Fall/Winter Beard Is Underway

We are several weeks into fall now and my fall/winter beard is now underway. I did this for the first time last year, growing it in the fall, and shaving it off just before my birthday in the spring. Living where I do, it is practical given that it helps to keep my face warm on those cold morning walks in the depths of winter. It’s at the stage where it is a little wild in places, and I have to trim here and there to keep it neat. Also, I find myself tugging at it now and then, especially on Teams and Zoom calls for some reason. Anyway, here it is, along with a new haircut I got on Sunday.

Fall/winter beard, October 2021. Plus new haircut.
Fall/winter beard, October 2021. Plus new haircut.

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The Pull of Science Fiction

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Lately, after several years away, I am once again feeling the pull of science fiction. I’ve found myself staring at the s.f. books on my shelves, picking one up and starting it, and then decided that it wasn’t what I was looking for and trying another one. I continued to read other things–I’m back on a baseball kick right now, and in the midst of Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, Big Fella. But the pull of science fiction has been there in the background, like the subtle gravity well of some distant planet.

When I started to write s.f., my experience with it was fairly limited. I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, some Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison, and not a whole lot else. The first s.f. magazine I read with any regularly was Science Fiction Age, not long after it debuted in the early 1990s. Back then, most magazines suggested reading the stories they contained to get a feel for what they published. I rarely did that (SF Age was the main exception). I was too impatient. Besides, I wanted to write my stories, not stories like the ones I read in the magazines.

I was young and naive.

Perhaps this is why it took me 14 years of writing and submitting before I finally sold a story. Or perhaps it took that long to hone my craft to the point where it was salable. Who knows?

In the fall of 1997, I read Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell and in the immediate aftermath of that book, I expanded my range in the s.f. world, reading in rapid succession books like The Stars My Destination, Rogue Moon, The Demolished Man, and Dying Inside. It was a beginning. A decade later, I read another fantastic Hartwell & Kramer book, this time, The Hard S.F. Renaissance. It was then that I decided that I enjoyed “short” s.f. more than novels. The shorter pieces seemed to pack more of a punch, they were necessarily more dense, and they seemed to experiment more than novels, perhaps because the overall investment was less. Not long after that, I began selling to Analog.

Still, my experience with “current” short fiction was limited. I read stuff my friends wrote and published. I occasionally read beyond that. Mostly, I spent my time vacationing in the golden age of science fiction, reading issues of Astounding Science Fiction from cover-to-cover beginning with the July 1939 issue. I discovered some wonderful gems in there. I even wrote a guest editorial in Analog, “Gem Hunting” about these wonderful stories.

At some point, the stories I was writing began to change. They began to be less science fictional, although always retained at least a tenuous connection to the genre. Whatever passion I had seemed to be fading, and I pretty much stopped reading s.f. altogether, with a rare interlude here or there. I tried not to worry about this, too much. I was reading a lot of nonfiction and enjoying it, and fiction took away from that.

Lately, though, the pull is back. I decided to go back to the beginning and try reading some short s.f. I pulled out The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 1, edited by the late Gardner Dozois, and began reading it. So far, it seems to be sticking. I’m reading it for pleasure, dipping in during idle moments when I don’t feel like continuing the book I am reading. But I’m also doing it with a curiosity. What made these stories the best of the year? I’m taking a lot of notes. I am, in short, doing what I should have done from the beginning: reading the stories that were published in the magazines to get a sense of what they were looking for.

I don’t know where it is going or how long it will last. What I am most hopeful about is finding the real gems among these volumes. It’s hard to know what story will turn out to be a gem, but it’s like what they say about pornography: I know it when I see it.

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Rushing Through Dinner: A Tale of the Twenty-First Century

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The Littlest Miss had soccer practice and I didn’t sleep well the night before, so Kelly took her to her practice. In exchange, I made dinner. We trade off fairly regularly in this regard. Dinner was pasta and salad. Our dinners are rarely complex affairs. Given where the soccer practice was, I guessed that dinner should be ready by 6:15 pm. I timed it perfectly. The table was set and dinner was ready at 6:15 pm. Only, Kelly and the Littlest Miss weren’t back yet. They weren’t back at 6:20 or 6:25 either. It wasn’t until 6:30 pm that they got home. By then both Zach and Grace had finished their dinner and I was working my way slowly through mine.

The modern world has decimated the family dinner. We make it a point to eat together as a family every evening, but in reality we are only there at the table together for 10 minutes or so. This is no one’s fault. It’s the world we live in. I like to relax at dinner and I wish that everyone else would relax, too. Kelly is a fast eater and the kids have mostly followed her lead, with the Littlest Miss being the only one who eats slower than the other kids–but still faster than I do.

We could make a rule that says we have to sit around the table for at least 20 minutes, or whatever the appropriate interval would be, but it would be an artificial thing and wouldn’t feel right. Besides, the world won’t let us. There is too much to get done during the day. We don’t have a set time for dinner. We squeeze it in usually between 6 pm and 7:30 pm, working it around the various activities of the day. Sometimes I have late meetings. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays there are pre-dinner activities that affect the time: gymnastics, soccer practices. On the weekends there are other activities before and after dinner that force us to squeeze down the amount of time we actually spend at the table.

Not all of it is because we are shuttling about from various actives. The kids have school work and there needs to be time for that. They have reading that they do, and we try to read with them. Zach and his friends have a yard business and there may be a lawn he has to go cut. Maybe there is a parent-teacher Zoom conference scheduled for early evening. There is always something that applies pressure to the evening meal so that almost everyone feels obliged to rush through it. I am almost always the last one at the table. I try not to rush as a matter of principle, and to set an example, but it is a lost cause. I’ve come to accept that, even if I don’t like it very much.

Mondays are really the only days we have a chance for a leisurely dinner. But even there, the pressure is on. It is getting darker earlier, and Kelly and I usually go for an evening walk together after dinner. We prefer doing it with some daylight left in the sky. Then, too, there is limited time after dinner before the kids go to bed. They are not allowed on devices during the day but they have an hour between 8-9 pm if they’ve finished their school work and reading, and the house is in order. They don’t want to spend time at the table, they want to finish as quickly as possible to ensure they can get everything done so that they have their hour on devices. I can’t complain about this. They have long days, just like we do, and deserve their hour.

When I was a kid, I didn’t feel rushed through dinner. In the summers, I remember wanting to finish up so that we could go outside and hang out with our friends. We didn’t have as many scheduled events, although it seemed to me that we had more homework.

I imagine there are families who have leisurely dinners together, but it is hard to imagine it happening in our town, where everyone seems so over-scheduled.

The worst part, for me, is that preparing dinner often takes twice as long as sitting down to eat it. That just seems backwards to me. Still, we do our best. Grace usually asks everyone what their favorite and least favorite things for the day were. We joke around and talk for the few minutes we are all sitting there together. We make the most of it.

But it sure would be nice to have a leisurely family dinner now and then.

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The Old Fellow on the Bike Path: A Sequel

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Back in June, I wrote about the old fellow on the bike path. I’d see him walking in the morning, a tall, lanky fellow with a handlebar mustache that reminds me of the actor Sam Elliot. And then for a time I wouldn’t see him. I would always grow a little uneasy when that happened. When I finally would see him again, I was always put at ease. Most mornings, on my walk, I see him, me heading one way and he the other. It always feels like a good morning when I see him.

On Monday, Kelly and I took a late morning walk over to the grocery store. We were out of bread and it was beautiful out so we decided to walk. We were walking along the bike path, holding hands as we usually do, and in the distance, I spotted the old fellow walking in our direction. I pointed this out to Kelly. She’s heard me come home from my morning walks saying, “I didn’t see the old guy today,” or “Said hello to the old fellow today.”

As we approached him, he waved and said, “I always like seeing people holding hands.” Kelly, who is the more outgoing of the two of us, then introduced herself. We learned the old fellow’s name; I’ll call him Henry here. We stood chatting on the bike path for about ten minutes. We learned he’s in his mid-80s. We learned about his family and a little of his background. He’s lived in the neighborhood for just about 50 years. He learned our names. We also learned that we enjoy the same restaurants and he suggested we all get together and go for dinner at some point. It was wonderful.

Since then, each morning I’ve seen him, and instead of just waving and saying good morning, Henry stops and say, “Hi, Jamie!” Yesterday we chatted for a few minutes. This morning, when I saw him, he gave me his card, and reminded me that we should go out to the restaurant at some point. I’m looking forward to that. More than that, however, I’m just looking forward to seeing Henry on my walk tomorrow morning. And the next morning. And the next.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 3: The Basics: Emulating Evernote Features in Obsidian

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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.

Back in Episode 1, I demonstrated what notes and documents are like in Obsidian. In Episode 2, I showed how I configure Obsidian to take advantage of plug-ins and settings that I find useful for this practically paperless experiment. In this episode, I’m bringing everything together to demonstrate how I emulate 4 basic features of Evernote in Obsidian. The four features are:

  1. Creating notes
  2. Tagging notes
  3. Creating to-do items
  4. Searching notes

These four features are at the core of what I do with notes on a day-to-day basis. Each of these features will be discussed more extensively in future episodes. For this episode, I just wanted to demonstrate how I am doing these four basic things with Obsidian today.

Creating notes

If I wanted to create a new note in Evernote, I would just click the New Note button, or press Cmd-n (on my Mac) and then type out my note. Kind of like this:

This creates a new note, with no title, so the note appears as “Untitled” unless I go ahead and add one. If I wanted to do the same thing in Obsidian, I’d simply press Option-z on my Mac. I have mapped the “Option-Z” command to the “Create a new Zettelkasten note” function in Obsidian. (I talked about this function briefly in Episode 2.) When I do this, I get a blank note with a title already filled–at least the Zettelkasten label portion of it, which for me is the current date and time in yyyymmddhhmm format. So here is what it looks like when I create the same note in Obsidian:

Simple. I can do this again and again. Also, because my note is given a Zettelkasten prefix in the title, I don’t have to title the note, if I don’t want to. Usually, however, I do, so once I’ve gotten the note jotted down, I’ll go back and append to the title, so that my note will look something like this:

Looking at #1 in the above image, you can see I modified my title so that it now includes more descriptive information. I’ll go into greater detail on just why I just the Zettelkasten prefix in Episode 6. But I’ll also hint at how it is useful when we discuss searching notes below.

Also, I wanted to point out that because I have mapped my Create Note keyboard command to the “Create new Zettelkasten note” function, I have the ability to define a default template that gets created for the note. In this case, I have a very basic template that includes the “tags:” line you see above the #2 and the — you see below it.

In Evernote, I can easily add media like images to my notes. I can do this just as easily in Obsidian, as well. For instance, suppose I have copied an image into my clipboard. To add that image to the note above, all I have to do is paste it into the image where I want it to appear.

As you can see in the above GIF, when I paste the image into the note, it appears as a note link reference (the part that you see my highlight). I can see the fully formatted note (and image) when I click the button to view the note in Preview mode. I could also have dragged an image from my filesystem onto the note with the same result. Any image (or other file) that I add to a note is stored in the vault in my default “attachments” folder. This folder can be defined in the Obsidian settings. For me, I store all attachments in a folder called “_attachments”. As far as Obsidian is concerned, this is just another note link and if I move the attachment to another folder, Obsidian will maintain the reference to the link so I don’t have to think about it.

Tagging notes

Now that I’ve added a note, suppose I want to tag it. In Evernote, I could go to the Tag bar at the bottom of the note and begin typing the tags that I want to add to the note. It looks something like this:

I can do the same thing in Obsidian. Moreover, I can type a tag anywhere I want in the note. All tags in Obsidian begin with the hashtag mark (#). Being able to tag anywhere in the note is useful because notes in Obsidian can be searched by their component parts, sections for instance. In the example below, I’ll add a tag to the tag line of my template, and then I’ll add a new section to the note and add a tag there as well.

Note that as I type # and the start typing a tag, I get a list of matches, just like I do in Evernote. Also, when I switch to Preview mode, the tags appear with boxes around them. That is how the tags are styled as part of the Yin and Yang theme I discussed in Episode 2. I’ll have a lot more to say about tagging in Episodes 9 and 10.

Creating to-do items

A new feature recently added to Evernote is the ability to add tasks to notes. In Obsidian, tasks are called “to-do” items and I can add a to-do item anywhere in a note by typing [ ] for a “open” (uncompleted) to-do item, or [x] for a completed one. Here is my note with 2 to-do items:

If I look at this new in Preview mode, the theme renders the to-do items properly:

Obsidian keeps track of to-do items and they can be searched by their state as we will see in the next section.

Searching notes

Finally, if I need to find a note in Evernote, I use its search feature, and I can do the same thing with Obsidian. In some ways, each application has its advantages over the other when it comes to searching. Evernote can search the text within PDFs, and Obsidian can’t yet do that (but I suspect it will be able to do this in the future). Obsidian, on the other hand, can search using regular expressions, something Evernote doesn’t do.

I have a whole set of Episodes planned discussing how I find notes in Obsidian. For this episode, I am going to keep it simple, to a few basic examples.

Searching for text in a note

Often, I am just looking for note with a particular term in it. In these instances, the easiest thing to do is search all the notes for that term. For instance, Bob Uecher had a great quote about knuckleballs. I can’t remember the quote, but I know Uecher said it, so here is what happens when I search for “Uec” in Obsidian:

Here is what is happening in the GIF above:

  1. I click on the “Search” tab.
  2. In the search field, I type “uec”
  3. In the search results I select the match I want to display the note.
  4. In the note, you can see the text I searched for is highlighted in yellow.

Quick search by note date

Like Evernote, Obsidian has the ability to search notes by date. Obsidian uses the file dates for these searches. In Evernote, however, you could go in and change the Create date of a note. I found this useful because I often matched the create date of a note to the date on a document. In Obsidian, I could change the create date of a note using an operating system command. But there is an easier way to do this, and this is where the Zettelkasten prefix in my note titles come in handy.

Say, for instance, I wanted to search for all notes from October 3, 2021. Assuming I use my Zettelkasten prefix in my note titles, all I need to do is type the following into the search: 20211003:

Here, you can see that my search results in 6 notes that are prefixed with that date. I can click on a note to see its contents. Note also that one of the matches is my daily note for 10/3/2021. Even though the note doesn’t have a Zettelkasten prefix, because there is a reference to a note with such a prefix within the note, it shows up in the list of matching notes.

Searching by note tag

By adding a “tag:” prefix to my search, I can search notes by tag. I can have multiple tags within my search if I want. For example, suppose I wanted to search for any notes that I have tagged #baseball and #lists. Here is what it looks like in my Obsidian vault:

Searching for tasks (to-do items)

Finally, I can also search by tasks and their status (either incomplete, or what Obsidian calls “to-do”, or done). Suppose I want to search for any notes in October 2021 with incomplete tasks. Here is what that search looks like in Obsidian:

Here is what is happening:

  1. I’m searching for any file that contains a name 202110 (i.e., 2021 (year) 10 (month)).
  2. And I’m also searching for any notes that contain incomplete tasks: task-todo:””

That results in a single note–the one I created at the very beginning of this post. The note title begins with 202110, and highlighted within the note in yellow is the single incomplete task for the month.

The purpose of these first three episodes was to set a baseline for folks who have never seen or used Obsidian to demonstrate how its features can be used as an alternative to Evernote. With the basic posts out of the way, the real fun can begin. Going forward, beginning with Episode 4, I’ll begin to show how I am using Obsidian to go practically paperless. These will be more real world use case-driven posts as opposed to these basic getting started posts. In episode 4, I’ll talk in more detail about how I create notes. In episode 5, I’ll recreate one of my first Going Paperless posts and talk about how I scan documents into Obsidian.

See you here next week!

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Books I Don’t Remember Well

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I saw some debate online recently about whether or not it is rude to an author not to finish a book of their that you start. I don’t think it’s rude. It’s pragmatic. Not every book works for every reader. Time is limited. So one must spend that time wisely. For me, that sometimes means quitting a book as soon as I don’t find myself drawn into it. There are too many other books waiting in the wings.

Sometimes, however, even when I do finish a book, it doesn’t stay with me. I may enjoy the book while I am reading it, but all memory of it vanishes after a time, and although I see it on the list of books I’ve read, I could give on the most vague descriptions of what the book is about. I was thinking about this today because I started reading Voyage by Stephen Baxter today, looking for a little science fiction interlude. I read this book back in September 1998, and although I remember it was some kind of alternate history, I remember almost nothing else about it. Granted, this was in the days before I started taking notes on books I read. Still, it was a little unsettling to realize that while I had read the book, I couldn’t remember it.

I decided to go through my list and see how many examples of this I could find. Here are some of the results:

I find it interesting that most of these are works of fiction. I seem to have a better recall for nonfiction than for fiction. In a way this makes sense. Fiction is more ephemeral and there is less to connect it to, while nonfiction fits in the larger mold of the world. I can always find connections of one work of nonfiction to another, often several others. Fiction can connect to other fiction, of course, and occasionally to nonfiction, but it doesn’t seem to have the same staying power in my memory.

I remember where I was or what I was doing when I read most of these books. I remember driving to the cliffs in Pacific Palisades and sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean while reading Idoru, for instance. I recall sitting in my office in Santa Monica early in the mornings (around 5:30am) reading Voyage, or sitting on the deck in from of my apartment in Studio City, chair tipped back, and feet up on the railings, reading Does America Need a Foreign Policy? I remember reading Bright Shiny Morning when Kelly and I were in the midst of planning our wedding. It’s just the content that is a blur. Of all of these, the one I most regret no remembering is East of Eden which I can recall enjoying, even if I can’t recall why I enjoyed it.

Fortunately, in a list of more than 1,100 books that I’ve read since 1996, there are only a handful that I don’t really remember at all. And in the last 10 years or so, the only one on the list that draws a blank is Tip of the Iceberg. For that one, at least, I have brief notes in my journal that I wrote at the time I finished it (something I began to do with all of the books I read when I rebooted my journal in 2017).

journal entry for tip of the iceberg

At some point, I’ll probably go back and re-read these to see what it was that I have forgotten.

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27 Years on the Job

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Despite it being a Sunday today, it was a Monday 27 years ago, on October 17, 1994, my first day with the company that I still work with today. When I was 27 years old, I had already been with the company for 5 years. Four years ago, I had been with the company longer than I hadn’t; that is, I had been with the company 23 years, but I was 22 years old when I started, so I’d been with the company more than half of my life.

I know this kind of thing is pretty rare these days, but within my company, I’m not even in the top 100 in terms of longevity, company-wide. Within my department, I think I just barely crack the top 10.

A little over a year from now, in December 2022, I will celebrate another milestone anniversary, this one for my avocation. In December 1992, I wrote my first story that I sent out to a magazine with the idea of having it published. That story wasn’t published, and it took me 14 more years before I finally starting selling what I wrote, but that does mark the 30 year anniversary of what I consider to be the beginning of my writing career.

I final both of these milestones fairly remarkable. And both also make me feel like I’m getting old.

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5 Interesting Reads, 10/17/2021

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Here are five more interesting reads I’ve come across recently.

  1. Essay: The digital death of collecting” by Kyle Chayka. A fascinating look at how digital media is killing the concept of “collections” as maintainable things under your control. (Fortunately, I looked at the bookshelves that surround me in my office after reading this and felt a sense of relief.)
  2. A Full Life” by Joe Posnanski. Remember Buck O’Neil fifteen years after his death.
  3. Grading MLB Umpires: Meet the Humans Behind the Twitter Bots that Track Balls and Strikes” by Stephen J. Nesbitt (in The Athletic). A fascinating piece on the perceptions and misperceptions of how well umpires perform when compared to objective measurements. H/T to my dad for calling this one to my attention.
  4. Stephen King takes us inside the process of writing Billy Summers” by Adrienne Westenfeld (in Esquire). An interesting interview with King where he discusses how his most recent novel came to be, and how he wrote it.
  5. Minor Threat by Will Bardenwerpter (Harper’s, October 2021). A down-to-earth look at what MLB has done to the minor leagues.

If you’ve got any of your own interesting reads you want to share, drop them in the comments.

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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

notebook beside the iphone on table
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

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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