Author: Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin is a writer. He writes code, fiction, nonfiction, and has been writing on his blog for more than 17 years. His stories and articles have appeared in Analog, Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, The Daily Beast as well as several anthologies. Jamie lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

Writing in Cursive

A few pages (in cursive) from my journal during our vacation in Ireland this summer.
A few pages (in cursive) from my journal during our vacation in Ireland this summer.

I learned to write in cursive beginning in 2nd grade. I can still remember that pretty clearly. We had sheets of landscape-oriented, gray newsprint paper with guidelines running across it. I filled pages with SSSSSsssss and DDDDDddddd and other letters, getting used to the flow. It seems to me that from second through sixth grade, all of the handwriting I did was in cursive. Beginning in 7th grade, however, for reasons I can no longer clearly remember, I switched to a kind of microscopic printing instead of cursive and from that point on, I rarely wrote in cursive again. Once, years ago when I took the LSAT on a whim1, the essay portion required us to write our responses in cursive for some unexplained reason. That was a bit of a struggle, but I managed.

Then, about a year ago or so, I switched from print to cursive, and haven’t looked back since. I did it with some amount of trepidation. After all, while my older kids learned cursive in school, they rarely use it, and I wondered if they would be able to read anything I wrote in cursive. The last year of my journals are entirely in cursive, and it has always been my idea that those journals might be of interest to the kids when I am old or gone, but will they be able to read them? This came to mind once again when I read a recent article in The Atlantic, Gen Z Never Learned to Read Cursive” by Drew Gilpin Faust, a former president of Harvard University. The article makes some interesting points about some history being inaccessible to people who never learned to read cursive. Many primary sources are written in cursive and if someone can’t read it, they may veer toward other sources. It reminded me: would my kids be able to read what I write in cursive?

It made me wonder why I’d gone back to writing in cursive. I think there were three reasons.

  1. I’ve been writing more and more off-screens. For some reason, I think differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, and it is a pleasant change. It is more relaxing, and there is more freedom. I can cross something out, or scribble a note in the margin, or circle a passage. I suppose I can do this typing, but it takes more effort.
  2. I’ve been trying to slow myself down when I write. When I print, the rhythm reminds me of a keyboard, a staccato, lift-drop, lift-drop of the pen, which is not much different from the press-release, press-release of the keyboard. Writing in cursive provides a smoothness, a flow that I can’t reproduce printing or on a keyboard.
  3. I like the way it looks. On the face of it, these seems kind of silly, but it is true. I like the slant and flow of the cursive letters. I see some people’s handwriting and it looks like a work of art. Mine does not, but I still like the way it looks in cursive more than in print.

In addition to the Atlantic article, I recently read an essay collection by the late historian Edmund Morris. Several of his essays were about handwriting and pens, and he made a further point that with handwriting, there is more there than just the words on the page. Sometimes, you can see the writer’s thoughts at work. Cursive writing often reveals where I writer paused for thought, or pressed on quickly.

I imagine that cursive writing changes over time, as well. Occasionally I will head over to the Massachusetts Historical Society to skim the diaries of John Adams or John Quincy Adams. Their cursive writing looks different than mine. I have always been particularly impressed by the neatness and style of the sixth president’s writing. See, for instance, the neatness of this example from 21 March 1821.

These days, most of what I write outside of work starts on paper and in cursive. My story drafts are done in Composition notebooks, and are written in cursive. But even my notes are now in cursive. In my Field Notes notebooks, where since 2015 I have always printed my notes, in the last year, I’ve started to write them in cursive. Even lists like this one below:

A list of books I want, scribble in cursive in one of my Field Notes notebooks.
A list of books I want, scribble in cursive in one of my Field Notes notebooks.

I have taken to carrying a stack of 10 blank 3×5 index cards in the back of my Field Notes notebook so that I can more readily make notes on the books and articles I am reading. At the end of the day, I move these notes into Obsidian. But during the day, as I write them, these notes, too, are scribbled out in cursive.

Some reading notes on index cards.
Some reading notes on index cards.

Sometimes, I find that I have trouble reading my own writing, but this is not frequent. When it happens, I’ll pause to puzzle out the indecipherable word, and then usually I will scribble in the word more clearly above in red so that the next time I come to the word, I don’t have to puzzle it out. The more I write in cursive, however, the less of a problem this is for me.

I still wonder if my kids, or their kids, will be able to read my cursive handwriting. I want them to be able to read what I have written. But over time I worry less about it. If they really want to read it, they will figure out a way. And besides, I imagine we are not too far off from AI that can read any form of cursive handwriting and that will make the job easier for anyone trying to puzzle this stuff out.

Written on September 27, 2022.

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  1. I really did take it on a whim, curious to see how I’d score

One Month of Random Article Reading

Earlier in the month, I wrote about one small way I am battling decision fatigue: I wrote a script to select one random article from the magazines I read. Each morning, I run my script, find out what article has been selected, and the locate the magazine. I take it out on the deck along with my breakfast, and proceed to sit in the quiet morning air and read the article. Usually, I’ll snap a photo of the article and post it on Twitter. For instance, here is the one from this morning

I have been reading random articles from my subscriptions for the last month, and I am really enjoying it. I went into this simply trying to eliminate a decision from my day, but it turns out there has been a number of benefits.

First, because the selection is random, and because I am committed to reading whatever is selected each day, I’ve ended up reading articles I wouldn’t have selected on my own–many of which have turned out to be fascinating, well written, insightful, and even heart-wrenching. The randomness, and the commitment to read whatever is selected expands the range of what I read, which is a good thing.

Second, it provides a nice break in my morning routine. I usually end up reading my article just after my morning walk and just before my workout; or just after my workout and just before I start work for the day. It is a nice buffer to have.

Third, because I post what I am reading on Twitter, I pay closer attention to the authors of the articles. If they have a presence on Twitter, I try to tag them, and searching for them helps me learn more about them, and I discover more of what they have written. An unexpected side-effect of this is that sometimes my post reminds writers that there are people out there reading what they have written. Just this morning, for instance, I saw this quote tweet about the post I made on yesterday’s morning reading:

There is a problem, however. I find that though I am reading at least one feature article every day, The list of articles to read seems to grow week-to-week. I blame the New Yorker. It is a weekly magazine, instead of a monthly. Where I might get 4-6 features in a regular monthly magazine, I get 4-6 features a week in the New Yorker. It also skews the random selection a bit: with more New Yorker articles, there is a greater chance that there will be a New Yorker article selected. I’ve considered possible solutions to this, but haven’t come up with a good one yet.

My script automatically removes a selected article from the “to-read” list, but I still track this in the magazine itself. When I finish reading an article, I cross it off in the table of contents, like this:

Articles crossed off in the table of contents.

One unexpected side-effect of this is the joy I feel upon crossing off the last feature article in a given issue. This happened recently with an issue of Outside Magazine. I’d read all of the articles, and crossed off the last one. I took the magazine off the pile and added it to the week’s recycling.

At present there is a fairly large stack of issues with some, but not all, of the articles crossed off. The pile seems to grow, but skimming through it, I can see at least a half dozen issues where only one or two articles remain unread. I imagine there will be a week in the near future where I may complete 4 or 5 issues and the pile will suddenly shrink.

Until now, I have had to run my script on my local computer, which meant that when I was away from home, I’d have to run the script in advance to know what to read each day while I was gone. But this weekend, I fixed that problem. The text files I use to maintain my “to-read” and “read” lists are stored in Dropbox. I created an Apple Shortcut that does essentially the same thing as my shell script. I now can say to my phone, “Hey Siri, select a random article” and Siri will reply with the name of the random article I should read (the shortcut also moves the article to my read list).

The result when I asked Siri to select a random article.
The result when I asked Siri to select a random article.

Geeky technology aside, I am really enjoying my mornings on the deck reading random articles. Looking ahead, I’m trying to figure out what I’ll do once the temperature really starts to drop. Probably I can just sit out there with my coat and hat and enjoy the cold fresh air. That sounds good at the edge of summer when the temperatures are still uncomfortably warm, but we’ll have to see how that works in practice.

Written on September 25, 2022.

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Notes on a Colonoscopy

close up photo of a stethoscope
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Back in February when I had my annual physical and was not yet 50 years old, my doctor said it was time for me to have a colonoscopy for screening purposes. I said, “I kind of figured that, what with me turning 50 next month.”

“The guidelines have changed,” my doctor said, “Now they recommend 45.”

He told me that I should try to get one scheduled by the end of the year. He gave me a sheet of paper with local gastroenterologists, and said, “You might want to call sooner rather than later. I’m hearing that a lot of these places are, um, backed-up.”

Fast-forward seven months. I turned 50, went on vacation in Ireland, and when I got back, I finally decided to schedule the appointment. The colonoscopy took place last week. The results were all good. Here are some notes and observations for anyone who might find them useful.

  • There really should be a service that you can subscribe to which handles all medical related appointments and forms. I, for one, would gladly pay for a service which would have access to my calendar, and could handle all of the back-and-forth involved in finding, screening, and scheduling an appointment, and filling out the necessary forms, and dealing with the insurance company.
  • Everyone I talked to who’d had a colonoscopy warned me that the “cleansing” was the worst part. Back in high school, I worked in a pharmacy and I remember people coming in for that 64-oz jug of Golytely with the powder on the bottom. I heard that stuff was terrible. My prep was as follows:
    • Liquid diet only beginning the day before the procedure. Since my procedure was on a Thursday morning, it meant a liquid diet beginning first thing Wednesday morning.
    • At 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, take 2 Dulcolax tablets.
    • At 5pm on Wednesday afternoon, drink 32oz of regular Gatorade laced with a bottle of Miralax.
    • At 5:30am on Thursday morning, drink another 32oz of regular Gatorade lacked with a bottle of Miralax.
  • It was impossible to find a 64oz bottle of Gatorade anywhere. It was impossible to find a 32oz bottle. Ultimately, I ordered 2-32oz bottles from Amazon. I quickly discovered a problem. The bottle of Miralax contains 238grams of very fine, flavor-free powder. The 32oz Gatorade bottles are filled to the brim with Gatorade. Adding the powder to the bottles would displace the Gatorade. What I did was this:
    • Drank down about 1/5th of the Gatorade to make room for the powder.
    • Added the powder and shook up the mixture.
    • Drank the rest of the Gatorade mixture. It tasted like… Gatorade.
    • Opened the other bottle of Gatorade and poured half of it into the first bottle.
    • Added half of the remaining powder to each bottle.
    • Returned them to the fridge for the following morning.
  • At some point during the evening, someone took my two bottles of Gatorade out of the fridge to get the milk. They left them on the counter all night. In the morning, I had drink 32oz of warm Gatorade.
  • I drank my first bottle of Gatorade at 5pm Wednesday afternoon. Given what everyone told me, I expected something on the order of volcanic eruption with significant magma displacement. What actually happened was not nearly that dramatic, or even particularly inconvenient. I was warned to stay near a bathroom after taking the medicine, but I could have gone out for my morning walk with no ill effect. Kelly says this is because I have an unusual digestive system to begin with. I was kind of let down by the whole thing.
  • The worst part of the process by far was not eating. On the Tuesday before, we had a remarkably busy schedule with 8 overlapping events that for some reason we had to attend. I had no time for dinner, and it wasn’t until 9:30pm that I finally wolfed something down quickly. That was the last solid food I had until about 11:45am on Thursday. All day on Wednesday, I was so hungry. I saw food everywhere. I thought about food constantly. It was miserable. Far worse, in my mind, than the cleansing phase.
  • My appointment was for 10:30am on Thursday, but for some reason, I had to be there an hour early. The reason: I had a bunch of forms to fill out. The the very first bullet above.
  • I had a fantastic anesthesiologist, Dr. B., who was funning, charming, and engaging. She explained everything and said that the hard part was over and that now I’d earned a good nap. They used Propofol to knock me out. I’d been under general anesthesia a few other times so I knew the drill. The wheeled me into the room where they perform the procedure. I talked with Dr. B about Ireland. I remember I explaining to her that the day we went to the Cliffs of Moher was the only foggy day we had. And then, I was in the recovery room.
  • I wolfed down the crackers and water they gave me, while the doctor came by and told me that I had one of the best colons he’d ever seen. “No one’s ever said that to me before,” I told him.
  • When I got home a little while later, I made myself a ham, turkey and cheese sandwich. It was one of the best sandwiches I’d ever had in my life.

It is a week later as I write this. There were really no ill-effects to the entire process, other than being hungry for 36 hours. And the fasting even knocked off a few extra pounds.

Written on September 21, 2022.

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A Few Updates

close up shot of keys on a red surface
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

It has been quiet here on the blog for a few week, but that’s because things have been busy lately. I figured I’d jump in here to say that, yes, there are more posts coming, and yes, I am working on getting back to a regular rhythm. Here are a few things that have been keeping me busy lately, all of which I’ll be writing about more in the near future:

  1. A few people may have noticed that my list of books I’ve read since 1996 has changed. Clicking the link takes you to a different site: notes.jtrwriter.com. What’s that all about? Well, I occasionally get questions about the books I read, like if I have any notes or summaries I’ve written. At the same time, I’ve been wanting to automate my reading lists, as well as capture my entire book collection in more detail than I have done so in the past. And while I’m at it, I want to include all of my reading-related notes. To do this, I am using Obsidian. I’ll have much more to say on this in future posts, but the pages I’ve posted to notes.jtrwriter.com, including my reading lists, are just the beginning. (And for those who are wondering, I am using Obsidian Publish to generate the pages there). In addition, if you are interested in what I am reading or writing at any given time, you can check out my “now” page there. Stay-tuned.
  2. I have been writing fiction every day. I’ve found that, given the time I have available in day, it is difficult for me to work on a story and write a blog post. I recently revamped my morning routine–something I’ll be writing about soon–and have been trying to see if I can find a way to fit both blog writing and fiction writing into my routine. I have been prioritizing the fiction writing for now. More on this coming soon.
  3. My random article reading at breakfast has been going well. I like not having that decision to make, and also look forward to whatever article might pop up for that morning. I’ve been posting these on Twitter each morning, and now that I’ve gotten into the flow of it, I’ll have more to say about that soon as well.

I’ve have other things to write about as well, including something on bats (the mammals), and something else on… well, you’ll just have to wait to find out.

I just wanted to pop in to make sure you knew that I was still alive and well, and plugging away, and that I will be back here posting shortly. In the meantime, while I’ve given up Facebook (and haven’t missed it!) I am active on Twitter just about every day, so you can always follow along on the days that I don’t post here, if you are so inclined.

Written on September 20, 2022.

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Boswell or Gibbon?

My editions of Boswell's Life of Johnson and Gibbon's Decline and Fall
My editions of Boswell and Gibbon.

Recently, in my reading, both James Boswell and Edward Gibbon keep popping up. Boswell’s Life of Johnson is frequently referred to as the ultimate in biography and Boswell the ultimate biographer. Meanwhile, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall comes up again and again as one of the best histories ever written. Moreover, many people I admire have read and enjoyed the latter, not the least of which are John Adams and Isaac Asimov. I have wanted to read Decline and Fall for some time now. A while back, I acquired a 6-volume set of Everyman’s Library editions. And while visited a used bookstore recently, I obtained a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Both books would be huge undertakings, and I’ve already got a fairly long list of books taxiing to the runway ahead of these. So the two questions that remain are: when can I read them, and which should I read first, Boswell or Gibbon?

Considering this, I remembered that my friend Bart told me about a book called The Club by Leo Damrosch, which is about a gathering of great minds, among whose members were both Boswell and Gibbon. I decided that I would read that book before either of the other two, and make my decision based on whatever direction that book pointed me in. That is a much shorter book, and I figure my book-traffic-controller can slot it in after Fairy Tale by Stephen King (which I hope to start today), and Hell and Back by Craig Johnson, which I plan on reading right after King.

cover image of The Club by Leo Damrosch

This still leaves the problem of when to read Boswell and Gibbon. Given the speed at which I typically read, I expect I’d need to set aside 7-10 days for Boswell, and possibly twice as long for Gibbon. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of books coming out this month that I want to read. I think December would be the earliest at this point. It might be a good time since I will be on vacation for several weeks in December and might be able to read more than I usually do.

In the meantime, does anyone have thoughts or opinions on which to read first, Boswell or Gibbon? Let me know in the comments.

Written on September 7, 2022.

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There Is Blood on This Essay

interior of abandoned building
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Over the weekend, while visiting a friend from high school, I learned of the horrifying revelations of grooming and abuse in my high school program in the time just after I was there. Seyward Darby spent 9 month investigating this abuse and exposed in a recent piece of journalism that rivals anything that Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens achieved in their day. Though it is painful, I urge you to read her piece, “Fault Lines” on the Atavist. Indeed, if you have to choose between this piece and hers, read hers.

I spent much of last night thinking about my own experience in the humanities magnet program at Cleveland High in Reseda, California. I attended the school between 1987-1990, and I have written about the positive effects the “core” program had on me. Darby’s piece was like seeing that program through a mirror, darkly.

Before I continue, I want to make a couple of points upfront:

  1. I have no words to express the horror that the students who experienced abuse by teachers in the core program must have felt, nor can I adequately comprehend the bravery it took to come forward. I can try to comprehend what these students experienced through the distant gulf of biography, which while descriptive, certainly doesn’t come close to conveying the true horror of living it and living with it.
  2. As a straight, white male, I play the game of life at the lowest difficulty level, to borrow a phrase from John Scalzi. My experience at Cleveland (and in other areas of life) is through this privileged perspective. Being aware of that is important.

During my time at Cleveland, I had several of the teachers mentioned in the piece. I had Ray Linn as a teacher in both 11th and 12th grade, if I remember correctly. I had Michael Helwig for some math class, I can’t recall which. I honestly can’t remember if I had Chris Miller, or not, but I certainly remember him. After my friend told me about Darby’s investigation, we sat around talking, he and his wife and me and Kelly. I tried to explain the program to Kelly, though she’s heard me talk about it countless times. My friend mentioned the way Ray Linn frequently denigrated students, and my response was almost exactly that which appears in Darby’s piece, “He taught through the Socratic method.” Ray Linn was something of a character in the school, and I always took his jaded view of the world to be a persona that couldn’t possibly represent who he was when he was at home.

My friends and I all knew about Miller letting kids out of school through his window. That was about the worst-kept secret in the program. There was a familiarity among students and faculty that I hadn’t experienced before that. I can’t remember if students referred to teachers by their first name, or not. I know that I never did. Back then, all adults were “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss”; it was unthinkable for me to refer to any adult, let alone a teacher, otherwise. But I don’t doubt that it happened.

I frequently speak fondly of my time at Cleveland, and I’ve often attributed my ability to write essays to that core program. I must have had some natural talent as a writer before entering the program, but it was that program, and the essays tests we took that shaped that raw talent into something more. Would I have been able to write and sell stories and articles without the program? Would I have maintained a blog for 17 years and more than 7,100 posts if not for that program? It’s hard to say, but my gut says no. The thing I’ve often thought is that the core program made us feel special. Perhaps I should just speak for myself and say, it made me feel special. That is the closest I can come to understanding how teachers went about grooming students for abuse. It was a window of access, that feeling of being special.

Even within the school, the “core” program was, as Darby states in her piece, “a school within a school” and I recall times when Neal Anstead would bring guest into our classes to see us in action, something that I imagine did not occur in the standard English and History classes outside the humanities program. Many of our classes were discussions, in particular our philosophy classes, and once, I remember Ray Linn going off on something (I can’t remember what) when Neal Anstead and a guest crept silently into the back of the classroom. “Their just a bunch of fucking idiots,” Linn said to finish his tirade. Then he paused, glanced toward the back of the classroom, and with a mild look on his face, said, “Oh look, it’s the boss.”

In 12th grade we were studying Renè Descartes. We had intense discussions in Linn’s class about existence, whether or not you can trust your senses, and perhaps this is all a dream: Descartes, cogito ergo sum. Darby writes about Miller lining up girls in order of attractiveness. I have no doubt that happened. There were other ways we were competitive. Writing essays was one. All of our core tests were essay tests and we were expected to write essays that made use of all of the disciplines we were learning: philosophy, literature, social institutions and art history. Linn’s essay question for the essay on existentialism was put to us as follows: “Prove you don’t exist. If there isn’t blood on the paper when you turn it in, you can’t get an A.” There wasn’t blood on my essay back then, but it feels like there is blood on this essay now.

After our essays were done, we commiserated on how long they were. It wasn’t uncommon for us to write 8-10 handwritten pages in the 2 hours we were given, but there some students who could write much more.

Though I went through the program feeling that “core” made us special somehow, I never felt particularly noticed by teachers. There are only two teachers I can think of who probably knew my name, otherwise, I felt I was just an anonymous face among many students who shined more brilliantly than I ever did.

There was one teacher my friends and I liked particularly in our senior year. After our graduation ceremony, we went to a friend’s house to celebrate. It was an evening pool party, and this teacher was invited, and much to my surprise, showed up at the party. I always felt there was a social gulf between teachers and students (I do so even today when I find myself talking to my own kids’ teachers) and so it was a little odd to see this teacher there. But he was invited and as I recall, he didn’t stay very long.

I mention this for the same reason I mention Linn’s essays question and that “special” feeling we had being “corebabies”: all of it was cast in a new light after reading Seyward Darby’s piece. It is why I wholeheartedly believe the women who have come forward. Even though I didn’t experience the grooming and abuse they did, the environment that made it possible was there in the years that I attended. Three decades later, as a middle-aged parent with a teenager and two younger daughters, it seems to me I should have recognized it for what it was, but I didn’t. I was a teenager myself with no worldly experience to speak of.

It is a shame. I believe the interdisciplinary program we had is what we need more of in education. In grade school I learned to read. In high school, in Cleveland’s humanities program, I learned to think critically about what I read. It seems to me that this critical thinking is more important than ever. Lack of critical thinking leads to what Michael Rich, president emeritus of the RAND Corporation, and his colleague Jennifer Kavanagh refer to as “truth decay.”

I am grateful for my experience in Cleveland’s humanities program. To this day all of my best friends were the friends I had during my years at Cleveland. Yet I am horrified by what students who came to the program shortly after I graduated had to endure and live with for decades thereafter. I hope that somehow they can find peace in all of this, but I also know that isn’t always possible. All night I have wondered if there was anything we did to foster the environment that made core students feel special. After all, we participated in that familiarity and camaraderie with the teachers in our classroom experience. Did that help make it seem okay to cross a line? I like to tell myself that it takes a certain kind of person to cross that line, and that it would have happened with or without us, but it is impossible to say.

If you have read this far, please, please, please take the time to read Seyward Darby’s “Fault Lines” as it is the only way to truly see what the environment was like, and what these women had to endure.

Written on September 6, 2022.

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The Complete David McCullough

About half of my David McCullough books.
About half of my David McCullough books.

On August 28 I finished reading The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. It was a milestone read in that it was the last remaining McCullough book I had to read. Having read it, I have read the complete David McCullough–at least his books. Since he recently passed away, unless he has a book in press, there won’t be another. Sadder words are hard come by for a reader such as me.

For those curious, I read the books over a long period of years and in the following order:

TitleDate first read
John Adams*7/2/2001
Truman*7/15/2001
Brave Companions: Portraits in History5/8/2018
17763/14/2019
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris3/18/2019
The Pioneers5/10/2019
The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For5/11/2019
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge9/21/2020
The Wright Brothers9/26/2020
The Johnstown Flood8/12/2022
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt8/18/2022
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-19148/28/2022
*I’ve read each of these multiple times

My favorite of all McCullough’s books is also my first, John Adams, which I have read 3 times and from which I feel I profit more from each reading. Truman is another that I have read more than once, fascinated by the depth and detail. Both these books made me feel as if I was living in the times in which they take place. Both The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas are biographies of engineering marvels, each filled with fascinating details. Despite these books being history, in both cases I was, at times, on the edge of my seat wondering if these great works would ever be completed.

That is the power–the gift–of the writer. And McCullough was a gifted writer, biographer and historian. Certainly he was one of my favorites. But why was he so good? I’ve been giving that some thought lately and I think it comes down to four factors:

  1. Quality of research. McCullough immersed himself in research, focusing on primary sources, including diaries and letters from people where were there. He often identified multiple sources or witness accounts of the same event and used them to suss out the truth so far as it could be determined–something he was always careful to mention when certain facts were in question or uncorroborated. He was patient, and didn’t rush the research. He worked part time on his first book, The Johnstown Flood. When he came to write the biography of Truman, he spent ten years on the research.
  2. Remarkable storytelling ability. McCullough had a remarkable ability to synthesize all of that research and find within it a compelling storyline. All of that painstaking research, all of those gathered facts and corroborations combined with an unusually gifted talent for writing and storytelling to put the reader in the middle of everything. Reading John Adams, I felt I was standing in the room while the debate of independence was carried out. When describing the digging of the canal, I felt I was out there among the man and mosquitos.
  3. Courage to explore. McCullough took the time and space he needed to explore all aspects of a subject. As asthma played a significant role in the life of Theodore Roosevelt, he took time in his biography of the young Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, to do a deep dive into the history of asthma from ancient times to the present. Similarly, one can’t discuss the digging of the Panama Canal without discussing disease, and one can’t discuss malaria without at least mentioning the mosquito. McCullough took a fascinating deep dive here as well.
  4. A knack for choosing interesting subjects. McCullough picked subjects that were both interesting and lesser-know. Even now the only other biography of note I can thing of with respect to John Adams’ is Page Smith’s, which was published some 40 years before McCullough’s biography came out. The Johnstown flood had been virtually forgotten.

Combined, it is no wonder that McCullough was as successful a writer as he turned out to be. It was inevitable. And yet, I wish he could have written more. Once, I saw an interview where he mentioned having dozens of projects listed out that he wanted to tackle. It turns out there just wasn’t enough time. In idle moments, I wonder what those subjects might be, and what wonderful books might have emerged from them.

Written on August 31, 2022.

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Presidential Traits

abraham lincoln administration adult art
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When I read I am always trying to learn. In particular, I try to take practical, actionable lessons from my reading, especially when reading biographies. Recently, I was thinking about what would make a truly great president, and since I have read quite a few presidential biographies, I considered what I have learned from them, and what specific lessons I have taken from them. I came up with a list of 5 traits that I have admired in U.S. presidents over the history of the presidency as they related to the five presidents that I think best expressed those traits

  1. John Adams’ character. Of all presidents, I admire John Adams most for his character and integrity. The most obvious display of this was when he agreed to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, and used his formidable intelligence and legal prowess to either get the soldiers acquitted, or greatly reduced sentences. He put the rule of law above all else, believing that it was strict adherence to the rule of law that provided a strong foundation for any form of government. He took on the defense knowing that it could make him unpopular among Bostonians, but he did so because it was the right thing to do; there was never any real choice in the matter for him. His diaries and writings are filled with similar (if not so spectacular) examples of character. One of my favorite Adams’ stories can be found in David McCullough’s masterful biography John Adams:

Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to know who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “Sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sign again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered. “Which was the greatest philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.

  1. John Quincy Adamsintelligence and introspection. Given what I have read about JQA, as well as what I have read that JQA has written himself, particularly in his vast lifelong diaries, it is my opinion that he was most intelligent president we have had to date. I can’t think of a single president comes that exceeds JQA’s intellectual ability, although a few come close. I’ve written in the past how I admire really smart people, so this should come as no surprise. But I’ve also been heavily influenced by JQA’s introspection. His diaries read like person never satisfied with the status quo, always striving to improve himself in one way or another. Perhaps because I am the same way–my diaries are frequently filled with frustrations about why I am not better at something than I want to be, or that I am constantly trying to improve, even upon things I am good at–that I admire this trait so much in JQA.
  2. Abraham Lincoln’s writing and wit. There are many traits one could take from Lincoln, but the ones that I most admire in him was his way with words, both in his writing and his wit. Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln is filled with stories Lincoln told, often witty or humorous, to help make some point. It seemed like any subject reminded him of something. I admire his writing for its compactness and brevity. He could say with fewer words more than many could say in volumes, and do so with an elegance and style that has no equal that I can think of for that time. Many times when I am writing and feel as if I am going on and on, adding words for the sake of words, I ask myself how Lincoln might treat this subject.
  3. Theodore Roosevelt’s energy and breadth of knowledge. I remember reading in one of TR biographies (I’ve read a few) that at some point in his life, TR was convinced he was going to die at 60, and indeed, he was 60 years old when he died. I don’t think this was a self-fulfilling prophecy so much as a man who burned his energy fiercely throughout his adult life. How he went from a sickly child, to the rough woodsman, hunter and naturalist is one of the more amazing transformations in presidential history–one that it told particularly well in David McCulloughs’ Mornings on Horseback. But it is TR’s breadth of knowledge that astounds me. John Quincy Adams may be the most intelligent and intellectually gifted president we’ve ever had, but TR was, as far as I can tell, the only polymath to serve as president (Jefferson might be close in this regard). I’ve often argued that there is no previous training or experience that can possibly prepare one to be president. It is a unique job. That said, a polymath like TR, who has a wide-ranging experience, provides an example of what a suitor to the presidency should look like.
  4. Franklin Roosevelt’s natural ability to lead. People love or hate FDR. He has many flaws, as most people do (presidential flaws tend to be more public than most). But despite those flaws, he had a gift for leadership. He led the U.S. out of a depression, and through a World War the likes of which the world had never seen before. And in between, he did the business of managing the affairs of a rapidly growing nation. The nation hadn’t seen such a leader before. Washington and Lincoln were great leaders, but there was something about FDR, his ability to relate directly to a wide variety of people, that puts him a step above all of the others in my book. The lessons I’d like to take from FDR are those leadership lessons, and though I’ve read many FDR biographies, those lesson elude me–and I think it was because it was a natural gift, like John Quincy Adams’ intellect, or Theodore Roosevelt’s energy.

It occurred to me, having outlined these traits, that my ideal president would combine all five of them: high moral character, intelligence and introspection, a good and witty communicator, high energy and an unusual breadth of knowledge, and finally, a natural ability to lead. In some ways, this describes Roman rulers that I have read about, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a president that combines all of these traits, and I’m not sure we ever will.

In the meantime, I do my best to learn from these men, to take practical lessons and constantly try to improve myself and align myself with these traits. In some places I’ve had moderate success. In other areas, will alone doesn’t seem to be enough. Natural ability is the missing ingredient. Even so, I try.

Written on August 30, 2022.

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Battling Decision Fatigue: An Article a Day

My morning random article reading on the deck.
My morning random article reading on the deck.

I don’t know about you but I have been afflicted with decision fatigue for a long time now. Some of it comes from my job as a software project manager. There are constant decisions to be made every day, from what to tackle on a given day, to how best to organize my day based on the tasks that I need to complete, to many smaller decision: delegation, who to include in a meeting, whether or not something is worthy of sending an email. Outside of work, it seems, there are just as many decisions to make each day, not the least of which include adjudicating the numerous daily court battles between the kids, or deciding what to make for dinner. If we go out to eat, a dozen more decision spill into the cut like a decision-landslide.

It is for these reasons that I seek out routine. I’m tired of making so many decisions, especially trivial ones. I generally go long stretches eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch because that simple act eliminates many decisions throughout the week: not only what to eat, but what I need to buy at the store. When it comes to clothes, I keep things simple, too. For 8 months of the year, I put on short and a t-shirt, often grabbing whatever shirt I happen to reach for without much consideration. For books, the decision of what to read next is often made for me through the butterfly effect of reading. When that fails, I make the decisions in bulk, outlining a list of books to try to read in the coming season.

Finding ways to battle decision fatigue helps reduce the stress of the day, but the routines can become monotonous. Which is why the solution I came up with for deciding what magazine article to read in the morning has been such a success for me.

In addition to book reading, I try to keep up with a variety of magazines. With magazines, however, my goal is to spend that time reading completely off-screens. Thus, I subscribe to quite a few magazines that arrive in the mail. These include: Scientific American, Smithsonian, Harper’s, the New Yorker, Down East, Outside, and WIRED. I subscribe to The Atlantic as well, but that one is online-only. I also subscribe to 3 Substack newsletters, which I consider to be similar to magazine subscriptions: Joe Blog’s, a sports newsletter by the great sportswriter Joe Posnanski; Breaking the News by James Fallows; and The Long Game, a baseball-centered newsletter by Molly Knight.

My goal is simple: read one feature article each morning. Typically, after my morning walk, I’ll head onto the deck and sit with a magazine to read an article. But which magazine? And which article? More decisions!

To eliminate these decisions and add some spontaneity to my day, I recently wrote a script that selects a random feature article for me. I don’t have to pick a magazine or an article. I just run my script in the morning and it spits out what article to read and where it can be found. For instance, here is the result for this morning’s article:

Today's results from my "article" script.
Today’s results from my “article” script.

How does my script know what magazines and articles are available? For this I make use of Gina Trapani’s todo.txt system. Each time a new magazine arrives in the mail, I add the feature articles to a toread.txt list using the simple commands in Gina’s system. For a typical magazine this takes less than a minute. Then, when I run my “article” script each morning the selected article is removed from the toread.txt list and added to a read.txt list, which gives me a nice history of the articles I’ve read.

Putting the script together was easy. It is only 9 lines of actionable code, after all. And rather than re-invent the wheel, I made use of todo.txt to manage the entries in the list. Doing this not only eliminated several decisions from my day, but it added some spontaneity and surprise. I never know what article will come up. Moreover, the script is not as discriminating as I might be. Its selection is completely random and I’ve promised myself to read whatever it chooses, so I get more variety than I might otherwise get if I was choosing on my own.

This has turned out to be a fun experience. I wake up in the morning eager to know what article it is I will be tackling out on the deck as I eat my breakfast. Right now, I run the script manually, but I am planning on having it run automatically overnight, and emailing me the result, so that no matter where I am, I can check my email in the morning to see what it is I’ll be reading about. It eliminates just a couple of small decisions each day, but those add up. Over the course of a year, this little script of mine saves me from making 730 decisions.

If you happen to be curious about what article I end up reading each morning, I generally post it on Twitter along with a picture.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an article to read about carbon stored up the rock beneath the gulf coast.

Written on August 28, 2022.

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My 2022 Fall Reading List

I try to reading 8-10 books per month. With school starting on Monday, and summer winding down, I’ve started to think about what I want to read in the fall. Much of my reading is dictated by the butterfly effect of reading. So lists like the one that follows are subject to severe winds and shifts in the reading weather. Still, looking at what’s sitting on my shelves, and considering what I have been reading lately, along with what I know is coming soon, here is a list, in no particular order, of the books I’m currently planning to read this fall.

Sometime around the winter solstice, I’ll post a follow-up, and we’ll see how many of these books I get through. In the meantime, you can always check the list of books I’ve read since 1996, or Goodreads, both of which I keep up-to-date.

Written on August 26, 2022.

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I Once Wanted to Be an Architect

Chatting with my son on Saturday morning, he told me that he thought he might want to be an architect when he grew up. This made a lot of sense to me. He’s always constructing all kinds of interesting things with Legos, or sketching out elaborate bases on paper. It also reminded me of a time that I wanted to be an architect. In 11th grade, I took Drafting as my elective. It was a great class, taught by a very good teacher, and in that class I learned how to draw floor plans and elevation, how to use templates and other tools of the trade. I had fun laying out imaginary houses, but I had even more fun drawing those houses from the floor plans I’d laid out.

Yesterday, while searching for some old letters, I found those drawings from 34 years ago. I thought I’d shared them here once before, years ago, but I could find no reference to them when I searched the blog, so I figured I’d share those drawings with you today. First, we have a pair of drawing I made of what the 16-year old version of me thought my house would look like when I was a grown up:

My imagined future house, front view.
My imagined future house, front view.

Next, we have what I was certain the back of my future house would look like, complete with deck, pool, and tennis court.

My imagined future house, rear view.
My imagined future house, rear view.

Compare and contrast to what my actual house looks like, some 34 years later:

My house, today.
My house, today is somewhat more modest than what I thought it might be as a 16-year old.

Not quite what I imagined it would be as a brash 16-year old, although we do have a large deck in the back. No pool or tennis courts, though.

Okay, a few more of my drawings from that drafting class. Here’s one of a beach house I designed:

A beach house drawing from 11th grade.
A beach house drawing from 11th grade.

I’m not quite sure how to describe this next house, other than to see it appears very accordion-like to me:

My "Accordion"-style house.
My “Accordion”-style house.

This one is another beach house. Keep in mind that I lived in L.A. when I was making these drawings and we would occasionally drive past houses in places like Pacific Palisades and Malibu, and that might have had some influence on all of the beach houses I was designing.

YABH: Yet Another Beach House.
YABH: Yet Another Beach House.

This next one is what I’d call a “contemporary” style–at least for the late 1980s. It reminds me of the houses I’d see in the Chatsworth area of the San Fernando Valley.

A 1980s "contemporary"-style house.
A 1980s “contemporary”-style house.

Finally, I found one attempt I’d made at what I think is a Tutor-style house:

A Tutor-style house.
A Tutor-style house.

When I was taking this class, and making these drawings, I’d been working at a stationary store in the Northridge Fashion Center, so I had access to lots of drawing material at a discount. There was a record store near the stationary store, and I remember going in and buying Christopher Cross’s eponymous album, and listening to that album over and over while I made these drawings. Today, when I hear songs from that album, I am reminded of velum and the smell of pencil lead. I also recall buying issues of Architectural Digest and flipping through the magazine, clipping out pictures of places I thought I might own when I was a grown up.

My desire to be an architect did not outlive 11th grade, however. I moved on to other things, and when I entered the University of California, Riverside in the fall of 1994, a little over a year after making these drawings, it was as a physics major.

Still, I’m glad I found these drawings, and happier still that I was able to preserve them here. I showed them to my son, who responded with typical teenage brevity: “Cool!” he said.

Written on August 23, 2022.

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This is Dungeons & Dragons!

Playing D&D with my kids.

Just about eight years ago, I wrote an essay for the venerable SF Signal titled, “Daddy, What’s Dungeons & Dragons.” In that piece, I talked about getting a copy of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, and about my son, then five years old, asking me what Dungeons & Dragon was.

This summer, my son and my older daughter both attended a D&D camp. After the first day, they came home asking if we could play D&D at some point. Both had spent the day playing and both had enjoyed themselves immensely. They had created characters and began playing one of the off-the-shelf adventures. A councilor at the camp was the game master. Over course of the week, they continued to ask if we could play, and I agreed that we could. But I had some preparation to do first.

I already had the Player’s Handbook. I ordered a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, as well as a DM’s screen, and two adventure books, The Curse of Strahd and Tales from the Yawning Portal. I spent the next week refreshing myself on the ins-and-outs of the role playing game. I went through the Player’s Manual and then the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I skimmed the adventures, and then decided that it would be best if we began with some kind of practice round so that everyone understood how to play, including me. A few years ago, we got the Starter Set. We never used it, but I pulled it off the shelf and began reading the started adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Meanwhile, hearing us talk about it, my youngest daughter, who is about to turn 6, decided she wanted to play as well. I prepared as best I could. I watched YouTube videos on how to be a DM. I added some useful community plug-ins to Obsidian to make it easy to take notes for the adventure. Then, I went through the first part of Los Mine of Phandelver and mapped it out in detail in my notes, including notes on how to do certain things, like ability roles, advantage and disadvantage, etc.

On Saturday evening at 6:30, the four of us gathered at our dinner table to generate characters for our new adventure. I had outlined the process for that, but even so, it took us nearly 2 hours to complete the process. I frequently had to refer to the rule books for various clarifications on things. My son generated a half-orc paladin, my older daughter a dwarf ranger, and my youngest daughter a gnome sorcerer. By the time we finished generating the characters, I was beat, and we decided to hold off playing until the next day.

On Sunday afternoon, at 2pm, we sat down to play. I had detailed notes for Part 1 of the adventure, but I had no idea how long it would take to get through that part. As it turned out, in the two hours we played, we made it through just the first goblin attack. It was a difficult encounter for the players, but eventually, thanks to my daughter’s sorcerer, they eventually defeated the four goblins. Later, in reviewing why it was difficult, I saw that the adventure was designed for 4-5 characters. We were using only three.

When we started out, I emphasized several things to my kids:

  1. First and foremost, we were here to have fun.
  2. The game is about making up your own story, roleplaying, being your characters. They shouldn’t worry so much about rolling the dice, they should focus on being in the world.
  3. This first time, things were going to move slowly because we were all still learning. I frequently had to pause to refer to thing in the books, despite all of my preparation.
  4. I would explain what I was doing and why each time we encountered something new, so that they understood the mechanics of the game. But I would only do this the first time. After that, I’d just let the adventure unfold.

Everyone had fun. My son was frustrated at times, because chance was not always on his side. Twice, his paladin was knocked unconscious, but twice, he managed to recover, with no “help” from me. It was the luck of the draw in both cases. My youngest daughter appeared to be the most engaged. She would jump up from her seat and act out what she was doing. “I’m going to run 19 feet,” she would say, pretended to run, “toward the goblin that fell on the ground, and then cast my fire bold spell on him.” If she rolled a hit, she jumped up and down in the same manner I do when the Yankees hit a walk-off home run.

My older daughter was probably the most level-headed of the group. She considered her turns carefully, gave explicit descriptions (“I’m going to jump behind the dead horse and then fire my long bow at the goblin behind the thicket.”)

Everyone, myself included, had a lot of fun, and we were all a little sad when we had to bring the session to and end, especially after making it through only a single encounter. However, we are all excited to play again soon.

Sitting there, running a D&D game for my three kids, I thought back to third grade when D&D first captured my imagination. Despite the creativity and inventiveness required by the game, I couldn’t possibly imagine that one day, I’d be playing D&D with my own kids. It was a wonderful experience for all us.

And to that five-year old who, eight years ago, asked me, “Daddy, what’s Dungeons & Dragons,” I could finally gesture to the books and characters sheets and dice spread across out dinner table and say, “This is Dungeons & Dragons.”

Written on August 22, 2022.

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