Category: essays

Thoughts on The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

I finished reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski on Thursday. If you’re a regular reader here you’ve probably heard me mention it several times over the last week or so. The book is a collection of 100 essays, each about a player that Posnanski has rated in his own way, to form a list of the best players of all time. It is a massive book, nearly 300,000 words long, something for which I am grateful, since I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want it to end. It was so good, and part of what made it good is that it was not all all what I expected.

  1. As incredible as it seems, the book manages covers the entire history of baseball in 100 essays through the, story of 100 players. These are players I’d heard of, as well as players I’d never heard of. Several of the players never played Major League Baseball, but instead played for the Negro Leagues. Those were some of the most fascinating chapters, both incredible and heartbreaking. You can’t come away from reading the book without a good feel for the 150+ year history of the sport.
  2. Each essay is unique. The way Posnanski tells the story depends entirely on the player at the center of the essay. There is no standard, no formula. Each player is unique and each story is unique both in its details and how Posnanski tells the story. The one constant, besides baseball, is Joe’s voice: his passion for and delight of the game form the backbone the holds all of these stories together.
  3. The essays meander. I love that. The essays aren’t all a straight history of a player. Joe might start with a famous event, then go on to talk for half the essay about other things that eventually tie back to that famous event. He might start with another player entirely. He might discuss a statistic, or a questionable piece of folklore. This is where much fo the history of the sport happens, and much as a good historian can tie together different ties by identifying comparative elements, this is what the meandering achieves.

Then there is the sheer audacity of what Joe pulled off. Within these essays, there are many record achievements, some that will likely never be broken again. Take Di Maggio’s 56-game hitting streak. There are also examples of consistent, workhorse players, players who manage 3,000 or more career hits, which requires a kinds of consistency, skill, and discipline that is rare. Joe’s book is in this latter category. Joe wrote these 100 essays in 100 days, each originally published in The Athletic as it was finished. This meant he did his research, reading and writing and somehow came up with a brilliant, and on average, 3,000 word essay every single day for 100 days without fail. How did he manage such a feat? He gives a little insight in the final chapters, when he writes,

I spent almost every hour of every day thinking about ballplayers. I read books about them. I researched them. I watched movies and documentaries about them. Mostly, I remembered them, the ones I had seen, the ones I had spoken with, the ones I had heard so much about.

In a way, this sounds familiar. Ten years ago when I was writing my Vacation in the Golden Age posts, I remember doing something similar, pouring over every words in the issues of Astounding Science Fiction, referring to book about the writers that appeared in those issues, about the history of the magazines, reviewing notes in collections of stories, completely immersing myself in the era. And I was doing it part-time, and managed 42 essays over the space of more than a year. Joe did all of this and managed 100 magnificent essays in the 100 days. Like Di Maggio’s hitting streak, or Ted Williams’ .406 season, it seems almost inconceivable. Which, of course, makes it all the more impressive.

I recently wrote about my favorite baseball books, noting that my favorite was Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. Well, I think I’ll have to revised that list. There is a new leader, and that leader is The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski.

As of this writing, I’ve read 62 books this year. As usual, they run the gamut, taking me wherever the butterfly effect of reading directs me to go next. Of those 62 book, this one easily jumps to the best I’ve read this year. And I’ve got say, I think it will be hard to top it. It is that good.

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A Sequel to the Passports Story

Last week I told the story of the project manager and the passports. This week, I want to add sequel. In order to do this, we need to go back in time a few months.

In early June I began looking into how long it takes to get a passport renewed. With COVID, nothing is normal, and so I assumed this was the case with passports. Indeed, what I learned from the official State Department website for passports was to expect the total process to take about 16 weeks: 12 weeks for processing and 4 weeks for shipping. I could be a little faster if one paid the expedited fee, but there was really no rush. So at the end of June, I got new photos, filled out application forms, and submitted my application to renew my passport.

We wanted to get passports for the kids’ as well, but seeing as how kids passports have to be renewed in 5 years, we figured we’d wait until the fall to do theirs. When fall rolled around, I checked and all indications were still that 16 week turnaround time. So we got the photos, filled out applications, collected all of the necessary paperwork, and, well, I’ve told this part of the story already. Along the way, I even managed to hit a squirrel.

On Tuesday evening, Kelly and I went for a walk. When we got home, the mail had come (unusually late) and in the mail was all three of the kids’ new passports. They arrived precisely 11 days after we submitted our applications. Eleven days. That’s about 101 days less than the 16 week estimate we were given. If you take that piece of data, and add to it the fact that our appointment estimate was 45 minutes and it took 7 minutes total, I think it is fair to say that the State Department may be overestimating how long things take.

After I got over my initial disbelief that the kids’ passports had arrived in 11 days (what would have happened if we’d paid the expedite fee, I wonder?), my next natural question was: where the heck is my passport? I submitted my application 105 days ago.

Well, this morning, I checked the status of my passport online, and learned that it has shipped and I should be getting it next week. That would still be about 2 weeks shy of the original estimate.

I suppose one could argue that mine was a passport renewal, and there is more background checking to do for a middle-aged man than for 3 young kids, and that’s why there’s were done so quickly. What I can’t understand is how much the State Department is overestimating how long it takes process passport applications. Could mine be just an outlier? Maybe. But I recall my brother obtaining passports for all six of his kids earlier this year, and getting them much faster than he was told. You’d think the State Department would want to brag about such efficiency. They could market it as what bureaucracy is supposed to be like when all of the red tape is cut away.

I guess they are reluctant to do this for fear of being inundated with applications (“the hug of death,” as Tim Ferriss calls it).

Well, anyway, kudos to the hard working folks at the State Department who proceeded these passports so quickly. It was an unexpected positive moment of truth, and you deserve to be recognized for your diligence. I only wish I knew your names.

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More Lessons In UI Design

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When I work on UI design for applications I build at work, I try to make it so that the system won’t allow users to make mistakes. I don’t show fields that aren’t absolutely necessary, or options within those fields that aren’t needed for some important function in the context of what is being done. I try to make it as intuitive as possible, and though I always write documentation and help text for the systems, I try to design the UI to be self-explanatory. I put a lot of effort into this. I’ll use a recent experience to tell you why.

Our school system uses a Qualtrics app for health screening. Every morning, I get a notification–one for each of our three kids–with a link to complete the health screener. The health screener itself has eight yes/no questions that you have to answer. You tap a long Yes or No bar below each question. When selecting an option, it turns blue. It doesn’t matter which option you select, the selected option turns blue. At then end of the screen, you advance to the next page, where you verify that you’ve answered all the questions truthfully. After that, you get to a page with a green checkmark, indicating your child has cleared the health screener for school that day.

I’m up early and it is my job to do the screeners for the kids. I tap those “No” buttons 120 times a week, week in and week out. And yet, twice now–most recently yesterday morning–instead of a green checkmark, I’ve had a red X of death. Somehow, I accidentally answered a question “Yes” instead of “No.” This is annoying. It means I have to wait for the school to open, call the school, explain that I’m an idiot and accidentally selected the wrong option, and could they please correct this. Twice, this has happened to me.

The thing is, I am not an idiot. The Qualtrics application, for reasons that pass comprehension, allows users to make silly mistakes. An application–especially a health screener like this one–should never allow for mistakes like this. How could these mistakes me avoided? I can think of two easy ways:

  1. When answering the 8 questions on the first page, if you tap No, response turns green instead of blue. Green is good. If you tap Yes, the response turns red instead of blue. Red is bad. This is a quick visual cue to indicate how you answered the questions. If you see red, and didn’t mean to answer a question Yes, you can quickly correct it and watch it change green.
  2. On the second page, where you verify that your answers are true, it might be nice to display a recap of your answered, again, with Yes highlighted red and No highlighted green. Another simple check before you submit your responses.

If the Qualtrics application implemented even one of these two simple features, I’m certain that I would not have made any mistakes this year. Keep in mind, It’s not quite the middle of October. There has been, say 25 school days, which means 75 opportunities to fill out this screener. My success rate is therefore 97%. That sounds high, but given I have to fill this out for three kids each day, it also means that I can expect to make this mistake between 10 and 14 more times this school year. And I can’t imagine I am the only one making these mistakes. Which means a whole lot of frustrated parents, and a whole lot of time school administrators have to invest in correcting mistakes that parents make, when all of this can be resolved by any of the suggestions I’ve made above.

Why wouldn’t Qualtrics make this change? One reason does come to mind: Perhaps the thinking is that if “Yes” answers are flagged (e.g. “Yes, my child is awaiting the results of a COVID test”), it will discourage people from answering the questions honestly. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I could see it. Instead, the tool makes it confusing for sleepy, overworked parents to ensure they are selecting the correct options.

This is why I spend a lot of time thinking about the design and use of the UIs that I build in applications I make in my day job. I don’t want others to experience the unnecessary frustrations I have with software. I know how it makes you feel.

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My Favorite Baseball Books, For Now

With the postseason underway, and I nearly finished with The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, I got to thinking about my favorite baseball books. I suspect that The Baseball 100 will jump toward the top–if not the top–of the list. But what are my favorites right now? My list of books I’ve read since 1996 has quite a few baseball-related books on it. Here is my selection of the best ones, in my opinion:

  1. Ball Four by Jim Bouton. A classic in the genre, and one that set the stage for the modern baseball tell-all.
  2. Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion in Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould is best known for his books and essays on paleontology and evolution in Natural History magazine. But he was a huge baseball fan, and I love the way he thinks about the game in these essays.
  3. Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. Everything I knew, or thought I knew, about Ty Cobb was dispelled by this book. I read it in the offseason. Always a good time to read baseball in order to make it a year-round sport.
  4. Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah. The book made me love Yogi even more.
  5. Casey Stengel by Marty Appel. Possibly the most remarkable career in baseball ever.
  6. Red Smith: On Baseball by Red Smith. Reading this book cemented the idea that when I grow up, I want to be a baseball writer. Unfortunately, I read this book when I was 46 years old. Fortunately, I still haven’t grown up.
  7. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Fleder. An absolutely remarkable collection of baseball writing.
  8. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The first time I’d read this book was in the aftermath of 9/11. I’d seen Field of Dreams many times before I read this book. I love Field of Dreams but this book was far and away the best thing about baseball I’d ever read.

That all said, I am enjoying The Baseball 100 so much that I suspect it will end up as #2, possibly even #1 on the list by the time that I finish.

Of course, for as many baseball books I’ve read, there are countless I have yet to read. Some that I want to read, or have been wanting to read for some time include:

And, as always, I am open to suggestions.

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Impressive Feats of Writing

I’ve mentioned how I am reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. It is a delight and treat to read these 100 essays on baseball players, that tell a fascinating history of the game. It has quickly jumped toward the top of the list of best baseball books I have ever read. I’ve learned (or been reintroduced to) all kinds of incredible things that have happened in the sport over the last 150+ years.

But actually, the book itself is an impressive feat of writing. These essays originally appeared in The Athletic. As Posnanski writes in the introduction:

This book contains almost 300,000 words, just about all of them originally written over a 100-day stretch when this series first appeared on the web pages of “The Athletic.” I lived this book twenty-four hours a day during those weeks, writing, reading, learning, dreaming baseball.

Three hundred thousand words in 100 days. To put that in some perspective, that’s 3,000 words per day, fifty percent more than a prolific author like Stephen King aimed for in his prime. In the book, Posnanski discusses why getting 3,000 hits is such an achievement. It means consistently hitting the ball over a period more than a decade. That means playing as much as possible, staying healthy, and still managing to make enough regular contact to get those hits. I think of 3,000 words a day for a hundred days as a similar achievement. And when you couple that with the reading, learning, and dreaming that Posnanski refers to, it really boggles the mind to think that all of this was written in 100 days.

Consider, that as of this post, I’ve published post for 283 consecutive days, writing 345 posts so far in 2021. My average post length is about 650 words, and I’ve written, on average, 1.2 posts per day. Doing that math, that means I’m writing about 780 words per day. Generally, these posts require little or no research, so I don’t have that to worry about. So, 283 days into the year, I’ve written a grand total of 222,000 words here on the blog. Posnanski wrote 300,000 in 100 days. That is just mind-boggling.

What makes it even more amazing, to me, is that, like the best baseball writing, Posnanski’s essays are engaging, have a distinct voice, and are endlessly fascinating. One of the great pleasures of the book is not looking ahead to see who will the next essay be about? It is almost as if, as each player gets better as you move down the list, each essay rises to the level of that player. As one writer looking at another, I am in awe. It is as if I am in the minor leagues, watching a Hall of Fame work in his prime.

It is at time like these that I think back to that day when I decided I was too busy to work on the college newspaper. I think I could have been a decent sportswriter. No Joe Posnanski, but I would have a done alright. And just imagine having a job like that? I never could have played in the majors, or minors for that matter, but when it came to sportswriting, I could have been a contender.

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The Thing About 70s Music

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I spent several hours yesterday morning doing a software rollout. It was a meticulous process, and I find that if I have music playing in the background for that kind of work, it blocks out everything else and I can focus better. I spent those hours listening to SiriusXM 70s on 7. I had a smile on my face the entire time. Around noon, Casey Kasem came on to do the Top 40 countdown for this week in 19701. You know it is the 70s when “Rubber Duckie” is one of the songs on the countdown.

I listen to a lot of 80s music because those were my formative years. Still, I was eight years old in 1980 and I have very clear memories of where I was when various songs played on the radio in the 1970s. I’ve always had a fondness for the 70s, and even once wrote a post about what it would be like to spend a week in the 1970s. Listening to music from the 70s, no matter what style, always puts me into a good mood. Music from the 1980s can do this, too, but 80s music can also have me suddenly feeling awkward, reliving those years of puberty. The 70s always seems happy to me.

After I completed my rollout, and ate a late lunch, I headed down for my afternoon nap, and while I lay there, before falling asleep, I considered why it was that 70s music always makes me happy, and why it always makes me think the 70s was a kind of golden age of my youth. I’d thought about this before, but this was the first time I found an answer.

I was absolutely carefree in the 1970s. I had no worries whatsoever.

Life is simple when you four, or six, or even eight years old. As I got older, the worries and stresses built. In the 80s, it was junior high school, then high school and a job and standardized tests and applying for colleges and dating and playing sports. All of that happened in the 80s. In the 70s, I had toys, and television. I watched The Incredible Hulk and The Dukes of Hazzard on Friday nights. I watched The Love Boat on Saturday nights. Saturday mornings were for cartoons: The Bugs Bunney/Roadrunner Show was among my favorites. The 70s was about albums, and movies like Grease and Star Wars. In the 70s, there were bagel deliveries on Sunday mornings. Steve Hartman (later with Joan Lunden) gave me the news (“Make it a good day today!”). The Yankees won the World Series in ’77 and ’78. They never won in the 1980s. In the 70s, my dad took me to Pop’s gas station and to the Country Squire where I could have a donut. We went to a putting green that was nearby an airport and I watched little planes land, with no inkling that one day, I’d be flying planes like those.

And of course, I was surrounded by music. The radio was on for the drives to my grandparent’s house, about an hour away. Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” always reminds me of where the New Jersey Turnpike meets the Garden State Parkway. The Eagles “Take It To the Limit” reminds me of the Garden State Parkway in the 1970s. “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee reminds me of our family room. “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille reminds me of our kitchen. The theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter” reminds me of a drive home from a Mets game. All of it was (or at least in retrospect seems) carefree. Well, most of it. Super Tramp’s “The Long Way Home” reminds me of hanging out with my best friend after his dad died.

I have an autobiography playlist and the first 26 songs on that list are songs I remember from the 1970s. It’s not until you get to #27 and #28 (“Rio” by Duran Duran and “Video Killed the Radio Star” that we get into the 1980s.) And those 26 songs are just representative. I could have made that list much longer. I don’t do it often, but I love listening to the first part of that playlist.

With all of the usual stresses of a middle-aged adult in the modern world, raising a family in the midst of a global pandemic, it is no wonder that I find joy and respite in the music from a time when I had no cares or worries. It was a sort of revelation to finally understand why I liked 70s music so much, and why it always seemed to cheer me up. Now, on those rare occasions when I am feeling down, I’m going to turn to 70s on 7 and see if it helps to cheer me up.

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  1. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” by B.J. Thomas was #1.

Coding and Baseball

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I’ve spend much of this week writing code for a fairly significant update to some software my team rolled out in May. Much of it was refactoring (from about 4,000 lines of Groovy script down to about 900), some of it was making things more efficient, and a lot of it was to make the code more supportable as time goes on. There were also a lot of important enhancements and bug fixes. Each day began with me sitting in front of code, disappearing into the code, and emerging only reluctantly to the world when my brain was too tired to continue.

Those of you who write code for a living know what this feels like. On Friday night, for instance, as I write this, I was completely spent. As much as I wanted to continue reading the (thus far) fantastic book by Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100, I needed a break from reading. It was all I could do to pull myself back to the computer to write this. The family went out and I wanted to go with them, but I wasn’t feeling social. That happens sometimes after spending a week in code.

So what’s a fellow to do?

I think I found a pretty good solution: I discovered that The Show ’21 is finally available for the Xbox One. And I started playing it. I played my first game as the Los Angeles Dodgers facing Tampa Bay. And despite it being my first game, and despite the fact that my hand-eye-coordination could use some work, I played a full 9 innings and beat Tampa 6-5. It was blissful.

Either you are a baseball fan or you aren’t. I’ve rarely met someone in between. People sometimes wonder what’s so great about the sport. You hear all kinds of arguments from baseball fans (of which I am one), but the best line I’ve ever heard is simple: baseball is there to be enjoyed. And I enjoyed it tonight, even though it was in a video game. I love the dynamics of the game, the skills required not just on the athletic side, but on the mental side as well. I love the instincts that develop: flipping that grounder to second because you know without looking that there is already a running on first. I love the chess match between pitcher and hitter, each trying to outguess the other. And of course, I love the history.

It’s been many decades since I last thought that playing in the majors could be a reality (I think I might have been ten). But playing The Show tonight after spending my week coding made it feel like I was playing in the majors. It made me feel good, and that’s just about the best think a video game can do.

I played one game already, but it’s a beautiful evening for baseball. As Ernie Banks would say, “Let’s play two.”

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Speaking in Complete Paragraphs

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In various books I’ve read, a person has been described of someone who “speaks in complete paragraphs.” I knew, theoretically, what that meant, but until fairly recently, I’d hadn’t encountered it myself in a conscious way. Two people come to mind as ones who speak in complete paragraphs: Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman.

I’d heard Walter Isaacson talk before, but it wasn’t until I heard him on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast that I realized he was one of those people who speaks in complete paragraphs. Neil Gaiman is another person like this. I’ve seen him speak on a number of occasions and he, too, is one of those rare people who seems to be able to speak in complete paragraphs.

Anyone can ramble on. I certainly find myself doing this when I speak, but people like Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman seem to create works in their mind the way many writers do on a page. They form complete, coherent thoughts into smoothly rendered speech. If you didn’t know they were speaking off the cuff, you might think they’d memorized what they were saying–not just the words, but tone, inflection, everything about it. This is one of those superpowers (like a phenomenal memory) that I’m always envious of. When you can speak in complete sentences, you really sound like you know what you are talking about.

When I hear myself speak–on podcasts I’ve been on, in interviews I’ve done–I never sound as smooth as Isaacson or Gaiman. Often, I think I sound scattered. My sentences aren’t complete, let alone paragraphs. Also, I sound just like my brother, and when I hear myself on a recording unexpectedly, my first thought it: when was my brother on a podcast? The one time I met Neil Gaiman, when I was a presenter at the Nebula Awards in 20121, we were gathering for photos and I saw him carrying the two awards he’d just won. All I could think of to say was, “Wow, Neil, are those things iron?”

Neil Gaiman, me, and Joe Haldeman at the 2012 Nebula Awards.

When I was young, I often received compliments on my writing like: “You write how you speak.” Or, “I can totally picture you saying this because this is your voice.” I have to disagree. My writing tends to be colloquial, sure, but it is also far more polished than if I were trying to speak my thoughts aloud. Indeed, I have, thus far, been unable to use dictation software for the very reason that I don’t write how I speak.

Both Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman sound like their writing. Even when speaking off the cuff, I could imagine reading what they were saying as if it were written on a proof-edited page.

Podcasts are the big thing these days, and occasionally, I’ve been asked why I don’t have a podcast. “Well, I’m a better writer than I am a speaker,” I say. “If I am going to do something, it might as well be something I am halfway decent at.” It is not that I am a terrible speaker; I just can’t help comparing myself to those people I’ve heard speaking in complete paragraphs. It is really an amazing thing to behold.

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  1. I also accepted an award for Ken Liu when he won for “The Paper Menagerie.”

A Disappointing, But Not Unexpected End to the Yankees’ Season

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I needed a day to settle down before I could write about the Yankees loss to the Red Sox on Tuesday night. I watched the game, one of the few that I’ve watched this season, and I went into it excited about the possibilities of the Yankees going all the way. They had a great finish to their final game of the season to make it to the wild card game. But within the first few minutes of Tuesday’s game, I had a strong hunch they weren’t going to win. None of the Yankee players, even the stars, had that hungry, driven look in their eyes. It showed in the game. Just two examples:

Down 2-0, Stanton hit a wicked shot off the Green Monster. He trotted down the first base line, watching the ball go, probably thinking it was a home run. It went off the wall, however, and what could easily have been a standup double ended up a single. Later, with Aaron Judge on first, Stanton hit another smash off the wall, that was played perfectly. Judge went from first to home, and was thrown out. It really Judge’s fault. He was waved home, and should have been held at third.

Whatever happened to running out every hit? Whatever happened to playing smart baseball? With one out and down by two, why risk a play at the plate when you could have had one out and two runners in scoring position? I was frustrated by the end of the game, which was usually short for a Yankees/Red Sox post season match-up. It took me a while before I finally settled down and fell asleep.

Baseball has changed a lot over the course of my life. The longest, most fun I ever had watching the game on TV was during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, I’ve lost track of a lot of the players, and it is hard to keep up. About the only thing I’ve really kept up with are the changing measures of the game. Batting average is no longer a good measure of a hitter; it’s been supplanted by the superior OPS+. WAR and Runs Created allow for comparisons across eras of the game. WHIP tells you a lot more about a pitcher than ERA. Still, I had that little thrill in my gut that I always get at the outset of a game. And despite the Yankees loss, and the end to their season, I am looking forward to next season, and will try to pay more attention, and learn the newer players.

As I write this, the Dodgers are set to play the Cardinals for the National League wildcard. I’m not much of a fan of the wildcard concept. Baseball is a game of series. The entire season is made up of 3 or 4 game series; and the postseason is also series: best 3 out of 5, best 4 out of 7. But this relatively new wildcard playoff game is a sudden death, do-or-die thing. Not at all what baseball is about. In any case, if I can’t root for the Yankees anymore this season, then I’ll turn my attention to the Dodgers. It boggles my mind that a team that won 106 games in the regular season is a wildcard team. St. Louis, the other wildcard team had 90 wins by comparison. San Francisco, the team that won the NL West, had 107 wins, only one more than the Dodgers.

If I had my way, I’d get rid of the wildcard entirely. I’d also get rid of the designated hitter rule. And I’d play more day games. And I’d scout for announcers and color commentators who could talk about more than just stats; someone like Vin Scully, who really brought color to the games with his commentary. Of course, the game evolves. At least I can take comfort in the past, and the rich history of the game. At the moment, I’m having a blast reading Joe Posnanski’s The Baseball 100. It makes me want to be a baseball player, and sportswriter at the same time.

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The Project Manager and the Passports

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Last week we took our kids to get their passports. We are planning a trip for next year, and wanted to check this item off the list. When it comes to filling out forms, and getting things organized for an appointment like this, I’m the one in the family who takes care of it.

As anyone who has applied for passports for their kids knows, this can be an involved process. There are lots of instructions and Kelly is not an instructions-reader. But it is my speciality. The first step was to make the appointment in the first place. We actually needed a 45-minute slot to get all three kids taken care of, and we finally found on at the local post office on Washington Blvd, where not long ago, I took the Littlest Miss to see what a post office was like. The appointment was for Friday morning at 9 am. It means having the kids go to school late since they needed to be there with us at the appointment. The post office opens at 9 am, so we had the first appointment of the day. Interestingly, the confirmation message instructed us to arrive 10 minutes early, but since the doors weren’t unlocked until 9 am, I’m not sure that mattered.

Next, we needed photos. One evening last week, we headed over to a local Walgreens and got passport photos for all 3 kids. We had dinner at a local beer garden while we waited for the photos to be processed. It was a beautiful evening out and it was nice to be able to kill two birds with one stone.

On Wednesday, I completed all of the forms. The DS-11s really aren’t that bad. The hardest part was remembering how tall my kids were at the moment. Fortunately, I had recent wall-marks to use as a reference. I got the forms completed, checked them, and printed them. I made sure not to sign then per the instructions.

I wrote checks the U.S. Department of State, one for each kid, labeling them as indicated on the website. I gathered up their birth certificates, made photocopies for each kid, then made 3 copies each of our driver’s licenses. I organized everything into neat piles: check, photo, DS-11, original birth certificate, photo copy of birth certificate, and photo copy of driver’s licenses. I put each pile into a carefully labeled manilla envelope.

On Friday morning, I stuffed all three envelopes into my backpack. I added the checkbook, and an extra passport photo for each kid, just in case. At 8:45a we headed into the car, and drove to the post office on Washington Blvd. I had prepared everything. This was going to be easy.

It turned out, after waiting until 9 am when the post office opened, that we were at the wrong post office.

I has assumed that the post office on Washington Blvd was our local post office. I never even thought to check. So at 9:05, we scrambled back into the car and drove to the other post office on Washington Blvd, about 2 miles away. It was on that drive that I ended up hitting a squirrel.

We arrived at 9:20 am, and when we said we were there for our passport appointment, they chided us for being late (fair) and almost wouldn’t take us because they had a 9:45 am appointment and insisted it took 45 minutes for three kids. But everyone was there, and we were led into the passport room. They seemed a bit mollified to learn the we didn’t need photos.

At 9:29 am, we were back in the car. The entire passport appointment, the one that the post office people insisted takes 45 minutes for 3 kids, took exactly 7 minutes. I timed it. I had everything organized and ready. The seven minutes involved the passport person hand copying information from our licenses onto the 3 DS-11 forms, stapling the photos, re-organizing the stacks of paperworks, having us swear that the photos of the kids were in fact our kids (even though the kids were right there) and signing the paperwork. That was it.

They say the best laid plans don’t survive contact with the enemy. As a project manager, I defeated myself this time, and it was only the good graces of the postal workers that saved the day. I didn’t mind. I was in a good mood. Even though things went awry, I was proud that my organization cut a 45 minute appointment down to 7 minutes.

If only all meetings could be that efficient.

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When A Phone Is Still A Phone: A Reboot, Of Sorts

flat lay photography of red anti radiation handset telephone beside iphone
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Recently I wondered aloud about when a phone is no longer a phone. I mentioned how I seemed to use my phone for everything but what a telephone was originally made for: making and receiving phone calls. I noted how, in September, I had a combined 6 calls made and received in total, though it feels as though I use my phone constantly throughout the day. I wondered what alternative names we might give to this device that is named for a function I so rarely use. My favorite suggestion, by the way, is what they call phones in the U.K.: “mobiles.”

You can always count on your friends to try to pick you up in these times of confusion and bewilderment. And so it was that on the very first day of October, I received a calI from a friend. I had spent most of the day refactoring a bunch of Groovy code that I had written, and when I’d finished, I felt a needed a walk outdoors to help me come out of my code coma and back into the world of the normally conscious. I headed out under bright blue skies, taking my phone along with me, mostly so that I could continue to listen to the book I was reading, The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbably Education of Henry Adams by David S. Brown. I was about a third of the way through said walk, with Adams setting about to write his famous history of the United States, when the narrator’s voice faded, and my phone began to ring.

I pulled it out of my pocket to make sure I could safely ignore the call–I don’t answer calls for numbers I don’t recognize, and this tends to be 9 out of 10 calls I get. On the screen, however, what I saw was “Michael A. Burstein.” I answered at once, trying not to sound winded as I walked. “Hey, Michael, what’s up?” I asked.

“See1,” Michael said without any preface, “you do use your phone.” I had to admit that I did, but of course, I recognized the name, one that doesn’t appear often enough on my phone because Michael is a joy to talk with. And this time, he had proven his point: on the very day I published a post claiming that I almost never used my phone as a phone anymore, here I was using it as a phone.

What followed, however, was comic in its irony. Let me use a visual aid to tell this part of the story.

So, (1) Michael called me to prove that I do use my phone as a phone. Note that this entry at the bottom of my call log is “mobile.” Then (2) Michael got the idea that we could do a FaceTime call. For some reason, we couldn’t get the video to work, which is odd because I use FaceTime with family quite frequently. So after some texting (not shown) Michael called me back (3) via phone to commiserate on this technological mystery. There were then several attempts (4) to get a FaceTime call working. Michael tried again (5), but that seemed to fail and it showed up as a missed call. Finally (6) using his daughter’s phone, Michael was able to connect and we could see one another. I had stopped short of the 7-Eleven I usually walk to and they could see the parking lot and the bright blue sky in the background. After the call, I stopped in the store for some ice cream and started my walk home.

We continued to text, however. Michael was trying to figure out why his daughter’s phone worked but his didn’t. He tried again (7), and I saw nothing–another missed call. Finally, I saw a FaceTime call come through and answered it (8). It was Michael, on his own phone and the FaceTime call succeeded. The solution to get it all working: Michael rebooted his phone.

I’d like to point out for the record here that 2 of the 10 calls on the above list were actual “phone” calls where I was using my phone as a phone. The other 8 calls (and several text messages) were attempts of middle-aged men trying and failing to use technology on their phones far beyond the powers and abilities of mortal phone calls.

I’d also like to point out: I don’t recall ever having to reboot the phone attached to the wall in our kitchen when I was growing up. I’m not even sure the term “reboot” existed at that point.

It was wonderful talking with Michael, as it always is, but man, the technology was wearing me out. Between the coding and trying to get FaceTime to work, I needed a break. When I finally got back home, I tossed my phone on my desk, headed out onto the deck, and poured myself a drink. Or two.

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  1. I may be paraphrasing here.

The Specialist and the Generalist

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For nearly two weeks now, I’ve had in my head an op-ed I read in the New York Times by Molly Worthen titled, “The Fight Over Tenure Is Not Really About Tenure.” As someone who knows little about the political structure of institutions of higher learning, I’m fascinated by the concept of tenure, which is what attracted me to the piece in the first place. A line from that piece keeps coming back to me, almost haunting me these last two weeks:

In graduate school, aspiring professors often hear: Don’t be overly broad in your dissertation; you’ll have to get it done and published, because hiring committees care far more about that than how prepared you are to teach a wide range of subjects. Academic freedom no longer includes freedom to be a generalist.

It is the last line, which I bolded in the quote, which has been coming back to me. All through high school and college, I never thought in terms of specialists and generalists. Indeed, I never really considered the possibility of a “generalist” until reading that that was how Isaac Asimov described himself. Today, I think of myself as a generalist, with a fair amount of knowledge over a wide (although not exhaustive) range of subjects, but not a great deal of depth in any but one or two. And even in those areas, I wouldn’t consider myself a “specialist.” Indeed, at work, I think myself as a generalist. I write code in a dozen different languages, but I’m not an engineer, and I refused the appellation “software engineer” because to me, an engineer is a trained specialist, and I am not. I am capable in the technical world in wide variety of areas, but a specialist in none.

This got me thinking about what it means to be a specialist versus a generalists, and how I ended up in the latter category.

My experience growing up is that we tend to start with the goal of becoming a specialist. As a six or seven year old, a discovered a wonderful book on astronomy in the public library that turned my eyes to the stars. I got a telescope and would head out in the back yard with my dad to look at the stars and planets. I decided, then, that I wanted to be an astronomer. Let’s set aside, for the moment, that there are all kinds of sub-specialties in astronomy. To a seven year old, an astronomer is a specialist. Other kids had specialties that aimed for as well: doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and perhaps the most specialized job that ever existed, President of the United States.This is what I mean when I say we begin with the goal of becoming a specialist.

Of course, specialists are valued for the skillset they bring to their work. So it makes sense we move from the more general to the more specific. After all, this is also how we learn.

Somewhere along the way, however, I was diverted away from being a specialist into being a generalist. A combination of several factors came together, like two ocean waves, to bring this about. And like the collision of two waves that form one larger wave, it was a complete accident.

The first of these factors was curiosity. I’ve always been curious about the world and how it works, not any one part of it specifically, but the whole thing. When I discovered computer programming, I wanted to know how that worked. When I watched a baseball game, I wanted to know how the game came to be. Curiosity drives some people to become specialists. In my case, I didn’t want to know about just one thing, I wanted to know about everything. I can’t explain why this is, but it is how I have always been. Perhaps the understanding that a wide-range of knowledge brings provides comfort in an otherwise chaotic world. I suspect this is part of it, because when my kids are nervous about something–thunder, for example–my first instinct is to explain to them what the thunder really is, and what causes it.

The second factor was my discovery of libraries. At an early age, my mom told me that books could take me anywhere; that I could find the answer to almost anything I was looking for somewhere in a book. I don’t know where I’d be without libraries; certainly not where I am today. Libraries fed that initial curiosity. My mom was right: I could find the answers I was looking for somewhere in a book; and a lot of those books were in libraries.

A strange thing happened, however. Once I became acquainted with a subject, and learned something about it, my curiosity was sated, and often, directed somewhere else.Today I call this the butterfly effect of reading. There were endless questions to find answers to and no single question held me interest strongly enough to make me want to delve deep into the realm of specialization. I’d rather go find the answer to the next question. In this regard, I was incredibly lucky: I went to a high school which focused on breadth of learning rather than depth; one centered around an interdisciplinary “core” that allowed us to see subjects through multiple lenses. Learning about limits in math, was coupled by learning about Zeno the philosopher in our “core” classes; studying the nature of the universe in physics was paired with learning about the birth of philosophy and how people began to explain the world around them. Literature and art history was layered upon this, so that limits and Zeno might be coupled with M.C. Escher’s art.

It is my experience that grade school taught me to read, high school taught me to think critically about what I read and related it to other things I’d read, and college taught me how to learn. Through grade school, high school, and college, thanks to curiosity and libraries, I was nudged in the direction of being a generalist, so that when I graduated, I was finally prepared to learn, I wanted to learn at least a little about everything, rather than spend a lot of time on one thing. Learning a little of everything allowed me to make use of the tools I’d been provided with. The more I read, the more I began to relate seemingly unrelated topics. The more I read, the more I felt I had a holistic view of things, rather than a narrow view. In short, I’d become a generalist.

Perhaps the comparison of the specialist and the generalist is nothing more than a recasting of specializing in the sciences versus liberal arts. The latter is often derided for the term “liberal” but I understand it to mean “broad” as opposed to any political affiliation. I make no judgement of the value of specializing compared to generalizing. Both are valuable and necessary. What concerns me, what has been sticking with me, and returning to my thoughts over the last couple of weeks is this idea that academic freedom no longer includes the freedom to be a generalist. If this is true, it would seem we have found yet another way to limit ourselves unnecessarily.

If all that matters in the business world and the academic world is hiring specialists, then what is the point of being a generalist?

For me, it is about feeding that curiosity. Being a generalist did not prevent me from getting a good job. It might have prevented me from climbing higher on the ladder: I have an undergraduate degree in political science and journalism. Many positions higher up the ladder seem to go to people with specialties: MBAs, Ph.D’s, and people with degrees in specific areas of computing: information security, software engineering, etc. But I’m okay with that. I am believer in learning for learning’s sake, and if one thing depresses me more than anything else, it is that learning for learning’s sake is no longer deemed valuable. I see it in my own kids’ educations, where they are taught to pass tests, not to really learn. But that is a topic for another day. For me, I have to learn more, I’m always curious, it is a hunger in me like those that vampire’s are alleged to have in fiction: the more they consume, the hungrier they get.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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