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Flipping through the contents of various magazines and essay collections, certain titles strike me. Here is an essay on cosmology by Isaac Asimov, “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.” Here is a piece on baseball history by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myth of Cooperstown.” Here is one from John McPhee, “Reading the River.”

I like titles that are, first and foremost, memorable, even if their relationship to the work over which they perch is obscure. If that work is good, if it resonates, the titles will stick. Whenever I read a eulogy of the physical book, for instance, Isaac Asimov’s masterful essay, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” comes to mind, an essay about the evolution of a book from a physical to a digital device and beyond. The word “book” appears nowhere in the title.

It seems to me that in the print world, titles helps set the tone for a piece even when they don’t describe the content therein.


Tone seems tertiary for titles on the Internet. Before tone comes description and before description comes flash. Access and audience size are vastly magnified on the Internet. Competition for what is gruesomely referred to as “eyeballs” follows. The need to pluck those eyeballs from their sockets has sapped much of the hope and possibility I saw in the Internet when I first began exploring there in late 1994. Titles are one obvious symptom.

First there are the listicles: “The 5 Apps…”, “The 10 Most Intriguing…”, “15 Tips for…” These titles lack tone, but I can’t blame writers for taking this approach; I’ve done it myself. It is a symptom of the environment we work in.

There are what I call “omniscient” titles. “15 [Fill in the Blank] Tips Most Users Don’t Know.” Or “Too Many [Blank] Is Not Your Problem.” Or “6 [Blank] You Must Do In Your Lifetime.” Has the writer surveyed all users? Of course not. Does the writer know your tastes? Unlikely. Does the writer know if you have already done any of things on their list? Almost certainly not.


I prefer titles that set the tone of the piece. I’ve tried to to follow this practice in titles for my fiction. I’ve also tried to follow it in titles for my nonfiction. I was once asked to change the title of a story to avoid confusion with another story, and I was happy to oblige. Otherwise, all of my fiction retained the titles I gave the pieces. That wasn’t always the case with nonfiction. If the nonfiction appeared in a print magazine, it generally kept the title I gave it. If the title appeared online, it was frequently changed to something more flashy and descriptive.

Looking back through the posts on the blog, I can see attempts across the spectrum. There was a time when the blog was at its peak readership where I indulged in eyeball scooping. I’m not proud of that. But I am no longer out for eyeballs and acknowledging that grants a sense of relief. Just as every person has their name–the one that they identify with—so every piece I write has a title that is just right for it.

Perhaps this piece serves as an example of what I mean. I’d originally called it “Tertiary Tones for Titles,” but that didn’t set the right tone. I called it “Eyeball Plucking,” but that was clearly ironic. I settled on “Matchmaking” because it is what I believe I try to do with my titles: find the perfect match (in tone and description) with the underlying work.

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The Trees and the Forest

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In the spring of 2019 I read The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner and was captivated by the descriptions of what it was like to work there. Here was a place set aside specifically for creativity and invention. People roamed around long intersecting hallways bouncing ideas of one another. And what ideas! As is often the case when I read a book on something, I want to be part of that something, and when I read Gertner’s book, wanted to work at Bell Labs, or someplace like it.

Sometime later I read Brian Kerighan’s wonderful book: Unix: A History and a Memoir, which also detailed life at Bell Labs. Kernighan takes a more personal approach based on his years working at Bell Labs where he and others invented the Unix operating system. My first introduction to Unix came long after I’d started using computers, sometime in 1994 and Kernighan’s book reminded me of the simplicity of its concept.


Walter Isaacson’s biography, Einstein, and later, George Dyson’s book, Turing’s Cathedral, painted similar pictures of the Institute for Advanced Study. Reading those books, I found yet another place where I wished I worked. I could be a mathematician or a computer scientist or a theoretical physicist, all of which interested me as possible careers, despite having crossed the half-century threshold.

Then in May of this year, I read Who Got Einstein’s Office? by Ed Regis, a history of the Institute for Advanced Study and his book made it sound idyllic–perhaps more than the reality. The concept behind IAS fascinated me: a place for people to think, with no other responsibilities. It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

Regis’s book went into more detail and covered many of the people who were residents of the Institute. Reading it, I again found myself think: wouldn’t it be great to work at a place where people were paid to think, to provide creative solutions to problems through rigorous research, bouncing ideas off colleagues, swimming in data, thinking, thinking, thinking.


Of course, sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees. For nearly 29 years I’ve worked at just such a place: the RAND Corporation. I spent my first 8 years in the headquarters in Santa Monica where from my office, I could look across the parking lot to the Santa Monica mountains, and the Getty Museum. If I looked across the hall and through the windows of my coworker’s office, I could see the Santa Monica pier and beyond that, the Pacific Ocean.

When I think about my time at RAND, I realize that I have been working at a place very similar to what I read about in Gertner’s and Kernighan’s and Dyson and Regis’s books. I’ve worked on interesting projects for nearly three decades. Whenever I get stuck on a problem, I could walk down the hall to talk to a colleague’s office, stand in their doorway, and spill my guts. Before long, we’d be hashing out the problem on a whiteboard, maybe bringing in one or two innocent passers-by to help us out. Every day I get to work with incredibly smart people. I don’t think a day has gone by in 29 years that I haven’t learned something new from them.

I have to remind myself when reading sometimes, that there are things I don’t have to wish for. Those wishes were granted long, long ago.

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Labors of Love

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I first heard of Will Durant, author of the 11-volume Story of Civilization, reading Isaac Asimov’s memoirs in the 1990s. In 2000, I read Durant’s The Life of Greece, the second volume of that series. I hadn’t read much history up to that point. Three things surprised me about the book. First, was the level of detail despite the scope, which seemed to cover all aspects of civilization. Second was the writing itself. It never occurred to me that history (or more generally, nonfiction) could be anything but unordained. (This was clearly Asimov’s influence on me,) But Durant’s writing was a revelation for me. He used words with precision, he painted with them, and though he was clear, he made the reader rise to him rather than writing down to them. Third, was the way that Durant inserted subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) opinions in his writing, often one-line remarks at the end of a paragraph that acted as summary judgement.

Since that first reading in 2000, I’ve made it through all but the last 2 volumes of Story of Civilization. I’ve also read all of Durant’s other books, except for his early autobiographical Transition. Reading Story of Civilization over two decades, I kept coming back to the thought that this was a labor of love that Durant and his wife Ariel spent their entire lives working on. Simon & Schuster published the first volume in 1935 with the concluding volume published 40 years later in 1975. (In between it helped but Simon & Schuster on the map and earned the Durant’s a Pulitzer Prize.) I was fascinated by the idea that a passion could be so gripping. I read Will and Ariel Durant’s Dual Autobiography in which they discuss the development of the book, and in doing so, I was envious of a big lifelong project like that. I was also daunted by it.


In 2016, I began reading Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson. I’d previously read Willard Sterne Randall’s biography of Jefferson, but I wanted something more in-depth. Malone’s biography was just what I was looking for. It was the first scholarly biography I’d read. I read it somewhat piecemeal, a volume here, two volumes there, so that I didn’t finish it until 2018. When I finished it, I had a better understanding of Jefferson–taking into account that some of what Malone wrote had been overcome by events: for instance, Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings.

To my surprise, I was even more interested in how a person spends a lifetime on a labor of love such as this, even while going blind. I searched around and found a wonderful biography of Dumas Malone by William C. Hyland, Jr. titled Long Days With Mr. Jefferson. As much as I enjoyed Malone’s books, I think I liked his own biography even more because that passion, that focus, that attention to detail comes shining through.


A recent issue of The New Yorker had an obituary of the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb written by David Remnick. The list of writers that Gottlieb has edited is remarkable, and among them is Robert A. Caro, beginning with The Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses, and on through the first four volumes of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. The New Yorker piece mentioned a documentary by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, Turn Every Page, which details the decades-long relationship between Gottlieb and Caro as they worked together on these five books. The other night, after reading the piece, I sat down to watch the documentary and I immediately thought of Will Durant and Dumas Malone and these lifelong labors of love.

Over the years I have read six of Caro’s books: The Power Broker, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, The Passage of Power, and Working. I read the latter because, much like Will and Ariel Durant and Dumas Malone, I’m fascinated by people who spend their lives in labors of love. How did they get started? How did they manage to maintain or resupply their enthusiasm over the years? Did they ever want to give up? How did they handle frustration?

In that same New Yorker obituary was a reference to Gottlieb’s own memoir, Avid Reader. As soon as I saw the title I knew I was going to read it. I’d never heard of Gottlieb before I’d read his obituary in the New York Times a bit earlier, but I wanted to know just what kind of avid reader he was. I did something I rarely do. I set aside the book I had been reading (President Garfield by C.W. Goodyear) and started in on Avid Reader. I wasn’t sorry. Here was a man whose lifelong labor of love was reading and I was and am severely impressed by him.


Asimov’s was a great explainer. That was his labor of love, whether it was in his science fiction stories, his thousands of essays on science, or his books on history, the Bible and Shakespeare. He spent his life explaining things to his audience. Will Durant’s labor of love was unification. How does one tell the unified story of human civilization with all of its parts, the people, the culture, the art, the politics, the religion, the science, the professions, all of it interweaved and interrelated. Robert A. Caro’s labor of love, it seems to me, is the research. He wants to answer specific questions with facts, not assumptions. He wants to dig through thousands of pages of documents, to turn every page until he uncovers the piece of paper that explains it all.

I’m still too unfocused to know for sure what my labor of love is. For a long time I thought it was writing, but more and more, I think it is learning. I’m curious about everything, I want to know everything I can about the world. I read to learn. Fortunately, I love to read, and say maybe reading (and learning) is a labor of love after all.

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The Pilot and the Writer

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When I was 8 or 9 years old, my dad took a ground school course as a precursor to flying lessons. Those flying lessons never materialized, but I grew fascinated by the book used in the course, The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual by William K. Kershner. I combed through the book, memorizing it, absorbing it, and somewhere along the lines, I set a mental goal of becoming a pilot someday. Twenty years later, on April 3, 2000, the wheels of the Cessna 172 I was piloting touched down on runway 16R at Van Nuys airport, and I turned off on the first high-speed taxiway as instructed. The F.B.O. I flew out of was at the far end of the airport, and I nervously made the long taxi back, with the examiner sitting quietly beside me. Once parked and with the engine shut down, the examiner told me to tie down the plane. He was going inside to write up my ticket. I was a private pilot. Over the next 18 months, I tried to get in a flight at least once a month. But some of the urgency was gone. I’d achieved the goal I’d set out for myself when I was 8. I was a private pilot. After 9/11, it became increasingly complicated to fly a private plane in the busy Los Angeles airspace. I never piloted a plane again. I carried my license with me for many years as a reminder that I’d achieved my goal, but it never went much beyond the goal itself. Eventually, I tossed my license into a desk drawer.


Growing up I always felt the urge to write. I wrote a story in my social studies class in third grade about two friends who visit Moscow, a city about which we were reading in the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. I wrote more over time, but it wasn’t until college that I set myself a goal of writing a story and then selling it to a magazine. That would have been 1993. Fourteen years and more than a hundred rejection slips later, I made my first profession sale to Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show magazine. I followed that up with a sale to Apex Magazine and then to Analog. I made 8 more story sales over the next several years, peaking in 2013 with numerous story and nonfiction article sales. After that, things waned. I’d achieved the goal I’d set out in college. I wrote and sold a story to a magazine.


I sometimes wish I’d continued flying. I sometimes wish I’d continued to write and sell stories. In these somber moments, I am apt to lay blame on poor goal-setting. In school I was taught that it was important to set a goal, but not taught how to frame a goal in such a way that it was not a one-time achievement but a state-of-being: seeing the country by private plane vs. becoming a pilot; making a living as a writer vs. selling a story. There is more to it than that. I was learning to fly at a time of high stress in my job, and flying drew away the stress as one might draw away venom from a snakebite. The effort of writing stories and submitting, learning to deal with rejections and moving forward was a useful lesson in humility and self-confidence completely aside from selling a story. Still, I wish I’d framed my goals better when I started out. I wonder how things might have been different if I had.

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3 New Features for a Modern OS

For months now, I have been thinking about features that I think should be part of a modern operating system. Some of these features are included in application software today, but for a variety of reasons, would be much more powerful if present at the operating system level. Here are 3 of them.

1. Document linking and tracking

Anyone who uses a tool like Obsidian knows about the power of linking between notes. One of the great features of a tool like Obsidian is not the ability to link to other notes in my vault, but rather Obsidian’s ability to keep the links updated when documents are moved around or renamed within a vault. It takes a load off my mind. I can rename a file and not worry that the links that point to the file will break. Obsidian handles management of all of that linking behind the scenes.

I would love to see this type of linking moved to the operating system level so that I could take advantage of it with any type of document anywhere on my computer. Suppose that in my Master Reading List spreadsheet in Excel, I wanted to make a link from a cell with the title of a book I’ve read to a Wolfram notebook with notes on that book. It would be nice to have the ability to create a link from one document to any other document on my filesystem. Depending upon the type of document, it would be great to link to a specific part of the document.

My Master Reading List spreadsheet and a Wolfram notebook with notes from a book.

With such functionality at the operating system level, the operating system could manage the links. If I renamed the Wolfram notebook, the link to that file in my Master Reading List would be automatically updated. Moreover, since the linking would be managed by the operating system, the OS could maintain an index of linking that could be used for things like showing back-links (links that point to the current document) in the file properties of a file.

Obsidian fans might argue that I could get this functionality by making a vault of my entire filesystem. I see two problems with this. First, it would work only for markdown files managed in Obsidian. I couldn’t link from an Excel file to a Wolfram notebook. Second, it seems that linking would become a property of the filesystem, not the application level. In this case, the operating system is a better place for low-level monitoring and updating to take place.

2. Triggers on file events

A tool like Apple Shortcuts is surprisingly useful to create quick automations for repetitive tasks. I have used it for things like starting a workout or taking a nap. I even have a shortcut to ask Siri for the name of my kids’ friends’ parents, in case I forget.

One useful addition to automation at the operating system level would be to expose file event triggers. This would allow various automation to trigger on events that occur on a file. Such events include: creating a file, updating a file, deleting a file, renaming a file, copying or moving a file, etc. One could imagine these events having two properties: “before” and “after.” SQL database developers might recognize this function as analogous to table triggers.

With file event triggers, there are all sorts of automations I could setup. For instance, if I am working on a draft of a blog post, I could setup a file trigger on my file that acts on the “update” event. Each time I update the file, this event would get triggered. The event would allow me to specify whether I want to take an action before the update or after. I might trigger the “before” version to make a backup copy of my draft before the current version is saved to disk.

Of course, much of this functionality is available within application level tools. Scrivener allows for the saving of backups. Obsidian can maintain a list of versions that one can revert to. But there is an elegance and simplicity at extending this capability to the entire operating system.

3. Automatic searching for text within images

A modern OS should have the native ability to search text that appears in images. The latest version of macOS can recognize text in images and extract it, but it does not, so far as my experimentation has shown, search that text in a normal Spotlight search.

For this to work, an operating system first needs the ability to recognize text. macOS can already do this. The reason it can’t search the text as part of a normal operating system search is that it only performs the text extraction in the context of the image. You have to open the image in order for the text to be recognized. To make the text searchable, all images have to be indexed and text extracted as part of the indexing process. Moreover, when an image file changes, it needs to be re-indexed so the search text can be updated.

Searching for text in an image should combine multiple capabilities to be truly powerful. There are already tools that can readily translate from one language to another. When indexing text from images, the operating system should translate the text to the default operating system language. If my instance of macOS has a primary language setting of “English (US)”, then text extracted from images should be translated to English before they are stored in the index. This ensures that when I search files for the word “Airport,” images containing roadsigns in Greek that read αεροδρόμιο will show up in my search results.

This is my wish list for a modern operating system. What’s on your wishlist?

Written on June 27, 2023.

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Functional Programming

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Late last year I set myself some goals to tackle in 2023. These goals fell into three areas in which I am seeking improvement: (1) consolidation, (2) simplification, and (3) automation. In setting those goals, I wrote the following:

I believe I can get away with two primary work product formats: plain text files used in conjunction with Obsidian; and Wolfram Language notebooks (.nb files) used in conjunction with Wolfram Language and Mathematica.

Halfway through 2023, I think I have been largely successful. My daily notes and all things related to events in my life (and that of my family) are recorded in Obsidian. Meanwhile, working notes, coding, writing, and automation has happened primarily in Wolfram notebooks, and using the Wolfram Language as my primary framework.

I’ve been a hobbyist user of Mathematica and Wolfram Language since 2009. I like its all-encompassing scope, its ability notional that nearly everything is computable, and its coding framework . A great thing about the Wolfram Language is that it can be used for complex mathematical experiments, or simply to copy files from folder A to folder B. It is a language that can be used for any task and that is how I have been using it. In the six months since setting my goals, for instance, I’ve done the following using Wolfram Language notebooks and scripts:

  • Created a script that adds work products for a given day to my Daily Notes file in Obsidian. Work products are defined as any file that I created or edited that day: notes, scripts, spreadsheets, etc. The script runs automatically each night and in the morning, I can see the files that I worked on the previous day.
An example of my Daily Notes file with the “Today’s work products” section generated automatically by my script
  • Created a script that selects a random article from the magazines I read and emails me the article the evening. I read a feature article each day and this script eliminated some decision fatigue while simultaneously adding a little spontaneity and surprise to the day — I never know what will get selected.
  • Create a script that exports my current reading list to an Obsidian vault, complete with charts and stats. This vault is published to the web using Obsidian Publish. For decades this was a manual task for me and now it is fully automated. All I have to do is keep my spreadsheet up-to-date.

I learned to write code in the early 1980s by trial and error. And from that first foray with BASIC through this year, I’ve been a procedural programming — a method by which a set of procedures are called in step-by-step fashion. Those procedures might be functions, events or anything that can be called at any point during the program’s execution. Wolfram Language can do procedural programming, but its real power comes from its ability to do functional programming. After a lifetime of procedural programming, I have begun to teach myself functional programming.

Over the weekend, I began exploring the use of stylesheets in Wolfram Notebooks. I created a simple stylesheet for writing, with styles and elements that I use frequently. There is a folder location with the Mathematica framework for these custom stylesheets to be stored. I had several choices:

  1. I could simply save my custom stylesheet to the folder in question.
  2. I could store the stylesheet in one place and copy it to the folder in question whenever I made a change.
  3. I could automate the process.

One of the things I’ve learned as a professional software developer is that it is worth spending the time to do things the right way the first time. I opted, therefore, for option 3.

In my Documents folder, I have a folder called Settings, where I keep my preferences for all of the software I use. This includes things like settings files, templates, stylesheets, preferred fonts, etc. This is the source for my personal preferences and when I get a new machine, it makes it easy to apply all my settings to that machine.

My settings folder

I placed my newly created Writing.nb notebook in the Mathematica folder in my Settings folder. Whenever I updated my stylesheet, this is the file I’d update. But for the file to appear in Mathematica, it needs to live in a special folder in my library. For that, I write a Wolfram Language script. The script does the following:

  • makes a list of all files in my StyleSheets folder (a sub-folder of my Mathematica folder)
  • for each of the files in the list:
    • checks to see if the file exists in the Mathematical library
    • if it exists, it checks to see if my master copy has been update more recently than the version in the library folder; if it has, it copies the updated version to the library folder

I wrote the code as I have written most of my Wolfram Language code, procedurally. It looks as follows:

   FileNameJoin[{customStyleSheetDestPath, customStyleSheets[[i]]}]],
  If[FileDate[customStyleSheets[[i]], "Modification"] > 
     FileNameJoin[{customStyleSheetDestPath, customStyleSheets[[i]]}, 
      FileBaseName[customStyleSheets[[i]]] <> "." <> 
       FileExtension[customStyleSheets[[i]]]}], OverwriteTarget -> True
     FileBaseName[customStyleSheets[[i]]] <> "." <> 
   OverwriteTarget -> True
 {i, Length[customStyleSheets]}

Having written and tested the code, I decided that this was a simple enough task for me to try to rewrite the code as a functional program instead of a procedural one. To my surprise, I’d was able to do it fairly quickly. I was further surprised that it worked on the first try. Here is the same program, written as a functional program:

If[FileExistsQ[FileNameJoin[{customStyleSheetDestPath, #}]],
    If[FileDate[#, "Modification"] > 
      FileDate[FileNameJoin[{customStyleSheetDestPath, #}], 
        FileBaseName[#] <> "." <> FileExtension[#]}], 
      OverwriteTarget -> True]],
       FileBaseName[#] <> "." <> FileExtension[#]}], 
     OverwriteTarget -> True]
    ] & /@ customStyleSheets;

It looks much shorter, and is probably a bit more difficult to read if you are not used to working with functional programs. Essentially, this version of the program defines the entire procedure as an anonymous (i.e. Lambda) function and then maps that function over the list of style sheet files.

While this likely seems obscure and insignificant to most people, it was an important milestone for me. I did this early Saturday morning, and I was excited about the results all weekend. Indeed, I was excited enough by the results to want to tell people about it in a post. This was a milestone for me. Something about functional programmed had clicked in my head and, it seemed, I suddenly got it.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. I remember in late 1994 or early 1995 when I was teaching myself Perl, I looked at regular expressions as utter gibberish, something I would never understand. A year later, I recall, to my amazement, that I could in almost-realtime craft regular expressions for a pattern in my head. Like functional programming, it just clicked one day.

There is a lesson here. I set about my Saturday morning with a practical task in mind: creating a stylesheet for writing in Wolfram Notebooks. I came away with that stylesheet, but much more important, I had new confidence in my ability, and now I am eager to try flex my functional programming muscles even further.

Written on June 26, 2023.

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The Most Practical Skill

Four lessons from four decades of note-taking

In the fall, the Little Miss will be heading into 7th grade. Forty years ago, I too, was spending my summer what 7th grade would be like. In the Los Angeles Unified School District at that time, 6th grade was the last year of elementary school, while 7th was the first year of junior high school. Back the, just about everything we did for school was on paper. We text books which we covered with brown shopping bag paper to protect them. We had beige newsprint for scratch work and loose-leaf notebook paper for other types of work. In class, we often received “dittos”–what today might be called Xerox copies–of assignments.

Today, all three of our kids have school-issued iPads and no textbooks. Paper is a rarity. And with the dearth of paper comes a lack of something else that I’ve noticed over the years: the ability to take good notes.

In the fall of 1983, in my first 7th grade science class, I learned what I consider to be the most valuable, practical skill I took from all of my schooling: how to take good notes. It is the only time I can ever recall a teacher making lessons in note-taking part of the curriculum. Our teacher, Maureen Burrill, had introduced us to the scientific method and was discussing various types of tools and skills that scientists used to further their investigation of nature. One of the most important things a scientist could do, she told us, was to take good notes. Scientists not only had to carefully record observations, and collect data, but their experiments had to be reproducible. Only good, clear notes could do this.

The great thing about Mrs. Burrill, and a most fortunate thing for me, was that she didn’t just tell us this. She demonstrated the importance of good notes in the most practical way possible: for the entire school year, we were to keep all of our science work in a notebook. The notebook was a 3-ring binder, divided into sections using divider inserts. We had to keep our class notes in the binder, as well as other things like tests, homework, results of experiments. It all had to be organized and easily accessible. Mrs. Burrill was treating us like young scientists. Little did I know at the time that the lesson I learned in that class went far beyond science. They are lessons that I am still using today.

Experiments in note-taking

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many forms of note-taking. During the rest of junior high school and all through high school, I took notes on paper. Most of that paper, alas, is lost now. Despite at least one of the lessons I learned about note-taking in Mrs. Burrill’s class, the notes got thrown away, or lost in one move or another.

In college, I continued to take notes on paper, but beginning in my junior year (ca. 1992-93) I began typing up my notes on my IBM PC (286) as a way of helping me review the notes. I came up with a procedure that worked very well for me. I used Word for DOS 5.5 and created a file for each class I took. In that file, I typed up my lecture and reading notes. When it came time for a test, I used Word’s “Index” feature to label terms in the document as items for the index. I then generated an index and printed the file, index included. I used the topics on the index as a study guide with the page number references readily available to review the details. One of the earliest examples of these notes still exists in my archive. It is reading notes from a book we used in one of my political science classes. The file is dated June 19, 1993–just over 30 years ago.

Notes from a political science class in 1993
Notes from a political science class in 1993

When I began working at my company, a few months after graduating, I continued to keep notes: meeting notes, developer notes, outlines of briefings and presentation.

As I was taught in Mrs. Burrill’s science class, I experimented with note-taking. For several years, I kept the equivalent of “engineering day books” in the form of Composition books. In these books, I recorded meeting notes, documented bugs in code and how I went about fixing them, working out requirements for software my team was building. Here is a stack of 11 of these notebook, spanning November 2017 – September 2019, roughly 2,200 pages of notes.

A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019
A stack of work notebooks from 2017-2019

I’ve also tried out plenty of tools for note-taking. I’ve used Evernote, Apple Notes, and Obsidian. I was introduced into a wide variety of note-taking methodologies: Evernote and its “Remember Everything” slogan; Obsidian and its “Second Brain”; there was a brief, intense fascination with Zettlekasten and “linking your thinking.” Ultimately, however, I continued to come back to the basic principles of note-taking that I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class.

Four principles of note-taking

Mrs. Burrill did not teach us what we should record in our notes, or even how to organize the notes on the page. She was smart enough to know that everyone had a different way of learning. For some people, scribbling keywords on a page was enough. For others, like me, a more hierarchical approach worked better (e.g., outline form). But she gave us four principles that have made all the difference to me and taught me through experience just how valuable notes can be.

1. Clearly label the subject of the notes

When we learned about the phases of the moon, it was clear to us that our notes should be labeled “Phases of the moon” or something close to that. Clear labeling makes it easy to find your notes. Back in 1983, this was far less complicated than it has become today. The label was not much more than a line scribbled at the top of a page. Today, labels can involve numerous elements, from a title, to a filename, to a tag. Regardless, what I learned was to be as succinct and precise in my labeling as I could be.

2. Don’t erase

Mrs. Burrill emphasized the importance of being able to reproduce our work, especially when doing experiments. If we erased our mistakes, we couldn’t learn from them. We might make them again. Moreover, others couldn’t see the pitfalls that we ran into when trying to reproduce our work. Prior to this class, I would occasionally get math homework back from my teachers with the following words scrawled in red across the top of the page: “DO NOT ERASE.”

But this lesson proved invaluable to me, especially for more difficult subjects like organic chemistry and calculus. Seeing the mistakes I made ensured I could learn from them.

Today, I use Jupyter notebooks as “lab books” when working on code. I never delete anything. If something doesn’t work in the notebook, I’ll jot notes as to why it didn’t work and move on to the next cell and try again.

3. Don’t throw anything away

Perhaps this is a corollary to “don’t erase,” but Mrs. Burrill insisted we keep everything. You never knew when old notes might come in handy. When I was young, some of this was out of my control. Notebooks and folders were lost or thrown away. But once I started keeping my notes on the computer, beginning in the fall of 1992, I have managed to avoid throwing them away. Of course, they take up less room in digital form than on paper. And I do refer to them, now and then, if for no other reason than to prove to my kids that I went through the same thing they did in school by showing them, say, a sample of my math homework from 3rd grade:

Some of my math homework from 3rd grade
Some of my math homework from 3rd grade

4. Date every page

It wasn’t obvious to me why this was important at first. It eventually became clear, and then it became a habit. Put a date on every page. It no only lets me know when the notes were created, but it allows me to put notes in some kind of order. I can see the evolution of my thinking on a subject or even across multiple subjects.

In the digital age, files are automatically dated, but I still put in a date on the first line of my notes anyway, partially out of habit, and partially in case the file date gets changed (it has been known to happen).

Are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today?

When the summer is over, our kids will end 2nd, 7th, and 9th grades respectively. The Little Miss, entering 7th grade, will be in the same position I was in when I was first introduced to Mrs. Burrill’s science class. But are there any Mrs. Burrill’s out there today, teaching kids practical note-taking? If my observations of my own kids’ experience is any example, then it isn’t likely. No one taught my kids to take notes. They are sometimes given notes to study, but that is a very different thing that formulating the ideas on your own, and summarizing them in a way that works best for you.

I am trying to fill in, to pay forward the great gift that Mrs. Burrill gave to me forty years ago. I am teaching my kids some of the same concepts: not erase anything, or throw anything away, to date everything and label it as clearly as they can. What I am not doing is telling them how they should take their notes. The tools one uses, and the way that one records things is an entirely subjective thing.

Looking back across the decades, and all of the notes I’ve taken, it seems to me that I owe a lot of the success I’ve had to the principles I learned in Mrs. Burrill’s 7th grade science class. The notes I took in college helped me graduate. The notes I take in my job have made me a modestly successful software developer and project manager. I frequently impress friends and family by how quickly I can pull up a piece of information or a needed document, thanks to the note-taking principles pounded into my in 7th grade. I hope that my kids can look back and say the same forty years from now.

Written on June 21-24, 2023.

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Oh, To Read the Encyclopedia

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Whenever I read a book about the encyclopedia, I am overcome by an urgent desire to read one. This is not, as it might seem, an isolated incident. It happened five years ago when I read A.J. Jacob’s book The Know-It-All in which he described the year he spent reading the encyclopedia cover-to-cover. It happened again when I read Simon Winchester’s new book, Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic. And idea of reading the encyclopedia has been consuming me these last few days as I read Simon Garfield’s All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia.

I even have a plan for how I’d go about reading the encyclopedia, based upon my notion of the butterfly effect of reading. Here’s how it would work:

  1. I’d start at the beginning, reading the first entry in the first volume. My only rule is that I must complete each entry that I start.
  2. Once completed, I’d highlight the entry title to indicate that I’ve read it. Then, I’d do one of two things:
    • Continue on to the next entry, OR
    • Follow on to one of the cross-references that caught my attention in the entry just completed.

I suspect that in this manner, I’d scurry my way through the volumes like a mouse navigating a maze. What I’d really be doing is following wherever the encyclopedia led me, seeing more and more highlighted articles over the months and years. I imagine it would be interesting to keep a record of the order in which I read the articles as a way of, a kind of Theseusian string that would led me back through the journey I had taken. In my imagination, I marvel on the day that I find that one of the volumes has all of its entries highlighted–an event certain to warrant a celebration.

When I was young, we managed to obtain a set of encyclopedia. I no longer recall the edition, but I remember being fascinated by the weighty tomes, the small print, the illustrations. In my fantasy of reading the encyclopedia, I alway imagine a print edition. I see this effort as something to do off-screens. I still try to read off-screens each day. The random article I read each day is almost always in a print version of a magazine, and I keep a paper book on my nightstand1, separate from any audiobook I may be listening to so that I can read before bed without need of a screen. Reading an actual paper version of the encyclopedia is the only way that I would want to undertake this challenge.

Alas, I don’t have an encyclopedia at hand, and I don’t have space in my office, already crammed with more than 1,200 books, so for now this will have to remain a pleasant day dream. Maybe when I retire, however…

Written on 9 May 2023.

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  1. Currently, A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals.

My New and Improved (and Automated!) Reading List

A stacked date list plot of the number of books I've read by year since 1996

Late last year, I set 3 goals for myself for 2023: (1) consolidate the apps that I use; (2) simplify; and (3) automate repetitive tasks.

One repetitive task I’ve been dealing with for decades is maintaining and publishing my reading list. I started keeping my reading list back in 1996 in order to track a goal that I’d set for myself: to read one book per week. Initially, the reading list was in a text file. That was followed by Excel, HTML on an early website, a SQL database, more HTML, a plain text file on GitHub, and most recently, a markdown file that I host through Obsidian Publish.

None of my “routine” tasks have proved more time-consuming than maintaining this list. Frequently, I update in one place, and then have to make similar updates in other places to keep everything in sync. If I could automate this, it would be a huge win. Recently, this is just what I have done.

I created an Excel spreadsheet which is now my canonical master reading list. This is the only place I make updates. I wrote a Wolfram Language script that generates my reading list markdown file as well as a new reading stats page from the spreadsheet. I then simply publish the changes in Obsidian Publish, and presto! A single process for doing it all!

You can see the results on my reading list site. In addition to automatically generating the list, my script also produces the new Reading Stats page, which has all kinds of charts and visualizes of my reading over the decades, with more in the works. I no longer have to do this manually myself, and it has proven a big timesaver already.

To cap things off, I wrote a new About the List page, which gives the history of my reading list and provides an FAQ. Eventually, I’m looking to automate this further by having Wolfram Language detect when my reading list file is updated and automatically produce the updated files, and publish them.

I’m pleased with this new process since it saves measurable amounts of time (considering how much I read and, therefore, how frequently I’m updating my list), which means more time for other things. Like writing more here on the blog.

Written on 6 May 2023.

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Where Have I Been?

close up photo of rolled maps
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Where have I been and why have things been so quiet around here? One of my real joys is writing here and it has been too long since I last took solace in this pleasure of mine. So what’s the deal? Well, I’ve had a lot of things on my plate keeping me busy:

  • With three kids, one a teenager and one tween and one a first-grader, there comes an endless array of activities. It seems that we are always driving someone somewhere and picking up someone else: school, soccer, gymnastics, girl scouts, birthday parties, play rehearsals, we’ve got it all and it seems to keep us constantly on the move.
  • Work has been busy as my team ramps up for a major software deployment, months in the making. Over time, my role seems to have increased in scope from that of an application developer to include that of a project manager and product managers. All three roles are essentially fulltime jobs and it has been tough keeping up.
  • I’ve been finding time to squeeze in my usual amount of reading, although even here, I’m a little behind the pace I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Part of that is because of all of the above, part of it is because I’ve been reading some really big books. I just finished Les Miserables, which may be the best novel I’ve ever read.
  • I’ve been taking some time to learn new things. I’ve been teaching myself the Wolfram Language, a language which has always fascinated me by its symbolic structure and its breadth of curated content. Through this I’ve also been teaching myself the basics of machine learning and neural nets so that I can better understand how things like ChatGPT really work behind the scenes.
  • I’ve been applying what I’ve learned to a series of automation scripts that I’ve been writing to free myself up of the repetitive, routine tasks that consume non-trial portions of my day.
  • I’ve been attempting to write longer essays, some of which I’ll end up posting here, and some of which I may try submitting to magazines.

All of this has left me mentally drained, and with very little time for anything else, including writing here.

But I am trying to change that. I’ve got some posts in progress that should begin to trickle in over the next few days and weeks. The posts covers a variety of subjects, including:

  • Updates to my reading list (how I automated something I used to spend a lot of time on).
  • An update on my use of Obsidian, Evernote, and the paperless lifestyle.
  • A post or two on some recent reading.

I feel guilty for not posting more regularly recently. I’m not yet in a position to say that I’ll be back to a regular schedule soon, but I’m working in that direction.

Written on 5 May 2023

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A Ring of Keys

silver keys in close up photography
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I got my first house key when I was eight or nine years old. It was attached to a string which I wore around my neck, making me one of the many latch-key kids of the early 1980s. I’d walk home the short distance from school, unlock the door with my key, and then call my mom at work to let her know that my brother and I had arrived safely at home. Since then, I’ve never been without a set of keys.

Returning from a morning walk recently, I flipped my key ring around my finger, and noticed how, despite all of the changes over the last four decades, the keys I carry have been ubiquitous and constant. When I got that first key, we did not have cable television and relied on the three major networks for news and entertainment, with the occasional foray into UHF for an old black and white film. When I had that first key, we spoke with local friends on the phone. For more distant friends and family, we sent letters and post cards. Email was far in the future.

Keys have a way of spontaneously multiplying. One key inevitably leads to another and eventually a string around one’s neck is not enough. A key ring is required. I don’t remember the first key ring that I had, or why I needed more than one key. Perhaps it was in junior high school, when I needed a key for a locker in the gym. Perhaps it was when I turned 16 and needed a car key in addition to a house key. Over time, the keys accumulate. We don’t get rid of keys as easily as we gather them and their weight grows heavy in our pockets. Every few years, I’ll sit down to purge the set of keys of ones for which I no longer recall the purpose. Those exiled keys go into a bag in the junk drawer containing a lifetime of cast-offs. Looking at the keys in that bag, I sometimes imagine writing a memoir titled, The Keys to My Life. The cover image would be that freezer bag of keys.

The weight of the key ring attracts other objects. My key ring today contains a fob for one of our cars. Cars, it seems, no longer require keys in the traditional sense, but the fobs weigh more. There is a regular car key for the other car. There are two house keys and a small little key for a locker in my office building which I haven’t used in three years. A Field Notes bottle opened is attached to my key ring, as well as three miniature library cards, one for me and one for each of my daughters.

Kelly’s key ring is different and I can tell from the weight alone whether I’ve picked up the right set in the morning when it is still dark and I’m heading out for my walk.

With all that has changed since I got my first key, I find it comforting that this same mechanical device is still used to secure our cars, our house, our shed. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting an electronic “smart” keypad for the house, but I’ve resisted. A key, like a manual typewriter, is old-school technology, simple, and serving a single purpose. When I use my iPhone for nearly everything but phone calls, it’s nice to know there are still objects I use every day that are simple, noble little inventions that unlock access to the cool air of the house on a hot summer day, or the warmth of the house in the cold of winter.

Written on 2 April 2023.

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Books I Read Between 1977-1995

assorted books on book shelves
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As readers know, I have kept a list of books I have read since 1996. (As of this writing, there are 1,241 books on the list.) Last spring, I tried to estimate how many books I read before I kept my list. I have been thinking about it more and more, and over the last few weeks, have been trying to remember the books I read beginning in kindergarten. As I remembered books, I scribbled them on a few pieces of notebook paper. To make it easier to remember, I divided the list into several sections: grade school, junior high school, high school, college, and 1994-1995.

The result is a list of books I read before 1996, which I have now published online along with my other reading lists. The list is not complete. I’d guess that I was able to recall about half of the books I actually read between 1977 and 1995. Other than being divided into the sections listed above, the books are in order I recalled them when trying to remember what I’d read. A lot of books I read in junior high school and college for classes have faded from my memory. A lot of books I read for fun remained. So while this list is not complete, it is a good representation of my reading in the years before 1996.

As I recall more books, I’ll add them to the list.

Written on 11 March 2023.

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