$80 a year for a great, great service

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9 February 2011

Amazon Prime. If you don’t have it, you’re missing out on something great. Get it. You won’t regret it.

It’s $80 a year to get free two-day shipping from anything Amazon sells, and/or $3.99 (per item) for overnight shipping. So you pay for that once a year, and your whole shopping lifestyle changes, in a really great way.

Need something around the house? Go to Amazon (on your phone, if you have a smartphone!) and just hit “Buy now with 1-click” (if you have 1-click set up) and BAM! Two days later it’s at your front door.

Need baby supplies, because you’re about to run out? Spend 2 minutes on your phone, and two days later, they arrive. No need to make a special trip to the store.

Need a Christmas present at the last minute? Spend two minutes (er… maybe more than that, to be sure it’s a good one), and two days later, it arrives – and you didn’t have to fret about paying extra for fast shipping.

Two days is probably sooner than you would have gotten any of these things if you’d put them on your shopping list. And they probably cost less from Amazon, too.

Even if it’s big (e.g. two boxes of 250-count diapers, shipped monthly). Even if it’s small (e.g. watch batteries). Even if it’s food (e.g. the particular brand of basmati rice we like). Same thing: two days later, no extra expense.

And it seems to affect returns also, in a great way. For example, I just received a pair of headphones that I ordered. I opened them and found a broken part. I went to Amazon, clicked a few links to find my order, said I wanted to return it, typed in a description of why, and chose “defective” as the reason. Amazon arranged for UPS to pick up the defective one from my front door tomorrow (I just had to print a page to include in the box, and re-tape the box – UPS will bring a shipping label with them!). The replacement headphones will be shipped tomorrow, one-day shipping, for free, and will arrive the day after tomorrow.

Again, faster (and MUCH cheaper, considering gas costs and time) than having to go back to a store and refund it. And I don’t have to deal with waiting in line, or with annoying store clerks.

So: do yourself a favor. Try a free trial of Amazon Prime, to gain back a little time in your life, and enjoy the experience of having a really great service right at your fingertips, all year long.

(No, I don’t get anything from Amazon for writing this review – it’s just my way of saying “thanks” to them for doing something exceptionally well.)

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One downside to huge dogs...

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15 November 2010

…they can eat food right out of your baby’s hand, while he’s in his high chair:

Benjamin and Kodiak

This actually happened a few days ago. (The picture was somewhat staged, for demonstration purposes.) Benjamin had a pizza crust that he’d been gnawing on, and he held it out to the side, and Kodiak just came over and took what was offered. Benjamin didn’t seem to mind :-)

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Pivotal Tracker

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5 November 2010

I just sent this note to Pivotal Labs:

Thanks, guys.

In a world where everybody talks about “agile” but hardly anybody knows what they are talking about, and where it is very rare to see an agile team (by which I mean a group of people who are actually a “team” and are actually “agile”), and where product managers usually struggle to even maintain control over prioritization, let alone actually manage it well – it seems very unlikely that any software would exist that is designed to work in well-functioning agile teams.

And it seems impossible that that such software, produced for such a tiny market, would be brilliantly designed, brilliantly executed, and just always there when you need it. For free.

So I don’t know how or why you do it, or what the world did to deserve it, or why I was lucky enough to find it. But THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, for Pivotal Tracker.

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Choosing a digital camera

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29 October 2010

UPDATE: please see my addendum in the Comments section, at the end.

After my last blog post, a relative asked me for camera advice, because she is planning on buying a new camera to get better at photography. I took the time to type up a detailed answer, and figured I should also share it (revised and edited) here. Note that this answer is targeted at typical home photographers who want to take better pictures; some of these comments would change for other audiences.

I have a Nikon D40. But here’s my advice about cameras:

Megapixels don’t matter, at all. Any number 5 or larger is sufficient; so long as it is at least “5” you can safely ignore the number when making your decision.

First decide between SLR (“Single Lens Reflex”) and Point & Shoot (“P&S”). Get an SLR if you really want to get into learning photography (or if you already know), and know that you’ll want manual control over specific camera settings. Also get one if you know about (and care about) depth of field. Otherwise, an SLR is probably overkill. There are great P&S cameras that have all the features you might want from an SLR, and cost a lot less. You lose some flexibility and control, but you gain simplicity and a lower price.

Everybody wants to know “Canon or Nikon?” That question really only matters if you’re getting an SLR.

  • If you are, I prefer Nikons because they work more like how I (as a geek) expect a camera to work. My sense is that Canons are more human-friendly, though.
  • In either case, it’s really the lenses that matter, not the camera body. So when choosing a body, don’t worry about it too much; buy the least-expensive body that has all the features you know you want.
  • If you aren’t getting an SLR, you don’t have to limit yourself to Canon/Nikon. I had an Olympus camera I really liked.
  • Really you don’t have to limit yourself to Canon/Nikon for SLRs, either, but it’s safer to do so. Just read reviews if you go off those two brands.

The thing that makes the biggest difference in my pictures isn’t the camera, or the lens, usually. It’s the flash. I have an add-on flash that lets me bounce the flash off the ceiling. That makes ALL the difference in how natural my indoor pictures look. Plan on buying a bounce flash; don’t consider it optional. Expect to spend about $100-$200. It doesn’t have to be fancy, to start. You can get a bounce flash for P&S cameras (the bigger ones), too.

After the flash, the next most important thing is to know what you’re doing :) Read a book, or take a class, if you don’t already know about aperture, shutter speed, and what depth of field is. Or if you don’t know how to frame a picture, handle your flash, and adjust the white balance on your computer. If you really do plan on taking a class, skip straight to an SLR rather than a P&S.

After the knowledge, the next most important thing is the lens (not the camera). Ideally you want a single lens that will zoom from about 18mm to about 200mm, with vibration reduction, with almost no barrel distortion, and that has great low-light abilities. A lens with all but the last feature exists from Nikon, for only about $750. But even if you could afford such a lens, I’d still suggest you get a second lens for low-light situations.

The point is, you can’t have everything you want, so you’ll have to compromise. Things you’ll have to weigh in your compromise:

  1. Price. Pick a budget and stick with it. You can always spend more on equipment later.
  2. Zoom range (from “none” to “huge”); also important is how often you’ll need the specific range that the lens covers. If it does zoom, you’ll need to consider whether the extremes of the range will distort the picture; some lenses do.
  3. Glass quality & coatings. Nikon and Canon are almost always great, but many third-party lenses are also great, and usually less expensive; some research can save significant money.
  4. Low-light ability (i.e. do pictures in dark places look blurry?). This is the biggest factor in the cost of the different lenses.
  5. Vibration reduction, which helps offset hand-holding and/or dim light. It’s a valuable feature for longer-zoom lenses, but not an inexpensive one.
  6. Noise while zooming/focusing. Some lenses are noisy. (I don’t usually worry about this.)

If you’re buying a P&S, the lens decision and the camera decision are inseparable. Often that’s how P&S prices are kept down – the lens is crappy. (Often not, though!) Consider the lens carefully when you buy a P&S.

If you’re buying an SLR, I suggest you buy lenses in the order below, until you run out of lens money. It’s OK to run out of money after the first lens :)

  1. The zoom lens that comes with your kit, assuming you read the reviews and they say that the kit lens is a decent one.
  2. A good low-light lens. That’s probably a $200(ish) fixed-zoom (probably 35mm) “normal” lens with a widest aperture of f1.8. Other options exist, but this is probably the right choice to start. This is a great learning-lens, and will occasionally let you get pictures that you just can’t get with either other lens.
  3. A long-zoom lens, with vibration reduction. You’ll end up using this lens a lot for people-shots, once you try it a few times.

Finally, choose the camera. The D5000 is probably Nikon’s best starter SLR at the moment. I don’t know about P&S cameras these days, and I’ve never really known about Canon :)

See http://dpreview.com/. It’s very detailed, but it has great information.

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Still here, really! With pictures to prove it!

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23 October 2010

Hello all, sorry for the 229 days between blog posts. I fear this blog is destined to become one of those 85% of blogs that are never read by anybody :) As always, the busier my life is, the less of it ends up online, and the past year has been no exception. Babies are hard work!

So this post isn’t about anything in particular; just an announcement that I uploaded a ton of pictures to the new gallery. Specifically, about 200 pictures from as far back as last Thanksgiving. See them all at media.rainskit.com!

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Why I switched from Menalto Gallery to SmugMug

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8 March 2010

Two posts ago, I described my struggle to figure out how to fit my Menalto Gallery album structure into SmugMug. In a comment to that post, one of the Gallery developers asked why I switched from Gallery to SmugMug. I started to reply in the comments on that post, but the reply got to be long enough that I thought it deserved its own post instead; this is that post.

Note that it’s fairly mind-boggling (even to me) that saw my post and responded to it in a single day; I wonder how he did that?

——

Andy,

Most of my experience is with Gallery 1, although I do have a site using Gallery 2. Back when I first started using Gallery 1, it was really the only choice (this was before Flickr, even!) that had the ability to handle a large gallery like mine, had the key features I wanted, and would preserve all my images in original form. So it was really my only choice.

For a long time it did what I needed, and I was grateful for that. I told people about it, and about why I chose it. I know one or two people who ended up using it because of me, but most of my friends and acquaintances ended up using Flickr or similar sites.

But even though I chose it, and was able to use it, I didn’t like it very much. It was clumsy, hard to modify, and too complex. It was just my only real option, so I stuck with it. About once a year, I would try to find something else, and I never could.

So when Gallery 2 was announced, I liked the redesign philosophy, but I thought you all were nuts to try to rewrite a product from the ground up. I was certain that it would be a year or more before Gallery 2 was even close to ready, and in the meantime Gallery 1 support would wane, so I was pretty sure I’d be forced to choose another product. That didn’t quite happen – you folks kept supporting Gallery 1 – but it took a very long time to get Gallery 2 out.

So when it was actually released, I was pleasantly surprised… but then it took an even longer time for Gallery 2 to catch up to some of the basic features from Gallery 1 that I needed. (I forget what they were, now.) So I still didn’t have the replacement for Gallery 1 that I was hoping for.

But eventually Gallery 2 did have the necessary features, so I gave it a try… and it was confusing. Sure, maybe the code was much better this time around, and it was certainly more themeable… but it wasn’t easily themeable, and it was confusing as heck to administer and to teach my users about. So I gave up on Gallery 2, decided to live with Gallery 1, and to search more earnestly for a replacement.

Back then, I had my hopes set on ZenPhoto, but it didn’t quite have everything I needed, either. I certainly liked their “simplicity first” approach, though. It did eventually get to the point where it had all the features I needed, and that was enough for me to install it and start working in earnest to switch over to it.

And then I had a system failure that suddenly forced me to host my gallery on my own local machine, which had me terrified – if my house burned down, with it would go all my pictures. So I had to figure out a better hosting option. I considered renting a virtual server somewhere, but it’s hard to find a low-cost NetBSD host, and I didn’t really want to host on Linux. So I looked around at other gallery options, and found SmugMug.

SmugMug isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty great, and I like that they care (a lot!) about usability, and that they have humans on their support staff, and that they’ll take good care of my pictures. I like that I don’t have to administer the site myself. I like that they are a commercial venture, and are therefore forced to prioritize customer needs first, or fail as a business. I like that the features I find lacking, now, are features that I never even dreamed up, back on Gallery.

So now that Gallery 3 is coming out… it seems somewhat surreal. I first heard about it in an April Fool’s post on ZenPhoto, and when I followed the link to the real announcement of Gallery 3, I really thought it was an elaborate April Fools joke from you folks. I couldn’t believe you’d have the gall to say “when we went back to do it right, we did it wrong, so now we’re going to do it right again!” But it turns out that that’s really what you were saying, and that you really are giving it a third go-round.

Sure, maybe Gallery 3 will be better, and maybe someday I will find a reason to move off SmugMug. If so, I’m sure I’ll look at Gallery 3 (or 5, or 9?) and see if it fits the bill. But my default stance will be wariness – I don’t trust that you’ll ever get it right, or feel that you have gotten it “good enough” to just keep supporting (or evolving) the platform you are already on.

Of course, it now seems ironic that you posted your comment in a post titled Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress. It looks like we all struggle with the balance between those issues! Perhaps we should both take the lesson from this – that our customers won’t give us many chances to find our balance.

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New photo (and video) gallery

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6 March 2010

Per my previous post, I have been struggling to get my current gallery converted over to SmugMug, and that struggle was getting in the way of getting Benjamin pictures online. Well, I’m happy to report that the new gallery is online at media.rainskit.com, and that all the previously-passworded Benjamin pictures are now publicly available there. (I chose the first solution, by the way.) In fact, there are some new pictures also :)

I haven’t converted any of the old gallery over to the new site yet, so for the moment I have two public galleries online. For now, I’m only going to link to the old one in my sidebar; once all the old images are converted, I’ll switch the link. So you should bookmark the new site (or this article) if you want to remember where all the Benjamin pictures will be :)

For those of you who are named in photos in the new gallery – don’t worry, Google won’t search beyond the home page of the new gallery, so pictures of you aren’t suddenly going to pop up all over the internet. If you are concerned about any photos, though, please feel free to let me know and I’ll hide them immediately.

I don’t plan to announce future photo uploads via this blog; please subscribe to one of the available RSS or Atom feeds if you want to hear about new photos. (Scroll to the bottom and click “Available Feeds” to see them.) I suggest either the site-wide recent galleries feed or the site-wide Benjamin keyword feed.

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Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress

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28 February 2010

As I mentioned in the announcement, I have a temporary photo gallery set up with some early pictures of Benjamin in it. But I password protected that gallery, not because of any particular security or privacy concerns, but simply because the gallery is not in its final home, and I don’t want to publish the gallery to the wider internet until it has reached said destination. Recently, a friend asked about the delay in posting more pictures, and offered to help resolve any problems that might be impeding progress. I wrote a very long reply, which I have quoted (mostly) below.

It is, I think, and interesting way to both reveal why I haven’t opened up the gallery, and to allow my readership to understand more about me. Because in this email, it is clear how my perfectionism and my pragmatism do battle, and how I usually seek to resolve such conflicts.

And if you do take the time to read all the way to the end, please feel free to provide any suggestions!

Let me explain the root problem(s):

I plan to switch my pictures from gallery.rainskit.com (which uses Menalto Gallery) over to use SmugMug, and in fact have already paid SmugMug for a year of service which has already elapsed. (I signed up over a year ago.)

I don’t want to start dumping Benjamin pictures into Menalto; I have numerous other albums (like Thanksgiving from last year) that I haven’t uploaded to Menalto because I told myself that I was going to force a hard stop on using Menalto, to encourage me to finish my switch to SmugMug. So I don’t want to break that rule for Benjamin, and I also don’t want to publish one URL for Benjamin pictures and then change it to another URL later.

I don’t expect to be able to use gallery.rainskit.com for my SmugMug site, because I have other users of my Menalto gallery who won’t want to have the URL change out from under them. So I’ll have to leave Menalto at the old URL, and come up with a new URL for SmugMug.

When I tried to convert my gallery over to SmugMug, I discovered a (frustrating!) limitation of SmugMug wherein it doesn’t allow infinite nesting of albums. Specifically, it forces me to organize my pictures in a particular hierarchy, either:

Category -> Album -> Image
or
Category -> Subcategory -> Album -> Image

So some of my Menalto albums are nested 5 or 6 layers deep, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm. Also, some of my Menalto albums have both images and sub-albums, which won’t fit into SmugMug’s paradigm.

So a long time ago (April of ’09) I started work on Smuganizer, a tool to help me convert my Menalto gallery over to SmugMug. That tool has grown into a fairly awesome product, but it isn’t quite done yet – mostly because it has a few important missing features, and the documentation is out of date (and misleading!). Note, however, that SmugMug has given me a free Pro account for as long as I continue to maintain Smuganizer, so I don’t currently have to pay for my SmugMug account.

And I’ve been using my SmugMug site as the test database for Smuganizer, largely because I don’t have any other available SmugMug account. So my current SmugMug site (which is entirely password-protected) is filled with random test data, and in unsuitable for public consumption.

Concurrently with all of this, I discovered Windows Live Photo Gallery, a free app from Microsoft that (finally!) just works the way photo gallery apps always should have worked. Really. I have always hated photo management apps, up until this now. Now, I tell people that they should use it. (It does have some major flaws/gaps, but they are not sufficient to keep me from loving it anyway.)

One of the major features of WLPG is that you can tag people in pictures (like Facebook) and/or add arbitrary tags to images and/or give ratings (1-5 stars) to images, and then instantly browse your whole library by those elements (plus by date). They also make it really easy to publish selected photos to arbitrary photo sites, like SmugMug. So suddenly I have a really strong desktop app for managing my pictures, and I find myself caring much less about putting my entire photo library online.

So I modified my plan about converting from Menalto to SmugMug, such that I have decided instead to download all my Menalto pictures to my computer, tag and rate them all there, store them there primarily, and only upload the best ones to SmugMug. In other words, use SmugMug much like a normal human would use a photo gallery.

Problem is, that takes a lot of time. I’m only about half way through my existing pictures. And I’ve been working on it for 6 months or more.

Note that this also makes Smuganizer largely irrelevant to my current needs :) (Except that Smuganizer can also be used to upload pictures from my computer, and to manage the pictures once they are on SmugMug, so it does still have value to me.)

Note that this also means I won’t have an off-site backup for my entire gallery any more (like I had when you were hosting my gallery). To solve that problem, I signed up for Carbonite.

Net effect, I have a bunch of things that theoretically need to be resolved before I start posting more Benjamin pictures to SmugMug:

a) Finish tagging my existing photos
b) Finish and publish Smuganizer
c) Delete all the existing stuff out of SmugMug
d) Figure out how to organize my SmugMug gallery
e) Get SmugMug set up on its permanent URL
f) Upload my ‘featured’ pictures to SmugMug
g) Upload the new Benjamin pictures to wherever they fit in that structure

Of course, I recognize that this will take a year or more, and that Benjamin pictures can’t wait that long. So I figure I have a number of options:

1) Abandon Smuganizer, don’t worry about the other pictures, and just clear out SmugMug and upload Benjamin pictures for now. That would only require steps © (d) (e) and (g) and could probably be done in a few hours.

2) Try to split my SmugMug gallery into a few “Testing” categories and then “everything else” and just password protect the “Testing” categories. Go ahead and upload the Benjamin pictures into their final home, while concurrently working on everything else.

3) Some other option I haven’t thought of yet.

4) Follow the original plan and just wait until it is all done before publishing more Benjamin pictures.

5) Publish the Benjamin pictures on the Menalto gallery.

So I figure you can help in a few possible ways:

i) Talk me out of the tree and just convince me to do (5)
ii) Help me with (d) so I can do option (2)
iii) Come up with an idea for (3)
iv) Talk me into (1) (Note that this is probably impossible)

So you can see my dilemma :)

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Exercise for Lent

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17 February 2010

Isn’t going to happen. Every time I was awake today I thought “can I exercise now?” and every time the answer was “you don’t have time!” (Today was the first pediatrician visit for Benjamin, so it was a very full day. All was well, by the way.) I also feel like it’s somewhat crazy to try to stuff exercise into a schedule that is already insanely full, after I’ve failed so often to stuff exercise into my “normal” schedule. Plus, I figure that I’m getting a lot more exercise that I normally do, carrying a baby, running up and down stairs, doing lots of chores, etc. And raising a newborn seems to be a major exercise in self-discipline, so I think I’m going to just give myself credit for doing that (assuming I do exercise good self-discipline in this endeavor.)

Anyhow, it seemed too easy for me to just not exercise and also not publicly announce that plan, so I wanted to announce it here.

OK, done. Now on to the next item…

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Benjamin Zoltan Arthur

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15 February 2010

In case you didn’t hear from my email, twitter posts, or corresponding facebook posts, my amazing wife gave birth to my amazing son last Wednesday. His name is Benjamin Zoltan Arthur, he weighed 7lbs 15oz, and was 20.25” long. He is perfect!

I’m writing this post in a very exhausted state of mind, so please forgive my ramblings. I wanted to just get an announcement (plus a few thoughts) out before too much time passed.

I have a temporary photo gallery set up, but I put a password on it because I plan to move it later and don’t want it showing up on the broader internet until I figure out what pictures are really going to be ‘public’. (The picture in this article is from that gallery.) If you know me, please feel free to request the link and password from me or anyone in my family.

Some notes on his name: we’ve known for a long time that we wanted his middle name to be Zoltan, because he is half Hungarian (from Kristina) and he has a great-grandfather named Zoltan, and another great-grandfather with Zoltan as his middle name. We couldn’t decide on a first name, though; we had a list of about 10 candidates, with “Alexander” at the top, but were never quite sure about any of them. As soon as he was born, I declared “he is not an Alexander” and Kristina agreed (once she had a chance to really look at him). The problem was, he also wasn’t any of the other names we had on the list. So we grudgingly started looking for new name ideas. A good friend suggested “Benjamin” and as soon as I heard it, I knew it was a good fit. Within minutes I was certain it was his name. Kristina took a little longer to come around, but also agreed that it was a good name for him. So we finally settled on it, just a few hours before we left the hospital. I knew at the time that he had a relative named Benjamin, but I wasn’t sure exactly who; it turns out that Levi Benjamin Valley (commonly known as “Ben”) was my great-grandfather, and a father-figure for my own father. So this little boy is named after great-(great-)grandparents on both sides of the family!

We call him a bunch of things – Benjamin, Z, Big Z, Little Z, and Mister Z. I’m pretty sure we’re going to have “Z” as a nickname for him for a long time to come, and that his proper name will be “Benjamin”. I can’t get myself to call him “Ben” so I think we’re going to try to keep that nickname out of common use, but I have learned (from my wife) not to try to force these things, so I won’t.

So far, he’s been a very happy, healthy baby. He eats well and on a regular schedule (every three hours), he sleeps most of the rest of the time, and he has fairly simple cues for when he is hungry, needs burped, or needs his diaper changed. He is as cute as I’ve ever seen a baby be :) (Of course, all parents say that, but so far everybody else who sees him also has said that.) He has one minor medical problem that he inherited from his father, but it’s not a big deal, and easy to fix.

Our lives have changed heavily, of course. Everybody says birth is a life-changing experience. It is certainly an emotionally overwhelming one! I can’t remember another time in my life when I was so flooded with raw feeling in a single moment; it’s impossible to even catalog what the feelings were, simply because they were too big to be identified. One feeling was and is very identifiable – pride and love for my wife, who was simply amazing throughout the delivery, and through these first five days of his life. (Benjamin was posterior in the womb and sideways when he finally delivered, but she did it with only 6.5 total hours of labor, and only 1.5 hours of pushing. And now she’s totally on top of everything he needs, every single time he needs something.) And now I can’t help but feel completely attached to this little child; I get a little energy boost every time I see him; I can’t leave him alone for too long without needing to check on him; I have a really hard time leaving him, once I am with him.

In contrast, I find myself almost totally calm, all the time. I feel totally confident about how I handle him, about the choices I make for him, and about the things that will make him calm or upset. I don’t have any hesitation or doubt about him, at all. I think it’s some combination of a vastly simplified priority list (if you need a hint: it only has two items on it), general exhaustion, and general euphoria. It’s an interesting experience, living such a simple life (for the moment, anyway).

And of course, I have to thank all the wonderful people who helped, offered well-wishes, sent gifts, or gave their advice. And Kristina and I both owe a huge debt to my mother-in-law who came and spent the weekend with us. I think she made this weekend about 80% easier than it would have been on our own, and gave us a chance to adjust to this new lifestyle. We’ve spent today on our own, and largely we’ve been OK, and that’s because we had a few days to prepare because of her help. In any case – THANK YOU ALL!!!

And welcome to the world, my son. I’m writing this in one room, while your mother cuddles you in another room, and just in the time it’s taken me to write this post, I miss you :)

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