Retro Posts, Week of 10/10/2021

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For those who don’t follow along on Twitter or my Facebook page, I post a link to “retro post” once-a-day, selecting from one of the thousands of posts I’ve written here on the blog over the last 15+ years. Here are the retro posts for this week.

You can find last week’s posts here. If you want to see these as they appear each day, you can follow me on Twitter or my Facebook page.

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Thoughts on The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

I finished reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski on Thursday. If you’re a regular reader here you’ve probably heard me mention it several times over the last week or so. The book is a collection of 100 essays, each about a player that Posnanski has rated in his own way, to form a list of the best players of all time. It is a massive book, nearly 300,000 words long, something for which I am grateful, since I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want it to end. It was so good, and part of what made it good is that it was not all all what I expected.

  1. As incredible as it seems, the book manages covers the entire history of baseball in 100 essays through the, story of 100 players. These are players I’d heard of, as well as players I’d never heard of. Several of the players never played Major League Baseball, but instead played for the Negro Leagues. Those were some of the most fascinating chapters, both incredible and heartbreaking. You can’t come away from reading the book without a good feel for the 150+ year history of the sport.
  2. Each essay is unique. The way Posnanski tells the story depends entirely on the player at the center of the essay. There is no standard, no formula. Each player is unique and each story is unique both in its details and how Posnanski tells the story. The one constant, besides baseball, is Joe’s voice: his passion for and delight of the game form the backbone the holds all of these stories together.
  3. The essays meander. I love that. The essays aren’t all a straight history of a player. Joe might start with a famous event, then go on to talk for half the essay about other things that eventually tie back to that famous event. He might start with another player entirely. He might discuss a statistic, or a questionable piece of folklore. This is where much fo the history of the sport happens, and much as a good historian can tie together different ties by identifying comparative elements, this is what the meandering achieves.

Then there is the sheer audacity of what Joe pulled off. Within these essays, there are many record achievements, some that will likely never be broken again. Take Di Maggio’s 56-game hitting streak. There are also examples of consistent, workhorse players, players who manage 3,000 or more career hits, which requires a kinds of consistency, skill, and discipline that is rare. Joe’s book is in this latter category. Joe wrote these 100 essays in 100 days, each originally published in The Athletic as it was finished. This meant he did his research, reading and writing and somehow came up with a brilliant, and on average, 3,000 word essay every single day for 100 days without fail. How did he manage such a feat? He gives a little insight in the final chapters, when he writes,

I spent almost every hour of every day thinking about ballplayers. I read books about them. I researched them. I watched movies and documentaries about them. Mostly, I remembered them, the ones I had seen, the ones I had spoken with, the ones I had heard so much about.

In a way, this sounds familiar. Ten years ago when I was writing my Vacation in the Golden Age posts, I remember doing something similar, pouring over every words in the issues of Astounding Science Fiction, referring to book about the writers that appeared in those issues, about the history of the magazines, reviewing notes in collections of stories, completely immersing myself in the era. And I was doing it part-time, and managed 42 essays over the space of more than a year. Joe did all of this and managed 100 magnificent essays in the 100 days. Like Di Maggio’s hitting streak, or Ted Williams’ .406 season, it seems almost inconceivable. Which, of course, makes it all the more impressive.

I recently wrote about my favorite baseball books, noting that my favorite was Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. Well, I think I’ll have to revised that list. There is a new leader, and that leader is The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski.

As of this writing, I’ve read 62 books this year. As usual, they run the gamut, taking me wherever the butterfly effect of reading directs me to go next. Of those 62 book, this one easily jumps to the best I’ve read this year. And I’ve got say, I think it will be hard to top it. It is that good.

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A Sequel to the Passports Story

Last week I told the story of the project manager and the passports. This week, I want to add sequel. In order to do this, we need to go back in time a few months.

In early June I began looking into how long it takes to get a passport renewed. With COVID, nothing is normal, and so I assumed this was the case with passports. Indeed, what I learned from the official State Department website for passports was to expect the total process to take about 16 weeks: 12 weeks for processing and 4 weeks for shipping. I could be a little faster if one paid the expedited fee, but there was really no rush. So at the end of June, I got new photos, filled out application forms, and submitted my application to renew my passport.

We wanted to get passports for the kids’ as well, but seeing as how kids passports have to be renewed in 5 years, we figured we’d wait until the fall to do theirs. When fall rolled around, I checked and all indications were still that 16 week turnaround time. So we got the photos, filled out applications, collected all of the necessary paperwork, and, well, I’ve told this part of the story already. Along the way, I even managed to hit a squirrel.

On Tuesday evening, Kelly and I went for a walk. When we got home, the mail had come (unusually late) and in the mail was all three of the kids’ new passports. They arrived precisely 11 days after we submitted our applications. Eleven days. That’s about 101 days less than the 16 week estimate we were given. If you take that piece of data, and add to it the fact that our appointment estimate was 45 minutes and it took 7 minutes total, I think it is fair to say that the State Department may be overestimating how long things take.

After I got over my initial disbelief that the kids’ passports had arrived in 11 days (what would have happened if we’d paid the expedite fee, I wonder?), my next natural question was: where the heck is my passport? I submitted my application 105 days ago.

Well, this morning, I checked the status of my passport online, and learned that it has shipped and I should be getting it next week. That would still be about 2 weeks shy of the original estimate.

I suppose one could argue that mine was a passport renewal, and there is more background checking to do for a middle-aged man than for 3 young kids, and that’s why there’s were done so quickly. What I can’t understand is how much the State Department is overestimating how long it takes process passport applications. Could mine be just an outlier? Maybe. But I recall my brother obtaining passports for all six of his kids earlier this year, and getting them much faster than he was told. You’d think the State Department would want to brag about such efficiency. They could market it as what bureaucracy is supposed to be like when all of the red tape is cut away.

I guess they are reluctant to do this for fear of being inundated with applications (“the hug of death,” as Tim Ferriss calls it).

Well, anyway, kudos to the hard working folks at the State Department who proceeded these passports so quickly. It was an unexpected positive moment of truth, and you deserve to be recognized for your diligence. I only wish I knew your names.

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More Lessons In UI Design

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When I work on UI design for applications I build at work, I try to make it so that the system won’t allow users to make mistakes. I don’t show fields that aren’t absolutely necessary, or options within those fields that aren’t needed for some important function in the context of what is being done. I try to make it as intuitive as possible, and though I always write documentation and help text for the systems, I try to design the UI to be self-explanatory. I put a lot of effort into this. I’ll use a recent experience to tell you why.

Our school system uses a Qualtrics app for health screening. Every morning, I get a notification–one for each of our three kids–with a link to complete the health screener. The health screener itself has eight yes/no questions that you have to answer. You tap a long Yes or No bar below each question. When selecting an option, it turns blue. It doesn’t matter which option you select, the selected option turns blue. At then end of the screen, you advance to the next page, where you verify that you’ve answered all the questions truthfully. After that, you get to a page with a green checkmark, indicating your child has cleared the health screener for school that day.

I’m up early and it is my job to do the screeners for the kids. I tap those “No” buttons 120 times a week, week in and week out. And yet, twice now–most recently yesterday morning–instead of a green checkmark, I’ve had a red X of death. Somehow, I accidentally answered a question “Yes” instead of “No.” This is annoying. It means I have to wait for the school to open, call the school, explain that I’m an idiot and accidentally selected the wrong option, and could they please correct this. Twice, this has happened to me.

The thing is, I am not an idiot. The Qualtrics application, for reasons that pass comprehension, allows users to make silly mistakes. An application–especially a health screener like this one–should never allow for mistakes like this. How could these mistakes me avoided? I can think of two easy ways:

  1. When answering the 8 questions on the first page, if you tap No, response turns green instead of blue. Green is good. If you tap Yes, the response turns red instead of blue. Red is bad. This is a quick visual cue to indicate how you answered the questions. If you see red, and didn’t mean to answer a question Yes, you can quickly correct it and watch it change green.
  2. On the second page, where you verify that your answers are true, it might be nice to display a recap of your answered, again, with Yes highlighted red and No highlighted green. Another simple check before you submit your responses.

If the Qualtrics application implemented even one of these two simple features, I’m certain that I would not have made any mistakes this year. Keep in mind, It’s not quite the middle of October. There has been, say 25 school days, which means 75 opportunities to fill out this screener. My success rate is therefore 97%. That sounds high, but given I have to fill this out for three kids each day, it also means that I can expect to make this mistake between 10 and 14 more times this school year. And I can’t imagine I am the only one making these mistakes. Which means a whole lot of frustrated parents, and a whole lot of time school administrators have to invest in correcting mistakes that parents make, when all of this can be resolved by any of the suggestions I’ve made above.

Why wouldn’t Qualtrics make this change? One reason does come to mind: Perhaps the thinking is that if “Yes” answers are flagged (e.g. “Yes, my child is awaiting the results of a COVID test”), it will discourage people from answering the questions honestly. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I could see it. Instead, the tool makes it confusing for sleepy, overworked parents to ensure they are selecting the correct options.

This is why I spend a lot of time thinking about the design and use of the UIs that I build in applications I make in my day job. I don’t want others to experience the unnecessary frustrations I have with software. I know how it makes you feel.

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7,000 Posts

Well it crept up on me, and I didn’t notice it until this evening: Yesterday’s Practically Paperless post was my 7,000th post on the blog. This morning’s post on my favorite baseball books was my 7,001st. Seven thousand posts! It’s hard to imagine that I’ve written that much here, but the evidence is right in front of me. The 7,000 post combine for 2,782,000 words. This, of course, is spread over 16 years between October 2005 and today. Still, that’s an average of around 174,000 words per year. Some years have been better than average. In my best year, 2011, I wrote 419,000 words spread over 762 posts, or just about two per day that year. 2021 is my 6th best year in terms of word count: 225,000 words spread over 348 posts–and we are only partway through October.

I don’t think 7,000 posts is like getting 2,456 hits or hitting more than 700 home runs. I’m sure there are blogs out there that have a lot more posts than I do here. Still, I’m proud of this milestone. Each post is an opportunity for me to write for an audience. Each post is an opportunity to learn and improve my craft. Each post is an opportunity to connect with readers. I love doing all three.

So I am having myself a (very) little celebration this evening, congratulating myself on managing to write 7,000 posts, and for keeping this blog going these last 16 years. And I’m already putting together a list of the next 7,000 posts to write. If you look closely at the image above, you’ll see there are already 10 in the drafts folder, waiting to be scheduled.

Thanks for reading and for making this so much fun.

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My Favorite Baseball Books, For Now

With the postseason underway, and I nearly finished with The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, I got to thinking about my favorite baseball books. I suspect that The Baseball 100 will jump toward the top–if not the top–of the list. But what are my favorites right now? My list of books I’ve read since 1996 has quite a few baseball-related books on it. Here is my selection of the best ones, in my opinion:

  1. Ball Four by Jim Bouton. A classic in the genre, and one that set the stage for the modern baseball tell-all.
  2. Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion in Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould is best known for his books and essays on paleontology and evolution in Natural History magazine. But he was a huge baseball fan, and I love the way he thinks about the game in these essays.
  3. Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. Everything I knew, or thought I knew, about Ty Cobb was dispelled by this book. I read it in the offseason. Always a good time to read baseball in order to make it a year-round sport.
  4. Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah. The book made me love Yogi even more.
  5. Casey Stengel by Marty Appel. Possibly the most remarkable career in baseball ever.
  6. Red Smith: On Baseball by Red Smith. Reading this book cemented the idea that when I grow up, I want to be a baseball writer. Unfortunately, I read this book when I was 46 years old. Fortunately, I still haven’t grown up.
  7. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Fleder. An absolutely remarkable collection of baseball writing.
  8. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The first time I’d read this book was in the aftermath of 9/11. I’d seen Field of Dreams many times before I read this book. I love Field of Dreams but this book was far and away the best thing about baseball I’d ever read.

That all said, I am enjoying The Baseball 100 so much that I suspect it will end up as #2, possibly even #1 on the list by the time that I finish.

Of course, for as many baseball books I’ve read, there are countless I have yet to read. Some that I want to read, or have been wanting to read for some time include:

And, as always, I am open to suggestions.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 2: The Basics: My Obsidian Configuration

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Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

In the first episode in this series, I discussed the basic objects in Obsidian: notes and documents. In this episode, I want to step back and talk more broadly about Obsidian itself. In order to best understand I how I use Obsidian as an Evernote substitute, I want to highlight some features of Obsidian that I use in order to get the most out of it for my paperless notes. There are two reasons I am doing this:

  1. There are some features that are not enabled by default but that I have found particularly useful.
  2. I know from experience that people will ask about what themes and plug-ins I am using in Obsidian and this makes a nice post to which I can point people for an answer.

Also, I am trying something new beginning with this episode:

  • I am creating animated GIFs to help illustrate some of the things I discuss1, something I never tried with my Going Paperless posts, so please bear with me as I figure this out. It’a a learning experience for me.

My preferred Obsidian theme: Yin and Yang

One limitation I found in Evernote is that I never had much control over the look and feel of the tool. The current version2 as of this writing allows you to configure Light or Dark mode, but that’s about it. This may not seem that important. After all, Evernote and Obsidian specialize in storing information (the former in the cloud, the latter locally in your filesystem). More and more, however, modern text editors and IDEs are being designed with a great deal of flexibility in how they look and feel. Editors like Atom, Sublime, and IDEs like Visual Studio Code all allow customization of the user interface through the creation of themes that manipulate the styles of objects that appear on the screen. Obsidian is among these tools. In Obsidian, themes are nothing more than CSS files that you can download from a community, or even create on your own.

My preferred Obsidian theme is called Yin and Yang and can be found in the Obsidian by going to Settings > Appearance > Themes, and clicking the Manage button to view a list of community themes. Obsidian themes can be used dark and light mode. Given how much time I spend on screens, I prefer dark mode.

So how do themes alter the look and feel of Obsidian? Let me illustrate. Below is what Obsidian looks like out-of-the-box in light mode (and notice that the Obsidian Help is just another Obsidian vault):

And here is what Obsidian looks like when I change it from light to dark mode:

Switching to Dark mode in Obsidian

With those images in mind, here is how Obsidian looks with the Yin and Yang theme. The image on the left is a note in edit mode; on the right is the same note in preview mode.

This is my own preference. You can keep the default theme, use one of the 70+ community themes, or create a new theme entirely on your own3

A few additional useful UI tweaks

Folding headings and lists

As I mentioned in Episode 1, notes are nothing more than plain text files that use Markdown to format the content. One nice feature that Obsidian comes with out of the box is the ability to fold your headings and lists. These features have to be enabled in the Editor settings as shown below.

Once you’ve enabled these features, you can open and close headings to show and hide the text within the heading. Using my note on my Retro Posts above as an example, here is how folding headings work:

The same works for lists. If you have a list, like an outline, each level of the list is foldable. I find both of these features very useful for focus. If I want to concentrate on just one part of a note, I can easily fold other parts so that they don’t distract me.

Useful “core” plug-ins

Obsidian comes with “core” plug-ins that are packaged with the application. There are also community-based plug-ins. In this section, I’ll talk about the “core” plug-ins that I find most useful in my pursuit of going practically paperless.

Daily notes

Daily notes are a fundamental part of Obsidian, and they are also a fundamental part of my efforts to go practically paperless with Obsidian. They are so important, that I’ll have an entire episode dedicated to them in January4. Daily notes are simply notes that you can associate with a given day. These notes have a special naming convention that uses the date to form the name of the note. This makes it useful when linking other notes to this date. Obsidian knows about all of the “backlinks” to a note–that is, all of the other notes in your vault that are linked to that note. I have actually automated my daily notes so that they are generated automatically each night, and pull in information from my calendars, making them even more useful.

Daily notes act as a kind of index to many of my other notes in Obsidian. They take the place of my timeline concept in Evernote.

An example of a daily note in Obsidian
An example of a daily note in Obsidian

Daily notes can be enabled in Settings > Core Plugins.

Starred notes

At any given moment, I have one or more notes that I use frequently, and want to be able to access quickly. This is what “starred” notes are for. After enabling this core plug-in from the Settings > Core Plugins menu, you can “star” a note. Once starred, that note will be available for quick access on the Star panel on the lefthand side of the screen. Starring a note is like creating a note shortcut in Evernote.

The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been "starred" for quick access.
The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been “starred” for quick access.

Zettelkasten prefixes

This one is a mouthful, but it refers to a fascinating method for organizing notes. I don’t use this method in its strict interpretation, but I have borrowed liberally from it for my own notes–especially my reading notes. Because of Obsidian’s ability to link notes and illustrate the relationships between notes, it has become a particularly useful tool for those who wish to have a digital Zettelkasten.

But back to the plug-in. This plug-in does 2 things:

  1. It allows you to define a “prefix” for your note titles based on a date format. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that many of my note titles begin with a long number combination like 202110111506. This number is just the current date and time in yyyymmddhhmm format. When I create a note using a prefix, Obsidian automatically generates the prefix and I can add more to the title if I want. Having the date in this format is more powerful than it may seem. When searching for notes, for instance, I have a convenient way of searching by date, something I will discuss in much more detail in Episode 11.
  2. You can also, optionally, define a template for your note so that when your note is created, not only is there a title prefix, but there can be other information preloaded in the note. This can save a lot of time, and help with standardization. When I create a new note, here is what my basic template looks like:

I’ll have more to say about Zettelkasten and note titles in Episode 6.

Useful community plug-ins

In addition to having community-developed themes, there are also some amazing community plug-ins that have been developed for Obsidian and the list keeps growing. Here are the community plug-ins that I find most useful:

Calendar

The calendar plug-in provides a quick way to get to your daily notes (if you are using them). Since I use daily notes constantly, the calendar provides an easy way to navigate quickly to the note I am looking for. In this example, I am using the calendar to navigate to my daily note from October 3:

The dots in the calendar are days in which I have daily notes. The more dots on a given day, the longer the note. It is a very cool plug-in and the first community plug-in I installed when I began using Obsidian.

Natural language dates

Dates are important in my paperless taxonomy because they tell when things occurred. Obsidian allows you to format dates in any desired format. My daily notes use the format yyyy.mm.dd.DDD, or 2021.10.11.Mon. If I create a note link in Obsidian to “2021.10.11.Mon” it will link to my daily note from that date.

The Natural Language Dates allows you to quickly create these note links using natural language, like “yesterday”, “today”, or “tomorrow”. I’ll use this frequently on in timeline sections of notes that refer to dates.

Using the plug-ins

These plug-ins make it much easier for me to zip through creating notes, linking them together the way want to, and have the notes appear the way I want on the screen. As we progress through future episodes, you’ll see me using these plug-ins frequently. I wanted to have a post to which I could refer people to list those plug-ins and setting that I find most useful. There are other plug-ins that I use, but not as frequently, and I’ll discuss them in the context of how I use them to perform certain activities in future episodes.

In episode 1 I showed the basics of notes and documents in Obsidian. In this episode, I discussed the settings, themes, and plug-ins most useful to my note-taking in Obsidian. Both episodes set the stage for next week when I illustrate how I emulate basic Evernote features in Obsidian. Hopefully this will provide a like-for-like comparison of how I did basic things in Evernote and how I can do those some basic things (with improvements) in Obsidian. See you back here next week!

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  1. For those wondering, I am using GIPHY Capture for the Mac to create these GIFs.
  2. v10.22.3
  3. At one point, as an experiment, I created a theme to make Obsidian look like Word for DOS 5.5, my all-time favorite word processor.
  4. Episode 16, if you are curious.

Impressive Feats of Writing

I’ve mentioned how I am reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. It is a delight and treat to read these 100 essays on baseball players, that tell a fascinating history of the game. It has quickly jumped toward the top of the list of best baseball books I have ever read. I’ve learned (or been reintroduced to) all kinds of incredible things that have happened in the sport over the last 150+ years.

But actually, the book itself is an impressive feat of writing. These essays originally appeared in The Athletic. As Posnanski writes in the introduction:

This book contains almost 300,000 words, just about all of them originally written over a 100-day stretch when this series first appeared on the web pages of “The Athletic.” I lived this book twenty-four hours a day during those weeks, writing, reading, learning, dreaming baseball.

Three hundred thousand words in 100 days. To put that in some perspective, that’s 3,000 words per day, fifty percent more than a prolific author like Stephen King aimed for in his prime. In the book, Posnanski discusses why getting 3,000 hits is such an achievement. It means consistently hitting the ball over a period more than a decade. That means playing as much as possible, staying healthy, and still managing to make enough regular contact to get those hits. I think of 3,000 words a day for a hundred days as a similar achievement. And when you couple that with the reading, learning, and dreaming that Posnanski refers to, it really boggles the mind to think that all of this was written in 100 days.

Consider, that as of this post, I’ve published post for 283 consecutive days, writing 345 posts so far in 2021. My average post length is about 650 words, and I’ve written, on average, 1.2 posts per day. Doing that math, that means I’m writing about 780 words per day. Generally, these posts require little or no research, so I don’t have that to worry about. So, 283 days into the year, I’ve written a grand total of 222,000 words here on the blog. Posnanski wrote 300,000 in 100 days. That is just mind-boggling.

What makes it even more amazing, to me, is that, like the best baseball writing, Posnanski’s essays are engaging, have a distinct voice, and are endlessly fascinating. One of the great pleasures of the book is not looking ahead to see who will the next essay be about? It is almost as if, as each player gets better as you move down the list, each essay rises to the level of that player. As one writer looking at another, I am in awe. It is as if I am in the minor leagues, watching a Hall of Fame work in his prime.

It is at time like these that I think back to that day when I decided I was too busy to work on the college newspaper. I think I could have been a decent sportswriter. No Joe Posnanski, but I would have a done alright. And just imagine having a job like that? I never could have played in the majors, or minors for that matter, but when it came to sportswriting, I could have been a contender.

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Retro Posts, Week of 10/3/2021

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For those who don’t follow along on Twitter or my Facebook page, I post a link to “retro post” once-a-day, selecting from one of the thousands of posts I’ve written here on the blog over the last 15+ years. Here are the retro posts for this week.

You can find last week’s posts here. If you want to see these as they appear each day, you can follow me on Twitter or my Facebook page.

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The Thing About 70s Music

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I spent several hours yesterday morning doing a software rollout. It was a meticulous process, and I find that if I have music playing in the background for that kind of work, it blocks out everything else and I can focus better. I spent those hours listening to SiriusXM 70s on 7. I had a smile on my face the entire time. Around noon, Casey Kasem came on to do the Top 40 countdown for this week in 19701. You know it is the 70s when “Rubber Duckie” is one of the songs on the countdown.

I listen to a lot of 80s music because those were my formative years. Still, I was eight years old in 1980 and I have very clear memories of where I was when various songs played on the radio in the 1970s. I’ve always had a fondness for the 70s, and even once wrote a post about what it would be like to spend a week in the 1970s. Listening to music from the 70s, no matter what style, always puts me into a good mood. Music from the 1980s can do this, too, but 80s music can also have me suddenly feeling awkward, reliving those years of puberty. The 70s always seems happy to me.

After I completed my rollout, and ate a late lunch, I headed down for my afternoon nap, and while I lay there, before falling asleep, I considered why it was that 70s music always makes me happy, and why it always makes me think the 70s was a kind of golden age of my youth. I’d thought about this before, but this was the first time I found an answer.

I was absolutely carefree in the 1970s. I had no worries whatsoever.

Life is simple when you four, or six, or even eight years old. As I got older, the worries and stresses built. In the 80s, it was junior high school, then high school and a job and standardized tests and applying for colleges and dating and playing sports. All of that happened in the 80s. In the 70s, I had toys, and television. I watched The Incredible Hulk and The Dukes of Hazzard on Friday nights. I watched The Love Boat on Saturday nights. Saturday mornings were for cartoons: The Bugs Bunney/Roadrunner Show was among my favorites. The 70s was about albums, and movies like Grease and Star Wars. In the 70s, there were bagel deliveries on Sunday mornings. Steve Hartman (later with Joan Lunden) gave me the news (“Make it a good day today!”). The Yankees won the World Series in ’77 and ’78. They never won in the 1980s. In the 70s, my dad took me to Pop’s gas station and to the Country Squire where I could have a donut. We went to a putting green that was nearby an airport and I watched little planes land, with no inkling that one day, I’d be flying planes like those.

And of course, I was surrounded by music. The radio was on for the drives to my grandparent’s house, about an hour away. Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” always reminds me of where the New Jersey Turnpike meets the Garden State Parkway. The Eagles “Take It To the Limit” reminds me of the Garden State Parkway in the 1970s. “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee reminds me of our family room. “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille reminds me of our kitchen. The theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter” reminds me of a drive home from a Mets game. All of it was (or at least in retrospect seems) carefree. Well, most of it. Super Tramp’s “The Long Way Home” reminds me of hanging out with my best friend after his dad died.

I have an autobiography playlist and the first 26 songs on that list are songs I remember from the 1970s. It’s not until you get to #27 and #28 (“Rio” by Duran Duran and “Video Killed the Radio Star” that we get into the 1980s.) And those 26 songs are just representative. I could have made that list much longer. I don’t do it often, but I love listening to the first part of that playlist.

With all of the usual stresses of a middle-aged adult in the modern world, raising a family in the midst of a global pandemic, it is no wonder that I find joy and respite in the music from a time when I had no cares or worries. It was a sort of revelation to finally understand why I liked 70s music so much, and why it always seemed to cheer me up. Now, on those rare occasions when I am feeling down, I’m going to turn to 70s on 7 and see if it helps to cheer me up.

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  1. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” by B.J. Thomas was #1.

Coding and Baseball

close up photography of four baseballs on green lawn grasses
Photo by Steshka Willems on Pexels.com

I’ve spend much of this week writing code for a fairly significant update to some software my team rolled out in May. Much of it was refactoring (from about 4,000 lines of Groovy script down to about 900), some of it was making things more efficient, and a lot of it was to make the code more supportable as time goes on. There were also a lot of important enhancements and bug fixes. Each day began with me sitting in front of code, disappearing into the code, and emerging only reluctantly to the world when my brain was too tired to continue.

Those of you who write code for a living know what this feels like. On Friday night, for instance, as I write this, I was completely spent. As much as I wanted to continue reading the (thus far) fantastic book by Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100, I needed a break from reading. It was all I could do to pull myself back to the computer to write this. The family went out and I wanted to go with them, but I wasn’t feeling social. That happens sometimes after spending a week in code.

So what’s a fellow to do?

I think I found a pretty good solution: I discovered that The Show ’21 is finally available for the Xbox One. And I started playing it. I played my first game as the Los Angeles Dodgers facing Tampa Bay. And despite it being my first game, and despite the fact that my hand-eye-coordination could use some work, I played a full 9 innings and beat Tampa 6-5. It was blissful.

Either you are a baseball fan or you aren’t. I’ve rarely met someone in between. People sometimes wonder what’s so great about the sport. You hear all kinds of arguments from baseball fans (of which I am one), but the best line I’ve ever heard is simple: baseball is there to be enjoyed. And I enjoyed it tonight, even though it was in a video game. I love the dynamics of the game, the skills required not just on the athletic side, but on the mental side as well. I love the instincts that develop: flipping that grounder to second because you know without looking that there is already a running on first. I love the chess match between pitcher and hitter, each trying to outguess the other. And of course, I love the history.

It’s been many decades since I last thought that playing in the majors could be a reality (I think I might have been ten). But playing The Show tonight after spending my week coding made it feel like I was playing in the majors. It made me feel good, and that’s just about the best think a video game can do.

I played one game already, but it’s a beautiful evening for baseball. As Ernie Banks would say, “Let’s play two.”

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Speaking in Complete Paragraphs

selective focus photography of gray stainless steel condenser microphone
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In various books I’ve read, a person has been described of someone who “speaks in complete paragraphs.” I knew, theoretically, what that meant, but until fairly recently, I’d hadn’t encountered it myself in a conscious way. Two people come to mind as ones who speak in complete paragraphs: Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman.

I’d heard Walter Isaacson talk before, but it wasn’t until I heard him on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast that I realized he was one of those people who speaks in complete paragraphs. Neil Gaiman is another person like this. I’ve seen him speak on a number of occasions and he, too, is one of those rare people who seems to be able to speak in complete paragraphs.

Anyone can ramble on. I certainly find myself doing this when I speak, but people like Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman seem to create works in their mind the way many writers do on a page. They form complete, coherent thoughts into smoothly rendered speech. If you didn’t know they were speaking off the cuff, you might think they’d memorized what they were saying–not just the words, but tone, inflection, everything about it. This is one of those superpowers (like a phenomenal memory) that I’m always envious of. When you can speak in complete sentences, you really sound like you know what you are talking about.

When I hear myself speak–on podcasts I’ve been on, in interviews I’ve done–I never sound as smooth as Isaacson or Gaiman. Often, I think I sound scattered. My sentences aren’t complete, let alone paragraphs. Also, I sound just like my brother, and when I hear myself on a recording unexpectedly, my first thought it: when was my brother on a podcast? The one time I met Neil Gaiman, when I was a presenter at the Nebula Awards in 20121, we were gathering for photos and I saw him carrying the two awards he’d just won. All I could think of to say was, “Wow, Neil, are those things iron?”

Neil Gaiman, me, and Joe Haldeman at the 2012 Nebula Awards.

When I was young, I often received compliments on my writing like: “You write how you speak.” Or, “I can totally picture you saying this because this is your voice.” I have to disagree. My writing tends to be colloquial, sure, but it is also far more polished than if I were trying to speak my thoughts aloud. Indeed, I have, thus far, been unable to use dictation software for the very reason that I don’t write how I speak.

Both Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman sound like their writing. Even when speaking off the cuff, I could imagine reading what they were saying as if it were written on a proof-edited page.

Podcasts are the big thing these days, and occasionally, I’ve been asked why I don’t have a podcast. “Well, I’m a better writer than I am a speaker,” I say. “If I am going to do something, it might as well be something I am halfway decent at.” It is not that I am a terrible speaker; I just can’t help comparing myself to those people I’ve heard speaking in complete paragraphs. It is really an amazing thing to behold.

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  1. I also accepted an award for Ken Liu when he won for “The Paper Menagerie.”