How I use e-mail

I have previously explained how I use Wunderlist and iOS. This post tackles a productivity problem that I see all the time. Dear reader: Is your inbox a disaster? Do you open Outlook and look upon a reverse-chronological list of every email you’ve ever received and feel a sense of dread and frustration? Verily: Do you (appropriately for Halloween) shiver with fear when opening… nay, at the very invocation of the dreaded word… E-mail?

You need a system for managing your e-mail. You need it right now—but the problem is so massive and frustrating that you don’t know where to start and you don’t even want to think about it. Dear reader: Have hope.

One of the changes that I made to my life last summer—for reasons explained in my Wunderlist post—was to get serious about the realities of e-mail. It was “do or drown.” I was receiving nearly two hundred e-mails a day (don’t hold me to this, but I think that the specific number when I averaged it over a week was 185) and things were slipping through the cracks. And, yes, I had a spiderweb of creaky ad-hoc mail-processing rules that had built up over the years directing some of the more obvious it to a folder called FILTER, and, yes, I had the mortal remains of various attempts to implement a folder structure, but my inbox was still a disaster. So, one day, I held my breath and deleted all those rules and started from scratch.

To be clear: I wasn’t reckless about it; I didn’t just snap one day. I had given it some thought. I already had the idea of a folder called FILTER as a place to route things like vendor email. Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” concept was useful, but too rigorist to be implemented pat in my situation. The value to derive from Mann’s talk, I think, is its premise: The ideal state for your inbox is empty. Nothing should permanently live there; the only two things that belong there are unread messages and messages that still require some action from you. Everything else should be either deleted or archived.

Also influential on me was the notion of actionability. The e-mails about which I most need to be concerned are those that either require action of me or facilitate action by me. This will sound harsh, but—and I think that if you take the time to look at your own inbox the experience will bear it out—the vast majority of e-mail that is sent to you “FYI” or “CC” is not very useful, and it’s urgent only very rarely. In the mine-run of cases, people use carbon-copying the way drunks use lampposts: For support, not illumination. Much the same goes for internal mailing-lists, and the more recipients on the list, the lower the average value of messages sent. Again, it sounds harsh, but if your organization has an AllStaff list, I’d bet that any given message sent to it is more likely to be about a bake-sale than it is to communicate useful information that you, individually and specifically, need to know and act upon.

With these things in mind, the question that I asked myself before starting again was, “What do I want to see in my inbox?” For me, at that time, the answer was:

  • I want to see things if they are
    • sent directly to me from within the organization,
    • directly to me from outside the organization if they are actionable,
    • sent to the distribution-list for my department by someone within the department, or
    • sent by my boss, her boss, or my immediate colleagues.

To implement that, I created three basic rules: “Internal bulk mail,” “external bulk mail,” and one rule to rule them all, the usually-redundant but almighty “Default rule.”

  • “Internal bulk mail” dumped anything from a sender within the organization that was not sent or carbon-copied directly to me (i.e. I’m getting it because I’m on a distribution list) into the FILTER folder, and tagged it with the blue category, unless it came from specified senders, which allowed me to exempt a few people whose mail I always wanted to hit my inbox. (Don’t worry, beloved former colleague reading this; you were totally on the exemption list. I certainly wanted to get your email about your bake-sale!)
  • “External bulk mail” similarly dumped messages into FILTER, but the matching criteria were a little different. Vendors eventually get your e-mail address and send messages directly to you, and so any time I saw repeat-offenders, I added their e-mail domain to the filter rule. You can’t get rid of one-off drive-bys, but over a few months, you build up a pretty good blocklist that catches most of it.  
  • Lastly, the default rule bridged the gap. Any e-mail not sent directly to me: If I wasn’t at least carbon-copied on it, it goes into FILTER.

These three rules, plus a few more for categorization, fixed e-mail. That is to say a lot in two words, if you think about how broken most people’s inbox so let me say it again: They fixed e-mail. If you are drowning and missing actionable items because of the crush, if your inbox currently has more than, say, a dozen unread messages in it, you should think seriously about implementing something like this system. Your version won’t look precisely like mine, because everyone’s needs and preferences are different, but this is a good place to start.

It does, however, come with a warning. The key to this system is that you have got to look at FILTER. You can’t treat it like a spam folder and ignore it, because these rules are massively over-inclusive. A few times a day, you should glance through FILTER and see what’s going on. But here’s the thing: Now you aren’t panning for gold in your inbox; you can just very quickly glance over a list of messages that probably aren’t actionable—might be interesting, you might read or flag something that catches your eye—and then go back to your inbox. It’s not that I’m never interested in knowing that there’s a bake-sale, it’s just that when that e-mail is aggregated with all the other stuff that is, you have to admit, of lower priority than an email saying “I need help with a presentation that’s taking place in ten minutes,” it lowers the signal-to-noise ratio of my inbox. Information overload is a real problem, so, to avoid missing that which is vital, we have to be clear-eyed and unsentimental about that which isn’t. 

This is where we can pivot and talk briefly about categories and why they’re so useful. When I would look through FILTER, obviously I was much more concerned to be attentive to internal messages, and those stood out because they had the blue category attached to them. Similarly, I had a rule that applied the red category to e-mails from “important” senders, and the teal category to e-mails on which I was merely carbon-copied. When I arrived in the office and opened Outlook, I knew what needed my attention first: Messages that are in my inbox and which don’t have a category. That’s because I have rules dealing with predictable messages—it’s unpredicted messages that are the most likely to be from people within the organization who require action.

The only downside to categories is that, unlike rules, they don’t work on iOS devices attached to your mailbox (even, frustratingly, in the Outlook app—thanks, Microsoft, good job), and as I transitioned to using an iPad as my primary e-mail platform (we can talk about RSI another time), that became more and more of a problem. I don’t yet have a solution to offer, beyond pointing out that the nice thing about Mail is that you can mark people as VIPs, and that can serve the same function as my “red” category—you probably want your immediate colleagues and boss on that list.

Finally, a word about outflow. The main reason that I couldn’t implement Inbox Zero was its focus on emptying your inbox every time you deal with email. That was impractical for me. Sometimes you don’t have time to write a response on the spot; sometimes an email requires action from someone else. And, yes, sure, you could create a folder called “pending” and put those messages in there, but “out of sight, out of mind”—that’s the whole point of FILTER. I think that the more practical solution is to leave e-mail that still requires action in your inbox and conceptualize your inbox as a tasklist: Any message in my inbox is an action-item, either I haven’t yet read it and need to, or it’s waiting for me to do something with it.

But what happens when you have acted on an e-mail, when you’re done with it? I see a lot of people who have complicated folder-structures, and maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn’t. There are sometimes good reasons for that “virtual filing-cabinet” approach. To me, though, it feels obsolete. Think about it (this is Mann, again): When you’re trying to find an email, what do you do? Do you dig around in your folders? Or do you just search? Odds are,  the latter. So for me, the simplest solution is the best: Create one folder called “prearchive,” and drop everything into that when you’re done with it. (I would suggest that, having implemented rules to keep your inbox clear of non-actionable items, it is only rarely that you will delete an e-mail that hit your inbox.)

As with all these productivity posts, my suggestion is: Take from this whatever is useful to you and applicable to your situation, and leave aside what isn’t. There’s value to be mined from systems like Inbox Zero and GTD even if you don’t implement the full system. I hope this gives you some ideas about how to go about taming your inbox.

No Hero of mine

No one throws a perfect game. Even the best shows have iffy episodes, and it’s fitting that the worst episodes of particularly-great shows are particularly-bad. For Battlestar Galactica, that’s “Hero,” a disastrous hot-mess from the third season, penned by David Eick. 1

BSG had cranked out mediocre episodes before, especially in season two’s midseason swell. But the worst that one can say about “Black Market” and “Sacrifice” is that they’re dull filler episodes; yeah, we get a bit of context on why Lee is such a prick when we met him in the miniseries, and yeah, we get a mostly-good guest turn from Dana Delany as a forgettable character to send off Billy—yawn. Luciana Carro singlehandedly rescues “Scar”; she had by that time locked into Kat, and was fast developing her into one of the most interesting characters on the show.

But “Hero” is uniquely awful. It is bad fanfic that made it onto the screen because it happened to be written by a showrunner. No other episode is so riddled with problems, still less threatens to seriously warp the canonical timeline, and for that reason, it is the only episode that I expressly excluded from any level of canon that I accept for purposes of writing The Racetrack Chronicle and another backburner project in the same continuity. (Project index BSG5, for those counting.)

In this post, we’ll look at what went wrong.

What makes “Hero” a bad episode?

In “Hero,” set two years after  the Fall, a Colonial pilot—captured a year before the Fall on a mission behind “the armistice line”—manages to escape the baseship where he was held, stealing a jerry-rigged raider, and jumps around randomly, pursued by more raiders, until he happens upon the fleet. He reports that the Cylons on said baseship had become mortally sick—a plausible claim for both the audience and in-universe given the events of the preceding episodes—affording him an opening to break free.

In a cold-open flashback, Admiral Peter Corman 2 briefs then-Commander Adama about a mission; “we may never have this opportunity again,” he says (why?), and underscores that the mission is off-books and cannot be discovered. In the present, we learn that this flashback took place about a year before the Fall. What was the mission? The story that Adama initially tells to a visibly-skeptical Laura and Tory is that Tauron colonists were drilling for minerals on a moon close to the Armistice Line; the admiralty was fretting that this could provoke the Cylons (why?), so Bulldog was sent to recon the situation, and the colonists shot him down. Seeing no ejection on DRADIS, Adama left without further investigation (why?). Laura isn’t buying it, but Adama blows her off and says that it’s his mess to fix.

Meanwhile, Tigh has been relieved of duty to deal with lingering PTSD from the events on New Caprica, and is confined to his cabin, seething at Adama. He, too, knew Bulldog, and when Bulldog comes to visit, Tigh lets slip the truth, which the audience learns in an intercut scene: The Valkyrie shot Bulldog down on Adama’s order. Adama confesses the real story to Lee. The Valkyrie was on a secret recon mission intended to ascertain the likelihood of a Cylon attack on the Colonies. Some in the admiralty believed (correctly, as it turned out) that the Cylons were building a war-machine in anticipation of attacking, and Adama was sent to put a stealth recon bird “just beyond” the armistice line—“stick our nose over, gather evidence, see if there was any suspicious activity.” Lee catches onto what’s been eating at Adama these last two years: Adama feels personally responsible for starting the war. He led a mission that the Cylons might have seen as an act of war had they detected it, and he’s convinced that they indeed detected it. With Bulldog “two clicks” (sic.) over the line, an unknown contact jumps in, takes out Bulldog’s engine, and jumps out, whereafter two more contacts jump in, closing rapidly on Bulldog’s disabled stealth ship. To ensure that the incursion is not detected, Adama destroys the stealth ship with a missile, not realizing that Bulldog has punched out, whereafter Bulldog is presumably captured.

Starbuck finally figures out that it’s a setup (duuuuuuh), that the raiders pursuing Bulldog must have missed on purpose. Naturally, she takes her evidence to the CAG. No, wait, she doesn’t. She takes it to Adama… No, wait, she doesn’t. Instead, she goes and sees the suspended XO, because… Reasons. Good timing; Bulldog is understandably pissed at Adama and is beating him to death with a pipe. Tigh arrives to intercede, puts Bulldog on his ass, and launches into a soliloquy:

Tigh: You don’t wanna believe it, do you? I know. The truth hurts, Bulldog, but it’s better to know the truth than to live a lie. We’re all soldiers, Danny. We’re all expendable. And we did what we had to do to protect the mission; it’s ugly, but there it is. The Cylons let you go. The question is why? Ask yourself that, Danny. Because up until a minute ago, you were doing exactly what they wanted you to do. Come here, and learn the truth, and seek revenge. And that’s exactly what you did. You almost gave them what they wanted. I’ll tell you a dirty little secret: The toughest part of getting played is losing your dignity. Feeling like you are not worth the oxygen you are sucking down. You get used to it. You start to believe it. You start to love it. It’s like a bottle that never runs dry, you can keep reaching for it over and over and over again.

Adama: So how do you put that bottle away, Saul?

Tigh: I don’t know. One day you just decide to get up and walk out of your room.

Adama thereafter offers Laura his resignation, she refuses, gives him a medal honoring his years of service, Adama tells Bulldog that they still need him as a pilot, Tigh comes to mend fences with Adama, aaand it’s an episode.

Nothing makes sense.

Nothing in “Hero” makes any sense. Let’s start with the obvious, small-bore stuff:

  • Adama tells Corman that there’s only one pilot whom he trusts to fly the stealth-ship that is to be involved in the clandestine mission. How convenient; why?
  • The President of the Colonies wants to meet Bulldog; why?
  • You feel that we’re supposed to boo-hoo about those warmongering admirals who feared that the Cylons were preparing a strike and who were willing to take risks to detect and defend against it. Maybe I’m inferring too much, maybe I’m being skewed by knowing too much about the times in which the episode was made and the political views of the producers, but I think that Laura’s cynical suggestion that Corman played Adama to provoke a war puts a fine point on that feeling. We know, however, and in-universe Lee knows, and Laura knows, and everyone knows, that those admirals were right. That is exactly what Cavil was doing. Corman is what Admiral Marcus should have been in “Into Darkness,” had the production not stupidly changed him into a mustache-twirling villain in the bottom half of the movie: He is the guy who looks out to the horizon and sees the storm coming and says “boys, we’ve gotta find shelter.”
  • Racetrack not in this episode.
  • Three’s Nyquil-daze allows Bulldog an opportunity to lamp her, whereupon she struggles back and it looks like he’s killed her. But that doesn’t explain how he got out of his cell. Only later does Bulldog claim that the cell door was left open; only 1) it wasn’t, we saw, and 2) even if it was—for realsies? It takes the characters way longer than is plausible to see the holes in Bulldog’s story. It’s left to Starbuck (of all people) to start asking obvious questions: How come the raiders couldn’t hit a sitting-duck? How exactly did Bulldog escape? How exactly did he manage to stumble onto the fleet, a task akin to throwing a dart from orbit and hitting a particular minnow in the middle of the pacific ocean?
  • Tory observes that “this year marks Adama’s 45th year in the Colonial fleet,” which is problematic albeit not fatal, and we can talk about the timing later. (The nub of it is that the math says Adama must have been an underage enlistment.) And Adama’s “commission” refers to him as a petty officer, which is an enlisted rank, even though it’s well-established that only officers fly planes.
  • Bulldog’s raider is brought into the bay on a gantry that 1) is hitherto-unseen, even when it would have been useful in, say, the “Razor” flashbacks, and 2) physically can’t possibly go all the way into the elevator on which the Raider must have come into the hangar-deck.
  • The med-bay monitor monitor has weird 3D graphic that you’d expect to see on Star Trek, not BSG.
  • We cut directly from Cottle telling Adama that Bulldog’s captors kept him well-fed to Bulldog wolfing down noodles like he’s not eaten in months.
  • “Stealthstar, Valkyrie, we register you on DRADIS.” Think about that for a moment. “Hi, stealth plane designed to be invisible on radar, this is air-traffic control, we register you on radar.” What?
  • “I’m exactly two clicks past the line.” You’re exactly… two thousand meters… past a line… in space. I can’t even. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
  • Adama shoots down Bulldog to avoid detection of the incursion. But the cat’s already out of the bag! A raider (presumably) has already jumped in, identified the target, and fired on it.
  • “Meet me on the port hangar-deck for the ceremony.” What?! The port hangar-deck? Okay, “Hero,” you’re going out of your way to draw attention to set-reuse?!
  • The episode is laced with production weirdness and errors, too, as if the production team just shrugged and said “It’s a David episode, let’s just get through this.” The photo of Adama and his command-staff in the Valkyrie’s CIC not only includes Bulldog for no in-universe reason, 3 it shows then-Commander Adama wearing an Admiral’s rank-device. They didn’t bother to swap them out on the jacket. This is perhaps a nitpick, but the production-quality on BSG was very high (you don’t realize how high until you watch it on blu-ray), perhaps because the doco filming-style meant that the production team had to assume that literally anything could be on camera and therefore had to be right. “Hero” itself has an instructive comparison: Adama’s resignation letter. The production team could have worked up a letterhead and filled the letter itself with lorem ipsum, but no, they took time to actually write Adama’s resignation letter even though it’s in-focus on screen for all of three frames.
  • In this episode, it bothers me that Adama leaves his reading-glasses on when he’s not reading. I realize that Olmos was consistently inconsistent about this, but in most episodes my mind just lets it go. In this episode, watching with a skeptical eye, it’s a constant irritant.
  • The characterization is off, too. An instructive comparison is between the scene in which Adama finds himself alone in his quarters after Bulldog and Laura leave and the cognate one in “Pegasus.” Seeing Adama physically lash out feels very strange.
  • Why does Adama confess right now, and why to Lee?
  • Racetrack still not in this episode.
  • Tigh’s soliloquy—with a caveat to which I’ll return below—makes no sense at all. It has no connection to the situation whatsoever; it sounds like a speech that Eick had had in his back pocket for a while, pasted awkwardly into that scene as spec dialogue, and never got around to revising.
  • “You’re not getting off that easy; once a pilot, always a pilot, Bulldog.” And we never saw him again. (That medal, either.)
  • The episode cuts from Adama on the hangar-deck receiving a medal in dress greys to Adama on the hangar-deck sending off Bulldog in duty-blues to Adama in his quarters back in dress-greys.
  • Lastly—because this one is hard to quantify, the episode feels fat and flabby, too. The editing is off and the writing is wooden and fanfic-y; in particular, a lieutenant calling a commander by his first name? A commander who’s now an Admiral? (I know Adama’s a soft-touch, but can you imagine even Starbuck, Adama’s ersatz daughter, calling him “Bill”?) .

But all this is as naught compared to the big problems.

First, the notion of an “armistice line” in space is mind-boggling—it takes the already-tenuous concept of a “neutral zone” and amps it up to eleven—and the idea that any useful intelligence might be gleaned by putting a plane two kilometers over it is simply stunning. What did they hope to find? Baseships amassed on the border, as if they have to assemble there like an army in the Napoleonic wars, poised to march into Colonial territory? Seriously? One of the things that distinguishes BSG from, say, Star Trek, is that while it isn’t hard sci-fi and doesn’t pretend to be, it is certainly and consistently aware of the scale and scope of the universe. The very fact that Adama can see a raider or baseship on DRADIS from the Colonial side of the line from a battlestar-sized array shows why the whole mission is absurd. (Recall that in “Pegasus,” the initial DRADIS contact is at a range of “1700”—which at the scale of space cannot be meters, it must be at least kilometers.)

Second, while I’m not in the business of defending Starbuck, the idea that Bulldog could jerry-rig a Raider in the same way that Starbuck does in “You Can’t Go Home Again” seems to drain the force out of Starbuck’s accomplishment, making it seem like hotwiring a car. Leoben’s remarks about Kara’s feat in “The Plan”—chronologically-sooner than “Hero”—underscores how unlikely this is. Heck, Bulldog even figures out how to use the wireless! Even the preternatural Starbuck couldn’t figure out that trick.

But let’s give that one away. It’s the notion that Bulldog could hotwire a raider and stumble onto the fleet, randomly, that’s too much to bear. This strains credulity far beyond breaking-point. And, morever, it’s well-established that a ship can’t be tracked through a jump, and even though the implication of “33” would seem to be that the Cylons can figure it out in about 33 minutes, we’re presented with a “hot pursuit” scenario. So how did the two pursuit raiders keep following the one stolen by Bulldog? How did Bulldog possibly stumble onto the fleet in the vast ocean of space? And once they jump into range of the Galactica, two raiders—machines built to hit targets—can’t hit a target raider hacked up and flown by a prisoner who’s never flown one before, over several minutes of screentime? Can we really be expected to believe that no one thinks that this is all far too suspicious to believe until Starbuck starts looking at the gun-camera footage?

What makes it a terrible episode?

All these problems, however, merely plunge “Hero” to the depths of “Black Market”—perhaps a little lower. What makes it terrible is that it creates a dense tangle of tension and contradiction within the A-canon.

Canon establishes unequivocally that William Adama had commanded the Galactica for several years before the Fall. In the Miniseries, on the day of the Fall, Kelly implies her has served under Adama for some time and Gaeta is explicit that he has served under Adama for “these past three years.” In “Act of Contrition,” two weeks after the Fall, Adama says that he and Starbuck have been aboard “this ship for over two years.” In “Litmus,” seventeen days after the Fall, Adama says that Tyrol has “been under my command for over five years, and if he really wanted to take this ship down, he could.” (In “Resistance,” Tyrol lists the ships on which he has served; the Valkyrie is not one on them.) In “The Farm,” two months after the Fall, Adama says that Boomer “was aboard my ship for almost two years,” to which Tigh adds in “Sacrifice” that Boomer “reported aboard two years ago”—an odd phrasing if she reported aboard a different ship.

If “Hero” is right, all of these statements (and probably more that I’m forgetting) are wrong.

Before some clever-clogs jumps up and says “maybe Adama was on loan to the Valkyrie for this one mission”—well… Maybe? There’s evidence for that. Adama tells Corman that he’ll do the mission on one condition, that he has to have his men, which is a weird line if Adama’s command is the Valkyrie; why wouldn’t he have his men? And the Galactica has Bulldog’s DNA on file, which—because this isn’t Star Trek—would be weird had Bulldog not been assigned to her. So you can perhaps argue that Adama’s command is the Galactica and Corman loans him the Valkyrie for the mission.

But that’s weird, too. Why not just send the Valkyrie? Why Adama? It feels very fanfic: It has to be Adama, of all the commanders in the fleet, because he’s our character from the show, that’s why. And besides, the episode itself provides compelling evidence that points the other way:

  • At the very start of the episode, we see a “publicity shot” from the Valkyrie’s press office, showing the senior staff (caption “Cmdr Adama with the command crew on [sic.] the CIC”). You don’t take publicity-shots for one-off secret missions. The photograph, if it means anything, means that Adama conned the Valkyrie before his assignment to the Galactica, whenever that might have been, a fact that I do accept as canonical in the background materials.
  • When Bulldog and Tigh meet, Bulldog wants to know how Tigh ended up “on this old bucket, anyway? What happened to the Valkyrie?” Tigh insinuates that Adama was relieved of the Valkyrie and assigned command of the Galactica as retribution for mission on which Bulldog disappeared.

Perhaps the coup-de-grâce is that BSG itself never treats “Hero” as canon. Adama never again wears that medal, even though we repeatedly see him in dress-greys. We are told that Adama grew up in Qualai, CA, but in “Blood & Chrome” he insists that he’s from Caprica City, CA. And, again—even though Adama makes a song-and-dance about how they need all the pilots they can get 4and we never see him again.

None of this is to say that “Hero” doesn’t have its moments:

  • Opening the episode on Tricia Helfer’s legs is a can’t-lose opening-gambit.
  • As always, the cast does its very best with the material, and with actors of this caliber, their best is very good notwithstanding the material. Carl Lumbly, the guest-star playing Bulldog, hits all the right notes. Good to see Carro back as Kat, and Donnelly Rhodes’ Cottle would have won the Bob Newhart Award for doing a lot with very little had Leah Cairns not locked that up early and often. Lucy Lawless is effortlessly-charismatic in a brief scene as a desperately-ill Three (“do I look that bad?” she asks Bulldog; no, Lucy fLawless, no you do not.)
  • Gaeta’s bewilderment at Adama’s decisions picks up a card for season four.
  • Bulldog’s joke when asked how he escaped is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; it’s so good that I half-suspect that it was ad-libbed on set, and the chemistry between Olmos and Lumbly is good.
  • Our first real glimpse of a Valkyrie-type battlestar—a design that the Pican Racetrack will in the Chronicle dismiss as the ugliest thing she’s ever seen, and her Virgan inamorato David as “very Scorpian,” resembling a “predatory insect” 5 —is exciting. The production did a great job of finding a design that looked like a plausible bridge between the Galactica, the mercury-type Pegasus, and the old Galactica model from the original series.
  • Bamber and Olmos are fabulous together as Adama confesses, and McCreary’s sound-design is astute. Abstract, distant percussion redolent of vast industrial machinery or a distant thunderstorm clatter in the background, and an orchestral cue borrowed from “Exodus”—the scene in which the camera pulls back from a seemingly-doomed Galactica, alone, taking a beating from multiple baseships—underscores the centrality of honor to Bill Adama, a Caprican by birth but of Tauron heritage. Moreover, Eick’s choice to have Adama come right out with it up-front and then explain the context is wise, and the tension ratchets up much faster because they’re not hiding the ball. And if I could buy into the underlying premise, Olmos’ portrayal of grief that this man personally demonstrated to the Cylons that war was coming and that their only option was to strike first (whether true or not) would be heady stuff.
  • “It wasn’t just you. They put you there … you had no choice … You were one mission, you were one man. One man.” “It only takes one.” That was fabulous—well-written, well-acted.
  • The deteriorating relationship between the Colonies’ civilian and military leadership in the days leading up to the Fall was hinted at as far back as “Home,” and it’s a thread that I pick up in BSG5.
  • I have ignored the B-story, Three exploring the interstices between life and death on the baseship. It’s good.
  • Tigh’s soliloquy is, if severed from the context, it’s actually really good in vacuo. So, too, is the banter between him and Adama at the very end of the episode.
  • Laura laying down the law on Bill never gets old.

“Hero” and “Caprica” demonstrate precisely why a project of this scope has to be (as the Chronicle and BSG5 are) undergirded by a spreadsheet that assigns precise dates to everything. 6 BSGW tries to contain the damage by excising the time-markers, but it shares my skepticism of the episode. For my purposes, “Hero” is radioactive, and it has to go. It cannot be part of the canon. The best way to deal with it, I think, is to imagine that there is a deleted-scene at the end in which Adama wakes up with a start, shakes it off, and says “well that was a horrible dream,” and goes back to sleep. Olmos has the panache to pull that off, and it would preserve the good while paring the bad.


  1. The “production” side of the Moore-Eick dynamic duo, as compared to Moore, the “writing” side.
  2. Identified in BSG5 as the Chairman of the Admiralty Board and Deputy Chief of Fleet Operations to Edward Nagala, the CFO.
  3. This would be like me photoshopping Racetrack into a photograph of the Galactica’s command-staff on her last deployment—Cdr. Adama, Col. Tigh, Ltc. Waters, Gaeta, Dualla, etc. If any pilot were to be included in such a photograph, it would be the CAG—which is, as Lee points out, the book says to be a job for a captain or a major, not a lietenant.
  4. A claim that is false even by its own lights; just two episodes earlier, Racetrack noted that with the Galactica absorbing the Pegasus’ pilots, there are “too many pilots not enough birds,” and frankly, I trust Racetrack to know the roster that better than Adama.
  5. In background notes for The Racetrack Chronicle, I have some backstory on the disconnect between the Galactica’s design and those of the Valkyrie and the Pegasus. During the war, you had the original twelve battlestars as the capital ships of the new colonial fleet. As the war expands and drags-out, it becomes apparent that twelve ain’t going to cut it, so production would be standardized and centralized, probably on the model of the Virgan and Caprican battlestars, the Bretannia and her sister-ship the Galactica, squeezing out variant designs. We can make smaller ships faster, but we still need battlestars (i.e. FTL-capable fighter-carriers with big guns), and we need to churn out a lot of these things, so we need a smaller, cheaper variant that’s faster to produce, so the Scorpians design the Valkyrie-type and start cranking them out while other facilities build the bigger, heavier Galactica-type and experiment with other variants. After the war, you’re not going to throw ships away. You’re going to keep operating what you have. But the admiralty is also going to look to the future and say, “okay, look, we no longer need to operate four shipyards, but we do want to be mindful about replenishment of the fleet over time.” So Scorpion Yards gets the nod, they become the fleet shipyard, and naturally they build what they’re tooled for: Valkyrie-type light battlestars. And they start developing a new heavy battlestar replacement patterned on the same tooling, which will eventually become the Mercury-type. Over thirty years or so, the older ships are phased out, and the Mercury-type becomes the mainstay, giving us battlestar groups comprising a Mercury-type, a couple of Valkyrie-types, escorts, and supports.
  6. In the commentary to CAP: “Apotheosis,” we learn that Willie Adama was intended to be Bill Adama, but they botched the math on his age. For want of a spreadsheet, a retcon was born.

Can we dispense with the “Brexit shows that Trump can win” red-herring?

It is fair to say that literally no one in Britain’s first, second, third, or fourth estates saw Leave’s victory coming in this year’s referendum, just as virtually no one on the American left (it would be redundant to add “and media”) can imagine Trump winning. But there the analogy stops.

In Britain, there was no empirical basis for Remain’s certainty; to the contrary, “[t]he polls consistently indicated that there was a very real chance that Britain would vote to leave. Polling averages even showed ‘Leave’ with a lead for most of the last month; over all, 17 of the 35 surveys conducted in June showed the Leave side with the edge, while just 15 showed Remain ahead.” Remain’s overconfidence was nothing more than arrogance and the blinkering effect that social media can have when one chooses to close-ranks and have only friends of the same political stripe. (A deadly mistake, I submit.) 

By contrast, American polls have consistently shown scant possibility of a Trump victory. 538’s model has fluctuated between overwhelming certainty of Clinton’s victory and near-certainty of it; only once in the entire year, in the last week of July, have the chances of a Clinton victory been below 60%. And when Trump has had good polling weeks, prima facie? The surge has invariably turned out to be in states that he is already likely to carry, which benefits him nil. Trump could win the popular vote, but whether he loses California by one point or twenty, he still loses California.

To be sure, I agree that polls understate Trump’s true support; I said so on the podcast in August. If I were inclined to vote for him, I wouldn’t admit it to anyone, least of all a pollster! But they understate it by a percent or two—not by enough, and not where he needs it. They might understate it by two in Ohio, but they certainly don’t understate it by five in Florida or ten in Pennsylvania, and if you think Trump can win without carrying all three of those states, I’d like to see your map.

Like Charlie Cooke, I fluctuate between depression and fury that, in a year that could have seen the election of a decent conservative President, a threadbare plurality of the GOP party nominated  Donald Trump, about whom I have said plenty already.  I will presumably be voting for Evan McMullin, although I may yet revert to my original plan—”write in Carly Fiorina or Laura Roslin.” My point in this post, however, is not whether Clinton’s coronation is a good or a bad thing; it is simply empirical reality. My unhappiness at it does not change the numbers. And unlike Brexit, where the polls consistently showed that it was close and could happen, our polls consistently show Trump headed to the worst defeat since Mondale.

The hung court

The Supreme Court began its new term this week, which by law and custom means that it’s time for the Amicus podcast’s term preview with Tom Goldstein. A bit of context: Following Justice Scalia’s untimely death in February and the Senate’s refusal to confirm a successor until after this fall’s Presidential election, the Court seemed to bed down for a long eight-justice interregnum. As Goldstein explains in more detail, the justices would seem to have striven to grant cases that would not leave them evenly-divided. Thus did the term open Tuesday with argument in a pair of cases presenting the pizazzy questions of  whether a “scheme to defraud a financial institution” under 18 U.S.C. §1344 requires proof of a specific intent to cheat (rather than to deceive alone) a bank (Shaw v. United States) and whether a vacated, unconstitutional conviction can strip an acquittal of its preclusive effect under the collateral estoppel prong of the double-jeopardy clause (Bravo-Fernandez v. United States; if it sounds sufficiently complex to be fun—alas, nope.)

Lithwick puts to Goldstein this proposition: We have a term full of boring cases, the court is avoiding blockbuster cases, the justices are trying to behave themselves, and why isn’t that awesome? The court, some might say, has overreached, getting its claws into absolutely every aspect of American life for too long, including many that it has no business deciding, and if it’s now pulling back, why isn’t that for the best? My ears pricked up; that is, to some extent, my own view. It’s not a term full of boring cases, it’s a term full of lawyerly cases; the court is avoiding cases that courts had no business deciding in the first place, and the justices’ comporting themselves as serious, intelligent people is refreshing in an era in which every other American institution has gone insane. The court is, in other words, doing more-or-less what I want it to do.

How does Goldstein respond? First, he characterizes this as a kind of “institutional nihilism,” observing that there are also people who are happy with a do-nothing Congress—but “we need the government to function.” This bears on two conflicting lines of thought that I have advanced over the years. On the one hand, I have suggested that for those of us who want to shut down 90% of the federal government, suspending 99% of it might be thought a win. It’s not great, because that 9% is very important, but between a federal government doing many things that it shouldn’t and a federal government not doing a few things that it should, there is much to say for the latter. On the other hand, I have also made the same point as Goldstein (recently, for example, on the podcast): The government has to function, the mail has to be hauled.

One line of attack on Congress that I have soft-peddled in recent years (because it sounds too much like a different and meretricious argument that became common in the early Obama years) is that Congress is dysfunctional because it seems unable to deal with routine business when the voltage goes up on unrelated partisan fights. Uncontroversial nominees get used as bargaining-chips for controversial nominees. Uncontroversial but important bills languish while pompous buffoons bloviate about controversial bills. It would be optimal for Congress to function better. It is a serious mistake, however, to think that the function of Congress is to pass bills, which is the predicate of the argument that we need it to function and a do-nothing congress is ipso facto not “function[ing].” In the same way, it is a serious mistake to think that the court is only functioning when it takes a particular case or kind of cases. And it is similarly a mistake to think that to the extent that we need government to work in the sense that the mail must be hauled, that if any particular function (especially a non-core function) is not being carried out, the government isn’t working.

Goldstein adds that we want the courts to function, we want them to act as a check, we want them to protect the powerless. This brings us back to “institutional nihilism”; I originally took that as a barb (and a rather silly one), but this argument only works if that line is more than rhetorical. Does he really think that anyone wants Congress and the Supreme Court to do nothing? Of course the court must be in business; no serious person doubts that. The question is what business it should be in. Can Tom Goldstein, of all people, really believe that the Supreme Court is as good as shuttered if it keeps its mucky paws out of the high-voltage social cases and focusses on, say, IP cases? Or that those who would make the argument that a law-focussed Supreme Court is a good thing want a court that decides no cases at all? That I doubt.

His second point is much stronger. He observes that it’s not as though the courts are retrenching—those big, sexy cases are still being filed, and they’re still being decided, but they’re being decided in the lower courts, which raises the troubling prospect that, for example, the Second Amendment could mean one thing on the west coast under Ninth Circuit precedent and something entirely different in the south under Fifth Circuit precedent. The uniformity of Constitutional law disintegrates, and the institutional function of the Supreme Court since the Cert Act has been precisely to resolve such splits, to ensure the uniformity of federal law.

As a matter of principle, I am inclined to agree. But we should be careful about being too abstract: Which is better, a 4-3-1 court that doesn’t take high-voltage cases, or a 5-3-1 court that takes them and gets them wrong? That’s what Goldstein seems to miss. And the justices themselves know this; they—well, seven of them, at any rate—aren’t stupid. One reason why the court has generally avoided abortion cases (to give only one example) is that neither the progressive bloc nor the conservative bloc has been quite sure of Justice Kennedy’s vote. Each side looks at the petition in a “sexy” case and does a machiavellian calculation: “We may like/dislike the decision below, but better that it stand and the law be wrong in that circuit than we take the case, lose Kennedy, and the law be wrong coast-to-coast.” Whether it is a persuasive argument or not, that is the argument: If we can’t get a majority to decide high-voltage cases right, better to have a court that decides only low-voltage cases.

Who knows what the future holds? The optimal result of this election would have been the appointment of at least one justice by President Fiorina, but that isn’t going to happen. Like Goldstein, I presume that the next President will be Hillary Clinton, a prospect that does not overjoy me. But if the Senate does not ultimately confirm a successor to Justice Scalia, a de-facto eight-member court that confines itself to actual law would not seem the worst outcome.

“The Double-Edged Sword”—director’s cut

Last semester, I took a “ConLaw as History” class, and in view of Justice Scalia’s then-recent passing, it felt befitting that, for the final project, I was able to take a nice, hefty swing at one of his bêtes-noires, the doctrine of so-called substantive due process about which he spoke often. I have finally completed my “director’s cut” of it (a few things had to go from the submitted version to meet the word-limit and deadline), and those interested may find it at this link. I had fun writing this one, and tried to capture something of the flavor of Scalia’s writing (an impossible task; say what you will, but the man knew how to turn a phrase).

A quick “state of the projects” update

Coming out of the summer hiatus, I have project-indices on six fiction projects at the moment:

  • BSG1, “The Turning Point,” went out on private preview over the summer; I got some good feedback, I did one additional draft in August and will start another pass on or about October 1. It covers “Escape Velocity” through to “Daybreak,” addressing the mutiny 
  • BSG2, “Poseidon,” is still missing an important section, but it, too, went out in the private preview, and is in territory roughly akin to a third-draft. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve continued to fill in detail at the margins to get my mind back into that headspace; I will be working on it next week. It covers Racetrack’s time in officer-candidate school, starting six years before the Fall.
  • BSG3, WT “Galactica,” had a first-draft rushed for inclusion in the preview. I took another pass through it about a month ago and will be doing the second-draft (a technical phase in my shop) this week. It covers Racetrack’s deployment aboard the Galactica, starting sixteen months before the Fall leaving her where we met her in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming,” with a brief coda immediately before “Final Cut.”
  • BSG4, WT “Nightfall,” is going through its third-draft iterations. It’s actually almost there, but I’m in no hurry since it will appear last, covering as it does Nicola Edmondson’s last days on Caprica going into the Fall. (In the Chronicle appendices, there is a deleted scene in which its events become important to contextualizing Racetrack’s enthusiasm for the Caprica SAR in “Lay Down Your Burdens.”)
  • BSG5 is in development. There is a first chapter and an increasingly-fat binder of development work under the project-index. It isn’t a Racetrack story—none of the Edmondson clan will appear, although Tory Foster and Paul Katraine keep our connection to the show—but is within the same continuity and would vastly expand the horizons of the world in which the Chronicle is set. It is an enormous undertaking. The scale of detail required, the number of questions to which answers must be posited—there’s a lot, and I loudly insist to anyone who will listen that I am not writing it. Not until the Racetrack Chronicles are complete, certainly. But development grinds on.
  • BSG6 is a short-story coda to Racetrack Chronicles, giving Gareth “Nightlight” Lowell’s background on the Pegasus with (inter alios) Hamish “Skulls” McCall. “Galactica” shows us one iteration of military life in Racetrack’s last deployment, tucked out-of-the-way on long-haul duty on an old ship. There’s a certain appeal to showing you more of life aboard the plum assignment, the crown jewel of the fleet. A story-outline exists, and I sometimes get in the mood to go hang out with Lowell—an unexpected side-effect of working on this has been that you sometimes miss the characters when you haven’t written them for a while—and write a scene, but this one is very much on the backburner. (Sorry, Lindsay!)

Some of you are aware of the general dimensions of the project;  the background notes and last week’s addendum explained in more detail. But just in general, I’ll add that I have either two or six projects, depending on how you count it.

Racetrack Chronicles is mostly a prequel cycle, starting about six years before the show and dovetailing into season one; BSG1 bridges a gap in season four. Its heart and focus are Margaret “Racetrack” Edmondson and her friend Abigail “Spitfire” Ainslie. There are a lot of themes played in the background—many of which continue in RDM’s spirit by taking the presented worlds and mythos dead-serious (how serious? Dead serious) and asking what the social and psychological implications are if this is reality. But fundamentally it’s a story about these two women and how they’re the same and how they’re different. (It has nothing to do with science-fiction. I like science-fiction, but you could stick these two characters aboard an aircraft-carrier today and tell the same basic story.) That project is technically broken up into four pieces, two novelettes and two short-stories, but put together, it will probably clock in at a little over 45k (about 44 written, another three or so to come, give or take some trimming) which means means that you could treat all four and their voluminous, tolkene appendices as a single novel-length piece. 

During the summer hiatus from the Chronicle, I have also been developing, bit by bit, what would presumably be a full-dress novel set in the same universe, starting about a year before the Fall. I am, emphatically, not writing it. Just doing development. It has a completely different scope and tone; where the Chronicle is very personal and focused on Maggie, this would be very broad and political in scope, and would really give a much more detailed glimpse at my vision of that world. I’m going to play a little coy publicly about what it’s about (publicly, anyway; ask me privately), but the BSG5 project-index has gotten alarmingly fat. 

This year has been a fascinating experience. I feel like I’ve come a long way since I started writing “The Turning Point” in late February, really just to give Leah Cairns a better account than I had for Racetrack joining the mutiny. I had never written fiction before this year—not since school, certainly. But it has provided an interesting opportunity to approach writing in a very different way, to leverage the tools of the trade for other purposes. I look forward to a productive Autumn.

Deep in the long-grass: The timeline of the Fall

This will likely be the nerdiest insidest-baseball post that I will ever write. (Can one use “inside” in the superlative? American English for the win! Any word in any role!) One of the first-principles that undergirds the Racetrack Chronicles materials (as the background notes explain in more detail) is that I take the physics of the world seriously. In particular, the specifically-established time-delay: Signals are limited by the speed of light even though FTL technology allows ships to evade that limit. In this post, I will apply similar principles to find some order in the jumbled timeline of the last hours of the twelve colonies.


Before we get to the analysis, I must explain the context. This year, I have been writing a novel-length BSG prequel with the collective working-title Racetrack Chronicles. In July, work paused to await feedback on a private preview. In the meantime, I’ve been developing a second project in the same continuity; it has no working-title—because I am not writing it, just developing for now, thankyou—just a project index: BSG5. It has required an even deeper dive into the long-grass of the “RDM-verse.” 

One of the foundations under the text of the Chronicle is a document called the MCS, the “Master Continuity Spreadsheet.” It applies a dense thicket of math and ground-rules taken or inferred from canon to track deployments and careers of various characters (some of whom I ended up using, others not) over forty years, all the way back to Helena Cain’s birth on Tauron. It then presses forward from the Fall, noting the days on which various events occur—thankyou BSGW for the heavy-lifting—and assigning specific days to episodes where BSGW is unsure. (It will, doubtless, appear in the Chronicle‘s tolkene appendices.)

Buuuut… Thinking about what BSG5 would involve, about the mechanics of writing a political thriller (for such it would be) in a created world—“what do I need to know”—it became clear to me that even the MCS, with its carefully-considered detail, was inadequate. So I created a new spreadsheet called the PCS: The “Political Chronology Spreadsheet” and started filling in blanks. Based on “Bastille Day” and assuming a four-year Presidency, we can place the last election at 88.6 months before the fall, and if you keep working backward, you get to an election 616.6 months before the Fall, which lines up nicely with the articles being signed approximately 624 months before the Fall. So far so good, I thought. Furthermore: The articles of colonization are signed 52 years before the fall, and Serge Graystone avers that Caprica—which takes place 58 years before the Fall—takes place 1,942 years after the exodus from Kobol. So let’s assign that as a year: 58 years before the fall = 1942 A.E. in-universe date on Caprica. On that timeline, the Articles are signed in 1948 A.E., and a Presidential election follows in the same year (616.6 months before the Fall, to be precise). On a four-year cycle, we would see elections in 1948, 1952 (-568.6), 1956 (-520.6), etc., and assuming a de facto or de jure two-term limit, and assuming that Presidents were usually reelected, Richard Adar became the 7th President in an upset, defeating the 6th president’s bid for reelection in 1992. Given the show’s penchant for numerology, this has the happy result that Romo Lampkin becomes the thirteenth and last President. 

(Fun fact: In my background notes, every President is named, and those whose names will never be used on the page, at least conspicuously, have names like “Troughton” and “Pertwee.”)

At this point, I had a revelation: If “Bastille day” is .5 months after the Fall (12 days, actually, so a bit of a fudge), then Adar’s term expires 7.5 months after the fall. And that is “within the year” according to Laura—so, okay, for ease of math, let’s say that colonial elections take place on November 15, Caprica City date/time. The Fall therefore takes place on 7.5 months before November 15—April 1. I just about fell out of my chair: “OMG, the Fall was the original April fool’s prank!”

It isn’t; as you’ll see, that date can’t be quite right. But for now, tuck that away in your mind as our opening bid for the date of the attacks: April 1, 2000 A.E.

The timeline of the Fall.

The timeline of the Fall rises from three sources: the Miniseries, “Epiphanies,” and “The Plan.” When I started the third and fourth pieces comprised by the Chronicle, it became necessary to have a more specific understanding of the timeline, and when I put those sources under a microscope along with “Razor,” I became unhappy with the tensions ‘twixt an’ ‘tween. The biggest problem is that the Miniseries presents itself as showing a contiguous timeline over the course of one day: It is morning-stations on the battlestar Galactica, it is morning on Caprica, and we progress thence in linear fashion. That cannot be correct. At that time, I was able to brush past the difficulties for my purposes, and the gist of my in-house memo on the timeline problem is that in the Racetrack Chronicles continuity, we accept “The Plan”’s assignation of 7 AM Caprica City time (“CCT”) as the first stroke of the attacks.

BSG5 demands more precision. To find it, I sat down and watched all three sources back-to-back: Night 1 of the Miniseries, the first fifteen minutes or so of “The Plan,” and the Caprica flashbacks of “Epiphanies.” I made detailed notes, defined a “scene” as a block of contiguous in-universe time regardless of production and editing, and then disassembled each source scene-by-scene, creating a spreadsheet of 75 scenes and assigning each one its most likely local time regardless of where they appear in the running-order. Then I tried to reconcile those timelines into a single correct chronological solution. 

Let’s do something a little different and start with “The Plan.”

The first scene to discuss opens with a chiron that informs us that it is 14 hours before the destruction of the Colonies. Baltar and Six stroll along the Riverwalk in Caprica City; Baltar wears a black, pinstripe jacket and sunglasses, Six wears a fluffy blue jacket over a blouse with grey ruffles at the neck. They chitchat for a while until Baltar excuses himself and Six immediately meets One. They agree that the attack will take place at 7 AM the following day, Caprica City time, which means that this scene takes place circa 5 PM. The shadows are long, and the light is consistent for evening in Vancouver—Caprica City’s IRL counterpart—where sunset on April 1 is at 7:40 PM. (Indeed, generally, I should acknowledge my predicate that Caprica-normal = Earth-normal.)

The second scene to discuss is more complicated because it’s choppy. It is the scene in which the baseships jump into orbit and begin the attack. One of the troubling things about “The Plan” is that the attack feels very laggy; the Cylons lack the urgency one would expect in a carefully-coordinated surprise attack  planned by machines. But just as we have for the Miniseries, let us discard the assumption that the editing is linear and suppose that some scenes are taking place concurrently. If we clock just the screen time of the baseships jumping in and positioning themselves to fire—assuming that the stuff on the ground and the raiders engaging with the orbital defense forces happens while that action is taking place—it takes them about a minute twenty until the first launch that we are shown. And it stands to reason that that launch is in fact the first launch. This allows us to backform the timeframe: We can say that the baseships jump in at a Tori-Amos-approved 06:58:40, take 80 seconds to orient themselves, and then open fire at 7:00 AM precisely. The nukes take about 14 seconds until MIRV separation, and another 6 seconds until the first detonation. (How fast is that descent? Depends on the altitude of the baseships. The lower threshold for a Low Earth Orbit is 160km, whence descent velocity would be 8km/s. The terminal velocity of a modern ICBM appears to be 7kps, so we’re in the ballpark.)

Now let’s think about the Miniseries. While it appears to present us a single, contiguous, linear day in which it is morning on the Galactica and on Caprica, that cannot be so. As we will see, timing several scenes requires some attention to minute detail. Instead of following the on-screen chronology, then, let’s decompose it from the perspective of each piece on the board.

Six and Baltar

We first see Six in the Riverwalk district in the same clothes she wore with Baltar in “The Plan.” One shot gives us a clean, right-angled shadow whence we can infer the time: A woman behind Six stands 3 ⅛” tall on the screen and casts a perfectly perpendicular 4” shadow. The sun is therefore 38 degrees over the horizon, and consulting the chart for Vancouver on April 15, we see that it is either 10:25 AM or 3:55 PM. (Why April 15 not April 1? Wait one.) She arrives at Baltar’s house wearing the same clothes. Baltar is in the midst of an interview that follows the conclusion of a Pyramid game on Gemenon. He and Six have sex. We next see them strolling along the Riverwalk in the same clothes in which we saw them in the scene in “The Plan”; indeed, it is the same scene. Thus, this scene takes place at around 5 PM, which might initially make us think it slightly more likely that it was 3:25 PM when we saw Six strolling through the Riverwalk on her way to Baltar’s house.

The next morning, Six—who has changed her clothes—throws Baltar’s side-bird out of bed, and tells him that the Cylons are returning that day. It appears to be dawn; the light and shadows say that it can’t be earlier than 6:30 AM (again, the chart for Vancouver on April 15), and the fixed time of the attack tells us exactly when the scene ends. We cut away briefly, and when we return, some brief time has clearly passed: Baltar has dressed, and the sun is now low in the sky. No more than 10 degrees. And that’s why the attacks have to be circa April 15, by the way: On April 1, the sun would be only 1.7 degrees over the horizon at 7am, and wouldn’t reach 10 degrees until nearly an hour later. (That also pushes the date of the election back to November 30, for those keeping score.)

At any rate, this scene probably begins at 06:57:31. It runs 2 minutes 49 seconds before the first explosion (which—for the same dramatic reasons that demand that the first launch that we see must be the first launch—must be the first explosion, which we now know was 20 seconds after 7:00 AM. We cut away; it’s not clear how much time has passed when we return, but the pragmatics imply scant minutes. Baltar watches a local news broadcast that is still running until an enormous blast destroys both its studio and its man-on-the-scene, which is presumably the 50MT device that Adama will mention later. (If you want a visual on what that strike looks like, click here to see a 50MT strike on downtown Vancouver.) Fifty seconds later, another bomb detonates nearby, and 28 seconds after that, its shockwave destroys Baltar’s house and kills Six. (If the shockwave is travelling at about 2,000 MPH, as we should apparently expect—so the nuclear people say—the bomb dropped 15.5 miles away.) Some time later in the day, Baltar encounters Boomer and Helo, and escapes from Caprica.


Now let’s follow Laura Roslin. When she visits her doctor, wearing a red blouse under a purple jacket, the shadows cast by the windows are approximately 35 degrees, which implies that it’s either 10:05 AM or 4:15 PM. We cut to Colonial Heavy 798 leaving Caprica; it’s daylight, but impossible to say when during the day—file this question in the back of your mind for now. We learn that the flight to the Galactica will be 5.5 hours and that there is a thirty-minute communications delay; those seemingly-throwaway lines are cornerstones of my reasoning, allowing us to make several calculations (cf. the Racetrack Chronicles background notes). She arrives still wearing the same outfit. Note that we do not know when Laura left Caprica, nor the shipboard time at which she arrived, only that Doral is wearing the same outfit that he wore at morning-stations, that Adama is on-duty, and that Dee is off-duty. At any rate, Laura is shown to guest-quarters, and after some uncertain amount of time, attends the decommissioning ceremony in different clothes. At some time thereafter, Colonial Heavy 798 leaves the Galactica, Laura having changed back into her red blouse. The liner then flies for 2.5 hours, and is three hours from Caprica when news of the attacks reaches them.

But don’t forget about that all-important time-delay that Billy mentioned! The big unknown is how far the Galactica moved relative to Caprica during Laura’s stay; we have too little little basis for speculation, so we have to assume arguendo that her distance from Caprica is steady, even though it likely wasn’t. On that assumption, it follows that if a 5.5 hour flight from Caprica covered a thirty minute delay, the delay between Caprica and a point 3 hours out would be 16.36 minutes. Thus, news of the attacks could not begin reaching Colonial Heavy 798 before 07:16:21 CCT. Nor is it likely to be long after that; presumably news of the attacks spread fast, so let’s assume for sake of round numbers that the scene in which Laura exits the restroom and asks what’s going on probably took place at 07:20 CCT. Colonial Heavy 798 therefore left the Galactica at 04:50 AM CCT.


It is clearly morning-stations when we meet Adama; Gaeta greets him with good morning and “comm traffic from the midwatch,” which is the overnight shift in the Royal Navy parlance whence RDM drew heavily. For now, put a pin in the question of what time the changeover takes place. The XO appears to be going off-duty. Adama walks down to the hangar-deck, where Tyrol appears to be on duty. Walking-time aside, this appears to be roughly contiguous with the previous scene (Adama is still practicing his speech as he walks along the hangar-deck), and certainly takes place during the morning, because he greets everyone with a friendly “morning.” At some point during the day, probably still relatively early, we catch up with Starbuck again; she has showered since her jog, so at least some time has passed between the opening scene and this one. The Triad game is well underway and the CAG’s cigar has burned down a fair way. It looks like the pilots are on-duty; we’re in the ready-room, Helo and Boomer are present, they’re all in flight-suits. Tigh is in duty-blues not fatigues, implying that he hasn’t been back to his cabin to change since we saw him in the opening scene.

When Apollo arrives on the Galactica, Tyrol is on-duty; Boomer and Helo appear to return from some mission concurrently—but it is a cut. All this must take place at some time during the morning, because at the subsequent pilot’s briefing, at which Apollo, Boomer, and Helo are present, the CAG again greets them “good morning.” At some point, Colonial Heavy 798 arrives. As noted above, Dee is off-duty, and Doral is in the same clothes in which we saw him that “morning” (by Galactica time). Apollo visits Starbuck in hack (still in his flight-suit); her statement that she has been waiting most of the afternoon to use her joke implies that it is now at least mid-afternoon. Apollo then changes into dress-greys for the photo with Adama, who also wears dress-greys. Indeterminate time passes, but we next see Adama in dress-greys at the decommissioning ceremony (at which Tyrol appears to be off-duty), and Apollo in a flight suit in the cockpit, listening to Adama speak. Apollo is either still in the cockpit or back in it when Colonial Heavy 798 departs the Galactica—which must take place, as we have already seen, at 4:50 AM CCT.  

More time passes, and Gaeta is back on duty when the clear-text alert comes in; so is Tyrol, it appears. These events cannot take place before 7:30 AM CCT because of that thirty-minute delay between Caprica and the Galactica, and probably not much after it. Let’s say that it took Fleet Command two minutes to get the alert out, and the alert comes into the Galactica at 07:32, whereupon Gaeta reads it, rubs his eyes, re-reads it, and immediately calls Adama. Assume that Gaeta is efficient, and he buzzed Adama within ten seconds of receving the message; they then talk for forty seconds, and give Adama a couple of minutes off-screen to rush to the CIC and organize his thoughts. And assume that the flash alert went out within two minutes of the first strike. It is, therefore, 07:34:50 CCT when the action-stations buzzer sounds.

(Dee is in the CIC when we come in, but she wasn’t necessarily on-duty; the fact that she personally went to retrieve Starbuck when Adama gave that order suggests that someone else was duty CAPCOM and she simply attended the action-stations call.)

At any rate, we cut to the Galactica’s attack squadron, two hours from Caprica. It’s unclear why they wouldn’t have picked up the original clear-text alert, because there is less of a delay between Caprica and them than there is between Caprica and the Galactica, but if the Vipers lack long-range wireless communications, relying on the support Raptor as a relay, the fact that their support Raptor is piloted by Boomer may suggest an answer. (Note that Dipper doesn’t acknowledge the signal himself: He tells Boomer to.) Clearly they’re moving faster than Colonial Heavy 798, which throws our math off slightly, but not beyond tolerance. We can stipulate a delay of approximately eleven minutes to Caprica and sixteen back to the Galactica. Whether they got the original alert or not, their sequence begins with them acknowledging a signal from the Galactica, and in consequence, this scene, which on-screen precedes the one on Colonial Heavy 798 three hours from Caprica, must be out of sequence. It cannot begin sooner than 7:46 AM CCT—the thirty-minute delay for the news to reach the Galactica plus the sixteen-minute delay from the Galactica to the squadron—plus however long it takes for the Galactica to turn the news around. Dee picks up the phone after 2 minutes 40 seconds of seemingly-contiguous time after the action-stations buzzer, which supplies our answer: 7:54 AM CCT, 1959 Galactica time.


“Epiphanies” is a problem. Let’s work through the episode first. We open on Laura in her doctor’s office, the same scene that we saw in the Miniseries, and which we know from our analysis of the Miniseries was at either 10:05 AM or 4:15 PM CCT. The sun is much higher in the sky when she meets Stans at the Riverwalk—there’s no clean shot to measure, but eyeballing it, it looks like about fifty degrees, which says middle-of-the-day. She and Stans stroll along the Riverwalk negotiating. We later see two scenes between Laura and President Adar which appear to bookend the previously-mentioned scenes: One at which Laura says that she has made the meeting, and the other in which Adar says that he regrets how they “left things this morning” and asks for her resignation over what happened at the meeting with Stans.

The chronology would seem obvious. Taken with Laura recalling her doctor’s words during her meeting with Stans, we can say that Laura met Adar first thing in the morning, went to the doctor at 10:05 AM, walked down to the Riverwalk, dangled her feet in the water and reflected on her mortality, met Stans somewhere between 11 AM and 1 PM, and met Adar again in the afternoon. The pragmatics of Adar’s statement require that it is now afternoon, and Laura says that her perspective changed “a few hours ago,” the implication of which must be that it is her diagnosis that has changed her mind. This puts the meeting with Adar no sooner than 1 PM (if it were earlier, it would be “a couple” of hours ago not “a few”), and the sun over Laura’s shoulder is approximately 35 degrees, which would suggest no later than 4:30 PM. Here we have competing incentives: It would seem unlikely that Laura took several hours wandering around in a daze after her visit to the oncologist before meeting Stans, but on the other hand, the pragmatics of her statement to Adar that she “just” met with Stans urge a meeting with Stans later within its time-window and one with Adar earlier in its time-window.

Either way: Although the episode’s running-order cuts back to Laura and Stans, it seems very clear that there is one meeting edited in a non-linear manner, à la “Out of Gas.” (Proof: It is not until this cinematographically-subsequent scene that we see them striking the bargain to which she refers in her second meeting with Adar, so it must precede it chronologically.) Laura concludes her meeting with Adar, saying that she is “on her way to the Galactica” to represent the administration. It makes sense that she would go directly from Cavendish House to the spaceport, meeting Billy there. How long would that take? No way to know. But let’s say for sake of argument that an hour elapses between the conclusion of her meeting with Adar in “Epiphanies” and Colonial Heavy 798’s takeoff in the Miniseries. That gives us a departure window of between 2:10 PM CCT and 5:40PM CCT.

File that away for a moment, because before we leave “Epiphanies,” I mentioned a problem. It is this: Laura believes that she saw Baltar and Six on the Riverwalk during her meeting with Stans. She will later describe this as “just before” and “just prior” to the Fall. (“Revelations”; “Lay Down Your Burdens, part 2”; “Taking a Break from All Your Wories.”) She is almost certainly wrong.

When “Epiphanies” aired, the audience assumed that Laura’s glimpse of Six and Baltar is the same scene that we saw in the Miniseries. But it can’t be, because “The Plan” (written years later) says that that scene took place hours after the latest possible time for her meeting with Stans. For Laura’s memory to be true, we would have to believe that Baltar and Six were on the Riverwalk at lunchtime, made the trek back to his house, did the interview, had sex, and wandered back out to the Riverwalk in the same clothes in time for Six’s 5 PM rendezvous with Cavil, by which time Laura is almost certainly off-world. That’s a tall order. Baltar’s house does not appear to be in Caprica City itself; in Vancouvan terms, he seems to live in Belcarra. It is, to be sure, possible. We have seen that Six is on the Riverwalk in a time index that is either mid-afternoon or mid-morning, and having discarded the assumption that the Miniseries shows us contiguous time, we could suppose that we see Six walking to meet Baltar for lunch on the Riverwalk, allowing Laura to see them, and then they take separate paths back to Baltar’s house for their afternoon rendezvous, and finally back to the Riverwalk in the early evening. But “The Plan”’s insistence that the scene with Baltar and Six on the Riverwalk takes place at 5 PM creates a tension that is most cleanly resolved by a surprising conclusion: Laura’s “memory” of seeing Baltar and Six was the drug-induced false-memory that she worried people would think it was.

The Galactica’s clock

We can now, at last, turn to the question of the last hours of the colonies from the Galactica’s perspective. We can start with a few pointers:

  • In the opening scene of the Miniseries, the liaison officer is killed; he is officially “overdue” by morning-stations on the Galactica. All else being equal, we want to minimize the amount of time that passes between Gaeta relaying this to Adama and the attacks. If you hope to carry off a sneak attack, it would seem tactically queer to tip your hand by destroying an incidental target early.
  • Helo refers to a Pyramid game on Gemenon; surely it must be the same one that Kellan says just ended in her interview with Baltar, mid-afternoon CCT the day before the attacks. Helo expects people to have heard about the game, which presumably has the same delay as Caprica, more-or-less, and the way that he phrases the question not only implies that this is a game that was played the previous night, but it has a whiff of brag, insinuating that he was there for some of it. This could definitely work if Helo flew a Raptor courier to Gemenon late in “the day before” (by the Galactica’s clock).
  • Nothing is spoken, but the feeling in Adama’s cabin when he takes the call is profoundly evening. I can’t really specify why, but it feels late in the day.
  • A couple of things that I bring to the table from the draft of “Galactica” from the Racetrack Chronicles. In the background notes, I established a watch schedule for the Galactica, and so I want a solution that puts people on-watch when that schedule says they should be on-watch and not when not. And when action-stations is called, I have Racetrack and her little coterie of pilots in the galley; a character has just remarked that he has to stand a watch in twenty minutes, so, in a perfect world, I want action-stations to be called twenty minutes before my schedule calls for a watch change.

I won’t belabor this, but I want to give you a flavor of the kind of thing that I did looking for a solution that reconciled Caprica City time with the Galactica’s clock. Here’s a look into how my brain runs through these things.

We can’t know when that game ended or when Helo left. As an opening gambit, I posited that Helo was in town on a courier run and caught the first half of the game. Let’s say the game ended at 9 PM by the Galactica’s clock. And let’s further posit—stretching the timeline a little—that that’s 4:20 PM CCT, giving Six about half an hour to make it from the Riverwalk to Baltar’s Belcarra pad.  (This becomes tricky—maybe we should rethink whether it was the afternoon when we saw her before?) The Galactica’s clock would then be 4 hours 40 minutes fast from CCT. The attacks would take place at 11:40 AM Galactica time, and Colonial Heavy 798 left the Galactica circa 09:30 AM Galactica time. If it had left Caprica at 2:10 PM CCT the day before the attacks, it would have arrived on the Galactica five and a half hours later at 12:20 AM Galactica time, and, if leaving at 5:10 PM CCT, it would have arrived at 3:20 AM Galactica time. But this solution doesn’t work. Unless the timeline is completely bent, far beyond the point where we could be comfortable with it, Laura needs to arrive on the Galactica after morning- stations. We can move around the respective components, but once they intersect on Galactica, that’s the on-screen continuity.

I ran several different possible solutions, but in the end, I asked the obvious question: “Why can’t I just say it’s twenty minutes before watch x by the schedule, and try solutions for each value of x?” And the one that makes the most sense is: The Galactica’s clock is 12 hours, 5 minutes, 10 seconds ahead of Caprica City Time. As we saw earlier, it is 07:34:50 CCT when the action-stations buzzer sounds. If it is twenty minutes before First Watch, it is 1940 by the Galactica’s clock. And this solution works nicely. Gaeta and Tyrol were on-duty for the Morning Watch, and are back on-duty on the Dog Watch when word arrives. Racetrack and pals are off-duty during the Dog Watch, so they would have been off-duty during the Morning Watch, which is why we don’t see her in the Miniseries. (We do, actually: Racetrack wanders past the triad game to grab a snack before heading to her rack—you just never see her face as she walks behind the card-game.) Tigh, having been on duty for the Midwatch the preceding night, would be off-duty. And crucially, this solution works for the intersection between the two timelines, Laura’s departure from Caprica and arrival on the Galactica. It allows Laura to leave Caprica in-window at around 4 PM on April 14, CCT, and arrive on the Galactica at around 0937 on April 15 by Galactica time (9:32 PM on April 14, CCT).

There are a couple of downsides to this solution. The Pyramid game would have ended in the wee small hours by the Galactica’s clock, which means that Helo is working a punishing schedule to be back on-duty the following morning. Adama’s comment that he seems to remember a squadron of mark twos on the starboard flight-deck “yesterday” creates a problem that I will resolve in the third component of Racetrack Chronicles. And it does leave a mystery of why the Cylons destroyed the armistice station at least thirteen hours before the attacks. But, look, the Galactica is on a skeleton crew, so of course they’re busy; and I don’t know—One is a practical guy but numerology plays a big role in the mythos, so maybe Two felt that the symbolism of thirteen was poetic. But most importantly, this solution works better than any other. Any other solution has much steeper drawbacks.

(A brief word about the Pegasus‘ clock, because it illustrates why this stuff matters. In the fourth component of Racetrack Chronicles, I supplied the Caprica-Pegasus time difference, and I just plucked it out of the air to accentuate the point that time in the RDM-verse is tricky. Applying it here, I realized that the time-difference that I specified must be wrong: It calls for Pegasus time to be in the early afternoon when Shaw arrives, but Cain refers to chewing her out as a “midmorning snack.” The Pegasus‘ clock can therefore be no more than five hours ahead of Caprica City and I must correct my draft.)

The Last Hours of the Colonies.

“But wait,” you’re surely thinking! “Can’t we use that solution to disassemble the Miniseries, ‘Epiphanies,’ and ‘The Plan,’ and put their scenes back together in their correct chronological order?”


Yes. We. Can. Here’s the chart:

To make sure this works, I cut together the footage in this correct correct chronological sequence, starting with Laura and Adar and ending with Adama assuming control of the fleet. Unfortunately, copyright won’t permit me to make it public (I do intend to contact Universal and ask them). The bottom line is, the timeline disparities can be ironed out and the story does hang together (mostly—with a little fudge) within the ground-rules of physics. I continue to be very impressed by how well it all works together.


Musicam novam præsento. This is a short guitar instrumental piece that I recorded this week; it’s a little reminiscent of the kind of thing that I would do with backing tracks when I first started recording. If you’ve been following along with my music tag, there’s really nothing new in terms of production here, save that I tried to go much lighter on the compression, which I feel that I can overdo. I feel like this is an incremental improvement, there’s better separation between the instruments, but there’s still more build-up in the upper mids than I’d like. Room to grow.

The main rhythm guitar is the T12, there’s a bit of 7-string in the “chorus,” and the acoustic is a J200-style mic’d with an Audix CX112B pointed at the 12th fret and an MXL 990 pointed at the bridge. (The 990 is muddy, so taking the edge of trebly sounds is a good use-case for it.) The solo is my JPM 335 through a Digitech Bad Monkey. I did try a couple of experiments in the bass and drums. I plugged the bass into an amp (a solid-state Fender) rather than straight into the desk, and in addition to a DI from the line out, I stuck a subkick in front of the amp. I also approached the drums a little differently: It’s still MT Power Drums, but I rendered it as four tracks, one with kick only, one with snare only, one with “overheads” only, and then one with everything fed through TDR’s Proximity effect to emulate a room-mic. Then I treated the four tracks as though they were recorded drums for purposes of the mix, and I feel like the result is pretty good.

I think that the 335 and the mixture of electric 12-string and acoustic 6-string gives it a kind of 90s alternative/Britpopp feel, the organ and the delay on the guitar at the end are a little Floydian, and I like the harmonic minor run at the end of the solo with its flat seconds and fifths:


How I use iOS

In my previous post, I discussed how I use Wunderlist, and teased a post about how I use iOS. Much of what I’m going to say will be very familiar to anyone who listens to Cortex, because I’ve learned a lot from Grey, filtered through my own situation, but I think that there may be some value in this (if only that of concision) for some of you.


When I was in my twenties, I loved mucking around with Linux, building PCs—that sort of thing. Somewhere along the line, it lost its appeal. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but suppose your hobby in your twenties was hotrodding cars and tinkering with them: As cars have grown more dependent on electronics, I should imagine that the fun has drained out of them for the amateur mechanics. I still work with hardware all the time, but for utility not fun. It’s always with a view toward an end rather than being an end in itself, just as I might spend an evening under the hood installing a cold-air filter, but I wouldn’t take the engine apart for kicks.

The more that writing has occupied my time, the less interested I’ve become in how the motor works than whether it goes. I no longer feel any desire to personally compile a kernel, shell, program; I’m more interested in having a computing environment that lets me work efficiently rather than being work itself. And Apple products, famously, work. I bought my first MacBook in 2009 and my first Mac in 2011, but the iPhone 4s was the real gateway drug. That device fitted my brain like a glove. Everything about it was crisp and elegant and clean and simple—it felt like both the future and like a device that should always have been; quickly, it started to feel that it had always been. The 5c was, impossibly, even better. In 2015, Macs became my primary computing device, although I should say that the iPad (currently a 3, soon to be a Pro 9.7”) is probably my primary device at home. I don’t wear a watch, but if I were to start, it’d be an Apple Watch. (I don’t like wearing things on my wrist; it’s just a personal quirk.) Sold.

This “all in on Apple” approach was galvanized by Microsoft’s failed Windows 8 experiment, and sealed because it happened to coincide with the “summer of hell” to which I alluded in my Wunderlist post. One of my colleagues was out on maternity leave; it was a small department, so everyone had a lot more work to do, but as the generalist in the office (i.e. the person who didn’t have a specific focus on particular systems), a lot of it fell on me, and it became stunningly difficult to manage. I had to get organized. Wunderlist was the key, but applying Grey’s teaching from Cortex and adapting it to my circumstances made it very appealing to have one integrated system on many devices, because I no longer had the luxury of knowing where I would be at any given moment.

Setting up iOS.

I am picky about how I set up my iOS devices, and somewhat picky about how I set up Macs. (This post isn’t about what we will soon be able to call, to my delight, MacOS, but I can’t resist pointing out: On a MacBook, especially on a 2016 MacBook, you should not have the dock at the default size and in the default position! So much wasted screen!) The general principle, which I commend even if you decline the rest of my advice, and which applies to Windows just as readily, is this: Everything you use all the time should be immediately to hand, and everything else should be packed out of the way. You don’t want a lot of clutter. And you don’t want visual noise: You want a wallpaper that’s clean, non-distracting, and which provides good separation between the background and the icons. I’ll give you a pass for the lock-screen, but a family photo on your home-screen is no way to say “I love you”!

Those principles can be seen in the screencaps that I posted previously; add to those my poor old broken-screen 5c, which I sometimes use for a few hours in the evening while the 6 (will be an SE in a few days, actually) recharges if I don’t want to pull out the iPad:

iPhone 6 iPhone5 iPad

So we have a dark background on each—it’s a little more stylized on the iPad, but in both cases, the rule is: Dark background (when I remake the SHIELD wallpaper for the Pro, I will go darker), clean separation between the icons and the background, only regularly-used icons on the home-screen.

I have some rules that apply to any iDevice. Settings always lives in the top left-hand corner; the clock usually in the top right-hand corner. The second row (this gets a little hinky on iPad, because of course the icons move if you turn it around; I mostly use it in portrait) always contains Notes, Dropbox, and Gdocs. The bottom row always contains social media. Then there’s always at least one empty row to separate the dock, and three apps in the dock: Always Wunderlist on the right, always email in the middle. (I flirted with the Outlook app for a while, but Mail’s just a better fit for me; try several clients, you never know which will work best for you.)

  • Regarding Notes: The trick—it’s not much of a secret, but I’m always surprised by how few people seem to have this set up—is that you should be syncing Notes with iCloud on all your devices.  That’s what changes Notes from a scribble-pad (that’s what TextEdit and Stickies are for!) into a genuinely useful notekeeping system, especially when you remember that you can use it from any web browser in a pinch. 
  • Regarding Gdocs and Dropbox: I flirted with following Grey down the Byword path, but Gdocs meets all my writing needs comfortably, and while Byword is probably superior in some regards, it’s hard to imagine what benefit would accrue. It’s terrific to be able to write literally anywhere (confessedly you’re unlikely to want to tap out a novel on an iPhone!) and pick up again on any other device. The iPad is the primary writing device, and I’m currently using a Logitech Keys-to-Go bluetooth keyboard for it, which I would call “adequate,” although I’m comfortable typing on glass for light-duty writing.

The iPad and the 5 (which functions as an ersatz iPad Micro rather than a phone) each have a scanning app and Workflow in the top row and Google Sheets in the productivity row. I am auditioning InstaPDF, and it will probably replace TinyScanner. I am a marginal Workflow user; I use it for a few logging  operations, it manages my morning and evening playlists, and I have a few workflows to notify my wife of various things. Workflow is still relatively new, I’ve only been using it for a couple of months, but I think it’s well worth the incidental cost.

The iPhone is a little different. Calendar replaces Sheets, because, straightforwardly, I don’t use Sheets on the phone and I use the calendar all the time. Messages is on the home-screen and the phone app is on the dock because—well, because it’s a phone. I have a folder called “Health” which contains the apps for my MiBand (I know that I said that I don’t like wearing things on my wrist—I don’t, and I’m not happy; in a perfect world, I’d have an anklet for the MiBand) and for my wife’s fitbit (lives on my phone because she carries a flip-phone). The one that usually gets an eyebrow-lift out of people is the bottom right-hand corner. It’s important (especially on the Brobdingnagian 6) to have any apps that I might need to tap while driving or otherwise using the phone one-handed within easy reach of my thumb, especially apps that make noise (and thus may need to be silenced). The dot folder becomes a second dock, and currently contains a couple of radio apps, Music, Youtube, Overcast, and Workflow. Unibox (which I use for one of my email accounts—maybe we’ll talk about email next, but I have a rule that forwards anything from my manager to that account to minimize the chances of missing something from her) also lives here.

Finally, a look at my rarely-seen second screen:


This is another place where I want consistency. The top left-hand corner always has a folder called “Comms,” which contains any communications app that doesn’t live on the main-screen: Sype, Facetime, things like that. “Utils” comes next; it contains what you’d expect: It’s the toolbag. The App Store lives here, as do Gdrive, DeskConnect, PhotoShare (a Bluetooth file-transfer app that sometimes comes in handy because the iPad is wireless-only and not everywhere has it), and so on. Finally, “Extras” is  a home for everything else. The paradigm here is that if an app isn’t on the home-screen, I’m normally going to launch it with Spotlight rather than scrolling and tapping, but sometimes I scroll-and-tap, so I still want some basic organizational structure.

Odds and ends.

Speaking of Spotlight—and this is true on the Mac, too—my feeling is that Spotlight is for launching apps, period. It becomes a much more nimble tool if you go into its settings and remove everything else from its scope. I also encourage people to make use of both Do Night Disturb and Night Shift. DND is an obvious one: Schedule it overnight, be choosy about who’s on your favorites list. Night Shift arrived in iOS 9.3; it warms the color palette of the screen by a little or a lot in a way that’s easier  on the eyes in low light conditions. Find a balance that works nicely for you and schedule it to start around about the earliest possible time that you might go to bed and to end about the latest possible time that you might leave the house. (You can also find both of these in Control Center for ad-hoc situations.)

In fine.

Computers exist in order to allow humans to accomplish useful things. The computing device that is good and well-configured is the one that is as transparent as possible: The interface gets out of your way and lets you work without having to think a lot about what’s going on under the hood. (Well, mostly—all tech people periodically get into a “let’s fiddle around with the carburetor” mood.) You want to think about and look for apps that will actually help you accomplish things or improve your life, and arrange them in a way that’s clean, intuitive, and easy. That, plus consistency between devices, makes for an easy, smooth-sailing life in iOS-land.


How I use Wunderlist

Last summer, I was drowning. I had far too much to do, I knew that I needed help—or at least guidance—but I wasn’t sure what or where to get it. I found it in a podcast called Cortex and a tasklist app called Wunderlist. I liked the latter so well that I made a video urging its virtues! A year later, Wunderlist remains essential to my life, and I want to share some observations about how I use it.

General principles.

Before we even get to Wunderlist per se, I will tell you that my “task-list paradigm,” so-to-speak, is built on two foundation:

  • First: Have one task-list. You might have many lists of various kinds in your task-list system, but have one list of tasks. (I’ll get more granular about that concept in a moment.)
  • Second: Everything that I think of (or that I’m asked to do) that needs done can and should be thought of in either of two categories—either I am doing it right now, or it’s going on the task-list. Leave no middle-ground. “I’m walking back to my office and I’ll do it in two minutes” is not a third category: It falls into the second category. 

These two paradigms apply to any task-list system; I use Wunderlist, but you might prefer paper or an app like Omnifocus, but these two foundational principles apply to any system.

The next thing to say is that I have Wunderlist everywhere. It’s is installed on all of my iOS devices; the app lives in the bottom-right of the dock:

But I have the app installed on neither my home nor office Mac. That’s because I have it open in Safari on those devices; there’s a reason why, and we’ll get to it shortly.

Lists other than the task-list.


Now let’s talk about lists. I have one task-list and many other lists in Wunderlist. It’s easier to explain if we start with the latter. I have, for example, a list titled “Books, movies, and music.” Whenever there’s a movie or TV show that I might want to watch, or a song I want to listen to or buy, it goes onto the BMM list. It isn’t itself a task-list, but I might have an item or items on my task-list that relate to the BMM list—I might put “movie night” as an item on the task-list, for example. Movie night comes around, and I just pull up the BMM list. In the same way, I have a shopping-list for Menards; that isn’t a task-list either, but I might put “go to Menards” on my task-list.

This inevitably brings up a question: Why not just use subtasks? Why not just have a task “Go to Menards” and build a shopping list of subtasks within that task?” And the answer is that I do—sometimes. I just checked-off a task “Kroger” that had a shopping list in the subtasks this afternoon. So when do I use subtasks versus separate lists? It’s mostly intuition, but thinking about it a little, the primary question is the closeness of the relationship between the list and the task. Here’s what I mean. The Menards list, for example, has a dehumidifier on it, but I have no intention of buying it the next time that I go to Menards; it’s just on my DRADIS for things that I’m interested in looking at sometime when I’m at Menards with a few minutes to spare. By contrast, I had a task “go to Kroger” precisely in order to pick up specific items. Similarly, the BMM list isn’t a list of things I want to read or watch right now, it’s just things I’m interested in at some point, so it can’t easily attach to attach it to a discrete event. (You could make an argument that some lists—the BMM list, my list of software that I want to check out, etc.—really belong in Notes rather than Wunderlist, and that would and will be true if and when the number of items gets out of hand. Right now, I find that it’s small enough that I can manage.)

I also have a separate list called “Templates,” which stores checklists that are used often but at irregular intervals. Packing lists for various permutations of “going out-of-town,” “going out-of-state,” and “going out-of-country” live in this list; so do many tasks that are multi-step and for which I might forget a step if I don’t use a checklist, or that have many steps, such that if I’m interrupted during the process, working through a checklist lets me know know exactly where I left off in the process when I come back to it. Confessedly, this is one of those things where Wunderlist’s limitations force a bit of a bodge. The iOS app doesn’t allow you to copy lists. But the web interface does—there are actually several things that you either can’t do in the app or that are just easier to do in the web interface, which is why I use the web interface on my Macs rather than having the app installed on them. When I carry out a task for which I have a template, I just pull up Safari, copy the relevant item from the Templates list to my task-list (called “Primary” in my system, although you can call it anything you like so long as there’s only one of them), then tailoring its name if necessary.

(I have a couple of shared lists, but these are rarely-used right now, so I don’t have much to say about them. But I will observe from past use that if you have a minion of some kind who uses Wunderlist already, shared lists in Wunderlist are a great way to manage minions—and, I hope to be managed: Each Gru is in turn someone’s minion.)

The task-list.

So, finally, we turn to the task-list itself. I generally use the iPhone app to add and check-off tasks, and then fine-tune through the web interface if needed. For example, some tasks have due-dates, or need to be split into subtasks. Sometimes a task will recur. Sometimes it will turn into a template on completion: For example, we had not been on vacation recently, and had to take an unplanned trip to Missouri; my packing list for that trip was, when completed, moved to templates and fine-tuned to account for the things that got forgotten or unnecessarily included.

Most tasks, however, are short, sweet, and simple one-shots. If it comes to my attention during the morning that I have an errand to run at lunchtime, I’ll just add the errand to my tasklist, and check it off when it’s done. When appropriate, that task will get marked as important. Sometimes, I will have a single task “lunch” marked as important with several subtasks: For example, where I want to eat, the errands that I have to run, and a reminder that the south bridge will be closed this afternoon so I’d better take the north route back to the office. I use both due-dates and recurrence as necessary; I have a daily-recurring task called “Meds” for example, which has a subtask for each of my meds; I check off the ones I actually take and invariably mark the task itself complete so that it pops back up the next day. Ditto on a weekly basis for “laundry,” and biweekly (except for winter) “mow lawn.”

(Another nice feature about the web app is that it shows you a progress bar on the background of each task on the list.)

Perhaps worth mentioning also is a conceptual divide between tasks and long-term projects. Things on my task-list are, generally, things that I will (or should) be doing sometime in the immediate (or at least foreseeable) future; I have a separate list for long-term projects that I may get around to some time. A good example of the distinction might be a double-neck guitar that I’ve been building at a snail’s pace for a couple of summers now. If there were to be a list for it, that list might live in long-term projects, because on any particular day or in any particular month, I probably won’t do anything with it, and a fundamental concept to the way I approach computers (more on this in the next post) is that you want to put things you need in easy reach and banish everything else from sight. By contrast, on my tasklist, I have a task to buy a particular widget for that project; I’m not in any hurry, but I could buy it any time and my intention is to buy it whenever I get around to it. Thus, there is a kind of immediacy to the “buy widget” task that earmarks it for the tasklist that doesn’t apply to the project to which it technically belongs. This is admittedly a “feel” thing rather than a hard rule, but I think you do develop a feel for these things.

Finally, a word on notes. Sometimes I add notes to tasks—but not generally. Notes are used for lists in my “Podcast” folder; I have a list of potential show ideas and a list titled “show notes” into which I move whatever the topics we plan to talk about while recording, and there are often notes attached to items on that list which contains all the shownotes for the episode that we are recording next. But I usually use Notes or sometimes GDocs for that sort of notekeeping.

In fine.

So that’s my system. I don’t claim that it’s a brilliant or insightful one, or that Wunderlist is the only or even the best tasklist app; it depends on the shape of your brain. But it’s a system that works well for me, and I commend it to your consideration.

Next post: How I use iOS.