My Favorite Word Processor

green and black typewriter on brown wooden table
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Writers look fondly upon the tools we use. They recall their favorite typewriters even as the tide of technology pushes them into word processing. When I started to write, the world had already entered the word processing era. The earliest word processor I used was AppleWorks. Then, through high school, I used WordPerfect. In the decades since, I have tried out countless word processors and text editors, many of which I have written about here. But like those writers from the typewriter age, who cast a fond eye back on their Royals and Smith Coronas and Underwoods, my favorite word process was and is Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5.

I’ve made reference to this word processor in a dozen posts here, but I have never really delved into my reasons for why Word for DOS 5.5. remains my favorite. To understand why, you first have to understand my theory of word processors: a good word processor should do 3 things really well:

  1. It should separate the interface from the presentation layer. That is, how it appears on the screen should not be tied to how it appears on paper. Scrivener is a good example of this, where you “compile” manscripts from a source text.
  2. It should eliminate distractions and allow a writer to focus on writing. WYSIWYG seemed like a cool idea at first, but I think it has become too much of a distraction. When writers wrote on typewriters, they weren’t distracted by fonts and formatting. The very limited formatting that could be done on a typewriter was something in its favor.
  3. It should keep things simple.

Microsoft Word for DOS managed to meet all three of these requirements.

A version of Word for DOS 5.5 running in DOSBox on my Mac.
A version of Word for DOS 5.5 running in DOSBox on my Mac.

Through most of college, I used Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5. It was the first word processor I bought with my own money. I used it to write the first stories I ever wrote with the intention of submitting them for publication. I used to to write letters to friends and family (these were the days before email and the Internet). I used it to write papers, and I used it to type up my notes from classes, and print them in a way that made it easy for me to study.

I never spent much time dealing with formatting or fonts. I wrote and I printed. Word’s feature set was fairly robust, but most of it I didn’t need. There was not constant stream of updates to download. The interface was constant, reliable, and as far as I can recall, bug-free. The latter was perhaps a result of the application’s overall simplicity.

Word for DOS ultimately had one major drawback: its file format. I still have most of the files I wrote in Word for DOS 5.5., but they can’t be opened cleanly in modern versions of Microsoft Word. The text can be extracted, but only with some effort. I put in that effort and now my old Word files exist in plain text format.

I’ll admit that nostalgia for simpler software probably plays a part in my looking back on Word for DOS through rose-colored lenses. But that is no different than Isaac Asimov looking back longingly at his Underwood No. 5, or Ray Bradbury turning a ruminative eye back on the coin-operated typewriters he first used in the Los Angeles Public Library.

These days, I do all of my writing in Obsidian, which is not a word processor but rather a text editor. Obsidian is highly customizable and every now and then, I toy with the idea of creating a Word for DOS 5.5. theme that will allow me to feel as if I am writing once again using my old favorite. I hesitate only because I have learned that is a kind of distraction itself: creating a theme when I could be spending my time, you know, actually writing.

Written on May 7, 2022.

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“Daddy, Do You Have a Dictionary?”

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Yesterday, out of the blue, the Littlest Miss, who will be six this summer, came up to me and asked, “Daddy, do you have a dictionary?” I told her that I did and she said she wanted to look at it so that she could look up words. My heart fluttered. Zach and Grace never showed interest in dictionaries, and I’m skeptical that they ever learned how to use one in school. The Littlest Miss told me they had dictionaries in her kindergarten classroom.

I gave her my Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and she spent 45 minutes in the afternoon looking up words and haltingly reading definitions. I showed her how to use the guide words on the pages to find the words she’s looking for. She picked it up almost at once and proceded to spend the rest of the evening with the dictionary in her lap, looking up words and reading the definitions.

The Littlest Miss discussing a definition in my Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary
The Littlest Miss discussing a definition in my Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary

When I was about her age, I got as a present one year, the Macmillan Dictionary for Children. (My brother, for his present, got the Grease soundtrack album.) The dictionary was a big white book with a red spine. I remember feeling a little disappointed at first. Who wouldn’t? A dictionary compared to the Grease soundtrack? Over time, however, I went through every page of that dictionary. I can’t remember if I tried reading it cover-to-cover or not, but I became so familiar with it I could find a word based on the pictures I saw on a page as flipped through it.

The edition of the Macmillan Dictionary for Children that I had as a 5-year old.
The edition of the Macmillan Dictionary for Children that I had as a 5-year old.

Early in my schooling, we learned how to use dictionaries. We learned how to use the strange symbols in the pronunciation guide to pronounce words. I learned how to use the guide words on the tops of the pages to locate words. Eventually, I began circling the words I looked up. That old dictionary was lost in the intervening decades. Last night I wished I still had it for I would have given it to the Littlest Miss.

Instead, I went online and ordered her a new edition of the Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary. When I returned from my early morning walk this morning, it had been delivered, and when the Littlest Miss woke up and got ready for school, I presented her with the weighty tome.

She loved it!

She spent the morning before leaving for school looking up words, and circling the ones she looked up (at my suggestion). She looked at the pictures. She read definitions. She seemed to have a great time doing it. When she got home from school, she saw the dictionary on the couch where she left it and immediately resumed her browsing.

I, of course, am delighted there is finally someone else in the house who appreciates a dictionary. I imagine it won’t be long before I’ll be forced to return to my own dictionary as the Littlest Miss uses bigger and bigger words to express herself. Maybe that will force everyone else in the house to start using a dictionary again, too.

Written on May 3, 2022.

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Reading for the Week of 5/8/2022

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Here is what I read this week. Some of the articles/posts may require a subscription to read them. As you can see, I managed to read a bunch of books this week, but that ate into article reading time, so my article/post reading was way down this week.

Books

Finished

  • A Darkness More Than NIght by Michael Connelly. I needed a break from all of the nonfiction I’d been reading so I decided to continue reading some of Michael Connelly’s “Bosch” series of mysteries.
  • City of Bones by Michael Connelly.
  • Lost Light by Michael Connelly. This is the best of the Bosch books I’ve read so far. Excellent from start to finish.
  • Never Panic Early by Fred Haise. I think it is wonderful that more than 50 years after the first moon landing, the astronauts involved in Apollo are still coming out with memoirs about their experience. Fred Haise, who flew on Apollo 13 and who piloted test landings of the space shuttle Enterprise has a delightful memoir in this book.
  • Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. I came across this book in my sister’s Goodread’s list. I enjoyed it, although it is not a particularly original time travel story in the tropes that it uses. It is the characters that make the book interesting. In some ways, I was reminded of Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls, although this book wasn’t a murder mystery.

In Progress

Gave Up

  • The Narrows by Michael Connelly. I started the next book in the Bosch series, but after reading three in a row, I’d had my fill, so I gave up on this one and will return to it eventually.

Articles/posts

Any recommendations for books, articles or posts I should read? Let me know in the comments?

Written on May 13-14, 2022.

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Writing Style

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When I started to write with the idea of submitting stories, way back in late 1992, I never thought consciously about style. Instead, I attempted to imitate the styles of those writers who I read regularly. At the time, this was Piers Anthony, whose books I’d been reading since the mid-1980s1. I suppose this is a natural thing for a new writer to do.

In 1993 and 1994 I discovered writers like Barry N. Malzberg and Harlan Ellison, thanks in large part to what I consider to be the best science fiction magazine ever produced, Science Fiction Age, edited by Scott Edelman. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on books, but fortunately, I attended the University of California, Riverside, where the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy resides. I could checkout books from the library. I read lots of Malzberg and Ellison in those years, and my writing style almost immediately reflected their influence.

Looking back on some of that early writing, it appears almost ridiculous today, an unintended parody. It is like someone who thinks they are good at impressions doing an impression (badly) of a famous person. I remember wondering then if I would ever develop a style of my own. How did these other writers manage ot do it?

Then, in the spring of 1994, I picked up a hardcover copy of Isaac Asimov’s newly published book, I. Asimov: A Memoir. Up to that point, I’d read very little Asimov. I’d read The Caves of Steel twelve or thirteen years earlier, and I knew that he wrote a lot of nonfiction in addition to his fiction. But reading that book was a revelation to me in many ways, one of which was an author’s style. In the case of Asimov, that was an almost deliberate cultivation of no style–that is to say, a style that is virtually invisible. I liked that idea and began to imitate that style in my writing.

Over the next five years or so I immersed myself in Asimov’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction. His writing, more than any others, led me to branch out further and further afield in my reading, which in turn broadened my experience with style. Over that time, without being quite conscious about it, my own style began to take shape, formed the way a stone is shaped over time by water, wind, sand, abrasion, taking bits of each while other parts are chipped and worn away.

Style, however, is an evolving thing. It changes more slowly over time, but it changes nevertheless. Andy Rooney and E. B. White are two other writers that made subtle contributions to my style. At its core, my style aims for the clarity and invisibility of Asimov’s. Whether or not it achieves this is not for me to judge.

There are styles that I admire greatly but that I know I could never really achieve in any way short of parody. Barry Malzberg’s style is one. My second published story, “Hindsight in Neon,” which appeared in Apex Magazine, was a deliberate imitation of Malzberg’s writing, but it was not my style. Harlan Ellison had a style unique to him that I could never reproduce. I love the style that W. P. Kinsella achieves in books like Shoeless Joe. For nonfiction, I am a great admirer of Will Durant’s style of writing, but it is beyond my capabilities as a writer.

Style, by the way, is different from voice, at least in my mind as it applies to fiction writing. Voice is an evocation of character, a setting of the tone of a story. Style is much more like handwriting, distinctive and unique to the person from whose hand is emerges, but separate from the voice and tone of a story.

If you have any doubt that style can’t change, you have only to look at early posts on this blog, from sixteen or seventeen years ago and compare them with more recent posts. The writing I’ve done here began before I’d sold a single story and I think it makes for a good example of how my style has been influenced and changed over time.

Written on April 30-May 1, 2022.

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  1. Mostly books outside his Xanth, series, although I did read the first 8 or 9 of the books in that series at some point.

Deck Work

Spring was slow to arrive here in northern Virginia. In March we had a few days in the 60s and maybe even 70. For spring break, we headed down to Florida and before we left, the morning temperatures were pretty cold. I felt fairly confident that when we returned, mornings in the 30s would be a thing of the past. We did have a few spring-like days, but then it cooled again, and the mornings were cold. As I glance at the upcoming forecast, tomorrow and Friday mornings both have lows in the 30s. In late April.

Ever since we moved into this house three years ago, I look forward to spring. It means we can start using our deck again. We have a large deck that looks over our backyard and into the park that our house backs up to. In the spring of 2020, we obtained some deck furniture, and a 10×10 gazebo for shade and protection from mosquitos in the summer. Since then, we’ve added a table and chairs for eating, and grill for grilling.

I love our deck. After my morning walk, I’ll take my breakfast out on the deck and go through rest of the newspapers that I didn’t finish when I woke up. On Sunday, I’ll read the actual newspapers out there.

Reading the Sunday papers on the deck before I had the gazebo setup this past weekend.
Reading the Sunday papers on the deck before I had the gazebo setup this past weekend.

Sometime, I’ll take my work laptop onto the desk to work. I like reading on the deck. When the weather is particularly good, I’ll even nap on the deck. I’ll head into the gazebo and lay on the couch, close my eyes and drift off to the sounds of birds and insects.

The mosquito netting and cover for the gazebo was somewhat flimsy. It lasted us the 2020 season and 2021. When I took it down last fall, I saw that it was riddled with rips and holes. I tried to find a replacement from the manufacturer, but they only seemed to sell the full kit. So I searched around and found place that sells 10×10 replacement covers and sidings for gazebos. I ordered it and it arrived today.

It worked! It fit our gazebo just fine and had several improvements over the previous version. It took me a little while to get it setup. I picked a fairly windy day to do it, but the deck furniture is now in place, the gazebo is up, and I am hopeful that the spring temperatures will start to feel like spring for a while, before they shift to summer heat and humidity.

Inside the gazebo
Inside the gazebo

I’m looking forward to making use of the deck.

Written on April 27, 2022.

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Ordering the News

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I like to spend part of my Sunday morning reading the Sunday papers. This is different than the other days of the week that I read the “papers.” On Sunday, I get actual newspapers. Others days I read the papers on my phone.

I subscribe to digital editions of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal1. On Sundays, I pick up New York Times and Washington Post on my morning walk. When I sit down with a paper, what I do is this. I separate the sections and rearrange their order.

  • I turn to the Metro section of the Post first, and read the obituaries. I’ll skim some of the obits, but I make it rule to read any obituary for someone who lived to at least 100 years old. Those are always fascinating. I pull out the obits from the Times and skim through those as well.
  • Next I read the Metro section in the Post to see what’s happening locally.
  • Next up are the editorials and op-eds. These are part of section A in the Post, but frequently are a separate section in the Times. I pull these two bundles together and read the editorals.
  • I go through the front page of each paper.
  • I go through the Times Book Review
  • Finally, I skim the remainder of both papers to see if there are any features I’m interested in reading.

By the time I’m done, there are pages of the Post and Times mingled together at the foot of the reading chair in my office (or on the deck, if I happen to read the papers out there.)

On the other six days of the week, I find it difficult to reproduce this very convenient way of reading the paper. In the New York Times app, I swear there used to be a way to reorder the “Section” in whatever order you liked, but that no longer exists. Indeed, I can’t find any setting that allows me to customize the order of the news. The same is true for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal apps.

You’d think, being apps, that it would be easy to allow users to shuffle around the sections of the digital newspaper so that readers could easily read the paper in any order they want to. Why they don’t offer this is beyond my comprehension. One argument may be that the paper is presenting the news, editorially, in a specific order. Fine. That is, after all, what they do in the print editions. But I can still take the print edition apart and arrange it however I like. Why can’t I do this with the digital editions?

Instead, I waste precious times six mornings a week switching and back forth between apps and navigating between sections. First the obituaries in the Post, then the obituaries in the Times, then the Post‘s Metro section. Then the Times editorials, then the Posts editorials. You get the idea.

What would really be nice would be an app that aggregated news from the various digital subscriptions you had, and allowed you to order the news based on category and section. Something, perhaps, akin to Early Bird, but for digital news subscriptions. The app could verify my subscriptions to the Post, Times, and WSJ. I could tell it I want news presented in the following order: Obits, Metro, Editorials, Front Page, Book Reviews, Features. The result would be I’d log into this app and the news articles would be there from all sources, in the proper order, ready for me to read.

Now that would be a useful app.

Written on April 23, 2022.

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  1. I used to subscribe to the L A. Times but gave it up, sadly, to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. That allows for a more overall balanced picture of the world from what I had before since WSJ doesn’t generally reflect my own views. I do miss the L. A. Times.

A Busy Afternoon

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A couple of weeks ago we had an usually busy Saturday afternoon. Specifically: a 4 hour period in which our three kids had to be at five separate events. Zone defense was a must in this situation, but required more than that. It required a game plan. We plotted the plan out the night before.

Things began just before 2 o’clock. Grace had to be at gymnastic practice for her team. That practice runs 2-1/2 hours on Saturdays. At 2:15, Zach had a soccer game. At about 20 minutes to two, I piled Zach and Grace into the minivan and headed to the sports and rec center where Grace has her gymnastics. I dropped her off there and reminded her that I’d be back before four o’clock to pick her up early. She had a birthday party to go to.

From there, Zach and I sped over to a local middle school where his soccer game was being held. Arriving there, I sought out his coach–also a family friend–and asked if he could take Zach home after the game. I had to leave early to transport Grace to a birthday party. Happily, he agreed to take Zach home.

When I finally, reluctantly left the soccer game, Zach’s team was losing 3-1 about 5 minutes into the second half. Zach had just gone in to play keeper.

I raced back to the rec center, found the very last parking spot available in the lot, and then dashed inside to remind Grace that she had to leave early. It was a fifteen minute drive from the rec center to the bounce hall where the party was being held. As part of our careful planning, Kelly had already filled out the waiver forms online. But because I was dropping her off and I was not Kelly, I had to fill them out all over again. Kelly also arranged for the hosts of the party–neighbors who live a few houses up the street from us–to bring Grace home afterward.

I headed back to the car and made the 20 minute drive back to the house. Zach had arrived home twenty minutes earlier. They lost their soccer game, but he played well.

Meanwhile… Around the time that Zach’s soccer game was starting, the Littlest Miss had a birthday party to attend at a nearby park. Kelly took her to the party. They had to leave the party early, however, because at 4:30, the Littlest Miss had a soccer game. As I write this, that soccer game is still in progress and I am missing it because I had all of these other things to attend to.

Both Zach and the Littlest Miss have soccer games tomorrow as well.

After a long week at work, I look forward to relaxing on the weekend. But today, and particularly this afternoon, felt busier and more fragmented than most of my work days.

I don’t ever remember being nearly this busy–in the structured sense–as a kid. My weekends frequently consisted of locating my friends, maybe swimming for a while (we were in Los Angeles, after all), playing capture the flag, and possibly making the long half-mile walk to 7-Eleven for candy and soda. The late afternoons and evenings were frequently filled with pickup touch football in the church parking lot across the street, or basketball games at the local junior high school (hopping the fence, since the gates were locked on the weekends). No calendar was required to make sense of the agenda for the day, and certainly not one that looked like this:

Four busy hours
Four busy hours

Times change, of course, and today, in our neck of the woods, structured days like this are normal. Structured weekend days like this make me yearn for retirement. At least there will be five days a week I can count on for somewhat less structure. Only nine years and counting…

Written on April 23, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 29: Filling Out Forms

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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.

It sometimes seems to me that most of the paper I deal with day-to-day are forms. I find this ironic. Given that so much of what we do is online, it seems almost archaic to fill out paper forms. And yet, that is what I do. I am the form-filler-outer in the family. If there is a form that needs to be filled out, it ends up on my desk. Kelly says this is because she is bad at filling out forms, but I like to think it is because I am fairly efficient about it. After all, I’ve filled out enough of them.

Obsidian is part of the reason I have become efficient filling out forms. By combining a number of its basic features, I’ve made it easy for myself to have all of the information I need at my fingertips when completing a form.

Family notes

The vast majority of the forms I have to fill out are for a specific person. School forms are for a specific student. Camp forms are for a camper, sports and other activities are for the participant in question. Then there are medical forms for the patient, insurance forms are for the insured, etc., etc.

The foundation of my system for filling out forms starts with a note for each member of the family (the only people I really ever have to fill out forms for). Each of these notes contains the most common information I’d need if I was filling out a form for the person in question.

Below is an example. I took an actual note as a model, but replaced the information with made-up data. You should get the idea:

An example of a family member note
An example of a family member note I use to fill out forms

In addition to the two sections shown above, the family notes also contains three sections containing medical information, school information, and emergency contact information. These sections make use of Obsidian’s embedded note functionality, pulling the information from supporting notes.

Supporting notes

In order to keep information up-to-date, I try to keep it centralized. I keep several notes for this purpose. These notes include:

  • Family doctors
  • Covid vaccination records
  • Other notes with contact information

Within Obsidian, you can embed the contents of one note within another by adding a note link and prefacing it with a ! symbol. In addition, you can include the content of a particular section of a note by referencing just the section in the note link.

Within my Family Doctors note, for instance, I have a section for each doctor that we use. The section contains the doctor’s name, and then contact information for the doctor.

In the Covid vaccination records note, I have a section for each family member, and within that section, a table that lists the vaccinations and dates for each person.

Finally, I have other contact notes (people notes) with sections titled “Contact Info” that are used for emergency contacts. By using embedded links to these notes within my family person notes, I always have the most recent information in each of the family notes when I use them to fill out forms.

Embedding common information

Here is what the embedded sections look like in my fictional note:

Embedded sections of a family note
Embedded sections of a family note

Now, here is what the source for the family member note looks like for each of these sections:

Source view of the embedded sections of a family note.
Source view of the embedded sections of a family note.

Note the highlighted links are embedded links to other notes. That means that I only have to update information in the source notes for it to be reflected in any notes in which they are embedded. It saves me from hunting down every reference to these notes.

Filling out forms

When it comes time to fill out a form, I go through the following steps:

  1. Pull up the family member note for the person in question.
  2. Use the information in the note to fill out the form.
  3. If there is any information on the form that I couldn’t get from the family note, I’ll note it down (usually as a task in my daily notes) as something to add for the next time I have to fill out a form.
  4. When the form is filled out, I’ll scan it, add it to Obsidian, and note that I completed a form for whatever purpose in my daily notes for the day, with a link to the scanned document for reference.

Filling out forms shouldn’t be this hard. Indeed, this seems like the perfect task for A.I. to handle. Instead of focusing on identifying images in photos, or writing blog posts for people, I wish that A.I. focused on more practical tasks like filling out forms. For now, however, Obsidian helps me manage the information I need to fill out forms so that I don’t have to go hunting all over the place to find it.


In two weeks, I’ll post the final episode of my Practically Paperless series. The final episode will be on how I use Obsidian to manage projects. Why the final episode? It was never my intention for this series to go in forever. My focus was on finding practical ways of using Obsidian to go paperless. My original outline for the series had 20 episodes. As I wrote those episodes, I outlined 10 additional episodes. I’m ready to write about other things now and continue using Obsidian to be practically paperless. I’ll see you back here on May 24 for Episode 30.

Prev: Episode 28: Archiving in Obsidian: A Tour of My Digital Scrapbook
Next: Episode 30: Managing Projects in Obsidian (coming May 24, 2022)

Written on May 9, 2022.

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A Work In Progress

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I don’t know about you, but I am a work-in-progress. When I was young, I’d tell myself I’d have it all figured out when I was in my 20s. In my twenties I passed the buck to my thirties. You get the picture. Still, I’d absolutely have “it” figured out by the time I turned fifty. Here I am at the half-century mark and I am still trying to figure things out. I have an idea now that maybe, just maybe, I’ll never quite figure it out.

There is something odd that turning fifty has done to me. I am still compulsively trying to improve in almost everything I do. On the one hand, “fifty” acts as a kind of shot-clock. Its countdown says, you better figure things out soon. On the other hand, “fifty” gives me an impatient look, rolls its eyes, and says, I can’t believe you haven’t figured this out yet.

What is there to figure out? Well everything. I don’t know when it started, but I am constantly telling myself I can improve at this thing or that. I should work out more, I tell myself. I’m only fifty, and if I come up with the right regimen, I could still have a chance at playing shortstop for the New York Yankees, right?

The books I read are filled with marginal notes (holographic1 and digital) with ways I can improve things based on the example of others. For the last year I’ve been thinking I could organize my day better, but how? Then, last week I came across this passage while reading H. W. Brands’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt, A Traitor to His Class:

Roosevelt’s White House day typically began a bit past eight in the morning…

“Too late for me,” I noted. I prefer to be up with the sun. “Arthur Prettman would,” it continues,

bring breakfast and a stack of morning newspapers. Roosevelt scanned the front pages and read the editorials of the papers which generally included The New York Times and Herald Tribute, the Washington Post and Times-Herald, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Tribune.

“What can I learn from this?” I noted. I read three papers: the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. I tend to start with the Post’s metro section and I never skip an obituary for someone who lived to at least 100 years old. Then I skim the front pages of all three, and finally, tackle the editorials. Often the obituaries are the most interesting part of the news, which I why I start with them.

I have a ton of print magazine subscriptions and I try to read one feature article a day, jotting notes about what I can learn from it.

I have notes sitting around with titles like “Rules to Live By” and “Ideas for a Daily Workout Routine.” They are works-in-progress, much like me.

I am constantly looking for ways to improve. Big ways and small ways. When three loads of laundry are piled on our bed, as I fold it I wonder: is there a better way to do this? Doing the dishes I wonder: is there a more efficient way to get the kitchen cleaned up after dinner? At work I’ll iterate through several versions of slides looking for the best possible way to present information.

Drifting off to sleep at night I wonder: did I learn any new words today? When interacting with the kids, could I have done anything better? Been more empathetic about the complicated story they told me about what happened at school? Could I have helped out more with the various activities that go on during the day? If the answer is yes, then how?

I used to let these thoughts keep me up at night. Now, I’ll jot them down so that I can think about them in the morning. In that sense, I have improved a little. I fall asleep much faster than I used to.

Now, if I could only figure out how to stay asleep through the night. But I’ll save that for another time. Maybe when I am sixty and fully retired, I’ll sleep through the night. That gives me about ten years to work on it.

This is what I mean. I am a work-in-progress.

Written on April 22, 2022.

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  1. I’m using the term in its less common definition, “written entirely in the handwriting of its author.”

Digital Paragraphs: Tabs or Carriage Returns?

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These days, I do all of my writing in plain text files using Obsidian. It is the first time since college that I have done all of my writing in a single place. Back in college that writing happened in Word for DOS 5.5, which is my favorite word processor of all time. Plain text files have lots of benefits, and I’ve written about those benefits elsewhere. Markdown allows me to include simple formatting within my files, just what I need without going overboard.

There is one thing about writing in plain text files that I miss, however: how paragraphs are designated.

In print media, paragraphs traditionally begin with an indented first line. Lines are separated by a single carriage return. Turn to a page of just about any book, magazine, or newspaper and you’ll know what I am talking about. Let’s call this the old paragraph style.

     Here is an example. This paragraph is indented by five space in the first line, and then wraps back to the left edge the way it would in a printed book or article. Any subsequent paragraph would also indent five spaces (or one "tab").
     Like this.

Text editors like Obsidian are not word processors. The latter is specifically designed for formatting text on a page. The former is a storage medium for text and formatting is incidental. I find it difficult, almost impractical, to use traditional paragraph formatting in a text editor. Instead, paragraphs are delimited by a double carriage return and no indentation on the first line. This convention has become standard for online media. This post, for instance, is formatted this way. Let’s call this the new paragraph style.

I was raised on the old paragraph style, and I’ve got to admit that I still prefer it to the new paragraph style. It strikes me as odd that two styles should have evolved for print and digital mediums. Words on a screen are no different than words on a printed page. Indeed, my Kindle uses the old paragraph style, even while most blogs use the new paragraph style.

Markdown-sensitive interpretters treat “tabs” as indentations for the entire block of text in question. If I try to use old paragraph style in Obsidian, for instance, the result is not a paragraph with the first line indented. It is a paragraph that is completely indented. I’m sure there are ways of using CSS styles to alter this behavior. But probably it isn’t worth it.

Consider that an old style paragraph uses a tab and a carriage return to delimit its start and end. A new style paragraph uses a double carriage return. If we assume that a carriage return is a single “newline” character then 2 characters are used to delimit a paragraph in either style.

Or is that true? A “tab” is a single character that ultimately represents n number of spaces, where n is fairly arbitrary. The debate between using tabs versus spaces is as heated in the developer world as the debate between one or two spaces after a sentence in the writer world. Is a tab a single character or is, say, five consecutive spaces. If the latter, then an old style paragraph takes up more “space” in a file than a new style paragraph.

I don’t know what got me thinking about this. I didn’t sleep well last night, and perhaps it was reading articles on my phone to pass the time that got me thinking about paragraphs. I like the look of old style paragraphs better than the look of new style paragraphs. There is a compactness about them that makes me think of lean, tight prose. But in the digital world of text editors like Obsidian, they are too much of a headache to worry about.

Written on April 22, 2022.

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Reading for the Week of 5/1/2022

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Here is what I read this week. Some of the articles/posts may require a subscription to read them. I also share my recommended reads on Pocket for anyone who wants to follow along there.

Books

Finished

  • John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman. I’ve only read a few le Carré novels, and his memoir, but he seems like a fascinating person and this biopgraphy confirmed that. It is also always interesting to me to see the evolution of a writer from a nobody to a celebrity.
  • The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty by Sy Montegomery. I enjoyed Sy Montegomery’s book on the octopus and this short book on falconry was almost as enjoyable.
  • All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. I have two reasons for reading this book: one is because I recently read Carl Bernstein’s memoir, and the other is that I have a vague idea for a story involving an investigative journalist and so this book could be considered research.

In Progress

  • A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly. I was looking for a change of pace, and in particular, something set in L.A. I’ve already read the first 8 of Michael Connelly books, so I settled on another Bosch novel for the weekend.
  • In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954 by Isaac Asimov. I’m taking my time with this book, which I started last week, luxuriating in it, since it is the first time I’ve read it in a dozen years.

Articles/posts

Any recommendations for books, articles or posts I should read? Let me know in the comments?

Written on May 07, 2022.

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What’s Going On With Medium?

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I don’t know what’s going on with Medium. It has become a weird echo chamber of whatever article you happen to click on. The tuning of its recommendation engine seems off. It is like someone turned a dial somewhere all the way to eleven and the results are strange to say the least.

I pay an annual subscription to read the articles on Medium, mainly because I’d encounter a reference to one that seems interesting to me frequently enough to be worthwhile. When I did this, I also adjusted my settings for some of the topics that I am interested in. These include: remote work, leadership, outdoors, product management, nonfiction, creativity, writing, design, sports, history, productivity, books, data science, mindfulness, technology and science.

With these interests, I’d expected a wide range or articles, but what I get seems highly based on what I just read. I clicked on an article about Vim, the text editor, not too long ago, and suddenly, it seemed every article suggested at that point was about Vim, and none of my other interests were considered. Not only that, but there is a weird pattern to the suggestions. Medium seems to prefer articles on the extremes. Thus, I was presented with an article titled, “Why Everyone Should Use Vim,” which was followed immediately by an article titled, “Why Vim is Highly Overrated.” There didn’t seem to be much in between. Medium can’t seem to make up its mind about VIm.

I’ve read or skimmed Medium articles enough to have discerned certain patterns that stand out. Titles with numbers in them are big on Medium. I pulled up my feed just now and here are the first article titles listed in order as I see them:

  • Why I “Cheated” to Get to the 100 Follower Mark
  • 4 Ways to Trick Yourself to Write Better Content
  • Do You Want to Write for the Orange Journal?
  • 5 Monthly Subscriptions I Will Never Pay For
  • Now You Can Earn $1000 as a New Writer Without Curation and Major Publications
  • Did You Know You Could Make 17K a Month Writing Short Weather Forecasts?

Medium articles are frequently are self-reflexive or recursive pieces. All six of those pieces above, for instance, are related to writing on Medium itself. When it comes to the topic of writing I find Medium almost useless. All of the articles are about writing articles for Medium.

Gaming the system seems to be another pillar of the Medium establishment. “Cheating” to get to the 100 follower mark. Rules are another pillar: 20 Rules for Writing Your First Book. “Absolutes” are yet another pillar. Article titles contains words like “must”, “never”, “always” abound. Here is one about 3 Things People Who Are Good With Money Never Buy.

More than anything else, Medium has become a place to write about Medium. How to be successful there, how to fail there, how to earn $2,000 a month there, how to gain 10K followers in overnight. Rarely, since subscribing, have I come across an article with any real substance. That’s too bad, really, because in principle, I like the overall concept behind Medium. It just seems to have taken a weird turn.

Since I’ve already paid for my subscription, I’ll keep it until its renewal date, at which point, it is very likely that I won’t renew it. Substack has Medium beat in terms of both the quality of the writing and its usefulness. As I have written before, I think Substack’s subscription model is not sustainable for more than a handful of subscriptions per person (I subscribe to three Substack newsletters, at roughly $60/each per year). But, by giving up my subscription to Medium next year, I can add a fourth newsletter at Substack.

Written on April 3, 2022.

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