Category: essays

Recent Posts I Didn’t Write

One of the many things I enjoy about writing here is that, unlike writing fiction or nonfiction articles, I never worry much about word count. I don’t track the words I write on a daily basis. On some days, I’ll write a short post, on other days, a longer post. Some days, I’ll sit down to write a post and write two or three in a row. Other days, like today, I’m hard pressed to think of one idea to write about. On these days, there are a few tactics I use to generate ideas:

  • I skim through collections of Andy Rooney and E. B. White essays. Usually this just makes me envious, but sometimes, something will catch my eye that will trigger an idea.
  • I take shower. This is really the only time of day when my mind is completely free to wander and it is amazing how often I come out of the shower with an idea, or a solution to a problem I’ve been pondering.
  • I flip though my current Field Notes notebook and see what ideas I have jotted down that I haven’t yet written about.

My current notebook dates back to September 6, or a little over two weeks. I skimmed through the pages and counted two dozen ideas that I’d jotted down. Of those, there are ten that I haven’t yet written about.

  • There’s the best meal I’ve had in a restaurant in years, at a place called Mariachi’s in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. The meal was Lomo Saltado: sautéed strips of prime sirloin with fresh tomato, cilantro, red onion, green pepper and jalepeño in an amazing Peruvian sauce. It was the first time in recent memory that I actually considered ordering seconds.
  • There was the sunrise that Grace and I watched together on the beach in Rehobeth. All my note says for that is “beach sunrise.” I suppose I didn’t write it because it would be difficult to write 500 words on a sunrise that haven’t been written before. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so here is the sunrise in question:
sunrise, rehoboth beach
  • There is an idea to write about beach towns, and in particular, how they are often crammed with little tourist shops full of things you don’t need and that you could get in your own town if you did need them. Some beach towns seem to try too hard and it shows. There are exceptions. But I just couldn’t drum up the enthusiasm to write about this.
  • There is an idea about digital photos with some handwriting that I can’t quite make out, and so I’m not entirely certain what I was getting at with that one.
  • Here’s one that says, “Radio Days — KNX1070.” I was trying to think of things I’d never written about before. I began to think about how I used to listen to old radio shows on Sunday evenings (I think) in Los Angeles, on KNX1070. This seemed like a great idea for a post! I must have been, because apparently I wrote it about it in 2017. I even gave it the same title. Copycat!
  • Pen’s I Use is another idea I jotted down. Since I’d been writing about the notebooks I use, I guess I thought the next logical thing would be to write about the pens I use. I never did and it’s probably good since I’ve written about pens before and I don’t like being too repetitive.
  • Here’s one that says, “History as thriller.” I know what this means, and just to be sure, I looked in my Drafts folder and found an incomplete draft from February called “The Impatient Hindsight of History.” I like the idea behind this post, but just haven’t figured out a good way to write it yet, so this one will have to wait, although it will eventually get written, I suppose.
  • Watching Zach play in a recent soccer game, I jotted an idea, “Love to watch soccer.” Could be Ted Lasso’s influence here, as much as Zach’s. Stayed-tuned on this one.
  • More recently, there’s one that says, “External memory,” which I’ll probably write eventually.
  • From earlier today, there’s one that says, “I Am Sam.” This one is all about nicknames and is an amusing story, but I’ve already told it back in 2007. That’s the problem with having nearly 7,000 posts.
  • Finally, there was this idea: “Recent posts I didn’t write.”

Okay, so I guess we can take that last one off the list. And my tactics worked! I sat down uncertain about what to write, pulled out my Field Notes notebook, and turned out this 750 word essay.

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Thoughts on Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek

There are certain people I can read about endlessly. John Quincy Adams is one. And Franklin D. Roosevelt is another. In the former case, I’m fascinated by who I think was probably the most intelligent president the United States ever had. In the latter case, I’m amazed that a person such as Roosevelt happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills to lead the country out of dark times. I’ve read two previous biographies of FDR: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the Home Front in World War II, and Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. The former focused on the years of the Second World War, and the latter on the extraordinary relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill.

But I still thoroughly enjoyed Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, which more broadly captures Roosevelt’s political gifts throughout his life, although focusing primarily on his presidency. One reason I can keep reading about FDR is that he is endlessly fascinating. Born to privilege, he aimed to help the masses. Paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, he nevertheless maintained a generally cheerful disposition. He had his darker sides: his affairs, as well as his decision to set aside the rights of Japanese American citizens during the Second World War and collect them in camps. People loved him and people hated him. In the polarizing times that we live in today, there is something reassuring that democratic politics, at least, has always been polarizing and what we are experience today is more of the same. History, as the saying goes, is doomed to repeat itself.

I’m also impressed by hard workers, and those who don’t give up. Despite his inability to use his legs, FDR won election as president in a dark time, and through will and hard work, brought about changes that pulled the nation from the brink of disaster. During the war, even as his health declined, he worked tirelessly–and to the detriment of his own well-being–to see the fight through to the end. Dallek’s book provides a view of Roosevelt as a shrewd politician, and a leader through tough times. Despite all of that, he could be self-deprecating, relating the following story:

“Eleanor was just in here after a morning appointment with her doctor. ‘So, what did he say about that big ass of yours?'” Franklin reported himself as asking. “Oh, Franklin,” she replied, “He had nothing at all to say about you.”

His relationship with Winston Churchill was well-documented in Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston, to say nothing of William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Churchill. What struck me reading Dallek’s book was the sheer coincidence of two capable, and charismatic leaders rising to power at a time when the world needed these leaders. It is coincidences like this that make history so fascinating, and so arbitrary.

The biggest irony of Roosevelt’s life is that he worked himself to death to see the Allies win the war, only to die before Germany and Japan surrendered. He died 18 days before Hitler’s suicide. I’ve read several dozen biographies of U.S. Presidents and I almost always come away from them not understanding why anyone would want the job. It is a job for which there is no adequate job description, a job for which, no previous experience can truly prepare you. It is a job that visibly ages the men who have taken it. And it certainly took Roosevelt’s life. I was returning from my morning walk, listening to the audio book edition of the book when FDR died, and though I knew it was coming, it still brought tears to my eyes. I had the feeling, expressed so well by Winston Churchill on learning of Roosevelt’s death:

I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played a large part in the long, terrible years we worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irrepressible loss.

I didn’t want the book to be over. I didn’t want it to be over so much, that I queued up another FDR biography, H. W. Brand’s A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I plan to read sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian

I. Birth of an idea

For a while now, I have wanted to clean up my Evernote instance. I’ve got over 12,000 notes there. The problem is:

  • I’ve never looked at 80% of the notes. They get in automatically through services like FileThis and I’ve never had need to access those notes.
  • I’ve looked perhaps once at another 10% of the notes. For some of those notes that is once in over 10 yerrs.

It is the remaining 10% (or less) that I interact with on an ongoing basis. Out of 12,000 notes that’s less than 1,200. With this in mind, I’ve been considering starting from scratch with Evernote, taking all of the lessons I’ve learned and applying them anew. It seemed to me there were two ways to do this:

  1. Create a new Evernote account and start from scratch there, unfettered by the clutter in my existing account. I could then plan my attack and over time begin migrating those notes that I wanted to keep to the new account. When I’d migrated everything I wanted, I could export the remaining notes to an export file and archive it so that I could access it if I ever needed it. After that, I could delete all of the unused notes from Evernote and proceed with the new account. The downside would be maintaining two Evernote accounts for some unknown period of time.
  2. Create scaffolding within my existing Evernote account, partitioning with notebook stacks, or tags, or some other mechanism, and then moving things around as necessary to create the structure I am looking for and eliminate all of the notes that I don’t need.

While thinking about this, a third option began to form in my mind, aided by an email exchange with reader, and frequent commenter Jaap van Dodeweerd: if I am going to start fresh, why not start completely fresh with a different tool? Why not try going paperless with Obsidian? I have been using Obsidian since January, and have written frequently about it over the past several months.


For those who are not familiar with Obsidian, it is a knowledge base tool that combines a plain text markdown editor with tools that allow you to link notes together and visualize the links between them. Evernote’s slogan was “Remember everything.” Obsidian’s is similar: “A second brain for you, forever.” Obsidian is “future-proof” in two regards:

  1. The notes are composed text files that use markdown to style them. That eliminates the need for future compatibility. Text files are the most basic form of human-readable digital files. They have been around for half a century and can be read, updated and viewed with tools on any computer.
  2. The text files live in a folder structure on your local computer. That eliminates the dependency on cloud-based services for those who don’t want them.

Of course, Obsidian renders those plain text files nicely. And, of course, if you local folder structure happened to be in iCloud, or Dropbox, or OneDrive, well, then you’d have those notes available anywhere you needed them. But it isn’t required. Here is an example of what a plain text markdown file looks like when rendered in Obsidian.

Example of a plain text file rendered in Obsidian
Example of a plain text file rendered in Obsidian

Obsidian also offers several features I’ve wanted in Evernote for a long time now:

Linking notes

An easy way to link note, and different ways of seeing those note links. You can link notes in Evernote, but I have always found it cumbersome. And there is no way to see backlinks–what notes are linked to a specific note. In Obsidian, it is incredibly easy to link to a note just by typing. A sidebar will display backlinks, for instance:

An example of note links in Obsidian


Transclusion is an incredibly powerful feature that allows you to make a note file act as a subroutine. You can create a note, and then “transclude” (that is, include a link to the first note in such a way as that it is rendered in the second note) the note within other notes. The first note will appear as though it is part of the other notes. Changing or updating the first note will update it in the other notes as well. This makes note reusable without duplicating them everywhere.

Last Viewed Date

One thing that makes it difficult to purge Evernote of unneeded notes is that there is no way of searching for notes by the last time they were opened or viewed. Evernote allows you to search note by create date and modified date, which can be useful. But if I wanted to see how many notes hadn’t been viewed in the last 10 years, I have no way of doing that with create and modified dates.

Because Obsidian uses your operating system and plain text files, you can use your operating system functionality to search notes by “last opened date” (on MacOS) or last accessed time in Linux and Windows. With that, there is an easy way of seeing notes that haven’t been opened (accessed) in more than 10 years (or whatever your preference is) and this is an incredibly useful tool for getting rid of noise.

Obsidian versus Evernote

In thinking this through, I tried to consider the features I use in Evernote and if there was a similar feature in Obsidian. It wouldn’t make sense to move from one to the other and lose functionality. The table below summarizes my thoughts on this.

Formatting notesEvernote has been improving its ability to format notes and the most common formatting features (including, most recently, code blocks) are available.Obsidian uses Markdown to format notes. Anything you can do in Markdown, you can do in Obsidian. This is fairly robust formatting, and probably more than I’d ever need.
NotebooksEvernote allows you to organize notes in notebooks. Notebooks cannot be nested, but you can collected notebooks into a notebook stack.In Obsidian file system folders are the equivalent of notebooks. They can be nested as deeply as you like.
TasksEvernote recently introduced the concept of tasks into notes. Tasks can have due dates, reminders, and be assigned to people.Obsidian has the concept of tasks in markdown. A task can be completed or incomplete.
TagsEvernote notes can be tagged and searches can use tags to narrow the field.Obsidian has the concept of tags and some themes even render them nicely in the UI. See the note link image above for an example.
ShortcutsEvernote provides a quick way of getting to notes, notebook, saved searches, tags, etc. by having a shortcut to the object in question.In Obsidian, a note can serve as a shortcut to another note (via links or transclusion). Searches can be embedded within notes as well, which replicates the “filtered notes” feature of Evernote.
Mobile appEvernote has a robust mobile app that syncs with your notes anywhere.Obsidian has a mobile app that also allows you to sync with your notes anywhere, if you choose to keep your notes in some cloud-syncing service like iCloud or Dropbox. Obsidian also provides its own syncing service.
Note sharingEvernote allows you to share notes with others.In Obsidian, since notes are just files on the OS, you can share them with others the same way you’d share any file, either through a cloud service, or simply by copying the file into an email or other kind of instant message.
SearchingEvernote has robust searching capabilities that include searching within the text of PDFs and images. Its advanced search grammar can be tricky to learn, but it is powerful.Obsidian comes with powerful native search capabilities. PDFs and image files can be stored in Obsidian vaults and if the PDFs are scanned with full text, then they can be searched by the OS. Also, Obsidian notes can be searched by regular expressions, something I’ve wanted in Evernote for a long time.
A comparison of features between Evernote and Obsidian

Going down the list, I found that there was nothing that I regularly did in Evernote that I couldn’t readily do in Obsidian. Feature limits would not stand in my way. I could begin this new adventure.

II. Learning from my mistakes and improving upon the past

Well, I wasn’t quite ready to begin. I decided that if I was going to go through the effort of going (mostly) paperless in Obsidian, I should look to my past mistakes with going paperless and also see how I can improve upon what I’d done before. For the former, I have a number of ideas in mind. For the latter, I have 136 posts I’ve written on going paperless which serve as a wide-ranging buffet ripe for improvement.

The lesson for me: Going paperless is not a binary state. It means using paper where it is useful and practical. It means capturing notes and digital documents that are useful. It means setting a clear bar for what goes in Obsidian, what goes on paper, and what I don’t need to worry about at all.

Learning from my mistakes

Paperless is a not a binary state

In my original going paperless experiment, my goal was to see if it was possible to go completely paperless. I was chasing the elusive paperless office to see if such a thing was possible. Two important lessons came out of my 4-year experiment between 2012-2016:

  1. I could go completely paperless but the world was not going paperless anytime soon. I still routinely dealt with other people’s papers and tried to develop a simple process for managing that paper in 10 minutes a day.
  2. I found that I didn’t want to go completely paperless. For some things, paper is more useful; for other things, paper is a more enjoyable experience. In the former case, I have never found a notes app (Obsidian included) that allows me to jot down notes as quickly and easily as I can with a pen and my Field Notes notebooks. In the latter case, I simply prefer keeping my journals on paper like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, and countless others.

Then, too, I kept everything I got in that four year stretch, much of which (80%) I’ve never even looked at.

The lesson for me: Going paperless is not a binary state. It means using paper where it is useful and practical. It means capturing notes and digital documents that are useful. It means setting a clear bar for what goes in Obsidian, what goes on paper, and what I don’t need to worry about at all. It was these last two categories that I never really considered in my first experiment. This time around I’m looking toward Practical Paperless: the idea that its important to keep some things well organized in a digital archive, and other things on paper.

Improving on what’s come before

By now it should be clear that I’m not just planning on copying notes out of Evernote and into Obsidian. I am looking for ways to improve upon everything I’d when using Evernote to go paperless. It means a full review of all the posts I wrote to see where improvements can be made. It means eliminating things that didn’t work for me, or weren’t that useful. It means beginning with a plan.

III. A new “practically paperless” series

Of course, in taking off in this new direction, I plan on writing about it here on the blog. I’m calling the new series “Practically Paperless” to distinguish it from my original series. There is equal emphasis on both words with “practically” used an adjective for practical: that is, I plan on writing a series about going paperless with Obsidian, where it is practical to do so.

The series will begin at the beginning, with a plan for moving forward, something I lacked with my original series. That plan will include the requirements that are important to me in this effort: what stays on paper? What gets captured in Obsidian? From there, I’ll move into posts on the basics: setting up a framework that allows me to meet the requirements. And from there? I suspect we’ll all be discovering new things along the way.

My Going Paperless series started as weekly thing, and eventually moved biweekly. Based on that experience, I think that the new Practically Paperless series will start on a biweekly schedule and I’ll adjust things from there. More than likely, each post will appear on Tuesday mornings, like this one. That means you can expect Episode 1 to appear two weeks from today, on Tuesday, October 5.

IV. What about Evernote?

I am not moving away from Evernote because of any problems I’ve had with the service, or any problems I foresee in their future. I tend to be a creature of habit in most areas of my life, but when it comes to software, I a kind of wanderlust. I’m always looking to try new things that I think can help me improve whatever it is I am trying to do. In this case, I’ve been using Obsidian long enough to see that it works really, really well for me. Not only do I think it can replace Evernote, I think it can improve upon what I was doing with Evernote. That is what this new series is all about.

That said, not everyone will like Obsidian. Not everyone works the same way that I work. Many, many people are happy with Evernote and if you are happy with something, you should stick with. This is an experiment my part, one that I hope will prove successful, but you never know. My experiment with Evernote worked out well, and I was happy user for more than ten years. I’m still a happy user, but that wanderlust of software is calling me again.

So I’m going practically paperless with Obsidian. As Al Bean said to Pete Conrad in H.B.O.’s From the Earth to the Moon, “Y’all can come along with me if you like.”

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Technology is Amazing

high angle photo of vehicles parked near building
Photo by Stephan Müller on

Now and then, when I find myself taking technology for granted, I try to step back for a few minutes and imagine what my grandfather would have thought about the technology advance over the last 17 years since he died. My grandfather always seemed surprised and delighted by advances in technology. He would marvel at what seemed minor things to me: coffee heated in microwave ovens, Walkman cassette players, and of course, computers. He was an auto mechanic and the technology he was most familiar with was the internal combustion engine and its associated parts, but I remember him wistfully talking about how cars were being controlled by computer more and more–and this was twenty years ago. What he would think of today’s cars, which he called automobiles?

Improvements in automobiles seem steady and constant. Every new year introduces new models that improves upon previous ones. A new car might have one or two features that your old car didn’t have. Your next new car will have one or two more new features. Since cars last longer than they used to, these incremental improvements can sometimes seem like great leaps between two or three successive cars.

I’m not sure my grandfather ever really “got” the Internet. He sent occasional emails through AOL, but I think the concept of a globally connected peer-to-peer network of computers was largely beyond him. It just wasn’t in his experience. Cars were in his wheelhouse. He could see, if not entirely understand, the technological advances cars were making from one year to the next: fuel-injected engines, air conditioning, improvements in the manufacture of motors that required less maintenance over longer periods of time.

Many of the improvements I see cars these days are in areas of comfort and safety, and I suspect it is these improvements that would delight my grandfather more than anything else. I’m not sure that he ever drove in a GPS-equipped car, but I think he would have been tickled by the car displaying a realtime map of his location, and telling him when to make a turn. (“Backseat driver,” he would have said.) Still, imagining him driving with me in our own GPS-equipped car, I can hear him saying “Technology is amazing! It’s incredible that a bunch of satellites in space are beaming precisely timed signals to the car. I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing!”

When I think about it, many, of not most, of the tedious parts of driving can be handled automatically these days. GPS plots your course, accounts for traffic, and can even provide data to self-driving cars to get them where they need to go. Cruise control has been improved so that the car will automatically keep distance with the car in front of you. Safety systems tell you when someone is in your blind spot, or when your car begins to drift from a lane. If someone suddenly slows down in front of you, your car will automatically slow down to avoid a collision. Cars can even park themselves.

If there was one feature that would blow my grandfather’s mind if he could see it, it would be the car camera view. In our car, when putting the car into drive or reverse and staying below 10 MPH, the four cameras on the car work in concert to generated a bird’s eye view of the car in its current location. You can see if you are inside the lines of your parking spot. You can see if anyone is passing behind you, or one to one side. It’s an impressive bit of mathematical interpolation that would delight my grandfather. I sometimes imagine him sitting in the passenger seat when I put the car into reverse. Up pops a live video of the car from directly overhead.

The "satellite" view in our current car.
The “satellite” view in our current car.

“Where is that picture coming from?” my grandfather would ask, his mouth forming an O like surprised child.

I’d point up to the sky. “Satellite overhead,” I’d say. I’d wait for his stunned reaction, and then I’d confess the truth. I’d point out the cameras, and explain how the computer in the car can take those images and translate them into the overhead view.

He’d recite his mantra: “Technology is amazing!” Grinning, he’d add, “We never had anything like this.”

Well, it’s fairly common these days, and I tend to take it for granted. Every now and then, I try to remind myself just how amazing technology is by trying to imagine what my grandfather would make of it.

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Handy Around the House

It is a simple pleasure to feel handy around the house. In these days when just about anything can be farmed out, it’s nice to do-it-yourself now and then, to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well-done. We’ve occasionally done things around the house. In our old townhouse, Kelly has repaired drywall, installed a ceiling fan, and replaced wall outlets. I painted rooms, fixed toilets, and tended the landscaping. Our new house–not really new anymore, since we’ve been here over two years now–is older than the townhouse, but had been completely updated much more recently. There hasn’t been much to do. Until an opportunity came up last week.

Our microwave oven died back in July. I would have said this is the first time a microwave has ever died on me, but I would be wrong. We kept telling ourselves we needed to replace it, but neither of us was in the mood to look for replacement. We muddled along without a microwave for six week, until finally, last week, we decided to head over to Home Depot and pick up a new one. It’s an “over-the-counter” microwave, we decided we’d do the whole thing ourselves, rather than have someone come out and remove the old one and install the new one for us.

Late one afternoon, we started the work. I got the old microwave unmounted, and then fought with the mountings already in the wall to get those off. They didn’t match the new microwave. I measured and identified places to drill. My old drill wasn’t really up to the task, and much of the “drilling” was improvised with alternative tools. Which meant it took longer. Eventually (after borrowing a much better drill from a neighbor) I got things squared away and Kelly helped me life the new microwave into place, and held it while I tightened the bolts. We plugged in the new device and it turned on. We tested it out, and it worked. I put in a request with the city to come pick up the old microwave, cleared away all the debris and boxes. Our new microwave was installed. It only took four hours.

The newly installed microwave

The following morning, my entire body was sore. My arms were sore. My shoulders were sore. The palms of my hands were sore. The day after that was even worse. It dimmed the achievement of getting the microwave installed in the first place. The lesson, I decided, was that you have to pick your battles. Fixing a toilet is a battle that is simple enough to be worth tackling. As for replacing the microwave: I should have paid the fee to have professionals do it. My body would have thanked me for it.

On Thursday, during trash collection, the city came by to pick up the microwave, but they were too late. Although it was there first thing in the morning when I went for my walk, it was gone by the time the city came around to pick it up. Someone is now the proud owner of a completely dead microwave.

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Book Smart

close up photo of stacked books
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on

Is it cheating if your experience comes from books? Say, you’re chatting with friends and during the course of the conversation, someone comments on the beauty of Westminster Abbey. You jump in and agree to its beauty, but what really astounds you is a certain place in the Nave where you find yourself standing among the final resting place of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and others. Your friends nod in agreement. Suppose then that one of the friends asks when you’d been to Westminster? You’d calmly say you’d never been there, never even been to London. You’d read about Westminster Abbey in a book and the picture painted with words on the page was so vivid, it was as if you had been standing among those luminaries of the ages. Does it count? Is it cheating?

I have been to Westminster Abbey, but there are plenty of places I haven’t been, and plenty of things that I haven’t seen or done for which I consider myself fairly well-versed from the reading I do. Indeed, it seems to me that nearly every conversation I engage in conjures memories of a book I read that relates to the subject at hand. Last weekend, I was chatting with a group of friends and the conversation veered into pandemics and vaccinations. I mentioned that despite being more technically advanced than we were 250 years ago, the people of Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution were extremely wary of the smallpox vaccine, despite how devestating the disease was. I knew this, not because I lived in Boston in 1776, but because I’d read about it in David McCullough’s John Adams and in Stephen Fried’s Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father and most recently in Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.

The conversation drifted to masks, and I mentioned how prevalent masks were in San Francisco during the Spanish flu of 1918-19. One the folks turned to me and asked, “Do you know where that flu started?” and without hesitation, I said, “In Kansas.” I knew it, not because I lived in that small Kansas town 103 years ago, but because I read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.

I remember a time when I was very young–possibly before I could read–back when my parent’s still read to me, my mother explaining that books could take you anywhere. I took that literally back then and my attitude hasn’t changed much today. People call this “book smart.” Book smart is often seen as derogatory, as in, “that fellow is book smart, but he’s got no street sense.” Of course, there is something to that, but that doesn’t mean that street sense can’t come from a book. When I read nonfiction, I am always on the lookout for practical lessons. One example out of countless: after reading William Manchester’s massive, 3-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, I went through my notes and teased out 3 productivity tips from Churchill himself.

I learned why keeping a diary can be useful from Isaac Asimov (via his memoirs). I learned how to keep a diary from John Quincy Adams (reading his diaries and using them as a model). I learned about commonplace books from Thomas Jefferson I didn’t learn any of this in school. It came from reading book, after I was finished with school and my real education began.

I have written before in my belief that grade school taught me how to read well, high school taught me how to think well, and college taught me how to learn well. When I graduated, I was ready to begin learning. Since then, I’ve read 1,102 books. I could read them well because of grade school. I could think about what I was reading thanks to high school. And I’ve learned far, far more than I ever learned in my K-through-college years thanks to college. I feel like I’ve gained a wealth of practical knowledge from the books I’ve read. And so I don’t see being book smart as a bad thing. After all, books have made me smarter than I might otherwise have been. And we can use all the smarts we can get.

The question is: can reading a book ever provide the equivalent experience to doing the real thing? Can you ever know what it is like to wander the Nave of Westminster Abbey and feel the weight of all those who came before? Does it even matter? People sometimes seem offended when I tell them that my experience with some place came not from being there in person, but from reading about it in books. When this happens, I think about the countless people who don’t have the means to travel anywhere, but can walk to their local library and read about places and take pleasure from that reading. Is that experience any less for that person than actually visiting the place?

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There are people who are yellers and people who are not yellers. I fall into the latter category. My parents were occasional yellers, at least as I remember it. Back when I lived in apartments in Los Angeles, I would sometimes hear yellers. Their yells would echo through the narrow open spaces of the apartment complex. What they were yelling about was never clear, despite it often being repetitive.

If you took a Venn diagram of yellers and people who frequently use profanity, the two circles would largely overlap. Often times when I hear yellers, they are shouting profanities. Profanities require louder voices, apparently. This fits neatly into my own little world. I’m not a yeller, and I am also not one to use profanity, not out of any objection to it, but because, as Isaac Asimov has pointed out, the English language is so versatile, that one is usually able to say the same thing in a more clever and creative way without the profanity.

We were at a soccer practice the other day and one of the sets of parents were bickering. I suspect they were yellers, but they kept their voices moderated and only turned up the sarcasm so as not to startle all of the non-yellers surrounding them. (Those others that were yelling, myself included, were cheering on our kids on the field.)

I seem to surround myself with non-yellers. Kelly is not a yeller. Indeed, sometimes, when I am particularly annoyed with the kids and raise my voice a bit to emphasize my annoyance, Kelly will turn to me calmly and say, “Don’t yell.” I’m not aware that any of my friends are yellers. I’ve known most of them for thirty years or more and I can’t recall I time when they yelled. Well, I can recall one time, in college, but the yelling just made me laugh so I guess it wasn’t very effective.

On television shows, people at work are always yelling at one another. Arguments break out in fictional offices all the time. Characters scream at one another, hurling invective across conference tables, or shouting at invisible audiences on speakerphones. In 27 years at my company, I can’t recall a single time when someone yelled at someone else. I’ve been in thousands of meetings and there was certainly disagreement in some of them, but it was all civil and calm. No one at my company yells. At one point, there was a C.I.O. who I’m told was a yeller (I never saw him yell, but I believe it). He didn’t last very long. It’s not in our corporate culture to yell.

Some people yell because they don’t think you can hear them. I’ve seen people yell at someone who doesn’t speak their language. The idea is that yelling will somehow make them understand. Occasionally, I’ll be in a meeting and Kelly will say, “Why were you yelling?” I wasn’t, but I had my noise-cancelling headset on and couldn’t hear myself talk, so naturally, I talked louder than normal.

Whenever I hear a yeller, I think of that a verse from a Dr. Seuss book:

I do not like that one so well
All he does is yell, yell, yell
I do not like that one about
When he comes in I put him out.

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Comments and Clarity: On the Value of Coding

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Over on his blog, The Waiter’s Pad, Mike Dariano asks, “How much coding do you really need?” It is an interesting thought piece. He observes that,

What we really mean when we say, “people should know how to code” is that people should be able to use tools to deliver value.

I’ve been coding for most of my life. I saw my first BASIC on a Timex Sinclair. I loved the logic of coding. A year or two later, I got a Commodore VIC-20 and had everything I needed. It took a while before I mastered BASIC, and moved onto other languages, but I did, and today, there are a dozen languages that I can code in comfortably.

After reading Mike’s piece, I thought about what he said about what we really mean when we say people should know how to code. While I agree that it often means that people should be capable of using tools that deliver value, it is the question of value that stuck with me. What value has knowing how to code produced for me? It breaks down into two areas: practical value, and what I call “comments and clarity.”

The practical value of coding

Knowing how to code got me out of the dish room in college and into the cafeteria office, where I began writing programs to help the staff manage the cafeteria budget. That, in turn, led a job not long after graduating–a job and company that I am still with nearly 27 years later. So, yeah, knowing how to code got me a career, and there is obvious value in that. What else? If I have a problem to solve, I can often solve it though code. A few examples:

  • When we were looking for a house, I wrote code that would pull data from listings and filter the list down to the most likely candidates. Instead of manually searching through listings, I had the code do it for me, and we just had to look at the results.
  • When I wanted a better way to track my writing, I wrote my Google Docs Writing Tracker, which worked great for me (and quite a few others) for many years.
  • In order to automate my daily notes in Obsidian, I wrote a script to make it happen and save me a bunch of time.
  • I’ve written countless scripts to automate the repetitive tasks in my life. Some of these are a few lines of code, others are thousands. Together they free up time so that I can focus on the things that are more important to me.

The value of comments and clarity


It is incredibly difficult for me to hold everything that a big piece of software is doing in my head at one time. This is why comments exist in code. I use comments in code to remind myself why I did something in a certain way, or how a particular function works, or sometimes just a reminder to clean something up later. I’ve even written comments critical of my own code: “This is an ugly hack, but it works” used to be a standard refrain of mine.

Commenting helps me think about there things: (1) how the code works, (2) why it works the way it does, and (3) how it could be improved. Comments are both descriptive and introspective. They are a form of written observation. I have applied this concept to my life more generally:

  • I’ve kept a journal since 1996, which is just another form of commenting, both descriptive and introspective, and one in which I seek ways to improve.
  • In my day job, I am known for having exhaustive notes and documentation on just about everything I do: another form of commenting.
  • I’m rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my pocket to jot down comments and stray thought so that I don’t lose them.

Commenting helps me to understand myself and what is happening around me. It preserves memory, while providing a space to “show my work” and learn from my experience. My comments–journal entries, daily notes, Field Notes notebooks–provide a baseline from which I can look back or ahead for improvement, failures, and learning.

Clarity of thought

A program compiles or it doesn’t. A semicolon in the wrong place, a mistyped variable, a greater than sign instead of a less than sign, a problem with the logic of a decision tree, a faulty data structure–any of these things can prevent a program from doing what it is supposed to. Repeated attention to the strict and unforgiving nature of coding helped to build a clarity muscle, one that strengthens my clarity of thought.

To me, clarity of thought is the ability to focus in on what matters in a particular situation. It is the ability to tune out the pieces that don’t play a role, and look more closely at those that do. It means to look at them from every angle, and then ask, are there other angles I haven’t considered. This is helpful in just about everything I do. What clarity of thought is not, is a Vulcan-like adherence to pure logic. It is not emotionless.

Nowhere has clarity of thought expressed itself more than in my writing. While writing fiction has always been a difficult, often tedious task for me, writing nonfiction rarely is. I began writing the same time I began coding. In high school and college I never had trouble with papers. That clarity muscle that coding helped develop seemed to do the job of organizing the writing for me. In my nonfiction writing, articles I’ve sold, and even here on the blog, I like to think that my style is clear and easy to follow. That clarity comes from the clarity of thought that coding nurtured.

(Often times this clarity comes after seeing a first draft. Case in point: the first draft of this post was 1,700 words and not as well organized. Upon reading it, I cut and restructured it, and hopefully, made it better and more clear than it was in its original form.)

It is for the practical benefits, as well as the benefit of clarity of thought that I have encouraged my own kids to learn how to code. Or at least, try it out and see if they like it.

Clarity of thought has been a good trait for problem-solving. It has also been honed enough to know when not to try to solve a problem. As Mike says in his post,

Rather than “learn to code” we should focus on “learn to solve problems”. Many of those problems will require tools. Some of those tools will be code.

For me, learning to code was the tool I used to learn to solve problems. It led to useful introspection and analysis (the commenting) and a gradual improvement in clarity of thought, both of which have been invaluable tools for problem-solving for me over the years, more than learning to code ever was.

P.S.: Seriously, go and check out Mike’s blog, The Waiter’s Pad. It is excellent.

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Going on a Book Spree

Sometimes the bibliophile in me gets the better of me and I go on a book-buying spree. A big spree like this doesn’t happen often, and when it does happen, it is usually because of some sale or deal. I went on such a spree yesterday, and in this case, the deal was Audible’s “Eureka” sale. They had audio books on sale for $5-7 each. I picked up a bunch of them.

If these were physical editions, I might feel weighted down, and possibly even guilty about the decreasing amount of shelf space at my disposal. Fortunately, there were all audio books and they can all easily fit into my pocket, along with the other 1,100 or so audio books I have accumulated.

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How I Index My Journals

I have written quite a bit about my journaling: the paradox of journaling; a year on paper; how my journal notebooks have changed over the years, and more. One thing I haven’t written about is how I go about indexing my journals. Since I’ve had at least one person ask about this, I thought it might be a useful post for others.

First, let me remind folks that the current incarnation of my journal began back in October 2017, after I’d read a piece in the Atlantic on Thoreau’s journals. A comment then led me to the journals of John Gadd, and his journals provided the model for my current journals. In that article, was this:

And each Christmas he sets aside two weeks to meticulously index that year’s diary – proudly claiming he can find anything within three minutes.

I was fascinated by the idea of indexing my journals to make it easier to find what I was looking for. Back when I was an Evernote Ambassador, I used to claim that I could find any note within a minute or two, and so the notion of doing this in a paper system intrigued me. Unfortunately, the article didn’t go into any detail as to how Gadd indexed his journals. I had to figure that out on my own.

The system that follows works pretty well for me. If I could start it all over, I might do a few things differently, and I’ll mention those things later on. One thing I’d be really curious about is if other folks have better ways of indexing their journals on paper. I realize that I could do this digitally, but part of the pleasure it being able to do this without electronics of any kind.

A few notes about my journal

For my index to make sense, you need to understand a few things about my journal. First, I number each entry in my journal sequentially, beginning from entry #1 in the first volume. The numbering is independent of the date, which is separate from the entry. The idea for indexing the entry as opposed to using a page number comes from what Isaac Asimov did with his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Tired of the tedious work of producing indexes keyed to galley page numbers, Asimov decided to number each entry in the book and key the index to the numbered entry rather than the page number. This suited me perfectly for my journals, because I knew they would span multiple volumes (9 as of this writing) and that way, I’d never have to refer to anything other than the unique entry number.

It is also important to note that there are generally four types of entries in my journal:

  1. A standard entry, summarizing the goings on (see #723 in the image below).
  2. A topical entry, usually titled, on some specific subject (see #28 in the image below).
  3. A book entry, which summarizes my thoughts on a book I’ve recently finished reading (see #917 in the image below).
  4. A “commonplace” entry, which has quote from things I’ve read with my own comments (see #725 in the image below).

Below are examples of each of these types of entries.

The type of entry has some bearing on how I decide what to include and leave out of my index.

Structure of my index

I use a Leuchtturm1917 notebook for my index. The index has two sections:

  1. Monthly line-a-day summaries
  2. Topical index

Monthly line-a-day summaries

A monthly line-a-day summary fits on a single page. It lists the month and year across the top and the dates going down the page. The idea for this model came from John Quincy Adams’s line-a-day entries in his diaries. (If you want a fun way to see an example of this each day, follow JQAdams_MHS on Twitter.) The image below shows a typically line-a-day page, with annotations that follow.

  1. The month and year.
  2. The dates, listed down the page. The “S”s represent Sundays.
  3. A typical entry.
  4. An entry with a reference to a journal entry (in this case, to entry 159).
  5. Days surrounded in blue are days that I am out of town, either with, or without the family.

These pages are extremely useful for finding something in the context of time. “When was it we went to Hershey, PA?” I I’m pretty sure it was in October or November 2017. I quick scan of the two pages will answer the question. The first 193 pages of the notebook are reserved for these monthly entries. Currently, they fill 48 pages, so there is plenty of room to grow.

Topical index

The remaining 50+ pages of the notebook are reserved for a topical index. There is a set of facing pages for each letter of the alphabet, as well as a # page for entries that begin with number. A topical index page looks like this:

Because of the varied nature of what I write and when I write it, there is no way to keep the entries on a given page in any type of order. So they are entered sequentially as I need them. The entries themselves consist of two parts:

  1. The topic
  2. The corresponding journal entry numbers that relate to the topic.

In the image above, for instance, you can see that “baseball” has six entry references; “boo-at-the-zoo” has two references. Parentheticals after the reference number provide some context. For instance, under the “books” entry, you’ll note a parenthetical indicating “unread” which means the entry has to do with unread books. Many of them have a “book” or “bk” which means it refers to a book summary that I wrote upon complete the book.

Process for indexing my journals

These days, I use the large, A4-sized Moleskine Art Collection notebooks for my journals. These have about 96 usable pages in each volume. Depending on my mood, a single volume can represent anywhere from 2-6 months worth of entries. Here is how I go about updating my index:

WhenWhat I do
Upon completing an entryReview the entry to see if there is anything worth adding to the topical index. If so, I try to add it as soon as I’ve completed writing the entry.
DailyWhen I finish writing in my journal for the day, I’ll do the line-a-day entry for that day, either immediately after finishing, or first thing the following morning.
Upon completing a volumeI’ll skim the monthly index for obvious items that should go into the topical index; if I have not already put them in, I’ll add them. I will then go through the full volume, checking to see if there is anything else I want to add to the topical index that I haven’t already added.

If I am good about keeping up the index more-or-less in realtime, then the final review of a volume usually takes about an hour. I prefer doing this in realtime (as opposed to John Gadd’s method of taking 2 weeks off at the end of the year because (a) it spreads out the work so that it is only a little effort each day, and (b) it makes the index immediately useful for current events.

How I choose what goes into the topical index

The topical index is the most difficult part. The completist in me wants to capture everything in the topical index, but that would be too time consuming. What I have done therefore, is to try to strike a balance between representativeness and practicality. I do this by asking myself a couple of questions:

  • Is this something that I have needed to search for in the past?
  • Is this something that I would have a fair chance of needing to look up in the future?

If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes”, then I include the item in the topical index.

This gets easier over time as I’ve gotten experience, both with adding items and searching for things. Also, as more topics get added, the likelihood is greater that it is already there in the index and I just have to add an entry number.


If anyone is thinking of modeling their own indexes on this, here are a few lessons I’ve taken from what I’ve done thus far. I might do these things a little differently if I were to do it all over.

  • Carefully consider how much space you’ll need for you topical index. In some instances, I feel like a 2-page spread is not enough. In other cases, 2-pages is too much (I don’t think I’d fill half a page with Q or X entries).
  • Separate people into their own index. People, especially immediate family members, have a lots of entries. I included them in the topical index, but in some cases, I could see their entries taking up one of the two pages available for the letter in question.
  • For topics you write about a lot, be sure to leave plenty of space in the index for entry numbers.

I’d be curious about how other people index their journals on paper like this. I know that this could also be done using text files, but I enjoy the process of manually writing these indexes, and having my little index book sitting among my journals. If you index your journals on paper, I’d love to know how you do it. If you are willing, let me know in the comments.

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How to Start an Enjoyable Blogging Experience in 3 Easy Steps

I originally gave this post the clickbait-y title of “How to Start a Successful Blog in 3 Easy Steps.” I recently made the mistake of subscribing to a blog1 about how to build a successful blog. I went there to see if there might be anything I was doing that I shouldn’t be doing, or not doing that I should be doing. I came away from the experience unsubscribed, and feeling a little bit dirty. Some of it must have rubbed off, and thus that original title. Fortunately, I was able to change it in the nick of time.

The gist of this particular site is a familiar pattern that I’ve seen as the foundation for a lot of pieces on this topic. There are three steps:

  1. Produce good content.
  2. Build an audience through a multichannel marketing scheme.
  3. Measure, fine-tune, and repeat.

These steps are short and vague enough to make them seem like good advice, and perhaps, depending on one’s goals, these are the right steps to take. The devil, however, is in the details, and much of the thinking behind this sort of advice is anathema to my way of thinking.

Producing content makes me think of a production line, with an endless line of the same thing rolling along conveyor belts side-by-side, one after the other, in an endless parade of mediocrity. I’m a writer and so I write. I don’t think of what I write as “content.” Instead, I write essays. I’m okay with the term “posts” as a synonym for essays in this age of blogging. I try my best each time I set out to write something. Not all of it is good. But it is from those essays that aren’t good that I can learn how to do better.

The rationale behind blogging advice like the three steps above is to bring eyeballs to content in order to increase revenue. The implication, with some truth behind it, is that most blogs out there are attempting to earn money. More eyes means more clicks, more clicks means more ad revenue.

What’s missing is a model for blogs, like mine, which is a hobby, free of ads (because I find them annoying when I see them on other blogs), of sponsored content, done as an avocation, out of the joy I get from writing and discussing what I write with others. For someone who wants to build an audience without a business plan in mind, just a hobby, just to have fun, the model seems to fall apart.

One way to increase clicks, for instance, is to display only a lede paragraph to a post, and then require a reader to “Click to read more.” From a stats standpoint, a specific post will get more views in this model than one in which the entire post is available without clicking into it directly. I prefer the full post be available, and that’s how I have it setup here. You don’t have to “click to read more.” The entire post is there for you to read. The downside of this is that my stats undercount how many people see a given post. If the post is one of the 12 that are on the “front page” of the blog at any one time, a reader can read through the entire thing without ever clicking into it. This counts a “view” toward my “Home Page/Archives” but not to the specific post. It is a tradeoff I am willing to make to avoid inconveniencing readers.

There are other tricks that these advice sites give. Clickbait-y titles are another draw, and indeed, many of the advice blogs I’ve looked at focus on the importance of a post’s title, almost to the exclusion of everything else. They argue that if the title doesn’t draw in a reader, then no matter what you’ve written, it won’t get read. There is some validity to this. But titles should be accurate descriptions of what a piece is about, not bait-and-switch. Drawing in readers with one title only to show them something else is just annoying2.

As a writer, I want more readers because I write for readers. But I don’t want to get readers at the cost of annoying them. For a blog like this one, growth of readership has to be more organic. Success that I’ve had in the past has been largely based on 3 different factors than the three steps listed above:

  1. I write fairly well.
  2. I write consistently–meaning every day.
  3. I got lucky with what I was writing.

The first point is obviously debatable. But having sold fiction to the major science fiction magazines and some anthologies, I think my judgement in this is justified. I was paid for writing that was accept over other writing that could have been published in its place. This is also true for the dozens of pieces of nonfiction I’ve sold over the years.

Consistency is my superpower. Back in the heyday of this blog (say, 2012-2015), I was writing at least every day, and often multiple times a day. Readers could rely on me to have new stuff for them to read on a regular basis, and because of that, they kept coming back (assuming they liked what I was writing about).

Luck is the big unknown. If it goes your way, it can make a big difference. I was lucky to have an audience of readers who read what I wrote because of the fiction or nonfiction I was publishing. I got really lucky with my writing about Evernote. They reached out to me, because of my writing, and asked me to be an ambassador. That led to my Going Paperless series, and with Evernote’s signal boosts, dramatically increased the readership of my blog. It was more than I could have ever imagined. In 2013-2014, I was exceeding a million views each year. But it was mostly due to luck. The fact that I could write helped. And the fact that I was consistent helped make that luck, but there was still luck involved.

I don’t know what the average blog readership is and I doubt it is possible to get accurate stats on this. There is not a category for “blogging” stats in my 2021 edition of The World Almanac. They do list top newspaper websites and information website, but not “top blogs.” A Google search produces mixed results that tells me that smaller blogs should aim for at least 45,000 views/year with month-to-month growth of 6%. I found one site that suggested that if you are trying to make a full-time living from blogging, you should be aiming for at least 100,000 monthly page views. In that peak of 2013-2014, I was seeing number of about 120,000 monthly page views.

I’m not seeing those numbers today. There are several reasons for this. I burned out on the Evernote stuff, and a lot of people were coming to the blog to read those posts. There were years where I wasn’t writing as much or as consistently. Readership steadily dwindled to a low point last year (when I wrote only about 50 posts the entire year). This year, after more than 8 months of consistently writing at least one post a day, I am beginning to see the numbers come back up–slowly, but definitely up. Once again, two things have working in my favor:

  1. I still write fairly well. I like to think any writing today is better than what it was in 2013-2014, but that is an entirely subjective observation.
  2. My superpower is still consistency. With this piece, for instance, I have now posted for 255 consecutive days. In that time, I’ve written and posted 300 pieces. That’s write, you are reading my 300th essay of 2021.
Heat map of my posts for the last year. Since January 1, I haven’t missed a day.

What’s missing–and what is making the difference in terms of numbers from 2013-2014–is that element of luck. I don’t have an Evernote retweeting my posts to its 400,000+ followers.

Which begs the question: do the numbers really matter? They matter for blogs that are businesses, and for people who are trying to make a living from their blogs. But for hobbyists like myself, does it really matter how many people read what I write? From a practical standpoint, it probably does not. But from a human one, of course it does. I write so that people will read what I write and engage with it, and hopefully find value in it, whether it is simply something fun to read, or something that illuminates a part of life for them. The more people I can do this for, the happier it makes me. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about how many people read what I wrote.

I started this piece with a clickbait-y title suggesting advice on how to start a successful blog in three easy steps. Let me conclude it with some real advice, for those who may be seeking it, for how to start an enjoyable blogging experience in three easy steps.

  1. Be able to do something fairly well. Writing is a good start since most blogs are centered around the written word. But there are photography blogs, music blogs, art blogs, AI blogs, you name it. Find something you are pretty good at and start there.
  2. Be consistent. Both in terms of quality (I always try my best) and frequency (I write every day, but consistency could mean weekly, monthly, etc.)
  3. Be patient. Don’t give in too soon. It takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time. I began this blog in 2005 and it took 8 years of writing, and consistency before luck stepped in and played its role. Remember that each time you want to give up could be the time that luck steps in for you.

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  1. I’m not going to link to it here. It is not my intention to be cruel.
  2. I almost did it here, but it was in the spirit of satire.

Please Insert Disk 9: The Ease of Software Installations

Today is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I wanted to acknowledge this here. Each year, on the morning of 9/11, I pull out my diary from the days immediately before and after and read through it. I still can’t watch the footage on TV. I don’t have anything original to add to all that’s been written about 9/11 these last 20 years. I know that there will be many, many things written today. We all mourn 9/11 in our own ways, and for those who have mourned, and need a respite from what can be a traumatic day of 9/11 posts and news items, I wanted to have a post people could come read that isn’t about 9/11 at all. But I wanted to acknowledge it here. As I said at the end of my diary entry on 9/11/21, “I simply can’t believe this.” I still can’t.

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I had a problem with my work laptop late last week. I use a MacBook Pro, and I run Parallels for Windows and database development. This has worked well for me for years, and I’ve never had a problem before, but on Thursday evening, Parallels crashes and the image corrupted. While my laptop is backed up, the Parallels image is not. I didn’t lose any data because data is not stored locally, but I needed to bring my laptop into the office to have the image reinstalled. When I got my laptop back, I had a clean Windows install, which meant going through the process of installing Visual Studio, Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio, and RedGate. This has been a time-consuming procedure in the past.

I chose to perform the installations in the evening with the thought that by morning, everything would be ready. After all, it was several gigabytes of installation files. I got the installers for the latest stable release of Visual Studio Enterprise, and SSMS, and began the installation process. It turned out to be far quicker and easier than the last time I had to do a full installation. After an hour or so, all of the software was installed.

Next, I had to configure SSMS to connect to the servers I wanted, but I thought instead that I’d give Azure Data Studio a try instead. This, too, seemed surprisingly easy to setup. Within a short period of time, I was able to connect to the servers I wanted; I was able to connect to git repos from directly in ADS, something I’d had to use RedGate for with SSMS; and I had access to Jupyter notebooks, which was an added bonus.

During this process, I noticed that both Visual Studio and Azure Data Studio now have native Mac versions. So I installed those on my Mac. Those installations were even easier (The architecture of a Mac piece of software is entirely self-contained within a “package” file that represents the application.) I then pulled the git repo for the big software project my team is working and to see if it would compile cleanly on my Mac. It did! It is now looking like I need to rely less and less on the Parallels instance.

Later, reflecting on how easy the installation was, I realized just how far software installations had come in the years I’ve been working with computers. The first install I did, when I was 11 years old, was for my Commodore VIC-20. I installed a Hangman program from the tape drive that was attached to my computer. Tape drives, in my experience, are notoriously unreliable. It often took several frustrating attempts to get the program loaded, and once it was loaded, I no longer felt like playing.

In the early years of college, I remember installing WordPerfect from 5-1/2 inch floppy disks. By my senior year in college, I’d moved to the far superior (in my opinion) Word 5.5 for DOS, which took a small stack of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks to install.

When I first started at my job, Visual Basic 3.0 required 3 installation disks. You had to put one in the drive, wait until that part of the installation had completed, then switch to the next. By the time the late 1990s rolled around, Visual Basic 6.0 came on a CD-ROM.

I can remember installations of Microsoft Office that took 12 or more disks–in some instances 20 disks, if memory serves. You couldn’t start the installer and walk away because you had to change each disk as it finished loading. Anyone who used computers in that era remembers the frequent messages “Please insert disk 9.” And heaven help you if one of the disks failed to work halfway through the installation.

It is possible that I imagined, back in 1995 or 1996, how wonderful it would be to simply be able to install the software you wanted without need of a disk. Just answer a few brief questions and BAM! the software was there on your machine, ready to use. This was just the kind of daydream I could see having, while sitting in someone’s office, waiting for Disk 9 to finish so that I could put in Disk 10, and wondering if the installation would be finished by lunchtime.

Today, my daydream is the standard. Want a piece of software? In most cases, click or tap the Install button from an App Store and it loads on your device within seconds. In some cases, as in installing Visual Studio, you have to download the software directly from the website. But the process is still far easier than it was 25 years ago. You rarely have to worry about configuration files, or which type of processor you are using; the installers figure this all out for you. If you are missing a critical system component, the installers know that, too, and will grab and install the necessary software. Then, too, the software will keep itself updated, which saves a ton of time in the long run.

Installing software used to be a real headache, but it has become so easy these days that I hardly even notice it. It is one of those things about technology that I simply take for granted, forgetting how different it used to be when I was starting out. Twenty years ago, software was still fairly difficult and time-consuming to install. Installations have come a long way. It makes me wonder, what will software installations look like twenty year from now?

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