Category: essays

On the Pronunciation of Words as a Demonstration of Synecdoche

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

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

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

\sǝ-‘nek-dǝ-(,)ke\

which is pronounced “se-nek-duh-kee.”

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

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

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

Written on 16 November 2022.

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

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

twitter logo on smartphone screen
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I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

Written on 12 November 2022.

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

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

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Preamble

My reading divides itself up into 3 general buckets:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief survey of online writing in 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the News by James Fallows on Substack (Paid)

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

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

Joe Blogs by Joe Posnanski on Substack (Paid)

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

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

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

Golden Age of Hollywood by Melanie Novak

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

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

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

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

The Marginalian by Maria Papova

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

Clive Thompson on Medium

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

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

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

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

Susan Orlean on Medium

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

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

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

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

Postscripts

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

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

Written on November 10, 2022.

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

Fall Colors, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

A popular tree with orange leaves
Orange leaves.

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

A tree outside my home office.
Fall color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy fall, everyone!

Written on October 27, 2022.

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The Best Self-Paced Course I’ve Ever Taken

woman illustrating albert einstein formula
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Last week on Twitter Tiago Forte asked the question, “What is the best ‘self-paced’
course you’ve ever taken? And why?”

My brief answer was:

I wanted to take the opportunity to elaborate on my response.

“Books can take you anywhere”

From a very early age, I can remember my mom encouraging me to read. “Books can take you anywhere” she would tell me. Moreover, on most evenings, I would sit with my dad on this hideous maroon-colored couch we had and he would read to me, mostly Dr. Seuss book, which to this day, I still have memorized from those repeated readings. Perhaps the first book that really took me places was The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. Somewhere around the age of 5 or 6, I checked that book out of the Franklin Township Public Library in Somerset, New Jersey, and read it over and over. From that book, I disovered the planets, the solar system, and the universe at large. So from a very early age, I held the power of reading, of books, and of libraries in high regard.

Theory of learning

Looking back over the course of my formal education today, I see a clear pattern:

Therefore, at the time I graduated from college, in June 1994, I was primed for learning. I was ready to get started to learn anything and everything I could. My curiosity was at an apex. But school was over. I had my degree, and it was time to get a job so that I could support myself. Four months after graduation, I landed a job with a think tank — a job that, 28 years later, I still hold today.

The best self-paced course I’ve ever taken

It took me some time to settle into my new job, and figure things out I wanted to do well, and I was surrounded by people who all seemed far smarted than I was. So I worked hard (and not without struggle and self-doubt) for the first 15 months before I felt, if not quite equal to, then at least accepted by my peers as someone who could be relied upon to do a good job.

But that yearning to learn stayed with me. This was still the very early days of the Internet. One day, while browsing around, someone in late 1995, I came across the website of a fellow named Eric W. Leuliette. On his website, he listed out all of the books he’d read since 1974. I was incredibly impressed, not only by the numbers, but by the sheer variety of books he’d read. I didn’t have the time to go back to school, but my undergraduate experience had taught me how to learn, and so, inspired in part by Eric W. Leuliette’s website, and in part my desire to learn more, I set myself a goal of reading one book per week, and tracking that book on a list.

This was the self-paced course of learning that I challenged myself with. Given that I was young (in my mid-20s) and had limited time on my hands because of a full-time job, one book a week seemed to be a reasonable pace. In reality, it wasn’t until 2013 that I finally managed to read more than 52 books in a year (a pace of one book per week on average). There were years before that when I came close, but never quite hit the mark. Still, I read as much as I could, initially within a fairly narrow framework of subjects, and finally, expanding outward to an ever wider range of subjects.

The list of books I have read

I started keeping a list of the books I read on January 1, 1996. I had a few simple rules for my list:

  • any book that I finished reading could go on the list, no matter how long or short.
  • but for a book to get on the list, I had to finish it.

The first entry on my list, on January 13, 1996, was Isaac Asimov’s collection of science essays, From Earth to Heaven. On September 20, 1998, more than 2-1/2 years after starting my self-paced course of reading and learning, I recorded my 100th book on my list, Isaac Asimov’s Nine Tomorrows, a collection of short stories. On October 10, 2012, nearly 7 years after starting my list, I completed my 500th book, The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick. And on May 23 2020, nearly a quarter century after started my self-paced course of learning, I added my 1,000th book to the list, Will Durant’s The Reformation.

As I write this post, there are 1,208 books on my list, the most recent being And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle by Jon Meacham.

The format of my list has evolved over the years, but it has been accessible online in one format or another since the mid-1990s.

The value of learning

On that same Twitter thread, someone asked me what I tell people if asked if reading books has really been useful to me:

I have pointed people to this post I wrote about why I read, but having given this a lot thought over the years, there are three important ways in which my reading has been useful to me.

The practical value, or “applied reading”

I begin each book, fiction or nonfiction, with the hope of taking away something of practical value. I don’t rate books on a scale of 1-to-5 stars. If a book provides me with something of practical value, it was worth reading, even if there was a struggle to get through it. In reading fiction, that practical value can be a lesson in how to tell a story in a certain way; or it can be an example of what not to do when telling a story.

In nonfiction, those practical lessons can be just about anything. A frequent example I point to are three unconventional books on project management that I read years ago, that I have made me a better project management–something I do regularly in my day job, but something for which I was never formally trained. None of the three books were specifically on the subject of project management, but they were all histories of large-scale projects from which I was able to extract practical lessons that I cold apply to my own work.

I have written before, that, despite taking the full gamut of AP science classes in high school, as well as general, and organic chemistry, and general physics in college, almost everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov. I’ve read all of the science essays he published in more than 30 years of columns in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, most of which have been collected in book form, to say nothing of his many other science books. His contribution to my knowledge of science provides the historical context that most science courses lack.

The cumulative effect

In addition to the practical value I get from reading, there is a cumulative effect. Reading something in one book will remind me of something in another book. What used to be obscure references to me suddenly have new meaning because I recognize the references. I begin to see patterns in various subjects: the evolution of knowledge in the sciences; the trends in history over long periods of time. Moreover, I see repetitions. Reading an essay about the noisy modern city, I am struck, for instance, by an essay Sececa wrote “On Noise” more than 2000 years ago, but which could easily substitute the modern essay on the same subject.

The cumulative effect is one of the great pleasures of this self-paced course I’ve set my on, for it is the result of combining many random books and I never know what insights will emerge.

The butterfly effect of reading

Occasionally, I have an idea to pursue a particular line of study in my reading. Early on, for instance I read lots of Isaac Asimov’s science books. There was a time in the late 1990s where I relentless read everything I could on the Apollo program. But over the years, what guides my reading more than anything is what I call the butterfly effect of reading. I’ll sit down to read a book, say, on World War II, and come away wanting to read more about Franklin D. Roosevelt. A book on Roosevelt might lead to a book on his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, which in turn might lead to a book on the muckrakers of the day, which in turn might lead to a biography of Ida Tarbell. With the flapping of the butterfly’s wings, I’ve gone from World War II to the biography of a pioneering investigative journalist.

If you take a careful purusal through my reading list, you can sometimes identify these butterfly effects.

The next thousand

These days, I manage to get through around 100 books per year. I take notes to help me remember what I read, to apply what I read, and to relate it to other things I’ve read. I scribble in the margins of paper books, or jot notes on index cards while listening to audiobook, all of which eventually get transcribed into my note system.

Perhaps the strangest effect of this self-paced course of learning is that the more I learn, the more I want to learn. This is a course with no end in sight. It is a course without a final exam. It is also the single best course of self-improvement I’ve ever encountered. I look back over the list of 1,200+ books I’ve read in the last 27 years, and while I am occasionally amazed, my usual reaction is: I wonder what’s in store for the next thousand.

Written on October 25, 2022.

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The Joy, Frustration and Dread of Knowing the Future

white moon on hands
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History is one of my favorite subjects. Reading it, however, occasionally fills me with feelings of frustration and dread. For instance, I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s new biography of Abraham Lincoln, And There Was Light. I enjoy Meacham’s writing, and the book, with its focus on Lincoln’s moral character and his and the country’s relationship with slavery, is a unique approach to Lincoln. But I can’t help reading it with an ever increasing feeling of dread, knowing what is coming at the end.

I’ve read two other biographies of Lincoln: Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In both of those cases, I also read, fascinated, and yet gripped by the dread of knowing how it would end in tragedy for Lincoln on an evening of respite at Ford’s Theater.

Of all of the presidential biographies I’ve read, Lincoln comes across as the the most somber of characters. Perhaps it was the time he was living in, but that somberness of character gives his life story a kind of inevitability. Even with all of his wit and cheer, that darkness comes through the pages of every biography I’ve read of Lincoln.

Reading history–a Lincoln biography for instance–is one way to illustrate how terrible it would be to have that superpower of knowing the future before it happens. The dread I feel reading about Lincoln is the dread of the knowledge of certain loss. It permeates everything about Lincoln. Several years ago, Kelly and I went to a performance of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” It was a wonderful performance, and I would have thoroughly enjoyed it, if not for the feeling of dread I had through the entire play. For the theater in which we saw the show was none other than Ford’s Theater, and I couldn’t help but thinking that it was during a performance much like this one, that Booth shot Lincoln. Ever since, it has seemed odd to me that Ford’s Theater is an attraction that charges money for tours of the place where Lincoln was assassinated.

Reading history transports us back to the time of the subject about which we are reading, but we are transported there with all of the knowledge we have in the present. This can make history a frustration subject to read from time to time. Back in March when I was reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I couldn’t help but be frustrated that the German people couldn’t see what was happening right before their eyes. Reading Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe back in 2008, I recall being frustated by Einstein’s early failures, impatient because I knew he would ultimately be successful. When I read the first volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, I was frustrated by the early setbacks for the armies of the north in places like Bull Run, knowing that, despite those setbacks, they would ultimately be victorious.

And yet, despite the frustration and the dread, I continue to love reading history. Its value, both in terms of the human drama and the lessons I take from it, far outweigh the emotional struggle I sometimes find myself in while reading it. Indeed, on the horizon is another biography of Lincoln that I plan on reading, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds. That feeling of dread will be there, no doubt, but learning experience is worth that pain.

Written on October 23, 2022.

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More Graceful Art

When my kids were little, they thought I was so cool. Now that my older kids are pre-teens and teenagers, I think they want their money back. Every now and then however, a bit of that old coolness that I used to exude in their youth seeps through. For instance, they think of me as a minor Internet celebrity because I have this blog that people read. Who am I to disabuse them of that notion? They are a little dubious because it is, after all, a blog, and not Instgram or Tik Tok. But I’ll take what I can get.

So when Grace came to me recently wondering if I’d be interested in posting more of her artwork here on the blog, how could I refuse? I posted a few of her drawings back in the summer of 2021 and it seems overdue to post more. So here are five more pieces of graceful art for your enjoyment.

Autumn ghost

Since Halloween is almost upon us, we’ll begin with an autumn ghost. Grace tells me that she was attempting to re-create a ghost she had conjured up with pen and ink all the way back in 2nd grade (4 years ago).

Autumn ghost by Grace
Autumn ghost by Grace

Morning coffee

Next, we have one that she create for her Nina (grandmother), who enjoys her morning Starbucks. Hi Mom!

Morning coffee by Grace
Morning coffee by Grace

Two kittens

Grace says that this piece was made for her little sister.

Two kittens by Grace
Two kittens by Grace

Pumpkin patch

Keeping with the autumn theme, Grace tells me that an art teacher showed her how to make pumpkins and she was experimenting with what she learned.

Two kittens by Grace
Pumpkin patch by Grace

Hello October

Finally, we’ve got my personal favorite of the batch.

Hello October by Grace
Hello October by Grace

As I was finishing up this post, the Littlest Miss came to me with several drawings of her own. “What’s this?” I asked her.

“I want to do what Gracie is doing?” she said. So there may be even more artwork for you in the future.

When I was a kid and I drew something, my mom would hang it on the refrigerator. These days, I hang their art on the Internet and it makes me seem as cool to my kids as I did when they were little.

Written on October 21, 2022.

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Revamping My Morning Routine

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A few months ago, I sat down with a notebook and completely revamped my morning routine. I’ve gone through several iteration of this routine over the years, tweaking it based on past experience and new things that I have learned. This time, I gave it some careful thought and decided that there were 4 things I wanted to get done before everything else:

  1. Write. Whether blog writing, or fiction writing, or any other writing, I try to write every day.
  2. Walk. I get in a 2-1/2 mile walk every morning, rain or shine. The only thing that keeps me from my morning walk is two negative factors to the weather (e.g. rain and wind, or freezing rain, etc.)
  3. Workout. Since May, I have been working out 5 days a week, Monday thru Friday, and taking the weekends off.
  4. Dropoffs. There are two school dropoffs each morning: one for my son, and one for my youngest daughter. Kelly and I split these dropoffs each morning.

I jotted these four “must-haves” in my notebook. There is also a “nice-to-have”: each morning, I sit out on the deck, whether permitting, and read a randonly-selected magazine article. It would be great if I could formally get that into my morning routine as well.

Some pages from my journal notebook where I was working all of this out.

I’m an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person. I am generally up around 5 am, weekdays and weekends. During the week, I start work by 9am. That gives me four hours each morning to get in whatever activity I can manage. In my notebook, I divided those four hours into four slots from 5:30 – 9:00am. Why start at 5:30 and not 5:00am? I use that first half hour each morning to read news, do the New York Times mini crossword, and play Wordle. I’ve found it is a nice way to wake up my brain.

With four slots available to me, I sketched out a routine that I’d sort of been using for much of the summer. It looked like this:

TimeTask
5:30amWalk
6:30amWrite
7:30amWorkout
8:30amArticle reading on the deck

So far, so good. But with school starting up there was a problem. We have to drop off our son between 7:30 – 8:00 am, and we have to drop off our younger daughter between 8:30 and 9:00 am, That means that my schedule could vary slightly each day depending on who I was dropping off. So I went back to my notebook and created an “A” schedule and a “B” schedule depending on who I was taking to school each day:

TimeSchedule ASchedule B
5:30amWalkWalk
6:30amWriteWrite
7:30amDropoff ZachWorkout
8:00amWorkout
8:30amDropoff Ellie

With this schedule, I had a routine that varied only by who I was dropping off in the morning. It meant slightly different times for my workout.

As I was figuring this out, the summer was waning: sunset was earlier each day and sunrise was later each morning. I prefer doing my morning walks in sunlight. I don’t mind walking in the dark, but like Superman, the sun has a replenishing effect on me, especially in the mornings. It occurred to me that my routine would have to change with the changing seasons. This required some research. I looked up the variance in sunrise times in my area from the earliest sunrise to the latest sunrise. I also factored in daylight saving time, which would cause sudden jumps in sunrise times twice each year.

The result was three schedules each with 2 drop-off variants. The schedules varied based on the time of year. Here are the schedules and morning routines I came up with :

Schedule I: Early Sunrise (May – July)

TimeDropoff ADropoff B
5:30amWalkWalk
6:00am
6:30amWritingWriting
7:00am
7:30amDropoff ZachWorkout
8:00amWorkout
8:30amDropoff Ellie

Schedule II: Middle Sunrise (April, August-September)

TimeDropoff ADropoff B
5:30amWritingWriting
6:00am
6:30amWalkWalk
7:00am
7:30amDropoff ZachWorkout
8:00amWorkout
8:30amDropoff Ellie

Schedule III: Late Sunrise (January – March, October – December)

TimeDropoff ADropoff B
5:30amWritingWriting
6:00am
6:30amWorkoutWorkout
7:00am
7:30amDropoff ZachWalk
8:00amWalk
8:30amDropoff Ellie

These schedules have been working out well for me. Currently, given that we are well into October, I am using Schedule III. This morning for instance, I am working on this post between 5:30 – 6:30am. When I finish, I’ll do my workout, and then go for my walk, and since it is my day to walk Ellie to school, I’ll do that at 8:30am. When I get back from my walk, I’ll start my work day.

What about my random magazine article reading on the deck? As I said earlier, this is a “nice-to-have.” I couldn’t find a formal place for it in the schedules above. However, these schedules are slightly deceiving. I do try to spend a full hour writing each morning. But my morning walk takes 40 minutes (not a full hour) and my workout also takes about 40 minutes. That leaves a 20 minute slot in each of those hours where I can go sit out on the deck and read my article for the day.

I’m still experimenting, of course. In a few weeks, for instance, daylight saving time will end and sunrise will be an hour earlier than it currently is. That might allow to walk earlier in the morning, perhaps switching from Schedule III to Schedule II for a month or so. If I do can that, I’ll adjust the timing of when I use the schedules accordingly.

Meanwhile, these schedules, with their variants built in, allow me to get through my morning routine each morning, ensuring I have the time I need to do what is important to me. By factoring in varying drop-off times, and sunrises, the schedules ensure that I don’t get thrown off by changing conditions. Perhaps the best effect of this morning routine is that by 9am, I feel like I’ve already gotten a lot accomplished, no matter what else happens for the rest of the day.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to wrap up this post so I can go and do my workout.

Written on October 20, 2022.

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5 Index Cards

blank cards composition data
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Recently I have been carrying 5 index cards in the back of my Field Notes notebook as a way of jotting down reading notes for audiobooks and magazine articles. Jotting down notes for a paper book is easy. I frequently make my notes in the margins of the book and go back through it later to see what is worth keeping. The same is true for Ebooks, although it is not quite as elegant at the margin solution for paper books. The challange, for me, has always been how to take notes for audiobooks.

I love audiobooks, They have been a game-changer in how much more I have been able to read in a given years. At the end of this coming January, I will have been an Audible subscriber for 10 years, and in that decade, I’ve accumulated nearly 1,300 audiobooks and read half that number. (It is always better to have books on my shelve–even virtual ones–that I haven’t read; those books are my anti-library). But I have always found it dificult to take notes listening to audiobooks. I think there are several reasons for this:

  1. I am frequently doing other things while listening to an audiobook: walking, exercising, emptying the dishwashing, driving somewhere, grocery shopping, etc.
  2. Unlike paper books, there is no margin in which to jot notes.
  3. The features available for bookmarking a spot in an audiobook and making a note in the app are not particularly useful.

What’s a fellow to do?

I have mostly solved this problem with 5 index cards. Each morning, I put 5 blank index cards in the back of my current Field Notes notebook. That notebook is in my back pocket at all times. As I go through my day, if I am listening to a book and something I read is noteworthy, I’ll pause the book, pull out a card, and make a note using the following procedure:

  1. If I haven’t already done so, I’ll jot the title of the book on a card.
  2. I’ll make my note as a bullet (or two, or three) on the card.
  3. If I think I want to come back to the particular passage that inspired the note, I’ll jot the timestamp at which I paused the book at the end of the bullet.
  4. If I jot the timestamp, I’ll add a bookmark in the Audible app to make it easy to get back to.
An example of a note I captured on my walk this morning while listening to the audiobook "Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard
An example of a note I captured on my walk this morning while listening to the audiobook Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard.

These four steps have worked out great for me. If I am walking in the morning, and want to make a note, I’ll step to the side of the bike path, pull out my notebook and a card, and jot my note, and then continue on. It is far easier for me to do this than to try to capture the note in Audible, or any other app, for that matter.

Moreover, they have solved a particular problem: I am good notetaker when I read paper books, but not nearly as good with audiobooks, mainly because of the inconvenience of doing so. But I read more audiobooks than paper books these days, simply because I can multitask doing the former, which means I don’t take notes as much as I would if I read paper books. Since switching to this index card method, my notes for audiobooks equals my notes for paper books. I use a similar process when reading magazine articles, like the randomly selected article I read at breakfast each morning. I used to scribble notes in the margins of the magazine, but I find using the cards an easier method.

An example of a note I captured while reading a recent article in WIRED magazine.
An example of a note I captured while reading a recent article in WIRED magazine.

Why five index cards? When I started doing this, I tried to think of how many cards I’d need to carry around with me. I picked five, thinking that if I filled up more on a given day, I could add to it. So far, I’ve never used all five cards on a single day, and so five seems reasonable. And five cards fits easily into the back of my Field Notes notebook with a paperclip.

At the end of the day, I toss the cards I’ve made notes on in a box on my desk. I replace the cards in my notebook with blank cards. At the end of the week, I go through the cards in my box, reviewing them, and deciding if it is worth making a permanent note from them. This is a nice buffer that provides some distance between the time I record the note and the time I review it. For those cards on which I decide to make a permanent note, I transcribe the card into Obsidian. Here is the note I created in Obsidian from the card on the “Abandon Ship” article above:

Here is what the note from the WIRED article looks like after I added it to my reading notes in Obsidian.

So far, this 5 index card system is working out well for me. I enjoy scribbling notes on the cards, which encourages me to continue to do it. I also like going through the box of cards at the end of the week, and deciding which cards, if any, a worthy of a permanent note. It gives me an opportunity to review all of the notes I’ve jotted for the week and resurfaces the thoughts I had while I was reading.

Written on October 19, 2022.

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What’s Been Keeping Me Busy: A Book Collection Database in Obsidian

books in black wooden book shelf
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A while back I mentioned on Twitter that I wanted to catalog all of the books in my collection. I was looking for the best tool to do the job the way I wanted to do it. (I tend to have very specific requirements in this regard). Then last week, I mentioned on Twitter that I had been spending time writing fairly sophisticated Javacript code for Obsidian’s Tempalter plug-in:

The net result is that for the past 3 weeks, I have been writing a ton of code for the Templater plug-in that would support my ability to have my entire book collection database stored in plain text files in Obsidian in a way that meets my own personal requirements.

Within the next week or so, I’ll have a much more detailed post on this. I’ll discuss what my requirements were, and how I came to land on Obsidian as the master database for my book collection. I’ll talk about data entry (which my code is designed to dramatically speed up) and I’ll use a single shelve of books as an example of what I have been able to achieve so far. I’ll also make my code available on GitHub to anyone who wants to use it.

Just wanted you all to know why I have been so quiet here the last few weeks. You can expect some (hopefully!) good stuff about managing my book collection and reading lists in Obsidian coming soon.

Have a great week!

Written on October 17, 2022.

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Writing in Cursive

A few pages (in cursive) from my journal during our vacation in Ireland this summer.
A few pages (in cursive) from my journal during our vacation in Ireland this summer.

I learned to write in cursive beginning in 2nd grade. I can still remember that pretty clearly. We had sheets of landscape-oriented, gray newsprint paper with guidelines running across it. I filled pages with SSSSSsssss and DDDDDddddd and other letters, getting used to the flow. It seems to me that from second through sixth grade, all of the handwriting I did was in cursive. Beginning in 7th grade, however, for reasons I can no longer clearly remember, I switched to a kind of microscopic printing instead of cursive and from that point on, I rarely wrote in cursive again. Once, years ago when I took the LSAT on a whim1, the essay portion required us to write our responses in cursive for some unexplained reason. That was a bit of a struggle, but I managed.

Then, about a year ago or so, I switched from print to cursive, and haven’t looked back since. I did it with some amount of trepidation. After all, while my older kids learned cursive in school, they rarely use it, and I wondered if they would be able to read anything I wrote in cursive. The last year of my journals are entirely in cursive, and it has always been my idea that those journals might be of interest to the kids when I am old or gone, but will they be able to read them? This came to mind once again when I read a recent article in The Atlantic, Gen Z Never Learned to Read Cursive” by Drew Gilpin Faust, a former president of Harvard University. The article makes some interesting points about some history being inaccessible to people who never learned to read cursive. Many primary sources are written in cursive and if someone can’t read it, they may veer toward other sources. It reminded me: would my kids be able to read what I write in cursive?

It made me wonder why I’d gone back to writing in cursive. I think there were three reasons.

  1. I’ve been writing more and more off-screens. For some reason, I think differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, and it is a pleasant change. It is more relaxing, and there is more freedom. I can cross something out, or scribble a note in the margin, or circle a passage. I suppose I can do this typing, but it takes more effort.
  2. I’ve been trying to slow myself down when I write. When I print, the rhythm reminds me of a keyboard, a staccato, lift-drop, lift-drop of the pen, which is not much different from the press-release, press-release of the keyboard. Writing in cursive provides a smoothness, a flow that I can’t reproduce printing or on a keyboard.
  3. I like the way it looks. On the face of it, these seems kind of silly, but it is true. I like the slant and flow of the cursive letters. I see some people’s handwriting and it looks like a work of art. Mine does not, but I still like the way it looks in cursive more than in print.

In addition to the Atlantic article, I recently read an essay collection by the late historian Edmund Morris. Several of his essays were about handwriting and pens, and he made a further point that with handwriting, there is more there than just the words on the page. Sometimes, you can see the writer’s thoughts at work. Cursive writing often reveals where I writer paused for thought, or pressed on quickly.

I imagine that cursive writing changes over time, as well. Occasionally I will head over to the Massachusetts Historical Society to skim the diaries of John Adams or John Quincy Adams. Their cursive writing looks different than mine. I have always been particularly impressed by the neatness and style of the sixth president’s writing. See, for instance, the neatness of this example from 21 March 1821.

These days, most of what I write outside of work starts on paper and in cursive. My story drafts are done in Composition notebooks, and are written in cursive. But even my notes are now in cursive. In my Field Notes notebooks, where since 2015 I have always printed my notes, in the last year, I’ve started to write them in cursive. Even lists like this one below:

A list of books I want, scribble in cursive in one of my Field Notes notebooks.
A list of books I want, scribble in cursive in one of my Field Notes notebooks.

I have taken to carrying a stack of 10 blank 3×5 index cards in the back of my Field Notes notebook so that I can more readily make notes on the books and articles I am reading. At the end of the day, I move these notes into Obsidian. But during the day, as I write them, these notes, too, are scribbled out in cursive.

Some reading notes on index cards.
Some reading notes on index cards.

Sometimes, I find that I have trouble reading my own writing, but this is not frequent. When it happens, I’ll pause to puzzle out the indecipherable word, and then usually I will scribble in the word more clearly above in red so that the next time I come to the word, I don’t have to puzzle it out. The more I write in cursive, however, the less of a problem this is for me.

I still wonder if my kids, or their kids, will be able to read my cursive handwriting. I want them to be able to read what I have written. But over time I worry less about it. If they really want to read it, they will figure out a way. And besides, I imagine we are not too far off from AI that can read any form of cursive handwriting and that will make the job easier for anyone trying to puzzle this stuff out.

Written on September 27, 2022.

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  1. I really did take it on a whim, curious to see how I’d score

One Month of Random Article Reading

Earlier in the month, I wrote about one small way I am battling decision fatigue: I wrote a script to select one random article from the magazines I read. Each morning, I run my script, find out what article has been selected, and the locate the magazine. I take it out on the deck along with my breakfast, and proceed to sit in the quiet morning air and read the article. Usually, I’ll snap a photo of the article and post it on Twitter. For instance, here is the one from this morning

I have been reading random articles from my subscriptions for the last month, and I am really enjoying it. I went into this simply trying to eliminate a decision from my day, but it turns out there has been a number of benefits.

First, because the selection is random, and because I am committed to reading whatever is selected each day, I’ve ended up reading articles I wouldn’t have selected on my own–many of which have turned out to be fascinating, well written, insightful, and even heart-wrenching. The randomness, and the commitment to read whatever is selected expands the range of what I read, which is a good thing.

Second, it provides a nice break in my morning routine. I usually end up reading my article just after my morning walk and just before my workout; or just after my workout and just before I start work for the day. It is a nice buffer to have.

Third, because I post what I am reading on Twitter, I pay closer attention to the authors of the articles. If they have a presence on Twitter, I try to tag them, and searching for them helps me learn more about them, and I discover more of what they have written. An unexpected side-effect of this is that sometimes my post reminds writers that there are people out there reading what they have written. Just this morning, for instance, I saw this quote tweet about the post I made on yesterday’s morning reading:

There is a problem, however. I find that though I am reading at least one feature article every day, The list of articles to read seems to grow week-to-week. I blame the New Yorker. It is a weekly magazine, instead of a monthly. Where I might get 4-6 features in a regular monthly magazine, I get 4-6 features a week in the New Yorker. It also skews the random selection a bit: with more New Yorker articles, there is a greater chance that there will be a New Yorker article selected. I’ve considered possible solutions to this, but haven’t come up with a good one yet.

My script automatically removes a selected article from the “to-read” list, but I still track this in the magazine itself. When I finish reading an article, I cross it off in the table of contents, like this:

Articles crossed off in the table of contents.

One unexpected side-effect of this is the joy I feel upon crossing off the last feature article in a given issue. This happened recently with an issue of Outside Magazine. I’d read all of the articles, and crossed off the last one. I took the magazine off the pile and added it to the week’s recycling.

At present there is a fairly large stack of issues with some, but not all, of the articles crossed off. The pile seems to grow, but skimming through it, I can see at least a half dozen issues where only one or two articles remain unread. I imagine there will be a week in the near future where I may complete 4 or 5 issues and the pile will suddenly shrink.

Until now, I have had to run my script on my local computer, which meant that when I was away from home, I’d have to run the script in advance to know what to read each day while I was gone. But this weekend, I fixed that problem. The text files I use to maintain my “to-read” and “read” lists are stored in Dropbox. I created an Apple Shortcut that does essentially the same thing as my shell script. I now can say to my phone, “Hey Siri, select a random article” and Siri will reply with the name of the random article I should read (the shortcut also moves the article to my read list).

The result when I asked Siri to select a random article.
The result when I asked Siri to select a random article.

Geeky technology aside, I am really enjoying my mornings on the deck reading random articles. Looking ahead, I’m trying to figure out what I’ll do once the temperature really starts to drop. Probably I can just sit out there with my coat and hat and enjoy the cold fresh air. That sounds good at the edge of summer when the temperatures are still uncomfortably warm, but we’ll have to see how that works in practice.

Written on September 25, 2022.

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