Greg Boone

Rocky Mountain Way: A crossword puzzle

This is my second crossword, a 15×15 themed puzzle with 68 words. It is themed and though it’s still only an OK puzzle it’s much better than my last in some important ways.

  1. Many fewer obscure clues. The last puzzle had many clues that would be considered too obscure for a submittable puzzle. For example: “Gujarat City SANAND (6)”, “Like a Dickens abbr. SER (3)”, and “Transporter Protien inits. OATP (4)”.
  2. Better clues, or fewer misspelled words. My first puzzle had, for example, “Newsome arrested over racist flag BRI (3)” when her name is BREE (4). It’s still a good clue, I just wish I had been able to use her actual name.
  3. A far superior grid. This puzzle was done with the whole of the NYT “How to make a crossword” series complete and part 3 was immensely helpful for designing a grid that made the puzzle fun and challenging to solve.

My first crossword was designed in Numbers and exported to PDF for printing and submission. The NYT series pointed me to a new web-based and open source crossword builder called Phil. It comes with a word list built in which saved me a few trips to onelook and helped maintain symmetry as I was designing the grid. Phil also exports the puzzle to a printable PDF, including a version ready for submission, PUZ file, and an “xw” file, which appears to be just JSON under the hood.

Here’s the puzzle (and the submitable version with the solution). If you’re so inclined, give it a shot and leave your thoughts about it in the comments. Oh, and despite the improvements, I still don’t have a good clue for 38 across. But here’s a clue for 52 down

Morning smiles

There’s a period of the morning, from about 7 until 9, when I get to hang out with László on my own. I usually wake up earlier and let Danielle catch a couple hours of baby-free sleep. It’s a time I cherish because Laci has a special face he only puts on when he wakes up.

It’s a mushy, tired smile, unforced and unintentional. During the day he smiles at things. He’s starting to choose to smile at things. But these smiles, they’re the kind he might try to hide if he gets older and decides he isn’t a “morning person.”

I’ve never taken a photo of these morning smiles. They’re fast, fleeting, and hard to predict, but I also haven’t tried. We photograph László a lot, and not having this documented in digital memory is a way of keeping this for ourselves. As he gets older, finds friends, and develops a private life, I think the memory of these morning smiles will take on a new meaning, a piece of our lives that only belonged to us and him. In the mean time, they’re something to look forward to every morning when we pick him up out of his bassinet to greet the day.

How insurance companies wear you down before providing benefits

This is a story that starts with a baby. We welcomed a baby to the family last Friday. Since he was late pre-term we were in the NICU for a few days before being finally discharged on Tuesday afternoon. Before we left, a lactation consultant at the hospital said we should check with our insurance company to see if we qualify for a free breast pump. Most insurance companies cover the purchase of a breast pump with a $0 copay which is great because we need one to help us feed our premature baby.

When I called the insurance company, they said there were providers online where we could order one and have it shipped to our house, and that it usually takes a few days depending on availability. They then sent me a list of in-network providers of “durable medical goods” (DMG) near me who I could reach out to.

This list had three vendors on it. Three. For all of Colorado. I called each of them: One didn’t supply breast pumps anymore. One was actually a Target CVS and was not an in-network DMG provider. The third said we would need to get a prescription from our doctor, fax it to them with proof of insurance, and it would be delivered to us within 7-10 business days.

I’d understand the hassle if a breast pumps were dangerous, like opiods, or hard to transport, like an iron lung, but you can buy literally any breast pump you want at any of the following stores, put it in your car next to the carseat, and go home and feed your baby: CVS, Wallgreens, Target, some grocery stores with large pharmacies, the hospital gift shop where our baby was born, any of the other hospitals in Denver, baby stores like The Mammahood, and probably a few other places I don’t even know about.  There are also zillions of them available on Amazon if you can wait a couple days. These are widely available commodities. It shouldn’t be such a hassle to get one to us.

I’d also understand the hassle of breast pumps were expensive, but they’re not. Our insurance will cover up to $165.04 and you can buy a pretty decent one for less than that! So why, then, does it take going through a medical supply company with a prescription to buy something that costs so little? Even if there’s a small amount of waste and fraud in the system, the costs of processing all of the paper work alone must balance out to more unless the insurance company is getting a hell of a deal on these pumps. Think about it, to get this breast pump so far has involved:

  • An hour of my time on the phone with the insurance company and the in-network providers who can fulfill this benefit.
  • Roughly an hour total of time spent by doctors, nurses, and medical assistants helping us issue the prescription and navigate the process.
  • Pump rental while we wait at an (admittedly affordable) rate of $4 per day. If the DMG provider takes the full 10 business days our total not-covered, out-of-pocket, not-FSA/HSA eligible costs will be $68-72.
  • Time spent processing the claim and prescription on the DMG provider and insurance company’s side.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median hourly wage for a general pediatrician is $90 per hour, $35 per hour for a Registered Nurse, and $52 for a Nurse Practitioner. Given these rates, and how many individuals in each of those professions we’ve talked to about this, it seems likely all of this totals more than $165 in total economic activity. All of this with no promise of any specific brand or type of product, leaving us consumers in the dark about what we might actually get. If we end up with a manual pump, for example, we’ll probably just go out and buy our own electric pump out of pocket.

A common argument against Medicare for all or single payer systems in the US is that private markets are more efficient and therefore provide lower costs. This a large, half-billion dollar insurance company has come up with is far from efficient and at some point consumers who can afford it will give up and buy their own out of pocket and those who can’t will either give up and pay more in rental costs or wait it out and eventually settle for whatever the PPO’s DMG provides.

There’s a much simpler solution if you cut out all the bullshit wrapped up in the business model of preferred provider network-dependent insurance companies. A single payer like Medicare could simply issue a coupon to us for $165.04 and obligate any retail store selling breast pumps to take it much like how grocery stores are obligated to accept SNAP benefits. Then, no matter where you live, or where or how you delivered your baby, you can redeem the benefit you’re entitled to with little economic friction.

Better yet, institutions like hospitals and birthing centers could simply give the mom a pump upon discharge and let CMS know. This option also reduces the risk for fraud because it has a built-in mechanism for verifying whether the person in question did in-fact need a breast pump.

Also, WTF is this $165.04 business. Just round it down to $165.

Reducing dependence on Amazon

A couple years ago, I fell in love with Amazon Subscribe & Save. I thought it would be handy to have more toilet paper, shampoo, cat litter, and other things we use on the regular shipped straight to us when we ran out. It worked better for some things — like cat food and litter, which we run through more predictably —  than others. We ended up with like a year’s supply of paper towels. It was included in Amazon Prime and we even got a small discount for scheduling more things together.

Dash buttons took us to a whole next level. How convenient, I thought, to be able to just order more of the exact thing I needed at the press of a button. So I got one for paper towels, trash bags, and laundry detergent and promptly cancelled all of our Subscribe and Save.

The thing with Amazon is, they have all kinds of convenient things like this. Amazon Prime itself is super convenient but do we really need it? No. As I’ve started to learn the social cost of these conveniences, I’ve begun thinking twice about whether the convenience is worth the cost.

We cancelled our Prime membership a couple months ago.

Amazon’s impact on Seattle

While Amazon has added thousands of jobs to the city of Seattle, it has also made it a dramatically expensive and inequitable city to live in. The company’s rapid growth has caused a housing shortage to become a housing drought, with the city unable to keep up with demand, despite building new apartments fast than any other city in the country. This wouldn’t be terrible in and of itself but the company doesn’t seem to be doing anything to neutralize the inequities it’s created in the city. Shrugging it off instead as the price of having a company of its size in the community.

Commerce ethics

Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person. One might think that means working for his company must be lucrative, right? Maybe it is if you’re one of their software developers, but if you’re one of their delivery drivers, not so much. Amazon Flex pays well for an hourly job, but like many gig economy jobs, employees don’t get the guarantees and protections that full-time employment would carry, and even fewer still than a union-represented job.

Warehouse workers, too, don’t see much share of the fortune being made off of our Prime membership. In fact, several stories in the last couple years have illustrated the social cost of rapid delivery and the conditions endured by the invisible workforce behind Amazon’s product. While $120 per year may be the appropriate price consumers are willing to pay for this product, if that price can’t support the infrastructure keeping it running, it’s not worth supporting.

Too Big to Quit?

Amazon is everywhere. They’re increasingly diversifying their product line to the point where you can get an Amazon brand anything. I have to admit they’re doing a pretty good job of it.

I own several AmazonBasics products because they’re cheaper and about as good as other brands. Walmart, Target, and other big box stores all have their off brands, and AmazonBasics isn’t much different, except that they make basically everything. Amazon Prime Video, too, is turning out some excellent original programs that deserve to be made. I’m glad Amazon is giving them a chance. Finally, Amazon Web Services is inescapable and invisible from most choices you make on the web. One thing these three Amazon products have in common is that they’re really good at what they do. Together with acquisitions like Whole Foods make Amazon increasingly difficult to escape. (A seemingly-local coffee roaster here in Denver is actually owned by Whole Foods and, now, indirectly Amazon.) They’re yet another agglomerate company endemic to modern life.

Just as we can’t stop our bank from selling our mortgage to a giant commercial bank, we can choose to put our microeconomic choices into local businesses. Just as we can bank with a local credit union or community bank, we can choose not to give Amazon $120 every year just for access to their elite delivery service.

We can still get free delivery, it just takes longer without Prime — as long or longer even than the free delivery options from competitors like Target, if our recent experience is any indication. The forcing function of this is that we now seek out things we need quickly from local sources. This sometimes includes big box stores like Target, but also includes the shops in our neighborhood as well. Target may be a big box, but they pay a fair wage to our neighbors and full time employees there have the guarantees and protections that one should expect from a good job.

Some specialized items may only be purchasable from Amazon, but it’s increasingly worth the effort to be more conscious about the social costs of our spending.

Open letter to Sen. Cory Gardner of CO

Dar Senator Gardner,

It’s a good thing your President bailed you out on taking action to end child separation. Despite the fact that he said it was only something Congress could do, he managed to end his own policy of separating children at the border.

I still wonder, sometimes, when I see children peacefully strolling their children in my NW Denver neighborhood, how you can sleep at night knowing you were complicit in allowing our government to forcibly separate children from their parents.

I wonder, when I see children with their parents hiking to an alpine lake, why you declined to put your name on Sen. Feinstein’s bill that was introduced while the President insisted his hands were tied.

When I see children waiting at the airport with their parents of to destinations where they’ll assuredly be allowed to stay together upon arrival, I wonder why you decided a letter to AG Sessions from 12 Senators would be more effective than a bipartisan bill sponsored by 50.

When I see parents drop their kids off at the preschool I pass on my way to work, I wonder what you’re doing today, what you did yesterday, and what you’ll do tomorrow, to reunite these families currently imprisoned by our democratic government. Families who are being denied their liberty.

When I see you brag about being the “8th most bipartisan Senator” I wonder what that means when you fail to reach across the aisle over something so fundamental to humanity — keeping children with their families.

I wonder if you truly believe that people would flee their native countries with their children, risking their lives and permanently abandoning their communities, property, and histories, just to come to our country and commit crimes? How far do you take this theory? Do you also believe asylum seekers are actors? Do you believe every individual attempting to cross the border is definitely a member of MS-13?

Are you aware that MS-13 is a gang that originated in the United States? Are you aware that the violence people are fleeing in Central American countries was originally intimated by the United States?

Coloradans are tired of your 12 senator letters. We’re tired of your acquiescence to the President’s cruelty and acceptance of his falsehoods. We need real action, Senator. We need legislation. We need the majority party to govern. And we needed it last week.

Sincerely,
Greg Boone

Getting ready for (almost) 100 miles

On Saturday I’ll be riding 88.6 miles around the Denver metro area. It’s part of the Denver Century Ride, an annual one-day cycling event with several distances, including a full century.

I’m riding with two friends who are also doing their first distance ride ever. I’m balancing nervousness and excitement, trying to keep in mind that even if it’s difficult, it’ll be a beautiful ride and will feel good once we’re done.

Training

I didn’t have workout plans with directions like “Do 2 X 20 minutes. Minutes 1 to 18 for each effort at 90-93% of your FTP”. In part, because a lot of these sites assume you know what FTP means and it wasn’t immediately intuitive to me. But more than that, it didn’t seem like an enjoyable way to prepare for a ride I intend to enjoy, not race.

Instead I did something closer to what Bicycling Magazine recommends and took my bike in to make sure I wouldn’t get any surprises on the road.

Long rides:

18 miles around NW Denver, April 27

Many of the longer rides I did were in NW Denver, Wheat Ridge, and Lakewood. The first one followed about 7 miles of the ride’s route into the area north of the Federal Center, I then circled around and came back on a familiar route along Garrison St. through Lakewood and Wheat Ridge.

19 miles on Clear Creek, S Platte River trails, May 4

This was a good endurance training route. It’s long enough that attempting to ride with minimal stopping and it’s built with some distance flexibility. Both trails meander along with convenient exits back into neighborhoods. On this particular route, I cut off on 15th St. to return pretty directly into NW Denver.

Total weekly mileage: 41 miles.

39.8 miles along the Century Ride route, May 12

One of my co-riders (teammates? we don’t have kits but we’re acting like a team) and I met at REI and followed the route we will ride on Saturday for the middle 40 miles, including a first attempt at the biggest climbs. I wanted to try to tack on the next 20 at some point but ultimately didn’t make it.

Total weekly mileage: 52 miles.

Red Rocks Amphitheater Park in the near background with Alameda Ave. in the foreground
Can you see Red Rocks?

40 miles in Seattle, May 20

I went to visit my brother the weekend of May 20 and took it a little easy on the training while I was there. I rented a commuter bike for the flexibility of using it for getting around and exercise. I think I’d probably spring for a road bike next time because I could really (for the first time) feel the difference in gearing and frame geometry as I rode. Still, it was a good, if exhausting ride, from Seattle to Snohomish.  I got in some sustained climbs over steep grades. It was also a beautiful trip through exurban Seattle that made me want to try the STP ride sometime.

A bike trail bridge in a verdant exurban area

27 miles meandering around the Boulder Tpke, May 24

In a funny looking ride, I found my way to the Denver-Boulder Turnpike trail and then wound my way back into Denver through the northwestern suburbs. This route gives huge views of the front range and was a great route to re-acclimate to the altitude.

Total weekly mileage: 37.6 miles.

Two weeks before the ride: 81 miles total

Two weeks before the ride I joined my friends or for a trip to Boulder. I think we all would have rode back to Denver if we had 1) started earlier 2) it wasn’t so damn hot and 3) we didn’t stop for a meal in Boulder. We were all pretty creaky by the time we got there but 34 miles was good training for all of us, and the climbing distribution is similar to how we’ll be climbing on Saturday.

The front range behind Boulder with bike handlebars in the foreground to the right

On top of that ride, I added a 24.5 mile loop around the South Platte Trail, looping into the Lakewood Gulch trail to get back into NW Denver, and an 18 miler similar to the one I did at the beginning of the month. I capped off the week with a 41 mile trip careening down Garrison St. through Lakewood to meet up with the Bear Creek – South Platte River – Clear Creek trails. This 41 miles I did largely without stopping and was racing the sunset. A+ ride, I highly recommend it.

Interval training

One thing I knew I had to get better at before the big ride was climbing, especially in short, steep bursts. I did one high altitude ride, attempting to reach Loveland Pass (on my birthday). I was really not ready for that kind of ride but I managed to make it about 6 miles up before I was out of water and time. Sure was pretty up there though.

A road turning right with a mountain range in the background

The more meaningful interval work I did was repeatedly riding up and over the Regis hill, starting at Lowell Blvd, and working my way west. It’s a little hard to describe concisely but the Strava map shows the short bursts of steep climbing spaced by longer descents and gentle climbs back up on the next block. These rides had the effect of pushing my heart rate and muscles for short periods spaced with long active recovery sessions. The last time I attempted this, I managed a PR on the climb back up Lowell which felt pretty great. I’m hoping it help with the more residential, suburban parts of the ride where the roads are steeper and often seem to have stoplights at the top.

Denver Food Rescue

It’s not about the training but it certainly helped my train: I started riding for Denver Food Rescue this summer. In total, I think I’ve hauled about a ton of food on my own bike, and in total, me and fellow riders have easily rescued 5 tons of food since I started in May. I think I carried about 300 pounds last weekend. Learn more about Denver Food Rescue and how to ride with them on their website! Here’s a picture of my DFR trailer loaded up last weekend.

A long bike trailer loaded with groceries
Please ignore the automobiles in the background.

Are we ready?

I’m as ready as I’ll be! I think no matter how many mile I logged, I’d still feel like there was one more ride I could have done to help me prepare. The ride starts at 6AM Saturday morning!

 

Battle of the Bands, a crossword

I recently read first in a series of posts by The NY Times Crossword writers about how to make a crossword. It kicks off the series covering the most important part of a crossword: the theme. I was inspired enough by it to try my hand at creating my own crossword.

I’m calling it Battle of the Bands and I’m mostly pleased with it. If you’d like, download it and try to solve it!

There are spoilers below for the crossword so if you want to solve it first stop reading now!

The theme

As the article says, the key to a theme is finding matched length pairs of clues that relate to each other in a common theme way. Iteration is a good strategy for theming a puzzle. For example, mine started with “punk bands from Minnesota” as the theme. I thought HUSKERDU (8) would make a good anchor clue. I started writing down different band names in that format: DILLINGERFOUR (14) HOLDSTEADY (10) REPLACEMENTS (12) LIFTERPULLER (12) SOULASYLUM (10) SUBURBS (7) but couldn’t come up with any other (notable) bands with 8 letter names. I briefly considered LFTRPLLR but thought he lack of vowels could be a problem.

So I expanded the theme to become “punk bands from DC and Minnesota,” which expanded the field a bit with possibles like BADBRAINS (9) MINORTHREAT (11) FUGAZI (6) BLACKFLAG (9) STATEOFALERT (12) ROLLINSBAND (11). It’s worth mentioning there are still no 8 letter names in there so I had to jettison the Hüskers.

Ultimately, I found myself with two 9 letter clues and two 10 letter clues. They also happened to match each other in terms of where they’re from: BADBRAINS and BLACKFLAG (9) and HOLDSTEADY and SOULASYLUM (10).

Arrangement

The puzzlemasters Tausig and Vigeland gave a few hard rules about how puzzles should be arranged but not enough that I had any real idea of what I was doing was correct — I’ll have to wait for part 2, I suppose.

One thing I learned from the post was that symmetry is one of a few hard rules of crossword construction. This turns out to be a useful rule that creates the blockiness of a typical crossword puzzle. I grabbed some graph paper and positioned the two longer answers in the middle of puzzle and the shorter ones toward the top and bottom. Suddenly I had a few distinct regions in the puzzle and I could start cramming it with full words.

Filling

Finding fill words was as hard as figuring them out in a published crossword. Harder even, it was also the part I had no idea about. I didn’t have much of a strategy beyond looking up different patterns on onelook.com. I’m hoping subsequent posts in the series will have some more advice about how to determine how much black space is too much, how to decide whether “cosswordese” or foreign words are appropriate, and other puzzle construction tips.

Anyway, here it is, the first crossword puzzle. It’s got it’s faults but I think it turned out alright for a pilot! Let me know if you solve it and have any advice!

Download the puzzle: Battle of the Bands

99PI takes on Gerrymandering

I’ve been fascinated by Gerrymandering since I took it up as the topic of a Human Geography class in my sophomore year of college. It’s an amazingly complicated topic that is often oversimplified. It’s also suddenly in the national spotlight. Three Supreme Court decisions this year will shape how we talk about redistricting and representation in our republic for decades. Earlier this year in Pennsylvania, the Court declined to hear a challenge from Republicans over a lower court decision that the current maps were unconstitutional. Back in October, the court heard arguments from Democrats against the Republican drawn map in Wisconsin that delivered a two-thirds majority to the party in recent elections. The court is preparing to hear from Republicans in Maryland about partisan gerrymanders in their state that favor Democrats.

Arguments about whether and how Gerrymandering has a place in American politics gets at the core of what it means to have a representative federalist system of government. Saying they are always evil or always good does a disservice to the deeper questions at play: How do you ensure racial minorities aren’t mapped out of existence, for example. How do you encourage underrepresented groups to be politically active when the map is drawn against them? Questions like these and more are hotly debated and essential to the health of our republic.

99 Percent Invisible’s recent episode about Gerrymandering really unpacked the controversy over the practice and what’s making it such a hot topic now. It’s a great episode that treats the issue with the carefulness and thought it deserves. Check it out: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/gerrymandering/

Do you remember?

I just finished Do You Remember, a podcast chronicling the life of the band Hüsker Dü, from Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current and have to say it was a great listen. It’s a short, five episode series, featuring interview audio from all three members of the legendary punk band, including what is probably the last recorded interview Grant Hart did before he died last September.

Among the things I loved about this podcast was learning little things I never knew about the band. Like how the band met at Cheapo Records in St. Paul. How Bob Mould was a Macalester student and planned to go back home for the summer because the band wasn’t getting any gigs. That is, until Grant booked them a show on the sly just to keep him in town. And how the band was sort of the first music internet start up with Bob using email to advance venues about upcoming shows before they arrived in town. The conflicts that kept the band going and ultimately broke them up.

I didn’t grow up with Hüsker Dü but I knew of them by way of The Hold Steady’s We Can Get Together (“There’s a girl on Heaven Hill / I come up to her cabin still / She said Hüsker Dü got cool / They started in St. Paul / Do you Remember Makes No Sense At All”) and later Bob Mould’s more recent solo work. Discovering the Hüskers later in life, their sound doesn’t make me wistful for their career, but reminds me of what I love about home.

Like their punk and hardcore contemporaries in the DC hardcore scene, the Hüskers and their main rival, The Replacements, together defined a particular sound that permeated through the Twin Cities scene — characterized by the climate, culture, and economy of the place. I knew bands that still sounded like the Hüskers when I was a kid, and I know some of them still today. If you were to ask me what the Twin Cities sounds like, I’d probably throw on my 7″ of In a Free Land I got at Record Store Day three years ago and follow it with some Prince. The Hüskers are the clustered up clever kids at the Triple Rock (RIP) on a February night; Prince, the weird, androgynous kids front row at First Avenue for the headliner. Either way, you’re having a music experience uniquely Minnesotan.

IMG_3612.jpg

Listening to the podcast, I thought a lot about my uncle who bounced around different bands in the same era and my own peers who picked up guitars and started making noise decades later. The kids that wouldn’t let not being able to afford Marshall stacks or expensive music lessons stop them from being in a band. They had a sound and a story to share and damn if they weren’t going to share it. It’s the kind of stories I hope my own kids can hear when they find my sticker-riddled guitar from middle school, plug it into the 12 Watt amp, and start jamming.

Even if you don’t know the first thing about punk music or Hüsker Dü or the Twin Cities, give this podcast a listen.