Category: essays

Why I Love Joe Posnanski’s Writing

aerial view of sports stadium during daytime
Photo by Tim Gouw on


Each morning, rain or shine, I go out for a walk. The time of my walk more or less follows sunrise throughout the year, with me getting out shortly after the first light appears in the east, but before the sun peeks above the horizon. My walk takes me through the park behind our house, and about a mile-and-half later, to a nearby 7-Eleven. The total walk is about 2-1/2 miles and takes me about 40 minutes on average.

I usually listen to a book while I walk. I see the same people out, wave, and occasionally stop to chat with someone. The mornings are quiet. Depending on the time of year, I see different local fauna. Lots of deer this time of year. And the bats are finally out, scooping up mouthfuls of mosquitoes and other insects as they dive and weave about the treetops.


Walking home from school yesterday with the Littlest Miss, with waves of hit visibly rising from the sidewalk, she said to me, “Is ‘cool’ a pun?”

“I guess it could be, depending on the context,” I said, “but it is really a word with two completely different meanings.” So is “bat.”

I haven’t watched a baseball game all season, my mild protest against what I feel is the sacrilege of allowing a clock into the game in an attempt to speed things up. I miss watching baseball games, but I don’t realize I miss them unless there is something that forces memories of how great the game is into my head. I’m sure that I will come around. I’ve changed my mind on many things over the years. I used to think I could never listen to an audiobook, for instance. I’m sure I’ll see that a pitch clock is good for the game, but I am a baseball purist, who still believes that the designated hitter rule was a mistake.

I do miss baseball, but until my morning walk this morning, I’d forgotten just how much.


On most days, over the course of my 40 minute morning walk, I am quiet. I listen to my book and walk, and watch what is happening around me, allowing myself to wake up. Once in a while, something in the book I’m listening to might make me smile, or even chuckle. When this happens, I always look to see if anyone is around. I imagine it must look pretty amusing to see someone laughing to themselves while they walk.

This morning was different.

I was listening to Joe Posnanski’s new book, Why We Love Baseball. I became a die-hard Joe Posnanski fan after reading his book The Baseball 100 in the fall of 2021. It was my favorite book of 2021. So I’ve been really looking forward to this new book. I started reading it yesterday and continued when I headed out for my walk this morning.

You can tell, from Posnanski’s enthusiasm for the game, that the game is magic to him, and that alone reminded me how the game is magic to me as well. But Posnanski’s writing, his storytelling, is also magic. His writing controls your emotions. On the outbound walk, listening to stories of why we love baseball, I found myself on the verge of tears several times. (There may have been one or two that managed to escape and find their way to the pavement.)

Scattered throughout the book are “5 moments” of various types, sidebars to the the 50 moments Posnanski goes through in detail. On my return walk, one these sidebars was titled “5 meltdown.” Listening to these stories made the first half of my walk home more a stagger. I was not chuckling. I was laughing. Out loud. I had to move off the bike path and wipe tears from my eyes several times. If someone saw me walking on the bike path this morning, they may very well have thought I’d lost it.


Tears. Laughter. Smiles. Thrills. Humor. Surprise. This is why I love baseball. Joe Posnanski has reminded me of this, and I am grateful. More than that, Joe has done what many great writers struggle to do. He brought all of these emotions out in me with his words. While I was walking. In public. For other people to see.

And sometime this weekend, I’m finally going to set aside 2-1/2 hours (down from just over 3 hours from last year) to watch a ballgame.

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Mental Walks and Marathons

photo of head bust print artwork
Photo by meo on

On a recent morning, I surpassed my previous Wordle win streak with my 63rd consecutive win.

My recent Wordle streak of 63 games.

Wordle is part of my morning metal warm-up routine. When I wake up, usually between 5 and 6 am depending on the time of year, the first thing I do is tackle the day’s puzzles: the New York Times mini crossword, which I try to solve as fast as I can. (My personal record is 35 seconds), then Wordle, and more recently, the daily Connections puzzle. I think of these exercises as a good way to wake up my brain, in the same way that my morning walk helps to wake up my body. Moreover, with all that is being written about “second brains” (including some of my own writing about Evernote and Obsidian), I find myself wanting exercise my “first” brain more and more while I still can.

In centuries past, memorization was a primary mental exercise. Time and technology has eroded this–the whole purpose of a “second brain” is to store stuff outside your head. For a long time, I was skeptical of the usefulness of rote memorization. What purpose does it serve to memorize the state capitals for instance? In my personal and professional life, I’ve never needed to pull a state capital out of my memory. And yet, I’ve become convinced that there is value in memorization as a simple function of mental exercise. Clive Thompson recently wrote about this in the context of memorizing poems.

As it happens, the two biggest workouts I give my brain each day are split between my avocation and vocation. I think of the former as a form of mental walks and the latter as mental marathons.

Mental walks

Reading and writing is my avocation. I see the activities as mental versions of walks. I can take shorts walks or long walks, and I frequently walk multiple times in the day. The same is true with my reading. I get through about 100 books a year, which is about a book every 3 days. In doing this, I try more and more to maintain a diverse mix of subjects in my reading. I’ve illustrated this for the 69 books I’ve read so far this year in the word cloud below. The words are taken from my descriptions of the subjects of the books that I read that I keep in a spreadsheet.

Word cloud of subjects for the books I've read so far in 2023.
Word cloud of subjects for the books I’ve read so far in 2023.

In addition to books, I try to read a feature article each day from the magazines that I subscribe to. To take some of the decision fatigue out of my day, I’ve written a script that emails me a random article title from the list of current magazines I have. That adds a little bit mystery to the day as well.

I can read for hours on end without feeling tired. I can also sit down and read an article for fifteen minutes and feel refreshed. It is my mental version of taking a walk.

Mental marathons

In my day job, I lead software projects. In doing this work, I find intellectual challenges in managing projects, in working on the design and architecture of the software, and also, in diving into the various types of code (.net, SQL, Groovy, JavaScript, Wolfram Language, to name a few). Then there is the challenge of problem-solving. I’ve written before of long days spent writing code, and coming out of this “code coma” at the end of the day, feeling mentally exhausted. For me, this type of the work is the equivalent of a mental marathon. I can rarely sustain this beyond a day, and if I try to do the same thing the following day, things start to go downhill quickly.

If I could have a superpower…

When the kids ask, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” I know they are thinking about things like flying, or turning invisible, or being able to teleport anywhere in the world. But for years now, my answer has been the same: “I wish I could have John von Neumann’s mind.” I’m always impressed by incredibly intelligent people. I wish that I had a superpower like that. In some ways, it is like wishing to be a great baseball player or soccer star, with all of the native skill that comes with the role. Mental walks and marathon are how I train for a goal that I will probably never achieve, but that I keep striving for.

It is hard to objectively judge the result of this these walks and marathons. But there are some things that I have noticed over the years that may be a result of these workout. Most noticeable, to me, is an ability to draw connections between the various things that I have read over the years. If I am talking about a book or article with someone, it almost always reminds me of some other book or article I’ve read, with some connective tissue, however tenuous, between them. This wasn’t always the case. It seems to me that at some point in my reading, I hit a “critical mass” after which these connections started becoming more frequent and obvious. I can’t say precisely when this was, but I think it was sometime in the early 2010s, after I’d been maintaining my reading list for 15 years or so–probably around the time I read my 500th book since 1996.

I’ve felt results in my day job as well. It seems to me that my ability to see more quickly into the underlying cause of some problem, or to see creative solutions where I may not have seen them in the past. What is hard to say is if this is due to the mental workouts, or to experience gathered over decades of working with computers and software.

Meanwhile, my Wordle streak continues.

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Upcoming Reading for Fall 2023

stack of hardbound books
Photo by Anthony 📷📹🙂 on

The autumnal equinox officially starts on September 22 this year, but it seem like everyone around me treats Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer. The day after Labor Day is one of the best book release days of the year so far. There are three books released on September 5th that I am eagerly awaiting:

  1. Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments by Joe Posnanski. Joe’s previous book, The Baseball 100 was my favorite book of 2021. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this book ever since it was first announced. I’ve pre-ordered the audio edition, as well as a signed copy of the hard cover from Rainy Day Books in Kansas City.
  2. Holly by Stephen King. Holly Gibney debuted in the first of the Bill Hodges novels, Mister Mercedes. Since that trilogy, she had made appearances in The Outsider, and in the novella, “If It Bleeds.” Now she’s got a novel all of her own.
  3. The Longmire Defense by Craig Johnson. Johnson’s Longmire books have become among my favorites. I absolutely love the series and I look forward to each new addition the minute I finish one. Which means I have been awaiting The Longmire Defense since I finished reading Hell and Back a little less than a year ago.

I’ve listed these three books in the order I plan to read them. It wouldn’t surprise me if I got through all three of them within a week or 10 days of their September 5th release. But these are not the only books I am looking forward to reading this fall.

I have been making my way through Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections on natural history. Many of the essays in these books came from the column he wrote in Natural History for more than 20 years, finally ending in January 2001, with his 300th column. I haven’t been reading the collecting in order of release, but rather as I pick them off the shelf. I’ve also recently read Gould’s A Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, and I am currently working my way through his The Mismeasure of Man.

Audible has been releasing versions of Gould’s essay collections recently, and another one, The Flamingo’s Smile, is coming out on September 12, a week after the embarras de richesse of September 5. I have all of these essay collection in paperback form, but I enjoy Jonathan Sleep, who narrates the audiobook edition, and I am looking forward to reading The Flamingo’s Smile after I finish The Longmire Defense.

All of these Gould books are leading up to a conclusion: I’m hoping to tackle Gould’s magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory–or at least get started on it–this fall. This book has been sitting on my shelf for 21 years. I bought it when it first came out, but I’ve never felt prepared to tackle it, until now. Gould, like Asimov, wrote his essays for a wide audience, but unlike Asimov, who strove for clarity, Gould’s essays make the reader–or this reader, anyway–work for them. They are not easy to get through, but they are always rewarding, and I’ve learned a lot from them beyond the bare subjects of each piece. With these essays under my belt, and I fair understanding of Gould’s work, I finally feel like I’m ready to tackle this massive, 1,400 page book.

Some of my Stephen Jay Gould books, including The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, on my shelf now for 21 years.

Some other books I’m looking forward to this fall include:

There are other books on my list, but this is a fairly ambitious list for the fall, especially when I include The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in the mix. Are there book you are looking forward to this fall? Tell me about them in the comments.

(And for those who are curious, here are the books I’ve read so far in 2023.)

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Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 3: Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day

Colosseum at evening

Sleep of the Just Plain Tired

There is still light in the sky when I fall into a dreamless sleep. It is something of a miracle in its dreamless quality and in its duration. When I awaken, just after 6 am, I realize that I have slept more than 8 hours, an achievement unparalleled in the annals of my life since cramming all night for an organic chemistry final thirty years ago. I feel both well-rested and lazy for slouching around so long. I dress and head out the door to explore.

Our hotel, alas, is somewhat isolated. Walking down the long driveway and taking a couple of left turns takes me to an area that looks promising, and entirely asleep. Rome is not an early city, and it seems to me that Europe in general (the parts that we have and will visit) is not an early continent. As a Union they stick together as much in this as in their currency.

Zach and I head down to breakfast together, a preview of the breakfast we will have for much of the tour. It is a buffet with fruit and cheese and meats, as well as all kinds of breads, cakes, yogurts, and even some hot food like scrambled and fried eggs, bacon, and sausage. There is juice as well.

Once the rest of the family is awake, we decide what we want to do for the day. Our tour officially starts late this afternoon, so we have most of the day to roam Rome, and we decide to start our day at the Trevi Fountain and wander from there.

Mixed Signals

Instead of taking the subway, we decide to Uber into the city proper. There are mixed signals about Uber in Rome. As we made our way through part of the city yesterday, I recall seeing signs in certain places indicating that Uber is illegal. Yet at the airport, Uber has massive advertisements all over the place, extolling its virtues for getting around Rome.

I finally solved the dilemma to my satisfaction by realizing that the signs I saw about Uber being illegal were at taxi ranks. Maybe Ubers couldn’t pick people up from those locations, but anywhere else was fair game. I order an Uber and one appears for the us five minutes later outside the hotel lobby and carries us through the streets of Rome to the Trevi Fountain. As we get closer to the fountain the ride gets more interesting. The streets narrow and deform into cobblestone. At times, I am amazed that this big car can squeeze through these narrow passages. This is a different part of Rome than what we experienced yesterday.

Finally, the car stops just short of the fountains and lets us out. It was a short and easy ride, and we now know that Uber works just fine in Rome.

Two Views of Rome

Trevi Fountain is full of people, a major tourist attraction. It is the most crowded place we have seen thus far and we don’t linger here long. The water of the fountain is turquoise and glistens with countless coins that have been tossed in. I give a Euro coin to each of the kids for them to toss into the fountain. Looking around, it was hard to imagine that the Aqua Virgo once terminated here, one of the aqueducts that carried water to Rome. When I visit old places, I try to mentally peel back the modern layers to see the ancient, but I found it difficult to here. Perhaps it was the crowds.

kids sitting in front of the Trevi Fountain
The kids at Trevi Fountain

Looking at the modern city of Rome, overlaying the ancient city like strata of rock enclosing fossils in the Burgess Shale, my favorite Seneca quote occurred to me:

The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate… Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.

Natural Questions, Book 7, somewhere in the 1st century A.D.

Seneca was certainly right, but the inverse is also true, I think now, standing beside the Trevi Fountain where an ancient aqueduct once carried water to the Romans. It seems amazing to think that such a city existed more than 2,000 years ago with its modern roads and aqueducts, with its art and war machines. Put another way, Seneca may have been selling himself and his people short. They managed to accomplish some amazing feats. And of course, what will people think of our “modern” Rome far in the future, when memory of us will have been effaced?

We wander away from the Trevi Fountain, away from the crowds and into the shade of the narrow streets of this part of Rome. I am trying to see the old city, but there is too much to see, too much happening, my head is turning this way and that, my eye caught be an antiquarian bookseller (closed) and then by a gorgeous narrow alleyway and then by tiny cars that navigate the streets. In the tourist areas, there are people who approach us trying to hand us all kinds of trinkets and I think of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and what he learned from Diognetus:

Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it.

And yet some of it is inescapable when overwhelmed, and we manage to acquire at least one bracelet for a Euro or two out of sheer bewilderment.

The problem is focus: I can’t seem to find mine. I think of Marcus’s admonition:

Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.

But that only raises my anxiety. I am well aware of the time limits. I want to see everything I can in that time. Later, I’ll learn that perhaps this was a mistake, but now, in the heat of the day with the roar of traffic and the unfamiliar signs and the ancient builds, all I can do is gasp for air like a goldfish out of its bowl.

What better for calm and solace than the quiet of a church. We find that we have wandered to the steps of Piazza Santi Apostoli, where the Church of the Apostles resides. There is a calming quiet within, which reminds me that churches are high on my list for quiet places to read. Despite the calming effect, the architecture takes my breath away, its Byzantine style a jumble of busyness that makes it difficult to focus the eye in one place, so that the interior of the church, despite its quiet, compliments the rush of activity out on the streets.

Sitting among the pews, I try to imagine what it was like to construct such a building. Perhaps only Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth can come close to recreating what such an undertaking must have been like.

Back on the street we wander some more, coming to another church, this time the Church of the Apostles were inside, I find the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola as ornate as any as I have ever seen.

tomb of st. Ignatius of loyola
Tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Gelato and Ghettos

Just across the street from the Church of the Apostles is a small gelato shop. We stop in for gelato and a restroom. We are successful with the former, but not the latter. Actually, I am the only one who doesn’t partake in the gelato. The best gelato I’ve ever had was in Venice, Italy, some 16 years ago, and I have decided that I am holding off on gelato until we arrive in Venice.

Restrooms are at a premium in Italy, it seems. Either culturally, or because of the age of the place, it was not designed for restrooms. Public facilities are available here and there for 50 Euro cents. And coffee shops often have facilities available for use with a purchase. Ultimately, Kelly finds just such a shop across from some excavated Roman ruins, Largo Argenta. While the girls are in the restroom, I lean on railing and take in the excavation. Here is a place where I can see some of the ancient city whose streets the like of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca walked in their day.

largo argenta
At the ruins of Largo Argenta

Once again, I find it difficult to separate the modern from the ancient, even looking down at the old stone walls and pillars. The modern look of the surrounding buildings, the sounds of motors, the rumble of buses distract from the presence of mind required to see the city as it was 2,000 years ago. The tranquility of the past is as allusive as any other getaway, as Marcus Aurelius well knew:

People try to get away from it all–to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic; you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

Here I play the role of the idiot, wanting but unable to escape to this glorious past that I can almost see, save for the modern distractions. And so I write about and in so writing, I become Macbeth’s lament: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

These maudlin thoughts are the result of jet-lag, I’m sure. I recover soon enough. We have been making our way slowly toward the Pantheon, but I note on a map that in the opposite direction, about the same distance, is the Jewish Ghetto. Someone (an uncle, a friend?) told me that if I was in Rome, I should go see the Jewish Ghetto, and so we decide to change direction. It is not a long walk, but the result is mildly disappointing for once again, I am unable to visualize what this place must have looked like in ancient times. Now it is another cobblestone street straddled by low buildings that house kosher restaurants.

At the far end of the street we discover some of Ancient Rome and my mood brightens a bit. Down a flight of steps, we enter an area containing the Theater of Marcellus and the Portico of Octavia. Here, although the path, are scattered ruins, overturned columns, blocks of stone that once served as part of a structure. Here, many of the modern elements of Rome were hidden and I could catch glimpses of the ancient city.

The theater, which can be seen in the background of the central image above, was a project that began with Julius Caesar, but wasn’t completed until the reign of Augustus. The Portico of Octavia was refurbished by Augustus, and later twice burned to the ground in 80 A.D.and again, after being rebuilt, in 203 A.D. It was damaged by an earthquake 500 years later, making one wonder whether or not it was meant to stand the test of time. But it had and we stand before it underneath the hot Roman summer sun.

I reach out and touch stone, once part of a structure, and wonder, as I have done in the vomitoriums of the theater in Miletus, and the castles in Ireland, what other ancient people, slave, peasant, or emperor touched this same stone and in doing so, made some tenuous connection with the distant future, as I make the same connection with the distant past.

Tourist Traps

Finally, we made our way to the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Parthenon, which I did both in my notes and in the first draft of this piece). We don’t go inside. The lines are long, it is hot, the kids are becoming a little restless from all of the walking. And the crowds are large. I wonder if the crowds were this large in the past when this served as a Roman temple instead of tourist trap? It is a well-preserved building, and when I look at it from certain angles, it stirs images of ancient times. The large square on which it resides helps with this, but the modern splash of color and clothing almost at once dash the illusion.

Parthenon in a beam of sunlight
“Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”

I am hot and tired and the crowds are beginning to get to me. I have mostly stopped taking pictures. We soon escape the crowds into a narrow street that provides some shade and quiet. There are a few stores catering to tourists, as well as a Coop. Kelly and the kids decide to look around the Coop while I stand across the street and people-watch. I am trying to turn the crowds of modern tourists into ancient Romans, and ancient travelers, but my tired imagination is failing me. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it is folly to try to see it all in a day, a week, or even a month.

We move on, making our way to Novona Square, and this is where we are accosted by people who attempt to hand us bracelets and other trinkets and then ask for money in return. We escape all but one, who hands Zach a bracelet before he can refuse. He then asks for a few Euros. I hand him a 2-Euro coin I have in my pocket. He takes it but asks for “paper money,” presumably because the lowest denomination that I am aware of is 5-euros. This we decline. “For my family,” he says as we are walking away, but I just shrug with a “whatareyagonnado?” look.

As we leave Novona Square, I note the contrast between the ancient and the modern when I see large billboard ad behind the fountain at one end of the square. It makes me wonder if I had been here 2,000 years ago, would I have seen advertisements painted on the building surfaces?

We find our way across the Tiber on bridge teeming with peddlers of all kinds of junk. I find that if I walk across the bridge with the same blank look and attitude one wears when walking the streets of Manhattan, I come through the other side unscathed. On the other side we stand before the Castle Sant’Angelo. We decide not to tour the castle, in part because we are all tired. But this is the place where the emperor Hadrian is entombed–the same Hadrian who built a wall with his name in Britain.

Crossing the bridge to the tomb of Hadrian.

Uber, Pool and Beer

Our plan is to find a nearby subway station to take us back toward the hotel. I locate one nearby and we head in that direction. But I have made a tactical error. As we arrive, I realize that the stop I located is a bus stop, not a subway stop. The nearest subway is quite a distance. The sun is blazing down, so we walk toward a hotel, find some shade on a side-street, and I call for an Uber, which arrives quickly and whisks us back to the hotel lobby. We are all glad to be done walking for the day.

There is a large pool on the resort and Kelly and the kids change so that they can cool off for a while. Near the pool is a bar, and I order a beer and sit watching the kids swim and listening to the constant sound of locusts filling the background. There is an ashtray on my table, reminding me that I am no longer in the U.S. The beer is refreshing after the day’s adventures.

Our Tour Officially Begins

At 5pm, we gather in the lobby to meet our tour director, Lara, a tall woman with a delightful Australian accent. Lara hustles our group (there are 47 of us in total) to some tables out by the pool, where we can sit in the sun and provide flesh and blood to the nipping mosquitos and no-see-ems. Lara tells us she finished giving this tour to another group just 15 days ago, and it is her favorite tour to lead.

Unlike our tour of Ireland, which was half-full and made up almost entirely of Americans, this tour is just about full, and there are people from all over the world: a few of us from the U.S., several people from different parts of Canada, people from the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Malaysia. I may be missing some, but that is all I have written down in my notes. It makes for a variety of accents. Even for those people within the U.S., I detect distinct accents from northern New England and New York.

Lara tells us, “We are here for a good time, but not a long time,” and this sounds to me like the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. She outlines the tour, and answers a lot of questions before they are even asked. After about 30 minutes, we head en-mass to our bus, and meet our driver for the duration of the tour, Ferdinando, or “Ferdi” for short.

Our bus is taking us to dinner by way of a driving tour through Rome. I learn that St. Peter’s Basilica is the place where Peter was crucified. The Castle Sant’Angelo that we visited earlier in the day was a fort for the Pope and there are tunnels that connect the castle to the Vatican. I learn that 90% of Italians live in apartments. I want to know more about this and jot down a few questions that I never come back to. We pass through the Borghese family estate, which makes up the largest green space in Rome, and we pass through or by several of the ancient aqueducts and parts of the old Roman wall that surrounded the city. I learn that the correct saying is “All roads lead out of Rome,” not “all roads lead to Rome.” I learn that Ancient Rome is one story below the Rome of the modern city. This is something of a relief, as it helps me understand why it was so difficult to see the ancient city within its modern counterpart earlier in the day.

Dinner, Opera, and the Colosseum

We have dinner at a restaurant called (I think) Le Terme del Colosseo. We enter as a group and then descend one story (into Ancient Rome?) where rows of tables await us. This is where we begin meeting the other people on the tour. Sitting across from us is a couple from Florida, formerly of New England, Ken and Pat. Ken reminds me vaguely of Norman Spinrad, although it may be his goatee. Also seated at our table are Kathryn, Taryne and Sandra from the Toronto area.

For dinner, the kids on the tour gather to make pizza, while the adults chat and get to know one another. From the room behind us comes the sounds of opera singing. There are two performers singing for another group, and we benefit from it.

The food is plentiful, as is the wine. Grace tries some white wine, but doesn’t like it. When dinner finally ends, we made our way, all 47 of us, plus Lara, up the narrow street to the Colosseum. We will be inside the Colosseum tomorrow. For now, we gather together for our first group photo, and then break up into small knots of families for photos of our own. Tired, and perhaps a little impatient after a long day of sightseeing, I snap a single, quick photo of the Colosseum that happens to catch it in the last light of sunset.

Colosseum at dusk

We all board our bus and make our way back to the hotel, passing Circus Maximum along the way, passing the Stone of Truth, passing the Temple of Hercules. Lara warns us that tomorrow will be the most hectic day of our tour, cramming in the Vatican as well as the Colosseum and lots of sightseeing into a single day. Today already seems cramming and I can barely recall how the day started out and everything that I have managed to see.

Dosing off, I think about Seneca’s quote and remind myself that our universe is, indeed, a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate. I’m glad that in this age, we have the opportunity to investigate the very past from which Seneca wrote his prophetic words.

Read about day 4.

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Adventures in Europe 2023, Day 1-2: The Miracle of Modern Travel

air air travel airbus aircraft
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A Remarkable Number

It seems these days that almost every travel article I read tells me how bad air travel has gotten. Airlines are nickle-and-diming passengers. Passengers are getting into fights with airline staff. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Airlines do nickle-and-dime passengers. The overall quality of the airline experience has gone down considerably in my memory. I can recall more seat room in my youth, and not because I was smaller. I can recall better food. I remember a cross-country flight on a DC-10 that had a lounge where one could get a drink. Alas, I was too young at the time to take advantage of that. Touring the Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, Ireland last year showed just how elegant air travel once was.

The same could be said of the movie theater experience. Flying, like going to the movies, used to be An Occasion. In that sense, it is an occasion no more. Still, whenever I venture off on a trip that takes me across the Atlantic Ocean, I have to remind myself of the miracle of modern travel. This time, I put a number to that miracle: 15:33:53.

In 1778, John Adams, along with his son, John Quincy Adams, set sail from Boston for the Continent. Their trip took five weeks, involved rough seas, storms, and a battle with a British ship, before finally landing in Spain. Five weeks on the ocean, in what I imagine was not the most comfortable of settings. As Page Smith wrote in his 2-volume biography of the senior Adams:

In place of a threatening enemy, the ship faced threatening elements. They were in the Gulf Stream when the storm struck. For three days the frigate was slammed about like a chip. It was impossible to stand upright, or indeed, to lie below without being tossed and battered. Everything not securely anchored broke loose and crashed about below decks… Cabins, bedding, clothes and food were soaked with salt water. The main topmast was struck by lightning, three sailors were struck by the same shaft and twenty-three men injured by falling rigging. For three days the crew and passengers lived in chaos, catching snatches of sleep and gulping down cold meals.

The Miracle of Modern Travel

I think of this passage frequently on travel days like this one. We step out our front door at 1:40pm Eastern Daylight time and drag our five suitcases and our backpacks to the awaiting Lincoln Navigator. It is hot out, but this enormous vehicle is cool, and gets us to the airport in less than 30 minutes.

The family leaves home for Europe.

We are flying Aer Lingus to Rome via Dublin. It was one of the more exciting things for the Littlest Miss–getting to fly Aer Lingus again. We drag our luggage to the Aer Lingus check-in desk and find the only line of the day. We are 3 hours early, but so is everyone else and we wait for 20 minutes as people and baggage zigzag through the line. Once we arrive at the front, our bags are quickly weighed and swallowed by a conveyor, and we are issued our boarding passes.

There is no line at the security checkpoint. Indeed, there are more security personnel milling around than there are passengers and we zip through security in just 2 minutes. No need to take devices out of backpacks, which is new. We arrive at our gate at 3pm, and now have plenty of time to kill before our flight begins to board. We find ways of filling the time. I listen to the conversations of other passengers around me. The worry I have is the tight connection in Dublin: just one hour.

By 4:40pm, we are on the plane and in our seats and the plane begins taxiing just after 5pm. The pilot informs us that our scheduled travel time is 6 hours and 45 minutes and that we are expected to arrive in Dublin at about 5 am local time, which adds some buffer to the one hour layover.

When dinner is served, I think about John Adams’ first passage across the Atlantic (he made a total of four crossings in his lifetime). I think of the waves and the nausea. I think of the wet blankets and soggy food. I think of the dangers of the sea and that those dangers permeate the entire voyage, a voyage which lasts five weeks. I might be crammed into a smaller seat, but I am eating decent food. The kids have video screens that play movies on-demand. The cabin is dry and comfortable, despite being 7 miles into the atmosphere and tearing through the air (with push of a tailwind) with a groundspeed of nearly 600 MPH. Crossing the Atlantic takes less than 7 hours. John Adams’ crossing took 840 hours. Put another way, we crossed the Atlantic 120 times faster than Adams did in his day.

A Remarkable Number, Revisited

We land in Dublin at 5am, cross the airport to our next flight, board the plane–more than half empty this time–and are off again, this time heading southeast. We cross over London and the Channel, shrouded in clouds. It looks as I imagine it did on June 5, 1944 — when Operation Overlord was delayed for 24-hours because the channel was socked in.

The family is asleep. Modern travel might be a miracle, but it doesn’t make it easy to sleep. They are tired enough from the first flight to fall asleep, but I don’t seem capable of sleeping on planes so I keep vigil over the passing scenery. I am specifically waiting for when we cross the Alps, another miracle of modern travel.

Crossing the Alps.

These Alps are the same Alps that Hannibal crossed with his elephants more than 2,200 years ago. It took Hannibal a remarkable 16 days to cross the Alps. But the by the miracle of modern travel, we fly over the Alps in what seems to be about 10 minutes. From there, it is a short downhill ride into Rome.

There are no lines at passport control and our bags are among the first off the conveyor at baggage claim. We quickly find a taxi that can take us to our hotel and learned another miracle of modern travel: the taxis in Rome go almost as fast as the the airplane we flew in on. There isn’t a car on the highway that we don’t pass at high speed. I am a little nervous since one of the seatbelt’s in the van isn’t working. In preparing for the trip, I read that a taxi ride from the airport to our hotel takes about 40 minutes. We made in 20.

We step into the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, St. Peter’s at about 11:30am local time. I check the timer I set when we stepped out of our front door and see the remarkable number for the first time: 15 hours, 33 minutes, 53 seconds from our front door in Arlington, Virginia to the hotel lobby of the Crown Plaza, St. Peter’s. Fifteen and a half hours to travel farther than John Adams and John Quincy Adams traveled in 5 weeks at sea.

Rome, Underground

We learned last year in Ireland that the best way to fight jetlag is to push through. Although I have now been awake for about 24 hours, we decide to explore some of Rome on our own. Our tour doesn’t begin until tomorrow evening so we might as well push through and see what we can see. A woman at the concierge suggests we visit the Chapel of Skulls located beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

To get to this underground crypt, we take to the Rome underground. We walk about a mile from the hotel to the Cornelia underground station. On the way, we stop at a McDonald’s for some soft drinks. I always find it a little disconcerting to see familiar restaurants in ancient places. I am reminded of a piece of art that accompanied a Harlan Ellison story. In the picture, a hiker was making his way through the mountains to the mythical Shangri-la, and just above the next rise, what do we see, but the golden arches of a McDonald’s. Ronald Coleman and James Hilton are rolling in their graves.

We descend into the Rome underground via a flight of stairs and I am reminded of our local Metro in the Washington, D.C. area. After there stairs there is an escalator and we take the escalator down. Then there is another escalator, and one more after that. Finally, we find the machines from which we purchase our tickets. But we are not quite deep enough for the trains. There is one final flight of stairs that takes us down to the track level.

We take the A line train to the Barbarini station, a ride of about 20 minutes. Rome is on holiday and the subway is not crowded. We all find places to sit. Unlike the Washington and New York subway, the cars of the Rome underground are wide open to one another. There are no doors to pass through cars and you can look down the length of the train and watch it twist and bend around curves. The train emerges once from the depths to cross the Tiber and then dives back underground.

We emerge into sunlight, bellies rumbling and find a place to eat our first Italian meal together. We sit in the back of a small Italian restaurant, Enoteca Barberini, and I eat a dish of gnocchi soaked in bacon, mozzarella and pistachio that is rich and savory. What I like best is that it is just the right portion size. I don’t feel stuffed when I finish.

The Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is just up the street from the restaurant and we take the self-guided tour. The tour takes us through the museum first, before going down into the crypt. Everyone wants to see the crypt of bones, and the curators know they have a captive audience. Fortunately, there are some amazing things to look at, especially the old illuminated books that they have on display. Unfortunately, I walk through the museum in something of a travel-and-sleep-deprived fog. Looking at a photograph of Padre Pio, for just a moment I think I am looking at Sean Connery.

The crypt of bones is the real draw. Mark Twain visited the crypt and wrote about it in Innocents Abroad in far more detail and much better than I could do even if my brain was fully alert to everything I am seeing. No photos are allowed, but the crypt is as impressive as one might imagine a crypt decorated in the bones of more than 4,000 Cappuccin friars bones to be. And yet, as I pass through each chamber, I experience the same uneasy feeling as I did years ago when we saw a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theater. There is something macabre about turning places of death into tourist attractions.

After the tour, we are all exhausted and we reverse our course: back underground, back to McDonald’s (this time for ice cream), back to the hotel, where our rooms are ready, and finally we can finally rest. Our tour begins tomorrow evening, which gives us most of the day to explore more of Rome.

My mind is now fuzzy enough where even simple math seems complicated, but I work out that I have not slept for thirty hours. I suspect I won’t have any trouble sleeping tonight. How many times could John Adams say that on his five week voyage across the Atlantic? Even now he is tossed from one side of the cabin to the other in a 3-day storm that seems like an eternity.

Read about Day 3.

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“How Was Europe?”

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We are recently back from 2 weeks in Europe, where we toured around Italy (Rome, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Como), Switzerland (Engelberg, Lucerne), and France (Paris). We planned the trip back in February and had been looking forward to it ever since. It is hard to believe it is over now. It was our kids’ second time to Europe (last year we went to Ireland) and they added more stamps to their passports.

Upon arriving home (a week ago now), the frequently-asked-question we get is, “How was Europe?” We were asking it enough times during our first few days that, while ruminating in the shower one morning, I came up with the following answer, which I’ve been giving ever since, and which I reproduce here for any and all who wish to know the answer to this question.

Questioner: “How was Europe?”

Me, making a face, palms up and shrugging my shoulders, “Eh!”

Awkward pause.

“I suppose I should explain,” I say, and then as if looking toward the clouds for explanation, I say the following:

You know what Europe is like? (Groping for words.) Have you ever seen those whatchamacallem–Marvel superhero movies?


It started out with one movie, Iron Man. Then there was Iron Man 2, then Iron Man 3. Before long there were so many Marvel superhero movies that that a single universe couldn’t contain them. They had to be collected in a multiverse.

That is the way Europe is with cathedrals. A long time ago on a continent far, far away, some built a monument to God out of stone–what Ken Follett refers to as the pillars of the earth. And ever since, this has been copied and recopied and re-recopied all over Europe. Despite filling a Field Notes notebook with notes, I lost track of how many cathedrals we entered, but they are most certainly as prolific of Marvel superheroes.

Now the styles of these cathedrals vary depending upon when they were built, but throughout Europe, whether we were in Rome, Siena, Venice, Paris, they all have one thing in common.

None of their restrooms are working.

Restrooms are at a premium in Europe, usually costing about 50 Euro-cents to use public facilities. So one would think that a cathedral would be a perfect place to grab a free restroom. Except that in every cathedral in which we asked to use the restroom, we were told the facilities were out of order.

“When was this cathedral built?” I asked.

“The first stone was laid in 1172.”

“So then isn’t a restroom just a hole in the floor somewhere? How is it that a hole is out of order?”

Clearly, Europe has issues with too few restrooms. Or maybe too many cathedrals. I haven’t decided yet.

(More on the Europe trip soon.)

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A Quiet Place to Read

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Sometimes when sitting on the deck or out on my morning walk, I wonder what this place would have sounded like 100 years ago. Our house backs up to a park and it is fairly quiet, but we are also near a major artery and the dim sound of traffic is as constant in the background as the birdsong and insect chirps. We live under a flight path for helicopters out of the Pentagon, as well as an approach and departure vector out of Reagan National Airport so the spooling sound of jet engines is a frequent addition to the background noise. Along one of the bike paths in the area is an electric sub-station. Towers carry power lines along the bike path and there is a low, crackling hum that come from the wires above.

If I could erase the sound of traffic, the sound of the helicopters thwack-thwack-twacking, the sound of jet engines spooling above, the hum of the wires above the bike path, I wonder how the world here would sound? I was recently on a trip to Europe with the family and we spent a few days in the small mountain town of Engelberg, Switzerland. Early in the morning, I went for walks and it was quiet. There were cars on the road, but a lot more bikers. The sounds were more natural: the winds off the mountains, the trickling of water in the stream that passed through the town. I’m not looking for silence, but I’m looking for a way to eliminate the artificial noise. I think Engelberg was much more like what the natural world sounds like, although even there I found the sound of car motors to contend with.

I have in my imagination this ideal quiet place to read. Churches are good candidates as they are always quiet. Even in the depth of summer, when Venice, Italy is crowded with tourists, the churches we entered in the city were quiet within. Sitting in a pew, if I closed my eyes, all I could hear with the shuffling of feet and an occasional cough. But it seems a breach of etiquette to enter a church for the sole purpose of reading a book, unless that book is some form of the Bible. The book I had with me in Europe, Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas A. Basbanes might have been apropos, since it is all about the history of books, and bookmaking, including the copying of books by monks in cathedrals. Still, it seems a little weird, and I don’t know that I’d have the courage to do it.

Cemeteries are another quiet place to read, but they are also places that don’t seem appropriate for fun activities and reading, for me, is a fun activity. There is the big park that our house backs up to. I see people sitting in the shade of trees at all times of day with a book in their lap. Sometimes I see them in the distance and they look like a living Kindle logo. Whenever I see that, I tell myself, you have to do that, too. But so far, I haven’t done it.

Then, yesterday, it occurred to me that maybe a quiet place to read isn’t my ideal reading place after all. I was going through an old diary from 25 years ago, back when I lived in Studio City, a suburb of Los Angeles. For years, I had the habit of beginning each spring by reading the 3 volumes of Isaac Asimov’s memoir, first with his retrospective, I. Asimov, and then going back to the 2 larger volumes of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. I tended to start these 3 books around April 1. As I was reading through this quarter-century-old portion of my diary, I came across the following from Sunday, April 5, 1998:

About 1pm, I picked up In Memory Yet Green, drove over to Swenson’s and, with a large chocolate shake by my side, started in on it. Spent most of the afternoon reading and I’m now 70 pages through it.

As it happens, I remember this very well, even 25 years later. It may be the most idyllic of my reading places in my memory. Swenson’s was an ice cream shop at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Boulevard. When you ordered a shake, you got a glass-and-a-half. I’d find a booth and sit there, sipping my shake and reading. It wasn’t particularly quiet. Bells jangled as people entered or left the shop. People at other tables spoke in hushed (sometimes not-so-hushed) tones, but there was something about sitting there with my shake and reading that particular book that made it about as perfect as any reading spot I’ve ever had.

I suppose that even if I could find a similar ice cream shop locally, it wouldn’t be the same. The memory is seeped in nostalgia and memories like those are impossible to compete with in the real world.

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Six Libraries

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In the beginning, there was the Franklin Township Library that my parents took me to when I was just learning to read. The bookshelves looked so tall and they were so full of books. Even then I knew I wanted to read all of them. I settled on one: The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. This library was my Helen.


In W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, while standing on a baseball diamond that Ray Kinsella has built in cornfield, the eponymous Jackson asks Kinsella, “Is this heaven?” It is the question I frequently asked myself when I pulled open the doors of the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on hot summer days after a mile-long trek from my house. The door would WHOOSH as I pulled it open and I’d be assaulted by blast of icy cold air from the bowels of the library.

When I read of the Green Town library in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, it was the Granada Hills library that I pictured. I whiled away countless summer mornings in that library, roaming the rows of books. I knew the order of the books in the 500 section by heart. I went through the rack of Choose-Your-Own-Adventures countless times. I read Race Against Time by Piers Anthony is a single morning, not daring to tear my eyes from its page. This library was my heaven.


I am fortunate enough to work in a library. It is a library half-a-century in the making and it surrounds me on all sides for the better part of my days. There are more than a thousand books in this library, but I know where everyone of them is without even looking. But I look anyway. I look frequently, if for nothing else than the perspective the library provides.

After a long programming session or during a stressful Teams meeting, I can turn my head to the left and look across the room to the top of a corner bookshelf. There I see a worn copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and I remember that a bug in program or a disagreement in a meeting is small potatoes. If I’m feeling a little low and need a pick-me-up, I can cross the room and pull an Andy Rooney volume off the shelf. In minutes, I’ll be laughing. When I am overwhelmed, I’ll turn to E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat. A page or two, sometimes a sentence or two is often enough to steady my heart. This library is my sanctuary.


What is the opposite of a nightmare? The closest I’ve come is the dream in which I spent the night in the main branch of the New York Public Library–what is known as the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building.

What is the opposite of a haunted house? Because there are ghosts in this library. At first I just hear their muted whispers as I wander the stacks, my fingers trailing along the spines of a million books, here a translation of Horace, here a Harlquin romance novel, here Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, here a tattered copy of the February 26, 1966 New Yorker containing E. B. White’s essay “Mr. Forbush’s Friends.” Then I realize the sound are coming from the reading room and I make my way into that great hall.

It is full of apparitions, whispering so as not to disturb the readers. There is Sam Clemons. Over there is Edward Gibbon chatting with Winston Churchill. Seated around a table stacked with science fiction paperbacks, Isaac Asimov is chatting with L. Sprague de Camp and Robert Heinlein. David McCullough is pestering John Quincy Adams, who looks just as cranky as he seems in his journals.. They are here, all of them, forever part of the books and articles and letters and journals that they produced. If you listen carefully, you too can hear them as you wander the stacks. This library is my fantasy.


I mourn all of the books I will never get to read for lack of time. I mourn all the books no one today will get to read because they no longer exist. I am envious of all of those long gone souls who visited the Great Library of Alexandria to explore its treasures. What great works of art and science and history and literature were lost there, never to be seen again. This library is my sorrow.


The ultimate library for my is the Library of Trantor from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. I often dream of wandering those endless stacks and corridors. Instead of the collected knowledge, wisdom, and art of a single world, here we have the knowledge, wisdom, and art of a million worlds.

That short book, The Nine Planets, from the Franklin Township library all those years ago had a huge scope: the entire history of our solar system. Zoom into a single planet with that solar system, and look at that world’s history. Will Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization covers the human side of the story in a mere 13,500 pages. Settle on a single person in that history, say Leonardo da Vinci. Walter Isaacson has written a fascinating biography that brought the man to life for me. da Vinci produced thousands of pages of notes and drawings in his notebooks over his life. Mark Kurlansky has written an excellent history, Paper, on which all of these books were written.

When I wander the Library of Trantor, I imagine following threads like this for worlds I’ve never heard of. Who was their Napoleon? Their Mozart? Their Moses?

What makes this Library truly special is that I imagine that somewhere, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, such a library existed, may still exist. That library is my hope.


  • I’ve written about The Nine Planets many times before, but my favorite piece is one I wrote on how a single book can shape a life: Book Banning: An Alternate History.
  • Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. The movie version of the book is Field of Dreams, a good film. But the book is still better.
  • “I pulled open the doors of the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library…” For a great book on the Los Angeles Public Library, read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book.
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. This was one of the most incredible books I’d come across when I first read it in the fall of 1997. I often quote from the book in the fall, much to the dismay of my family, when October rolls around. “First of all it was October, a rare month for boys…”
  • Race Against Time by Piers Anthony was the first of something like a hundred Piers Anthony books I read when I was young. At the time, I didn’t realize it was Piers Anthony. Today, when I think about that book, I sometimes confuse it in my mind with Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. I made some notes on the book after reading it.
  • One Man’s Meat by E.B. White. This is one of my all-time favorite essay collections. As of this writing, I’ve read it six times.
  • Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you like baseball, you’ll enjoy this memoir of growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.
  • “I am envious of all of those long gone souls who visited the Great Library of Alexandria…” There are some fun scenes and speculation in Jack McDevitt’s Time Traveler’s Never Die that take place in this library.
  • The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. This is my desert island book. It is also an amusing study in scope creep.
  • Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. If you can manage it, get the hard cover edition. It is printed on high-quality paper and makes the art pop.
  • Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky.

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One Year of Wordle


I played my first Wordle game one year ago. This morning, I played my 365th consecutive game. It was a rare lucky day for me. I guessed the word on my second try, only the 14th time I’ve ever done that. What’s more, I had only one letter in my first try so it was a real guess on my part.


Wordle provides a win percentage without a decimal. All I can infer from this is that of the 365 games I’ve played, I won between 350-354 of them. I play these games almost entirely in my head, and I am surprised by how often my intuition leads me in the right direction.

My best consecutive win-streak is 62 games. I’m about halfway to tying that streak. If I can keep it up, I should tie my streak on September 2 and break it on September 3.


I use the same word to start each game: READY.

One third of my wins come in 4 guesses. A little more than a fourth come in 5 guesses. I keep wanting to get my 3-guess numbers to be better than my 5-guess numbers.

Things have come down to the wire for me 35 times, roughly once every 10 games that I play. And I’ve managed to win on 2-guesses once every 35 games or so on average. I’ve never gotten a hole-in-one.


Playing Wordle is part of how I wake up my brain in the morning. I do the NY Times Mini Crossword as soon as I wake up, trying to complete each puzzle in under a minute. After that, when I’m a little more alert, I turn to Wordle. It is a nice way to start the day with (usually) a couple of wins.

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The pleasure of fiction, for me, is the total immersion in the story. That immersion is powerful and delicate. It is a bubble of thin film that keeps reality temporarily at bay and while it exists, I live in another world. But it is a bubble that is easily broken.

It is this delicate nature of immersion, more than anything else, that keeps me from watching TV shows and movies. The slightest distraction bursts the bubble whatever magic existed vanishes. Once that happens, it is almost impossible for me to reclaim it.

It says something about the pace of my life these days that I can rarely get through a 20 minute sitcom with this bubble in tact. The instances when I make it through a show with the bubble in tact are as magical as they are rare. If it happens once a year, I feel grateful. But these days, because I know it happens so infrequently, I’ve mostly given up the attempt to form that bubble from television shows or motion pictures in the first place.


I wish I could say that the same was not true for written fiction. But I find that the magical immersion of written fiction–much more powerful for me than visual media–is broken just as readily by interruption. It is perhaps, part of the reason I’ve read less and less fiction over the years and focused more on nonfiction. Nonfiction, for whatever reason, is never as immersive and interruptions don’t bother me as much.

On rare occasions, I make it through a complete novel in a day, sometimes, in a single sitting. This is the reading equivalent of hitting for the cycle or throwing a no-hitter. I recently read Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy in a single sitting and it was magical.


Reading online introduces an additional layer of distraction. When I first began using the web back in 1994, I was besotted with the idea of hyperlinks. It was (and is) so easy to cross-reference and link to related pieces. Writing something became an exercise in displaying connections in thought. But over the years, two problems emerged for me.

I found, when reading pieces online, that I was frequently distracted by the links. I’d start reading a post or article only to find that I never finished it. At some point, I’d followed a link and instead of getting through the rest of what I’m sure would have a been a good piece, found myself twenty minutes later some twenty links distant from that piece. The links themselves became a distraction.

When writing pieces for the blog, I’d find myself distracted from the writing by linking to other posts or sites within the piece I was writing. This linking broke the immersion of writing and I think the quality of the work suffered. I was also providing a similar distraction for readers of my posts.


You may have noticed that for the last several pieces I’ve written here, I’ve provided no links, and that is intentional. I wanted, first and foremost, to write without the distraction of linking. I also wanted to avoid the same trap for my readers.

It occurred to me, however, that linking was still helpful to me and others. So I decided, beginning with this piece, to gather the links in a “notes” section at the end of each piece. This way, I write a piece without the worry of distraction, and you can read a piece without being sidetracked by links. At the end, if a reader is interested, you can check out the notes for any links. It is my way to help eliminate some of the distractions that bothers me.


  • It is this delicate nature of immersion, more than anything else, that keeps me from watching TV shows and movies…” There are other reasons. With all of the sequels and reboots and spinoffs, it seems like TV and film writers are experiencing a serious and collective bout of writers’ block. Doing what has already been done before is the easiest way of unblocking.
  • I’ve read less and less fiction over the years and focused more on nonfiction.” If you look at my reading stats, you’ll see this trend in the very first chart. It began in 2014 and has continued ever since.
  • Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy. I’d recommend reading The Passenger by McCarthy first.
  • I’d find myself distracted from the writing by linking to other posts or sites..” This is one example of a link-heavy post. I think it took twice as much time to do the linking as it did to write the post itself.

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Flipping through the contents of various magazines and essay collections, certain titles strike me. Here is an essay on cosmology by Isaac Asimov, “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.” Here is a piece on baseball history by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myth of Cooperstown.” Here is one from John McPhee, “Reading the River.”

I like titles that are, first and foremost, memorable, even if their relationship to the work over which they perch is obscure. If that work is good, if it resonates, the titles will stick. Whenever I read a eulogy of the physical book, for instance, Isaac Asimov’s masterful essay, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” comes to mind, an essay about the evolution of a book from a physical to a digital device and beyond. The word “book” appears nowhere in the title.

It seems to me that in the print world, titles helps set the tone for a piece even when they don’t describe the content therein.


Tone seems tertiary for titles on the Internet. Before tone comes description and before description comes flash. Access and audience size are vastly magnified on the Internet. Competition for what is gruesomely referred to as “eyeballs” follows. The need to pluck those eyeballs from their sockets has sapped much of the hope and possibility I saw in the Internet when I first began exploring there in late 1994. Titles are one obvious symptom.

First there are the listicles: “The 5 Apps…”, “The 10 Most Intriguing…”, “15 Tips for…” These titles lack tone, but I can’t blame writers for taking this approach; I’ve done it myself. It is a symptom of the environment we work in.

There are what I call “omniscient” titles. “15 [Fill in the Blank] Tips Most Users Don’t Know.” Or “Too Many [Blank] Is Not Your Problem.” Or “6 [Blank] You Must Do In Your Lifetime.” Has the writer surveyed all users? Of course not. Does the writer know your tastes? Unlikely. Does the writer know if you have already done any of things on their list? Almost certainly not.


I prefer titles that set the tone of the piece. I’ve tried to to follow this practice in titles for my fiction. I’ve also tried to follow it in titles for my nonfiction. I was once asked to change the title of a story to avoid confusion with another story, and I was happy to oblige. Otherwise, all of my fiction retained the titles I gave the pieces. That wasn’t always the case with nonfiction. If the nonfiction appeared in a print magazine, it generally kept the title I gave it. If the title appeared online, it was frequently changed to something more flashy and descriptive.

Looking back through the posts on the blog, I can see attempts across the spectrum. There was a time when the blog was at its peak readership where I indulged in eyeball scooping. I’m not proud of that. But I am no longer out for eyeballs and acknowledging that grants a sense of relief. Just as every person has their name–the one that they identify with—so every piece I write has a title that is just right for it.

Perhaps this piece serves as an example of what I mean. I’d originally called it “Tertiary Tones for Titles,” but that didn’t set the right tone. I called it “Eyeball Plucking,” but that was clearly ironic. I settled on “Matchmaking” because it is what I believe I try to do with my titles: find the perfect match (in tone and description) with the underlying work.

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The Trees and the Forest

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In the spring of 2019 I read The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner and was captivated by the descriptions of what it was like to work there. Here was a place set aside specifically for creativity and invention. People roamed around long intersecting hallways bouncing ideas of one another. And what ideas! As is often the case when I read a book on something, I want to be part of that something, and when I read Gertner’s book, wanted to work at Bell Labs, or someplace like it.

Sometime later I read Brian Kerighan’s wonderful book: Unix: A History and a Memoir, which also detailed life at Bell Labs. Kernighan takes a more personal approach based on his years working at Bell Labs where he and others invented the Unix operating system. My first introduction to Unix came long after I’d started using computers, sometime in 1994 and Kernighan’s book reminded me of the simplicity of its concept.


Walter Isaacson’s biography, Einstein, and later, George Dyson’s book, Turing’s Cathedral, painted similar pictures of the Institute for Advanced Study. Reading those books, I found yet another place where I wished I worked. I could be a mathematician or a computer scientist or a theoretical physicist, all of which interested me as possible careers, despite having crossed the half-century threshold.

Then in May of this year, I read Who Got Einstein’s Office? by Ed Regis, a history of the Institute for Advanced Study and his book made it sound idyllic–perhaps more than the reality. The concept behind IAS fascinated me: a place for people to think, with no other responsibilities. It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

Regis’s book went into more detail and covered many of the people who were residents of the Institute. Reading it, I again found myself think: wouldn’t it be great to work at a place where people were paid to think, to provide creative solutions to problems through rigorous research, bouncing ideas off colleagues, swimming in data, thinking, thinking, thinking.


Of course, sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees. For nearly 29 years I’ve worked at just such a place: the RAND Corporation. I spent my first 8 years in the headquarters in Santa Monica where from my office, I could look across the parking lot to the Santa Monica mountains, and the Getty Museum. If I looked across the hall and through the windows of my coworker’s office, I could see the Santa Monica pier and beyond that, the Pacific Ocean.

When I think about my time at RAND, I realize that I have been working at a place very similar to what I read about in Gertner’s and Kernighan’s and Dyson and Regis’s books. I’ve worked on interesting projects for nearly three decades. Whenever I get stuck on a problem, I could walk down the hall to talk to a colleague’s office, stand in their doorway, and spill my guts. Before long, we’d be hashing out the problem on a whiteboard, maybe bringing in one or two innocent passers-by to help us out. Every day I get to work with incredibly smart people. I don’t think a day has gone by in 29 years that I haven’t learned something new from them.

I have to remind myself when reading sometimes, that there are things I don’t have to wish for. Those wishes were granted long, long ago.

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