanese
  • Americans with 129 firepower in its squads to 116 for the Japanese

Hmmm. I’m used to 2x or 3x for the attacker, but maybe this will be different because of the Japanese “striping” (aka step reduction rather than breaking). I think not though: the Americans get a hidden big mortar and Howitzer, plus plenty of boresighting.

The terrain doesn’t make it easy for the Japanese. They come up in a depression and have a decent amount of open ground to cross (some of it is the base golf course). I think Doug did a fine job managing his forces, but perhaps he wasn’t aggressive enough. When he did get aggressive, I was able to put some real hurt on him and was able to deflect his last big push up the hill with a good mix of spray fire, residual fire, and point black fire from those deadly American 7–4–7s. Similar to the first scenario we played, the attacker resigned after about 4 turns.

I’m not going to give up on this set but I do wonder if those linked scenarios are setup to give automatic wins to the defender for the firs two gos. Either way I’m not thrilled about it (intentional or unintentional balance), so if we play this again I’ll seek out another scenario or try out the full campaign.

My Productivity Suite Switcheroo

Late last summer I started to rethink my entire till chain for productivity. At the heart of my system resided Omnifocus, a productivity app centered on GTD that I’ve been using since the original beta. I love Omnifocus and still think it is the standard by which all todo apps should be measured.

I think I wanted a change because my environment was feeling sterile and detached. I had so many checklists and routines encoded in the app that I started to wonder if it was hindering my ability to explore or innovate. It can be tempting to wake up each day and check things off your lists and feel productive.

Around September I started bullet journaling, using my every handy Field Notes notebooks. I still relied on Omnifocus for administrative reminders, but began doing all of my planning and creative work in the handwritten journal. Not surprisingly this felt more visceral. I didn’t miss the digital reminders.

As items would pop up in Omnifocus (usually monthly, quarterly recurring tasks but sometimes just deferred tasks) I would challenge myself: is this reminder necessary? Could I automate it somehow to take the action away? Could I trust myself to remind me to do something when inspiration strikes?

Example: Julie and I have a lot of credit cards and one of the burdensome tasks was to pay them monthly and reconcile in YNAB. I took a few hours to first synchronize payment due dates for every card to the 15th of the month, then moved to auto-pay the full balance. At first this felt risky, but the beauty of using YNAB is that I’m assured of always having the cash on hand to pay the cards. I’ve never looked back and this took about 30 monthly tasks out of my list.

So from September to December I gradually weaned myself from Omnifocus and pivoted fully into the bullet journal. Then two devastating events happened: a larger bound notebook I was using for a consulting engagement was stolen, and my current Field Notes notebook went through the wash and turned into a ball of pulp. Recreating my action list wasn’t too hard, but the lost notes (about 60 pages) was at first terrifying. Turns out that the process of writing itself was usually adequate to trigger my memory and I landed on my feet mostly injury free. But it still hurt.

This prompted me to ask again: is this a system I can trust? Could there be another way?

Throughout the fall I’d also been exploring replacement options for my reference archive tool of choice: Bear. Bear has been good to me but hasn’t been without issues. The way it deals with Markdown in the text editing mode has always been a problem for me – a mixture of formatting without hiding the Markdown itself. And editing of hyperlinks is handled very poorly.

I should also mention: I’m not sure I want to stay in the iOS ecosystem forever so finding cross-platform options has become more appealing. Omnifocus and Bear are MacOS, iPadOS, and iOS only.

Jacob visited us in early October and showed me his latest tool fascination: Notion. I was mildly interested as it checked a few boxes for me:

  • Cross platform (essentially web based with thin shim apps)
  • Markdown support
  • Support for embedded tables
  • It is a paid app, which doesn’t ensure longevity but helps

Still, at the time I dismissed it because of concerns around lack of Bear import directly. It also felt a bit proprietary to me and I was worried (and still am) about my ability to get my information out of the tool if (really, when) I decide to leave.

November and early December had me continuing to look at reference archive apps while I blissfully continued bullet journaling. Then the disaster happened in early December and I knew I needed a cloud based solution. This is when I asked the question: could Notion serve as both my action and project list app and my reference archive? Time to find out.

I dove into the app but kept things simple. Rather than start manually importing all my Bear notes, I focused on task lists and starting to take new notes in the app, with a focus on my consulting. I stumbled through getting Notion structured in a way that would work for me, but it still wasn’t clicking for me. It was time to head to YouTube to see what others are doing.

This is when I found Marie Poulin’s amazing series on using Notion, with a focus on implementing the PARA method from Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course. When I encountered that method I new nothing about it, but saw enough to be very curious. Could this be a method for combing my entire system into a single tool? Tiago originally designed PARA to work in Evernote, a tool I left about two years ago. They began charging more and more money for a tool with more bloat and lower performance. Lucky for me there is an emerging community of folks implementing PARA in Notion so it is easy to find the support I need.

I’m still figuring out all out. And I should say that Notion is far from perfect. They desperately need:

  • An API
  • Improved encryption and security. I’d love to see end-to-end encryption
  • Better support for sharing on iOS as a destination. It is baffling that I cannot share text from the Drafts app into Notion; the belief currently is that sharing sources must send a URL along with shared content for Notion to take it. This is a major problem that hopefully will be addressed soon.
  • Most of all, they need offline support in their apps. The apps are mostly useless when not connected to the internet.

I’m dealing with the offline issues by relying heavily on the Drafts app for quick capture on mobile and desktop, including Siri reminders. This has made Drafts a sort of holding pen for potential actions and projects, in reality just an inbox in the GTD parlance.

One thing I love love love about Notion is the ability to include images and card-based views. This brings me joy as I scan my project lists, areas of responsibility, etc. The screenshot above is my reference dashboard. Isn’t that pretty?

I’m certainly placing a bet on Notion’s roadmap as the feature gaps I mention above will be showstoppers for me eventually. 2020 has started with some nice baby steps so I’m hopeful.