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.

14 Years on WordPress

close up shot of a typewriter
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Recently, I was notified that I passed my 14th anniversary on WordPress, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to give WordPress a plug here.

I switched to WordPress sometime in late 2008 or early 2009 (I can’t recall exactly at the moment, and I’m in a rush so I’m not going to look it up). This means that my use of WordPress pre-dates the birth of all my kids, the oldest of which will be 14 later this year.

I also believe that WordPress is the longest running software and service that I have consistently used. I’ve been using it for 14+ years. This blog is more than 17 years old. Prior to WordPress, the blog was hosted on LiveJournal (remember that!) and I like WordPress much more. My use of WordPress has outlasted just about every other service I’ve used (save, perhaps Gmail). I was using WordPress when I discovered Evernote, and I was still using WordPress when I finally gave up Evernote last year.

For the first 12 years that I used WordPress, I used a self-installed version of WordPress. But after a dozen years of doing it all myself, I decided to migrate from my self-installed instance to WordPress.com’s hosting service. It was a very good migration and everything about my experience with WordPress has improved since I began using their full-service hosting. (For the record, I use their Business Plan.)

All of this should be a testament to how useful their service has been for me over the years. Moreover, on the very rare instances that I’ve had an issue, their technical support has jumped (sometimes before I even knew there was an issue) to fix the problem quickly. WordPress has been just about the most functionally useful and reliable service that I use on a regular basis, and I heartily recommend the service for anyone looking to host a blog.

(P.S.: In case you are wondering, no one asked me to write this post. I am in no way compensated by WordPress. I wrote it, as I’ve written previous versions, because I use WordPress regularly and I really do think it is an outstanding service.)

Written on 17 January 2023.

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Winter Cleaning

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While on winter break I decided to tackle some winter cleaning that I’ve put off for years. I decided to clean up my files and data and organize them into something more useful. This was part of the personal automation effort that I mentioned in my goals for 2023.

I have files that go back to my college days. Looking at my data, I see that the oldest document file I have in my archives goes back to March 10, 1993, when I was junior in college. The data that I have spans just about 30 years. And it was something of a mess.

In order to avoid organizing things, I created “temp” folders to store old stuff. Within those temp folders, I also had “bak” folder with still older stuff. Sometimes, I had multiple copies of these things spread across various parts of my filesystem. Over the break, I decided it was finally time to clean this all up.

A profusion of storage options

To clean things up, I first needed to figure out where to put things. Over the years, I’ve built up a profusion of storage options. Locally, I’ve got a laptop, a Mac Mini and my iPhone. The Mac Mini hosts 2 external disks with 6 TB of storage capacity.

I have an iCloud account with 2 TB of storage. I have Dropbox subscription giving me an additional 2 TB of storage. I have a Office 365 account for the family which gives me somewhere around 5 TB of storage. And I have a Google account with Google Drive and some amount of storage there. And I had files scattered about all of these data sources.

Simplifying my file system

I decided to start by simplifying my file system. I’ve had interesting arc over the years. For a long time, was a strong proponent of cloud storage for the obvious benefits of accessibility. But time and experience has taught me that local access with sufficient backup is most desirable for me, as you never know when a service might go away or be priced out of reach. Also, it’s nice to have everything centralized in one place so that I don’t have to remember which data I store where.

I decided, therefore, that the primary source for my data would be local and that I’d use cloud services as a mechanism for making the data accessible between systems, but not as primary storage.

I decided that there are really three types of data that I work with on a regular basis:

  1. Working documents (source code, spreadsheets, etc.)
  2. Notes (Obsidian, all of my writing, daily notes, diaries, etc.)
  3. Archive (all of my data that in not “active” in the sense that I don’t work with it regularly, but is of great historical value to me)

Working documents

I decided that my working documents would be stored on my local machine, in my Documents folder, and that folder is part of my iCloud Drive, so that whatever is stored there is synchronized with other devices that I use.

Given that one of my goals is to see if I can pare down the tools I use to the smallest possible set1, I found that I was able to consolidate my Documents folder down to just three top-level folder:

Folder in my working documents

The Repos folder contains code repositories for projects I am actively working on–the key word being “actively.”

The Settings folder is where I store various configuration settings, templates, custom fonts I use, and various branding artifacts like profile photos, etc.

Inside my Settings folder

Finally, the Wolfram Mathematica folder contains Wolfram Language notebooks I am actively working on. This folder may go away, however. I found that if I enable the “Detect All File Extension” option in Obsidian, I can store my notebooks there, link to the notebooks from other notes, and open the notebooks directly from the links, which is far more useful to me.

For working documents, this is pretty much all I have.

Notes and writing

All of my notes and writing are stored in Obsidian. These days, this is where the vast majority of my daily output goes. I use the Obsidian Sync service to sync my notes between devices. I’ve found the services to be virtually flawless, fast, and extremely reliable. I’ve currently got about 4,000 notes in my Obsidian vault and Obsidian Sync has been perfect in keeping my devices up-to-date. It works so well, that I basically forget it is even running.

I don’t keep my Obsidian vaults on iCloud. There have been issues with vault synchronization when vaults are stored in cloud services like iCloud or Dropbox, and it can occasionally lead to some odd behavior when those services sync files. Instead, I have a separate Vaults folder on my local machine that is not part of a cloud sync service–except for Obsidian Sync–and all of my vaults are stored within that folder.

Archive

As I mentioned, I have files going back 30 years. The most time-consuming part of my winter cleaning was cleaning and organizing that archive, eliminating duplicates, moving things into the archive that belong there and getting rid of things that don’t.

There are really two parts to my archive: Data and Installers. The data portion of my archive is about 15 GB and contains all of the files I’ve worked on over the last 30 years or so. The Installers is much newer than that. Generally, I try to keep copies of older version of software installers whenever I get a new version, so that if I ever run into compatibility issues, I can go back to an older version of a piece of software. This makes up about 8 GB of my archive, so that the total archive currently stands at about 24 GB.

It is important to mention what is not in the archive. Photos and videos I store in Apple Photo which is part of iCloud. I don’t have the time or patience to go through the 30,000 photos and videos I’ve accumulated over the years and pare them down, so I just leave them alone.

I debated where to store my archive. Should I include it iCloud so that it is accessible from all my devices? Or should I keep in one location? After considerable thought, I decided on the latter. My archive is stored on external 3 TB drive connected to my Mac Mini. This drive, along with my Mac Mini, and indeed, all of our household computers, is backed up using CrashPlan, so that if something where to happen to the drive, I wouldn’t lose any data. (There are additional redundancies in place for the archive, but that is a topic for a separate post.) Given that I don’t access the archive regularly, it didn’t seem necessary to keep it in an active cloud service.

Next, I had to figure out how to organize the archive. Over the years, I’ve played around with all kinds of organizational structures, including, most recently, PARA, or even no organization and relying on search functionality to find what I am looking for. But I decided to go old-school and use a more traditional, hierarchical structure to organize the archive instead. The reason is that more and more, I think about how my family would access this data if I wasn’t around. Structures like PARA or arbitrary searches might not work for them. A more obvious hierarchy of topics would be more useful.

Ultimately, I ended up with the following structure:

Structure of my archive

I tend to sort things from most recently to least recently modified, which explains the order in which the folders appear. The “Photos” folder is not my Apple photos, but rather curated photos that I’ve specifically moved into the archive. Many of these folders contains sub-folders. Here, for instance, is what it looks like inside my Writing folder:

Inside my Writing folder in my archive

The archive contains all of my personal and work email. I tend to perform these archival functions annually and then zip up the resulting email archives for storage. The earliest email message I have in my archive dates to October 17, 1994.

The archive also contains big social media archives. For instance, when I stopped using Evernote in favor of Obsidian, I did an expert of all of my Evernote data to an archive. Similarly, when I stopped using Facebook, I archived all of my Facebook data. And when things were looking iffy with Twitter, I grabbed an archive of my Twitter data as well. These are all within the Cloud Services section of my archive.

I rely heavily on the file meta-data for finding what I am looking for, particularly filename, modification and creation dates. It is helpful that I’ve kept the original files in many cases because it makes it easier to search the archive in a given timeframe. As I mentioned, some of my files go back as far as 30 years. Here is an example of a few of my files from 30 years ago:

Some 30-year old files in my archive

Cleaning up cloud services

In centralizing my files locally, I also took the opportunity to clean up what I had on the various cloud services I use. I had a lot of random stuff on Dropbox that I moved to my archive because I rarely access it these days. Instead, I now use Dropbox as a convenient way to share files, and for some application settings where the application prefers Dropbox over other services for its settings. Also, Dropbox is where my writer’s group stores its stuff, so it is convenient to keep it around. But what I have there is mostly ephemeral now.

We have a family OneDrive from Office 365 and there are a few files I’ve stored there for convenience, but I rarely use Office tools these days outside of work. I moved much of the writing-related documents I had in OneDrive to my archive. What is left there is a few things that are shared between family members.

Still to-do

For several years, between 2013-2016, I used Google Drive almost exclusively for my writing. This is one place that I have yet to tackle cleanup. It is a mess and I imagine it will be a challenge to get it all cleaned up. It should be made easier by the fact that much of what I wrote there should already be in my archive. But it will take time, and I may end up putting off this task until next winter. One indicator of whether I need something is how frequently I access it, and I haven’t needed to access my files in Google Drive in a long time.

Backups

I’ve had a robust strategy for backing up my data, and indeed, all of my family’s data for a long time now. But as it is somewhat off-topic for this post, I’ll save the details of the backup strategy for later.

A feeling of relief

It is amazing what a winter cleaning like this does for the soul. When i completed it, when I had everything setup the way I wanted it, a feeling of relief washed over me. It was a similar feeling to looking over a freshly mown lawn, or a recently cleaned desk surface. Everything was in its place, and everything had a place to go. It’s nice to know that when I create something, there is a clear and obvious place to put it.

It was also a relief to know that I’d finally organized my archive and eliminated all of the duplicate files there.

I am now working on a README file with a target audience of my family that should make it quick and easy for them to find something in the archive in my absence.

Written on 15 January 2023.

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  1. I mentioned two tools in my Goals post, Obsidian and Mathematica/Wolfram Language

A Quick Check-In

I am on vacation with the family, but I wanted to check-in quickly to let you know that posting should resume here as planned once I am back from vacation. Next week I’ll have a post on some of my early progress on the automation I talked about in my goals post. This one will also include some experimenting with ChatGPT that I’ve done along the way. I’ll also have a post on our vacation, as well as the usual things you’ve come expect here. I’m also working on an essay or two, which I talked about in The Essayist. In the meantime, if you are looking for something to read, check out my best reads from 2022, or some of the best things I read online in 2022.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying vacation with the family. The weather has been fantastic and we are all having a blast. It is a break that we all needed. I can always tell when I am enjoying a vacation when I forget what day of the week it is–when everyday feels like a weekend. I had to check just now to see that it was Wednesday.

Happy Wednesday, everyone! And if I haven’t already said so, Happy New Year!

Written on 4 January 2023.

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My Best Reads of 2022

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With 2022 now behind us, I can safely post my list of 10 best reads of the year, without excluding any potential late-comers. This is actually the second draft of this post. The first draft came in at something over 2,500 words, and as I read it, I thought: No one wants to read this much other stuff. They just want the list. To that end, I’ve tried to cut this significantly.

Summary of my reading in 2022

I read 101 books in 2022, finally meeting my goal of 100 books again, after two consecutive years of falling short. 65 of the 101 books were nonfiction. I was surprised by this because my tendency these last few years has been heavily toward nonfiction. But I reread some old fiction series I’ve enjoyed in the past and that shifted the balance somewhat.

My 10 best reads of 2022

A few notes before I get to the list:

  • These are the ten books I most enjoyed reading in 2022; they are not the the ten best books that debuted in 2022. The books on the list were published over a wide range of years, the earliest being 1970 with only 2 of the books on the list debuting in 2022.
  • In past years, I’ve listed the books as a countdown from 10 to 1. It seems to me this buries the lead and is an injustice to the books that I most enjoyed. This year, I’m listing them from my 1 to 10, and damn the suspense.

Here, then, are my best reads of 2022:

1. A Place to Read: Life and Books by Michael Cohen (2014)

Cover image of A Place to Read

This collection of essays by a former professor resonated strongly with me: the subjects, the style, the fact that we were both pilots. The book was an accidental discovery, a rare success for Amazon’s recommendation system. It is one of several books this year that convinced me that I want to be an essayist. It was my favorite read of 2022.

2. Destiny of the Republic: A tale of madness, medicine and the murder of a president by Candice Millard (2011)

Cover image of Destiny of the Republic

I took a big lesson from Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: that anyone rising to a position like that of President of the United States is worth reading about, even if they are not as well known (to me), anyway). James Garfield’s story was gripping, and Millard’s telling of it was wonderful, fascinating, and ultimately heartbreaking.

3. This Living Hand: Essays, 1972-2012 by Edmund Morris (2012)

Cover for This Living Hand

The essays in This Living Hand run the gamut of subjects, from biographical to autobiographical, big subjects and themes to small ones, like the value of handwriting, and what one can learn from it. I’d had mixed experiences with Edmund Morris in the past, greatly enjoying his 3-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and perplexed by his unorthodox biography of Thomas Edison. But This Living Hand was a treasure to read, and another push toward wanting to write essays.

4. Hell and Back by Craig Johnson (2022)

Cover for Hell and Back

Hell and Back, the most recent installment in the Walt Longmire series (my favorite fiction series) supplanted the 7th book in the series, Hell is Empty as my favorite Longmire book. This is a different Longmire story, in tone as well as in the way it is told.

5. The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya (2022)

Cover for Man from the Future

John von Neumann has come up frequently in my reading and from those incidental glances, I had the idea that he was a smart person even among smart people. I was delighted to find and read this new biography of von Neumann, The Man from the Future, and it convinced me that he was very likely the smartest person I have ever read about.

6. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace (2005)

Cover for Consider the Lobster

I’ve had Infinite Jest on my bookshelf for years, tempting me. Since I’d been reading a lot of essay collections this year, I thought I’d read some of Wallace’s essays first, and the first collection I read was Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. I was blown away by his writing, and came away awe-struck, and somewhat depressed. I don’t think I could ever write essays as well as Wallace did.

7. Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark (2014)

Cover for Our Mathematical Universe

I came to Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe via James Gleick’s Chaos. I was immediately impressed by the scope, style, humor, and imagination that Tegmark put into the book. It was one of those reads that made me want to follow up with more, and I read his book, Life 3.0 as soon as I finished this one.

8. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 4 by Robert A. Caro (2012)

Cover for The Passage of Power

The 4th volume of Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power turned out to be my favorite so far. The arc of Johnson’s career and his thrust into the presidency after the Kennedy assassination is a great illustration of how unique the job is, and how no career, no matter how stories, can really prepare someone for it.

9. The Rising Sun: The Decline & Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-45 by John Toland (1970)

Cover for The Rising Sun

I’ve read a lot of the history of the Second World War, but I’d never read a history that focuses primarily on Japan. This is exactly what The Rising Sun by John Toland does. There were five themes that I found particularly interesting in this book.

10. The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (2018)

Cover for Diary of a Bookseller

Now and then I imagine what it might be like to own a used bookstore. After reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, I no longer have to imagine. This is a charming book about the owner of the largest used bookstore in Scotland, who has kept a diary about the day-to-day running of the shop. I enjoyed it so much that I followed it up with its sequel.

Honorable mentions

In addition to these best reads of the year, here are some other books I read this year worthy of mention:

I am aiming to read at least 100 books in 2023. It is always exciting to start out the year and wonder what will the best reads end up being? I’ll let you know a year from now. In the meantime, if you are interested here, are some past lists:

Written 26-31 December 2022.

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Goals for 2023

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Over the years I have spent quite a bit of times on various experiments. In the 2010s, I considered the idea of the paperless office, embraced Evernote as a tool for paperless productivity, and wrote a popular series of posts on the subject. So far, in the early 2020s, my experimenting has shifted somewhat. I’ve re-embraced the idea of plain text files as my fundamental unit of work. A plain text file is both versatile and long-lasting. Text files created in the 1970s can still be read today. I found Obsidian, and took lessons from my Going Paperless experiment, to see what I “practically” paperless[1. As in “practical” uses, as opposed to absolute migration to a paper-free lifestyle.] lifestyle looked like using primarily plain text files.

In 2022, I’ve been pleased with how things are working out with Obsidian and plain text files, but there is room for improvement. I’ve identify three areas to experiment with throughout 2023. My hypothesis for this experiment is that improvements in these three areas will lead to more creative time in the years beyond. The three areas are: (1) Consolidation; (2) Simplification; (3) Automation.

Consolidation

When I look at my computer, I am often overwhelmed by all of the apps and tools I find on it, the vast majority of which I rarely use. It would be nice, I tell myself now and then, to get rid of those tools that I never use, but I am sometimes reluctant to do so, thinking that I might need the tool some day. To some extent, this is no different than trying to declutter at home.

While thinking about this recently, I realized that I made huge strides in consolidation over the last two years in terms of my work products, the vast majority of which are now plain text files. With a work product as simple and versatile as a plain text file, it should be much easier to give up apps I no longer need to manipulate those files.

The more I think about this, the more I believe I can get away with two primary work product formats: plain text files used in conjunction with Obsidian; and Wolfram Language notebooks (.nb files) used in conjunction with Wolfram Language and Mathematica.

Using text files as work products of Obsidian is pretty obvious and I’ve written extensively about my use of Obsidian. But Mathematica1?

I’ve been a very casual, hobbyist user of Mathematica for years now. But the more I play with it, and the more I learn about its symbolic and functional structure, the more impressed I am with the language. Moreover, the language now reaches into all aspects of computing so that it seems useful as a general purpose language. Finally, as a developer, I’ve already mastered more common languages like Python, JavaScript, C#, Perl, PHP, Ruby, etc., to my personal satisfaction. Becoming equally proficient in Wolfram Language would something new.

I am mentally dividing this consolidation into two parts:

  1. Plain text files as my primary work product: in the form of notes and writing.
  2. Wolfram Language scripts and notebooks as my primary tool for development and automation.

As I write this, there are about 100 applications in my Application folder on my laptop. That, of course, does not include the command line tools inherent in any Unix-based computer system. I’m using this number of 100 applications as a baseline to see how much I can consolidate over the course of 2023. Obviously, I need more than just Obsidian and Mathematica. For instance, I use Photoshop for photo editing. However, Mathematica has powerful photo- (and video- and sound-) editing tools that may be able to automate and supplant most of what I do in Photoshop. This is an example of the consolidation I am looking to do.

It will be interesting to see how well this consolidation works over the course of 2023.

Simplification

As I worked through my Practically Paperless series, I noted that I was building up more and more complex structures for my notes, as well as relying increasingly on plug-ins, tags, etc.

In the months since finishing that series, I’ve been attempting to simply how I use Obsidian with plain text files. In the process of simplifying, I have the following things in mind to guide me:

  1. My primary work product is a text file. Whether a note, a blog post, a list, a trip summary, a reading note, the primary form in which the content appears is a plain text file.
  2. Using tools like Obsidian is a good for me, but I also keep in mind that these text files need to be useful in the absence of a tool like Obsidian. Keeping the work products themselves simple help in this regard. For example, the structure of markdown makes for simple way of parsing and interpreting these files outside of Obsidian.
  3. I’m trying to simplify my file structure, both within Obsidian and as a whole, including cloud platforms.

Over 2023, I’m looking to continue this simplification of my work products. With the following ideas in mind:

  1. My notes need to be usable outside Obsidian.
  2. My notes and files need to be easy to understand, not just for myself, but for others, especially Kelly and our kids.
  3. My notes and files need to be easy to find for me and for the family.

Automation

I spend a lot of time trying to automate processes. The idea here is to automate the stuff that is repeatable, so that I can spend more time on creative stuff. But often, the time it takes to implement such automation offsets the time it saves. Put another way, if it takes me 2 hours to write a script to automate a task that currently takes me 5 minutes per day, it will take 24 days once the automation is in place to pay back the time it it took to build the automation before it starts paying off.

In the past I’ve used all kinds of tools to implement automations: Python scripts, tools like Alfred or Keyboard Maestro, Apple Shortcuts, etc. In 2023, I am looking to use Wolfram Language as much as possible to automate things, in part because I’m fascinated to see the possibilities in the language, and in part as a way of becoming proficient in the language.

One simple example of this, which I will talk about in more detail in a subsequent post, is adding a list of files I created or updated on a given day to my Daily Notes. it is convenient for me to be able to see at a glance all of the files I worked on in a given day. The way I structure my daily notes makes the daily note the perfect place to store this information. But I don’t want to spend time searching my file system each day for all of the files I created or modified. So I’ve created a Wolfram Language script to do this automatically.

An example of my current Daily Note format, using today's note.
An example of my current Daily Note format, using today’s note.

Throughout 2023, I’ll be looking at how I work2 to identify inefficiencies, things that can be eliminated, and tasks and processes that can be automated, particular:

  1. Things I do frequently and are repeatable. In addition to the above, examples, might include: taking a blog post in note form and automatically publishing it to WordPress; or cropping and editing a photo in a repeatable way
  2. More complex tasks that I perform less frequently but at regular intervals, like archiving information.

Follow along on the journey

Because I know that other people are interesting in this sort of thing (a quick search of “productivity” gives an idea of just how much), I plan to write about this journey of mine throughout the year. As always, I am experimenting to see what works best for me. I know, for instance, that using Wolfram Language for a primary automation and scripting tool is probably outside the norm for many people. But I’m fascinated by the idea and that makes it fun for me. These will tend to be more technical posts, but they might be of interest to others, so, feel free to follow along, ask questions, and offer suggestions.

And Happy New Year, everyone.

Written on 29 December 2022.

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  1. There are other reasons for me to use this, but they are too technical to get into here.
  2. To be honest, I’m doing this constantly, but this year, I’ll be putting a special emphasis on it.

The Essayist

person holding blue ballpoint pen writing in notebook
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I. The Fiction Writer

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but ther are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, tranform a yellow spot into the sun.
— Pablo Picasso

November has rolled into December and with it, a milestone on the road of my life is just ahead. December 12, 1992 was the day that I finished the first story I wrote with the idea of submitting it to a magazine. I was still on the junior side of being a Junior in college. I don’t remember exactly what inspired me to do this. It may have been the glossy new science fiction magazine Science Fiction Age that recently debuted on the newsstands. It may have been my wandering through the science fiction stacks in the Tomás Rivera Library when friends and roommates returned home for the weekend and I was left in the apartment all alone. Whatever it was, around December first, I decided that despite all of the school work I had, and the hours I put in at the dorm cafeteria, I was going to write stories and submit them.

That first story was terrible and I promptly sent it off to a magazine I’d never heard of until I saw it listed in a book on writer’s markets. On that December 1, I send out a dozen letters requesting copies of those magazine’s writer’s guidelines, and I sent the story to one of the few that I’d received. It was rejected, of course. In later years, I would sometimes pull the story out in later years and cringe at how badly it was written. But it was a critically important story for three reasons:

  1. It demonstrated that I could tell a story (no matter how awful) with a beginning, middle, and ending.
  2. It proved that I could actually sit down and write the thing, banging it out in Word for DOS 5.51.
  3. Preserved as it is, its sheer awfulness is evidence that I was capable of improving with practice.

I’ve probably written a hundred stories2 in the three decades since that first one. Of those, I sold 11 to magazines and anthologies that pay “professional” rates as defined by the Science Fiction Writers Association. I mention all this because, with that record, it seems to me that thirty years is a good time to officially retire as a fiction writer.

This isn’t the first time I’ve announced my retirement from fiction. Wishful thinking sometimes spurs me to try writing again. The problem is, when I look at the quality of the stories being published today and compare them with mine, mine are mediocre at best. Thirty years of effort simply can’t compete with the amazing quality of fiction I see in the world today. It is one thing to say, “Hey, keep at it, you’ll get better with practice.” It is another to have been practicing for thirty years, and finally admitting that there is a plateau that I have reached in my fiction-writing ability that no amount of practice will overcome. Here is how I visualize my trajectory over time:

A chart of my fiction writing quality over time as a limiting function.

Put in mathematical terms, the quality of my fiction writing over time is a limiting function. A lot more practice only improves quality by a tiny amount. I’ve reached the point of greatly diminishing returns. It took me 14 years of practice just to reach the level of quality that allowed me to make professional sales. But based on the fiction I read today, and the quality of the fiction I write, I’m convinced that no amount of practice will get me to the quality of the fiction that is being published today. I can celebrate my minor successes, they were wonderful. And, really, it is the experience that matters.

There is another important lesson I’ve taken from 30 years of writing stories: I’m just not built to be a fiction writer. Paraphrasing what Picasso said of painters, my fiction writing could turn the sun into a yellow spot, but it could not turn a yellow spot into the sun.

Meanwhile, for the last seventeen years, I’ve been flirting with, and finally, practicing writing of another form here on the blog. We call these things “posts” informally, but what I have been trying to produce are essays.

II. The Courtship

My courtship with the essay probably began with Al Martinez and the column he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a column that I read in the late 80s and early 90s in that transitionary period between high school and college. Martinez’s column was the first that I regularly returned to, and his name is the first newspaper writer that I deliberately remembered and sought out.

I first came to appreciate the essay at its own art form as I read through the hundreds3 of essays that Isaac Asimov wrote in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction over the course of 33 years. These essays were not just entertaining; they had a colloquial, cheerful voice that I think I eventually incorporated into my own writing style. Moreover, I learned something from each one of those essays. I was learning more than I knew.

Later, there was Andy Rooney’s syndicated column, which taught me that essays could be about anything, even mundane things like the pleasure of a wood shop, or the stuff you find in your pocket at the end of the day–and be both funny and entertaining.

I finally fell in love with the essay after reading E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat in 20184. I’ve written about my notion of the perfect story. E. B. White’s essays are perfection of the form.

These courtships produced a Cambrian explosion as I sought out more and more essays. A.J. Liebling on boxing or French cuisine. John McPhee on long-haul truckers or the people of the Pine Barrens. Martin Gardner on math and logic. John Steineck a la America and Americans. Annie Dillard and Jon Krakauer. Will Durant’s shorter pieces on history. Barry Lopez’s nature essays. Paul Theroux’s travel essays. Little pieces by Don Marquis, as tiny as a cockroach, and big pieces by Gore Vidal, the size of his ego. The essays of Michael Cohen on reading, writing, and flying, where we seemed to share the same mind. Edmund Morris on the value of handwriting and David Foster Wallace on the adult entertainment industry5. Today, I seek out essays the way I sought out science fiction thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, I’d started to write essays without knowing it. In 1994, after graduating from college, when e-mail outside of AOL was still new to me, I would sent long essay-like email messages to my recently graduated friends. I wrote letters that were informal essays. And then, for reasons I can no longer recall, in 2005, this blog took its early form on LiveJournal6. My early posts, like my early stories, were pretty bad7. Unlike my fiction, however, writing essays feels natural to me. Fiction requires great amounts of energy and thought. Essays form themselves in my head, almost as if by magic, and writing them is often an exercise in mental dictation. Where I’ve plateaued with fiction, I feel like I am still on an upward trajectory with my essays. I don’t think I can ever be a great fiction writer, but it is not out of the realm of possibility, with more practice, for me to be a great essayist.

I’ve had plenty of practice here on the blog, with more than 7,200 “essays” made up more than 3 million words. The challenge for me is: how can I became better? How can I become great?

III. The Essayist

For starters, I am dedicating myself to writing essays and to writing them here on the blog. I’m still figuring out what this means. In the past, I’ve written here every day, often for years at a time. I produced frequent, shorter (~500 word) pieces of mixed quality. Going forward, you may not see me posting every day the way I used to. Quality takes time and it is the quality I am seeking to improve8.

A careful eye may have noticed this pivot9 already. I’ve changed the tagline of the blog from “Writer” to “Essayist.” I did this on my Twitter profile as well. With a kind of laser focus, I am identifying not just as a writer, but as a writer of essays.

Having embraced the essay as my medium, I need lots of practice to improve to the level that I think I’m capable of attaining. But I’ve got time. I’ll retire from my day job in a little under 9 years. Between now and then, I plan on working on my essay writing here on the blog, with the idea that it is all practice for when I can write full time in retirement.

Unlike my fiction, which was only rarely solicited, my essay writing here on the blog has, in the past, led to requests for writing in other places. Recently, I’ve had a flood of requests to put ads here on the blog, and I’ve rebuffed all of them. I briefly considered doing some writing over on Substack, and then decided against it. I think one of the best measures of quality is when readers reach out to comment on something I’ve written, or they go and tell a friend about it. Another measure is how often people reach asking me to write essays for other outlets. All of this is to say that nothing will change here on the blog. I am committed to keeping the blog subscription-free and ad-free. My hope is that as I improve more and more people will notice and that will lead to opportunities outside the blog, as it has in the past.

I’m still figuring all of this out, which is why I am not committing to any post schedule yet. In my head, I’d like get at least one essay posted each week in 2023, but I want these to be higher quality than what I’ve done in the past and quality takes time. I’m not writing on deadline. I’m writing to see if I can master a form. I’ve started to curate a list of topics to work on. This is not to say that there won’t be the occasional posts like I’ve done in the past. Indeed, I’ve got a few posts lined up on subjects like Obsidian and note-taking10. But my goal is to improve the quality of what I am producing for you, and for me.

Written on 12 November – 4 December, 2022.

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  1. Still my favorite word processor, despite it having gone the way of the do-do.
  2. For some reason, I never kept particularly good records about the stories I wrote, so that I know far more about what I’ve read than what I’ve written.
  3. 399, to be precise.
  4. I have now read this book six times and it never palls on me.
  5. Or his essay for Harper’s on visiting the Illinois state fair, which I mentally compared and contrasted with E.B. White’s “The World of Tomorrow” also written for Harper’s about the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.
  6. It moved to WordPress in 2010.
  7. They were less essay and more Jamie thinking out loud.
  8. Often, I would write a 500 word post 20 minutes before I posted it. I started writing this essay you are reading now back on November 12, and this version is the fourth version I’ve produced.
  9. I’m not particularly fond of this word. It is overused in the startup world, but it does seem accurate here, despite my distaste for it.
  10. As popular as these are, they are not my favorite type of pieces to write.

My Guilty Pleasure Reading List

hollywood sign
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It is getting close to December which means close to our end-of-year holiday which means time I spend reading for guilty pleasure after a year of serious, hardcore reading. I’ve started to prepare a list of what to read and few days ago, on Twitter, I asked for some recommendations:

For me, guilty-pleasure reading1 usually consists of biographies and memoirs about celebrities past, or histories of Hollywood and things like that. It occurred to me that when I asked for recommendations, I didn’t indicate those books that I’ve already read. To remedy that, I create a Guilty Pleasure Reading list on my reading list site listing all of the guilty-pleasure books I’ve read over the years. There, you can see all of the books I’ve read that fall into this category. I’ve included a section on my 5 favorites. And I’ve included links to some posts I’ve written about these books. Now, if you are wondering whether or not I have read a specific Hollywood bio, memoir, or history, you can go to this list and find out.

So far, for the end of the year, I’ve got the following books lined up:

I can usually tackle 6-8 books during this break. If you’ve got other recommendations in this genre, please drop them in the comments. If there are really good, they may supplant the ones listed above.

Written on 21 November 2022.

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  1. Not really guilty at all.

On the Pronunciation of Words as a Demonstration of Synecdoche

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In eighth grade my English teacher1 told us that the figure of speech by which a part represents a whole or vice versa was called “synecdoche”, which she pronounced “sink-doh-shay.” From that moment over ensuing decades right down to about 1:15 this afternoon, that is how I pronounced the word in my head on the rare occasions I encountered it.

It is not a word I encounter often in day-to-day life. In my time as a writer working with editors at various magazines, the word never came up. In my time in writers groups critiquing pieces across all genera and species, it has never been uttered. But in this collection of essays I’m reading at the moment2 the word has been used several times. And as I am listening to the audiobook, the narrator keeps mispronouncing the word. Each it is used, the narrator does not say “sink-do-shay,” but instead garbles the word as “se-nek-duh-kee.”

After the fourth or fifth mispronunciation, I could no longer take it. I needed to prove to myself that this word was suffering verbal abuse by the book’s narrator. I looked it up in my trusty Merriam-Webster. I checked the pronunciation. I felt gathering dismay. I checked the pronunciation key3 to make sure I was not misinterpretting what I saw. What I saw was:

\sǝ-‘nek-dǝ-(,)ke\

which is pronounced “se-nek-duh-kee.”

My face reddened with decades of retroactive embarrassment. The narrator was pronouncing the word correctly and it was my English teacher from junior high school who had pronounced the word wrong, setting forth upon the world countless students who would forever mispronounce the word until corrected4, which was not very likely since synecdoche is not a word that comes in often in casual conversation.

The obvious lesson here is one taught in countless spy movies and novels: trust no one. Or its less cynical cliché, trust, but verify.

I’ve seen it said that readers know how to spell words, but don’t always know how to pronounce them correctly, and listeners know how to pronounce words but don’t always know how to spell them correctly. Clearly, I grew up in the former category. I can think of half a dozen examples where I read a word and never heard it pronounced until I listened to an audiobook–and was surprised that I was mispronouncing it in my head. But I won’t bore you with those. I will let synecdoche stand for all the others5.

Written on 16 November 2022.

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  1. Name withheld. The only person I intend to embarrass here is myself.
  2. Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace. A posthumous collection of many of his earlier essays.
  3. Do they even teach kids today how to use a pronunciation key? Or a dictionary, for that matter?
  4. And when first corrected, likely argue that, no, that’s not how you say it. My 8th grade English teacher said it was pronounced thus…
  5. When my embarrassment finally subsided and I thought about writing this up little essay, that final sentence was the first to come to mind, for obvious reasons.

A Simple, Unified Reading List in Obsidian Publish

assorted books on book shelves
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Recently, I have been working on simplifying my notes in Obsidian1. One of the things I have wanted to do for a while is make the list of books I’ve read since 1996 available in simple way that is easy to maintain, but extensible, so that I can eventually include notes about books I’ve read. So I subscribed to the Obsidian Publish service, and after experimenting with various formats, decided to keep things very simple and created a page that lists what I have read since 19962.

The result looks something like this (which may evolve over time, especially if you are reading this post sometime after 15 November 2022):

a screenshot of my new reading list site

Some elements of the new reading list:

  1. Clicking on the “Guide to the reading list” will provide some additional information about what appears on the list.
  2. The entire list of everything I’ve read since 1 January 1996 is in a single page. However, you can jump to a given year using the index at the top of the page.
  3. At the beginning of each year is a “Year in review” section in which I list notable reading-related things for that year. As of this writing, I have not yet completed these for every year on the list.
  4. Some book titles contain links to notes about the book in question. These links are mostly just stubs at this point, as I play around with how I want to manage this.

Reading stats

I’ve also added a reading stats page, which has some basic year-by-year stats for the reading that I do. Over time, I see the information on this page growing, almanac-like to cover various aspects of what I’ve read.

Now

Finally, I’ve added what I call a “now” page that lists things I’m working on now, and things I’m currently reading. This is a conventient place to direct people from various online profiles. (You can see it, for instance, in my Twitter profile, for as long as that remains actively useful.)

a screen capture of my Twitter profile

The reading list site is in its most basic form right now and I see if growing and evolving over time. I’ll post significant updates here on the blog. But you can see more detailed information on the Reading List change log.

Written on 15 November 2022.

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  1. Details in a future post.
  2. Technical detail for those interested in such things: I’ve hosted my reading list in various places online since the late 1990s. The URL has therefore changed over the years. One of the things I wanted to do with this effort was have a single URL on my site that I could in the future no matter where my list was actually hosted. So I created a stub page in WordPress at the following URL: https://jamierubin.net/reading-list/. On this URL, I setup a redirect that takes you to where my list is hosted on my Obsidian Publish site: https://notes.jtrwriter.com/reading/lists/reading-list. I did this so that what I link to my list in the future, I can link the the short WordPress link, and it will always point to the current location of my reading list, no matter where it is hosted. End technical note.

Twitter Meltdown, Mastodon, and the End of Social Media (for Me)?

twitter logo on smartphone screen
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I

Sometime in 1993 or early 1994 I had this great idea for a science fiction story: what if television suddenly went away? All of the devices across the globe suddenly stopped working for no explainable reason. No one could figure it out. What would it do to society? According to my battered copy of the 2021 edition of The World Almanac the average American watched more than 26 hours of television per week in 2019-201 or about 3 hours and 45 minutes per day. What would they do to fill that time if the object of their watching was suddenly gone?

In the same battered World Almanac, I learned that in 20182 people in the U.S. spent an average of 22.5 hours online, or put another way, a half-time job based on a 40-hour work-week. If my kids are any example, I can’t simply add the 3 hours and 45 minutes of television time to the 22.5 hours online, because they sometimes do both simultaneously3.

The 2021 World Almanac does not list any statistics for how much time the average American spends playing video games. Suffice it to say that the 22.5 hours of combined time online and time watching television is good enough for our purposes here. If television-slash-the-Internet suddenly went away, what would society do? I could never make a story of this4 even though I still think it is a good idea. But in some ways, this sophomore fantasy of mine is coming true in a different form as the heat generated by Elon Musk’s mismanagement of his recently-acquired Twitter exceeds what can be removed by those Twitter employees that still remain functional, and the core of Twitter–its users–melts away.

Over the summer, I gave up on Facebook. As I said in that post,

Facebook used to be a great way to keep up with friends and families. Now, I see more ads on Facebook than I ever saw on TV, in newspapers, or magazines. Then, too, it is too addictive for me, especially the dopamine hit one gets from flipping through Reels. I am not deleting my Facebook account, but I have removed the app from my devices, and I don’t plan on logging in and checking Facebook for the foreseeable future.

I’ve been surprised by (a) how well I’ve stuck to this program and (b) how little I seem to miss Facebook. I miss the frequent updates from friends and family, but I get them in less frequent and more personal ways now. It makes me wonder: if Twitter completes its meltdown until it is nothing more than a slag of bots and fake accounts, will I miss it?

I use Twitter primarily as a means to (a) follow along with people and services that interest me; and (b) notify people who are interested about new posts here on this blog or occasional interesting things I think about. I don’t have a huge following, but the few thousand of accounts that do follow me seems to me mostly made up of real people, rather than bots. It means, that unlike some users I’ve read about, I haven’t lost that many followers over the last few weeks. (By my own count, I’ve lost 24, or about 8/10th of one percent.)

That said, many of the people I enjoy following are preparing for the worst. Quite a few of them are establishing a presence on Mastodon. Others are talking about fleeing to Instagram or some other popular social media platform. For me, I plan on sticking it out on Twitter, mainly because I am too lazy to learn something new right now, but partly because I have this fantasy that a newer, better Twitter will arise from the radioactive ashes and people will eventually come flocking back.

Look through my Twitter feed, the people posting aren’t that different from a few weeks ago, and with the exception of the topic de jour, my feed seems more or less the same. So I’m enjoying it while I can.

II

But what if Twitter really melts down? What then? I’ll admit that in the first panicked days after Musk began monkeying with the gears and levers, I grabbed myself a handle on Mastodon, just in case. But in the time I’ve had to think about it since, I’ve decided that if Twitter goes down, it is, perhaps, a blessing in disguise for me. It is my opportunity to finally escape from the grip of social media once and for all. Instead of jumping ship to Mastodon or some other platform, I can swim off into the sunset, free of social media and the time I spent getting micro-dopamine hits from it. After all, it is not like I don’t have a place of my very own on the Internet: this blog right here. And I don’t see this blog going anywhere any time soon.

If the Twitter meltdown cannot be contained, then in way, my fantasy of television suddenly going away comes true, in a somewhat altered form. I’m a serious outlier when it comes to television: it is rare that I watch even an hour of television in a week. I would not be able to read as much as I do if I watched more television, and given the choice between the two, it is no-brainer for me.

On the other hand, according to the Screen Time app on my phone, I seem to average between 5-7 hours on social media per week. To make the math easy, let’s call it an hour a day. And since giving up on Facebook, that hour is primarily centered on Twitter. If Twitter went away, I would find myself with 365 hours to fill over the course of a year. How would I spend that hour each day?

An extra hour with the family comes to mind. While we generally all eat dinner together, they are often quick, makeshift dinners. I could use that extra hour to prepare more elaborate meals. Our living area is an open, combined living room/kitchen/dining room area and we are often all together in that space, and while I cooked dinner, surrounded by smells that can only be conjured with a little extra time, I could chat and banter with the family.

Or I could use that hour to do more chores around the house. This is appealing because I listen to audiobooks while doing chores and an extra hour a day pushes me into the 4-to-4-1/2 hours-per-day of audiobook listening time range. And since I generally listen to audiobooks at 1.7-1.8x speed, that 4-to-4-1/2 hours translates into 6.7 – 8.1 hours of actual book time per day.

My kids like going for walks with me in the evenings. We could take longer walks with that extra hour. Or I could use that time to write more. Or read magazine articles. Or just sit on the deck and listen to the wind blow through the trees.

My point here is that if Twitter goes away, I won’t be moving to Mastodon or Instagram. I’ll continue to post here and hope that people continue to visit and read what I write. But I’ll use those 365 extra hours to do things offline as opposed to finding some online alternative to Twitter to fill my time.

III

If you are leaving Twitter and Twitter is the primary way you find new posts from me and you want to continue to follow the blog without Twitter, there are several ways you can do it:

  1. Subscribe to the blog by email. There is a “Subscribe by Email” section on the right sidebar and the bottom of every post. Subscribing by email will send you an email version of any new post that I write.
  2. Follow the blog in WordPress. You can click the Follow Jamie Todd Rubin box in the footer of each post. It looks like this:
  1. You can follow the blog on my Facebook writer’s page. Since I am not active on Facebook, I don’t log in here, but each post I write is automatically relayed here.
  2. You can follow the blog on my LinkedIn activity page. Each of my blog posts are also automatically posted in my LinkedIn activity. I do check LinkedIn every now and then, but usually on a weekly, biweekly, or semi-monthly basis.
  3. You can subscribe to the old-school RSS feed for the blog and read it in your favorite RSS reader.
  4. Of course, you can also always just stop by and read the blog at your leisure. Leave comments. I enjoy engaging with readers in the comments.

I’ve always liked Twitter. I joined in August 2008 and some of my best social media interactions have been through Twitter. I’ve made friends over Twitter, sold articles because of things I’ve posted to Twitter, and my own Twitter experience has been generally positive. I hope Twitter survives as a place where people can continue to interact while feeling safe doing so. But if the meltdown has, as the Phantom of the Opera might say, passed the point of no return, I’m okay with that, too and I’ll use the opportunity to add an extra hour of something good and offline to my day.

Written on 12 November 2022.

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  1. Before the pandemic, but I am too lazy to go searching for stats since.
  2. The most recent stat they had–again, too lazy to go looking for something more recent.
  3. All three of my kids are better multitaskers than I am, and indeed my entire family, and just about everyone I have ever come into contact with has far superior multitasking skill compared with my meager ability to be able to think and type at the same time.
  4. A good story, anyway.

Some of the Best Things I’ve Read Online in 2022

crop man surfing internet on smartphone at home
Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

Preamble

My reading divides itself up into 3 general buckets:

  1. Books
  2. Magazine articles
  3. Online posts and articles

When asked how I manage to read so much, my go-to reply is that reading is my default idle. If I am not doing anything else1 I am reading or listening to an audiobook2. That idle time plus dedicated chunks of the day I find here or there is when I read books.

I also subscribe to a whole bunch of magazines that reflect the variety of my interests. I prefer these magazines in physical form because it gives me an opportunity to read off screens3. I have a more regimented method for reading my magazines. I wrote a little script that randomly selects a feature article for me to read each day, and I read that article while eating a light breakfast in the morning, usually out on the deck. I post what I read on Twitter4 each morning, like this from yesterday5:

The final bucket is online posts and articles. These I tend to read when I know I have a small set chunk of time, like when I am making Mac-n-Cheese for the kids and waiting for the water to boil, or when I finish up a piece of work and discover that I have only 5 minutes before my next meeting6.

Each year, I write about my favorite books of the year on January 1. (Here is the post for my favorite books from 2021.) Most “best book of the year” lists come out in late November or early December in time for holiday sales, and I get that, but I feel bad for all of the books that come out in November and December that get excluded so I make it point to post my list of favorites on January 1 just in case there is a masterpiece that I read in December.

For reasons I can’t entirely explain, but may have something to do with my desire to write something today, I don’t have the same compunction about articles I read online. Here, therefore, is my post on the best writing I’ve read online in 2022–so far.

A brief survey of online writing in 2022

Something changed for me in 2022 with respect to my online reading. For the first time, I think I pay for more of what I read online than I’ve ever done in the past. There are some good blogs and newsletters that I read that are free and have great writing, but quite a bit of the items that appear on this Best Of list are things that I subscribe to and pay money for. Why is this? It seems in part that online writing is self-sorting into a grouping of markets:

  • There is a vast universe of blogs that are free and range in quality from abyssmal to incredible7.
  • There are a growing number of subscription-based newsletter-blogs, like Substack, to which many professional writers are flocking. In my experience so far, the quality here is significantly higher than that of the general blog population, which makes sense since these are professional writers who write for professional markets in addition to what they writer for their newsletter. That said, some services, like Medium8 have an almost remarkably wide-range of quality.

Medium, in particular, is a very mixed bag. It reminds me of those Harry Potter jelly beans, where there are many repulsive flavors, but scattered among them are some gems. Unlike Substack subscriptions, where something like 90% of the revenue goes to the author9, Medium pools its subscription fees and gives authors a cut based on some algorthim that involves relative clicks and reads. The two models make for distinct quality-variations. So far, for instance, all of the Substack newsletters I’ve read written by professional writers have generally been high quality. If people are going to pay for individual newsletters, they expect quality and my experience, so far, is that is exactly what I get.

Medium is different. I’ve discovered a handful of really good writers on Medium, and it is for those few writers that I pay for a Medium subscription. The rest of the writing on Medium, it sometimes seems to me, is a cacophony of voices screaming out click-bait headlines that often diametrically oppose one another and that offer extremes. This makes sense when I consider that all of these voices are attempting get clicks to pry funds from the same pool of money. Just a few examples from my “for you” feed in Medium:

  • “These 4 Habits Will 10x Your Productivity”
  • “The One Productivity App You Cannot Live Without10
  • “How to Remember Everything You Read” — the real answer: be born with an eiditic memory, which, alas, I was not11.
  • “To-Do Lists Are Ineffective, Obsolete, and Exist in Vain”
  • “Why You Should Stop Writing To-Do Lists” — I’ve added this one to my to-do list so that when I stop writing to-do lists, I’ll forget to read this.
  • “A Simple Way to Organize Your Life”
  • “Why OOP12 Is Bad”
  • “One App to Remember Everything You Read” — for those of us without eidetic memories13.
  • “10 Simple Hacks to Consistently Write Over 1000 Words in 60 Minutes” — this might actually be useful if it included the words “high quality.” I can type fast enough to write 1000 words in 30 minutes, but I wouldn’t guarantee the quality.

One thing that stands out in posts like these on Medium is the use of words like “You” and “Your.” In reality, a post titled, “These 4 habits have 10x’d my productivity” is a perfectly reasonable expression because it reflects the writer’s own experience, whereas “These 4 Habits Will 10x Your Productivity” is a sham fortune-tellers best-guess. The statement assumes knowledge that it is not possible to have (like what my current productivity is) as well as the law of diminishing returns — if my productivity is already high, 10x-ing it is unlikely.

For the record, and not counting the many magazine subscription I pay for, here are the online newsletters and subscriptions I’ve paid for in 2022:

  • Breaking the News by James Fallows (Substack, $60/year)
  • Joe Blogs by Joe Posnanski (Substack, $60/year)
  • The Long Game by Molly Knight (Substack, $50/year)
  • Medium ($50/year)
  • The Athletic ($72/year)

Some of the best things I’ve read online in 2022

Now that I’ve gotten all of that out of the way, here are some of the best things that I’ve read online in 2022. These are listed in no particular order, except that I’ve saved the best for last, so if you are only interested in the best thing I’ve read online in 2022, skip to the bottom. (P.S.: It’s free, so you can read it without a subscription.)

Breaking the News by James Fallows on Substack (Paid)

James Fallows is a veteran reporter, as well as a pilot. Along with his wife, Deborah, he wrote what was my favorite book in 2020, Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

His Substack newsletter, Breaking the News, is a gem. Not only does Fallows have an original and readable writing style, but he writes intelligently about important subjects, in particular examining how the news media portrays the news. Over the year he has been writing a series of pieces on “Framing the News” which for anyone wanting to understand, for instance, why the predicted Red Wave in the recently election didn’t take place, is a good place to start. I eagerly look forward to each new piece Fallows writes.

Joe Blogs by Joe Posnanski on Substack (Paid)

Joe Posnanski has to be the best modern sportswriter writing today. His book, The Baseball 100 was my favorite book of 2021. Indeed, I have gifted several signed copies of the book to friends and family in the last year–that’s how much I liked it.

His Substack newsletter, Joe Blog’s is baseball-centered, but there is also a lot of other stuff that gets into the mix. One of the things I love about his writing is his enthusiastic style. Reading Joe, you can tell how excited he gets writing about whatever subject he takes under his pen. Another thing I love is that he is not afraid to digress, and indeed, embraces the entire concept of digression so that his essays begin like planned tour with an experienced guide, who decides to go off the beaten path and enliven the experience with a whole bunch of divergent-but-still-relevant stuff that wasn’t listed in the brochure.

I would love to see Joe write more about his writing process. The essays that make up The Baseball 100 were originally written for The Athletic over a period of 100 days. These essays probably average 3,000 words, are extremely well written, and he did all of that writing and research in 100 days. It seems absolutely incredible to me.

Golden Age of Hollywood by Melanie Novak

A guilty pleasure of mine, often indulged in during our annual December sojourn to Florida, is reading Hollywood memoirs, or books about Hollywood. I particularly prefer older Hollywood. I spent part of my vacation last December with Mel Brooks, for instance. Bing Crosby is probably my all-time favorite entertainer, and I’ve absolutely loved reading Gary Giddin’s 2-volume biography of Crosby14. I mention this because one way I indulge in this guilty pleasure throughout the year is through Melanie Novak’s blog series, The Golden Age of Hollywood. I wake up each Wednesday morning to a new post (most recently, “Craig’s Wife (1936): Careful What You Wish For“) on the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Melanie writes with an entertaining style, which already puts her a cut above the countless film review blogs out there that come across as a petulant, angry reviewers either demanding their money back or claiming they could do better. There are two other elements that make Melanie’s posts my favorite weekly. First is the historical background they provide. These posts are well-researched, and like any good article about a film, talk about the film’s context in addition to its content. Second is the sheer consistency of Melanie’s efforts. I think her latest entry is the 130th in the series. Fortunately, there are countless films from Hollywood’s golden age, good and bad, and so I don’t fear Melanie will run out of subjects any time soon.

Reading these weekly posts, I imagine myself heading off to the film in question as if it was an Occasion, as indeed film-going once was. Many of the films mentioned I’ve never seen, and based on what I’ve read in her posts, I’ve gone ahead and located the movie somewhere and watched it from the comfort of my own home with more delight than I would get from going to a blockbuster summer flick at the megatheater today.

This month, Melanie is doing an additional series on “Movies I’m Thankful For.” And I have to mention that in addition to all these posts on film, Melanie does a Sunday post that is a delightful potpouri of whatever is on her mind. It is all worthwhile, all highly recommended, and this one is also entirely free.

The Marginalian by Maria Papova

I’m not sure how long I’ve been a subscriber to Maria Papova’s newsletter The Marginalian15 but it has been a long time. I get the newsletter emailed to me on Sundays, and it is the newsletter equilvalent of a Sunday morning magazine show. An eclectic assortment of fascinating topics are covered. Sometimes I read the whole thing, sometimes I skim, but I always find something relevant to latch on to. Sunday’s wouldn’t feel like a Sunday to me withou The Marginalian.

Clive Thompson on Medium

My complaints about Medium’s content offerings notwithstanding, there are some great writers there. Clive Thompson is one of them. I first encountered Thompson’s writing in the pages of WIRED, and would always read his articles first in any issue they appeared. He writes about tech, science and culture, and has a programmer’s mind, which resonates with me since I am programmer in my day job16.

I enjoyed Thompson’s book Coders when it came out. Reading that book, I felt like I was reading about myself17. I think that sealed the deal for me as far as Thompson was concerned.

I only recently discovered that Clive Thompson writes 3x/week on Medium. Most of his posts are “Member-only”, meaning you have to subscribe to Medium to read them, but just a sampling of some of the titles will illustrate the difference between what he writes and some of that noisy cacaphony I described earlier:

I enjoy Thompson’s posts so much that I now get email reminders when they appear.

Susan Orlean on Medium

Susan Orlean is another great writer writing on Medium. She is, perhaps, most famous for her book The Orchid Theif which was adapted into the motion picture Adaptation. But her more recent book The Library Book was one my favorite book of 2018.

On Medium, Susan Orlean writes mostly about writing but her style is as charming as I found it in The Library Book. I enjoyed a recent piece she did on “Size Matters (Or Does It?)” when it comes writing columns and articles19. Her’s is another Medium blog that I subscribe to via email so that I am always alerted when a new post comes out.

My favorite of 2022: “The Art of Letting Go” by Robert Breen

The single best piece of writing I read online this year was, without a doubt, a long essay by Robert Breen titled, “The Art of Letting Go.” If there is something that encapsulates a well-written, moving personal essay, it has to be this piece. It is reflective without being morose. It is descriptive and clear. Most of all, it is moving. You have to read it for yourself, and if you only read one piece mentioned in this post, read Robert’s.

Postscripts

This writer tends to, like blotting paper, take on the qualities of the writers I happen to be reading at any given moment. It is not a consciously intentional thing, but something that does happen from time-to-time. As a young writer, newly getting started20 on this journey, I mimicked the style of the writers I read. There are old stories of mine that read like bad impersonations of Harlan Ellison and Piers Anthony, for instance. Eventually, if a writer keeps at it long enough, they develop their own style, distinct, but with hints of an accent from this writer or that. And sometimes, even more seasoned writers are not immune to the occasional influence from what we read. I mention this because if someone is out there thinking, What has Jamie been reading lately, David Foster Wallace?, that someone would be spot-on. I’m making my way through Wallaces essay collection Consider the Lobster and absolutely loving his writing style, and the way his mind works. And his use of footnote. And footnotes of footnotes. I’ve actually written about footnotes before21 so this isn’t entirely new. But I figured an explanation was warranted.

And what about the best books I’ve read of 2022? For that post, you’ll have to wait until January 1. As of this writing, I’ve made it through 85 books so far, with a goal of 15 more to go before the end of the year. Since (a) I don’t know what those books will be yet, thanks to the butterfly effect of reading, and (b) any of those 15 books could jump onto the list of best books I’ve read in 2022, I want to wait until the year is out before producing a final list.

Written on November 10, 2022.

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  1. Or sometimes, if I am doing a mindless chore, or driving.
  2. Which is just another form of reading
  3. Occasionally, I’ll read a paper book as opposed to an e-book or audiobook as well.
  4. I’m still on Twitter, still posting there, still reading there.
  5. I haven’t gotten to today’s article yet, but I know that it will be “Some Like It Hot” by Sophie Lewis in the November Harper’s
  6. Which generally isn’t enough time to get anything practical done, but which also doesn’t happen very often. Usually, I am bowing out of one meeting so that I can join the next.
  7. This blog, free as it has always been, falls somewhere on this spectrum. Where, exactly, is not for me to say.
  8. Which I also pay for as you will see momentarily
  9. While it seems to keep the quality high, as I’ve written before, I’m not sure this is a sustainable model for the reader, who forks out $60/year per subscription.
  10. I am living without it.
  11. Incidentally, when my kids play the dinner game of “what superpower would you want if you could any superpower”, my answer is always, “I’d want an eidetic memory,” to which my family always rebukes me for not playing in the true spirit of the game.
  12. OOP: Object-oriented programming
  13. Also, this reminds me of a joke I can’t fully recall, possibly from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about someone inventing a television that watches itself so that you don’t have to.
  14. White Christmas is also my favorite movie. I look forward to the first full viewing each holiday season, especially with my youngest daughter, who likes the movie just as much as I do. It will soon be time for that first viewing. It will also soon be time for eggnog.
  15. This used to be called “Brain Pickings” but she changed the name. I’ll admit that I preferred “Brain Pickings” but what really matters is that the content is just as good, despite the name.
  16. Actually, these days, I am more project manager than programmer, but my official title includes the words “Senior Application Developer” which is jargon for programmer, or, as Thompson might put it, “coder.”
  17. For my own history of coding, see How I Learned to Write Code in 37 Short Years
  18. For example Paper by Mark Kurlansky
  19. I note as I write this line that this post is approaching 3,000 words, the longest one I’ve done in quite some time.
  20. Next month will be the 30th anniversary of my sitting down to write a story with the idea of sending to a magazine for publication.
  21. Of course I have

Fall Colors, 2022

It is finally beginning to look like fall around here, so I thought I’d share a few photos of the fall colors. The first photo below is from a week or so ago on my morning walk. The colors seemed more subdued in the photo than in real like, a testament to my total lack of ability when it comes to taking photos.

An early morning shot with the moon setting in the west
An early morning shot with the moon setting in the west.

This photo, one of my favorites so far, captures the fall sky and the colors just beginning to turn by the dark down the street from our house.

Fall sky over changing colors in the local park
Fall sky.

It’s kind of funny, but it seems to me that everyone who passes this orange-looking tree on the bike path stops to take a photo of it. Including me.

A popular tree with orange leaves
Orange leaves.

This is another tree that people seem to stop and photo quite a bit this fall. It is actually just outside my home office. You can see it from inside my office in the photo below this one.

A tree outside my home office.
Fall color.

Here, you can see that same tree through the windows of my office. Several times a day I’ll look up from my work to find someone out there, walking their dog, and pausing to take a picture of this tree (which is actually in our next-door neighbor’s yard).

A view of the same tree from inside my home office.
A view of that colorful tree from inside my home office.

Here is one more from the back deck just this very morning.

Fall sunrise colors on the back deck.
Fall sunrise colors on the back deck.

Finally, here are a couple of photos that capture some of the Halloween decorating that Kelly and the kids have done to the house. Our neighborhood goes all out for Halloween. That ghostly thing you see on the righthand side of the photo below is motion-activated and has scared the pants off me at least twice when I’ve walked past it to take out the trash or recycling.

Some Halloween decorations around the house.
Some Halloween decorations around the house.

And below we have a tableau in which older versions of Kelly and I, relax in our retirement.

A pair of skeletons have a quiet conversation on the patio.
A quiet conversation on the patio

Happy fall, everyone!

Written on October 27, 2022.

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