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.

How to Improve Baseball: Trade Speed for Endurance

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Baseball is something that I really enjoy. Beyond just watching a game, there is a rich history to the sport1. That history ties together generations going back to the Civil War. People playing baseball in the 19th century would recognize the game today and vice versa–or, at least, that used to be the case.

Baseball has always been a business. To deny that is to deny obvious history. For a time, the business and the game seemed to find precarious balance. That no longer seems to be the case. Business has taken over. When I read baseball history, of times when the players were underpaid and taken advantage of, I rooted for the players and hooted at the owners. Free agency was a big break for players, finally releasing them from the barbed hook of the reserve clause. The problem is that the players became part of the business. When players almost routinely get 8- and 9-figure contacts, how can it be otherwise? When teams invest that much in players, how can they not look to do anything they can to increase viewership of the game, even if that means changing the very nature of the game itself?

The biggest complaint I read about baseball is that it is too slow. At the end of the Second World War, the average length of a baseball game was 2 hours and 7 minutes2. In the year I was born, the average length jumped to 2 hours 23 minutes. The average length of a game passed the 3 hour mark for the first time in 2014. In 2021, it was 3 hours and 11 minutes the longest so far.

I find the last stat interesting. For years baseball has been tweaking the game to find ways to speed it up. For example, they made it so that pitchers could call an intentional walk without requiring a pitcher to throw any pitches. That would speed up the game. I considered that intentional nonsense. Meanwhile, “instant” replay was introduced to the game, but there was nothing “instant” about it.

Now there is talk of adding a pitch clock to the game. Clocks are anathema to baseball. One of the things that makes the sport unique is that there is no clock, never has been. Introducing one takes things too far for my taste.

Another complaint is that there is not enough action in the game. People want to see hits, they want action. I agree with that, but I also appreciate the strategy of the game in much the way I imagine a seasoned chess player sees the strategy of a chess game unfolding on the board before them.

What to do then? How do you speed up the game while generating more “action”?

I have what I think is a fairly simple solution: trade speed for endurance.

Fans of my age (and older) will often lament that too few pitchers pitch complete games anymore. Indeed, if we take another look at the years we looked at above, then we’ll find that at the end of the Second World War, there were an average of 2.13 pitchers per game. In the year I was born that jumped to 2.45 pitchers per game. In 2021, the most recent full season, there were 4.43 pitchers per game. The reason pitchers no longer pitch complete games is because they throw so much harder than they used to. The 100 MPH fastball is commonplace today. Pitchers who throw that hard have to protect their arms. Teams have to protect their investment in those pitchers3, and therefore, starters now routinely aim to go 5-6 innings instead of nine.

At the same time, hitters don’t hit as much because they are facing 100 MPH pitches. They strike out a lot more. When they do connect, however, they send the ball sailing over the fences because to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and a 100 MPH fastball will fly if you can manage to make contact with it. So we don’t see a lot of excitment on the field anymore. We strikeouts and home runs.

When I say that baseball should trade speed for endurance, I am talking about a solution to address both of these problems. Baseball should look to trade speed (100 MPH fastballs) for endurance (more complete games). Two main results of this address the problems at hand:

  1. If starters were required to go a minimum of 8 innings (unless injured), the game would speed up. There would no longer be 4-5 pitching changes per game. Each pitching change takes from 2-3 minutes. Cutting these down from 5 to 1 per game shaves off 8 to 12 minutes per game. Immediately our “average” length drops from 3 hours and 11 minutes down to 2 hours 59 minutes.
  2. Forcing a starter to pitch 8 innings means severely limiting 100 MPH fastballs. This means more hitting and more hitting means more action during the game to make the game exciting.

There is no need to add a pitch clock. No need to introdce rules that prevent strategy like infield shifts. Pitchers have to rely on more than just a fastball to get batters out. They need their teams to back them up. Hitters get back into the game.

Of course, such a move more or less elimates the need for middle relief, and while that’s unfortunate, some sacrifices have to be made to maintain the integrity of the game. Closers are still allowed in this scenario, although I’d encourage starters to go for complete games.

As to whether or not such changes would really work, one can point to history. Until around 1962, it was more common for there to be 2 pitcher in a game than 3. There were of hits, lots of action, and faster games. Maybe not as many home runs, but we are looking for action and excitement right? Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to see pitchers go the distance again?

This is my suggestion for how to improve baseball: trade speed (of pitches) for endurance (of pitchers) and see what happens. I think more people would watch games just to see how these changes would play out.

Written on April 21, 2022.

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  1. My reading list tells me that I’ve read 39 books on baseball and baseball history in the last quarter century.
  2. See this link in Baseball-Reference.com for these stats
  3. See how the Dodgers pulled Clayton Kershaw in the 6th inning of a perfect game for just that reason.

Practical Uses for A.I.

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Recently, the New York Times Magazine had a long article on artificial intelligence: “A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust What It Says?” by Steven Johnson. The focus of much of the article was on how A.I. has evolved to the point where it can produce human-sounding prose. Give GPT-3 some text and it will continue writing along the theme you’ve selected. Indeed, I frequently see ads for services like Jasper, which touts itself as artificial intelligence that “makes it fast & easy to create content for your blog, social media, website, and more!”

This is a depressing turn for artificial intelligence. Who would have thought that the focus of “practical” A.I. would be on organizing photo albums (identifying objects and people) and writing blog posts. I want to write my own blog posts. Indeed, I wish I had more time to do it. Why isn’t artificial intelligence helping out with any of that?

It seems to me that practical uses for A.I. include activities that free up time in our day so that we can spend more time on activities that we enjoy. Consider some examples typical from my own day.

I find myself frequently filling out forms. Whether it is to pay a medical bill–the payment websites for these are always different and never simple–or completing online forms for school, or kids’ activities, or camps, or passport applications–I’m not sure a day goes by when I don’t fill out a form of one kind or another. What I’d like to see is an A.I. that can fill out these forms for me. There are millions of forms on the Internet with which to train such an A.I. I could have a personal repository of information that the A.I. could use to complete the forms. In a rare instance where the A. I. can’t answer a question, it can ask me. Once I answer, it knows that answer forever. Then, whenever I need to fill out a form, I can set the A. I. on it.

Searching for the least expensive airfare or hotel is time-consuming and never fun. Why can’t an A. I. do this for me? I’d give the A. I. some criteria: date ranges, flexibility, locations, etc. My A. I. can “negotiate” with the airline and hotel A.I.s, seeking out the best deal. When it finds something, it can present the options to me and I can sign off on one. And since booking the hotel or flight usually involves filling out a form, once I approve, the A. I. can handle that as well.

One of my least favorite things is calling customer support. Why can’t my A. I. handle this? Whether it actually “calls” or interacts with a bot of some kind, if I am having a problem, my A. I. should be able to handle it. If it is software-related, it could even perform the necessary fixes that the technical support suggests. I think an A. I. would be good at things like requesting information, or making updates to various service accounts.

In my day job, I frequently have to deal with contractors. Outside of work, I sometimes have to do this as well. Finding a good contractor and then figuring out if their quotes are reasonable is always tricky, especially in areas where I don’t have a lot of experience. For instance, say I want to put an addition on my house. It would be great if I could have an A. I. go out and evaluate contractors based on my requirements, narrow the field, and set up meetings. After I meet with the contractors, the A. I. could take their proposals, compare them against millions of other proposals looking for ones that are similar, identify problems, figure out the most reasonable pricing, and ultimately come back to me with a set of recommendations on which contractor I should choose and why.

For that matter, it would be great if an A. I. could help manage our daily calendars. An A. I. could optimize our calendars, scheduling events for our kids so that they don’t overlap, or overlap in such a way as to make sure we can reasonably make the events. It could accept or decline invitations based on our schedule and preferences. If I needed to schedule a meeting with some people, the A. I. would take care of it, finding a time that worked for everyone.

I’d like an A. I. that would read and reply to most of my email, passing to me those ones from friends and family that require a personal response.

If I had an A.I. that could do all of these things — a digital chief-of-staff — I’d have a lot more time to spend doing the things I enjoy doing, like writing my own blog posts. If there are any entrepreneurs out there, the niche you should be looking for, the one that just might make someone the first trillionaire, is the bureaucracy layer. Put artificial intelligence to work on bringing down artificial barriers. If personal A.I.s could tackle the bureaucracy layer, I think my life would get a lot easier. I can organize my own photos and write my own tweets. What I am really looking for are practical uses for artificial intelligence.

Written on April 20, 2022.

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May the Fourth Be With You

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I was five years old when I saw Star Wars sometime in the spring/summer of 1977. My parents took my brother and I to a local drive-in theater to see it. I have only the vaguest memories of that time: I recall being in the back seat of the car. I have a memory of Darth Vader seeming scary. Beyond that, nothing sticks. The movie really settled into my mind a year or two later, when it was re-released in theaters. This happened in 1978 and 1979, and I’m not sure which time I saw the film in theaters. By then I was six or seven years old and was taken with the film and the marketing that surrounded it.

I really got to know Star Wars when it came to H.B.O. I don’t know how many times I watched it when it first came out, but it seemed to play constantly. If I had to guess, I’d say I saw the movie two dozen times at least during the inital months it was released. I thought it was so cool that I could watch that movie in the comfort of my own home.

Strangely, I have no memory of seeing The Empire Strikes Back although I know I saw it in a theater when it was released. I recall talking about it with my brother. I do remember seeing Return of the Jedi as part of a birthday party with friends. My brother couldn’t go and when I got home, I excitedly recounted to him the entire story with no thought of spoilers.

Then for sixteen years there was nothing. When it was announced that George Lucas was going to do a new trilogy of prequels, I was thrilled. I remember watching as those trailers were released online and being blown away by what I was seeing. I noted in my diary on May 18, 1999, “First public screenings of Star Wars: Episode I begin tonight at midnight.” My excitement built to a fever pitch.

Two days later, I wrote: “Left work at 3:30pm today so that I could steop at Century theater on the way home and pick up Star Wars tickets. I have them now (I’m listening to the original soundtrack) and I am so excited! The anticipation is building by the minute. I haven’t see it but I wonder what I will write here when I get back from the movie tonight.”

Later that night, having returned from the movie, I wrote, “11:50pm. Back from Star Wars: Episode I and it was terrific! I felt like a little kid as the movie started up and I was entralled for the entire show. It was great fun, great visual effects–makes me want to run out and become a Jedi! I can’t wait for the next one, now two years off.”

When it comes to movies, I don’t ask for much. I’m looking to escape and Star Wars is a great escape. I’m one of the few people I know who really liked the most recent trilogy, and am of the opinion that the best Star Wars movie since the original is the anthology film Rogue One.

When time came to introduce my own kids to Star Wars, I was once again as excited as I was when I was a kid myself, and I think they caught my enthusiasm. And while I never got into The Manadalorian or The Book of Boba Fett, I am very much looking forward to Ewan McGregor reprising his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi beginning on May 27.

Written on May 2, 2022.

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The New Monitor

I can remember days in the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s when a single monitor (and not a particularly large one) was suitable for all of my work. When I started at my job in late 1994, for instance, Windows 3.1 was still the main operating system. A single application open at a time in the foreground filled the screen. Not too long after, Window 95 took over and I was astounded by the ability to run applications side-by-side. As time passed I begn I using the highest resolution to maximimze screen acreage.

At some point, I remember seeing people using multiple monitors. At first it was two. Eventually, most people seemed to settle on three screens as optimal. Before the Pandemic, when I still went into the office, our flex spaces featured two large monitors mounted on swivel arms. Those two monitors, and the screen of my MacBook Pro served as my standard screen acreage for several years. I had each monitor assigned to a particular set of tasks:

  • My laptop screen was for email and Teams meetings.
  • The large screen on the left was my “working” screen. Any active work happened there: coding, document preparation, etc.
  • The large screen on the right was dedicated to notes.

I missed this three-screen setup in my home office. I never quite got used to whittling the function of three screens down to two. I managed to get my work done, but I felt like I was flipping between apps a lot more than I used to. Every now and then I considered getting an extra monitor, and each time I kept putting it off.

Yesterday morning, it came to mind again. I was doing some work early and decided once again that things would be a lot simpler if I had a third screen to help out. I did some searching online, found a relatively inexpensive monitor, and ordered it. It happened to have same-day delivery, and yesterday afternoon, it arrived and I set it up. I made sure it was the same size as my existing monitor, 24″, which is good enough for my purposes (at work our screens were 32″ I believe).

As you can see in the image above, the new monitor lacked the ability to be raised or lowered from its base. To bring it level with my existing screen, I needed to raise the base about 3-1/2 inches. Fortuately, the combintation of two large paperback books–Jerusalem by Alan Moore and The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan–were exactly 3-1/2 inches and brought the monitors level. I plugged the new screen into the HDMI port on my Mac Mini and it worked perfectly.

This morning, however, I realized a small problem. My MacBook Pro does not have an HDMI adapater. I ordered a USB-C to HDMI adapter from the local Target, and I’ll go pick it up after finishing this post and dropping the girls off at school. I will then once again have my three screens for work.

When connected to my Mac Mini, I will now have two screens. This is fine because I don’t need as many screens as I do for work. It will, however, be nice to have a screen dedicate to having my notes open at all times as I am doing more and more in Obsidian these days.

Written on April 20, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian: Schedule Update

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Just a heads-up that there will be no Practically Paperless post this week. I have revised the schedule for the final two episodes of the series.

  • Episode 29: Filling Out Forms will appear on Tuesday, May 10.
  • Episode 30: Project Management in Obsidian will appear on May 24.

Final two episodes? I can hear you saying. Yes, these will be the last two episodes of the series. There are several reasons for this:

  1. When I planned out the series, I outlined 20 episodes. As things progressed, I added 10 more. I never intended for this to be an endless series in the way that my Evernote series became, stretching over a period of years and containing more than a 100 episodes.
  2. I wanted to focus on the practical aspects of using Obsidian to go paperless. I think at this point, I’ve covered all the bases, at least those relevant to me. I don’t want to artificially drag out the series by finding things to write about that I don’t think are all that practical.
  3. I’m ready to stop writing about Obsidian and start writing about other things. I use Obsidian every day at this point. I’m getting a little tired of writing about it.

The posts aren’t going anywhere, and will be available here on the blog for whoever wants to read them. But the series will come to an end with Episode 30 on May 24. The popularity of the series is more than I could have possibly hoped for, and I am grateful to everyone who has read it, commented on it, provided suggestions, asked questions, and shouted it out to others.

Anyway, look for Episode 29 on Tuesday, May 10.

Written on May 2, 2022.

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The Snake Dream

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A few nights ago, I had a strange dream. I was swinging on a vine over a lake or pond. As I drifted to one side, I noticed a snake in the tree I approached. Momentum carried me to the other side of the pond and I noticed a snake in that tree as well. There were other people around and I mentioned to them that I thought the snakes had noticed me, too. I wasn’t particularly alarmed. But eventually, as I reached one end, a snake lunged at me, wrapped around my arm, and sunk its teeth into me. My main concern was trying to pry the snake off while not falling from the vine. It was at this point that I woke up.

The dream was not terribly unusual. What was unusual is that when I woke from the dream, it was around 11:30pm. I’d gone to bed at 10 o’clock. It is rare for me to have dreams that early in the night. Most of my dreams seem to happen early in the morning, in the 3-5 o’clock range. My understanding is that this is pretty typical. R.E.M. sleep takes place in the later phases of sleep. Indeed, as I lay there, I couldn’t think of the last time I’d had a dream so early in the night.

It got me thining–and this is a good example of how my writer’s brain works–why would I have a dream so early in the night when it almost never happens. Laying in the dark, I went through my day. Did I eat anything unusual? Do anything out of the ordinary? No, and no. At least, not that I could remember. So what then?

An idea began to form in my head that was a little unsettling at first. What if I woke up in the morning, and when scanning the newspapers (on my phone) came across a “breaking news” story that began as follows:

NEW YORK – Did you have a strange dream last night? Tens of thousands of people in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states have reported dreams involving snakes. All of the people reporting the dream were asleep between about 8:50 and 11:50 pm. Reports were sparse at first, but they started coming together on social media giant Reddit, where a subreddit on dreaming lit up with thousands of people reporting the strange dream. Similar reports quickly mounted on Facebook and Twitter, with the hashtag snakedream trending number one on the social media platform.

From that, I began to wonder what would cause the mass dreaming phenomenon? The answer came to me almost at once: The Russians! Given the current state of world affairs, my imagination conjured this as reprisal for the NATO nations supporting Ukraine.

It also made me realize the source of many conspiracy theories.

I slept fine for the rest of the night. I never did figure out what caused that early R.E.M. stage. But my dream gave me an idea for a story–alas, one that has been done before. That’s just my luck.

Written on April 14, 2022.

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Reading All the Books

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Now and then I lament that there will never be enough time to read all of the books I want to read. I could spend lifetimes reading books that have already been written, without even scratching the surface. And that wouldn’t count all of the new books that are constantly being released.

I touched on this most recently back in 2017, when I wrote a pair of posts on the mathematics of reading (part 1, part 2). Around the same time, I wrote a lengthy entry in my diary that delved into my own personal mathematics of reading, trying to figure out how I could cram more reading into my day. Since 2013, I’ve taken advantage of audiobooks to be able to read while doing other things: commuting, walking, exercising, doing chores around the house, waiting in lines, etc. This diary entry explored increasing the speed at which I listened to audiobooks steadily over time. Indeed, in 2018, I managed to read 130 books, and another 110 in 2019, both a dramatic increase over previous years.

These days, I find myself listening to audiobooks at 1.7x and occasionally, 2.0x for certain narrators (like Grover Gardner, for instance) and that helps. I’ve made such a steady increase in the speed that I listen to the books since 2013 that 1.7x sounds perfectly normal to me.

I thought that these 2017 ruminations on the finite amount of reading I could do in a lifetime were among the earliest I’d had, brought on my reaching middle-age, perhaps. But I was wrong. Among the treasures I discovered recently in some of my older writing was an early lament in the “so many books, so little time” vain. On March 20, 1995 (over a year before I began keeping a diary, when I was just approaching 23 years old), I wrote the following to a group of friends.

March 20, 1995, Installment 17

While we are on the subject of numbers, I mentioned last time how I had recently began to feel that I would never be able to read everything I want to read in my lifetime. I thought about this more last night, and the thought became so terrifying as to shake me from my sleep. Allow me to explain.

I realized sometime earlier this month that there are far too many books in the world than I would ever be able to read in my lifetime. Far, too many. When I was younger, I used to be kept up all hours of the night in fear, thinking about death. I eventually ourgrew that fear and it has never bothered me since. However, the feeling of terror I had last night was far worse than any feeling of terror I had toward death. I realized that I wouldn’t even come close to reading all the books there are to be read. I tried to calm my thoughts by telling myself that I would only read books I felt compelled to read, which would certainly narrow the field quite a bit. But this realization soon turned to horror as well. In the ten years that I have been reading science fiction, I have only barely scraped the tip of the iceberg. And that’s just science fiction. I realized, with horror, that all of the books which I skimmed over in high school (when I was stupid and lazy) I also wanted to read, not to mention books I heard about, as well as all the new books coming off the presses by the thousands each year.

At the beginning of the year, I made it part of my resolution to read 100 books this year. When I saw that wasn’t going to happen, I was quick to revise my goal to fifty, which I can do, but will be tough. In order to help organize myself, I began three lists. I began these lists a week ago. One list is a description of what I read each day (so I don’t duplicate unless I choose to). Another list is a list of what I want to read next; this is my main list, and I go through the list in a first-in-first-out manner. The third list is a “wish list” of book and stories I want to get.

Part of my realization (and terror) last night came from those lists. You see, it took me a week to complete I. ASIMOV. It seems like a long time, but I was only reading about 100 minutes a day, and since I was reading an average of 70 pages an hour or so (quite a bit!) eight days isn’t so bad. The problem was the phenomenon that occurred in that period of one week. My list of books and stories I want to read, the one which had only one book at the beginning of the week, now had EIGHT books on it. (Five book, and three short stories, to be truthful). Suddenly, my list had grown by eight weeks. (Working full time, and writing [regularly again, finally] three nights a week, I estimate I can still read 1 book a week). At that rate, my list would grow eight times faster than my reading, so that after one year of reading, I would complete about 50 books (not bad, and far above the average), but my list will havew grown to 400 books and/or stories! By the time I am seventy, my list of books still to read will be longer than all the books I have ever read all together.

I will forever be in a deficit.

This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but to me it is. I wish that I could read all the books there are in existance, yet I know that I will not be able to. In some ways this is a tragedy. I’m trying, though. I am currently reading THE GODS THEMSELVES (Isaac Asimov), and next week I’ll be reading four short stories, and the following three weeks will consist of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, DANTE’S INFERNO, and THE ILIAD. So I’m trying.

But I’ll always be behind, and I doubt that my efforts to catch up will ever be successful. Still, it’s a good excuse to read profusely, something which I love to do (as I’m sure you guys know.)


I found these ruminations of mine very interesting. I wrote them down 27 years ago and today, found a few enlightening things in them:

  • In the piece I mentioned “in the ten years I’ve been reading science fiction.” That seems to cement when I first started reading science fiction to when I was 12 and about to turn 13 years old. That seems right to be, looking back on it. I would have been in 7th grade and I think that is right around the time I discovered a Piers Anthony book called Race Against Time in the Granada Hill branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. It was not the first science fiction I’d read, but it might have been the one to lead me to other Piers Anthony books, something I obsessed over for a time.
  • I had a goal back then to read 100 books/year. I didn’t actually meet this goal, or come close to meeting it until 2018, some 23 years after first writing it down.
  • I mentioned keeping some lists of books, including books that I’d read. I don’t remember these lists, but they were likely precursors to the list of books I’ve read since 1996, which I started keeping about 9 months after writing this piece to my friends, and which I have maintained ever since.
  • I lamented that the list of books I wanted to read grew faster than the books I actually read, probably my first inkling of what today I call the butterfly effect of reading.

It was fun to revisit that piece of writing when I was still a brash 22-year old. Today, I am still occasionally frustrated that I can’t read as much as I’d like to. But with age, I’ve come to be grateful for the books I have read. And I’d like to think that that 22 year old version of me would take some satisfaction knowing that in the years since, I’ve managed to read about 1,200 books.

I suspect, however, that he’d scoff at that. “Only 1,200?”

Written on April 12, 2022.

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Reading for the Week of 4/24/2022

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Here is what I read this week. Some of the articles/posts may require a subscription to read them.

Books

Finished

In Progress

Articles/posts

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

Written on April 30, 2022.

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Making a To-Do List

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Tomorrow we are heading down to Florida for the kids’ spring break. Of course, given the backlog of these essays I’ve built up, by the time you read this we’ll already be back. We drive down to Florida several times a year and each time, in the week leading up to the trip, the same thing happens. On Monday, I think to myself, Gee, we’re leaving on Friday. I better get started on all of the things that need to be done before we drive off. Then, I go about my day. Now it is Thursday, and we depart in a little over 24 hours. I’ve got full day of work ahead of me. I’ve got to take Grace to gymnastics this evening. Zach has soccer practice at 7 pm–the latest practice he’s had since he started in kindergarten. And the girls have a dance event at school in between.

When the pressure is on, I start making lists, and I thought I could kill two birds with one stone today by writing my to-do list in this essay. I get my list and you get something to read, and we both win. Here, then, are some of the things I need to get done in the next 24 hours:

  • Pack. It’s going to be hot in Florida so I can pack shorts and t-shirts. Actually, I keep a set of travel checklists in Obsidian that I print out before each trip and that make it easy to know what I have to pack.
  • Ask the neighbor to pick up our mail while we are gone. The post office is no longer very good at this.
  • I need to clean out the car. I do this before each trip. I get rid of all of the trash, vacuum out the car, clean the windows and the dashboard, make sure that the various cables for charging devices are installed, etc.
  • Run to the grocery store. We’ve got into the habit, especially during the pandemic, of bringing some food with us, so that we can be more efficient in our drive.
  • The Littlest Miss asked me to put some movies on the iPad so she can watch them on the drive. I have to do that.
  • I need to download the books that I want to listen to during the drive.
  • There’s a bunch of things around the house that need to be tidied up before we leave. My desk is still a mess, but that may be too much to tackle.
  • I have some essays to write, but this counts as one, and with this essay, I’ve now got 20 days worth scheduled, so if I don’t write another one today, it’s okay.
  • I’d really like to finish reading the final volume of William L. Shirer’s memoir. I’ve only got 100 or 150 pages left. It would be nice to begin the drive with a new book.
  • Gas! I have to fill up the car, which is expensive these days.
  • The trash and recycling was picked up today, but I’ll want to clear the house of any remaining trash and recycling before we head out.
  • I’ll be working from Florida next week, so I’ll need to make sure to bring my work laptop with me.

I like making lists like these becaues they give me the illusion that I am getting things done, when really, they are just another way of avoiding the things that I need to do. I suppose that means I should wrap up and get to work. As you can see, I’ve got lot of preparation to do. Now, I just need to find the time to do it.

Written on April 7, 2022.

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Scope Creep: A Case Study in 11 Volumes

One of my favorite works of nonfiction is Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization, an 11-volume series of history published by Simon & Schuster between 1935 and 1975. The reading is fascinating, but I also enjoy Will Durant’s writing style. It is a blend of old-world and modern, sardonic, but not malicious. These are my desert island books.

Over the years, I’ve managed to make it through the first 7 volumes. As much as I enjoy these books, they are a classic example of scope creep: a plan that goes wildly off the rails. I thought it would be fun to illustrate this by referencing comments that the Durants make in the prefaces to each volume. We’ll begin with the first, which was published in 1935…

1935: I. Our Oriental Heritage

Durant begins with a plan for the series firmly in mind. In the preface to this first book, he writes:

The plan of the series is to narrate the history of civilization in five independent parts:

1. Our Oriental Heritage: a history of civilization in Egypt and the Near East to the death of Alexander, an din India, China and Japan to the present day; with an introduction on the nature and elements of civilization.

2. Our Classical Heritage: a history of civilization in Greece and Rome, and of civilization in the Near East under Greek and Roman domination.

3. Our Medieval Heritage: Catholic and feudal Europe, Byzantine civilization, Mohammedan and Judaic culture in Asia, Africa and Spain, and the Italian Renaissance.

4. Our European Heritage: the cultural history of the European states fro the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution.

5. Our Modern Heritage: the history of European and statesmanship, science and philosophy, religion and morals, literature and art from the accession of Napoleon to our own times.

So far, so good. We have a plan for five books that cover logical phases of (mostly Western) history.

1939: II. The Life of Greece

In Volume II, Durant presents us with a lengthy and, in my mind, fascinating history of Greece. But only Greece. At last, in final chapter, we arrive in Rome. Here, then, in the second volume of the five planned, he has already altered course. Instead of covering Greece and Rome, he gets just Greece, and is essentially one book behind.

1944: III. Caesar and Christ

In the preface to Volume III, Durant writes:

This volume, while an independent unit by itself, is Part III in a history of civilization, of which Part I was Our Oriental Heritage, and Part II was The Life of Greece. War and health permitting, Part IV, The Age of Faith, should be ready in 1950.

He catches us up on Rome in volume III, another great volume. But, in Durant’s original plan, Volume 3 was supposed to be on our classical heritage. We are still a volume behind where we should be. That’s not too bad. At this point, nine years into the project, it has grown in scope from five books to six.

1950: IV: The Age of Faith

The Age of Faith is the longest of all of the books in Durant’s series, coming in at more than 1,200 pages. As Durant writes in the preface to this volume:

The book continues the study of the white man’s life to the death of Dante in 1321. Part V, The Renaissance and Reformation, covering the period from 1321-1649 should appear in 1955; and Part VI, The Age of Reason, carrying the story to our own time, should be ready by 1960. This will bring the author so close to senility that he must forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.

Here, Durant admits that his original plan of 5 books has gone by the boards, and the series will require 6 books to tell the story. He also, amusingly, refers to his impending senility. Will Durant was 65 when The Age of Faith was published. I think he worried he might not live to finish the series. He wasn’t the only one. In the first volume of his memoir, Isaac Asimov mentions reading the Durant books sometime in 1945. He wrote:

I read each volume as it came out. After I had read the first one and heard he was planning a multivolume history–five volumes was the original plan–I felt worried. I knew he was in his forties and I carefully noted in my diary that I hoped he would live long enough to complete the set. He did.

Durant’s wife Ariel, later coauthor of the series, was 52 at the time Volume IV was published.

1953: V: The Renaissance

Astute observes will note from the title of Volume V that it did not cover the Renaissance and Reformation, as Durant said it would three years earlier. Once again, another book would be required. Now eighteen years into the series, it had grown from 5 to 7 volumes. In the preface, Durant wrote,

If circumstances permit, a sixth volume, probably under the title of The Age of the Reformation, will appear in three or four years hence, covering the history of the Christian, Islamic, and Judaic civilization outside Italy from 1300, and in Italy from 1576-1648. The enlarged scale of treatment, and the imminence of senility, make it advisable to plan an end of the series with a seventh volume, The Age of Reason, which may carry the tale to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In Durant’s original plan, the final volume was to cover “Our Modern Heritage” from Napoleon’s time to our own. Now, having enlarged the project to 7 volumes, he scales back the scope with a plan to end the series at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Spoiler alert: as of 1953, Durant is still insisting this series will be 7 volumes. In reality, we are not even halfway through the series yet.

1957: VI: The Reformation

The Durants stay the course with this sixth volume. They promised a book on the Reformation, and in 1957, they deliver. In the preface they wrote,

If the Reaper will stay his hand, there will be a concluding Volume VII, The Age of Reason, which should appear some five years hence, and should carry the story of civilization to Napoleon. There we shall make our bow and retire, deeply grateful to all those who have borne the weight of these tomes on their hands, and have forgiven numberless errors in our attempt to unravel the present into its constituent past.

The Durants are still promising a seventh and final volume, pleading that their increasing age may not allow them to bring this to fruition. At this point, Will Durant is 72 years old, Ariel, 59.

At the very end of the book, the following text appears in ALL CAPS:

COURAGE, READER! WE NEAR THE END.

1961: VII: The Age of Reason Begins

Finally, with Volume VII, the Durants finally admit that things have gone off the rails. They had promised a final volume on the Age of Reason. Instead, as they wrote in preface to Volume VII,

I had hoped to conclude my sketch of the history of civilization with a seventh volume to be called The Age of Reason, which was to cover the cultural development of Europe from the accession of Elizabeth I to the outbreak of the French Revolution. But as the story came close to our own times and interests it presented an ever greater number of personalities and events still vitally influential today… What had begun as a final volume has swollen into three, and one of the present authors, at an unseemly age, becomes a prima dona making a succession of farewell tours.

What was supposed to be the final volume of the series suddenly became 3 volumes. I think the Durant’s would have empathized with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

More than a quarter century into the project, it has grown from 5 volumes planned to 9 volumes planned.

1963: VIII: The Age of Louis XIV

Uh, make that 10 volumes:

We hope to present Part IX, The Age of Voltaire, in 1965, and Part X, Rousseau and Revolution, in 1968… Meanwhile we shall rely on the Great Powers not to destroy our subject before it destroys us.

1965: IX: The Age of Voltaire

Not only has the scope increased in term of volumes, but the volumes themselves are getting longer. Not since The Age of Faith, fifteen years earlier, was one of the volumes as long as The Age of Voltaire. Still, they are set on concluding the series with Volume X:

Blame for the length of this volume (900 pages) must rest with authors fascinated to exuberant prolixity by the central theme–the pervasive conflict between religion and science-plus-philosophy which became a living drama in the eighteenth century, which has resulted in the secret secularism of our times…. The perspective of the age of Voltaire will be completed in Part X of The Story of Civilization.

1967: X: Rousseau and Revolution

Finally, we have reached the end, more than thirty years after the first volume was published, Will at 82, and Ariel at 69.

This is the concluding volume of that Story of Civilization to which we devoted ourselves in 1929, and which has been the daily chore and solace of our lives ever since… We shall not sin at such length again; but if we manage to elude the Reaper for another year or two we hope to offer a summarizing essay on “The Lessons of History”

At the end of the book, there is this passage: “We thank the reader who has been with us these many years for part or all of the long journey. We have ever been mindful of his presence. Now we take our leave and bid him farewell.”

Incidentally, the literary world acknowledged the Durant’s work on this series by awarding the book the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1968, a nice way to complete such an opus.

1975: XI: The Age of Napoleon

“Pysch!” as we used to say back in the 80s. Presaging the “reboots” of the 21st century, the Durants were back 8 years later with a Volume XI. They explain it thus:

“By the middle of the twentieth century,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica (XVI, 10a), “the literature of Napoleon already numbered more than 100,000 volumes.” Why add to the heap? We offer no better reason than to say that the Reaper repeated overlooked us, and left us to passive living and passive reading after 1968.

Epilogue

The books total something like 13,000 pages and 2.5 to 3 million words. Interestingly, in 1968, before Volume XI was written, they came out not with essay, but a short book entitled The Lessons of History, a signed copy of which sits on my bookshelf with all my other Durant books.

In 1977, they published A Dual Autobiography, which I found fascinating, if for no other reason than to better understand how two people could spend 40 years constantly working on these volumes. They were all successful volumes, incidentally, and helped to put Simon & Schuster on the map (and vice-versa).

Theirs was a true love story. Ariel Durant died on October 25, 1981. Will Durant was in the hospital when she died, and the news was kept from him, but he learned about her death in the evening news, and two weeks later, he died at the age of 96.

I don’t really mind the scope creep here, I only wish it had gone in a different direction. In the preface to Volume V, Will Durant wrote, “This will bring the author so close to senility that he must forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.” I would have loved to see volumes covering the history of the native people of North and South America.

Postscript: Before setting out to write this post, I searched the blog to see if I had written about it before. I felt that I had but I couldn’t find anything that seemed similar to what I had written. Then, just after scheduling this, I found it, from 2014, mainly because the title was similar: A post called “Scope Creep of Historical Proportions.” Not only do great minds think alike, but the same mind thinks alike. Ah, well, repetition is inevitable with a fallible memory such as mine. I image such repetition will occur again here from time to time, should the Reaper stay his hand allow me to to continue writing.

Written on April 5-6, 2022.

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Guest Post: A Harlan Ellison Lecture in 1995 by Me as a 23-Year Old

I have written about the various times that I met Harlan Ellison. I wrote about the time I met him with my Mom at Dangerous Visions bookshop, for instance, which I was certain was the second time I met him. The first time, I was certain, was a lecture he gave at the Learning Tree in the Valley in 1995. It was my sister who called it to my attention.

However, I was wrong.

Recently, I wrote about the digital treasure I uncovered on an old server. I’ve had some time to go through what I found there, and among my writings is a detailed description for my group of friends on that Learning Tree lecture. It turns out the lecture was my second time meeting Harlan. The first was when I met him at Dangerous Visions, that day with my mom.

Today, I present to you a guest post. A writer from 27 years in the past–me–writing about my experience seeing Harlan Ellison lecture for the first time. Anyone who knows Harlan knows he doesn’t lecture. He is a kind of Robin Williams of the fantastic and what he did that day really made an impression on me, as you will see. What follow is what I wrote as Installment #34 of a series of pre-blog-era email messages to group of my friends from a Harlan Ellison lecture I attended on Friday, July 7, 1995.

WHERE YOUR MOST HUMBLED AUTHOR SAT IN BEWILDERED AWE FOR THREE HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES AND LISTENED TO A LIVING GOD SPEAK

It’s really hard to describe in any other terms. It was like sitting down next to a movie star and chatting away. If you’re religious, it was akin to sitting down next to Jesus and shooting the shit.

Comes Friday last, an unusual Friday in that I actually had something to do that evening. Instead of threading my way through the 5 PM traffic to Studio City, instead of lining up behind a row of smog-chugging autos at the Carl’s Jr. drive thru, instead of dozing off on the couch until 9:30 PM and waking in a dark, dazed stupor, instead of all of that, I took a ride out to Northridge, to the Valley campus of Learning Tree University, to a small, empty parking lot, and into a small air conditioned lecture room. I took a seat in the front row, center, not more than two feet from the director’s chair and mike in front of me. And after a twenty-minute wait, he showed up with his wife, toting a couple of boxes of books and a wool blazer. The first thing he said was, “Don’t you people have anything better to do on a Friday night?”

The next thing he said, glancing at his watch and pulling off his blue-blockers was, “For those of you who were dragged here by loved ones and have no fucking clue as to who I am, my name is Harlan Ellison, and I’m a writer. I’ve written short stories, books, movies and television, and you’ll probably hate me fifteen minutes into the lecture.” He then asked a lady in the front row to spit our her gum please, and handed her a cup to do so.

“Media, Monsters, and Madness,” he said, peering over the flier that announced the lecture, “What the fuck is this, media, monsters and madness? Folks, I want you to know this isn’t my title. You’ll get plenty of the madness, but this ain’t my title.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to put a title on this talk, because I’m just gonna be
talking for three hours about anything that comes to mind. Some of it may have to do with media, and monsters. Most of it will be madness.

“You know, they told me they needed a title though, so I said, ‘How about New Techniques for Masterbation.’ That’ll back ’em in. They put media monsters and madness.”

That’s how it started and it only got better as the three hours went by.

Ellison is a short man, and when he first came into the room, his hair was significantly more gray than in his pictures. But a strange phenomenon occurred as the night went on. His wife, Susan, was there the whole time, a younger woman (much younger, I gather) sitting by stacks of books and CD’s if anyone wanted to by.

I learned a lot about Ellison that night. He was a staunch liberal in the 1960s and now he thinks the liberals are just as bad as the conservatives. Well, almost. He marched on Montgomery. He was friends with Martin Luther King. He worked side-by-side with Caesar Chavez. He hung out with Lenny Bruce. Someone asked him what’s the one thing he’d like to do if he knew he was going to die in a month.

“I’d like to buy a gun, and take a leisurely drive across the country to North Carolina. Then I’d like to find Jesse Helms, the man who just said ‘let the faggots die because they gives AIDS to the world’ and put the gun between his eyes and say ‘die mother fucker’ and pull the trigger. I’d like to do this because, you ever notice that when someone takes a shot at good guys, a guys like Kennedy, they could be fifty-fucking million miles away, with a bee-bee gun, in high wind, and blind, yet the blow the guy’s brains through the back of his head. Meanwhile, when someone actually does try and shoot a jerk like Reagan, they get right up next him and MISS!”

Ellison had lots to say that evening. He talked about computers and how he hated them and how they were the downfall of society as we know it. Hey, he might be my idol, but I’m allowed my differences. He talked about television and the cultural illiteracy of America, and how there was somehow a connection. “We are fed stupid through television, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” He talked about the trouble he’d caused at recent talks. In Ohio, one girl called him the Antichrist and then set her hair on fire. At a talk he was asked to give to the Advertising Executives of the Western United States, he caused a ruckus when he said, “You ever wonder why we have more automobile deaths than any other country? Could it be because every car commercial we see on tv shows cars zooming by at speeds you know we can’t drive? Every wonder why we have the biggest drug problem than any other country? Could it be
because every other commercial says, ‘have a cold, take a drug’, ‘can’t sleep, take a drug’, ‘back pain, take a drug’, ‘can’t shit, take a drug’.”

And the longer Harlan Ellison talked, the younger and younger he began to appear.

We took a short break about halfway through, and a couple of people (myself included) got up to talk to Ellison, and have him sign books for us. I got The Glass Teat signed, which makes four of his books, now. It was then, when I was up there talking to him, that it dawned on me (dawned, heck, pummeled me): this is the man. This is Ellison. This is the guy, who, as a kid of 17 joined a street gang in New York City (circa 1950) so that he could write a book about street gang life. This is the guy who wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The guy who wrote, “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, “The Whimpering of Whipped Dogs”, “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”, “All the Lies that are My Life”, “Count the Clock that Tells the Time”, “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”, Star Trek, episode #27, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “A Boy and his Dog”, “Demon with a Glass Hand”, “Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”. This was the man who in 1967, changed the shape of science fiction (and perhaps literature in general) forever with Dangerous Visions, and in 1972 with Again, Dangerous Visions. This is the guy who, from 1954 until April of 1992, was best friends with Isaac Asimov. This was the man who led the West Coast struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. This was the man who showed people the poison they were being fed with his books The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. This was the man, the myth, the legend, the Second Coming of Borges. This was everything that I ever wanted to be. This was Harlan Ellison, and I was here, next to him, talking to him.

When the break was over he said, “Now, I brought a story, fresh of the typewriter (I still use Olympia manual typewriters, because I like nice dark black marks on my page and I can type 120 words per minutes with two fingers and no mistakes) and this story will be appearing in the next issue of Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor (finally! my own comic book!)

“You want me to read you guys the story?”

We did. Ellison promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed, that he was a good reader. I thought, “Okay.”

He does, so happen, to be the best reader I ever heard. In the half hour or so it took for him to read the story (titled something like, “Stroll Through the Museum of Imaginary Creatures1“) he made no mistakes. He read the lines with the actual accents that the characters had. Some of the characters were from North Carolina and he had a perfect southern accent. Better than most film actors. Some of the characters were from Sweden, and he did a perfect swedish accent. Not a single flaw, and it made the story a delight. When he finished the story, Ellison looked significantly younger. He told us, with a reminder from his wife, that it took him a day to write the story, and he read it to us (and is sending it to the publisher) exactly the way it came off the typewriter.

And this is the part that I remember most, this is the part that amazed me and astounded me and filled me with the sense of wonder that is science fiction. He said, “You’ve got to remember, though, I was kicked out of college and told that I’d never be a decent writer. Well, I can’t sing for shit, I can’t fix a car, I can’t play an intrument, (and Susan can’t tell a joke)–” and suddenly, he got a smile on his face, a twitch in his cheek, and twinkle in his eye, the gray came out of his hair, his eyes were alive and bluer than the sky, “–BUT I CAN WRITE! And it tickles the shit out of me.”

Back to the future

One thing that my fifty-year old self finds remarkable about this is my memory for what Harlan said. Back then, I didn’t carry around a notebook the way I do today. I didn’t have a phone to record the lecture. Harlan’s talk made such an impression on me that I just remembered it very well. I’m not sure I could do the same today without taking notes.

One thing I didn’t mention in this piece to my friends was a question Harlan posed to the audience. At some point, he referred to a line that either he or some else had written. The line referred to a person as having “the eyes of a Dachau guard.” He then asked if anyone in the audience knew what a Dachau guard was. And he was pretty pissed off that no one did. (I didn’t. All we’d ever been taught growing up was about the horror of concentration camps — never the names of the camps.)

This was my first time ever hearing an author read one of their own stories and I’m afraid it spoiled me for life. If you’ve ever heard Harlan read, if you’ve ever listened to one of his recordings, you know what I mean. I’ve never heard anyone who comes close. When I started to read my own stories at science fiction conventions, I tried not to think of Harlan’s readings. They were too intimidating.

Incidentally, the story that Harlan read that day, hot off his Olympia manual typewriter, was later published in the March 1996 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It is collected in Slippage, and there is an audiobook version read by Harlan as well, although I doubt it is as good as it was on that July evening 27 years ago.

Written on April 8 and 10, 2022.

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  1. Actually, “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral.”

A List of Books to Read

close up photo of stacked books
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Today I jotted down a list of books to read. I think it serves as a good, real-world example of how the butterfly effect of reading works on me. It started on my afternoon walk. I was listening to the final volume of William L. Shirer’s memoir, A Native’s Return and Shirer mentioned Winston Churchill’s obituary and then recounted some of the brief interactions he’d had with the Churchill. I’d read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Churchill 8 years ago, and it impressed me. I was particularly moved by a passage about the death of Marigold Churchill, his daughter. I was reminded that I’d always wanted to read Churchill’s World War II memoir, the full version of which fill six volumes. I scratched the word “Churchill” on my list.

Shirer also mentions Thucydidies in his memoir, and that reminded me that I’ve wanted to read The History of the Peloponnesian War. In my Field Notes notebook, I wrote “Thucydides.”

Thucydides got me thinking about ancient histories. Hadn’t I picked up a copy of Herodotus’s Histories? “Herodotus” went on the list.

In the chapters discussing his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I recently read, Shirer mentions that in length, it is almost as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That’s another history I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I scratched “Decline and Fall” on my list.

The chapter I was listening to ended, and I decided to walk the rest of the way home in silence. I thought about the things we needed to do before our road trip down to Florida two days hence. One thing the those semi-annual trips to Florida meant was 4 days of driving–two down and two back–during which I could spend 8+ hours each day listening to audiobooks. What books would I want to listen to?

There was that new biography of Harry S. Truman that had come out, The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 by Jeffrey Frank. I scribbled “Truman” on my list. And there was that cleverly titled book, The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. I wrote “Joy of x” on my list.

I glanced up at the sky. It was a slate gray, overcast and gloomy. For some reason I thought of the moon, and that in turn reminded me that I’d seen a new book come out by Fred Haise, an astronaut on Apollo 13. As someone who has consumed dozens of books on the space program, and especially Apollo, I decided that this would make a good read for our trip. I jotted “Fred Haise” on the list.

My mind drifted back to my recent reading, which contained a lot of World War II. I’d read John Toland’s The Rising Sun, and Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer knew a lot of people, especially journalists, and I thougt about a passage he mentioned about John Hersey, author of Hiroshima. Hadn’t I picked up that book while I was reading Toland? “Hiroshima” went on my list. Of course, Shirer was a journalist, and I once thought about being a journalist–even going so far as to take a minor in the subject. Was there another journalist I could read about?

I pulled out my phone and scanned the list of books I’d recently obtained. Among them was Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History. “Bernstein” went on my list.

That was 9 books. I felt like I needed one more for an even ten. Right there below Bernstein’s book was another book I had recently acquired, Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn. Since the baseball season was about to start, I added “Baseball book” to the list. Here then, is the page from my Field Notes notebook containing a list of books to read.

a page from my field notes notebook with my list of books

This is a good list. I may not get to all of these books right away, or in this order. The butterfly effect of reading is unpredictable. But it’s a useful list to have going into our trip down to Florida.

ETA (4/27/2022): Since writing this post I’ve read the Truman biography, and The Joy of x. I also read another biography of FDR (not on the list above) and a biography of George Marshall. And I am, at the moment, almost finished with Carl Bernstein’s memoir, Chasing History.

Written on April 6, 2022.

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