Reading for the Week of 4/24/2022

person reading newspaper
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Here is what I read this week. Some of the articles/posts may require a subscription to read them.

Books

Finished

In Progress

Articles/posts

Any recommendations for books, articles or posts I should read? Let me know in the comments?

Written on April 30, 2022.

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Making a To-Do List

pen calendar to do checklist
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Tomorrow we are heading down to Florida for the kids’ spring break. Of course, given the backlog of these essays I’ve built up, by the time you read this we’ll already be back. We drive down to Florida several times a year and each time, in the week leading up to the trip, the same thing happens. On Monday, I think to myself, Gee, we’re leaving on Friday. I better get started on all of the things that need to be done before we drive off. Then, I go about my day. Now it is Thursday, and we depart in a little over 24 hours. I’ve got full day of work ahead of me. I’ve got to take Grace to gymnastics this evening. Zach has soccer practice at 7 pm–the latest practice he’s had since he started in kindergarten. And the girls have a dance event at school in between.

When the pressure is on, I start making lists, and I thought I could kill two birds with one stone today by writing my to-do list in this essay. I get my list and you get something to read, and we both win. Here, then, are some of the things I need to get done in the next 24 hours:

  • Pack. It’s going to be hot in Florida so I can pack shorts and t-shirts. Actually, I keep a set of travel checklists in Obsidian that I print out before each trip and that make it easy to know what I have to pack.
  • Ask the neighbor to pick up our mail while we are gone. The post office is no longer very good at this.
  • I need to clean out the car. I do this before each trip. I get rid of all of the trash, vacuum out the car, clean the windows and the dashboard, make sure that the various cables for charging devices are installed, etc.
  • Run to the grocery store. We’ve got into the habit, especially during the pandemic, of bringing some food with us, so that we can be more efficient in our drive.
  • The Littlest Miss asked me to put some movies on the iPad so she can watch them on the drive. I have to do that.
  • I need to download the books that I want to listen to during the drive.
  • There’s a bunch of things around the house that need to be tidied up before we leave. My desk is still a mess, but that may be too much to tackle.
  • I have some essays to write, but this counts as one, and with this essay, I’ve now got 20 days worth scheduled, so if I don’t write another one today, it’s okay.
  • I’d really like to finish reading the final volume of William L. Shirer’s memoir. I’ve only got 100 or 150 pages left. It would be nice to begin the drive with a new book.
  • Gas! I have to fill up the car, which is expensive these days.
  • The trash and recycling was picked up today, but I’ll want to clear the house of any remaining trash and recycling before we head out.
  • I’ll be working from Florida next week, so I’ll need to make sure to bring my work laptop with me.

I like making lists like these becaues they give me the illusion that I am getting things done, when really, they are just another way of avoiding the things that I need to do. I suppose that means I should wrap up and get to work. As you can see, I’ve got lot of preparation to do. Now, I just need to find the time to do it.

Written on April 7, 2022.

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Scope Creep: A Case Study in 11 Volumes

One of my favorite works of nonfiction is Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization, an 11-volume series of history published by Simon & Schuster between 1935 and 1975. The reading is fascinating, but I also enjoy Will Durant’s writing style. It is a blend of old-world and modern, sardonic, but not malicious. These are my desert island books.

Over the years, I’ve managed to make it through the first 7 volumes. As much as I enjoy these books, they are a classic example of scope creep: a plan that goes wildly off the rails. I thought it would be fun to illustrate this by referencing comments that the Durants make in the prefaces to each volume. We’ll begin with the first, which was published in 1935…

1935: I. Our Oriental Heritage

Durant begins with a plan for the series firmly in mind. In the preface to this first book, he writes:

The plan of the series is to narrate the history of civilization in five independent parts:

1. Our Oriental Heritage: a history of civilization in Egypt and the Near East to the death of Alexander, an din India, China and Japan to the present day; with an introduction on the nature and elements of civilization.

2. Our Classical Heritage: a history of civilization in Greece and Rome, and of civilization in the Near East under Greek and Roman domination.

3. Our Medieval Heritage: Catholic and feudal Europe, Byzantine civilization, Mohammedan and Judaic culture in Asia, Africa and Spain, and the Italian Renaissance.

4. Our European Heritage: the cultural history of the European states fro the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution.

5. Our Modern Heritage: the history of European and statesmanship, science and philosophy, religion and morals, literature and art from the accession of Napoleon to our own times.

So far, so good. We have a plan for five books that cover logical phases of (mostly Western) history.

1939: II. The Life of Greece

In Volume II, Durant presents us with a lengthy and, in my mind, fascinating history of Greece. But only Greece. At last, in final chapter, we arrive in Rome. Here, then, in the second volume of the five planned, he has already altered course. Instead of covering Greece and Rome, he gets just Greece, and is essentially one book behind.

1944: III. Caesar and Christ

In the preface to Volume III, Durant writes:

This volume, while an independent unit by itself, is Part III in a history of civilization, of which Part I was Our Oriental Heritage, and Part II was The Life of Greece. War and health permitting, Part IV, The Age of Faith, should be ready in 1950.

He catches us up on Rome in volume III, another great volume. But, in Durant’s original plan, Volume 3 was supposed to be on our classical heritage. We are still a volume behind where we should be. That’s not too bad. At this point, nine years into the project, it has grown in scope from five books to six.

1950: IV: The Age of Faith

The Age of Faith is the longest of all of the books in Durant’s series, coming in at more than 1,200 pages. As Durant writes in the preface to this volume:

The book continues the study of the white man’s life to the death of Dante in 1321. Part V, The Renaissance and Reformation, covering the period from 1321-1649 should appear in 1955; and Part VI, The Age of Reason, carrying the story to our own time, should be ready by 1960. This will bring the author so close to senility that he must forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.

Here, Durant admits that his original plan of 5 books has gone by the boards, and the series will require 6 books to tell the story. He also, amusingly, refers to his impending senility. Will Durant was 65 when The Age of Faith was published. I think he worried he might not live to finish the series. He wasn’t the only one. In the first volume of his memoir, Isaac Asimov mentions reading the Durant books sometime in 1945. He wrote:

I read each volume as it came out. After I had read the first one and heard he was planning a multivolume history–five volumes was the original plan–I felt worried. I knew he was in his forties and I carefully noted in my diary that I hoped he would live long enough to complete the set. He did.

Durant’s wife Ariel, later coauthor of the series, was 52 at the time Volume IV was published.

1953: V: The Renaissance

Astute observes will note from the title of Volume V that it did not cover the Renaissance and Reformation, as Durant said it would three years earlier. Once again, another book would be required. Now eighteen years into the series, it had grown from 5 to 7 volumes. In the preface, Durant wrote,

If circumstances permit, a sixth volume, probably under the title of The Age of the Reformation, will appear in three or four years hence, covering the history of the Christian, Islamic, and Judaic civilization outside Italy from 1300, and in Italy from 1576-1648. The enlarged scale of treatment, and the imminence of senility, make it advisable to plan an end of the series with a seventh volume, The Age of Reason, which may carry the tale to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In Durant’s original plan, the final volume was to cover “Our Modern Heritage” from Napoleon’s time to our own. Now, having enlarged the project to 7 volumes, he scales back the scope with a plan to end the series at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Spoiler alert: as of 1953, Durant is still insisting this series will be 7 volumes. In reality, we are not even halfway through the series yet.

1957: VI: The Reformation

The Durants stay the course with this sixth volume. They promised a book on the Reformation, and in 1957, they deliver. In the preface they wrote,

If the Reaper will stay his hand, there will be a concluding Volume VII, The Age of Reason, which should appear some five years hence, and should carry the story of civilization to Napoleon. There we shall make our bow and retire, deeply grateful to all those who have borne the weight of these tomes on their hands, and have forgiven numberless errors in our attempt to unravel the present into its constituent past.

The Durants are still promising a seventh and final volume, pleading that their increasing age may not allow them to bring this to fruition. At this point, Will Durant is 72 years old, Ariel, 59.

At the very end of the book, the following text appears in ALL CAPS:

COURAGE, READER! WE NEAR THE END.

1961: VII: The Age of Reason Begins

Finally, with Volume VII, the Durants finally admit that things have gone off the rails. They had promised a final volume on the Age of Reason. Instead, as they wrote in preface to Volume VII,

I had hoped to conclude my sketch of the history of civilization with a seventh volume to be called The Age of Reason, which was to cover the cultural development of Europe from the accession of Elizabeth I to the outbreak of the French Revolution. But as the story came close to our own times and interests it presented an ever greater number of personalities and events still vitally influential today… What had begun as a final volume has swollen into three, and one of the present authors, at an unseemly age, becomes a prima dona making a succession of farewell tours.

What was supposed to be the final volume of the series suddenly became 3 volumes. I think the Durant’s would have empathized with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

More than a quarter century into the project, it has grown from 5 volumes planned to 9 volumes planned.

1963: VIII: The Age of Louis XIV

Uh, make that 10 volumes:

We hope to present Part IX, The Age of Voltaire, in 1965, and Part X, Rousseau and Revolution, in 1968… Meanwhile we shall rely on the Great Powers not to destroy our subject before it destroys us.

1965: IX: The Age of Voltaire

Not only has the scope increased in term of volumes, but the volumes themselves are getting longer. Not since The Age of Faith, fifteen years earlier, was one of the volumes as long as The Age of Voltaire. Still, they are set on concluding the series with Volume X:

Blame for the length of this volume (900 pages) must rest with authors fascinated to exuberant prolixity by the central theme–the pervasive conflict between religion and science-plus-philosophy which became a living drama in the eighteenth century, which has resulted in the secret secularism of our times…. The perspective of the age of Voltaire will be completed in Part X of The Story of Civilization.

1967: X: Rousseau and Revolution

Finally, we have reached the end, more than thirty years after the first volume was published, Will at 82, and Ariel at 69.

This is the concluding volume of that Story of Civilization to which we devoted ourselves in 1929, and which has been the daily chore and solace of our lives ever since… We shall not sin at such length again; but if we manage to elude the Reaper for another year or two we hope to offer a summarizing essay on “The Lessons of History”

At the end of the book, there is this passage: “We thank the reader who has been with us these many years for part or all of the long journey. We have ever been mindful of his presence. Now we take our leave and bid him farewell.”

Incidentally, the literary world acknowledged the Durant’s work on this series by awarding the book the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1968, a nice way to complete such an opus.

1975: XI: The Age of Napoleon

“Pysch!” as we used to say back in the 80s. Presaging the “reboots” of the 21st century, the Durants were back 8 years later with a Volume XI. They explain it thus:

“By the middle of the twentieth century,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica (XVI, 10a), “the literature of Napoleon already numbered more than 100,000 volumes.” Why add to the heap? We offer no better reason than to say that the Reaper repeated overlooked us, and left us to passive living and passive reading after 1968.

Epilogue

The books total something like 13,000 pages and 2.5 to 3 million words. Interestingly, in 1968, before Volume XI was written, they came out not with essay, but a short book entitled The Lessons of History, a signed copy of which sits on my bookshelf with all my other Durant books.

In 1977, they published A Dual Autobiography, which I found fascinating, if for no other reason than to better understand how two people could spend 40 years constantly working on these volumes. They were all successful volumes, incidentally, and helped to put Simon & Schuster on the map (and vice-versa).

Theirs was a true love story. Ariel Durant died on October 25, 1981. Will Durant was in the hospital when she died, and the news was kept from him, but he learned about her death in the evening news, and two weeks later, he died at the age of 96.

I don’t really mind the scope creep here, I only wish it had gone in a different direction. In the preface to Volume V, Will Durant wrote, “This will bring the author so close to senility that he must forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.” I would have loved to see volumes covering the history of the native people of North and South America.

Postscript: Before setting out to write this post, I searched the blog to see if I had written about it before. I felt that I had but I couldn’t find anything that seemed similar to what I had written. Then, just after scheduling this, I found it, from 2014, mainly because the title was similar: A post called “Scope Creep of Historical Proportions.” Not only do great minds think alike, but the same mind thinks alike. Ah, well, repetition is inevitable with a fallible memory such as mine. I image such repetition will occur again here from time to time, should the Reaper stay his hand allow me to to continue writing.

Written on April 5-6, 2022.

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Guest Post: A Harlan Ellison Lecture in 1995 by Me as a 23-Year Old

I have written about the various times that I met Harlan Ellison. I wrote about the time I met him with my Mom at Dangerous Visions bookshop, for instance, which I was certain was the second time I met him. The first time, I was certain, was a lecture he gave at the Learning Tree in the Valley in 1995. It was my sister who called it to my attention.

However, I was wrong.

Recently, I wrote about the digital treasure I uncovered on an old server. I’ve had some time to go through what I found there, and among my writings is a detailed description for my group of friends on that Learning Tree lecture. It turns out the lecture was my second time meeting Harlan. The first was when I met him at Dangerous Visions, that day with my mom.

Today, I present to you a guest post. A writer from 27 years in the past–me–writing about my experience seeing Harlan Ellison lecture for the first time. Anyone who knows Harlan knows he doesn’t lecture. He is a kind of Robin Williams of the fantastic and what he did that day really made an impression on me, as you will see. What follow is what I wrote as Installment #34 of a series of pre-blog-era email messages to group of my friends from a Harlan Ellison lecture I attended on Friday, July 7, 1995.

WHERE YOUR MOST HUMBLED AUTHOR SAT IN BEWILDERED AWE FOR THREE HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES AND LISTENED TO A LIVING GOD SPEAK

It’s really hard to describe in any other terms. It was like sitting down next to a movie star and chatting away. If you’re religious, it was akin to sitting down next to Jesus and shooting the shit.

Comes Friday last, an unusual Friday in that I actually had something to do that evening. Instead of threading my way through the 5 PM traffic to Studio City, instead of lining up behind a row of smog-chugging autos at the Carl’s Jr. drive thru, instead of dozing off on the couch until 9:30 PM and waking in a dark, dazed stupor, instead of all of that, I took a ride out to Northridge, to the Valley campus of Learning Tree University, to a small, empty parking lot, and into a small air conditioned lecture room. I took a seat in the front row, center, not more than two feet from the director’s chair and mike in front of me. And after a twenty-minute wait, he showed up with his wife, toting a couple of boxes of books and a wool blazer. The first thing he said was, “Don’t you people have anything better to do on a Friday night?”

The next thing he said, glancing at his watch and pulling off his blue-blockers was, “For those of you who were dragged here by loved ones and have no fucking clue as to who I am, my name is Harlan Ellison, and I’m a writer. I’ve written short stories, books, movies and television, and you’ll probably hate me fifteen minutes into the lecture.” He then asked a lady in the front row to spit our her gum please, and handed her a cup to do so.

“Media, Monsters, and Madness,” he said, peering over the flier that announced the lecture, “What the fuck is this, media, monsters and madness? Folks, I want you to know this isn’t my title. You’ll get plenty of the madness, but this ain’t my title.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to put a title on this talk, because I’m just gonna be
talking for three hours about anything that comes to mind. Some of it may have to do with media, and monsters. Most of it will be madness.

“You know, they told me they needed a title though, so I said, ‘How about New Techniques for Masterbation.’ That’ll back ’em in. They put media monsters and madness.”

That’s how it started and it only got better as the three hours went by.

Ellison is a short man, and when he first came into the room, his hair was significantly more gray than in his pictures. But a strange phenomenon occurred as the night went on. His wife, Susan, was there the whole time, a younger woman (much younger, I gather) sitting by stacks of books and CD’s if anyone wanted to by.

I learned a lot about Ellison that night. He was a staunch liberal in the 1960s and now he thinks the liberals are just as bad as the conservatives. Well, almost. He marched on Montgomery. He was friends with Martin Luther King. He worked side-by-side with Caesar Chavez. He hung out with Lenny Bruce. Someone asked him what’s the one thing he’d like to do if he knew he was going to die in a month.

“I’d like to buy a gun, and take a leisurely drive across the country to North Carolina. Then I’d like to find Jesse Helms, the man who just said ‘let the faggots die because they gives AIDS to the world’ and put the gun between his eyes and say ‘die mother fucker’ and pull the trigger. I’d like to do this because, you ever notice that when someone takes a shot at good guys, a guys like Kennedy, they could be fifty-fucking million miles away, with a bee-bee gun, in high wind, and blind, yet the blow the guy’s brains through the back of his head. Meanwhile, when someone actually does try and shoot a jerk like Reagan, they get right up next him and MISS!”

Ellison had lots to say that evening. He talked about computers and how he hated them and how they were the downfall of society as we know it. Hey, he might be my idol, but I’m allowed my differences. He talked about television and the cultural illiteracy of America, and how there was somehow a connection. “We are fed stupid through television, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” He talked about the trouble he’d caused at recent talks. In Ohio, one girl called him the Antichrist and then set her hair on fire. At a talk he was asked to give to the Advertising Executives of the Western United States, he caused a ruckus when he said, “You ever wonder why we have more automobile deaths than any other country? Could it be because every car commercial we see on tv shows cars zooming by at speeds you know we can’t drive? Every wonder why we have the biggest drug problem than any other country? Could it be
because every other commercial says, ‘have a cold, take a drug’, ‘can’t sleep, take a drug’, ‘back pain, take a drug’, ‘can’t shit, take a drug’.”

And the longer Harlan Ellison talked, the younger and younger he began to appear.

We took a short break about halfway through, and a couple of people (myself included) got up to talk to Ellison, and have him sign books for us. I got The Glass Teat signed, which makes four of his books, now. It was then, when I was up there talking to him, that it dawned on me (dawned, heck, pummeled me): this is the man. This is Ellison. This is the guy, who, as a kid of 17 joined a street gang in New York City (circa 1950) so that he could write a book about street gang life. This is the guy who wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The guy who wrote, “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, “The Whimpering of Whipped Dogs”, “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”, “All the Lies that are My Life”, “Count the Clock that Tells the Time”, “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”, Star Trek, episode #27, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “A Boy and his Dog”, “Demon with a Glass Hand”, “Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”. This was the man who in 1967, changed the shape of science fiction (and perhaps literature in general) forever with Dangerous Visions, and in 1972 with Again, Dangerous Visions. This is the guy who, from 1954 until April of 1992, was best friends with Isaac Asimov. This was the man who led the West Coast struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. This was the man who showed people the poison they were being fed with his books The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. This was the man, the myth, the legend, the Second Coming of Borges. This was everything that I ever wanted to be. This was Harlan Ellison, and I was here, next to him, talking to him.

When the break was over he said, “Now, I brought a story, fresh of the typewriter (I still use Olympia manual typewriters, because I like nice dark black marks on my page and I can type 120 words per minutes with two fingers and no mistakes) and this story will be appearing in the next issue of Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor (finally! my own comic book!)

“You want me to read you guys the story?”

We did. Ellison promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed, that he was a good reader. I thought, “Okay.”

He does, so happen, to be the best reader I ever heard. In the half hour or so it took for him to read the story (titled something like, “Stroll Through the Museum of Imaginary Creatures1“) he made no mistakes. He read the lines with the actual accents that the characters had. Some of the characters were from North Carolina and he had a perfect southern accent. Better than most film actors. Some of the characters were from Sweden, and he did a perfect swedish accent. Not a single flaw, and it made the story a delight. When he finished the story, Ellison looked significantly younger. He told us, with a reminder from his wife, that it took him a day to write the story, and he read it to us (and is sending it to the publisher) exactly the way it came off the typewriter.

And this is the part that I remember most, this is the part that amazed me and astounded me and filled me with the sense of wonder that is science fiction. He said, “You’ve got to remember, though, I was kicked out of college and told that I’d never be a decent writer. Well, I can’t sing for shit, I can’t fix a car, I can’t play an intrument, (and Susan can’t tell a joke)–” and suddenly, he got a smile on his face, a twitch in his cheek, and twinkle in his eye, the gray came out of his hair, his eyes were alive and bluer than the sky, “–BUT I CAN WRITE! And it tickles the shit out of me.”

Back to the future

One thing that my fifty-year old self finds remarkable about this is my memory for what Harlan said. Back then, I didn’t carry around a notebook the way I do today. I didn’t have a phone to record the lecture. Harlan’s talk made such an impression on me that I just remembered it very well. I’m not sure I could do the same today without taking notes.

One thing I didn’t mention in this piece to my friends was a question Harlan posed to the audience. At some point, he referred to a line that either he or some else had written. The line referred to a person as having “the eyes of a Dachau guard.” He then asked if anyone in the audience knew what a Dachau guard was. And he was pretty pissed off that no one did. (I didn’t. All we’d ever been taught growing up was about the horror of concentration camps — never the names of the camps.)

This was my first time ever hearing an author read one of their own stories and I’m afraid it spoiled me for life. If you’ve ever heard Harlan read, if you’ve ever listened to one of his recordings, you know what I mean. I’ve never heard anyone who comes close. When I started to read my own stories at science fiction conventions, I tried not to think of Harlan’s readings. They were too intimidating.

Incidentally, the story that Harlan read that day, hot off his Olympia manual typewriter, was later published in the March 1996 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It is collected in Slippage, and there is an audiobook version read by Harlan as well, although I doubt it is as good as it was on that July evening 27 years ago.

Written on April 8 and 10, 2022.

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  1. Actually, “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral.”

A List of Books to Read

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Today I jotted down a list of books to read. I think it serves as a good, real-world example of how the butterfly effect of reading works on me. It started on my afternoon walk. I was listening to the final volume of William L. Shirer’s memoir, A Native’s Return and Shirer mentioned Winston Churchill’s obituary and then recounted some of the brief interactions he’d had with the Churchill. I’d read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Churchill 8 years ago, and it impressed me. I was particularly moved by a passage about the death of Marigold Churchill, his daughter. I was reminded that I’d always wanted to read Churchill’s World War II memoir, the full version of which fill six volumes. I scratched the word “Churchill” on my list.

Shirer also mentions Thucydidies in his memoir, and that reminded me that I’ve wanted to read The History of the Peloponnesian War. In my Field Notes notebook, I wrote “Thucydides.”

Thucydides got me thinking about ancient histories. Hadn’t I picked up a copy of Herodotus’s Histories? “Herodotus” went on the list.

In the chapters discussing his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I recently read, Shirer mentions that in length, it is almost as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That’s another history I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I scratched “Decline and Fall” on my list.

The chapter I was listening to ended, and I decided to walk the rest of the way home in silence. I thought about the things we needed to do before our road trip down to Florida two days hence. One thing the those semi-annual trips to Florida meant was 4 days of driving–two down and two back–during which I could spend 8+ hours each day listening to audiobooks. What books would I want to listen to?

There was that new biography of Harry S. Truman that had come out, The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 by Jeffrey Frank. I scribbled “Truman” on my list. And there was that cleverly titled book, The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. I wrote “Joy of x” on my list.

I glanced up at the sky. It was a slate gray, overcast and gloomy. For some reason I thought of the moon, and that in turn reminded me that I’d seen a new book come out by Fred Haise, an astronaut on Apollo 13. As someone who has consumed dozens of books on the space program, and especially Apollo, I decided that this would make a good read for our trip. I jotted “Fred Haise” on the list.

My mind drifted back to my recent reading, which contained a lot of World War II. I’d read John Toland’s The Rising Sun, and Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer knew a lot of people, especially journalists, and I thougt about a passage he mentioned about John Hersey, author of Hiroshima. Hadn’t I picked up that book while I was reading Toland? “Hiroshima” went on my list. Of course, Shirer was a journalist, and I once thought about being a journalist–even going so far as to take a minor in the subject. Was there another journalist I could read about?

I pulled out my phone and scanned the list of books I’d recently obtained. Among them was Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History. “Bernstein” went on my list.

That was 9 books. I felt like I needed one more for an even ten. Right there below Bernstein’s book was another book I had recently acquired, Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn. Since the baseball season was about to start, I added “Baseball book” to the list. Here then, is the page from my Field Notes notebook containing a list of books to read.

a page from my field notes notebook with my list of books

This is a good list. I may not get to all of these books right away, or in this order. The butterfly effect of reading is unpredictable. But it’s a useful list to have going into our trip down to Florida.

ETA (4/27/2022): Since writing this post I’ve read the Truman biography, and The Joy of x. I also read another biography of FDR (not on the list above) and a biography of George Marshall. And I am, at the moment, almost finished with Carl Bernstein’s memoir, Chasing History.

Written on April 6, 2022.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 28: Archiving in Obsidian: A Tour of My Digital Scrapbook

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

Recently, while browing around and older server, I unearthed some digital treasure. I found text files going back to 1994 containing about 100,000 words of my writing. Some of it was old journals, some of it what I discovered were proto-blog posts from an era before blogs existed. All of it I had assumed lost, until I came upon it by accident.

The experience was exhilarating. I was delighted to find this writing, and immediately pulled it into my Obsidian archive folders. (Conveniently, it was already all plain text files.) But the experience reminded me of something that I started to do in my Evernote days, and never quite finished: archive old papers and create a kind of digital scrapbook to illustrate the progress of my output over time.

In my Evernote days, I focused primarily on creating digital scrapbooks of my kids’ work. The old files I uncovered reminded me that I wanted to do something similar with my own papers. I started that process shortly after I made my discovery. What I present today, therefore, is a work-in-progress. You are seeing it in its early stages, as I try to figure out how to organize and present the information. Much is likely to change over time.

Practical archiving

I have in my house several good-sized bins of papers going back to my birth. My mom kept all of this stuff, and after their most recent move, several years ago, sent me what she had collected over the years. The boxes contain everything from birth announcements to report cards to school work to drafts of stories that I would eventually sell. They contain artwork I did, scrapbooks I kept, newspaper clippings (as when I had something printed in the New York Times) and letters I’d written and received.

Ten years ago, I would have tried to archive it all, scanning it all into Evernote and then attempting to figure out how best to present it so that I could find it. That it never happened is due entirely to the scope. There are hundreds if not thousands of pages to scan. I kept putting off the task as too overwhelming.

Now, however, I am taking a different approach. Instead of trying to scan in everything, I am capturing what I hope is a representative sample of papers from throughout my life. I’m trying to avoid duplication where I can. I don’t need every piece of artwork, but maybe one or two every few years to show how my artwork changed. I don’t need every report card, or school assignment, just enough to put together a reasonable picture.

A few of the boxes of papers for me to wade through
A few of the boxes of papers for me to wade through

Identifying what to archive

In order to take this more practical approach, I had to figure out what to archive. After some thought, I settled on a kind of “phases of my life” approach:

  • Birth – 1979 (when I lived in New Jersey)
  • 1979 – 1983 (when I lived in New England)
  • 1983 – 1987 (when I lived in L.A. through junior high school)
  • 1987 – 1990 (high school)
  • 1990 – 1994 (college)

I’d review papers and documents from each of those five periods, taking what I felt was a representative sample, and scan the documents into Obsidian.

Format of archived documents

I began selecting and scanning documents, but I fairly quickly, I realized I needed to make a decision: what format should I scan the documents in? My default is to scan as PDFs. I described my reasons for this way back in Episode 5. But as I scanned in documents and started to create the frame work of a digital scrapbook, it seemed to me that image files were better for the scrapbook purpose than PDFs.

There is a clear tradeoff here. As I mention in Episode 5, I scan PDFs as “searchable” PDFs with the idea that once a plug-in is developed to search PDFs in Obsidian, any PDFs that I have stored will already be searchable. It is not as easy to “search” the content of a image file. But then again, these documents are more of a showcase. I don’t really need to be able to search them the way I need to be able to search other types of notes and documents in Obsidian. I settled, therefore, on scanning these documents as image files.

Within Obsidian, while both PDFs and image files can be embedded within a note, only image files, so far as I know, can be resized, which makes it easier to format the scrapbook the way I want.

Creating a digital scrapbook

When adding the images to Obsidian, I was careful to give them names that would make them relatively easy to find later. I used a “date – subject” format, so if a newspaper clipping appeared on July 7, 1977 for instance, the image file might be named “19770707 – Fireworks.jpg.”

Once I had some documents scanned in, the next step was to figure out the best way of presenting them. When I was doing this for my kids in Evernote, I used a notebook for this purpose. In Obsidian, I decided it could be done with a single note for each person or subject. For my own personal scrapbook, for instance, I created a note and divided into five sections (for each of the five phases described above).

Each major section was labeled with the section name. Within each section, I added subsections with brief descriptions and then embedded images that I collected, sometimes with additional text.

A tour through my digital scrapbook

Below are some examples from my digital scrapbook. Keep in mind I’ve only recently started on this and it is still a work-in-progress. The images below are all from a single note, but I’ve picked out sections to showcase here. In practice, this is just a note in Obsidian that I scroll through to browse, like flipping the pages of a real scrapbook.

Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
Samples from my digital scrapbook in Obsidian
A photo of me in the newspaper taken at a fireworks display.
The earliest story I have in my papers that I wrote myself when I was 7 years old.
The earliest story I have in my papers that I wrote myself when I was 7 years old.
Math homework.
Math homework.
The good and the bad.
The good and the bad.

Why collect this stuff?

The main reason is because it interests me. I’m fascinated by looking at how I started out and where I’ve gotten to. I like seeing the mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve learned from them. Some of these papers have also proven helpful with my own kids. If they bring home an assignment that they didn’t do well on, and are disappointed or worried that it is a bad thing, I pull out these papers and show them my own mistakes. That seems to make them feel a lot better.

I’m fortunate that my mom kept all of these papers. I’ve tried to do the same with my kids, although my tendency is to scan their papers in digital form, which makes them all the more accessible for putting them into a digital scrapbook.

Next steps

I’ve only just started to sort through the various papers. I’m mostly interested in getting in stuff I written over the years. I’ve got a lot more that I’ve found and need to wade through to pick and choose what want to include. I also need to play around with how I’ve formatted things. There may be better ways to organize the information. I’ve searched around online and the closest thing I’ve found to what I am trying to do is Stephen Wolfram’s scrapbook.

In Evernote, I’d started digital scrapbooks for my kids, so I am also in the process of moving those scrapbooks into Obsidian. I think it will be fun for them to be able to scroll through their scrapbooks as they get older.

Prev: Episode 27: Use Case: Journal Writing in Obsidian
Next: Episode 29: Filling Out Forms

Written on April 25, 2022.

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Unearthing Digital Treasure

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Today I learned the thrill that any treasure hunter must feel at hitting upon a find. Except that in my case, I wasn’t seeking treasure, but instead, trying to fix a problem with our Confluence server at work.

Nearly 28 years ago, when I started with the company, most of my documents were Unix-based. Our email system was Unix based, I used a Unix-based text editor, and many of my files back then were plain text, or HTML, which was, in 1994, just coming into its own. Over the years, we moved away from Unix for everyday users. We shifted to either Windows or Mac, depending on preference. Eventually, our old Solaris systems were retired, and I had assumed that the files I had were lost once and for all when those servers went the way of the dodo.

To troubleshoot a server problem this morning, I made an SSH connection to our Confluence server. Then, I made a mistake, which makes the discovery all the more remarkable and serendipitous. I thought I’d navigated to certain folder on the Linux system, but I hadn’t. Instead, I was sitting there in my home directory when I ran the command to list the files.

To my astonishment, it was the same home directory from the 1990s. It had been migrated to the Linux environment when the Solaris servers were retired years ago, and I hadn’t even known it!

When I realized what I’d found, I tried to keep my head about me. I quickly fixed the problem I’d logged into fix in the first place, and then turned my attention to these files.

What treasures I’d unearthed!

There was a text file containing the first five months of my 2002 diary. Indeed, in the paper version, January through part of May is blank. I was experimenting with writing my diary in text files back then (ka is a wheel) and I was not handwriting entries in the diary book. I’d assumed that these entries were lost. No so! I’ve now recovered them, and they are now safely filed away with my other digital journals in Obsidian. The four months that I recovered contained nearly 30,000 words of writing.

There was a folder called “installments” and when I peeked inside, I was astounded and delighted by what I found. Beginning in 1994, I started writing a weekly-or-so email to my college friends, numbered “installments.” These ran from 1994 through early 1997. They read like blog posts, but given their format in email, are probably more like newsletters. In any case, the 54 installments I found today total some 80,000 words.

I’ve written how I didn’t start a diary until April 1996, and that in hindsight, I wish I’d kept one earlier. Well, in many ways, these installments read like a diary. And they document important parts of my life in some detail for nearly 2 years prior to starting my diary. All 54 of these installments have now been safely imported into my Writing folders in Obsidian.

There was some early documentation I wrote for our I.T. department in the mid-1990s (although, back then, we didn’t call it I.T.). I’m sure these will amuse our company archivist, and will make for interesting blog posts on the internal blog I write inside the company.

I also found detailed notes and journals on my flying lesson from 1999-2000. I would jot short notes in my diary about the lessons as they progressed, but what I found today were detailed reviews of each lesson, and my own critical analysis of them, what I did well, what I thought I needed to improve on.

All of this has been rescued, thanks to this happy accident. None of it will go to waste. Already I’ve got blog posts in mind to feature some of this writing. Stay tuned. These will be fun.

Written on April 7, 2022.

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The Price of a Gallon of Gas

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For more than three decades spanning from the 1950s to the 1980s, my grandfather and three of his brothers owned and ran a service station in the Bronx. After they sold the station, whenever I was with my grandfather when he put gas in the car, he always pointed out the price. “See that,” he’d say, pointing to a sign that read $1.25 for a gallon. “It’s not a dollar twenty-five. It’s a buck twenty-five and nine-tenths of a cent. In reality, it’s $1.26.”

I was thinking about this as I filled up the tank recently. With local prices above $4/gallon, it was one of the more expensive fillings I’d ever done. It occurred to me that in both local and national news reports I’ve seen and read on the high cost of gasoline, not one of the news outlets reports the prices of gas accurately.

First, news outlet seem to report on the outliers–the stations with unusually high prices, or unusually low prices. Rarely have I seen or read a report beginning, “This Exxon station boasts a price of gallon of gasoline that is exactly the national median.” I suppose normal isn’t interesting, even if it is factual.

Second, they misreport the cost per gallon. “Here at the Springfield station,” a reporter will say, “the price of a gallon of regular gas has reached $4.25.” The camera will pan to the sign which clearly reads: $4.259/10. To my grandfather’s point, the price is not $4.25/gallon, but for all practical purposes, it is $4.26/gallon.

This method of pricing gasoline is so ingrained in our system that not even news reporters notice it. That people refer to the price of gas as less expensive than it actually is, must lift the spirits of gas station owners and oil manufacturer’s everywhere. But that 9/10th of a penny adds up. If you pay $4.25 per gallon for 15 gallons of gas, your gas bill is $63.75. If you pay $4.259/10 for the same 15 gallons, your gas bill is $63.89, or fourteen cents more for that 15 gallons.

If you fill your car up once a week, that fourteen cents becomes $7.28 for the year. That doesn’t sound like much. But look at it this way: according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2021, about 134.83 billion gallons of gas were consumed in the United States. At $4.25/gallon, that comes to about $573 billion dollars. If you tack on that exta 9/10th cent per gallon, the total comes to $574.2 billion. In other words, over the span of a year, that extra 9/10th of a cent that everyone seems to ignore costs consumers an extra $1.2 billion dollars.

It makes me wonder: why hasn’t this type of pricing caught on elsewhere? You don’t see the local Safeway selling a gallon of milk for $3.959/10. Monthly rent on an apartment is never listed as $1,500.009/10. Somehow, it seems, the oil companies and gas stations seem to have established some kind of priority in this type of pricing. Given that it fools so many people, you’d think you’d see more of it.

Written on April 4, 2022.

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Reading for the Week of 4/17/2022

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Here is what I read this week. Some of the articles/posts may require a subscription to read them. I also share my recommended reads on Pocket for anyone who wants to follow along there.

Books

Finished

In Progress

Articles/posts

  • The Art of Letting Go by Robert Breen (blog, 4/21/2022). I bumped this one up to the top even though I read it on Thursday evening because it is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend this thoughtful piece on life.
  • Talking Talkies  by Melanie Novak (blog, 4/17/2022). I missed my Golden Age of Hollywood post this week.
  • Woody Guthrie’s Notebooks (Notebook Storie, 4/19/2022). Anything about notebooks catches my eye.
  • Two April Appreciations: Beach, Schell  by James Fallows (Breaking the News, 4/18/2022)
  • Two New Possibilities for the ‘Times’ by James Fallows (Breaking the News, 4/20/2022). Some interesting suggestions for The New York Times
  • MacOS Setup in 2022 for Minimal Mouse interaction by Decoded Bytes (Medium, 3/3/2022). Since I’ve been trying to use Vim mode everywhere, I thought this would be an interesting read.
  • How To Balance Fun and Ambition by Ian Frazier (Outside Magazine, print edition, March/April 2022). This line resonated with me: “You must balance fun and ambition, and care passionately and dispassionately at the same time.”
  • Field Testing My Cheechako by Stephanie Joyce (Outside Magazine, print edition, March/April 2022)
  • The Greatest Game Ever Played by Alex Hutchinson (Outside Magazine, print edition, March/April 2022)
  • Is This What John Denver Meant By “Dancing with the Mountains”? by Bill Gifford (Outside Magazine, print edition, March/April 2022)
  • There’s No Better Place to Flirt Than Outside by Allison Braden (Outside Magazine, print edition, March/April 2022)
  • Take a Flying Leap by Bruce Handy (Outside Magazine, print edition, March/April 2022)
  • Let’s Turn the faun Back On by Mary Turner (Outside Magazine, print edition, March/April 2022). Resonated quote from this one: “Fun, unlike happiness, is an action, something we can actually pursue”
  • A Winslow Homer for the 21st Century by Susan Tallman (Atlantic, May 2022). Homer’s name came up once or twice in Shirer’s memoir so I was interesting in learning more.
  • Student-Loan Reparations by The Editorial Board (Wall Street Journal, 4/21/2022). I came out of college with $16,000 in student loan debt, which is far less than what graduates 30+ years later find themselves with. I managed to pay off all my debt. Still, I’m not sure what the WSJ editorial board is so upset about. The government has bailed out banks, airlines, to say nothing of other countries. Why not help out with student debt. It helps everyone in the long run.
  • Framing: In Honor of Eric Boehlert by James Fallows (Breaking the News, 4/6/2022). More in James Fallows continuing series on the “framing” of news stories in the media.
  • Writer Samuel R. Delaney Reading in His Library (NY Times, 4/21/2022). Chip Delany and libraries in one piece!
  • Escaping from ‘Flatland’ – by James Fallows by James Fallows (Breaking the News, 4/14/2022)
  • Bring on the Pitch Clock! – by Joe Posnanski – JoeBlogs by Joe Posnanski (JoeBlogs, 4/19/2022). After seeing them in action in the minor leagues, Joe is in favor of pitch clocks. I’m still a skeptic. Introducing a clock on any kind into a clockless sport is a slippery slope. I’ll have more to say on my ideas for fixing baseball in a post in early May.
  • Revolt in Disney’s Florida Kingdom – WSJ by The Editorial Board (Wall Street Journal, 4/22/2022). I’ve got to wonder: is going after big business–from which both parties get enormous amounts of funding–a sound strategy? If a corporation is treated by law as a “person,” why can’t it have an opinion?
  • Alexandria home prices got boost near housing projects, study shows by Marissa L. Lang (Washington Post, 4/22/2022)
  • Apollo 16 astronaut reflects on life and God on landing anniversary by Earl Swift (Washington Post, 4/21/2022). An interesting look at the dramatic transformation in Duke’s belief system from the time he roamed the surface of the moon to decades later.
  • Obsidian Publish Improvements & Task Management Tips by Eleanor Konik (Obsidian Roundup, 4/23/2022). The Paste Image Rename plug-in caught my attention this week.
  • How to Fix Quantum Computing Bugs – Scientific American by Zaria Nazario (Scientific American, May 2022). I have to admit that while I have a fairly good handle of traditional error correction functionality, as well as the basics of quantum entanglement, this article pass the bounds of my ability to understand the mechanics of quantum error correction.
  • Can Sanctions Really Stop Putin? by The Editorial Board (NY Times, 4/22/2022). What are the limits of sanctions and how long should they last?
  • Why Did We Stop Believing That People Can Change? by Rebecca Solnit (NY Times, 4/22/2022). Reading this, I thought of that article on Charlie Duke above, and how much he had changed.
  • Covid Drugs Save Lives But Americans Can’t Get Then by Zeynep Tufekci (NY Times, 4/22/2022)
  • How a Recession Might–and Might Not–Happen by Paul Krugman (NY Times, 4/22/2022). Isn’t there a joke about never getting a straight answer from economists?
  • Democrats, You Can’t Ignore Culture Wars Any Longer by Jamelle Bouie (NY Times, 4/22/2022)
  • What Makes a Good Job Good by Peter Coy (NY Times, 4/22/2022). It will be interesting to see what metrics are ultimately used to measure this.
  • What You Don’t Know About Amazon by Moira Weigel (NY Times, 4/22/2022)

Any recommendations for books, articles or posts I should read? Let me know in the comments?

Written on April 22-23, 2022.

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The Decline and Fall of the U.S. Postal Service

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There are some things from the past for which I am envious. Newspapers with a morning and evening edition. Good radio programming. And mail service that was so reliable, you never thought about it. It is the good old days of reliable mail service for which I particularly pine.

When I was a kid, the mail brought letters and magazines. This was true well into the first few years after college as well. when bills were added to the mix. Letters were always fun to get. In the days before the Internet, it was through magazines that I got my fill of popular nonfiction. Magazines like TV Guide also told me what was going to be on television that evening1.

Beginning in my junior year in college the mail brought new possibilities. I began to submit stories for publication. The stories had to include SASEs–self-addressed, stamped envelopes–so that the manuscript could be returned if it was rejected. For the first fourteen years I submitted stories, they were rejected, which meant a lot of SASEs2. And once I began to have stories on submission, each day’s mail contained the possibility of a sale. Those days of wondering if a story would come back as a sale or not, eager for the sight of the mail truck, those were delightful days.

Maybe it was the Internet and email and online everything, maybe it was mismanagement, or likely a combination of both, but the decline and fall of the U.S. Postal Service in the first half century of my life has been noticeable and hard. The last three or four years have been especially bad. While the mail service has added some useful features–like a daily email that shows you what is coming in the day’s mail–the reality has not lived up to the message. Two or three days a week, I’ll see three or four items in my morning email message, but will get no actual mail in my mailbox. It is as though the mail accumulates for a few days and then gets delivered in bulk.

When I have something to post, I’ll clip it to our mailbox for the mail carrier to pick up. On days that we get mail, the mail carrier will pick up whatever is clipped to the mailbox. However, on those days when we get no mail (despite the morning email message to the contrary), the letter carrier will walk past our mailbox in plain sight of the outgoing mail–and completely ignore it.

On our trips, I put a hold on our mail. Fifty percent of the time, the hold is ignored. Thankfully, our neighbors keep an eye on things and collect the accumulating mail. The other fifty percent of the time, the mail is held far longer than the hold indicates: most recently, nearly a week-and-a-half longer. I was able to submit a ticket to the post office, and get a response three business days later that they were investigating the matter, all during the time of the “extended” hold on our mail.

To me, the mail service no longer seems reliable, and I have been trying to ween my dependence upon it, relying instead on electronic forms of communication, and neighbors for things like collecting mail when were are away. To be fair, the local post office stood us in good stead when we applied for passports for the kids last year.

It would be one thing if there were reasonable explanations of this overall decline. The local post office claimed lots of people out due to the pandemic, which seems legitimate, except this decline began well before the pandemic. There is sometimes news reports of funding issues within the post office. I would be willing to pay more for reliable service. But the most recent reports I’ve come across refer to increased prices and reduced services.

Perhaps the post office has a P.R. problem. I would be interested in an in-depth, investigative report on the decline of the U.S. postal service. But I doubt that such muckraking would grab the attention of news editors, when there is so much more colorful, if ephemeral, news to report.

I’d send a letter of complaint the to Postmaster General, but I’m afraid it would get lost in the mail.

Written on April 3, 2022.

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  1. This was also when the semi-annual “sweeps” weeks still existed, and I’d pour through the latest TV guide to get a summary of the newest NYPD Blue or E.R.
  2. Self-addressed stamped envelopes.

Blog Stats, Some Blog History, and a Minor Blog Milestone

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Each year, print magazines are required to publish circulation information that shows how many copies of the magazine go out on average in different categories This blog is not a magazine and there is no requirement for circulation stats, but yesterday I passed a minor milestone here on the blog that got me thinking about circulation, blog stats, and readership. I thought I’d pull back the curtain a bit and talk about this milestone. But first, you need some context:

  • Between 2010-2017 I was very active here on the blog, writing every day, or nearly every day, sometimes more than once a day. During that time, I hit my peak readership averaging about 620,000 views and 358,000 unique visitors per year. For a scatterbrained blog such as this with no particular focus and no commercial intent, that was far better than I ever thought I’d do.
  • After our third child was born in 2016, I started to slow down in my writing and blogging. With work, and three kids, there just wasn’t time to do it all. 2017 saw my numbers drop by about 50 percent, down to about 260,000 views for the year. It halved again in 2018 finally hitting a low point of 98,591 views in 2020–the first time in a decade that the total fell below 100,000.
  • At the end of 2020, with the kids getting older, I was able to start to write again. Initially, I thought I’d focus on fiction-writing. But I realized two things: (a) I was an okay fiction writer, but I would never be a great one; and (b) I enjoyed writing for the blog more than I enjoyed writing stories. I decided I refocus my efforts on the blog in 2021, and at the end of 2020, I set a goal of publishing a post every day in 2021–a goal that I met.
  • Writing every day in 2021 challenged me, invigorated me, and, as it turned out, reinvigorated this blog. Whereas I had a low point of 98,591 views in 2020, in 2021 that number jumped 48% to about 144,000 views in 2021.
  • I found that I enjoyed writing for the blog and interacting with my readers here so much that in 2022, I set goal of trying to write 2 posts every day. This was a stretch goal for me. I wasn’t planning on publishing two posts each day. Instead, I’d build up a backlog of posts that would keep the pressure low for those inevitable days when time or inclination kept me from writing. As a result the numbers have continued their upward trend.

With this background in mind, last night the blog passed a milestone: on the 111th day of 2022, the blog hit 99,000 views, surpassing all of 2020. Indeed, at the pace I am currently on. not barring disaster, 2022 is set to more than double what I saw in 2021–approaching somewhere around 326,000 views. That surpasses even 2017 and puts the blog back on track toward its old heights of a decade past.

These are just numbers of course. They don’t translate into ad revenue because I don’t monitize what I do here. This blog is my avocation, my hobby, and I write here because I love doing it. But I present the numbers for two reasons:

  1. They are one of the guages I have to judge readership. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that as I writer, what I want more than anything is to be read. If readership is going up, I must be doing something right.
  2. The numbers give my readers an peek behind the curtains here. I’m certainly not getting the numbers of a wildly popular blog like Tim Ferriss or John Scalzi. But I think they are respectable numbers nonetheless, and that they are growing as much as they are fills me with glee.

And I have you, my readers, to thank for that. From the comments I get on the blog, and the occasional emails, Tweets, and other messages readers send me, the consensus seems to be that you enjoy what I am doing here. That delights me more than any statistic I might come up with. It makes me want to do better with every post that I write.

So thank you, readers, for getting me to this milestone, and helping make this hobby of mine such a joy.

Written on April 22, 2022.

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Vim Mode Everywhere!

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Tools tend to be standardized. There are screwdrivers made for specific types of screws. There are pencils whose lead (or graphite) has a standard darkness or hardness. Computers have standardized ports for plug-in in devices, and communication tools have standardized protocols to allow for effective messaging between points. And yet, as I have written before, there is little or no standardization of keyboard mappings between systems and applications.

Beyond some basic commands (CTRL-C/CTRL-V for cut and paste for instance), the keyboard commands of one application frequently differ from that of another. It means that if I am using Microsoft Word, I have to remember an entirely different way of navigating a document than if I am using another tool. At my age, it is far easier for me to remember one set of keyboard commands and apply them everywhere.

To this end, I have recently switched to using Vim mode wherever it is available. For those unfamiliar with the name, Vim is a modal text editor that has been around for a long time in the Unix world. In the word processing world, its closest analog may be WordStar.

The most frequent apps that I use are Obsidian (for all of my notes and writing and journaling and just about anything paperless); Visual Studio Code for the vast majority of my coding; and Vim itself for editing miscellaneous text files. I have played around with Vim mode before, especially in Obsidian. I wasn’t entirely successful in that initial attempt for a few reasons:

  1. The system in Obsidian hadn’t reached a level of maturity that made it worthwhile.
  2. Other tools still used other mappings that I had to remember.

But over the last month or two, Obsidian has improved its Vim functionality to the point where it is mature enough for practical use. Moreover, I discovered that Visual Studio Code has a Vim mode plug-in. The combination of Vim keyboard mappings in these two apps meant that about 90 percent of what I type could be done using Vim mode and Vim keyboard mappings. Of the remaining 10 percent, I figured that 7-8 percent could be handled by using Vim as my default text editor (MacVim and the native Vim supplied in terminal). With Vim mode and keyboard mappings available for 98% of what I typed, I finally felt it was worth making the move.

I did so, as my Obsidian daily notes remind me, on March 11. I switched to Vim mode in Obsidian, as well as in Visual Studio Code. I also configured MacVim as my default text editor (I was already using Vim in terminal to edit text files).

I did something else that day. I decided I needed to force myself to learn Vim’s “language” for keyboard commands well, and then best way to do that was immersively. As I set to work, I pushed my track pad off to the side, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to reach for it to move the cursor around, or to highlight text. I would force myself to learn how to do it properly in Vim, with the keyboard only.

More than a month into this experiment, I am extremely pleased with how well it is working out. At first, I was much slower at performing certain tasks (particularly moving text around) than I was with the trackpad. I think this is the hump that stymied me in previous attempts. I stuck with it, however, and eventually I crested that hill and things began to get much easier. Since then, I’ve started to expand the tools available in Vim mode, both in Obsidian as well as Visual Studio Code. After a while, I noticed that I was starting to think in the pseudo-language that is Vim keyboard commands. That made things easier for me.

Perhaps the best part is that I can use the same commands and keystrokes in nearly every app I work in throughout the day. The exceptions, are usually apps where typing and manipulating text don’t apply.

I’ve taken this a step further. I try to do all of my writing, for instance, in Obsidian, no matter what that writing is. I have written, for instance, about how I use Obsidian for my professional writing. I have written about how I use it for my blog writing; I have also written about how I use Obsidian for journaling. All of this further reinforces my skills at Vim keyboarding, and as they improve, I am able to do things faster and faster.

Now, I am also using Vimium, a Chrome extension that lets me navigate in my web browser with the same keyboard commands I use in Vim.

Vim is not for everyone. It is a modal form of keyboard entry, and that might be cumbersome for some people. Then, too, not everyone needs the speed I do to get their work done. There is a definite learning curve to it that I needed to stick with for several weeks before it started to feel natural for me. Having made the leap, and having gained that vital few weeks of experience, I can’t see going to back.

It is also nice, of course, to only have to know a single set of commands no matter what application I am using. My aging brain and muscle memory appreciate that.

Written on April 3, 2022.

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