Recent Posts I Didn’t Write

One of the many things I enjoy about writing here is that, unlike writing fiction or nonfiction articles, I never worry much about word count. I don’t track the words I write on a daily basis. On some days, I’ll write a short post, on other days, a longer post. Some days, I’ll sit down to write a post and write two or three in a row. Other days, like today, I’m hard pressed to think of one idea to write about. On these days, there are a few tactics I use to generate ideas:

  • I skim through collections of Andy Rooney and E. B. White essays. Usually this just makes me envious, but sometimes, something will catch my eye that will trigger an idea.
  • I take shower. This is really the only time of day when my mind is completely free to wander and it is amazing how often I come out of the shower with an idea, or a solution to a problem I’ve been pondering.
  • I flip though my current Field Notes notebook and see what ideas I have jotted down that I haven’t yet written about.

My current notebook dates back to September 6, or a little over two weeks. I skimmed through the pages and counted two dozen ideas that I’d jotted down. Of those, there are ten that I haven’t yet written about.

  • There’s the best meal I’ve had in a restaurant in years, at a place called Mariachi’s in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. The meal was Lomo Saltado: sautéed strips of prime sirloin with fresh tomato, cilantro, red onion, green pepper and jalepeño in an amazing Peruvian sauce. It was the first time in recent memory that I actually considered ordering seconds.
  • There was the sunrise that Grace and I watched together on the beach in Rehobeth. All my note says for that is “beach sunrise.” I suppose I didn’t write it because it would be difficult to write 500 words on a sunrise that haven’t been written before. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so here is the sunrise in question:
sunrise, rehoboth beach
  • There is an idea to write about beach towns, and in particular, how they are often crammed with little tourist shops full of things you don’t need and that you could get in your own town if you did need them. Some beach towns seem to try too hard and it shows. There are exceptions. But I just couldn’t drum up the enthusiasm to write about this.
  • There is an idea about digital photos with some handwriting that I can’t quite make out, and so I’m not entirely certain what I was getting at with that one.
  • Here’s one that says, “Radio Days — KNX1070.” I was trying to think of things I’d never written about before. I began to think about how I used to listen to old radio shows on Sunday evenings (I think) in Los Angeles, on KNX1070. This seemed like a great idea for a post! I must have been, because apparently I wrote it about it in 2017. I even gave it the same title. Copycat!
  • Pen’s I Use is another idea I jotted down. Since I’d been writing about the notebooks I use, I guess I thought the next logical thing would be to write about the pens I use. I never did and it’s probably good since I’ve written about pens before and I don’t like being too repetitive.
  • Here’s one that says, “History as thriller.” I know what this means, and just to be sure, I looked in my Drafts folder and found an incomplete draft from February called “The Impatient Hindsight of History.” I like the idea behind this post, but just haven’t figured out a good way to write it yet, so this one will have to wait, although it will eventually get written, I suppose.
  • Watching Zach play in a recent soccer game, I jotted an idea, “Love to watch soccer.” Could be Ted Lasso’s influence here, as much as Zach’s. Stayed-tuned on this one.
  • More recently, there’s one that says, “External memory,” which I’ll probably write eventually.
  • From earlier today, there’s one that says, “I Am Sam.” This one is all about nicknames and is an amusing story, but I’ve already told it back in 2007. That’s the problem with having nearly 7,000 posts.
  • Finally, there was this idea: “Recent posts I didn’t write.”

Okay, so I guess we can take that last one off the list. And my tactics worked! I sat down uncertain about what to write, pulled out my Field Notes notebook, and turned out this 750 word essay.

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Thoughts on Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek

There are certain people I can read about endlessly. John Quincy Adams is one. And Franklin D. Roosevelt is another. In the former case, I’m fascinated by who I think was probably the most intelligent president the United States ever had. In the latter case, I’m amazed that a person such as Roosevelt happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills to lead the country out of dark times. I’ve read two previous biographies of FDR: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the Home Front in World War II, and Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. The former focused on the years of the Second World War, and the latter on the extraordinary relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill.

But I still thoroughly enjoyed Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, which more broadly captures Roosevelt’s political gifts throughout his life, although focusing primarily on his presidency. One reason I can keep reading about FDR is that he is endlessly fascinating. Born to privilege, he aimed to help the masses. Paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, he nevertheless maintained a generally cheerful disposition. He had his darker sides: his affairs, as well as his decision to set aside the rights of Japanese American citizens during the Second World War and collect them in camps. People loved him and people hated him. In the polarizing times that we live in today, there is something reassuring that democratic politics, at least, has always been polarizing and what we are experience today is more of the same. History, as the saying goes, is doomed to repeat itself.

I’m also impressed by hard workers, and those who don’t give up. Despite his inability to use his legs, FDR won election as president in a dark time, and through will and hard work, brought about changes that pulled the nation from the brink of disaster. During the war, even as his health declined, he worked tirelessly–and to the detriment of his own well-being–to see the fight through to the end. Dallek’s book provides a view of Roosevelt as a shrewd politician, and a leader through tough times. Despite all of that, he could be self-deprecating, relating the following story:

“Eleanor was just in here after a morning appointment with her doctor. ‘So, what did he say about that big ass of yours?'” Franklin reported himself as asking. “Oh, Franklin,” she replied, “He had nothing at all to say about you.”

His relationship with Winston Churchill was well-documented in Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston, to say nothing of William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Churchill. What struck me reading Dallek’s book was the sheer coincidence of two capable, and charismatic leaders rising to power at a time when the world needed these leaders. It is coincidences like this that make history so fascinating, and so arbitrary.

The biggest irony of Roosevelt’s life is that he worked himself to death to see the Allies win the war, only to die before Germany and Japan surrendered. He died 18 days before Hitler’s suicide. I’ve read several dozen biographies of U.S. Presidents and I almost always come away from them not understanding why anyone would want the job. It is a job for which there is no adequate job description, a job for which, no previous experience can truly prepare you. It is a job that visibly ages the men who have taken it. And it certainly took Roosevelt’s life. I was returning from my morning walk, listening to the audio book edition of the book when FDR died, and though I knew it was coming, it still brought tears to my eyes. I had the feeling, expressed so well by Winston Churchill on learning of Roosevelt’s death:

I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played a large part in the long, terrible years we worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irrepressible loss.

I didn’t want the book to be over. I didn’t want it to be over so much, that I queued up another FDR biography, H. W. Brand’s A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I plan to read sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian

I. Birth of an idea

For a while now, I have wanted to clean up my Evernote instance. I’ve got over 12,000 notes there. The problem is:

  • I’ve never looked at 80% of the notes. They get in automatically through services like FileThis and I’ve never had need to access those notes.
  • I’ve looked perhaps once at another 10% of the notes. For some of those notes that is once in over 10 yerrs.

It is the remaining 10% (or less) that I interact with on an ongoing basis. Out of 12,000 notes that’s less than 1,200. With this in mind, I’ve been considering starting from scratch with Evernote, taking all of the lessons I’ve learned and applying them anew. It seemed to me there were two ways to do this:

  1. Create a new Evernote account and start from scratch there, unfettered by the clutter in my existing account. I could then plan my attack and over time begin migrating those notes that I wanted to keep to the new account. When I’d migrated everything I wanted, I could export the remaining notes to an export file and archive it so that I could access it if I ever needed it. After that, I could delete all of the unused notes from Evernote and proceed with the new account. The downside would be maintaining two Evernote accounts for some unknown period of time.
  2. Create scaffolding within my existing Evernote account, partitioning with notebook stacks, or tags, or some other mechanism, and then moving things around as necessary to create the structure I am looking for and eliminate all of the notes that I don’t need.

While thinking about this, a third option began to form in my mind, aided by an email exchange with reader, and frequent commenter Jaap van Dodeweerd: if I am going to start fresh, why not start completely fresh with a different tool? Why not try going paperless with Obsidian? I have been using Obsidian since January, and have written frequently about it over the past several months.


For those who are not familiar with Obsidian, it is a knowledge base tool that combines a plain text markdown editor with tools that allow you to link notes together and visualize the links between them. Evernote’s slogan was “Remember everything.” Obsidian’s is similar: “A second brain for you, forever.” Obsidian is “future-proof” in two regards:

  1. The notes are composed text files that use markdown to style them. That eliminates the need for future compatibility. Text files are the most basic form of human-readable digital files. They have been around for half a century and can be read, updated and viewed with tools on any computer.
  2. The text files live in a folder structure on your local computer. That eliminates the dependency on cloud-based services for those who don’t want them.

Of course, Obsidian renders those plain text files nicely. And, of course, if you local folder structure happened to be in iCloud, or Dropbox, or OneDrive, well, then you’d have those notes available anywhere you needed them. But it isn’t required. Here is an example of what a plain text markdown file looks like when rendered in Obsidian.

Example of a plain text file rendered in Obsidian
Example of a plain text file rendered in Obsidian

Obsidian also offers several features I’ve wanted in Evernote for a long time now:

Linking notes

An easy way to link note, and different ways of seeing those note links. You can link notes in Evernote, but I have always found it cumbersome. And there is no way to see backlinks–what notes are linked to a specific note. In Obsidian, it is incredibly easy to link to a note just by typing. A sidebar will display backlinks, for instance:

An example of note links in Obsidian


Transclusion is an incredibly powerful feature that allows you to make a note file act as a subroutine. You can create a note, and then “transclude” (that is, include a link to the first note in such a way as that it is rendered in the second note) the note within other notes. The first note will appear as though it is part of the other notes. Changing or updating the first note will update it in the other notes as well. This makes note reusable without duplicating them everywhere.

Last Viewed Date

One thing that makes it difficult to purge Evernote of unneeded notes is that there is no way of searching for notes by the last time they were opened or viewed. Evernote allows you to search note by create date and modified date, which can be useful. But if I wanted to see how many notes hadn’t been viewed in the last 10 years, I have no way of doing that with create and modified dates.

Because Obsidian uses your operating system and plain text files, you can use your operating system functionality to search notes by “last opened date” (on MacOS) or last accessed time in Linux and Windows. With that, there is an easy way of seeing notes that haven’t been opened (accessed) in more than 10 years (or whatever your preference is) and this is an incredibly useful tool for getting rid of noise.

Obsidian versus Evernote

In thinking this through, I tried to consider the features I use in Evernote and if there was a similar feature in Obsidian. It wouldn’t make sense to move from one to the other and lose functionality. The table below summarizes my thoughts on this.

Formatting notesEvernote has been improving its ability to format notes and the most common formatting features (including, most recently, code blocks) are available.Obsidian uses Markdown to format notes. Anything you can do in Markdown, you can do in Obsidian. This is fairly robust formatting, and probably more than I’d ever need.
NotebooksEvernote allows you to organize notes in notebooks. Notebooks cannot be nested, but you can collected notebooks into a notebook stack.In Obsidian file system folders are the equivalent of notebooks. They can be nested as deeply as you like.
TasksEvernote recently introduced the concept of tasks into notes. Tasks can have due dates, reminders, and be assigned to people.Obsidian has the concept of tasks in markdown. A task can be completed or incomplete.
TagsEvernote notes can be tagged and searches can use tags to narrow the field.Obsidian has the concept of tags and some themes even render them nicely in the UI. See the note link image above for an example.
ShortcutsEvernote provides a quick way of getting to notes, notebook, saved searches, tags, etc. by having a shortcut to the object in question.In Obsidian, a note can serve as a shortcut to another note (via links or transclusion). Searches can be embedded within notes as well, which replicates the “filtered notes” feature of Evernote.
Mobile appEvernote has a robust mobile app that syncs with your notes anywhere.Obsidian has a mobile app that also allows you to sync with your notes anywhere, if you choose to keep your notes in some cloud-syncing service like iCloud or Dropbox. Obsidian also provides its own syncing service.
Note sharingEvernote allows you to share notes with others.In Obsidian, since notes are just files on the OS, you can share them with others the same way you’d share any file, either through a cloud service, or simply by copying the file into an email or other kind of instant message.
SearchingEvernote has robust searching capabilities that include searching within the text of PDFs and images. Its advanced search grammar can be tricky to learn, but it is powerful.Obsidian comes with powerful native search capabilities. PDFs and image files can be stored in Obsidian vaults and if the PDFs are scanned with full text, then they can be searched by the OS. Also, Obsidian notes can be searched by regular expressions, something I’ve wanted in Evernote for a long time.
A comparison of features between Evernote and Obsidian

Going down the list, I found that there was nothing that I regularly did in Evernote that I couldn’t readily do in Obsidian. Feature limits would not stand in my way. I could begin this new adventure.

II. Learning from my mistakes and improving upon the past

Well, I wasn’t quite ready to begin. I decided that if I was going to go through the effort of going (mostly) paperless in Obsidian, I should look to my past mistakes with going paperless and also see how I can improve upon what I’d done before. For the former, I have a number of ideas in mind. For the latter, I have 136 posts I’ve written on going paperless which serve as a wide-ranging buffet ripe for improvement.

The lesson for me: Going paperless is not a binary state. It means using paper where it is useful and practical. It means capturing notes and digital documents that are useful. It means setting a clear bar for what goes in Obsidian, what goes on paper, and what I don’t need to worry about at all.

Learning from my mistakes

Paperless is a not a binary state

In my original going paperless experiment, my goal was to see if it was possible to go completely paperless. I was chasing the elusive paperless office to see if such a thing was possible. Two important lessons came out of my 4-year experiment between 2012-2016:

  1. I could go completely paperless but the world was not going paperless anytime soon. I still routinely dealt with other people’s papers and tried to develop a simple process for managing that paper in 10 minutes a day.
  2. I found that I didn’t want to go completely paperless. For some things, paper is more useful; for other things, paper is a more enjoyable experience. In the former case, I have never found a notes app (Obsidian included) that allows me to jot down notes as quickly and easily as I can with a pen and my Field Notes notebooks. In the latter case, I simply prefer keeping my journals on paper like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, and countless others.

Then, too, I kept everything I got in that four year stretch, much of which (80%) I’ve never even looked at.

The lesson for me: Going paperless is not a binary state. It means using paper where it is useful and practical. It means capturing notes and digital documents that are useful. It means setting a clear bar for what goes in Obsidian, what goes on paper, and what I don’t need to worry about at all. It was these last two categories that I never really considered in my first experiment. This time around I’m looking toward Practical Paperless: the idea that its important to keep some things well organized in a digital archive, and other things on paper.

Improving on what’s come before

By now it should be clear that I’m not just planning on copying notes out of Evernote and into Obsidian. I am looking for ways to improve upon everything I’d when using Evernote to go paperless. It means a full review of all the posts I wrote to see where improvements can be made. It means eliminating things that didn’t work for me, or weren’t that useful. It means beginning with a plan.

III. A new “practically paperless” series

Of course, in taking off in this new direction, I plan on writing about it here on the blog. I’m calling the new series “Practically Paperless” to distinguish it from my original series. There is equal emphasis on both words with “practically” used an adjective for practical: that is, I plan on writing a series about going paperless with Obsidian, where it is practical to do so.

The series will begin at the beginning, with a plan for moving forward, something I lacked with my original series. That plan will include the requirements that are important to me in this effort: what stays on paper? What gets captured in Obsidian? From there, I’ll move into posts on the basics: setting up a framework that allows me to meet the requirements. And from there? I suspect we’ll all be discovering new things along the way.

My Going Paperless series started as weekly thing, and eventually moved biweekly. Based on that experience, I think that the new Practically Paperless series will start on a biweekly schedule and I’ll adjust things from there. More than likely, each post will appear on Tuesday mornings, like this one. That means you can expect Episode 1 to appear two weeks from today, on Tuesday, October 5.

IV. What about Evernote?

I am not moving away from Evernote because of any problems I’ve had with the service, or any problems I foresee in their future. I tend to be a creature of habit in most areas of my life, but when it comes to software, I a kind of wanderlust. I’m always looking to try new things that I think can help me improve whatever it is I am trying to do. In this case, I’ve been using Obsidian long enough to see that it works really, really well for me. Not only do I think it can replace Evernote, I think it can improve upon what I was doing with Evernote. That is what this new series is all about.

That said, not everyone will like Obsidian. Not everyone works the same way that I work. Many, many people are happy with Evernote and if you are happy with something, you should stick with. This is an experiment my part, one that I hope will prove successful, but you never know. My experiment with Evernote worked out well, and I was happy user for more than ten years. I’m still a happy user, but that wanderlust of software is calling me again.

So I’m going practically paperless with Obsidian. As Al Bean said to Pete Conrad in H.B.O.’s From the Earth to the Moon, “Y’all can come along with me if you like.”

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Big Post Tomorrow on Paperless, Obsidian, and Evernote

I mentioned earlier this week that I would have some more posts on Obsidian coming. Well, tomorrow morning, I have a big one come coming. If you enjoyed my Going Paperless posts, or my more recent Obsidian posts, you’ll want to check out tomorrow’s post. It’s a long one, but I think you’ll like it.

A quick teaser: I’m announcing an ambitious new series on the blog in the post tomorrow. Stay tuned for more details.

And if Evernote, Obsidian, or paperless is not your thing, well, the new Walt Longmire book, Daughter of the Morning Star by Craig Johnson comes out tomorrow, so there’s always that to look forward to.

Have a good night (unless you’re on the other side of the globe, in which case, have a great day!).

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5 Interesting Reads – 9/20/2021

Since I’ve collected another five interesting reads, I figured I might as well share them. Five at at time seems just about right: enough to warrant a post, and not too much to overwhelm. Incidentally, I’ve been categorizing these posts as “interesting-reads” and you can use that category if you want to see all of the posts.

  1. Over at Marginal Revolution, I read this short excerpt on barbarism and immediately thought of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The passage explains perfectly the development of Asimov’s Periphery and even why power seems to shift from the center of the empire to the Periphery, while wealth moves in the other direction. Of course, Asimov based is fall of the Galactic Empire on the fall of the Roman Empire, so maybe this isn’t much of a coincidence.
  2. In the Washington Post, this opinion piece by George F. Will on “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which is based on his new book American Happiness and Discontents. I’ve enjoyed Will’s baseball writing (especially his book A Nice Little Place on the North Side).
  3. This one in the New Yorker by Haruki Murakami, “An Accidental Collection,” amused me because I tend to collect t-shirts and baseball caps from various places I’ve been and products I like. Not too long ago, I read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and it made me want to be a runner, if only I could skip all of the building-up-to-it, and you know, just run.
  4. Another one from the New Yorker, this time a long profile of Colm Tóibín, “How Colm Tóibín Burrowed Inside Thomas Mann’s Head” by D. T. Max. I’ve only read one Cold Tóibín book, The Testament of Mary, but I really enjoyed it. I found this piece interesting because it delves a bit into how another writer works and I always enjoy reading that kind of stuff.
  5. Finally, courtesy of a coworker, this fascinating piece on “Project Silica proof of concept stores Warner Bros. ‘Superman’ movie on quartz glass” by Jennifer Langston. All about how Microsoft and Warner Bros. are collaborating on storing data on pieces of glass. Really, about the possibilities of long-term data storage.

If you’ve got any of your own interesting reads you want to share, drop them in the comments.

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Technology is Amazing

high angle photo of vehicles parked near building
Photo by Stephan Müller on

Now and then, when I find myself taking technology for granted, I try to step back for a few minutes and imagine what my grandfather would have thought about the technology advance over the last 17 years since he died. My grandfather always seemed surprised and delighted by advances in technology. He would marvel at what seemed minor things to me: coffee heated in microwave ovens, Walkman cassette players, and of course, computers. He was an auto mechanic and the technology he was most familiar with was the internal combustion engine and its associated parts, but I remember him wistfully talking about how cars were being controlled by computer more and more–and this was twenty years ago. What he would think of today’s cars, which he called automobiles?

Improvements in automobiles seem steady and constant. Every new year introduces new models that improves upon previous ones. A new car might have one or two features that your old car didn’t have. Your next new car will have one or two more new features. Since cars last longer than they used to, these incremental improvements can sometimes seem like great leaps between two or three successive cars.

I’m not sure my grandfather ever really “got” the Internet. He sent occasional emails through AOL, but I think the concept of a globally connected peer-to-peer network of computers was largely beyond him. It just wasn’t in his experience. Cars were in his wheelhouse. He could see, if not entirely understand, the technological advances cars were making from one year to the next: fuel-injected engines, air conditioning, improvements in the manufacture of motors that required less maintenance over longer periods of time.

Many of the improvements I see cars these days are in areas of comfort and safety, and I suspect it is these improvements that would delight my grandfather more than anything else. I’m not sure that he ever drove in a GPS-equipped car, but I think he would have been tickled by the car displaying a realtime map of his location, and telling him when to make a turn. (“Backseat driver,” he would have said.) Still, imagining him driving with me in our own GPS-equipped car, I can hear him saying “Technology is amazing! It’s incredible that a bunch of satellites in space are beaming precisely timed signals to the car. I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing!”

When I think about it, many, of not most, of the tedious parts of driving can be handled automatically these days. GPS plots your course, accounts for traffic, and can even provide data to self-driving cars to get them where they need to go. Cruise control has been improved so that the car will automatically keep distance with the car in front of you. Safety systems tell you when someone is in your blind spot, or when your car begins to drift from a lane. If someone suddenly slows down in front of you, your car will automatically slow down to avoid a collision. Cars can even park themselves.

If there was one feature that would blow my grandfather’s mind if he could see it, it would be the car camera view. In our car, when putting the car into drive or reverse and staying below 10 MPH, the four cameras on the car work in concert to generated a bird’s eye view of the car in its current location. You can see if you are inside the lines of your parking spot. You can see if anyone is passing behind you, or one to one side. It’s an impressive bit of mathematical interpolation that would delight my grandfather. I sometimes imagine him sitting in the passenger seat when I put the car into reverse. Up pops a live video of the car from directly overhead.

The "satellite" view in our current car.
The “satellite” view in our current car.

“Where is that picture coming from?” my grandfather would ask, his mouth forming an O like surprised child.

I’d point up to the sky. “Satellite overhead,” I’d say. I’d wait for his stunned reaction, and then I’d confess the truth. I’d point out the cameras, and explain how the computer in the car can take those images and translate them into the overhead view.

He’d recite his mantra: “Technology is amazing!” Grinning, he’d add, “We never had anything like this.”

Well, it’s fairly common these days, and I tend to take it for granted. Every now and then, I try to remind myself just how amazing technology is by trying to imagine what my grandfather would make of it.

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A Few Blog Notes for the Week of 9/19/2021

Since I have a few random blog-related things to report, I figured I do it in a single post. If you are not interested in the updates to the blog, you can safely skip this post.

  • On Saturday night (9/18), some of you may have noticed an empty post titled, “why I don’t update.” This was me, messing around with the menus on the blog. I meant to add a menu linking to my post on why I don’t update old posts. For some reason, I added a new post by accident, but since it had no content that’s how it got posted. When I discovered this (at 12:30 am) I deleted the post and the social media updates, but in case anyone who saw it was wondering what was up, now you know. Sorry for any confusion.
  • On the reading list, I made most of the major changes that I was hoping to make over the weekend. I pleased enough with the changes to update the menu link on the blog to my What I Have Read Since 1996 to the new page. You can expect more updates over the coming days and weeks, but the core functionality is there now. Going forward, my posts that refer to my reading list will point there.
  • This coming week will see 2 posts on Obsidian. I haven’t written much on it lately, but I have a renewed commitment to using Obsidian going forward. For those of you interested in Obsidian, in my paperless posts, and in productivity in general, keep an eye out for these posts coming this week.
  • This week marks the fifth consecutive week in a row that the blog stats have been going up. I’m nowhere near back to where I was in 2013-15, but the consistency (and quality?) is definitely paying off. Indeed, not counting January and Decembers, month in which my numbers always go up considerably, this month is looking to be my best since October 2018. I just want to thank everything who reads here, everyone who leaves comments, and those of you who have reached out to me directly. It’s a joy to have such great readers.
  • So far, it seems that people like the Retro Posts (and Retro Post summaries) as well as the Interest Reads posts I’ve been doing, so you can expect those to continue.

That’s what I have got. As always, if you have any comments, requests, or suggestions, drop me a comment, or shoot me and email. And thanks again for reading.

Handy Around the House

It is a simple pleasure to feel handy around the house. In these days when just about anything can be farmed out, it’s nice to do-it-yourself now and then, to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well-done. We’ve occasionally done things around the house. In our old townhouse, Kelly has repaired drywall, installed a ceiling fan, and replaced wall outlets. I painted rooms, fixed toilets, and tended the landscaping. Our new house–not really new anymore, since we’ve been here over two years now–is older than the townhouse, but had been completely updated much more recently. There hasn’t been much to do. Until an opportunity came up last week.

Our microwave oven died back in July. I would have said this is the first time a microwave has ever died on me, but I would be wrong. We kept telling ourselves we needed to replace it, but neither of us was in the mood to look for replacement. We muddled along without a microwave for six week, until finally, last week, we decided to head over to Home Depot and pick up a new one. It’s an “over-the-counter” microwave, we decided we’d do the whole thing ourselves, rather than have someone come out and remove the old one and install the new one for us.

Late one afternoon, we started the work. I got the old microwave unmounted, and then fought with the mountings already in the wall to get those off. They didn’t match the new microwave. I measured and identified places to drill. My old drill wasn’t really up to the task, and much of the “drilling” was improvised with alternative tools. Which meant it took longer. Eventually (after borrowing a much better drill from a neighbor) I got things squared away and Kelly helped me life the new microwave into place, and held it while I tightened the bolts. We plugged in the new device and it turned on. We tested it out, and it worked. I put in a request with the city to come pick up the old microwave, cleared away all the debris and boxes. Our new microwave was installed. It only took four hours.

The newly installed microwave

The following morning, my entire body was sore. My arms were sore. My shoulders were sore. The palms of my hands were sore. The day after that was even worse. It dimmed the achievement of getting the microwave installed in the first place. The lesson, I decided, was that you have to pick your battles. Fixing a toilet is a battle that is simple enough to be worth tackling. As for replacing the microwave: I should have paid the fee to have professionals do it. My body would have thanked me for it.

On Thursday, during trash collection, the city came by to pick up the microwave, but they were too late. Although it was there first thing in the morning when I went for my walk, it was gone by the time the city came around to pick it up. Someone is now the proud owner of a completely dead microwave.

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Retro Posts, Week of 9/12/2021

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

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

Book Smart

close up photo of stacked books
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Is it cheating if your experience comes from books? Say, you’re chatting with friends and during the course of the conversation, someone comments on the beauty of Westminster Abbey. You jump in and agree to its beauty, but what really astounds you is a certain place in the Nave where you find yourself standing among the final resting place of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and others. Your friends nod in agreement. Suppose then that one of the friends asks when you’d been to Westminster? You’d calmly say you’d never been there, never even been to London. You’d read about Westminster Abbey in a book and the picture painted with words on the page was so vivid, it was as if you had been standing among those luminaries of the ages. Does it count? Is it cheating?

I have been to Westminster Abbey, but there are plenty of places I haven’t been, and plenty of things that I haven’t seen or done for which I consider myself fairly well-versed from the reading I do. Indeed, it seems to me that nearly every conversation I engage in conjures memories of a book I read that relates to the subject at hand. Last weekend, I was chatting with a group of friends and the conversation veered into pandemics and vaccinations. I mentioned that despite being more technically advanced than we were 250 years ago, the people of Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution were extremely wary of the smallpox vaccine, despite how devestating the disease was. I knew this, not because I lived in Boston in 1776, but because I’d read about it in David McCullough’s John Adams and in Stephen Fried’s Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father and most recently in Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.

The conversation drifted to masks, and I mentioned how prevalent masks were in San Francisco during the Spanish flu of 1918-19. One the folks turned to me and asked, “Do you know where that flu started?” and without hesitation, I said, “In Kansas.” I knew it, not because I lived in that small Kansas town 103 years ago, but because I read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.

I remember a time when I was very young–possibly before I could read–back when my parent’s still read to me, my mother explaining that books could take you anywhere. I took that literally back then and my attitude hasn’t changed much today. People call this “book smart.” Book smart is often seen as derogatory, as in, “that fellow is book smart, but he’s got no street sense.” Of course, there is something to that, but that doesn’t mean that street sense can’t come from a book. When I read nonfiction, I am always on the lookout for practical lessons. One example out of countless: after reading William Manchester’s massive, 3-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, I went through my notes and teased out 3 productivity tips from Churchill himself.

I learned why keeping a diary can be useful from Isaac Asimov (via his memoirs). I learned how to keep a diary from John Quincy Adams (reading his diaries and using them as a model). I learned about commonplace books from Thomas Jefferson I didn’t learn any of this in school. It came from reading book, after I was finished with school and my real education began.

I have written before in my belief that grade school taught me how to read well, high school taught me how to think well, and college taught me how to learn well. When I graduated, I was ready to begin learning. Since then, I’ve read 1,102 books. I could read them well because of grade school. I could think about what I was reading thanks to high school. And I’ve learned far, far more than I ever learned in my K-through-college years thanks to college. I feel like I’ve gained a wealth of practical knowledge from the books I’ve read. And so I don’t see being book smart as a bad thing. After all, books have made me smarter than I might otherwise have been. And we can use all the smarts we can get.

The question is: can reading a book ever provide the equivalent experience to doing the real thing? Can you ever know what it is like to wander the Nave of Westminster Abbey and feel the weight of all those who came before? Does it even matter? People sometimes seem offended when I tell them that my experience with some place came not from being there in person, but from reading about it in books. When this happens, I think about the countless people who don’t have the means to travel anywhere, but can walk to their local library and read about places and take pleasure from that reading. Is that experience any less for that person than actually visiting the place?

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More Enhancements to My New Reading List Page

Yesterday I introduced a beta version of my new reading list–everything I have read since 1996–hosted here on the blog as opposed to in GitHub where I’ve been keeping it the last several years. If you’ve been checking out the page, you may have noticed some changes in the last few hours. If you want to check it out, you can find it here:

What I have read since 1996

It is still in beta, still a work in progress, but here are some of the enhancements I’ve added since yesterday:

  • Switched to a different table tool, which is simpler but more functional (so the table may look a little different than it did before).
  • The table is still sortable, but I’ve fixed the date sort so that it now behaves correctly when sorting the date.
  • Removed the “Format” column from the table and replaced it with an icon ahead of each title. The legend at the top of the table provides an indicator of the format in which I read the book.
  • Fixed many problems with bad symbols in the data. I still have more to do there.
  • You can now search the list! Type anything you want into the search box above the table and if it is in the list, it should find matches. For instance, to see how many times I’ve read E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, I just type it into the search:
  • Converted the “Format” column to a “Topic(s)” column which is useful for searching for books by topic. For instance, how many Presidential memoirs have a I read1:
  • I removed the Length/Pages column and replaced it with what I call BEq. “BEq” stands for “Book Equivalents.” I took an average of the length of all 1,100 books that I’ve read on my list, and it turned out that the average book length is 410 pages. I then degreed that for my purposes, 1 book equivalent = 410 pages. I like this number better because some years I read fewer, longer books, some years many shorter books. The BEq gives me a nice way of seeing how much more or less I read a year focused length not books. A BEq of 1.00 means a book of 410 pages. A nice side effect of this is that a BEq of 2.00 is a book of 820 pages. Have I read any books that are longer than 3 BEqs? It turns out I have read 4:

As I said this is still a work-in-progress. Here are some of the things I will working on over the weekend, so you can expect to see things change more:

  • I noticed that my data export was imperfect and some titles don’t match the authors correctly. I’ve been fixing these as I go along.
  • I still have to go through an add format icons to about 7/10th of the books on the list.
  • I still have to complete adding topics so that all of the books have topics.
  • I also need to add all of the 2021 books to the list.

Once I’ve gotten those things done, my next steps are:

  • Add related posts to relevant titles. You’ll see a handful of these in the current data, but I’ve actually written on the blog about many of the books on the list, and I plan to try to link to the posts from the list as best as I can. Here are some examples of what is there now:
  • I’m toying with the idea of having “top” page for the list which would have a table of individual lists by year along with some stats. Clicking on a year list would take you to a table like the ones above, but filtered for the year in question. There would still be a page for viewing the full list.
  • I want to add pages for things like recommended books, or themed lists.

So, those are the changes that I’ve made so far, and some of what you can expect over the next few days. The feedback I’ve gotten from those of you who have provided it has been incredibly helpful, so keep it coming. I’d like this to be as useful and fun for you as it is for me.

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  1. Note: I’ve only added topics to about 1/5th of my list so far, so these examples are incomplete.


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There are people who are yellers and people who are not yellers. I fall into the latter category. My parents were occasional yellers, at least as I remember it. Back when I lived in apartments in Los Angeles, I would sometimes hear yellers. Their yells would echo through the narrow open spaces of the apartment complex. What they were yelling about was never clear, despite it often being repetitive.

If you took a Venn diagram of yellers and people who frequently use profanity, the two circles would largely overlap. Often times when I hear yellers, they are shouting profanities. Profanities require louder voices, apparently. This fits neatly into my own little world. I’m not a yeller, and I am also not one to use profanity, not out of any objection to it, but because, as Isaac Asimov has pointed out, the English language is so versatile, that one is usually able to say the same thing in a more clever and creative way without the profanity.

We were at a soccer practice the other day and one of the sets of parents were bickering. I suspect they were yellers, but they kept their voices moderated and only turned up the sarcasm so as not to startle all of the non-yellers surrounding them. (Those others that were yelling, myself included, were cheering on our kids on the field.)

I seem to surround myself with non-yellers. Kelly is not a yeller. Indeed, sometimes, when I am particularly annoyed with the kids and raise my voice a bit to emphasize my annoyance, Kelly will turn to me calmly and say, “Don’t yell.” I’m not aware that any of my friends are yellers. I’ve known most of them for thirty years or more and I can’t recall I time when they yelled. Well, I can recall one time, in college, but the yelling just made me laugh so I guess it wasn’t very effective.

On television shows, people at work are always yelling at one another. Arguments break out in fictional offices all the time. Characters scream at one another, hurling invective across conference tables, or shouting at invisible audiences on speakerphones. In 27 years at my company, I can’t recall a single time when someone yelled at someone else. I’ve been in thousands of meetings and there was certainly disagreement in some of them, but it was all civil and calm. No one at my company yells. At one point, there was a C.I.O. who I’m told was a yeller (I never saw him yell, but I believe it). He didn’t last very long. It’s not in our corporate culture to yell.

Some people yell because they don’t think you can hear them. I’ve seen people yell at someone who doesn’t speak their language. The idea is that yelling will somehow make them understand. Occasionally, I’ll be in a meeting and Kelly will say, “Why were you yelling?” I wasn’t, but I had my noise-cancelling headset on and couldn’t hear myself talk, so naturally, I talked louder than normal.

Whenever I hear a yeller, I think of that a verse from a Dr. Seuss book:

I do not like that one so well
All he does is yell, yell, yell
I do not like that one about
When he comes in I put him out.

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