Armored Phone: Part 1

My new Android phone arrived around suppertime on Saturday. Jaeger thinks it looks like its wearing armor so I decided to call it Devi in honor of Devi Morris from The Paradox Trilogy1. As expected, it’s quite thick so the first thing I tested was making sure it would fit comfortably in my jean pockets. It fit great so I went ahead and turned it on.

Android is not iOS. I know this is stating the obvious. However, Google and Apple have fundamentally different approaches to software. iOS believes in the one perfect right way. Android was designed for people who like options and don’t mind tinkering. I’ve used Android phones before, and use many Google products, so I didn’t expect any major challenges. I was mistaken.

Unihertz was remarkably restrained in the apps it preloaded onto the phone. I think it’s the most bare bones phone install I’ve seen. Overall, this is a good thing. However, it left me with some initial app gaps. I decided to prioritize finding apps by looking at what was on the first page on my old iPhone. Weather was the first app I looked for. The number of choices were bewildering and I took way too long finding something I liked.

By this point, night was fast approaching and I realized I needed to get my phone setup for the night. This meant two things: 1) Verifying that Smart Audiobook Player still existed in the Play store and still worked the way I expected and 2) setting up Do Not Disturb for the night. Fortunately, Smart Audiobook Player worked flawlessly. I downloaded the app, swapped the MicroSD card from my old Samsung phone into Devi2, and everything just worked. This was a huge relief.

My next step was to configure Do Not Disturb/Bedtime mode. This turned out to be substantially more complicated than I expected. Bedtime is controlled in the “Digital Wellbeing & parental controls” section which isn’t too hard to find with a bit of Googling. I quickly learned that iOS’ version is vastly superior. Among other things, Android doesn’t appear to let me have different sleep schedules based on the day of the week. I sighed, and set it for my regular weekday schedule. Then, I went to the Clock app to figure out what that meant for my Wake Up alarm. I definitely didn’t want to be woken up at 7:00 am on Sunday. Except, the Clock didn’t show any Wake Up alarms. That functionality didn’t seem to exist in the Clock app even though various web pages assured me it did. I eventually decided that I must be seeing an older version of Google’s Clock app but I couldn’t figure out how to update it. I searched in the Google Play store and found another version of Google Clock, downloaded it, and saw the bedtime option3. It appeared that I could set the wake up alarm to just M-F. It’s a little different than I was use to but I figured I’d get use to it.

Then, we discovered that Do Not Disturb wasn’t allowing audio notification for my Starred Contacts. In Android, rather than picking specific people, you add a Star to all contacts who should be allowed to message or call you while Do Not Disturb is one. This I dutiful did but the phone was still blocking audio notification when it was in Do Not Disturb mode for Jaeger’s messages. Fortunately, we learned that he could call me and the phone call would come through. I tried all sorts of settings but couldn’t get it to work so I finally gave up for the night.

Smart Audiobook Player worked beautifully through the night. The only slight hiccup was at one point I accidentally turned on the phone flashlight and I had to open up the phone and maunally turn it off.

Sunday I was suppose to pay bills and clean house. One of the first things I did Sunday was download the Dumpling app which I use to order groceries. To my relief, my preferred shopper and previously bought lists transferred fine. Then, I downloaded Libby so I’d have something to listen to while cleaning house. All of this went fine.

I started out by paying bills and it took longer than I expected because, among other things, I realized I had skipped sending Jaeger the August finance report so needed to do August and September at the same time. I also used the time to install all my authentication apps4. Sometime while I was paying bills Jaeger went to our local Pottery Planet to upgrade the pots for some of our household plants. He texted me a picture of a strawberry pot except on my side I received a “Message expired or not available”. Regular SMS was coming through fine but all pictures were being blocked for some reason. Interestingly, I could send both SMS and MMS and Jaeger was able to receive pictures from me.

My first thought was it had something to do with Verizon. You see, according to the internet, if I took this phone to a Verizon store and tried to activate it, it would fail. However, numerous reviews assured me that because I already had a SIM card from my iPhone, I could just transfer it to this phone and everything would work fine. Indeed, when I popped in my SIM card Saturday, everything had seemed to work fine. In fact, I didn’t even get the typical text warning from Verizon that my SIM had changed phones.

I spent more than an hour on the MMS problem, both poking around in my phone settings and searching the internet, and eventually learned that it was a widespread problem back in 2021 and the fix is to use a messaging app other than Google Messages. I was dubious but decided it was worth a shot. The first app I tried was Signal, as I felt fairly comfortable using it. However, for unknown reasons, I couldn’t get it to work as a regular text message app. I gave up fairly quickly and found another one, Textra, and tried again. I was successful in setting up Textra as my text app and was a bit surprised to confirm that it had no problem receiving MMS. I thought that maybe the Do Not Disturb problem had also been solved but, alas, no. Emergency contacts still couldn’t text me while I was in Do Not Disturb mode.

It was late afternoon by this point so I decided not to clean house after all and instead focused on getting the majority of my must-have apps installed and configured. I also took the time to figure out how I had accidentally triggered the flashlight in the middle of the night. It turns out the red button on the left is a shortcut key and its set to turn the flashlight on by a long press of the button. I liked the general idea but changed the flashlight to be two quick presses of the button instead on the assumption that would be less likely to do accidentally in the middle of the night.

The Atom L appears to be designed for a rugged outdoorsy type of person. Based on the reviews, I have some doubts of its ruggedness, but that’s still the aesthetic it’s going for. While this phone is surprisingly free of weird pre-loaded apps, it did come with a “Toolbox” folder that included various things such as: Noise test, Compass, UnderWaterCamera, Protractor, etc. It also included a Remote app that is designed to replace AV remotes. I amused myself by setting it up with our TV, Blu ray player, and receiver. Though, I have yet to find an app that I like as a replacement for the Apple TV remote on iOS.

.One of the last things I did Sunday was verify that the phone worked with my car so everything would be ready for driving the kids to school in the morning. This part was amazingly easy. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had to fiddle with my iPhones a bit to make them connect correctly to the car. Android Auto seamlessly set everything up and it just worked which made me very happy. That said, I prefer the Apple CarPlay interface to Android Auto. One of the things I really miss, which doesn’t seem to be available, was the split screen option which let me see both maps and whatever app I was listening to at the same time. I also dislike that Android aggressively will not let me type into the screen, even when I’m sitting in my driveway, and instead requires me to say everything. However, these are design choices that I’ll probably get use to eventually.

  1. Devi is rather obsessed with her armor named Lady Gray.
  2. My Samsung phone was my first modern smart phone. When I bought it, I wasn’t convinced I needed a new-fangled device so went with a phone that only had 8 GB internal storage but did have a MicroSD card. Turns out most apps won’t play nicely with external storage but, fortunately for me, Smart Audiobook Player deals with it fine and so I keep all my audiobooks on a MicroSD card.
  3. However, it wouldn’t let me delete the original Google Clock.
  4. I do appreciate 2FA but I wish there was either more standardization or cross compatibility. Four apps dedicated to logging in seems excessive to me.

Looking for a New Phone

For more than a decade I’ve had issues going back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night. This was particularly problematic when Julian was little as he woke up often and my brain would wake up while I was trying to get him to go back to sleep. I tried several different things to keep my brain from thinking but nothing worked consistently until I stumbled across listening to audiobooks.

One essential feature for my audiobook app is a persistent sleep timer. That is, every time I hit play, I want the sleep timer to automatically activate. This allows me to wake up in the middle of the night, tap my earbud to start the audiobook, and then have the audiobook automatically stop at 15 min all without me having to open my eyes. So far, I have only found one audiobook app that will do this: Smart AudioBook Player. Unfortunately, this app is only available on Android, not iOS. So, when I transitioned to an iPhone SE back in 2017, I kept my old Samsung phone as a dedicated nighttime audiobook player.

Other than the audiobook app, I really liked my iPhone SE. It was a good quality phone, with a nice amount of storage, that still fit in the pocket of my jeans. However, as it got older, the battery life got progressively worse and it was starting to show its age. This made me sad as everyone seemed to have given up on the concept of “small” phones. Thus, I was very excited in 2020 when Apple announced the return of the SE model. Both Calvin and I got one. Then, about a year after owning the phone, I accidentally dunked the bottom of the phone into black beans and some clearly got into the charging port. After that, getting it to charge, or connect to our car was possible, but fiddly. Overall, it mostly worked. That is, until about a month ago when charging became progressively harder until it didn’t charge at all one night. Long story short, I decided it was time for a new phone.

As I said, I’ve really liked the SE phones. However, an added complication was that my Samsung phone was also nearing end of life. If I nudged the phone wrong, it would start repetitively power cycling until I nudged it just the right way to make it stop. Given how much I rely on it to sleep at night, this was a big problem. It had been a couple of years since I had last tested iOS audiobooks apps so I went and tried most of the popular ones again: BookPlayer, MP3 Audiobook Player, Bound, Audiobook Player SmartBook, CloudBeats, MP3 Book, and ListenBook Pro. None of them worked the way I needed. So, I decided to combine my two phones back into one by getting a new Android phone.

Unfortunately, Google’s idea of a “small” phone is laughable. My original iPhone SE, which is pretty much perfectly sized, is 123.8 mm high. The SE2 is a bit bigger at 138 mm. Google’s current smallest Pixel is 156 mm. The Asus Zenphone was a bit bigger than optimal but still looked intriguing until I learned it wouldn’t work on Verizon’s network. Which . . . left me with mostly super cheap phones that didn’t have the storage I wanted.

At beginning of August, I stumbled across the Unihertz Atom XL phone. It’s . . . quite something. Among other things, it doubles as a walkie-talkie. I showed it to Jaeger and he seemed incredulous that someone would go to the trouble of making such a product. However, aside from the odd features, it looked like a legit small phone. Mind you, this is small in terms of height, it’s the thickest phone I’ve seen in recent memory, allegedly due to its battery. It sounded intriguing to me but I decided to limp along using my old iPhone SE for a while.

Last week, I decided I did not want to continue living with the bad battery and dodgy map ability of the old phone so I went back to looking at Android options again. Unfortunately, nothing magical appeared so I decided to buy the Unihertz Atom L which is like the XL, just missing the radio. Features I like:

  • Runs Android so I could use Smart AudioBook Player
  • Fairly short at 134.5 mm tall
  • 128 GB of storage with an additional Micro SD slot
  • 3.5mm headphone jack!

My biggest concern was it has a slightly older version of Android and, unlike a Pixel, it probably won’t be updated regularly. However, I decided to take a chance and buy it anyway.

Progress Reading the Hugo 2022 Nominees

I feel like I’ve been in a reading slump except I just updated LibraryThing with the books I’ve read since March and it was a fairly respectable number. Last year I didn’t even try reading the Hugo Award Nominees. However, this year I think I’m on track to read a good number of the 2022 nominees.

Best Novel
I’ve read all of nominations except for A Desolation Called Peace which I’m currently reading. All of them are good but very different. In many ways, Project Hail Mary is my favorite, probably because of its naive belief that science can solve all problems. However, I didn’t love some of its passages dealing with women (or the lack thereof).

Best Novella
I’ve read all of the nominated Novellas. Fireheart Tiger is my favorite.

Best Novelette
Another category I’ve read everything. I liked the variety in this category but I don’t have a clear favorite.

Best Short Story
I haven’t read anything in this category. However, the good news is they’re short stories so I can procrastinate and then cram them in at the end.

Best Series
Well . . . this is a tough category for me. In many ways, I wish it were a favorite author category rather than best series. The only series I’ve read all of the books is The World of the White Rat, by T. Kingfisher and it’s my clear favorite. T. Kingfisher has definitely been a comfort read for me the last couple of years. The first book in the series is Clockwork Boys.

Best Related Work
I’m probably not going to read enough in this category to vote but we’ll see. I have a hard time reading non-fiction unless it is to learn a specific skill. However, I did read Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism which was very good. Maybe I’ll get around to some of the others.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
So far, I’ve seen half of the nominees in this category: Encanto, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Space Sweepers. I enjoyed all of them and am finding it hard to rank them.

Best Fancast
This year, Be the Serpent was the only fancast I had listened to prior to the nominations. However, after the nominations came out I downloaded and listened to at least a couple from the other podcasts. Our Opinions Are Correct is my favorite of the new-to-me podcasts but I’ve enjoyed all the episodes I’ve heard of the others also.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book
I always feel conflicted about this category because I’m not a teen so it feels weird to be voting in a YA category. That said, I’ve read four of the six nominees so far. I’m not sure if I’ll make it to the last two. I started reading a couple of pages for both of them and they haven’t caught me yet. However, I should probably go back and try again. Of the ones I’ve read, Iron Widow was the most engrossing and Chaos on CatNet was the most charming.

Astounding Award for Best New Writer
Finally, we have the Astounding award nominees. I’m doing surprisingly well in this category having read at least something from four of the six authors. I loved Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn and really need to pick up the next book in the series. However, every author I’ve read in this category is good.

Categories I’m (probably) Ignoring
There’s always categories I’m not interested in or don’t know enough about to feel comfortable voting. This year, it’s probably going to include:

  • Best Graphic Story or Comic
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Long Form
  • Best Professional Artist
  • Best Semiprozine
  • Best Fanzine
  • Best Fan Writer
  • Best Fan Artist
  • Though, I may get around to having an opinion about the Best Editor categories. We’ll see . . .

What’s Happening Now

While I’ve posted random misc stuff the last couple of years, it looks like I haven’t done any life updates since the summer of 2020. I would start an update and then stop because I found it too depressing. There was, of course, COVID-19 but the biggest challenge for me was our move from Washington to California. So, I’m giving up on the past, it’s not a healthy place for me to remember.

Here’s a scattering of more recent updates:

We’ve lived in our most recent house for about nine months. I’m hoping this is our last house for a couple of decades. I’m so tired of moving. We are still settling in. Every house is different and I’ve been scouring Craigslist looking for furniture that fits this house. Unfortunately, Jaeger and I together have very specific and narrow tastes so it takes a while to find furniture we both like. This house will take as much money as we’re willing to give it so I’m trying to keep my furniture budget relatively restrained.

The kids have been going to in-person school since the start of this school year. Calvin got a B in PE with a note that he talks too much with other classmates. Personally, we’re delighted to hear he talks to classmates. Overall, he seems to be much happier this year than last. Julian really likes first grade and loves math. He keeps creating math worksheets for everyone to do and doesn’t understand why we don’t find this as exciting as he does.

Julian got vaccinated for COVID-19 in December and Calvin got his booster in January so everyone is our household is currently up-to-date on all vaccinations. We also switched from cloth masks to KF-94 masks at the beginning of January. The kids had a lot of potential school exposures in January and February1 but the school was doing weekly, and sometimes twice weekly, testing and the kids never got a positive result. Starting March 12, CA will no longer require children to be masked in school but it’s still “highly recommended”. For now, we’re planning to require Julian wear a mask and strongly encourage Calvin to wear a mask at school.

We are inviting Julian’s classmates to an in-person birthday party this year at a local playground. Julian just handed out the invitations today and I have no idea if other families are ready to go to birthday parties again. Hopefully having it outside will make them a bit more comfortable with it. If not, we’ll still have pizza and cake so Julian will still probably be happy.

I think the pandemic played to my strengths more than many other people. The hardest bit was having other people constantly in the same house as me. We went to the Monterey Bay Acquarium this weekend and it had more people than I could deal with so I spent most of the time either on the outside decks or with my back pressed against the wall watching the kelp forest. It’s tempting to blame my lack of social endurance on COVID-19. However, then I think of the work party Jaeger took me to once which was so overwhelming I eventually just left and hid in a stairwell for a while. COVID-19 created an environment where I didn’t have to deal with people and while I don’t think it affected my level of social anxiety, it did allow my pretend-I’m-not-panicking skills to get very rusty.

On a completely different note, I’ve put Calvin in charge of his own clothes shopping. We’re giving him an allowance that includes enough for clothes and I set him up with a checking account and as an authorized user on a low-limit credit card. Ideally, I’d like him to have a savings account too but the interest rates are so pathetic I don’t think I could teach any real life lessons about the power of interest that way. However, I am teaching him the basic concepts of double entry bookkeeping and making him keep track of his expenses in GnuCash. We’re also having monthly money meetings together where we do things like reconcile his bank statements and make sure he’s tracking all his expenses.

My job is going well. While I miss being a public librarian, the work culture at my current place is much more family friendly than Seattle was. I’ve also been hired as a permanent remote worker so I never have to go “back” to the office.

My reading life is still sporadic. I’m still reading a lot of fluff and am very, very thankful that fluff reads exist. Sometimes that’s all the energy I have. However, I’m start to read a bit more than just fluff.

We no longer have an au pair. Now that Julian has started in-person school, and I’m working from home, I thought we could get by without additional childcare. Julian misses having someone available to play board games with him constantly but other than that it’s been going fairly well. Jaeger is enjoying working in a room that isn’t our bedroom. I’m enjoying having the second floor to myself most of the day.

Most evenings Jaeger and I watch an hour of TV with Calvin. I suppose at some point we’re going to need to start including Julian but we haven’t yet. Friday nights are movie night, usually just with Calvin but sometimes we try to start early and have a “family” movie night so we can include Julian. Most Saturdays nights we play a boardgame with Calvin. Those go way too late for Julian so sometimes we try playing slightly easier games during the day. Julian can play Catan but it’s a little long for his attention span. However, he does pretty decent at Splendor, even beating Jaeger once.

Life continues.

  1. Several weeks in a row Calvin had 4 exposure notifications. Julian’s school had so many exposures for a while that they gave up keeping track of the classrooms and just said everyone was exposed.

Reading in 2021

Overall, I read 94 books this year.

I started this year with a goal of finally finishing a Sirens Reading Challenge but I didn’t finish. I was doing reasonably well till late spring and then I was getting bogged down and not reading because I wasn’t in the mood to read the books in my TBR pile. So, I threw any sort of reading goal out for the rest of the year and just read books. I didn’t even attempt to read the Hugo Award nominations1 or purposely read Hugo-eligible works for next year. However, that’s ok. I needed fluffier books and I appreciate that these books existed when I needed them.

Probably one of the biggest shifts, both this year and last compared to previous years, is the number of ebooks I’ve read. If you give me an ideal reading environment, I still prefer physical books. However, I found it easier to browse for new books via Overdrive instead of first finding books that sounded interesting and then hoping that the library had it. My current public library is the smallest of my adult life2 and so the selection is smaller than I’m use to. Mind you, if I run across a book that sounds particularly interesting that the library doesn’t own, I do request the library buy it and, so far, they have approved every purchase request I have submitted. They’re a good library. It’s just obvious they have finite resources and need to prioritize books they know will check out.

This was a pretty good audio book year for me. 41% of the books I read were in audio format. This is the first year that I’ve been driving with Julian daily, during which we listen to audiobooks, and it looks like that increased my audio reading a little bit. Though, probably the biggest change is that Jaeger and I swapped evening duties back in 2020. I now do the dishes, while he puts Julian to bed, which allows quite a bit more listening time than in the past. I’ve also reduced the number of podcasts I listen to. I use to be a faithful Marketplace listener but I’ve had less energy recently to deal with the news3.

Favorites Books read in 2021:

  • The Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews – I haven’t finished this series yet. So far, I’ve read novels 1-9.
  • Anxious People by Fredrik Backman – After I read this book, I felt like everything would be ok after all.
  • The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes
  • Brilliant by Marne Davis Kellogg – I have no idea why but I find this book weirdly calming and bought the audio version for my night time listing.
  • Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher – I love Kingfisher and own this book as a physical book, an ebook, and an audio book.
  • Paladin’s Hope by T. Kingfisher – I own both the physical and ebook versions of this book, the audio version isn’t available yet.
  • Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
  • Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia

  • Books from the Sirens Reading Challenge:

In a completely different vein, I’ve also been thumbing through a lot of interior design/home books to get ideas for our house. I didn’t include all of these in my reading count because I didn’t read some of them cover to cover. However, my favorite house-related books were:

I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to try any reading challenges this year. For now, I’ll just take it one day at a time.

  1. Unlike Jaeger who read most of the main categories.
  2. Well, the smallest that I regularly got books from. Longmont was smaller but that was when I was working at High Plains and so I had access to their excellent collection.
  3. The podcast I currently listen to the most is Fated Mates which is all about romance books. I don’t read a lot of romance at the moment but I love listening to people talk about it. Some of their Trailblazer episodes are particularly fascinating.

Train Adventure: Part 2

We spent a couple of days in Los Angeles and then took the train back to San Jose on Saturday, New Years Day. Our train status claimed it was on-time so we left a bit before 9:00am to catch the 9:51am train. The metro station was open but we had a slight snag when all of us, with the exception of Calvin, went through the fare gates and then Calvin confessed he’d somehow lost his Metro card1. This required me to hop back out and get a new card. Once we arrived at Union Station, Jaeger got coffee and then we proceeded to our train’s platform. Unlike San Jose, Union Station does show the platforms for each train which was very useful.

We had decided not to check our bag this time and instead use the luggage rack in our train car. We arrived a few minutes before departure and successfully boarded. However, this time Julian and I ended up on the top part of the car and Calvin and Jaeger ended up on the bottom. Our compartment was slightly different from the way down but mostly the same. The biggest change was there was a tiny hidden closet to store coats rather than a small closet hanger with a strap to keep the coats from swinging into a passenger’s face. Overall, I preferred not having the dedicated coat closet as it made things a little bit more flexible with bag storage. Plus, I was afraid I would forget the coats. To hopefully prevent this, I decided to put our shoes in the coat closet. Presumably I would notice if I tried to leave the train without shoes. (In the compartment I just had socks. I brought slippers to wander around the train but put those in the coat closet also so I wouldn’t be tempted to leave the train just in slippers.)

Fairly soon into our train ride Julian decided he wanted the seats made into a bed so he could lounge better. However, we shared the bottom bed. I moved the soft carry-on that had his sleeping bag and my pillow against the wall and used it as a large cushion so I could stay sitting upright with my legs out.

Julian spent a little time coloring, a little time filling out an activity book, a little time playing Catan on his iPad and then asked if we could play a game. I had brought along the dice version of Catan and so we played that until it was lunch time.

Because the train left on time we ate both lunch and dinner on the train. The menu was the same going back as it was on the way down so on a longer trip vegetarians may end up eating the same meal again and again. Though, possibly they’d let one order from the kids menu which has a “classic” grilled cheese sandwhich (the adult one has bacon) as well as a mac & cheese option. For lunch I got the one adult vegetarian option: chili with a baked potato. It was fine but I thought the vegetarian dinner option was better.

Unfortunately, our roomette ended up on the opposite side from the ocean. However, we had pretty decent views during lunch in the dining car. When I booked online, I didn’t see a way to request specific rooms. I read online that if you call, some Amtrak staff will take requests. Anecdotally, people felt the west coast staff were more open to requests so they suggested calling after the other offices had closed for the day.

Between lunch and dinner I read, wrote a bit, and started counting up how many books I had read in 2021. We went to dinner at 6:00pm and at that point I was tired of the vegetarian options. We finished dinner around 7:00pm so we only had an hour before our train was scheduled to arrive in San Jose. I spent another half hour reading and then got the compartment ready for us to leave, including pulling everything out from under the seats and the coat closet.

The train didn’t line up perfectly on the first try with the San Jose platform but eventually we were able to get off the train. It was really nice we had parked in the Amtrak lot as it was a quick walk from the station before we were on our way home.

I enjoyed the train trip. It was certainly an experience. However, I’m not completely sold on it for future vacations. I really enjoyed the ride down but I got a little antsy coming back from sitting in one place for so long.

  1. Jaeger had double checked before leaving the hotel that Calvin had it so I’m not sure how it disappeared.

Train Adventure: Part 1


Jaeger and I started talking about holiday vacations in September. We concluded that while traveling wasn’t going to be completely safe, it was safer than last year and it might be years before it was truly “safe”. At that point, everyone but Julian was vaccinated and we had hopes/dreams that Julian would get vaccinated in October or November. So, we decided to pick up our normal holiday schedule. This year my parents for Thanksgiving and Jaeger’s parents for Christmas.

Jaeger loves to travel and see new things and the last year+ of very little traveling has been very frustrating for him. Both he and I had a full week off after Christmas and Jaeger was interested in traveling in addition to a family gathering. I wasn’t as fond of the idea because I get overwhelmed easily and need weeks off between trips before I’m back to equilibrium. Thanksgiving and Christmas are particularly stressful times because they are so close together1.

Toward the end of October I started reading Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. When I finished, I watched the 1974 adaption of the movie2. That put trains in my head. About the same time, I was thinking about cruises. I liked the one cruise I had been on. However, I don’t foresee a time in the next couple of years where I’ll be comfortable going on a cruise3. I spent some time thinking what it was I liked about being on a cruise. A lot of it was being by myself with no other obligations. However, I also liked that I traveled between destinations in a relaxed way with room to spread out and enjoy the journey. Don’t get me wrong, I think planes are magical. They make it feasible to visit family anywhere in the world. However, flying economy is not a comfortable experience. After mulling things over in the back of my head for a bit, I realized that trains had the potential to include many of the things I liked about taking a cruise but had what felt like less risk.

I tentatively floated the idea of a train trip to Jaeger and he seemed interested. I think he was just relieved I was willing to do something. We decided to test the experience by taking the train down to LA the week after Christmas. San Jose to LA is a whole day experience, just under an 11 hour train ride. We decided to spend one day going down, two days to explore LA, and one day for the return trip.

Once we settled on the general plan, we had to decide what type of tickets we wanted to get. After a bit of research, I decided for our purposes either coach or a roomette would make the most sense. Coach was clearly the cheapest, by more than half, but I’ve always wanted to take a trip in a sleeper car. One other consideration was that, because of COVID-19, only sleeper cars were allowed to order food from the dining car. There’s (probably) a snack area everyone can order from but the food did not sound inspiring. After some discussion, we decided to take coach on the way down and get two roomettes on the way back. Our thought was that it would be easier to pack food for lunch/dinner on the way to LA versus on the way back.

Our Thanksgiving trip went well but that was also the week that the Omicron variant was identified. I thought about it some more and decided I would feel more comfortable on a long train ride in a roomette that allowed more space between passengers. So, I went ahead and upgraded our tickets. Getting a roomette also had the advantage of letting us sleep if the train ended up behind schedule.

Day 1

The day before we were suppose to leave I installed the Amtrak app on my phone. The train we were taking is the 11 Coast Starlight that starts up in Seattle. I looked up our train status and realized that our train was already wildly behind schedule. On one hand, this was good as we could lounge in bed and take our time with the final packing. However, this also meant that we were estimated to arrive in LA slightly past midnight. When I woke up, I checked the status and it was even more behind schedule. I re-evaluated our packing scheme and packed pajamas in one of our carry-on bags.

Around 1:00pm we meandered down to the San Jose Diridon station (our train was initially scheduled to leave at 10:26am). We got there an hour prior to when it claimed the train would arrive so we could check our bag. It was very unclear what the parking situation was. The website said that the Amtrak ticket agent could give us a parking pass but at the same time, referred us to another website to reserve parking online. There was no online parking for the entire time we were going to be gone. So, our plan was to check at the Amtrak station and if there wasn’t parking, Jaeger would drop us off, park in airport parking, and take a Lyft to the train station. Fortunately, Amtrak did have parking for round-trip passengers. The San Jose station is functional but not very luxurious. It reminded me a lot of the Kelso Amtrak station. This is also a Caltrain station and the status boards only had Caltrain info on them, not info on our train. Our train’s status kept slipping later and later. Eventually, the train arrived and we boarded at around 4:00pm.

When we boarded the cabin steward showed us where our roomettes were located. Julian and I ended up in one roomette and Calvin and Jaeger in another. They were right next to each other, rather than across from each other, so it was easiest most of the journey to communicate via chat/text rather than popping over to the compartments.After we started our journey the cabin steward introduced herself and double checked if we needed anything. Shortly after that, a dining car attendant came by so we could reserve a dinner time. After that, we were mostly left to our own devices, aside from the occasional station announcements.

I was a little worried the roomette would be too cozy with two people. Most of the reviews I had seen online were for single travelers. However, I was pleasantly surprised. There certainly isn’t a lot of space but it was comfortably cozy for Julian and I. After closing the door and curtains it felt like we were in our own little world. Here’s a good overview of what the room looked like (around 6:20): The seats are a good size but there isn’t a lot of space for carry-on. However, both my little red suitcase and Julian’s backpack fit under the seat. That left our old Rick Steve’s bag to awkwardly perch on the “stair” to the top bunk. However, it just contained Julian’s sleeping bag, my pillow, and our pajamas so it was nicely squishy. There was also a hanger for our coats as well as additional hooks for coats4.

Because of COVID-19, we were required to wear masks except when we were eating in the dining car or when we had the door closed in our roomette. So in practice, this meant we didn’t have to wear masks most of the time.

Prior to leaving, I had created a long checklist of relaxing things to do on the train. This included things like catch up on emails to friends (of which I am desperately behind), read books, organize my digital books, and journal (something I am also terrible at finding time to do). As far as I could tell, there wasn’t WiFi on the train. My phone’s internet connection was sporadic. Much of the time it worked fine but occasionally we went through areas with no service. Fortunately, there was an outlet (one per compartment) so I was able to hook up a USB charging station and hook in most of our electronics. In any case, I didn’t have as much time as I expected to get through my list because of how late the train left our station.

At 6:00pm we headed for dinner. My understanding is that usually passengers share tables with others. However, because of COVID-19 they currently only allow people on the same ticket to sit together. This greatly reduced the dining car capacity and presumably is why they weren’t allowing coach class the option of buying dinner (at $45/person!). They did end up with a couple of extra tables (probably because of other families like ours that took two compartments but only one table) and did give business class the option of buying dinner. The snack car was available for everyone. I did not bother checking it out as I had brought lots of snacks with us. They had white tablecloths on the table and real roses in vases on each table.

I was expecting something along the lines of airplane (economy class) food but was pleasantly surprised. We were able to pick our food from a menu. There weren’t a lot of vegetarian choices but enough. Vegans would have been out of luck. Unfortunately, Julian spent most of the dinner perilously close to melting down. I don’t think it was because he was hangry, I had been feeding him snacks just 10 min prior to eating, but he was definitely out of sorts for some reason. At one point he broke down it tears for reasons that were a complete mystery to me. My best guess was he was more tired than hungry.

We finished dinner around 7:00pm so it was theoretically time to start Julian’s regular bedtime routine. I got Julian changed to his pajamas and read Ottoline and the Yellow Cat. Then I pressed the attendant call button in hopes of getting the beds setup. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear back, my best guess was they weren’t expecting anyone to go to sleep so early and were taking a supper break. However, Julian noticed that the tray had instructions for how to setup the beds so we were able to do it ourselves. I did discover that once the beds were laid down, I could no longer access the luggage under the seat. I pulled out my red suitcase and put it in front of the door so I could grab various things like charging cables and books.

I decided to give Julian the bottom bunk to reduce the chance he would somehow manage to roll off. I belatedly realized I had miscalculated my reading material, leaning more toward physical books rather than eBooks. There is a reading light for the top bunk but it wasn’t great and Julian was still having trouble settling down so I eventually turned it off and read an eBook instead. I couldn’t sit up in the top bunk so was reading lying down and the rocking of the train was making me sleepy. I gave up around 9:30pm and settled down to sleep for the rest of the trip. While I was a little disappointed I hadn’t made much progress on my train to-do list, it was very fun to be sleeping in a train. There were regular station announcements so it wasn’t a fantastic sleep experience but I did still manage some high-quality dozing.

Our cabin attendant woke us up about 20 minutes prior to arriving in Los Angeles. In spite of the sporadic sleep, I felt pretty good and gathered up our stuff. We arrived right around 2:00am to pouring rain. Parts of the underground walkway to the station were flooded and we had to walk around large puddles. We got to the station too late to take the underground Metro to our hotel, our initial plan. Instead, Jaeger tried to summon a Lyft. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of Lyft cars designed to take four passengers so we had about a 20 minute wait. Union Station is a beautiful train station. Though, it was also immediately clear that Los Angeles has the same housing and homeless issues that every city I’ve lived in has (and I’m including smaller cities such as Boulder and Santa Cruz in this).

We exited our Lyft and I did a bag check to make sure we had gotten everything out of the car. It was at that point I realized I had left Julian’s backpack under his seat on the train. I hadn’t pulled it out when I converted the seats to a bed so it was hidden and I just didn’t think about it. However, it was now close to 3:00am so I decided to try to problem solve later.

We checked into the hotel without incident and then tried to go back to sleep. I had gotten enough sleep that my body wasn’t interested in going back to sleep right away but eventually I nodded off again.

First thing the next morning I filled out Amtrak’s online lost luggage form and later in the day we went back in-person to see if they’d found the backpack. They hadn’t but noted that the massive amounts of rain was making it hard to be as efficient as normal. I was afraid the backpack, and the things I had packed in it which included our iPad 2 were lost. However, I got a call on Friday that they had found it and everything was still in the backpack. This definitely falls into the “where we got lucky” part of the trip.

Overall, I really enjoyed this train ride. Though, I would have preferred more daylight hours. That said, being able to sleep on the train was a decent consolation prize for getting in so late.

  1. I envy the Canadians their Thanksgiving.
  2. After spending way too much time trying to figure out what version I should watch. I eventually followed’s recommendation and watched the 1974 edition. Good but Poirot was kind of weird.
  3. It’s not just concern over getting sick but also concern about being stuck in a tiny cabin quarantining for weeks.
  4. This ended up being particularly handy when I was in the top bunk as I used it to hang up my mask for easy access.

Book Stuff: Organizing Digital Books

Our family owns a bit over 2000 books. The majority of these are physical books. However, my digital editions are increasing rapidly1.

Many years ago . . .
My first memory of reading a digital book was when I was in high school2. My father had bought several educational CD-ROMs. One of these CD-ROMs contained a bunch of public domain books, probably related to Project Gutenberg, but I can’t remember for sure. This was how I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories which I read on one of those old CRT monitors. However, while I enjoyed the novelty, it was a lot more comfortable to read physical books.

Toward the end of college I got a Handspring Visor. I read some Baen ebooks on it but that was mostly it.

When I started at High Plains Library District, at that time Weld Library District, I remember opening a drawer at the reference desk and finding two very clunky ereaders that had a selection of books loaded on them. I can’t remember what brand they were but I remember they had enormous wall wart adapters. I don’t remember anyone asking to check them out.

In 2006 I got my first iPod which was when I first started listening to downloadable audiobooks. At the time, it took me around 45 minutes to get to work so I had a lot of time to listen to audiobooks. Downloadable audiobooks were easier to use than CDs and didn’t involve trying to change CDs while driving down the freeway. All my audiobooks came frome the library. As such, there was no organization problem since the books disappeared when I was done listening to them.

Our family got our first Kindle at the end of 2011. Jaeger was the one that wanted it but the library subsidized it because they wanted staff to be more familiar with these new-fangled devices3. After about a year we realized that organizing books on the Kindle was a problem, particularly if you were reading books within a series. I researched how other people were dealing with the problem and came up with a file naming scheme to try to eliminate at least some of the problem. At a high level, it boiled down to renaming each book title to be series name, series number, a dash, and finally the title.

Once I started buying audiobooks, I stored them in iTunes on Anna, my old kitchen computer. I used Calibre for my ebooks. However, Anna is quite old and running out of space4. I also no longer listen to my audiobooks on an iPod that requires being synced to a physical computer.

Current Organization
In modern times, I haven’t fully embraced ebooks5 but still own around 240. I also own around 150 audiobooks, many of them duplicates of the ebooks since, as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes that’s a cheaper way to buy them.

Last year I finally decided to store my “digital library” on Google Drive. I already used Google Drive and knew it worked with all my devices. Once I had the basic concept sketched out, I upgraded from the free 15 GB to 200 GB6 and started my migration in earnest.

Google Drive’s search is fantastic. However, I still wanted to be able to browse my books so I created a hierarchical folder structure. At the base is my Digital Library folder. Next are folders for Fiction, Information, Music, Personal (mainly photos and small videos), Picture Books, Recipes, Temp, and Video. Within the fiction folder are folders for each author. Within the information folder I’ve roughly organized by subjects (such as biography cooking, travel, etc).

In both the fiction and information folders I have a folder for each book title and then, if they exist, a folder for M4B, MP3, and eBook. It’s probably a little over the top to have so many sub folders but it helps keep related files together, particularly in the case of MP3 when there’s often many files.

Preparing Books for Uploading
For eBooks, I open them up in Calbrie. If necessary, I strip the DRM7 and then convert the book to both MOBI and EPUB. I probably don’t need the MOBI format anymore but at this point it’s habit. Once converted, I upload the MOBI, EPUB, and original eBook file to Google Drive.

It currently isn’t convenient to use Anna so I now use Myfanwy, my Linux laptop, for audiobooks. It took me a while but I finally discovered OpenAudible which works great with my Audible and non-Audible audiobooks. For Audible books, I strip the DRM which converts the audiobook to one MP3. At that point, I’ve been converting them to M4B format also but I’m not sure that gives me any real benefit so I may stop. The books I get from are divided into multiple MP3 files (one per chapter, I think) which I find annoying. I use OpenAudible to convert them to a single file and then often also convert them to M4B. Once all the conversations are done I upload the MP3 and M4B versions to Google Drive.

Using the Digital Library
During the day, I read/listen to my digital books on either my iPhone or iPad. Because of this, I usually use the original vendor app to read/listen (i.e. Audible, Kindle,, Downpour, etc). However, some of my content I didn’t get from one of the main vendors. In those cases, on the iOS devices, I usually read in iBooks and listen using Bound because it has direct integration with Google Drive.

At night, I listen to audiobooks to help me fall asleep and go back to sleep when I wake up in the middle of the night. I only listen to a subsection of my audiobooks that are interesting but I already know what will happen next so I don’t stay awake to find out. Unfortunately, I need an audiobook app that has a sticky sleep timer. That is, if the sleep timer stops a book but I start it again with my earbud, the sleep timer automatically restarts and will once again turn off the book at the 20 min mark. As far as I can tell, there are no iOS apps that will do this. I have spent countless hours looking. As a result, I use the Smart Audiobook Player app on my old Android phone at night. There’s certainly a better way to transfer the audiobooks onto my Android device. However, for now I download them to Myfanwy and then from there transfer to my phone’s SD Card8.

  1. In 2020 we bought 23 Audible audiobooks, 3 Downpour audiobooks, 5 audiobooks, and 31 Kindle ebooks for a total of 62 downloadable books. By comparison, we bought 2 physical audiobooks and 30 physical books for a total of 32 physical books. As an aside, the Kindle ebooks were almost always discounted while the physical books were almost always full book-cover price.
  2. Probably high school, maybe middle grade, I can’t remember for sure.
  3. Ok, they weren’t super new-fangled. By this point, Amazon had released 4 models of the Kindle.
  4. Giving her an SSD many years ago was a great upgrade at the time but it’s only 500 GB.
  5. Sometimes I’ll read one while waiting in line at the store and I’ve grudgingly switched to eBooks when flying.
  6. I’m approaching the 200 GB limit so have reluctantly upgraded to 2TB, the next level up, and expect to stay at this level for quite a while.
  7. To be clear, I strip the DRM so the books will work on all my devices/apps and they’re more future-proof.
  8. That said, this phone hasn’t gotten a security update since 2017 so I rarely let it connect to the internet.

Book Stuff: Organizing Physical Books

There are many ways to organize books. Each house I live in I organize them slightly differently. However, usually there’s at least one “featured” shelf, a general fiction shelf, a non-fiction shelf, and a kid’s shelf. This time we have a built-in bookcase in the living room which I put all our Hugo award nominees and winners (as well as the “not-a-Hugo” awards given out in the same ceremony)1.
Built-in bookcase with games and books.

Also in the living room are our three very cheap bookshelves which have survived being moved five times so far. You can see the shelves are starting to bend and we daren’t put our computer science books on it anymore. I have kid books on the bottom three shelves, so Julian can reach them, and some of our adult non-fiction (mainly travel and history) on the top two shelves.
Three book cases side-by-side with books.

In our entry way we have most of our fiction books. I don’t want to buy more bookcases until we find a permanent house and I know what will fit. However, space is getting really tight so I’m having to get creative with how I can fit all the books while also allowing (some) room for growth. That’s while some of the series are stacked vertically. I’ve also started interfiling the few DVDs we have, mainly because I don’t have a better place to put them.

Three bookshelves crammed with fiction books.

In our Wallingford house I had a bookshelf in Julian’s room that contained his favorite books. The downstairs “playroom” had a lot of built-in shelves that I used for overflow picture books, juvenile books, YA, and travel. Without those built-ins, I don’t have enough space for all of Julian’s books in the house. I have one large shelf in his room that contains the read-aloud chapter books he likes, old board books he still enjoys looking at, easy readers, library books, and about half of his picture books.

The house we’re renting comes with a detached garage that has a second unfinished level. I thought it’d make a good play area so I set up our smaller tent with a rug, blankets, pillows, and a bin with the other half of Julian’s picture books. Julian enjoys reading in the tent, it makes things feel more adventurous.

REI brand tent, with rain fly on, setup in an unfinished garage. (In case you’re wondering why the rain fly is on the tent, it’s to protect the books and blankets. The garage has bats and isn’t 100% weather-proof.)

View from inside the tent. Blankets on floor, books in a plastic bin, and a pillow that reads "Just One More Chapter".

Most of our technical non-fiction books are in our bedroom in Jaeger’s sturdy double oak bookshelf. Calvin has some books in his room but not a lot. He’s currently more an audiobook listener than a physical book reader. I have a couple of shelves of cookbooks in the kitchen and then various other books scattered around the house.

  1. If one book in the series won, I put the whole series on the shelf.

Book Stuff: Buying Books

I usually read new books through the library. However, once I find a favorite series or author I buy them. Quite an expensive habit when you move as much as I have recently, books are heavy. However, my new place never feels like home until my books are on their bookcases. I almost always buy the physical book and then, if I enjoy listening to the book, I may buy the audio version and possible the ebook version.

Physical Books
I usually buy physical books from my local independent bookstore. Up in Seattle, that was Elliott Bay Book Company1 , Ada Technical Books, and sometimes Third Place Books (usually when they had author events). Elliott Bay was particularly convenient because if I timed the bus just right I could request a book and pick it up on my lunch break. Ada Technical Books isn’t super big but has a really nice collection of STEM books for children. I bought my favorite t-shirt from Third Place Books.

Since moving back to California, I’ve been shopping at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I’ve ordered their Book Bundles several times as gifts which are pretty fun.

I also occasionally buy books from Amazon, usually when I need them really fast.

For many years I bought mass market paperbacks. This was due to cost as well as it being easier to carry around2. Now, I prioritize the book’s looks over price or size. Sometimes I end up with multiple editions of the same book if it’s later released in a more attractive format.

I love audiobooks. I listen to my favorites during the night to help me fall back to sleep and new ones are great when I’m doing something that leaves my brain relatively free. For a long time I had a Downpour subscription. At first, they were DRM free. However, I discovered by accident that they had also started adding DRM’d books, depending on the publisher. I figured that if I was going to have to deal with the hassle of DRM, I might as well get an Audible subscription instead3. I kept it for a couple of years. However, the Audible subscription always made me a bit uncomfortable because of how hostile Amazon is to libraries. Last fall I was going through an audiobook buying binge and I decided it was a good time to pickup a second subscription via In February, I decided it was time to get rid of my Audible subscription and just use I lose access to some of the Audible-only authors but so be it.

eBooks are my least favorite format. I usually stick to Kindle unless the author/publisher is promoting a direct download somewhere else4. Unless I am particularly obsessed with the author, I only buy ebooks if they are on sale or if I can buy the ebook and then add on the Audible version for less than the audiobook would cost by itself. The one exception to this is chapter books for Julian. Amazon has a feature they call Immersive Reading which is amazing. Julian can listen to chapter books that he couldn’t read himself while also being able to watch the words as they’re spoken and see the pictures5. It’s not a replacement for reading with your kid but it is a really nice supplemental option6.

  1. Thanks to Elliott Bay, I can never remember how to spell Julian’s middle name because we spelled it with one less t.
  2. Through college, I required my main coat have a pocket big enough to carry a book.
  3. I had the Audible Premium Plus plan because I wanted to be able to buy books, not just temporarily listen to them — that’s what a public library’s for.
  4. Such as the monthly ebook from
  5. Overall, this works really well. However, occasionally editions get crossed. For example, the US edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factor is paired with the UK edition of the audio and it turns out they Americanized some of the words and concepts in the US edition so it doesn’t perfectly match with the audio
  6. I’m also annoyed that traditional publishers didn’t come up with this option before Amazon did. Granted, audiobook rights aren’t always sold with the book but it was such an obvious value-add option.