Category: essays

My Favorite Word Processor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written on May 7, 2022.

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“Daddy, Do You Have a Dictionary?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She loved it!

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

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

Written on May 3, 2022.

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Writing Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written on April 30-May 1, 2022.

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

Deck Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the gazebo
Inside the gazebo

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

Written on April 27, 2022.

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Ordering the News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that would be a useful app.

Written on April 23, 2022.

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

A Busy Afternoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four busy hours
Four busy hours

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

Written on April 23, 2022.

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A Work In Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written on April 22, 2022.

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

Digital Paragraphs: Tabs or Carriage Returns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written on April 22, 2022.

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What’s Going On With Medium?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written on April 3, 2022.

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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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