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 15 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.

The Silence and the Noise

I found myself listening to Metallica’s …And Justice For All album after I finished a long day of meetings. The noise acts as a kind of palette-cleanser for the brain, blocking out much of everything else until my brain has had a chance to put everything back in order. Ironically, the loud, metal music actually quiets my mind.

Whenever I listen to that album, it brings to mind physics. In my senior year of high school, I took A.P. physics with a fabulous teacher, one of the best I had in high school. Our physics homework was nothing to sneeze at and it sometimes could take a couple of hours to complete. Whenever I tackled that homework, I always had my Walkman headphones on my ears, and Metallica’s …And Justice For All cassette in the player. I always did my physics homework listening to that album and today, I can’t think of the album without seeing a physics textbook in front of me, and a message notebook page filed with pencil scratches. The music, the noise, had a similar effect as it does after a long day of meetings. It cleared my mind and allowed me to focus on the problem at hand with no other distractions.

I did alright in A.P. physics (indeed, I entered college as a physics major), but looking back, I think I might have done even better if I’d been allowed to listen to …And Justice For All during the tests.

Your author, listening to ...And Justice For All </em>really loudly while he writes this.
Your author, listening to …And Justice For All really loudly while he writes this.

At work, when I am trying to solve a particularly difficult coding problem, I often put on a loud album. It has the effect of blocking out everything else and concentrating my focus the problem at hand. It really is a strange, magnifying effect. Often, I never actually hear the music. It acts as the pillow under the sheets so that my mind can wander off and take care of whatever business is at hand and no one’s the wiser. In a way, this is frustrating. I like the music and want to listen to it, but that isn’t the reason I’ve got it on.

When it comes to writing, and especially writing fiction, I need silence. I’ve tried listening to music now and then, but when I am writing and listen to a loud album, it clears my head of everything, including the voices that whisper the story to me. I find this fascinating. The same thing that clears my mind to solve physics problems, blocks creativity when I try to write stories. Very rarely, I’ll find a song that I can write to, that puts me in just the right mood I need to complete a scene. In these cases, I will play the same song over and over and over until the scene is complete. Most of the time, however, when I write I need silence.

When I am writing nonfiction, I can tolerate music a little more, but I still prefer silence. There are exceptions. When I sat down to write this post, I put on the …And Justice For All album, and I managed to write the whole thing listening to the album. Can you tell?

If you’ve ever wondered how long it take me to write 600 word post, I have a pretty good measurement for you. It took exactly the first two-and-a-half songs of the album for me to complete this: all of “Blackened”; all of the lengthy “…And Justice For All”; and a little over half of “Eye of the Beholder.”

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My 3 Cyber Security Tools, July 2021 Edition

Back in May when I made a call for suggestions on what to write here, one of the good ones was from Steve, who wrote: “Any thoughts or concerns you might have related to cyber security. Potential tips/processes you employ to protect yourself.” Ten years ago, when I was writing my Going Paperless series, I wrote a piece on securing your digital filing cabinet (in Evernote). With Steve’s prodding, I’ll write about three ways I protect myself and my data–not just Evernote but all my data.

1. LastPass for password management

I began using LastPass as my password manager of choice in the spring of 2013 and I’ve been happily using it ever since. The service has gotten better as the years have gone by. It integrates seamless with browsers, and it also integrates seamlessly with iOS making it simple to access passwords when I need them. These days, I use LastPass’s Family Plan, so that I can share passwords with the family as needed.

It was no small effort to get set up initially. It took me a full weekend, back in 2013, to go through all my services, and change my password, giving each one a unique, strong password. But once that initial work was done, it has been easy to manage ever since.

Here is how I used LastPass today:

  1. I create a unique, strong password for each service or account that I have. I use LastPass to generate strong passwords. It integrates so well with browsers and with iOS these days that I rarely have to remember a password. Having a strong password means it is harder to crack. Ensuring I have a unique password for every service means that in the unlikely event a password is cracked, only one service will be breached.
  2. I always enable 2-factor authentication if it is available. Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a mechanism that forces a service to confirm your identify by a second method after a password has been entered. Typically, this will send a text message to your mobile device with a code number. That way, if someone does crack my strong password, the person will still need the code number sent to my phone in order to get the password. I also use LastPass’s Authenticator as another type of authentication. Two factor authentication adds a layer of security, so it takes a few seconds longer to access whatever service I am trying to get into, but it worth the added security.
  3. I always use random words for challenge questions. You know how some services will have you provide answers to 3 questions like “Your mother’s maiden name?” or “The model of your first car?” I never answer those questions with real information. Instead, I wrote a little shell script that gives me a random word, and I use that word as my answer to the question. I then go to the LastPass entry for the account, and in the Notes field, I jot down the challenge question and the random word answer so that I can refer to it when I need to. This adds one more layer of security so that if someone happens to know my mother’s maiden name, or the model of my first car, that information will be useless to them.

One nice side-effect of all of this is that it provides a ready database of all of the services I have, all of the subscriptions, etc. I often use the Notes field for a service or subscription to record how much I paid for it and when it expires or if it auto-renews. So if I ever need to cancel a service, I have all of the information at hand to do it.

With the family plan, it makes it easy to share passwords for services. You can ever share the password so that it can be used but not viewed. And anyone else in the family can use LastPass for their own accounts and services as well.

I think LastPass Family costs me about $48/year, and for me, it has been well-worth the price.

2. CrashPlan Pro for data backups

CrashPlan running on my Mac Mini
CrashPlan running on my Mac Mini

I began using computers in the 1980s when it was much easier to lose data than it is today. That manifested itself in many ways, but most common was the proliferation of backups to floppy disks. Years of working in I.T. has taught me the important of backups, especially backups that are immediately available.

I have been using CrashPlan for my backups since 2013. At some point, CrashPlan did away with their family plan, but I liked their service so much that I continued with their business plan. The plan gives you unlimited backups for as many devices as you need. You pay per device. These days, we three computers on our plan that our backed up. CrashPlan is one of those tools that just works seamlessly–or, at least, it does for me. You don’t even know it is there. It does realtime backups in the background as files are changed. But it also does incremental backups so that the backup sets are always up-to-date.

I think of backups as a kind of insurance policy for our data. If a disk goes bad, or a folder gets deleted by accident, it takes only a few mouse clicks to have it restored. No panicked moments, no stress about losing work. I’ve probably restored one-off files dozens of times using CrashPlan. But CrashPlan has also been great for bigger disaster recovery, like when a whole machine died unexpectedly. For instance, early this year, I was upgrading the OS on Kelly’s laptop and something went wrong with the upgrade. I couldn’t get the machine to boot and had to do a clean install. CrashPlan came to the rescue and all of her data was restored shortly after the clean install had been completed.

CrashPlan pro costs me about $10/device/month, which comes to around $360/year. But like any insurance policy, it provides peace of mind that our data is safe. And when we’ve had to actually restore data, CrashPlan has never failed us.

3. Express VPN for secure connections

Last, but not least, I try to maintain secure connections when I am not on my home network. For this I’ve been using Express VPN for several years now. When I leave the house, I enabled Express VPN so that my devices connections (phone, iPad, laptop) go through a secure virtual private network. The data is encrypted at the source and can’t even be read by whatever service provider I happen to be using. This is particularly uses when in airports and hotels where the WiFi connections are usually not secured.

Using a VPN adds a layer of security that, like strong passwords, 2-factor authentication, and backups, gives me peace of mind that I am using best practices to protect myself and my data.

Express VPN costs about $100/year.


Do you have suggestions for cyber security tools? Let me know about them in the comments.

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Writing My Wrongs

Mistakes are great teachers. That is a hard thing to understand as a twelve year-old when the pressure of society makes you strive for perfection. I’ve tried to explain this to the Little Man, my own twelve-year old. It’s perfectly acceptable to make mistakes. That’s how we learn. The trick is to take the time to learn from our mistakes instead of just ignoring them. Make a mistake on a math problem? Look at it and figure out why? Was it careless arithmetic? A lack of understand the problem? Figure out what cause the mistake so that you can identify it the next time you see it. Of course, this is easier said than done.

One way that I try to do this is by writing down the mistakes I make–at least those that I become aware of. I call this “writing my wrongs.” When I notice that I’ve messed up some how, I’ll pull out my Field Notes notebook and jot down my mistake. I don’t always say exactly what I did wrong. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that jotting down a corrective action, if one is available, is more valuable for my future self. A simple example comes from yesterday. I moved the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. Later in the evening, Kelly said me to, “I appreciate you switching the laundry, but for future reference, the girls bathing suits don’t go in the dryer. It makes them shrink.” What I wrote in my notebook was, “Don’t put girls’ swimsuits in dryer.”

Writing down my mistakes does three things for me.

  1. It is an acknowledgement that I’ve messed up somehow.
  2. It provides an accessible list of things that I can work on improving
  3. The very act of writing it down helps me remember it the next time I’m in a similar situation.

The list occasionally serves another purpose: when I get a little too full of myself, I can always flip through my notebooks and see the great variety of ways that I mess up all the time.

The breadth of my mistakes is impressive. It can be something like putting the swimsuits in the dryer. Or it can be something like, “Next time, take the GW Bridge lower level to avoid that crush after the toll booth.”

Acknowledging my mistakes is important because that is one way in which I learn from them. You can’t learn if you can’t acknowledge them. Sometimes, ego gets in the way and I don’t want to admit to others that I made a mistake. These days, I try to admit my mistakes freely if only to show my kids that mistakes are an important way we learn. But even on those times when I am loathe to admit my mistakes to others, I still jot them down in my notebook so I admit them to myself.

I don’t have a particular routine for reviewing these mistakes. Sometimes I may not revisit one because writing it down fixes it in my mind. But I come across them when flipping through my notebooks, and I use that to judge if I have managed to improve. Sometimes I have, and other times, I haven’t. Still, there is something comforting to me about noticing my mistakes and writing them down. I feel like a squirrel storing acorns away for the coming winter. There are always things that I can improve, big or small, always nuts left behind in the nest that act as teachers instead of serving as food.

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Reading Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

My paperback copy of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Sometime in 2002 a friend of mine asked me if I’d read a book by Neal Stephenson called Cryptonomicon. I said I hadn’t. I’d heard of other books that Stephenson had written, including Diamond Age and Snow Crash. He told me I would enjoy Cryptonomicon, which was published in 1999, because it dealt with cryptography and technology and contained lots of techie references. I picked up a paperback edition back then, and was immediately attracted to its length. I don’t know what it is about long book, but I like them. Still, I had a hard time getting through the book, and eventually, gave up.

A few years ago, I thought I’d give it another try. I was certain I’d get through it. I remembered almost nothing of my first attempt so the story would seem new to me. But I ran into the same problem as before. I had a hard time getting through the book and gave up again, in almost the same place (about two-thirds of the way through the book).

They say the third time is a charm. On Saturday, almost on a whim, I picked the book up again. This time, I was determined to finish it. I started reading, and something strange happened. I understood what I was reading. It wasn’t nearly as difficult. And I finally know why. At its core, Cryptonomicon seems to be a novel about information theory. And it just so happened that I spent much of the past spring, reading books about information theory. The focus of much of the book (so far) is on cryptography, which is a subset of information theory. But really, the novel itself is a novel about information theory.

In my previous readings, I hadn’t read about Alan Turing or Kurt Gödel. I hadn’t read about Claude Shannon and his invention of information theory. I hadn’t grasped the relationship between theories of entropy and theories of information. And of course, I hadn’t yet read Gödel, Escher, Bach and grasped the nature of the Entscheidungsproblem–whether any statement could be found true or false. Having read about all of this since the last time I attempted to read Cryptonomicon has seemed to make all the difference.

I don’t know how long it will take me to get through the book, but I am committed to getting through it this time around. I am definitely enjoying it more than on my first two attempts. And besides, I have precedence for this. I was once recommended a book and it was more than twenty years before I finally read it. Of course, when I finally finish it, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it here.

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Good Morning

You can tell a lot about someone by how they greet you in the morning. I have a tendency to say an abbreviated “‘Mornin'” to people I pass. I am always impressed and envious of those people who greet me with a bright “Good morning,” clearly enunciated. How to do they find the energy that cheerful so early?

With our kids, the greetings seems to decline with age. The Little Man usually offers a relatively bright, “Good morning” when I makes his way into the living room. The Little Miss also has a fairly cheerful, “Good morning, Daddy,” when she wakes up. The Littlest Miss usually offers a grunt followed by a whiny, “I’m still tired,” or “I’m not ready.”

Days of the week seem to matter. Growing up Sunday seemed to be the grumpiest day of the week in terms of greetings. Unintelligible grunts were the order of the day.

I see a wide variety of greetings on my morning walk. Bright, enthusiastic, “Good mornings,” to my more muted “‘Morning!” to a mumble. Sometimes, a nod and smile can be just as good as an enthusiastic ‘Good morning.’ One person that I frequently see on my morning walk offers a deluxe package, “Good morning!” he says with a wave, “Happy Friday!” Or sometimes, “Good morning! Hump day!” if it is a Wednesday.

No where I’ve been are greetings offered more plentifully and genuinely than in Maine. Walking the streets of Castine, for instance, I’ll pass by a dozen people on my morning walk and get a dozen cheerful greetings and half a dozen offers of conversation. It is almost as welcoming when we visit southwestern Florida, and walk on the path that encircles the community in which my mother-in-law lives. It makes me wonder if all of the snow birds living in Florida in the winter are originally from Maine.

I tend to find the opposite in New York City and its outskirts. Taking the train into the city for a Yankees game, no one offers greetings. The Yankees fans on the train jeer at the few Mets fans they see, but greet one another heartily. Beyond that, no one is saying good morning, or good evening, for that matter. I don’t remember much in the way of greetings in Los Angeles either, although there were a few exceptions. When I lived in Studio City and would take an evening walk around the neighborhood, the late actor Jon Polito was usually out in his yard talking to friends he had over. He would always raise a hand when he saw me and say, “Hi fella!”

With people you know, greetings offer a kind of window into their mood. A cheerful greeting and you know you can expect a cheerful mood. If I get an “I’m still tired!” from the Littlest Miss, I have a pretty good idea what kind of morning it is going to be.

I really am envious of the people who can, day in and day out, offer a hearty “Good morning!” Alas, all I am capable of doing today is offering you my usual: ‘Mornin’!

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Progressives

The word progressive is a dynamic term. According to Merriam-Webster, there are 10 major definitions split over two entries. I guess the first thing that comes to mind when I think of progressives is the movement that took place around the turn of last century, during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations, with magazines like McClure’s and the muckrakers. Whenever I hear someone say “progressives” I think of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. That book was so good it made a flight from Washington/Dulles to Los Angeles pass by in the blink of an eye.

It is a versatile term. Back when I was flying, at unfamiliar airports, you could request a “progressive taxi.” Typically, as you roll off the runway, ground control gives you a series of “intersections” to get you to where you are going. They might say something like, “Take Charlie to Charlie 6 and cross 16-right to Bravo. Bravo to Bravo 4.” That can be a lot to remember, especially at an unfamiliar airport. In a progressive taxi, the controllers give you the first step: “Take Charlie to Charlie 6.” Once you reach the Charlie 6 intersection, they give you the next step. And so on.

It occurred to me that our car has something called “progressive” cruise control. I love this feature and use it often on our long drives. You set your speed, like any other cruise control, and then you set your distance in car-lengths. After that the car maintains the distance from the car in front of you, slowing when they slow, speed up when they speed up. When I use it, it is almost like we are tethered by a tractor beam

I was thinking about progressives because I got a new pair of glasses they other day. Like my old glasses, they have progressive lenses. Here “progressive” is a euphemism for “tri-focals” which itself code for “Jamie is getting old.” My vision changed a little in the last two years since my previous prescription. The new glasses definitely help.

One thing I’ve noticed: as my vision regresses, my use of my glasses progresses. I wear my glasses frequently these days. Because of that, as the kind people in my eye doctor’s office were adding the various features I had on my old glasses to the new ones (poly carb, anti-glare, blue-light blocking, etc.) I realized that I had an opportunity. For a while I’d been putting my sunglasses on over my glasses when outdoors. So I had them add “transitions” lenses to the mix. This is a progressive move on my part. It will help my look far less ridiculous when I am outdoors.

“Transitions” feels almost like a sibling of “progressives.” I like these lenses because the UV light darkens them and I don’t need my sunglasses in places where UV light is abundant. (Inside the car is not one of these places.) Of course, as soon as I got home I had to test them out. I went into the front yard, waited while my glasses adjusted, and then took a photo. I then went back into my office, waited for the UV light to die down and took another. There is a noticeable difference.

Progressives seem to be a theme with me these days. I’ve got progressive lenses, and a car with progressive cruise control. I’m not flying planes any more, but I am working on progressively improving my habits.

Thinking about progressives makes me think about progress. That in turn reminds me of a joke I once heard:

If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of progress?

The Weekly Playbook #3: My Evening Routine

For an overview of this series, see the debut post on my morning routine.

Background

Recently, I wrote about how I form my habits. In light of that post, I thought I’d write about my evening routine since it helps to reinforce the habits that I have been working to form. I wrote about my morning routine in an earlier post. That routine covers the first two and a half hours of my day.

Playbook

From start to finish, my evening routine covers the last two and half hours of my day. Bold items are ones that I try to do every day regardless of circumstance.

  • Blog edits (30 min)
  • Mind dump (10 min)
  • Prepare tomorrow’s to-do list (10 min)
  • Journal (10 min)
  • Workout (50 min)
  • Update habit journal (10 min)
  • Shower (10 min)
  • Meditate, unguided (10 min)

Commentary

Like my morning routine, my evening playbook doesn’t have fixed clock times associated with it. I usually try to get started by around 7:30 or 8:00p, but that can vary. I’m more focused on how long it takes to do the things, than when I actually do them.

Blog edits allow me to re-read the posts that I have coming out the following day, make tweaks, add finishing touches, and try to catch typos that I am famous for making. This is relatively new. In the past, I was willing to trade accuracy for speed in my posts, typing fast, but occasionally making mistakes that I didn’t worry too much about. But I’m trying to do better here, and so this gives me the time to review. I’m usually two or three days ahead in what I’ve written so I focus on the post coming out the following day. If I have time after that, I will review other posts, or continue to write ones that I started in my morning writing session.

In looking for ways to improve my sleep, one of the things that I’ve been doing is attempting to clear my head of anything that will keep me awake. The mind dump, journaling, and meditation all work toward this end. The mind dump is a very GTD-esque task. I take a sheet of paper and jot down everything that I’ve got on my mind. At first, I left work-related tasks out of this, but I found that I think about work when falling asleep so I’ve started to really try to dump everything I can. This gets it out of my head and onto paper, my simple manifestation of David Allen’s inbox. I don’t spent more than 10 minutes on this. I avoid looking at my to-do list or email or other things when doing this because if something isn’t on my mind, I don’t want to put it there by mistake.

I use that list to put together my to-do list for the following day. I pick the three things I want to get done at home, and the three things I want to get done at work and write them on an index card, which I keep in the back of my current Field Notes notebook. This sets up the next day for me and I don’t need to fall asleep wondering what I need to do.

Journaling at the end of the day allows me to get other thoughts out and provides a context for my overall day. The last thing I do is 10 minutes of unguided meditation as a final way of clearing my head, or being okay with whatever I can’t clear. I started with 20 minutes of unguided meditation, but that was too long for me so I scaled back.

I give myself 50 minutes for a workout to allow for stretching before and after. As I write this, I am focused only on stretching so that as I work my way toward cardio and light strength training, I don’t end up hurting myself. I alternate between a 30 minute stretch session one evening and a 15 minute the next.

In my post on how I form my habits, I mentioned my habit journal. I try to keep this updated throughout the day, noting when I wake up, what I eat, mistakes I made along the way, my exercise. I go to bed making sure it is up-to-date.

These playbooks are designed to be living documents. I tweak them as I make adjustments, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. So far, the playbook for my evening routine is working out pretty well.

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How I Form New Habits

I am in the middle of a fairly significant lifestyle change. As part of my plan to retire in ten years, one of the things I wanted to do was get myself back into shape. When I retire, I want to be healthy and active. Being in good mental and physical shape are big part of this. It means changing habits that I’ve had for many years, and in some cases, for decades and changing habits, for me at least, is always difficult. There are two aspects to this. A new habit can be doing something new. It can also be to stop doing something that I had been doing. So I thought it might be useful to talk about how I form new habits.

Writing about habits abstractly is never helpful to me, so I want to start with specifics. What habits was I looking to form? Brace yourself. The list is a bit daunting, at least to me.

  • Give up sugared soft drinks
  • Give up caffeine
  • Start a daily meditation practice
  • Start a healthy diet that will help me stay lean and full of energy
  • Start exercising daily
  • Write every day

Mapping habits to goals

I usually begin with goals. Before I am ready to begin forming new habits, I need a reason to change. What are those reasons? In my case, my mission statement was along the lines of “Retire in ten years and be able to write full time.” That’s what I began with. From there I asked myself a lot of questions about what it meant to retire, to write full time. For me, writing requires stamina. It is not like my day job where I stop thinking about it (usually) at the end of the day. I am constantly writing in my head, constantly wondering about things, and constantly reading to pique my interest in things that I want to write about. All that work can be exhausting. Then, too, I didn’t want to be someone who retired and settled into a sedentary routine. My routine is more sedentary today than I am comfortable with. So I took that mission statement and came up with some fairly abstract goals:

  • Be in the best physical shape that I can manage so that I have the energy to do what I want to do.
  • Find a good mental balance: especially, reducing my anxiety, being more empathetic, and open to new ideas.
  • Be the best writer I can possibly be.

Now, these aren’t necessarily SMART goals, but they are good enough for my purposes for getting started. The next thing to do was figure out what I needed to do (or stop doing) to start down a road toward these goals. This is where the habits come in. Mapping them to the goals would look something like this:

GoalHabit
Be in the best physical shape I can manageGive up sugared soft drinks
Give up caffeine
Start a healthy diet
Exercise daily
Find a good mental balanceStart a daily meditation practice
Be the best writer I can beWrite every day

Where to start: order of operations

I know from past experience that no matter how much I want to jump in and change everything at once, that is a recipe for failure. So I needed to pick a place to start. Having a long lead time helped me in this regard. After all, I’ve got ten years to retirement (3,755 days, if anyone besides me is counting). There is no need to rush things. Rather, I’d prefer to get this right and allow time for the inevitable adjustments. I ranked the habits I wanted to change from what I considered to be hardest to easiest. Here is the order I came up with:

  1. Giving up sugared soft drinks.
  2. Giving up caffeine.
  3. Starting a daily meditation practice
  4. Starting a healthy diet
  5. Exercising daily
  6. Writing every day

Let me talk about my rationale for this order. I’ve given up caffeine before. At one point, between 2003 and 2010 or so, I’d given up caffeine for 7 years. It was only when we had kids that I began using it again to give me that boost I needed after some sleepless nights with the babies. So I knew I could do it. Knowing that is half the battle, so I didn’t think it would be the most difficult change.

On the other hand, I’d been drinking Coca Cola all my life. I loved it, and still do. I’d hated the diet versions of soft drinks, and wondered why anyone drank them if they tasted so badly. Even when I gave up caffeine, I still drank Caffeine-Free Coke, or Sprite, or other non-diet soft drinks. I figured giving up the sugared soft drinks would be the most difficult for me.

Meditation was another tough sell for me. I couldn’t imagine taking time out of my day, every day, to sit and do nothing. Where was the value in that? I figured getting into that habit would be difficult.

The other three were all familiar to me. I’d worked with a trainer fifteen years ago, and gotten into good shape. I learned to eat better than I had been (although not great). And of course, I had at one point an 825-day consecutive writing streak, so I knew I could write every day.

The next step was to pick a habit and get started. But my mind doesn’t quite work like that.

Warming up to a habit

Whenever I am thinking about starting a new habit, I never just start it cold. It takes warming up. It is often this way for a story, too. I’ll think about it and think about it, but not feel ready. With writing stories, the key I’ve learned over the years is not to get started until I feel ready, until there is a click in my head that says, yeah, now it’s time. The same it true with starting a habit. I could go months thinking about the change I want to make (and often feeling guilty about not making it) but if I start and I haven’t warmed up to it, then I know it won’t last. I have dozens of examples of this in my own experience.

One day last spring, however, at the outside of the Pandemic, when things were looking particularly bleak, something in my head clicked and I was ready to start a daily meditation practice.

A few months later, feeling desperate to lose some weight, I finally felt ready to give up diet soft drinks. These are actually two useful examples because they illustrate the paths that different habits can take. After some experimentation, for instance, I found that I could tolerate Cherry Coke Zero, and once I realized I could do that, I simply gave up sugared soft drinks and started drinking Cherry Coke Zero instead. Within two months I lost something like 18 pounds without changing anything else. It was eye-opening.

It wasn’t quite as dramatic with the meditation, however. I managed to build a daily practice, but after a few months, I felt like I wasn’t seeing any real progress on my part, and I gave it up for a time. Eventually, I came back to it, and it was then that I began to notice some of the changes it brought about in me. I was calmer during the day, less anxious, more open. It was slow and subtle, but I could feel the changes. Feedback like losing weight or feeling the anxiety start to slip away after meditating is self-reinforcing. What I to learn was that not every habit works at the same speed. Sometimes I really have to keep at it before you start to notice a change, and during that time, I just have to believe that it is going to help, even if I don’t see changes right away.

Incremental changes

By mid spring of this year I’d been off sugared sodas for half a year, and I had a regular meditation practice. The next thing I began to think about was giving up caffeine.I knew this would be tough but I also knew I could do it. I just needed to warm up to it. And so over a period of weeks, I did that, telling myself it was time, but also telling myself that “this was my last caffeinated drink” quite a few times. (Looking back I see several journal entries from the day following such proclamations with things like, “Well, that didn’t work out too well.”) Finally, on April 16, I began to feel ready. I wrote this in my journal for that day:

On my walk today I began thinking that maybe I needed to give up caffeine again. I don’t know why I feel the need to give something up. Today I was thinking about it in terms of sleeping better. Maybe I’d sleep much better without the caffeine… if I do give it up it will have to be on Sunday because I feel like I am going to need caffeine to get through tomorrow.

This is typical for me in two ways. First, I’m usually ready when I write it down and give myself a deadline. I’d been thinking about giving up caffeine for some time, but it wasn’t until I wrote it down that I knew I was ready. Second, I always give myself a last hurrah, often hidden as an excuse to start the new habit at the beginning of the week. But on that Sunday, April 18, I started the day with orange juice instead of a caffeinated drink, and I haven’t had caffeine since.

So I’d tackled meditation, sugared soft drinks, and caffeine. I let those settle in for a while before I decided to tackle the next two items: a healthy diet and daily exercise. Typically, I need to make sure that a habit is set before moving onto the next. And I avoid trying to being more than one new habit at a time, but in this case, diet and exercise go hand in hand. I’d been warming up to both for some time and around the time I was writing my post on Project Sunrise, I knew I was ready. I’d done a bunch of research and decided to tackle the slow-carb diet. I started this a week ahead of exercise just to avoid too much at once.

There are two things I like about the slow-carb diet: first, I can be a few meals that I eat regularly and so in addition to losing weight and fat, and slimming down, I also have less decision fatigue. Second, cheat day! The first week went well, so on this past Sunday, I began to develop my exercise habit.

Habits themselves can be incremental. When I last worked out regularly, with a trainer, I was 15 years younger than I am today. What I did not want to do was injure myself at the outset. So I decided to be incremental about exercise. I would exercise 6 days a week (my cheat day would also be my day off). Rather than start with a mix of cardio and weights, I decided to begin exclusively with stretching. I researched videos I could watch and then on Sunday, I did my first 30 minute stretching workout. And wow, I felt as flexible as a steel bar when compared to the person leading the workout. But I kept reminding myself that it takes time, and for some habits, more time than others to see results. Every day makes a difference. And so I repeated my stretching exercise last night, and will do it again tonight.

My plan going forward is to continue the stretching routine 6 days away for the next two to three weeks. After that, I’ll layer in cardio 3 days a week, and after a few weeks of that, I’ll add in light strength training on the 3 days I’m not doing cardio.

What about writing? That’s a tricky one because it is so difficult to judge if I am improving. There are two things that I can do and that I have been doing pretty well at so far this year. First, I can write every day. I am writing this post on the 194th consecutive day that I have written this year, for instance. The second things I can do is get my writing in front of an audience and take what feedback I can manage to find. So far, in the first 194 days of 2021, I’ve published 213 posts totaling 128,000 words. I’d say that’s pretty good practice on both counts. I’m not sure there is more that I could do, except to keep it up.

Habit tracking

One thing that helps me maintain my habits is tracking them. There is a benefit to this, as well as a cost for me. The benefit is in seeing the day-to-day progress, and patting myself on the back for a particular streak. An added benefit is looking closely at the data to see if there are things I can do to improve.

These days, I have a notebook that I use to log all of this. A typical page looks like this:

A page from my habit journal
A page from my habit journal

Along the way, I’ve been making little notes to myself about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve noted when I felt hungry or a craving, which workouts were tough and which too easy. I’m hoping that these notes will help me make informed adjustments along the way.

I used to track habits like this in a spreadsheet, so that I could see the unbroken streak (the Seinfeld method). But one thing I learned from my 825-day writing streak is that the streak itself becomes an end, and it weighs upon me. I’d rather focus on getting things right each day, and not worry so much about the streak or consecutive days. If I miss a day, it is a lot easier for me to recover when the streak doesn’t mean much, but the habit does.

Planning for the unexpected

I’ve found that habits work really well in regular, repeatable environments, but things can go sideways if something changes. What if I am traveling? What if we have plans one evening when I am supposed to do my workout? What if we go to a restaurant during the week? Or what if we go to a friend’s house for dinner and it isn’t my cheat day? In addition to settling into these new habits incrementally, I’ve also tried to think about these alternatives so that I don’t go into these situations cold. I have a plan, simple as it may be. One example of this is illustrated on my morning routine.

Then, too, as new situations arise, I made adjustments, note what works and what doesn’t and revise these plans. Just knowing that I have some idea of what to do in these common edge cases helps to take the edge off of them.


It has taken me nearly fifty years to get to the point where I understand how habits work for me. Maybe I am slow learner in this regard, and I certainly haven’t perfected this particular adventure. But I am trying to be honest about it this time. In my notebook I note my successes, but I also highlight my failures. For the latter, I try to learn from them and adjust.

The other thing I am constantly trying to keep in mind is that these habits build slowly. Some are faster than others (it took me about three weeks before I felt I no longer craved caffeine), but generally, the end goal comes slowly. Fortunately I’ve got time to improve and I’m hoping to use that time as best as I can.

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The Pharmacy and the Tobacco Shop

In my senior year of high school, and during the summer of my freshman year in college, I worked in a local pharmacy. This wasn’t a chain pharmacy. It was large, and in addition to filling prescriptions has aisles with the usual over-the-counter medications, bandages, and other appurtenances of first aid. There were aisles with makeup and hair products, dental products. There was some stationary, and aisle with the latest magazines. There were almost always customers in the store. The pharmacist and owner was a nice fellow, who was good to chat with. He treated us well. He gave me the first and only holiday bonus I’ve ever received.

Since that time, I’ve had a fondness for local pharmacies, few and far between though they are. There are a couple in our town that compete with the dozens of CVSs, Walgreens, and Rite-Aids within a fairly small radius. It’s not that these pharmacies are bad in any way. Indeed, if they keep their employees for any length of time, they can be good. We’ve known the people in our nearby CVS pharmacy for years, and they know us. But I suspect that is rare in a chain pharmacy, and it is what makes the little ones so special.

A few months ago, one of the small local pharmacies put up a “going out of business” sign. I’d never been inside that particular pharmacy (something for which I felt retroactively guilty after seeing the sign). Their customers were transferred to a pharmacy in Safeway just down the street. Afterwards, for months, the place lay empty, with the name of the pharmacy above like letters carved into a gravestone, a reminder of what was once there.

My experience with pharmacies and pharmacists has been overwhelmingly positive. They are a force for good. They not only fill prescriptions (and know all about side-effects and drug interactions) but they get and answer a wide range of questions from customers, will work with doctors, and always put health and safety first.

So there was something of an irony this morning when I passed the old pharmacy to find a new sign replacing the PHARMACY letters that had been there so long. The new sign read “Smoke & Tobacco” and beneath it was a white banner with red letters that read “Now Open.”

A tobacco shop had replaced the pharmacy.

It is so ironic, that if I were writing a story about this, I might have a pharmacist who made a Faustian bargain to obtain his pharmacy, only to discover that when the bill came due, his pharmacy was turned into a tobacco shop.

The pharmacy that I worked in more than thirty years ago is long gone. It was swallowed up by one of the pharmacy conglomerates. For a time, after selling the business, the owner went to work as a pharmacist for the big company, but I think he retired soon after.

I suspect that a tobacco shop will be more lucrative than the pharmacy was. But it also seems somehow to change the character of that little shopping center. Before there was place that helped people get better. Now there is a place that sells things that can make people sick. I was sad to see the pharmacy go, and a little sadder to see the tobacco shop spring up in its place.

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Finished Reading: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

The main reason I read so much is to learn. So I couldn’t pass up a book with the title The Art of Learning. The author, Josh Waitzkin, was as chess champion and the subject of the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After his years in chess he moved into tai chi and its martial form, push hands. He became a world champion there as well. In the book, part memoir, part a distillation of Josh’s analysis of his own performance and how he tried to learn from it over the years. This is the art of learning to which the title refers.

When I read, I’m usually on the lookout for two things. The first is pure education: what I can I take away from my reading that I can use to improve myself. Sometimes these are concrete ideas. One example was the way Tom Kelly, in his book Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module, talked about how he used notebooks to capture his work and thoughts on the development of the lunar lander while working for Grumman. I read that book in 2001, and it changed the way (to say nothing of the volume) I take notes. Sometimes the takeaways are more abstract. A books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is, one the surface, a history of a scientific and engineering marvel (or terror). Beneath the surface, my biggest takeaways were all on how manage large scale projects. It is why I consider it one of the best books on project management I’ve come across. Finally, education is sometimes just that: filling in gaps in knowledge of whatever subject I might be reading about.

The second thing I lookout for is affirmation. When I read something and recognize that it is something I do that seems to work for me, it often affirms my methods. This is what I found most of in The Art of Learning.

Early in the book, Josh breaks down intelligence into two types, entity and incremental intelligence. He writes,

Children who are “entity theorists”… are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and attribute their success or failure to an unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a think that cannot evolve.

Incremental theorists, or “learning theorists”,

are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped–step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

The latter definition was the first affirmation I encountered because this is very much my style of learning, even today. The best example I have of this was when I was learning calculus. I remember trying to break the problems in the book into categories: these one use this rule, these other ones are special exceptions to that rule, and so on. Once I had a set of problem types, I didn’t try to just tackle each problem outright. Instead, I tried to develop a set of steps that would work for any problem of that particular type. First do x, then y, then z. When I studied for tests, I would first go through a set of problems and classify them into the types I had identified; then I could attack each one using the method I’d come up with for that type.

Another affirmation came when Josh discussed how he had to adapt his study methods for chess. Noise had bothered him, and could throw him off his focus, and take his mind down a rabbit hole away from the particular chess problem he was trying to solve. Rather than get frustrated and try to eliminate all noise, Josh took the opposite approach:

I took the bull by the horns and began training to have more resilient concentration. I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise.

This has also been my approach. In my post productive years of writing (in terms of variety of what I wrote and where I sold stories) I wrote every day for 825 consecutive days. I never missed a day. At the time, the Little Man was 4 and the Little Miss was two. The house was a constant flurry of activity and noise. One of the things I had to get used to was working while sitting in the midst of all of that noise. I had to get used to interruptions in the flow of my writing. Up to that time, I always told myself I needed quiet to write, but I had no choice. I forced myself to adjust and that adjustment allowed for some of my most productive writing. Being adaptable was important. I wrote about this for Adobe’s 99U when I had passed 350 days of my streak.

Later in the book, Josh describes his competition for the world push hands championship in Taiwan. Reading his descriptions of the event can be frustrating: he describes how the rules are continually changed (or ignored) to favor the local heroes as opposed to the foreigners. Some of this is tactical. If you can get under your opponent’s skin, you have a clear advantage. So Josh had to learn to anticipate these antics and deal with them without losing his cool. It reminds me of what we have tried to teach the Little Man.

When he loses points on a test for something that he considers unfair (“the teacher said this wouldn’t be on the test”) the Little Man can get worked up. What we have tried to teach him is that life constantly throws curves. Preparing for anything is often more than preparing for just what you expect. You have to prepare for the unexpected as well. When something goes sideways, you have to do your best not to let it rattle you. Good preparation goes a long way here, but even the best preparation can’t anticipate everything. That’s when you sometimes have to let things go. It is actually a great lesson in equanimity.

I enjoyed Josh’s book. His insights are keen and valuable, but most of the lessons in the book seem geared to the highest performers, the elite few who are already close to the top of their game and are looking for that edge to bridge the gap to the top. I am certainly not in that category, but I found many things in the book that affirmed practices I already had, and that much felt good.

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Why Can’t Your FitBit or Apple Watch Pause Your Audio Book When You Fall Asleep?

Kelly is reading Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir for her book club. Actually, she is listening to the audio book version, narrated by Ray Porter, who does a very good job. The problem is, she says, she keeps falling asleep when she listens to it, and then has to go back and figure out what she last remembered hearing. I suspect this is a common problem, although it is not one from which I suffer. I do however, have a solution to offer that I am rather surprised has not already been tackled.

Lot of people use wearables these days. For a long time, I used a FitBit. And it seems to me that many people I know have Apple Watches on their wrists. (What would Douglas Adams have to say about our modern-day descendant of the digital watch?) Now, in addition to given us Jetson-like capabilities on wrists, these wearables do things that the Jetson’s never imagined. They can track how far we walk, how many calories we burn, our heart rates, pulses, and many other things. One of the things I found useful about my FitBit was its ability to track my sleep.

It seems to me that if my FitBit could tell me, based on a variety of biometrics, more or less when I fell asleep, then it should be able to use that same technology as a trigger to pause what I am listening to when it detects that I have fallen asleep. Imagine, you are listening to your audio book (or podcast, or music) and you begin to dose. The minute your Apple Watch detects that you are asleep, it pauses what you are listening to. It then uses its data to figure our how many seconds (or minutes) it needs to rollback whatever you were listening to so that when you awaken, you’ll be right where you left off.

This would be a useful integration feature for people who tend to fall asleep listening to books.

I could also imagine this integrating with devices like Apple TV, or other streaming services so that if your device detects you’ve fallen asleep during the latest episode of The Mandalorian, it will pause the show where you were last conscious of it, so that when you wake up, you can continue without skipping a beat.

I’m surprised that such a capability does not yet exist. Or perhaps it does and I’m just not aware of it. Of course, introducing a feature like this has its problems. I remember, for instance, that sitting still for a long time sometimes fooled my FitBit into thinking I was asleep. It would be annoying to be engrossed in listening to a book and have it suddenly pause because my wearable mistook my stillness for sleep. But these are solvable problems.

I suspect that a large number of tired, overworked, cooped up listeners would love a feature that automatically pauses their media when their wearable detects that they’ve fallen asleep. If nothing else, it would certainly help to improve the quality of book club discussions, what with people actually having listened to the entire book instead of sleeping through it.

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Minecraft Lessons IRL (In Real Life)

Minecraft screen capture -- courtesy of the Little Miss
Minecraft screen capture courtesy of The Little Miss

We went for a hike on the Fourth of July in a state park in upstate New York. It was our family, and my sister’s family. Between us there are five kids, and five very enthusiastic Minecraft aficionados. The weather was perfect for a hike, especially after several days of rain. We had reached our turn around point and had started back when one of the kids (my increasingly fallible memory protects the innocent here) said, “I’m staying here.”

We all kept walking.

“How far would you guys go before turning around and coming back for me?” they asked.

Someone might have said, “Why would we?” (That someone might have been me.) Of course, we were joking.

“That’s okay,” the straggler said, “I’ve played Minecraft in survival mode. I could survive here in the woods no problem.”

And that’s when my writers imagination took over. What I saw was this:

The Little Man and his cousin decided to attempt to survive in the woods overnight applying the lessons and skills they’d learned from countless hours of playing Minecraft in survival mode.

The Little Man, who is nothing if not methodical when it comes to playing video games (if only this were true about, say, putting wrappers in the trash or turning off the light when he leaves a room), takes a look around the woods and says to his cousin, “First thing’s first. We need to make some tools. And the most basic of the Minecraft tools is a pickax.”

“Great idea!” his cousin replies.

Now, the Little Man, who sometimes forgets to put his shoes back where they belong, magically comes up with the formula for a pickax from memory. “First we need three wooden planks and two sticks,” he says.

“Why not make a Netherite pickax?” his cousin asks.

“Bro!” the Little Man says. He says “bro” the way I used to say “dude” when I was thirteen and living in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. “Netherite isn’t real. Besides, we’d need a diamond pickax first, and we can’t get a diamond pickax without getting diamonds and that means having a pickax to begin with.”

Now in my imagination, they somehow locate three wooden planks in the midst of this state park. The sticks are easy. They each collect one, and before they’ve been alone in the woods for an hour, they have the five pieces needed to create a pickax.

“Uh, Bro?” the Little Man’s cousin says, “what do we do for a crafting table?”

“Easy,” the Little Man says, “we’ll find a clearing and use one of these sticks to sketch out a 3×3 grid that will be our crafting table.”

So they hunt for a clearing and after brushing away leaves and other detritus, they carry out their plan and sketch out the grid.

The Little Man wipes his dirty hands on his shorts. “Now all we have to do is lay the three planks across the top, and the two sticks down below the central plank.” He and his cousin set to laying out the planks and sticks as described. They stand, waiting.

“Something’s wrong,” his cousin says.

“Bro, I can see that.”

“What do you think is wrong? Do we need some redstone?”

“I’m getting hungry,” the Little Man says.

“Me, too.”

They stand there while no pickax forms from the material they’ve gathered.

“What should we do?” his cousin asks.

The Little Man considers for a long time. Then his face lights up. “Bro, I’ve got it!”

“What?”

“We’ll use a cheat code.”

“What cheat code?” his cousin says.

A wicked smile draws across the Little Man’s face, and he pulls out his iPhone. Carefully, he taps out the cheat code, which it turns out, is Dad’s phone number.

When I pick up, the Little Man says, “We’re hungry. Can you come get us?”

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