How to buy a Camping Tent

My friends and acquaintances all know I’m a camping guy – the guy to ask if you’ve got a camping question. The number one query I get is “What kind of tent should I buy?” This question generally comes from dads and moms who haven’t done a lot of camping but now their kids are in scouts and they have to figure out something because the outing is in two weeks.

I always tell them I have a ton of tents and they can borrow one of mine. But it’s nice to have your own tent, and honestly they’re pretty cheap. One of my favorite tents is a $25 one-man backpacking tent I got on the clearance rack at Academy. It packs down to nothing and has so far proven to be indestructible.

How many people are going camping?
This is the first question. Is your spouse going? How many kids do you have (and how old are they)? In other words, how many bodies will be sleeping in this thing and how big are those bodies? As a general rule you want to take the number of people, add one and that’s the size tent you need. So, for 3 people get a 4-man tent. You can cheat a little with small kids. For example, if it’s just you and two kids under 8, you can get by with a 3-man tent.

What features should I look for?
Your tent needs a bottom, first of all. That may seem obvious but I’ve been asked. The best tents have a thick, tarp-like bottom that extends up several inches. This is to keep water out. I’ve also been asked if you should set-up a tarp underneath your tent. I say no, especially if you already have a tent as I’ve described. Get a dome tent. They’ll have open netting at the top which is nice for warmer weather and a rain fly – basically a rain cover you attach in case of bad weather. These rain flies may not look like much but the good ones work well. May I present to you, my tent, the Coleman Sundome 4-man tent:

The Coleman SunDome: A good, basic 4-man tent for $80.

I Don’t Know How to Set a Tent Up
I get this a lot. “Can you show me how to set it up?” Nowadays, setting these things up is super-easy. For my Coleman, you lay it out and put stakes in the four corners, then you put together two tent poles and push them through loops in the top to make an X. Lastly, you push the tent poles up to make the two support archs you see in the pic, clicking the ends of the poles into little doodads in the corners. That’s it. I do suggest you set it up once at home. That way, when you set it up in the woods, in the dark, you’ll have already done it once.

What Not to Do
Don’t buy one of those quick “pop-up” tents unless it’s for just you. They’re small, usually only big enough for one medium-sized person. If you do get one, try it out before you get into the woods. Don’t overpay for a tent. I know it’s tempting to get a $400 North Face 4-season tent, but unless you’re camping every weekend in Alaska it’s probably overkill. Finally, don’t get too big of a tent. I see this a lot. It’s you and one kid in a 6-man mess tent. Who doesn’t love more space? The problem is that the tent will be harder to set-up and tear down, and take up more room at the campsite and in your car when packed up.

Final Words
When you go camping, you need to be able to get a decent night’s sleep. In addition to your brand-new tent, you’ll also want a blow-up mattress, either with a battery or foot pump, and ample pillows and blankets (or sleeping-bags). If it’s your first time, or your kids’ first time, set the tent up in your yard and let them play in it for few days. You can even do a test night sleeping in the tent in the yard, where you can bail out and get back in your bed if needed. All these things will increase your chance for everyone to get a good night’s sleep that first time in the woods.

A Better Book of Boba Fett

Andor is the latest Star Wars series. The first three episodes came out this week and the show looks incredible so far. As I understand it, each three-episode arch will get a new director. I’m hoping that’s a good thing. The last two series, Obi-Wan and The Book of Boba Fett were extremely uneven. The Boba Fett series in particular had some great writing and some bad writing, mixed in with uneven acting, directing and tone. Because it was such a missed opportunity, I’ve been thinking about how it could have been better.

The Problems
What were the biggest issues with The Book of Boba Fett? The first is that fans wanted to see Boba Fett kicking butt, but the show is set in the Mandalorian time-period, five years after Return of the Jedi when an older, wiser and sarlaac-pit scarred Boba Fett is attempting to build a crime syndicate. Boba seems ridiculously out-numbered. His crew is in the single-digits until late in the series when he recruits a town of reinforcements. The scale always seems off. Lastly, the look and tone don’t match the plot. Any story about a crime syndicate begs for dark, late-night encounters but this series takes place almost exclusively during the day. Instead of scenes filled with the strain and emotion of hard choices, most scenes play out as ho-hum comic book panels where the characters don’t make things happen, they just bounce to the next page.

Fix Number One: Three Stories
One thing the series does well is to tell two stories: the story of the crime syndicate and the story of Boba Fett’s recovery and rehabilitation among the Tuskan Raiders, which we see in flashbacks when he’s resting in his bacta tank. The Sand People segment is both well-written and touching and shows us the reasons that Boba Fett has become kinder, gentler scum. Or has he?

My fix: weave three stories instead of two. Obviously, you can cut the inexplicable Mando-only episodes out of the middle of the series to save run-time. The third story, which we’d also see in flashbacks while in the bacta tank would be of a bounty hunter mission from Boba’s past. Presumably it’s a mission that goes terribly wrong. He’d display the cunning badass persona he’s famous for, as well as total ruthlessness. This would contrast with the Sand People storyline of redemption. The question going into the final series climax would be this: Can a man like Boba Fett really change or will the pressure of his predicament push him back to his ruthless ways?

Fix Number Two: The Crime Syndicate Story
The “present day” story is a mess. Characters are introduced but never developed and Boba never seems to have an adequate crew or plan. I’d restructure it as a series of problems and solutions. Each time, his reward is more allies. First, he negotiates with the Hutt Twins, then he manages to win over the Trandoshans. The whole time it’s clear his chief rival is Shaiz but we also learn the Pykes are coming. A storm is brewing and he’s out-manned. His next hurdle is winning over the Wookiee bounty hunter Krrsantan. It’s a big win, but when he tries to recruit Cobb Vanth’s town we see that the Pykes have recruited Cad Bane. Checkmate. Only as a showdown becomes inevitable does Boba Fett turn to his ace-in-the-hole, the Mandalorian. There’s a big fight of course, with different factions facing off, but Boba eventually triumphs. Shaiz is defeated and at his mercy. The question is whether Boba will delivery vigilante vengeance or true justice. Has he really changed?

Fix Number Three: Less Phantom Menace, more Rogue One
As I mentioned earlier, the bright, comic book look and tone of this series doesn’t match up with the expectations of a show about an infamous bounty hunter forming a crime syndicate. Read that description again and tell me if you see sunshiny days and smirking faces. With the introduction of the bounty hunter mission storyline, which could take place in dark city streets somewhere, the tone of the series immediately gets better. Add in some Mos Espa night scenes where bad things happen. Throw in a lightning storm. The day scenes work better as slow-burning suspense if we know that each night there will be a reckoning.

Overall, Boba Fett was both fun to watch and full of problems. Star Wars fans can be a tough crowd, but that doesn’t excuse lazy writing and uneven craftmanship. The Book of Boba Fett was a missed opportunity, but based on the first three episodes, Andor looks like a smash hit.

Playing with AI Drawing Bots

I’ve been playing with the Midjourney AI Drawing Bot a lot this week. You access it by joining a Discord Server and entering commands, such as /imagine Cartoon Character Bulky Fantasy Knight.

I showed the bot to my six-year-old daughter and she immediately began feeding me prompts such as Pug Eating a Hot Dog and Cute Sleeping Kitten. We decided to make a game out of it where I’d feed the bot a prompt and she’d have to guess what that was. For example:

Yes the prompt was Fox Wearing Sunglasses. The AI has many limits, as you can imagine, but I found myself thinking about what the bot could be used for right now. The most obvious application is for Idea Creation. When a client says they want a picture of a Fox with Sunglasses, that’s often all you get. What is the fox doing? What are the exact colorations of the fox? Is he chubby or skinny? We all know what a fox looks like, but these minor details are completely left up to the artist who will often try all these variations to see which ones look the most pleasing or interesting. Being Creative isn’t something that’s always easy to turn on, especially several times a day for different projects. Artists will look at the world around them, flip through old magazines or (yes) surf the internet for inspiration. An AI Drawing Bot seems like a well suited tool for kick-starting the creative process.

Work Schedules & Biorythms – Update

It’s been over 18 months since I posted about a new work schedule and as I check in, I can say that it’s mostly worked! I still get going around 8:30am. One difference is I basically work straight until the lunch hour, taking a break mid-morning to get away from my computer, walk outside for a minute, or stretch. In that break, I may grab breakfast, or do one or two little things like the dishes, but then I GET BACK TO WORK. Finishing a cup of coffee makes a nice, natural break point.

If I have errands or things to do outside the house, I’ll safe that for after lunch. One difference is I’ve rented an office nearby that I can bike to. It’s in the downtown area, so if I meet someone for lunch e’ll meet downtown, then I end up at my office. I’ve found myself to be much more productive at my office in the afternoons. The change of scenery does me well.

If there are things around the house to do, I generally save those until “after work” which is around 4:30pm. My wife or I will try to have dinner ready by 6pm. One thing we’re working on is having dinner as a family more, or at least my wife and I eating together around the same time as my daughter. I recently read that talking as a family at dinnertime is more important than what you talk about.

I used to “take off” Monday mornings and Fridays for personal projects and me-time. Because of a particular project, I’ve had to work first-thing on Mondays, but as that project has wrapped up I’d like to get back to that idea of easing into the week. As for Fridays, I’ve been working a lot of them, but I’ve also been allowing myself to “take-off” random days in the middle of the week for personal things so it’s balanced out.

Every person is different and every family is different, but for 18 months now, this schedule is working for me.

Work Schedules & Biorythms

I’m self-employed. Like most self-employed people, motivating myself to actually work is a challenge. Balancing life with work is a challenge and so is being efficient. I’ve always felt that efficiency is one of the keys to a successful business. The key to making this thing work is to get maximum bang for your buck.

There are times of the day when I naturally feel like working, like in the morning before the phone starts ringing and other things begin to compete for my attention. There are times when I struggle to maintain focus, like right after lunch. These windows have moved around over the years, especially when I became a parent. I heard myself complaining to others that my mornings were consumed with getting our daughter ready for daycare which didn’t begun until 9am meaning my day started at 9:30, in the middle of my natural productivity window. By then there were usually several fires to put out and I felt pressed for time before we had to pick her up again, or I needed to go to a meeting or transition to another work location or project.

I’m trying something new in 2021. My daughter has started pre-K which means our mornings are shorter and I can get started as early as 8:30. Great, but more importantly, I’ve designated 8:30-10:30 as a time to get as much work done as possible. A morning sprint. I check my e-mails quickly, and create a prioritized To Do list for the morning. I push off e-mails that need long replies or research. I’ll allow myself to check the news for 5-10 minutes but no more and then I GET TO WORK. And because I know this is a sprint to 10:30, I know that I can get back to those e-mails or news stories then, when my morning sprint is over.

So far it’s working. When you work at home, all the little things you need to do around the house can distract you as well, especially when you’re thinking “I should do these now while the kids aren’t here to slow me down.” I’ve given myself permission to do some of those things from 10:30-12:30, which is also a time to make lunch and exercise. By giving myself time to do household chores, I can stay on top of them, meaning some days there aren’t many to do, giving me another slot of time for work or projects. If I need to leave the house to run errands, I group those tasks together with another list and do them after lunch, ideally at the “end” of my work day right before my daughter gets home.

7:00 – 8:30 Morning routine, get daughter to school
8:30 – 10:30 Morning Sprint
10:30 – 12:30 Chores, Lunch, Exercise
12:30 – 1:30 Project
1:30 – 3:00 Errands or Afternoon Sprint
3:00 – 4:30 Pick up daughter, playtime, chores.
4:30 – 6:00 Family Time, cook.
6:00 – 8:30 Dinner, Bedtime routine, clean-up
8:30 – 10:30 Couple time, relax

This is just a framework, but I’m oddly excited by the new schedule, I think because it’s working. By focusing on my naturally productive times and giving myself permission to not work when I don’t feel like it, I’m getting more done and feeling better about it too.

It’s 2021 Ya’ll

I’m writing again. Right this moment. I enjoy writing and they say the only way to get better at writing is to write, so here I am. My last update to this blog was 2015. People don’t even really use the word ‘blog’ anymore. In 2015, my wife and I welcomed our daughter into this world and last night she lost her first tooth. In between that time we’ve had the Trump years and a global pandemic. Prince died, Pokemon “Go” was a sensation, and Notre Dame burned. We had the #MeToo movement, a total solar eclipse, wildfires, Russian hacking, hurricanes and Tiger King.

I’ll write about whatever’s on my mind. I’ve promised myself to not try to force this into anything. Just write for writing’s sake. Hopefully it will be good, or helpful, or somehow cathartic and positive. Hopefully I can stick with it. And if you’re reading this I hope you enjoy some of it.

When Fargo Season 2 Went Off the Rails

The Season Two finale of Fargo is next Monday on FX. For six episodes, Season Two was better than the first. The story was a creative yarn set in 1979, with another all-star cast and the same quirks, dark humor, and style as Season One. Peggy, the butcher’s wife, runs over the troubled son of the Gerhardt clan, who are in the midst of a turf war with Kansas City mobsters, and machinations begin. Five beautifully crafted episodes culminated in three showdowns: one at Peggy and Ed’s house with Dodd Gerhardt, another at the police station with Bear and his thugs, and a third at the Gerhardt’s homestead.

It’s just a flyin’ saucer, Ed. We gotta go. – Peggy

When Episode Six ends, the police station showdown is resolved and Mike Milligan is storming the Gerhardt compound, where Floyd and Simone are completely unprotected. That’s all fine, but Sheriff Larsson returns from consciousness at Ed and Peggy’s and instead of going back into the house or to the police station, he’s next seen intercepting Lou and Ed on a country road. (Hanzee the Indian is pursuing them.) Ed immediately gets away, to which Hank says “Don’t worry we know where he’s going.” Ultimately, Ed will somehow get home with enough time to pack up Peggy and get out of town. This is the first head scratcher leading into the next week, where the plot completely derails.

Episode Seven has so many plot problems it feels like the old team of writers were fired and a new group took over. We find out that off-screen, Mike Milligan was somehow runoff from the Gerhardt’s. Bear gets wind of Simone’s cavorting with Mike and, in the first sign of his dark side, takes her out into the woods and executes his own niece. In a waste of screen time, Lou visits Mike and tells him to leave town which of course he doesn’t. Floyd turns into an police informant, although we don’t know what evidence she hands over and looking forward, absolutely nothing comes of it. Mike Milligan, the trusted Kansas City man who has been quite competent thus far is not only racially belittled by his handlers in KC but they send a hitman to try to kill him.

The most troubling thing about Episode Seven’s non-sensical turns is they also push the show down a darker, more travelled path. When Bear kills Simone, it is an unnecessary, cold-blooded murder, beginning a trend that will only worsen in the next two episodes. In Episode Eight, Hanzee suddenly turns into a serial killer, executing citizens and police left and right including Dodd, his longtime employer and childhood friend. Hanzee continues his killing spree in Episode Nine, where it turns into full-blown treachery. The Gerhardt clan and a team of cops predictably gun each other down at a motel in Sioux City. Instead of dark comedy or violence in service of the story, it simply becomes killing for killing’s sake. It is every hack action movie ripping off Tarantino. Not only is it not true to the characters, it’s not true to Fargo.

Throughout all of this, Episodes Seven through Nine are still completely watchable because it is still Fargo. The acting is top notch. They style is there. There are plenty of great moments, which is why the missteps are so disappointing. Although we know everyone’s gonna die, we want to see exactly how it goes down. With many of the characters either deceased or sidelined, the finale will come down to Hanzee chasing Ed and Peggy and Lou chasing Hanzee. As original as Season Two began, is there much doubt now that Ed and Lou will live, Hanzee will die, and Peggy will save the day?

In case you’re interested: How I Would’ve fixed Season Two of Fargo

The Alone Finale

The finale for the History channel’s popular new reality show Alone will air this Thursday, August 20th at 9pm CST. Here’s a recap of the season (major spoilers) and my thoughts on what might happen on the last episode.

Week One
On the very first night, Josh tapped out after being accosted by a family of bears. It was bad luck that he was dropped off near an active bear den, but it also sounded like Josh was done the second he hit the ground. For some guys, the reality of what they agreed to do must have been tremendous.

On the second night, Chris heard a bunch of wolves howling, got scared and quit. Apparently he had a childhood fear of dogs. Chris looked to be out of shape and was uncomfortable in the woods without a firearm. In my opinion, he was not a worthy competitor. Next up was Joe, who lost his firestarter and, realizing he wouldn’t last, decided to go home sooner rather than later. I felt bad for Joe because he was doing well and was very comfortable in the wild. He could have gone far.

The bears ran off Wayne next. Brandt drank salt water and became ill. After a major storm, Dustin decided to call it quits too. None of these three were equipped for the long haul. After one week, only 4 men remained.

The Fantastic Four
The four guys who survived week one were all badasses. Each had the skills and attitude to win it all. Lucas is an amazing guy whose strategy was to keep busy. He built a canoe, a yurt and a ukulele, but seemed to be dealing with personal demons too. His mom told him, “Lucas, please don’t go crazy.” After six weeks Lucas picked up the sat phone and tapped out.

A few days later, Mitch did the same but for a completely different reason. His mom was diagnosed with brain cancer before he left and the more he sat in the woods, the bigger his concern became over missing his mom’s final days. I think Mitch made the right decision to go home in time to see his mother for Christmas.

The way I see it, every man had an internal clock and when the alarm went off, he was ready to go home. It was incredibly challenging to survive on Vancouver Island, but each man had the skills to do so. With the exception of maybe Brandt and Joe, each man left when he simply couldn’t take the isolation and elements any longer.

The Last Episode
It’s interesting that the two goofiest guys are the last ones to leave. They’ve both struggled, but have managed to lighten things up at times and deal with the solitude. I think Alan will win. He’s been eating better than Sam and has set up a more sustainable existence. Sam’s wife has a baby on the way and he’s not been eating well. How long can Sam last?

We don’t know exactly how the show will end. Let’s say Sam taps out. Will Alan be left to stick it out in the Canadian wilderness until he breaks? Will he get a phone call? Because this is television, I think the History channel has something dramatic planned. I envision a helicopter descending upon the winner without warning. We’ll see the raw reaction of the last man standing as he’s told he’s just won the first season of Alone. We’ll all watch as he leaves the wilderness that’s been his home, $500,000 richer and crying with joy.

Alone on the History Channel

I’m addicted to the new History Channel reality show, Alone. 10 men are dropped separately onto Vancouver Island, a remote area surrounded by sea water and home to 7,000 black bears, 200 coyotes and 1,000 cougars. Each man is by himself, with no knowledge of where the other men are located, limited gear, and no water. The last man to quit wins $500,000. One man only made it one night after he pitched his tent next door to a bear den. (Spoiler Alert!)

The show makes a big deal about the guys choosing only 10 items from a list of 40, not counting clothes. Here is a list of what each man “brought.” We do not know what the original 40 items were and the men were responsible for their own gear. If someone chose to bring a knife, they could bring any knife they wanted. Also, it turns out they were provided other items, like flares, bear spray, and a flashlight. Plus, each man was left with 45lbs of camera gear to document his struggle, and some men used tarps from the camera gear to build water catches, etc.

For the record, I’d have brought: 12×12 tarp, 20m paracord, sleeping bag, 2 quart pot, canteen, gill net, fishing gear, axe, fire starter, & a knife. Read more about my choices.

Each guy also has a satellite phone he can use to call for extraction. It is unclear if he can also call to request medical assistance and keep going, or how often the crew may return to swap out camera batteries, etc.

Still, it’s a good idea and after weeding out the weinies and a couple guys with bad luck, we got down to five worthy contestants. The first goal for each guy was to find a water source, and then to figure out how to make fire in a misty rain forest. After 4 episodes, several guys have proven to be very knowledgeable and resourceful. We’ve already seen one make-shift boat. Watching this show makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. Plus, you know some guys probably provided a bunch of good footage and others didn’t, requiring some creative editing. But as usual, why only a bunch of white dudes? Where are the ladies?

Alone is on the History Channel, Thursdays at 9pm CST. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Update: On Mitch Mitchell’s Facebook page, he answers many questions about the show in replies to comments. He also linked to a video about the extra camera gear each man is issued. (7/14/15)

The Wire to be released in remastered HD

HBO has remastered The Wire in full-frame 16:9 HD and it will be released December 26th on HBO GO. From the press release:

The entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16×9 Full-Frame HD from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned, edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original Standard-Definition 4:3 version.

And fear not, HD snobs, David Simon was involved in the process. He writes long here about the care that was given to scenes that were originally composed for the 4×3 format. Trade-offs were made, sure, but the transfer was not done haphazard.

There were many scenes in which the shot composition is not impaired by the transfer to 16:9, and there are a notable number of scenes that acquire real benefit from playing wide. An example of a scene that benefits would be, say, from the final episode of season two, when an apostolic semicircle of longshoremen forms around the body of Frank Sobotka. Fine as far as it goes, but the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot.

But there are other scenes, composed for 4:3, that lose some of their purpose and power, to be sure. An early example that caught my eye is a scene from the pilot episode, carefully composed by Bob, in which Wee Bey delivers to D’Angelo a homily on established Barksdale crew tactics. “Don’t talk in the car,” D’Angelo reluctantly offers to Wee Bey, who stands below a neon sign that declares, “burgers” while D’Angelo, less certain in his standing and performance within the gang, stands beneath a neon label of “chicken.”

That shot composition was purposed, and clever, and it works better in the 4:3 version than when the screen is suddenly widened to pick up additional neon to the left of Bey. In such a case, the new aspect ratio’s ability to acquire more of the world actually detracts from the intention of the scene and the composition of the shot. For that reason, we elected in the new version to go tighter on the shot in order to maintain some of the previous composition, albeit while coming closer to our backlit characters than the scene requires. It is, indeed, an arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format.