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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My Busyness Number, Revisited

A few years back, I came up with an original system for classifying how busy I was at a given moment. I called it my busy-ness number. It is similar to how meteorologists measure cloud-cover, except instead of clouds, I measure the coverage of the surface of my desk. I was thinking about this post because I recently found myself in the “mostly covered” category, which represents 3/4 – 7/8th covered.

I sit there all day, working, and wondering if I will every be able to see the full surface of my desk again. I brush stuff aside when I eat my lunch, and then, depending on my day, more things accumulate. The plate from my lunch, for instance, can sometimes sit on my desk through the afternoon and past dinner, and it is only when I recall that the dishwasher is about to be run, that I remember to grab the plate (and any other relevant items) from my desk.

I have been ignoring the problem. It is just too overwhelming to tackle right now. Buried in the stack of stuff are a bunch of magazines I need to catch up on. There is a book that my sister sent me that looks really good. I think it is somewhere at the bottom of the pile right now. There are various documents that need to be scanned. I should move those documents over to the separate pile I have in front of the scanner so that they can get in line. I see various parts to things that have gotten separted from their parent object. Some of them I don’t even recognize.

There are coupons for Burger King. I can’t remember the last time I went to a Burger King1, and I have no idea why I would have kept a sheet of coupons for it. There is a bag of “goodies” from my last visit to the dentist sitting on top of the printer. It has been sitting there since December.

It is my hope that my desk surface–and, therefore, my busyness number–will clear up and improve by the time you are reading this post, somewhere around nineteen days from now. But at this point, I am not optimistic. Work is busy. With the beginning of spring came all of the various spring sporting activities for the kids: two kids in soccer, one in gymnastics three times a week; girl scouts; it goes on and on.

For now, I am going to pretend that by the time you read this, my desk is clear once again. Maybe wishing hard enough will make it so.

ETA 4/19: My desk has improved–a little–it’s down to “partly covered.” There is still considerable room for improvement.

Written on March 31, 2022.

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  1. On our drive back from Florida on Monday, we stopped at a Burger King in Dunn, North Carolina. But, of course, the coupons were on my desk at home.

Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 27: Use Case: Journal Writing in Obsidian

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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.

For those just joining us, one of the things I have been trying to do is to use Obsidian for all of my writing. In Episode 25 I described how I used Obsidian to manage my “professional” writing. In Episode 26 I showed I I use Obsidian for my blog and social media writing. Besides my professional writing and blog writing, the other major kind of writing I do in for my diary. That is what I’ll discuss in this episode.

Background

I recently passed the 26th anniversary of my diary1. Those interested can follow that link to see some of the history of my journaling. The short version is that I started fairly late, when I was 24 years old2. The bulk of my diaries are on paper.

When I first started using Obsidian, I toyed with keeping my journal there, but eventually gave up and returned to paper. There were two reasons for this. First, was the lure of paper systems. They are simple and reliable. The second was that it seemed to me that I was more likely to write in my journal consistently if it was on paper. When the calendar rolled around to 2022, however, I decided that my logic on the latter point was flawed. After all, I had spend years using paper journals. I should give a digital version a fair shake. So for 2022, I decided, I’d force myself to write my journal in Obsidian. If, at the end of the year, I want to return to paper, fine.

Format of the journal

My paper journals started as big blank books. There was nothing limiting the size of an entry. There were also no pre-printed guides for dates or anything. I’d scribble entries and include the date. Beginning in 1999, I switched to those red At-a-Glance Standard Diary volumes. There is a page for each day of the year, with the date information pre-printed on each page. There were also little markers at the top you could circle to record the weather (sunny, cloudy, etc.). Unlike the blank books, I was limited to what I could write in a day by what fit on the page.

(Image from At-a-Glance)

In 2017, I switched to large Moleskin Art Collection sketchbooks. Once again, I had blank pages and was free to write as much as I wanted. To add structure, however, I began numbering my journal entries. My idea was that the numbering would continue from one volume to the next, rather than restart. That way, I could index my journal based on entry numbers instead of volume/page number. It also meant I could refer to previous entries by their number.

An image from my Moleskine journal
An image from my Moleskine journal

I wanted the best of both worlds in Obsidian. Here is how I got there.

How I setup my journal in Obsidian

1. A template for my journal entries

I started with a template which has some meta-data in it like the templates I demonstrated in the previous two episodes.

My New Diary Entry template
My New Diary Entry template

I don’t tag the vast majority of my journal entries, but occasionally I will. For example, if I am writing a journal entry while traveling, and about my experience, I will tag the entry with a “travel” tag.

The “note-type” is relatively new. I’ve gone back and added this to my other templates. It allows a quick way of searching for notes of a particular type, for example, diary entries, story submissions, blog posts, etc.

The entry date and time are self-explanatory and used in dataviews for sorting and filtering on dates.

As I mentioned, those Standard Diaries I used to use had a template at the top of each page to note the weather. I added a weather line to my journal entry template, and then added a custom function in Templater to fill in the current weather based on my current location. See the “Templater + QuickAdd Plug-in” section below.

The part of the template marked “Dateline” serves two purposes:

  1. I wanted a way to easily see the date of an entry. I like how the date appeared at the top of each page in the Standard Diary, so I used a callout in Obsidian to emulate this.
  2. The dateline is also a link to the daily note for the date in question. That way, the diary entry automatically shows up in the backlinks of the daily note for that day.

2. One note per entry

I like my method of having a unique index number for each diary entry. Some entries are general and might cover an entire day. Other times, I’ll have multiple entries on the same day, some of them topical, others more general. The entry number allows my entries to be atomic in nature, if I want them to me. It serves as an index number to an entry and makes it easy to link to a specific entries from other places.

In Obsidian, I just continued the numbering from where I left off in my Moleskine notebooks. The filename of the entry is simply the index number. This is convenient because I can then use the QuickAdd plug-in functionality to automatically increment the entry number upon creation of a new entry.

3. Templater + QuickAdd Plug-in for creating new entries

In Episodes 25 and 26, I said that I used the Templater and QuickAdd plug-ins. As I demonstrated above, my template makes use of Templater substitutions. It also makes use of a custom function for getting the weather. Here is what that function looks like within Templater:

Weather function in Templater
Weather function in Templater

Here is an example of an entry including the weather:

An example entry showing the weather line in an actual journal entry.
An example entry showing the weather line in an actual journal entry.

For creating the new journal entry, I use the QuickAdd plug-in. For the New Diary Entry it is configured as follows:

QuickAdd configuration for my New Diary Entry template
QuickAdd configuration for my New Diary Entry template

The result of all of this is when I create a new diary entry, I can immediately begin typing and the entry is already properly filed, includes the date, time, and weather. I can type as much or as little as I want, giving me the best of both the templated Standard Diaries and the blank Moleskine sketchbooks.

Linking my journal

One advantage that immediately became obvious when I started keeping my journal in Obsidian was my ability to link to and from the journal. I mentioned how the dateline in my template ensures that entries show up in the backlinks of my daily notes, like this, for instance:

A daily note showing backlinks to journal entries.
A daily note showing backlinks to journal entries.

In addition, I will sometimes link to specific entries from within my daily notes when I want to provide more context to the line item in the notes. This goes along with my desire to make my daily notes an index for my life. Here is an example of that from back in early April:

A daily note with references to journal entries in context.
A daily note with references to journal entries in context.

Then, too, within my journal, I sometimes link to other notes to make connections and provide context. There are a couple of ways I do this:

  • When writing about a noteable event involving someone in the family, I will link to my note for that person. This causes the particular journal entry to show up in the backlinks of the note for the person in question. For example:
A journal entry that references links to one of my People notes. The entry will show up as a backlink on the note for Grace.
A journal entry that references links to one of my People notes. The entry will show up as a backlink on the note for Grace.
  • When writing on a specific topic, I will sometimes link to another note on the topic. If I am writing about a book I am currently reading, I’ll link to my source note for the book, for instance.

Privacy concerns

I imagine the question might arise as to whether I have any privacy concerns about keeping my journal in Obsidian. The short answer is: no, I don’t. For a longer, more detaied answer, see Episode 23: Protecting My Data in Obsidian.

Typing versus handwriting

I learned to keep a journal on paper, so I have a natural bias toward paper journals. I also like using a fountain pen I acquired for my birthday a little over a year ago for this purpose. However, I’ve committed to keeping my 2022 journal in Obsidian for duration of the year. There are some advantages and disadvantages that I have discovered so far.

Advantages

  • I can type fast and because of this I tend to write longer journal entries in Obsidian than I would write in a paper journal longhand, frequently adding more detail.
  • The ability to quickly find something in my journal through a search is a big plus. I use a search that focuses on the path where my journal entries reside to cancel out noise from other sources.
  • Being able to link journal entries to other notes is also a plus

Disadvantages

  • For reasons I can’t fully understand, I am not nearly as consistent about my journal writing in Obsidian as I am when using a paper journal. Perhaps it is the distinctness of the act: I pull the journal off the shelf, set it on my desk, open it to the current page, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen, and begin writing. It is a unique ritual in my day. On the other hand, creating a note in Obsidian is something I do countless times each day, and making a journal entry is one of those times. There is nothing distinct about it.
  • I miss the physical act of handwriting. My journal was one of the few places where I still wrote in cursive3and I enjoyed the flow of that.
  • Paper still feels like a more permanent storage medium than digital storage.

This last point serves as a nice transition to next week’s topic. As I wrote yesterday, I recently uncovered some digital treasure–files and writing I’d done from nearly 30 years ago. Some of that I’ve pulled into my archive in Obsidian. This archive serves as a kind of digital scrapbook for me, and so I thought I’d give a tour of my Obsidian archive next week to illustrate the kinds of things that get stored there.

See you back here next week.

Prev: Episode 26: Use Case: Managing My Blog Writing in Obsidian
Next: Episode 28: Archiving in Obsidian: A Tour Through My Digital Scrapbook

Written on April 16-17, 2022.

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  1. I use the terms “diary” and “journal” interchangeably, although they may mean different things to different people.
  2. I say “late” because I wish I’d started soon–eighteen maybe. I have encouraged my kids to keep journals of their own, but it is only taken with my middle daughter so far. She has filled several volume and just is ten years old.

Four Favorite Quotes

inspirational qoute on a paper
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In all of the reading I’ve done over the years, I’ve collected certain quotes and passages that have resonated with me in some way or another. While I have a bunch of these quotes in storage, there are four that I come back to frequently, and which I would call my favorites. Some of these I have written about before, but I figured I’d refresh my readers’ memories of them and why I like them so much.

Seneca, on discovery

The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate… Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.

Natural Questions, Book 7, somewhere in the 1st century A.D.

I wish I could recall where I first discovered this quote, but it is lost to me. In one of the earliest versions of Microsof Outlook, I had a note–one of those digital sticky notes–with this quote on it. That had to be from the mid-to-late 1990s. But even that was transferred from an old Word for DOS 5.5 document that I had during college, and I think it was there that I discovered the quote, but I can’t remember how.

One theme that runs through all 11 volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization is that human nature is fairly consistent over time. The concerns people have today are many of the same concerns they had 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 years ago. So are their joys and enterainments, and frequently, their contemplations of the world. Seneca’s quote illustrates this. It is timeless. You could put these words into mouth of a contemporary scientist and they will ring just as true now as they did back in Seneca’s day.

What, I wonder whenever I ponder this quote, would Seneca make of our modern world, filled with “discoveries… reserved for ages still to come”? I suspect he’d repeat his thought verbatim.

Abd er-Rahman III, on the meaning of happiness

I have now reigned above fifty years in victory and peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to be wanting for my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to fourteen. O man, place not thy confidence in this present world!

I first encountered this quote in the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s memoir, In Joy Still Felt. It comes up as part of an amusing tale that gives rise to notion that Asimov had a photographic memory. The quote itself is incidental to the passage. But it struck me as a powerful message when I first read it.

I came across the quote again, years later, in the fourth volume of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, The Age of Faith, where I learned more about the man behind the quote. Durant wrote,

Abd-er Rahman III (912-61) is the culminating figure of this Umayyad dynasty in Spain. Coming to power at twenty-one, he found “Adaluz” tgorn by racial faction, religious animosity, sporadic brigandage, adn the efforts of Seville and Toledo to establish their independence of Cordova. Though a man of refinement, famous for generosity and courtesy, he laid a firm hand upon the situation, quelled the rebellious cities, and subdued the Arab aristocrats who wished, like their French contemporaries, to enjoy a feudal sovereighnty on their rich estates.

“When he died,” Durant wrote, “he left behind him, in his own handwriting, a mdoest estimate of human life.” This was the quote that struck me when I discovered it in Asimov’s memoir.

A cynical take on this quote is that it is a long-winded version of “money cannot buy happiness.” I took it differently. I think the message is to ask oneself what “pure and genuine happiness” means. The answer will, of course, be different for everyone. For Abd-er Rahman III, all of the power, riches, and honors of the world couldn’t supply what he considered to be pure happiness. What is left out of the quote is perhaps the most interesting thing of all. What did pure and genuine happiness mean to Abd-er Rahman III? What was it about those fourteen days out of nearly 18,000 in his life that made them unique?

Friedrich Schiller, on stupidity

Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain.

The Maid of Orleans

My dictionary has several definitions for the word “stupid,” but the one I generally think of as most accurate is “marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting.” Moreover, I’d add a word to that definition: “marked by or resulting from deliberate unreasoned thinking or acting.”

In my mind, stupidity is a deliberate ignorance; a willful dismall of facts and reason. It has nothing to do with one’s mental faculties. “Smart” people can can act with great stupidity, as the lessons of history have taught us again and again.

Friedrich Schiller understood this at the turn of the 19th century when his play, “The Maid of Orleans” was first produced. The line above, from the play, captures the frustration with willful ignorance susccicntly. It has become my go-to line when I detect such stupidity in the news.

This is a great line because it so susscinct, and yet, it captures the utter frustration I feel when I see stupidity in action. It also goes a step further, easing the burden of such frustration by offering the tempting notion that even the very gods could not hope to deal rationally with the irrational.

Harlan Ellison, on stupidity

The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

Education, science, reason, culture, these are all of the things we need more of to improve our lot in life. Stupidty is the acid that eats away at these tools. I have no patience for blatent stupidity, as I have definted it above. Neither did Harlan Ellison, and one of my favroite quips on stupidity is this one by Harlan. The question he leaves open for us to answer for ourselves, of course, is of the two–hydroden and stupidity–which is more common?

Written on March 31, 2022.

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One From the Road

landscape clouds trees outside
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For the past week I have been in Florida with the family for the kids’ spring break. For Kelly and I this was less of a vacation than a change of venue. We both worked. The kids, meanwhile, enjoyed sunshine, warm weather, swimming pools and beaches. As you read this, we are driving home. It is rare for us to make the drive home on Easter Sunday. Usually we wait until the following day. This time, we celebrated Easter in the morning and hit the road right after lunch.

In one way, I did take a little time off. I didn’t write for the blog every day that I was down here. I arrived in Florida with a 20-day backlog of posts scheduled for the blog–more than enough to cover our entire trip, and another week and a half beyond that. As I write this, I see that my backlog has dwindled down to 16 posts. Not bad, but clearly I was not writing every day, let alone getting in my two-posts per day. Having the backlog helped me to be okay with that.

I got a fair amount of book reading done on the trip. I finished William L. Shrier’s 3-volume memoir, read a new biography of Harry S. Truman, a book on mathematics, and I’m in the middle of an FDR biography by H. W. Brands, which I expect to finish on the drive home. On the other hand, I fell behind on my blog reading and I hope to catch up on that over the next few day.

Kelly and I got away for a night–the first time we’ve managed to get away without the kids in quite a few years. We wandered the streets of Naples, Florida, had dinner at Vergina, went to watch the sunset on the beach and then realized we arrived about an hour too soon. It made for a nice mini-getaway: a trip-within-the-trip.

I did a major refactor of how I organize my Obsidian notes. I’ll have more to say about this in a future Practically Paperless episode, but it was based largely on this great post personal knowledge management by Simon Späti.

Coming up this week on the blog I talk about favorite quotes, my attempts to try to use Vim mode everywhere, as well as some frustration with Medium, the U.S. Postal Service, and the price of a gallon of gas. (Now that I’ve hit 50 years old, I feel obligated to include some grump-old-man posts.) And, of course, on Tuesday, Episode 27 of my Practically Paperless with Obsidian series.

Meanwhile, here is a view of my “office” as I write this post.

My office while writing this post.
My office while writing this post.

Written on April 17, 2022.

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Discovering Your Niche

agriculture barn clouds corn
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While reading the first volume of William L. Shirer’s memoir, Twentieth Century Journey, I was struck by a passage Shirer wrote about an Iowa friend of his, Grant Wood. Shirer wrote,

Like [James] Thurber, Grant Wood was utterly dissatisfied with what he was doing [in Europe]. But unlike [Thurber], he had by the end of the summer discovered in himself not only what he was doing wrong but what he would do about it…

“All those landscapes of mine of the French countryside and the familiar places in Paris! There’s not a one that the French Impressionists didn’t do a hundred times better!… All these years wasted because I thought you couldn’t get started as a painter unless you went to Paris and studied and painted like a Frenchman. I used to go back to Iowa and think how ugly it all was. Nothing to paint. And all I could think of was getting back here so I could find somethign to paint–these pretty landscapes that I should have known Cézanne and Renoir and Monet and others had done once and for all.”

He then went on to say something that resonated with me and that I found particularly insightful.

“…I’ve learned something. At least, about myself, Damn it… I think you’ve got to paint… like you have to write… what you know. And despite the years in Europe, here and in Munich and the other places, all I really know is Iowa. The farm at Anamosa. Milking cows. Cedar Rapids. The typical small town… I’m going home for good… and I’m going to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards adn cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinches faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and and store suits, and the look of a field or a street in the heat of the summer or when it’s ten below and the snow is piled six fieet high.”

Shortly after returning to Iowa, Wood painted Woman with Plants followed by American Gothic.

This seemed to me to be a remarkably astute self-assessment, and one that is incredibly lucky to make and recognize when one still has the time and talent to put it to use. Reading this, I immediately thought of my early attempts to write science fiction.

I could, for as along I remember, write fairly well. When I decided to begin writing, it was only natural for me to write what I knew, which was mostly science fiction. My apprenticeship lasted fourteen years–that is, fourteen years of writing stories, submitting stories, collecting rejections, writing more stories, and repeating the process–before I finally made my first professional sale. Other sales followed on quickly. But none of what I wrote was particularly earthshattering. A few of my stories had positive reviews, and a few of them made notable story lists in places like Tangent Online.

A big reason I stopped writing science fiction, however, was the very similar to Grant Wood’s reason for giving up French landscapes: there were many other people who could write science fiction far better than I ever would. My stories might be entertaining (at least, to me) but they would never be close to the quality of the best in the genre. It wasn’t easy to recognize this, but it was important for me to do so.

Instead, I put that energy into nonfiction writing and in particular, creative nonfiction, much of which appears here on the blog. I am better at writing these essays than I am at writing science fiction stories. I enjoy them more than I enjoy writing stories. And ultimately, these posts of mine have proved more popular than my science fiction. Even when attending science fiction conventions in the previous decade, it was not uncommon for someone to come up to me and introduce themselves, and admit that they’d never read any of my stories, but they knew me entirely from this blog.

This revelation of Grant Wood, now about a century in the past, reminded me that it is important to recognize one’s limitations as early as possible, and to focus on one’s strengths. I think that is what I have been trying to do here.

Written on March 30, 2022.

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Reading for the Week of 4/10/2022

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. I also share my recommended reads on Pocket for anyone who wants to follow along there.

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 16, 2022.

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