Some Companions On My Morning Walk

While out on my morning walk today, I ran into a couple of companions. One was this guy:

one of my morning walk companions: a buck munching on grass

And the other, likely a family member, or possibly a colleague of the first:

Another buck, paralleling my path this morning

I enjoy the peace and quiet of my morning walks, but it is nice to have some occasional company along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Project Manager and the Passports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only all meetings could be that efficient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. I may be paraphrasing here.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 1: The Basics: Notes and Documents

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Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” Foran overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

Nearly 10 years ago, I began an experiment to see if the elusive paperless office was actually possible. That series, Going Paperless, was my attempt to use Evernote and other tools to go completely paperless. After several years, my conclusion was that it was not really possible for me to go completely paperless. In the years since, I’ve returned to paper for several things, but still enjoy the efficiencies of having information I need at my fingertips. In examining the lessons I learned from my paperless experiment, I realized that, as with most things, moderation is key. There is a difference between going completely paperless, and looking to be paperless in the practical sense. That is what this series is all about.

Instead of Evernote, I’ve decided to use Obsidian instead. I’ve written about why I want to use Obsidian elsewhere, but the gist of it is:

  • files are plain text, which makes them essentially future-proof;
  • files are stored locally instead of on someone else’s server (unless you want to store your files in a cloud system like iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, etc.);
  • it has a great note-linking function that I will make heavy use of as we progress through this series.

Of course, if you are following along, you don’t have to use Obsidian. Evernote still works for much of what I’ll be discussing. If you are not going to use Obsidian, you can safely skip the first three episodes of this series, as they focus on setting a kind of baseline with the tool for moving forward through subsequent episodes.

The first 20 episodes in this series build upon one another. I am using them as a guidepost for getting me to where I want to be. The first 3 episodes establish some basics, beginning here with how I plan on storing my notes. A note can be anything, text, a document, and image. When I think about what I want to be able to capture in digital form, I think of notes in two categories: notes and documents.

Notes in Obsidian

A note is just a markdown file (.md) file in Obsidian. Markdown, for those not familiar, is a plain text file in which special markup can be used to format the note. This is light markup, not as elaborate as, say HTML. In a plain-text markdown file, for instance, if I want to bold some text, I surround it with a double asterisk **like this**.

For me, notes are distinguished from documents in that a note is a markdown file. A document is something else, like a PDF or an image file. I’ll discuss those files in a moment. Notes can be viewed in two ways within Obsidian. They can be viewed in edit mode, where you can see the markup’s that you add to the note; and they can be viewed in Preview mode, which renders the notes fully formatted. Here is an example the same note rendered in edit mode and preview mode in Obsidian. You can use the slider bar to see how they look different.

Figure 1: Comparing a note in edit and preview mode.

Notes are where the majority of my paperless stuff goes. The note in the example above is from my “commonplace” notebook, a collection of notes and highlights from my reading. At its most basic, a note in Obsidian is a file on your file system. The note has title1, and it has the same file attributes as any file on your file system: create date, modified date, permissions, etc. I’ll have more to say about note titles in Episode 6.

Obsidian uses the concept of a “vault” to store notes. A vault is nothing more than a folder on your computer. Obsidian controls and monitors the files and folders within that vault folder. This is incredibly useful. It means that you can move notes around within your vault and Obsidian will take care of maintaining the links that notes have to other notes automatically.

Note-linking is a key reason why I love Obsidian and I’ll have a lot more to say on it in Episodes 17 and 19. For now, note links are simply links to other notes in your vault. In the example above, the “[[202109220957 Natural Questions]] on the “source” line is an example of a note link. Clicking on the link takes you to that note.

Just like in Evernote, notes can have tags. Obsidian uses the hashtag format for tags. In the example above, you can see two tags: #discovery and #favorite. One difference between tags in Obsidian and Evernote is you can refer to tags anywhere in a note in Obsidian. And because Obsidian’s search capabilities are very granular, that means that sections or even lines of a note can appear in search results, making tags quite powerful. I’ll have more to say about tagging in Episodes 7-10.

Notes, then, are containers for information you want to capture. They are the basic unit of storage in Obsidian. You can create notes quickly with a hot key and start typing. Obsidian saves as you type so you don’t have to worry about remembering to click a Save button.

Notes have one other very powerful feature in Obsidian that they lack in Evernote: transclusion. Transclusion allows you to include a note within another note. When I read, I highlight passages, and those passages, after I review them, each get their own note in Obsidian. Here is an example from when I was reading Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek:

Figure 2: An example note in Obsidian

For books with notes, I keep a “source” note to collect all of the notes related to that book together, as well as any other thoughts I might have about the book not captured in a specific note. Rather than have to copy and paste the notes into the source note, I can “transclude” the note into the source instead, thus reusing the existing note, almost as if it were a subroutine. Here is my source note for the book in Edit mode:

Figure 3: A note with transcluded note links in edit mode

In the “Notes” section, note that all I did was include links to my notes on the books. Note the ! that precedes each note link? That is what tells Obsidian to transclude the note in Preview mode. So when I look at this note in Preview mode, what I see is:

Figure 4: A note with transcluded note links in Preview mode.

Each of the two note links are transcluded–they include the entire note–within the note in which they are references. This turns out to be incredibly useful with documents.

Documents in Obsidian

I think of a document as something other than a note. Much of what I collected in Evernote over the years were scanned PDFs, or PDFs automatically sent to Evernote through a service like FileThis. Think: bank statements, tax forms, official documents, instructions for household appliances, etc.

Obsidian has the ability to keep track of and render certain types of documents files, among them PDFs and image files. You have the ability to store these files right along with your notes, or you can separate them out into their own folders in a number of different ways. I’ll have more to say on this in Episode 2.

In order to keep things simple, I created a folder called “_attachments” in which any and all document files go. This includes PDFs, image files, and any other files that fit this category. The reason for this is that I don’t just use the bare attachment file, but I couple it with a note in order to gain the benefit of all of the Obsidian functionality that comes with notes. Let me give an example.

We recently got a new microwave oven, which I ended up installing myself. Information about electronics and appliances is something that I actually use from time-to-time, and just as I did in Evernote, I created a note for the new microwave in Obsidian.

Figure 5: My new microwave oven note

I use a similar format for all electronics and furniture because it means I have one centralized place to go for anything related to that thing. Obsidian has the ability to create templates for notes, similar to Evernote. I’ll discuss this in more detail in Episode 8. The “Timeline” section is a running timeline of events related to the microwave. If, for instance, I had to call for support, I’d add an entry to the timeline to record information about that call to support. All of the information I need is right there and easy to locate.

Note that there is a translcuded note link for the Owner’s Manual PDF file. I put the PDF file in my “_attachments” folder, but I don’t have to worry about where it is. When I go to add the link, I just start typing and Obsidian presents me with a list of matches anywhere in my vault. Because it is a transcluded note link, when I look at this note in Preview mode, what I see is:

Figure 6. The microwave note in Preview mode with the PDF included

I have the ability to scroll through the pages of the PDF, or print the PDF if I want to. It’s all right there, included as part of the note on the new microwave oven. Many notes are just the document itself, so the note will contain nothing but a title, some tags, and then a transcluded link to the actual note, say a bank statement or tax form. This gives the added benefit of searching the meta-data in the note to find what I am looking for. I’ll illustrate more examples of this when I talk about finding note in Episodes 15-17.

Notes are just files in the filesystem

I want to stress the point that these note are just files in my file system. This is a big difference from Evernote, which stored notes as objects on their server, which could be downloaded to your client. Here is a look at what my vault in Obsidian looks like (on the left) and a similar look at what this looks like on my filesystem (on the right):

The “DFC” is the name I gave my vault in Obsidian. It stand for “Digital Filing Cabinet.” I can open any of these notes outside of Obsidian in a text editor and still be able to read and use (and even update) the note. For instance, opening the microwave note looks as follows on my Mac’s TextEdit app:

Figure 8. An Obsidian note opened in a text editor app.

Establishing a baseline

I wanted to begin this series with something simple, illustrating how notes are captured in Obsidian, because I wanted to establish a baseline. I wanted to give people who are used to using a tool like Evernote or OneNote an idea of how their notes might be stored in a tool that is essentially a fancy text editor. To that end, I identified two types of notes that I capture–notes and documents–and showed how I am using these separately and in combination to capture notes in Obsidian similar to how I captured them in Evernote. I was trying to answer the question: what would my notes look like in Obsidian?

Again, as I attempt to go practically paperless, I’m using Obsidian because it is simple, future-proof, and doesn’t require paying for cloud service if you don’t want one. Documents are stored locally and because they are plain text files with some PDFs and images in the mix, you can use your OS to manage the files, and even search the files. Running a Spotlight search for “LG Microwave” on my Mac instantly returns the following:

Figure 9. A spotlight search turns up files in my Obsidian vault.

But I like Obsidian because of its note-linking capability, as well as its ability to manage the vault, keeping links updated even as I move notes around in the vault. It also has some powerful search capabilities that even Evernote lacks (like regular expression searches). And it provides an interface that separates my notes from other things that I do. This series will focus on using Obsidian as I attempt to go practically paperless, but I hope it is clear that other tools can work as well. This just happens to be the one that I think is best suited for this task.

Next week: Continuing down the path of establishing the basics for this experiment, next week will focus on Obsidian and how I have configured it to take advantage of features and plug-ins that I think are most useful for managing my notes. A week later, in Episode 3, I’ll show how I emulate some of Evernote’s useful features in Obsidian.

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  1. You’ll notice that my note titles begin with a long number. That is by choice, I will explain why I do this in more detail in Episode 6. For now, don’t worry about it.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 0: Series Overview

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A few weeks ago, I announced a new series, “Practically Paperless,” in which I was going to take lessons from my original Going Paperless series and apply them to a more practical approach for a partially paperless lifestyle, using Obsidian instead of Evernote. To read about my rationale for doing this, see my original post.

Administrivia

The first official episode of this new series will appear tomorrow, but I wanted to have an introductory post to take care of addressing some basic administrivia related to the series. Thus, Episode 0. So, here are some items that you can consider an overview for the new series.

  • One of the big lessons I took from my going paperless experiment with Evernote was that I still enjoy using paper for some things. The reason is call this new series “practically paperless” is to emphasize that I am looking to go paperless where it is most practical; I’m no longer convinced that a completely paperless lifestyle is either possible or practical for me. I’m looking for what is practical.
  • Each episode will attempt to focus on one specific thing. I don’t want to confuse things by addressing multiple topics in a single episode. This will be useful down the road when folks want to refer back to a specific topic.
  • I have outlined the first 20 episodes in the series. For these first 20 episodes, the order matters. Each episodes sets a foundation for the next episode. By the end of the first 20 episodes, I should be in a place where I am using Obsidian as a replacement for Evernote and able to do all of the basics that I was able to do when I used Evernote.
  • All episodes (including this one) will be categorized under “practically-paperless”. You can also find a index page to the series on the Blog Series menu at the top of the page. Select “Blog Series” and then click “Practically Paperless.”

Here is an overview of the first 20 episodes:

General themeEpisodes
Establishing a baseline in Obsidian1-3
Getting notes into Obsidian4-5
Ensuring notes are easily searchable6-11
Getting from Evernote to Obsidian12-14
Finding notes15-17
Curating notes18-20

Schedule for the series

Originally, I thought I’d have a new post every other week, but I’ve changed my mind about that, and for at least the first 2 episodes, the series will appear weekly as follows:

  • A new episode will appear each Tuesday morning at 8 am Eastern Time beginning Tuesday, October 5, 2021.
  • Currently no episode will appear on Tuesday, January 4, 2022, as I wanted to give myself a little bit of a break around the holidays.
  • That means there should be a new episode each week beginning tomorrow and continuing through February 22, 2022 (skipping January 4).

Beginning on March 1, 2022, I’ll begin to move into more specific topics of how I am doing things with my paperless notes in Obsidian. These will depend the foundation established by the first 20 episodes, but should no longer depend on one another.

I’ll continue the series for as long as I have ideas to write about, and wind it down once I think I’ve covered enough. At this point, I think I have at least of year’s worth of posts, but we’ll see how things go.

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The Specialist and the Generalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Bad Luck For Animals

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I hate seeing a dead animal in the road, or on the bike paths, but animals die, as do we all, and coming across dead animals from time to time is inevitable. Unintentionally killing the animals is another story. For one thing, it is incredibly rare that it happens. When I was nine or ten years old, living in New England, I was firing a BB gun at a target on a fence and ended up hitting a bird. I felt horrible for days. I can still remember the feeling, although it no longer bothers me the way it did when I was a kid.

Recently, however, it seems that I am bad luck for animals. A few days ago, driving to the post office for our passport appointment (a story for another time), a squirrel dashed across the road. This happens almost every day and I watch the squirrel in the rearview mirror as it makes its way to the safety of the sidewalk. This time, however, the squirrel hesitated in the middle of the lane. I was driving the speed limit, 30 mph, and there was nothing I could do. Instead of continuing its mad dash across the street, the squirrel hesitated, and as the car approached, I saw it wrap its tail around itself. A second later, there was a thud, and when I checked the rearview mirror, the squirrel was motionless in the road behind us.

All through the day, I couldn’t get it out of my head, but I chalked it up to bad luck. I’ve passed thousands of critters dashing across the street in front of me, and no harm came to any of them from my vehicle–until the odds caught up with this one.

Then, the bad luck continued. The following day I was sitting here in my office, writing, and out of the corner of my eye, saw something moving. I turned in time to see a bird fly into the window and disappear. It made a loud thud, louder than the squirrels. I looked down by the shed outside my window, and after a second, saw the bird laying motionless on the concrete between the shed and the house. It’s just stunned, I told myself. But an hour later, it was still motionless and, I suspect, dead of broken neck.

Apparently, I am bad luck for animals right now, so if you are an animal, I’d suggest keeping your distance, until this statistical anomaly passes. You’ll thank me for it later.

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Thoughts on Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.

Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.

Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.

Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.

Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.

Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.

This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.

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Retro Posts, Week of 9/26/2021

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For those who don’t follow along on Twitter or my Facebook page, I post a link to “retro post” once-a-day, selecting from one of the thousands of posts I’ve written here on the blog over the last 15+ years. Here are the retro posts for this week.

You can find last week’s posts here. If you want to see these as they appear each day, you can follow me on Twitter or my Facebook page.

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A Book I’m Looking Forward To: The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

cover of the baseball 100 by joe posnanski

Every now and then I discover a new book that really hits the sweet spot for me and I can’t wait to read it. Most recently it was The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. I love baseball, and I have a think for the rich history of the game. Just do a search for “baseball” in the list of books I’ve read since 1996 and you’ll see just how much I’ve read on the subject. Indeed, baseball writing is an art form in its own right. There are sportswriters, and there are baseball writers. I sometimes daydream that I could be the latter. I especially love baseball essays. And this book is a collection of 100 essays about the lives of the 100 greatest players of the game, according to Joe Posnanski.

My hardcover edition of the book arrived yesterday, and I am itching to get started reading it. First, I have to finish the book I am currently read, a fascinating biography of Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, who, though born in 1838, lived long enough to witness Babe Ruth play baseball. In addition to baseball, I have a thing for the Adams family. But once I finish the book, with should be sometime today, I am eager to start this new baseball history. Perfect timing, too, since October, in addition to being a rare month for boys1 is also magic time in the baseball world.

Anyway, if you are wondering what I am reading this weekend, now you know.

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Do You Like This Post?

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Ratings systems have screwed up the world. It seems everything these days requires a rating. Watch a show on Netflix? Rate it so that they can recommend more shows you might like. Read a book, rate it on Amazon because the more rating the more the book gets noticed and the better Amazon will be at recommending other books. Their recommendations, it turns out, are not particularly good. And don’t get me started on the five-star rating system.

I use Spark Mail for my mail client on my Mac Mini and my iPhone. I really like it as a mail client. Every now and then, the apps ask me, “Do you like Spark? Yes / No.” This reminds of junior high school when a friend would pass a note that read, “Do you like Katie? Yes / No. Circle one.” If you say “Yes” then you get asked to leave a rating on the App Store. I don’t know what happens if you say “No.” I’ve been too afraid to try. I fear that maybe the application will say, “Well, you’re no picnic either.” And then delete all of my email and shut down, never to start up again.

Spark Mail isn’t the only app to do this, just the most recent in a long line of apps that I use that express this occasional neediness. My understanding is the more ratings an app (or book, or a show) has, the more visibility it gets, and therefore, the more sales. This seems like a poor system to me. I don’t use an app because of a rating. I don’t read a book because of a rating. In both cases, what gets me to the product is usually word-of-mouth. A friend tells me about it. I read about it in article or magazine or, better yet, a blog post. I’m even pestered in apps where I’ve paid to use the app. If I’ve paid to use an app, there probably isn’t a need to ask, “Do you like this app?” I wouldn’t have put down the cash if I hadn’t.

Of course, the “Do you like this app?” question is another form the endless surveys that get sent out for just everything these days. When I take my car in for routine service, before I get home, I have an email asking me how my service was, and encouraging me to give them the highest possible rating since jobs and livelihoods are on the line. Uber and Uber Eats constantly wants to know how well things are going. With the latter, it’s not just the delivery service they want to know about, it’s the quality of each specific item I ordered. Recently, I opened a ticket with our city to have our old microwave oven picked up during trash collection. After the pickup was completed, I got an email asking how they did1. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

It got me thinking: what about the services that don’t ask for feedback. I’ve never gotten a message from the I.R.S. asking “Did you enjoy your tax experience this year?” I’ve never had a visitor to the doctor or dentist which was followed up by a request: “Did you like your recent colonoscopy?” And if so, would you leave a review, preferably, a 5-star review?

I stopped replying to most surveys a long time ago. My primary reason for doing so was that if I replied to every survey I got, I wouldn’t have time for things like, reading to my kids, going for evening walks with Kelly, or pretty much doing things I enjoy. It bothers me that some apps and companies survival depends on the reviews they get from customers, whether or not they are honest reviews, or someone rapidly filling out a 5-star rating just to get it over with. I wish there was a better system, but if there is, I’m not smart enough to figure out what it should be.

On a completely separate and unrelated note: Do you like this post? If so, you can click the “Like” button below. If not, well, [unprintable.] 😉

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  1. They came as they said they would, but by the time they got here, someone had already grabbed up the microwave, either for scraps, or some nefarious microwave experiment.