Category: essays

Best Book in the Last 125 Years

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The New York Times Book Review is celebrating its 125 anniversary. As part of the celebration, they are asking everyone to nominate the best book of the last 125 years. There is no definition of what “best” means. A recent correspondent asked me what I would pick for the best book in the last 125 years. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. I haven’t read nearly enough books to get a sense of the wide variety of what has been published in that time. Even on existing lists I am woefully under-read. Take Modern Library’s Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century. Of the 100 books on that list, I have only read 13.

I imagine that some people would pick their favorite book, other people what they think is the “best” book. It is likely that some people will pick books that they haven’t read simply because other people think it is good, or popular. The Bible will get picked a lot but since that book has been around far longer than the last 125 years, I don’t think it will count. There are no real guidelines. Fiction and nonfiction are equally acceptable. The only stipulation is that the book must have been published in the last 125 years–that is, after 1896.

After a fair amount of thought, here is how I replied to my correspondent:

I’d probably blend my definition to include favorite and important. I don’t know if I could settle on one. I’d like to pick Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, but that is 11 volumes and I’ve read the first six of them so far. Another might be The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, which just makes the cut, since it was published early in the 20th century. Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson tells the story of how we got to our modern digital age. Given where the future is headed, The Double Helix by James D. Watson could be the best—if the last 50 years have been about digitalization and the hackers that created our modern digital world, the next 100 or 150 years might be about genetic hackers, the coders of the future. Then again, for pure joy, maybe Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella is the best of the last 125 years. Thing is, for every book I’ve read there are tens of thousands that I haven’t and how many of those might qualify for “best”?

My correspondent suggested Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which has been on my list for a long time now, but which I haven’t read yet. My correspondent also suggested that maybe the best way to think about it is to play the desert island game–you are stranded and you can only pick one book: what would it be?

That makes things easier, as I have thought about that often. If I could count Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization as one book, then that would be my pick, hands down. With those 11 volumes, I’d never really feel alone. I’d have thousands of figures from across the entire span of human civilization. I could read about their art and science, their culture and religions, their work lives and leisures. It would all be there.

If I had to be one book, however, just one, that is much more difficult. Indeed, if I reimagined the New York Times question, and asked myself “What is the best book I’ve read in the last 25 years–regardless of when it was published?” I’m not sure I could answer it. I suppose I could go through the list of books I have read since 1996–1,110 of them as of this writing, and pick out the best book from each year to get a Top 25. Even from those 25, it would be difficult to whittle the list down to one “best” book. I could make the argument for The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling–a collection of essays on, of all things, boxing. But the writing! I could make the argument for The Library Book by Susan Orlean because libraries meant so much to me growing up, and this book is about the Los Angeles Public Library, one of which I made enormous use as a teenager. I could make the case for 11/22/63 by Stephen King, still my all-time favorite novel, even ten years after I first read it. Or The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Or The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Any of these and a dozen others could be my “best” with equally compelling reasons.

I’m probably overthinking all of this. But I take lists like these seriously since I use lists like these for recommendations, and I want to trust the judgments that they contain within their enumerated titles.

If you want to nominate your candidate for best book, head over to the New York Times Book Review and fill out their form. And if you can manage to whittle your list down to a single best book, and care to share, let me know what it is in the comments. I am always looking for the best books to read.

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A Sunday Road Trip

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When Zach and Grace were younger, we frequently made road trips on weekend days. We’d drive to Shenandoah National Park or Bull Run or Manassas or Warrenton. We’d head to local places like Mount Vernon, or go for hikes around Burke Lake, or state parks in Maryland. We’d find places to eat, wander through shops, take tours. Our trips would fill the better part of a Saturday or Sunday and they were always fun to do.

After the Littlest Miss was born, these weekend adventures slowed, and then mostly stopped. It wasn’t because of the Littlest Miss. Instead, it was because of the increasing number of weekend activities that the other kids had as they got older. Today, a typical weekend is often filled with two-to-three soccer games (one to two for Zach and another one for the Littlest Miss), 2-1/2 hours of gymnastics team practice for Grace, flag football for Zach, girls scouts, and the occasional other things that come up. It makes it hard to get enough time for our road trips. But we managed to get one in yesterday.

Yesterday was Kelly’s birthday and she wanted to go to Middleburg, Virginia, a small town that we’d driven through on a number of occasions, about an hour away from our house. So, after picking up the kids from Sunday school, we hit the road. I had the GPS route us to avoid highways on the way there. Part of the point of the trip was to enjoy the scenery. We departed heading west under overcast skies, but we could see clear skies unrolled in front of us, and by the time we got out of the denser metropolitan D.C. area, the blue skies prevailed. The leaves here are just beginning to yellow, and there were a few places where we caught glimpses of reds and oranges. The drive took us through some horse country, and through rolling hills. It was a nice drive that seemed to fly by.

We arrived in Middleburg, and found street parking and then made our way to the Red Horse Tavern for lunch. The place was busy, but we came just before the real rush. We had a table outside on the patio. It was bright and sunny out there, a little warmed than I had expected, but we had a pleasant lunch. (I had the French Dip special.) From there, we wandered the town for a few hours, dipping into and out of shops that caught Kelly’s eye. There was a small nature hike that took us through the grounds of a private school. There was a Christmas Store that captured Kelly’s attention for a while. There was also a book store, but it turned out to be about the only shop in town that was closed on Sunday.

Just before three o’clock, we headed back to the car for the drive home. We might have stayed longer, but we wanted to try to get Grace home in time for her Girl Scouts meeting at 4 o’clock. We made it just in time.

It was nice to get back out on the road and go somewhere, just the five of us. Maybe, once the fall activities wrap up, we can do this more frequently, like we once used to do.

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Special Issues in My Science Fiction Magazine Collection

The premier issue of Science Fiction Age, November 1992
The premier issue of Science Fiction Age, November 1992

I saw the new Dune film the other night. I enjoyed it, although I hadn’t realized that it was going to be a 2-parter. I’m kind of tired of multipart films; it’s too long in between and I lose the continuity of the story. Better to remake Dune as a miniseries anyway, it seems to me. Anyway, seeing the picture reminded me of the book, of course, which I read only once back in 2004. I enjoyed it when I read it, and still have the gist of the story in my head, but much of it faded. In all of the talk of the film, what sometimes get lost is that the story first appeared in the December 1963 issue of Analog Science Fiction, as the opening of a 3-part serial.

This got me thinking: I know I don’t have Dune in my magazine collection, but what special issues do I have? Ones that matter to me?

First, there is the complete run of Science Fiction Age edited by Scott Edelman. This magazine had the good fortune to appear just when I began to write for publication. I submitted quite a few stories to the magazine over the years, but never sold one there. I did, however, have two letters printed in the magazine over its 8 year run, my first foray into fandom. That magazine is still my favorite science fiction magazine. It was a glossy, and had wonderful stories by established writers, as well as new ones. It was that magazine that introduced me to Scott Edelman, Barry N. Malzberg, and Paul Di Filippo, all of whom I’d come to know IRL, as the kids say, many years later.

In it I also discovered many new writers whose stories I greatly admired, among them William Shunn, whose story “Two Paths in the Forest Toulemonde” in the January 1994 issue blew me away. Another was Martha Soukup, whose “In Defense of of Social Contracts” likewise made me realize that s.f. was much more than what I thought it to be. I could go on and on here. I love the magazine, and now and then flip wistfully through its pages, wishing it could have gone on longer than it did.

I’ve written how almost everything I learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. When I say this, I am referring mostly to the 399 monthly essays he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from November 1958 until his death in 1992. Actually, this monthly science column first began in the January 1958 issue of Venture magazine. After that magazine folder, the series moved to F&SF. In my collection, I have both the January 1958 Venture and the November 1958 F&SF. I wanted them because those essays meant so much to me.

Among the magazines in my collection is a complete run of Astounding Science Fiction from July 1939 through December 1950, covering what if often referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction. (Others consider Galaxy’s run in the 1950s to be the real Golden Age.) I originally obtained these issues while I was writing my Vacation in the Golden Age series. In the set of 1942 issues I obtained, many of the issues were signed by A. E. van Vogt and Jack Williamson. How’s that for luck! However, two issues in my Astounding collection stand out in my mind: the May 1939 and July 1939 issues of Astounding.

The May 1939 issue is not part of my consecutive golden age run. But it contains one of my favorite stories from that time, Lester Del Rey’s “The Day Is Done.” The July 1939 issue is probably more familiar to people. This is often considered to be the opening salvo of the Golden Age. It contains Isaac Asimov’s first story in Astounding. It also contains a lead story by A. E. Van Vogt, “Black Destroyer” with that amazing cover.

One other issue of Astounding that I wanted to call out is the May 1950 issue. This issue is famous not for its fiction, but for its nonfiction essay, “Dianetics” by L. Ron Hubbard. This essay was later turned into a book by the same name, and a whole movement formed from it. Whatever you think of Hubbard and Scientology, he was an incredible writer in his day. One of my favorite reads during my Vacation in the Golden Age was his 3-part serial, “Final Blackout” which debuted in the April 1940 issue of Astounding.

There are other issues in my collection that I enjoy. I have the July 1977 special Harlan Ellison issue of F&SF. I have the premier issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I have others that have meaning to me alone: the March 1972 issue of Analog–the month I was born, to say nothing of the 4 issues of Analog in which my own writing has appeared (2 stories, and 2 guest editorial).

Every now and then I flip through these magazines and marvel at them. I skim the letter columns, look at the ads, and sometimes listen to the pages riffle as I inhale their scents.

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No Swearing in the Pressbox

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Sometimes I argue with people in my head. Not, you understand, that the people are in my head; that’s where the argument takes place. It often happens in the shower. An argument in my head, in the shower, with people that aren’t there. Welcome to my world.

I headed into the shower after wrapping up some email in hopes of figuring out what to write about today. All I could think about, however, was an email I’d received earlier in the day about a “No Swearing” challenge. Let me back up a minute. The Little Man is doing a monthly “etiquette” class this year and we get these weekly emails that are a kind of topical Emily Post for kids. Usually they are interesting and useful. One was on sunglasses etiquette, something that I didn’t even know existed. This week’s was a challenge to kids to stop swearing.

Now, I’m not one to use profanity in normal conversation. This is not because I have any objection to it. It’s just how I grew up. To this day, I don’t think I could use profane language in front of my parents, even when they use it. But I have no objection to it. If I’ve had a few drinks, I’m more likely to use it.

People are funny about profanity. It is one of those unpredictable things. People who I think wouldn’t use it, swear like sailors–which may be unfair to the sailors. Other people object to even mild profanity. For instance, in the first of my stories to appear in Analog Science Fiction (“Take One for the Road”, June 2011), one of the characters uses that opprobrious barnyard term for manure. Once. It’s the only profanity that appears in the story, and it was used because that’s exactly what that particular character would say. I had several objections from readers to my use of that word. Go figure.

There were things in this email, however, that I simply didn’t agree with. Some of it made perfect sense: English is a rich language, one in which remarks can be just as cutting or effective without profanity as with it. I agree with this. This was also Isaac Asimov’s approach. He would rather find a clever way of saying something profane without actually using profanity. This makes sense to me and this is often my approach.

But then, the message goes on to say that swearing often doesn’t make sense. As an example, think of someone saying they are “pissed off.” What does a bladder have to do with being angry, the email asks. Here is where I begin to disagree. As Spock says in Star Trek IV, these are colorful metaphors, and they apply to much more than just profanity. If someone says they were “hammered,” no one is going to think that someone was literally hitting them with a hammer. In my imagined argument in the shower, I asked this person, “Well, if ‘pissed off’ makes no sense, then shouldn’t we take ‘head-over-heels in love’ off the table as well? Or is someone literally head over heels when they are in love?

Profanity is just another form of expression, one that has been increasingly accepted in my lifetime, even if I avoid using it. Also, it is often just a phase that we grow out of. I went through such a phase around 7th grade, where the slang word for the act of reproduction became a part of speech in our day-to-day chatter among friends, as in: “We went to the BLEEPin’ movies and got some BLEEPin’ popcorn.” It was an empty word, like “like” that filled a grammatical void. After hearing myself, I thought my sentences sounded ridiculous and I gave it up. When I first took Spanish in 8th grade, our teacher taught us the profanities so that we wouldn’t use them by mistake. That’s more than I can say of any English teachers I had up to that point.

The email set up a false dichotomy between those who use profanity (poor standard) and those who don’t (high standard) which I simply don’t believe exists.

This is the argument I had in my head while in the shower. When I finally won the argument (in my head) I went to turn off the shower, and then paused. “Oh, shit!” I said.

I couldn’t remember if I had washed my hair or not.

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The Pull of Science Fiction

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Lately, after several years away, I am once again feeling the pull of science fiction. I’ve found myself staring at the s.f. books on my shelves, picking one up and starting it, and then decided that it wasn’t what I was looking for and trying another one. I continued to read other things–I’m back on a baseball kick right now, and in the midst of Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, Big Fella. But the pull of science fiction has been there in the background, like the subtle gravity well of some distant planet.

When I started to write s.f., my experience with it was fairly limited. I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, some Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison, and not a whole lot else. The first s.f. magazine I read with any regularly was Science Fiction Age, not long after it debuted in the early 1990s. Back then, most magazines suggested reading the stories they contained to get a feel for what they published. I rarely did that (SF Age was the main exception). I was too impatient. Besides, I wanted to write my stories, not stories like the ones I read in the magazines.

I was young and naive.

Perhaps this is why it took me 14 years of writing and submitting before I finally sold a story. Or perhaps it took that long to hone my craft to the point where it was salable. Who knows?

In the fall of 1997, I read Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell and in the immediate aftermath of that book, I expanded my range in the s.f. world, reading in rapid succession books like The Stars My Destination, Rogue Moon, The Demolished Man, and Dying Inside. It was a beginning. A decade later, I read another fantastic Hartwell & Kramer book, this time, The Hard S.F. Renaissance. It was then that I decided that I enjoyed “short” s.f. more than novels. The shorter pieces seemed to pack more of a punch, they were necessarily more dense, and they seemed to experiment more than novels, perhaps because the overall investment was less. Not long after that, I began selling to Analog.

Still, my experience with “current” short fiction was limited. I read stuff my friends wrote and published. I occasionally read beyond that. Mostly, I spent my time vacationing in the golden age of science fiction, reading issues of Astounding Science Fiction from cover-to-cover beginning with the July 1939 issue. I discovered some wonderful gems in there. I even wrote a guest editorial in Analog, “Gem Hunting” about these wonderful stories.

At some point, the stories I was writing began to change. They began to be less science fictional, although always retained at least a tenuous connection to the genre. Whatever passion I had seemed to be fading, and I pretty much stopped reading s.f. altogether, with a rare interlude here or there. I tried not to worry about this, too much. I was reading a lot of nonfiction and enjoying it, and fiction took away from that.

Lately, though, the pull is back. I decided to go back to the beginning and try reading some short s.f. I pulled out The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 1, edited by the late Gardner Dozois, and began reading it. So far, it seems to be sticking. I’m reading it for pleasure, dipping in during idle moments when I don’t feel like continuing the book I am reading. But I’m also doing it with a curiosity. What made these stories the best of the year? I’m taking a lot of notes. I am, in short, doing what I should have done from the beginning: reading the stories that were published in the magazines to get a sense of what they were looking for.

I don’t know where it is going or how long it will last. What I am most hopeful about is finding the real gems among these volumes. It’s hard to know what story will turn out to be a gem, but it’s like what they say about pornography: I know it when I see it.

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Rushing Through Dinner: A Tale of the Twenty-First Century

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The Littlest Miss had soccer practice and I didn’t sleep well the night before, so Kelly took her to her practice. In exchange, I made dinner. We trade off fairly regularly in this regard. Dinner was pasta and salad. Our dinners are rarely complex affairs. Given where the soccer practice was, I guessed that dinner should be ready by 6:15 pm. I timed it perfectly. The table was set and dinner was ready at 6:15 pm. Only, Kelly and the Littlest Miss weren’t back yet. They weren’t back at 6:20 or 6:25 either. It wasn’t until 6:30 pm that they got home. By then both Zach and Grace had finished their dinner and I was working my way slowly through mine.

The modern world has decimated the family dinner. We make it a point to eat together as a family every evening, but in reality we are only there at the table together for 10 minutes or so. This is no one’s fault. It’s the world we live in. I like to relax at dinner and I wish that everyone else would relax, too. Kelly is a fast eater and the kids have mostly followed her lead, with the Littlest Miss being the only one who eats slower than the other kids–but still faster than I do.

We could make a rule that says we have to sit around the table for at least 20 minutes, or whatever the appropriate interval would be, but it would be an artificial thing and wouldn’t feel right. Besides, the world won’t let us. There is too much to get done during the day. We don’t have a set time for dinner. We squeeze it in usually between 6 pm and 7:30 pm, working it around the various activities of the day. Sometimes I have late meetings. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays there are pre-dinner activities that affect the time: gymnastics, soccer practices. On the weekends there are other activities before and after dinner that force us to squeeze down the amount of time we actually spend at the table.

Not all of it is because we are shuttling about from various actives. The kids have school work and there needs to be time for that. They have reading that they do, and we try to read with them. Zach and his friends have a yard business and there may be a lawn he has to go cut. Maybe there is a parent-teacher Zoom conference scheduled for early evening. There is always something that applies pressure to the evening meal so that almost everyone feels obliged to rush through it. I am almost always the last one at the table. I try not to rush as a matter of principle, and to set an example, but it is a lost cause. I’ve come to accept that, even if I don’t like it very much.

Mondays are really the only days we have a chance for a leisurely dinner. But even there, the pressure is on. It is getting darker earlier, and Kelly and I usually go for an evening walk together after dinner. We prefer doing it with some daylight left in the sky. Then, too, there is limited time after dinner before the kids go to bed. They are not allowed on devices during the day but they have an hour between 8-9 pm if they’ve finished their school work and reading, and the house is in order. They don’t want to spend time at the table, they want to finish as quickly as possible to ensure they can get everything done so that they have their hour on devices. I can’t complain about this. They have long days, just like we do, and deserve their hour.

When I was a kid, I didn’t feel rushed through dinner. In the summers, I remember wanting to finish up so that we could go outside and hang out with our friends. We didn’t have as many scheduled events, although it seemed to me that we had more homework.

I imagine there are families who have leisurely dinners together, but it is hard to imagine it happening in our town, where everyone seems so over-scheduled.

The worst part, for me, is that preparing dinner often takes twice as long as sitting down to eat it. That just seems backwards to me. Still, we do our best. Grace usually asks everyone what their favorite and least favorite things for the day were. We joke around and talk for the few minutes we are all sitting there together. We make the most of it.

But it sure would be nice to have a leisurely family dinner now and then.

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The Old Fellow on the Bike Path: A Sequel

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Back in June, I wrote about the old fellow on the bike path. I’d see him walking in the morning, a tall, lanky fellow with a handlebar mustache that reminds me of the actor Sam Elliot. And then for a time I wouldn’t see him. I would always grow a little uneasy when that happened. When I finally would see him again, I was always put at ease. Most mornings, on my walk, I see him, me heading one way and he the other. It always feels like a good morning when I see him.

On Monday, Kelly and I took a late morning walk over to the grocery store. We were out of bread and it was beautiful out so we decided to walk. We were walking along the bike path, holding hands as we usually do, and in the distance, I spotted the old fellow walking in our direction. I pointed this out to Kelly. She’s heard me come home from my morning walks saying, “I didn’t see the old guy today,” or “Said hello to the old fellow today.”

As we approached him, he waved and said, “I always like seeing people holding hands.” Kelly, who is the more outgoing of the two of us, then introduced herself. We learned the old fellow’s name; I’ll call him Henry here. We stood chatting on the bike path for about ten minutes. We learned he’s in his mid-80s. We learned about his family and a little of his background. He’s lived in the neighborhood for just about 50 years. He learned our names. We also learned that we enjoy the same restaurants and he suggested we all get together and go for dinner at some point. It was wonderful.

Since then, each morning I’ve seen him, and instead of just waving and saying good morning, Henry stops and say, “Hi, Jamie!” Yesterday we chatted for a few minutes. This morning, when I saw him, he gave me his card, and reminded me that we should go out to the restaurant at some point. I’m looking forward to that. More than that, however, I’m just looking forward to seeing Henry on my walk tomorrow morning. And the next morning. And the next.

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Books I Don’t Remember Well

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I saw some debate online recently about whether or not it is rude to an author not to finish a book of their that you start. I don’t think it’s rude. It’s pragmatic. Not every book works for every reader. Time is limited. So one must spend that time wisely. For me, that sometimes means quitting a book as soon as I don’t find myself drawn into it. There are too many other books waiting in the wings.

Sometimes, however, even when I do finish a book, it doesn’t stay with me. I may enjoy the book while I am reading it, but all memory of it vanishes after a time, and although I see it on the list of books I’ve read, I could give on the most vague descriptions of what the book is about. I was thinking about this today because I started reading Voyage by Stephen Baxter today, looking for a little science fiction interlude. I read this book back in September 1998, and although I remember it was some kind of alternate history, I remember almost nothing else about it. Granted, this was in the days before I started taking notes on books I read. Still, it was a little unsettling to realize that while I had read the book, I couldn’t remember it.

I decided to go through my list and see how many examples of this I could find. Here are some of the results:

I find it interesting that most of these are works of fiction. I seem to have a better recall for nonfiction than for fiction. In a way this makes sense. Fiction is more ephemeral and there is less to connect it to, while nonfiction fits in the larger mold of the world. I can always find connections of one work of nonfiction to another, often several others. Fiction can connect to other fiction, of course, and occasionally to nonfiction, but it doesn’t seem to have the same staying power in my memory.

I remember where I was or what I was doing when I read most of these books. I remember driving to the cliffs in Pacific Palisades and sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean while reading Idoru, for instance. I recall sitting in my office in Santa Monica early in the mornings (around 5:30am) reading Voyage, or sitting on the deck in from of my apartment in Studio City, chair tipped back, and feet up on the railings, reading Does America Need a Foreign Policy? I remember reading Bright Shiny Morning when Kelly and I were in the midst of planning our wedding. It’s just the content that is a blur. Of all of these, the one I most regret no remembering is East of Eden which I can recall enjoying, even if I can’t recall why I enjoyed it.

Fortunately, in a list of more than 1,100 books that I’ve read since 1996, there are only a handful that I don’t really remember at all. And in the last 10 years or so, the only one on the list that draws a blank is Tip of the Iceberg. For that one, at least, I have brief notes in my journal that I wrote at the time I finished it (something I began to do with all of the books I read when I rebooted my journal in 2017).

journal entry for tip of the iceberg

At some point, I’ll probably go back and re-read these to see what it was that I have forgotten.

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27 Years on the Job

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Despite it being a Sunday today, it was a Monday 27 years ago, on October 17, 1994, my first day with the company that I still work with today. When I was 27 years old, I had already been with the company for 5 years. Four years ago, I had been with the company longer than I hadn’t; that is, I had been with the company 23 years, but I was 22 years old when I started, so I’d been with the company more than half of my life.

I know this kind of thing is pretty rare these days, but within my company, I’m not even in the top 100 in terms of longevity, company-wide. Within my department, I think I just barely crack the top 10.

A little over a year from now, in December 2022, I will celebrate another milestone anniversary, this one for my avocation. In December 1992, I wrote my first story that I sent out to a magazine with the idea of having it published. That story wasn’t published, and it took me 14 more years before I finally starting selling what I wrote, but that does mark the 30 year anniversary of what I consider to be the beginning of my writing career.

I final both of these milestones fairly remarkable. And both also make me feel like I’m getting old.

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Thoughts on The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Sequel to the Passports Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Lessons In UI Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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