Category: essays

The Best Self-Paced Course I’ve Ever Taken

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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

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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:

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
7:30amDropoff ZachWorkout
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
7:30amDropoff ZachWorkout
8:30amDropoff Ellie

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

TimeDropoff ADropoff B
7:30amDropoff ZachWorkout
8:30amDropoff Ellie

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

TimeDropoff ADropoff B
7:30amDropoff ZachWalk
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

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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

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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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Notes on a Colonoscopy

close up photo of a stethoscope
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Back in February when I had my annual physical and was not yet 50 years old, my doctor said it was time for me to have a colonoscopy for screening purposes. I said, “I kind of figured that, what with me turning 50 next month.”

“The guidelines have changed,” my doctor said, “Now they recommend 45.”

He told me that I should try to get one scheduled by the end of the year. He gave me a sheet of paper with local gastroenterologists, and said, “You might want to call sooner rather than later. I’m hearing that a lot of these places are, um, backed-up.”

Fast-forward seven months. I turned 50, went on vacation in Ireland, and when I got back, I finally decided to schedule the appointment. The colonoscopy took place last week. The results were all good. Here are some notes and observations for anyone who might find them useful.

  • There really should be a service that you can subscribe to which handles all medical related appointments and forms. I, for one, would gladly pay for a service which would have access to my calendar, and could handle all of the back-and-forth involved in finding, screening, and scheduling an appointment, and filling out the necessary forms, and dealing with the insurance company.
  • Everyone I talked to who’d had a colonoscopy warned me that the “cleansing” was the worst part. Back in high school, I worked in a pharmacy and I remember people coming in for that 64-oz jug of Golytely with the powder on the bottom. I heard that stuff was terrible. My prep was as follows:
    • Liquid diet only beginning the day before the procedure. Since my procedure was on a Thursday morning, it meant a liquid diet beginning first thing Wednesday morning.
    • At 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, take 2 Dulcolax tablets.
    • At 5pm on Wednesday afternoon, drink 32oz of regular Gatorade laced with a bottle of Miralax.
    • At 5:30am on Thursday morning, drink another 32oz of regular Gatorade lacked with a bottle of Miralax.
  • It was impossible to find a 64oz bottle of Gatorade anywhere. It was impossible to find a 32oz bottle. Ultimately, I ordered 2-32oz bottles from Amazon. I quickly discovered a problem. The bottle of Miralax contains 238grams of very fine, flavor-free powder. The 32oz Gatorade bottles are filled to the brim with Gatorade. Adding the powder to the bottles would displace the Gatorade. What I did was this:
    • Drank down about 1/5th of the Gatorade to make room for the powder.
    • Added the powder and shook up the mixture.
    • Drank the rest of the Gatorade mixture. It tasted like… Gatorade.
    • Opened the other bottle of Gatorade and poured half of it into the first bottle.
    • Added half of the remaining powder to each bottle.
    • Returned them to the fridge for the following morning.
  • At some point during the evening, someone took my two bottles of Gatorade out of the fridge to get the milk. They left them on the counter all night. In the morning, I had drink 32oz of warm Gatorade.
  • I drank my first bottle of Gatorade at 5pm Wednesday afternoon. Given what everyone told me, I expected something on the order of volcanic eruption with significant magma displacement. What actually happened was not nearly that dramatic, or even particularly inconvenient. I was warned to stay near a bathroom after taking the medicine, but I could have gone out for my morning walk with no ill effect. Kelly says this is because I have an unusual digestive system to begin with. I was kind of let down by the whole thing.
  • The worst part of the process by far was not eating. On the Tuesday before, we had a remarkably busy schedule with 8 overlapping events that for some reason we had to attend. I had no time for dinner, and it wasn’t until 9:30pm that I finally wolfed something down quickly. That was the last solid food I had until about 11:45am on Thursday. All day on Wednesday, I was so hungry. I saw food everywhere. I thought about food constantly. It was miserable. Far worse, in my mind, than the cleansing phase.
  • My appointment was for 10:30am on Thursday, but for some reason, I had to be there an hour early. The reason: I had a bunch of forms to fill out. The the very first bullet above.
  • I had a fantastic anesthesiologist, Dr. B., who was funning, charming, and engaging. She explained everything and said that the hard part was over and that now I’d earned a good nap. They used Propofol to knock me out. I’d been under general anesthesia a few other times so I knew the drill. The wheeled me into the room where they perform the procedure. I talked with Dr. B about Ireland. I remember I explaining to her that the day we went to the Cliffs of Moher was the only foggy day we had. And then, I was in the recovery room.
  • I wolfed down the crackers and water they gave me, while the doctor came by and told me that I had one of the best colons he’d ever seen. “No one’s ever said that to me before,” I told him.
  • When I got home a little while later, I made myself a ham, turkey and cheese sandwich. It was one of the best sandwiches I’d ever had in my life.

It is a week later as I write this. There were really no ill-effects to the entire process, other than being hungry for 36 hours. And the fasting even knocked off a few extra pounds.

Written on September 21, 2022.

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Boswell or Gibbon?

My editions of Boswell's Life of Johnson and Gibbon's Decline and Fall
My editions of Boswell and Gibbon.

Recently, in my reading, both James Boswell and Edward Gibbon keep popping up. Boswell’s Life of Johnson is frequently referred to as the ultimate in biography and Boswell the ultimate biographer. Meanwhile, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall comes up again and again as one of the best histories ever written. Moreover, many people I admire have read and enjoyed the latter, not the least of which are John Adams and Isaac Asimov. I have wanted to read Decline and Fall for some time now. A while back, I acquired a 6-volume set of Everyman’s Library editions. And while visited a used bookstore recently, I obtained a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Both books would be huge undertakings, and I’ve already got a fairly long list of books taxiing to the runway ahead of these. So the two questions that remain are: when can I read them, and which should I read first, Boswell or Gibbon?

Considering this, I remembered that my friend Bart told me about a book called The Club by Leo Damrosch, which is about a gathering of great minds, among whose members were both Boswell and Gibbon. I decided that I would read that book before either of the other two, and make my decision based on whatever direction that book pointed me in. That is a much shorter book, and I figure my book-traffic-controller can slot it in after Fairy Tale by Stephen King (which I hope to start today), and Hell and Back by Craig Johnson, which I plan on reading right after King.

cover image of The Club by Leo Damrosch

This still leaves the problem of when to read Boswell and Gibbon. Given the speed at which I typically read, I expect I’d need to set aside 7-10 days for Boswell, and possibly twice as long for Gibbon. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of books coming out this month that I want to read. I think December would be the earliest at this point. It might be a good time since I will be on vacation for several weeks in December and might be able to read more than I usually do.

In the meantime, does anyone have thoughts or opinions on which to read first, Boswell or Gibbon? Let me know in the comments.

Written on September 7, 2022.

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There Is Blood on This Essay

interior of abandoned building
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Over the weekend, while visiting a friend from high school, I learned of the horrifying revelations of grooming and abuse in my high school program in the time just after I was there. Seyward Darby spent 9 month investigating this abuse and exposed in a recent piece of journalism that rivals anything that Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens achieved in their day. Though it is painful, I urge you to read her piece, “Fault Lines” on the Atavist. Indeed, if you have to choose between this piece and hers, read hers.

I spent much of last night thinking about my own experience in the humanities magnet program at Cleveland High in Reseda, California. I attended the school between 1987-1990, and I have written about the positive effects the “core” program had on me. Darby’s piece was like seeing that program through a mirror, darkly.

Before I continue, I want to make a couple of points upfront:

  1. I have no words to express the horror that the students who experienced abuse by teachers in the core program must have felt, nor can I adequately comprehend the bravery it took to come forward. I can try to comprehend what these students experienced through the distant gulf of biography, which while descriptive, certainly doesn’t come close to conveying the true horror of living it and living with it.
  2. As a straight, white male, I play the game of life at the lowest difficulty level, to borrow a phrase from John Scalzi. My experience at Cleveland (and in other areas of life) is through this privileged perspective. Being aware of that is important.

During my time at Cleveland, I had several of the teachers mentioned in the piece. I had Ray Linn as a teacher in both 11th and 12th grade, if I remember correctly. I had Michael Helwig for some math class, I can’t recall which. I honestly can’t remember if I had Chris Miller, or not, but I certainly remember him. After my friend told me about Darby’s investigation, we sat around talking, he and his wife and me and Kelly. I tried to explain the program to Kelly, though she’s heard me talk about it countless times. My friend mentioned the way Ray Linn frequently denigrated students, and my response was almost exactly that which appears in Darby’s piece, “He taught through the Socratic method.” Ray Linn was something of a character in the school, and I always took his jaded view of the world to be a persona that couldn’t possibly represent who he was when he was at home.

My friends and I all knew about Miller letting kids out of school through his window. That was about the worst-kept secret in the program. There was a familiarity among students and faculty that I hadn’t experienced before that. I can’t remember if students referred to teachers by their first name, or not. I know that I never did. Back then, all adults were “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss”; it was unthinkable for me to refer to any adult, let alone a teacher, otherwise. But I don’t doubt that it happened.

I frequently speak fondly of my time at Cleveland, and I’ve often attributed my ability to write essays to that core program. I must have had some natural talent as a writer before entering the program, but it was that program, and the essays tests we took that shaped that raw talent into something more. Would I have been able to write and sell stories and articles without the program? Would I have maintained a blog for 17 years and more than 7,100 posts if not for that program? It’s hard to say, but my gut says no. The thing I’ve often thought is that the core program made us feel special. Perhaps I should just speak for myself and say, it made me feel special. That is the closest I can come to understanding how teachers went about grooming students for abuse. It was a window of access, that feeling of being special.

Even within the school, the “core” program was, as Darby states in her piece, “a school within a school” and I recall times when Neal Anstead would bring guest into our classes to see us in action, something that I imagine did not occur in the standard English and History classes outside the humanities program. Many of our classes were discussions, in particular our philosophy classes, and once, I remember Ray Linn going off on something (I can’t remember what) when Neal Anstead and a guest crept silently into the back of the classroom. “Their just a bunch of fucking idiots,” Linn said to finish his tirade. Then he paused, glanced toward the back of the classroom, and with a mild look on his face, said, “Oh look, it’s the boss.”

In 12th grade we were studying Renè Descartes. We had intense discussions in Linn’s class about existence, whether or not you can trust your senses, and perhaps this is all a dream: Descartes, cogito ergo sum. Darby writes about Miller lining up girls in order of attractiveness. I have no doubt that happened. There were other ways we were competitive. Writing essays was one. All of our core tests were essay tests and we were expected to write essays that made use of all of the disciplines we were learning: philosophy, literature, social institutions and art history. Linn’s essay question for the essay on existentialism was put to us as follows: “Prove you don’t exist. If there isn’t blood on the paper when you turn it in, you can’t get an A.” There wasn’t blood on my essay back then, but it feels like there is blood on this essay now.

After our essays were done, we commiserated on how long they were. It wasn’t uncommon for us to write 8-10 handwritten pages in the 2 hours we were given, but there some students who could write much more.

Though I went through the program feeling that “core” made us special somehow, I never felt particularly noticed by teachers. There are only two teachers I can think of who probably knew my name, otherwise, I felt I was just an anonymous face among many students who shined more brilliantly than I ever did.

There was one teacher my friends and I liked particularly in our senior year. After our graduation ceremony, we went to a friend’s house to celebrate. It was an evening pool party, and this teacher was invited, and much to my surprise, showed up at the party. I always felt there was a social gulf between teachers and students (I do so even today when I find myself talking to my own kids’ teachers) and so it was a little odd to see this teacher there. But he was invited and as I recall, he didn’t stay very long.

I mention this for the same reason I mention Linn’s essays question and that “special” feeling we had being “corebabies”: all of it was cast in a new light after reading Seyward Darby’s piece. It is why I wholeheartedly believe the women who have come forward. Even though I didn’t experience the grooming and abuse they did, the environment that made it possible was there in the years that I attended. Three decades later, as a middle-aged parent with a teenager and two younger daughters, it seems to me I should have recognized it for what it was, but I didn’t. I was a teenager myself with no worldly experience to speak of.

It is a shame. I believe the interdisciplinary program we had is what we need more of in education. In grade school I learned to read. In high school, in Cleveland’s humanities program, I learned to think critically about what I read. It seems to me that this critical thinking is more important than ever. Lack of critical thinking leads to what Michael Rich, president emeritus of the RAND Corporation, and his colleague Jennifer Kavanagh refer to as “truth decay.”

I am grateful for my experience in Cleveland’s humanities program. To this day all of my best friends were the friends I had during my years at Cleveland. Yet I am horrified by what students who came to the program shortly after I graduated had to endure and live with for decades thereafter. I hope that somehow they can find peace in all of this, but I also know that isn’t always possible. All night I have wondered if there was anything we did to foster the environment that made core students feel special. After all, we participated in that familiarity and camaraderie with the teachers in our classroom experience. Did that help make it seem okay to cross a line? I like to tell myself that it takes a certain kind of person to cross that line, and that it would have happened with or without us, but it is impossible to say.

If you have read this far, please, please, please take the time to read Seyward Darby’s “Fault Lines” as it is the only way to truly see what the environment was like, and what these women had to endure.

Written on September 6, 2022.

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The Complete David McCullough

About half of my David McCullough books.
About half of my David McCullough books.

On August 28 I finished reading The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. It was a milestone read in that it was the last remaining McCullough book I had to read. Having read it, I have read the complete David McCullough–at least his books. Since he recently passed away, unless he has a book in press, there won’t be another. Sadder words are hard come by for a reader such as me.

For those curious, I read the books over a long period of years and in the following order:

TitleDate first read
John Adams*7/2/2001
Brave Companions: Portraits in History5/8/2018
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris3/18/2019
The Pioneers5/10/2019
The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For5/11/2019
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge9/21/2020
The Wright Brothers9/26/2020
The Johnstown Flood8/12/2022
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt8/18/2022
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-19148/28/2022
*I’ve read each of these multiple times

My favorite of all McCullough’s books is also my first, John Adams, which I have read 3 times and from which I feel I profit more from each reading. Truman is another that I have read more than once, fascinated by the depth and detail. Both these books made me feel as if I was living in the times in which they take place. Both The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas are biographies of engineering marvels, each filled with fascinating details. Despite these books being history, in both cases I was, at times, on the edge of my seat wondering if these great works would ever be completed.

That is the power–the gift–of the writer. And McCullough was a gifted writer, biographer and historian. Certainly he was one of my favorites. But why was he so good? I’ve been giving that some thought lately and I think it comes down to four factors:

  1. Quality of research. McCullough immersed himself in research, focusing on primary sources, including diaries and letters from people where were there. He often identified multiple sources or witness accounts of the same event and used them to suss out the truth so far as it could be determined–something he was always careful to mention when certain facts were in question or uncorroborated. He was patient, and didn’t rush the research. He worked part time on his first book, The Johnstown Flood. When he came to write the biography of Truman, he spent ten years on the research.
  2. Remarkable storytelling ability. McCullough had a remarkable ability to synthesize all of that research and find within it a compelling storyline. All of that painstaking research, all of those gathered facts and corroborations combined with an unusually gifted talent for writing and storytelling to put the reader in the middle of everything. Reading John Adams, I felt I was standing in the room while the debate of independence was carried out. When describing the digging of the canal, I felt I was out there among the man and mosquitos.
  3. Courage to explore. McCullough took the time and space he needed to explore all aspects of a subject. As asthma played a significant role in the life of Theodore Roosevelt, he took time in his biography of the young Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, to do a deep dive into the history of asthma from ancient times to the present. Similarly, one can’t discuss the digging of the Panama Canal without discussing disease, and one can’t discuss malaria without at least mentioning the mosquito. McCullough took a fascinating deep dive here as well.
  4. A knack for choosing interesting subjects. McCullough picked subjects that were both interesting and lesser-know. Even now the only other biography of note I can thing of with respect to John Adams’ is Page Smith’s, which was published some 40 years before McCullough’s biography came out. The Johnstown flood had been virtually forgotten.

Combined, it is no wonder that McCullough was as successful a writer as he turned out to be. It was inevitable. And yet, I wish he could have written more. Once, I saw an interview where he mentioned having dozens of projects listed out that he wanted to tackle. It turns out there just wasn’t enough time. In idle moments, I wonder what those subjects might be, and what wonderful books might have emerged from them.

Written on August 31, 2022.

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