My Favorite Baseball Books, For Now

With the postseason underway, and I nearly finished with The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, I got to thinking about my favorite baseball books. I suspect that The Baseball 100 will jump toward the top–if not the top–of the list. But what are my favorites right now? My list of books I’ve read since 1996 has quite a few baseball-related books on it. Here is my selection of the best ones, in my opinion:

  1. Ball Four by Jim Bouton. A classic in the genre, and one that set the stage for the modern baseball tell-all.
  2. Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion in Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould is best known for his books and essays on paleontology and evolution in Natural History magazine. But he was a huge baseball fan, and I love the way he thinks about the game in these essays.
  3. Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. Everything I knew, or thought I knew, about Ty Cobb was dispelled by this book. I read it in the offseason. Always a good time to read baseball in order to make it a year-round sport.
  4. Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah. The book made me love Yogi even more.
  5. Casey Stengel by Marty Appel. Possibly the most remarkable career in baseball ever.
  6. Red Smith: On Baseball by Red Smith. Reading this book cemented the idea that when I grow up, I want to be a baseball writer. Unfortunately, I read this book when I was 46 years old. Fortunately, I still haven’t grown up.
  7. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Fleder. An absolutely remarkable collection of baseball writing.
  8. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The first time I’d read this book was in the aftermath of 9/11. I’d seen Field of Dreams many times before I read this book. I love Field of Dreams but this book was far and away the best thing about baseball I’d ever read.

That all said, I am enjoying The Baseball 100 so much that I suspect it will end up as #2, possibly even #1 on the list by the time that I finish.

Of course, for as many baseball books I’ve read, there are countless I have yet to read. Some that I want to read, or have been wanting to read for some time include:

And, as always, I am open to suggestions.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 2: The Basics: My Obsidian Configuration

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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.

In the first episode in this series, I discussed the basic objects in Obsidian: notes and documents. In this episode, I want to step back and talk more broadly about Obsidian itself. In order to best understand I how I use Obsidian as an Evernote substitute, I want to highlight some features of Obsidian that I use in order to get the most out of it for my paperless notes. There are two reasons I am doing this:

  1. There are some features that are not enabled by default but that I have found particularly useful.
  2. I know from experience that people will ask about what themes and plug-ins I am using in Obsidian and this makes a nice post to which I can point people for an answer.

Also, I am trying something new beginning with this episode:

  • I am creating animated GIFs to help illustrate some of the things I discuss1, something I never tried with my Going Paperless posts, so please bear with me as I figure this out. It’a a learning experience for me.

My preferred Obsidian theme: Yin and Yang

One limitation I found in Evernote is that I never had much control over the look and feel of the tool. The current version2 as of this writing allows you to configure Light or Dark mode, but that’s about it. This may not seem that important. After all, Evernote and Obsidian specialize in storing information (the former in the cloud, the latter locally in your filesystem). More and more, however, modern text editors and IDEs are being designed with a great deal of flexibility in how they look and feel. Editors like Atom, Sublime, and IDEs like Visual Studio Code all allow customization of the user interface through the creation of themes that manipulate the styles of objects that appear on the screen. Obsidian is among these tools. In Obsidian, themes are nothing more than CSS files that you can download from a community, or even create on your own.

My preferred Obsidian theme is called Yin and Yang and can be found in the Obsidian by going to Settings > Appearance > Themes, and clicking the Manage button to view a list of community themes. Obsidian themes can be used dark and light mode. Given how much time I spend on screens, I prefer dark mode.

So how do themes alter the look and feel of Obsidian? Let me illustrate. Below is what Obsidian looks like out-of-the-box in light mode (and notice that the Obsidian Help is just another Obsidian vault):

And here is what Obsidian looks like when I change it from light to dark mode:

Switching to Dark mode in Obsidian

With those images in mind, here is how Obsidian looks with the Yin and Yang theme. The image on the left is a note in edit mode; on the right is the same note in preview mode.

This is my own preference. You can keep the default theme, use one of the 70+ community themes, or create a new theme entirely on your own3

A few additional useful UI tweaks

Folding headings and lists

As I mentioned in Episode 1, notes are nothing more than plain text files that use Markdown to format the content. One nice feature that Obsidian comes with out of the box is the ability to fold your headings and lists. These features have to be enabled in the Editor settings as shown below.

Once you’ve enabled these features, you can open and close headings to show and hide the text within the heading. Using my note on my Retro Posts above as an example, here is how folding headings work:

The same works for lists. If you have a list, like an outline, each level of the list is foldable. I find both of these features very useful for focus. If I want to concentrate on just one part of a note, I can easily fold other parts so that they don’t distract me.

Useful “core” plug-ins

Obsidian comes with “core” plug-ins that are packaged with the application. There are also community-based plug-ins. In this section, I’ll talk about the “core” plug-ins that I find most useful in my pursuit of going practically paperless.

Daily notes

Daily notes are a fundamental part of Obsidian, and they are also a fundamental part of my efforts to go practically paperless with Obsidian. They are so important, that I’ll have an entire episode dedicated to them in February 20224. Daily notes are simply notes that you can associate with a given day. These notes have a special naming convention that uses the date to form the name of the note. This makes it useful when linking other notes to this date. Obsidian knows about all of the “backlinks” to a note–that is, all of the other notes in your vault that are linked to that note. I have actually automated my daily notes so that they are generated automatically each night, and pull in information from my calendars, making them even more useful.

Daily notes act as a kind of index to many of my other notes in Obsidian. They take the place of my timeline concept in Evernote.

An example of a daily note in Obsidian
An example of a daily note in Obsidian

Daily notes can be enabled in Settings > Core Plugins.

Starred notes

At any given moment, I have one or more notes that I use frequently, and want to be able to access quickly. This is what “starred” notes are for. After enabling this core plug-in from the Settings > Core Plugins menu, you can “star” a note. Once starred, that note will be available for quick access on the Star panel on the lefthand side of the screen. Starring a note is like creating a note shortcut in Evernote.

The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been "starred" for quick access.
The starred note panel displays a list of notes that have been “starred” for quick access.

Zettelkasten prefixes

This one is a mouthful, but it refers to a fascinating method for organizing notes. I don’t use this method in its strict interpretation, but I have borrowed liberally from it for my own notes–especially my reading notes. Because of Obsidian’s ability to link notes and illustrate the relationships between notes, it has become a particularly useful tool for those who wish to have a digital Zettelkasten.

But back to the plug-in. This plug-in does 2 things:

  1. It allows you to define a “prefix” for your note titles based on a date format. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that many of my note titles begin with a long number combination like 202110111506. This number is just the current date and time in yyyymmddhhmm format. When I create a note using a prefix, Obsidian automatically generates the prefix and I can add more to the title if I want. Having the date in this format is more powerful than it may seem. When searching for notes, for instance, I have a convenient way of searching by date, something I will discuss in much more detail in Episode 11.
  2. You can also, optionally, define a template for your note so that when your note is created, not only is there a title prefix, but there can be other information preloaded in the note. This can save a lot of time, and help with standardization. When I create a new note, here is what my basic template looks like:

I’ll have more to say about Zettelkasten and note titles in Episode 6.

Useful community plug-ins

In addition to having community-developed themes, there are also some amazing community plug-ins that have been developed for Obsidian and the list keeps growing. Here are the community plug-ins that I find most useful:


The calendar plug-in provides a quick way to get to your daily notes (if you are using them). Since I use daily notes constantly, the calendar provides an easy way to navigate quickly to the note I am looking for. In this example, I am using the calendar to navigate to my daily note from October 3:

The dots in the calendar are days in which I have daily notes. The more dots on a given day, the longer the note. It is a very cool plug-in and the first community plug-in I installed when I began using Obsidian.

Natural language dates

Dates are important in my paperless taxonomy because they tell when things occurred. Obsidian allows you to format dates in any desired format. My daily notes use the format, or 2021.10.11.Mon. If I create a note link in Obsidian to “2021.10.11.Mon” it will link to my daily note from that date.

The Natural Language Dates allows you to quickly create these note links using natural language, like “yesterday”, “today”, or “tomorrow”. I’ll use this frequently on in timeline sections of notes that refer to dates.

Using the plug-ins

These plug-ins make it much easier for me to zip through creating notes, linking them together the way want to, and have the notes appear the way I want on the screen. As we progress through future episodes, you’ll see me using these plug-ins frequently. I wanted to have a post to which I could refer people to list those plug-ins and setting that I find most useful. There are other plug-ins that I use, but not as frequently, and I’ll discuss them in the context of how I use them to perform certain activities in future episodes.

In episode 1 I showed the basics of notes and documents in Obsidian. In this episode, I discussed the settings, themes, and plug-ins most useful to my note-taking in Obsidian. Both episodes set the stage for next week when I illustrate how I emulate basic Evernote features in Obsidian. Hopefully this will provide a like-for-like comparison of how I did basic things in Evernote and how I can do those some basic things (with improvements) in Obsidian. See you back here next week!

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  1. For those wondering, I am using GIPHY Capture for the Mac to create these GIFs.
  2. v10.22.3
  3. At one point, as an experiment, I created a theme to make Obsidian look like Word for DOS 5.5, my all-time favorite word processor.
  4. Episode 16, if you are curious.

Impressive Feats of Writing

I’ve mentioned how I am reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. It is a delight and treat to read these 100 essays on baseball players, that tell a fascinating history of the game. It has quickly jumped toward the top of the list of best baseball books I have ever read. I’ve learned (or been reintroduced to) all kinds of incredible things that have happened in the sport over the last 150+ years.

But actually, the book itself is an impressive feat of writing. These essays originally appeared in The Athletic. As Posnanski writes in the introduction:

This book contains almost 300,000 words, just about all of them originally written over a 100-day stretch when this series first appeared on the web pages of “The Athletic.” I lived this book twenty-four hours a day during those weeks, writing, reading, learning, dreaming baseball.

Three hundred thousand words in 100 days. To put that in some perspective, that’s 3,000 words per day, fifty percent more than a prolific author like Stephen King aimed for in his prime. In the book, Posnanski discusses why getting 3,000 hits is such an achievement. It means consistently hitting the ball over a period more than a decade. That means playing as much as possible, staying healthy, and still managing to make enough regular contact to get those hits. I think of 3,000 words a day for a hundred days as a similar achievement. And when you couple that with the reading, learning, and dreaming that Posnanski refers to, it really boggles the mind to think that all of this was written in 100 days.

Consider, that as of this post, I’ve published post for 283 consecutive days, writing 345 posts so far in 2021. My average post length is about 650 words, and I’ve written, on average, 1.2 posts per day. Doing that math, that means I’m writing about 780 words per day. Generally, these posts require little or no research, so I don’t have that to worry about. So, 283 days into the year, I’ve written a grand total of 222,000 words here on the blog. Posnanski wrote 300,000 in 100 days. That is just mind-boggling.

What makes it even more amazing, to me, is that, like the best baseball writing, Posnanski’s essays are engaging, have a distinct voice, and are endlessly fascinating. One of the great pleasures of the book is not looking ahead to see who will the next essay be about? It is almost as if, as each player gets better as you move down the list, each essay rises to the level of that player. As one writer looking at another, I am in awe. It is as if I am in the minor leagues, watching a Hall of Fame work in his prime.

It is at time like these that I think back to that day when I decided I was too busy to work on the college newspaper. I think I could have been a decent sportswriter. No Joe Posnanski, but I would have a done alright. And just imagine having a job like that? I never could have played in the majors, or minors for that matter, but when it came to sportswriting, I could have been a contender.

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Retro Posts, Week of 10/3/2021

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

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

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The Thing About 70s Music

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I spent several hours yesterday morning doing a software rollout. It was a meticulous process, and I find that if I have music playing in the background for that kind of work, it blocks out everything else and I can focus better. I spent those hours listening to SiriusXM 70s on 7. I had a smile on my face the entire time. Around noon, Casey Kasem came on to do the Top 40 countdown for this week in 19701. You know it is the 70s when “Rubber Duckie” is one of the songs on the countdown.

I listen to a lot of 80s music because those were my formative years. Still, I was eight years old in 1980 and I have very clear memories of where I was when various songs played on the radio in the 1970s. I’ve always had a fondness for the 70s, and even once wrote a post about what it would be like to spend a week in the 1970s. Listening to music from the 70s, no matter what style, always puts me into a good mood. Music from the 1980s can do this, too, but 80s music can also have me suddenly feeling awkward, reliving those years of puberty. The 70s always seems happy to me.

After I completed my rollout, and ate a late lunch, I headed down for my afternoon nap, and while I lay there, before falling asleep, I considered why it was that 70s music always makes me happy, and why it always makes me think the 70s was a kind of golden age of my youth. I’d thought about this before, but this was the first time I found an answer.

I was absolutely carefree in the 1970s. I had no worries whatsoever.

Life is simple when you four, or six, or even eight years old. As I got older, the worries and stresses built. In the 80s, it was junior high school, then high school and a job and standardized tests and applying for colleges and dating and playing sports. All of that happened in the 80s. In the 70s, I had toys, and television. I watched The Incredible Hulk and The Dukes of Hazzard on Friday nights. I watched The Love Boat on Saturday nights. Saturday mornings were for cartoons: The Bugs Bunney/Roadrunner Show was among my favorites. The 70s was about albums, and movies like Grease and Star Wars. In the 70s, there were bagel deliveries on Sunday mornings. Steve Hartman (later with Joan Lunden) gave me the news (“Make it a good day today!”). The Yankees won the World Series in ’77 and ’78. They never won in the 1980s. In the 70s, my dad took me to Pop’s gas station and to the Country Squire where I could have a donut. We went to a putting green that was nearby an airport and I watched little planes land, with no inkling that one day, I’d be flying planes like those.

And of course, I was surrounded by music. The radio was on for the drives to my grandparent’s house, about an hour away. Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” always reminds me of where the New Jersey Turnpike meets the Garden State Parkway. The Eagles “Take It To the Limit” reminds me of the Garden State Parkway in the 1970s. “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee reminds me of our family room. “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille reminds me of our kitchen. The theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter” reminds me of a drive home from a Mets game. All of it was (or at least in retrospect seems) carefree. Well, most of it. Super Tramp’s “The Long Way Home” reminds me of hanging out with my best friend after his dad died.

I have an autobiography playlist and the first 26 songs on that list are songs I remember from the 1970s. It’s not until you get to #27 and #28 (“Rio” by Duran Duran and “Video Killed the Radio Star” that we get into the 1980s.) And those 26 songs are just representative. I could have made that list much longer. I don’t do it often, but I love listening to the first part of that playlist.

With all of the usual stresses of a middle-aged adult in the modern world, raising a family in the midst of a global pandemic, it is no wonder that I find joy and respite in the music from a time when I had no cares or worries. It was a sort of revelation to finally understand why I liked 70s music so much, and why it always seemed to cheer me up. Now, on those rare occasions when I am feeling down, I’m going to turn to 70s on 7 and see if it helps to cheer me up.

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  1. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” by B.J. Thomas was #1.

Coding and Baseball

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I’ve spend much of this week writing code for a fairly significant update to some software my team rolled out in May. Much of it was refactoring (from about 4,000 lines of Groovy script down to about 900), some of it was making things more efficient, and a lot of it was to make the code more supportable as time goes on. There were also a lot of important enhancements and bug fixes. Each day began with me sitting in front of code, disappearing into the code, and emerging only reluctantly to the world when my brain was too tired to continue.

Those of you who write code for a living know what this feels like. On Friday night, for instance, as I write this, I was completely spent. As much as I wanted to continue reading the (thus far) fantastic book by Joe Posnanski, The Baseball 100, I needed a break from reading. It was all I could do to pull myself back to the computer to write this. The family went out and I wanted to go with them, but I wasn’t feeling social. That happens sometimes after spending a week in code.

So what’s a fellow to do?

I think I found a pretty good solution: I discovered that The Show ’21 is finally available for the Xbox One. And I started playing it. I played my first game as the Los Angeles Dodgers facing Tampa Bay. And despite it being my first game, and despite the fact that my hand-eye-coordination could use some work, I played a full 9 innings and beat Tampa 6-5. It was blissful.

Either you are a baseball fan or you aren’t. I’ve rarely met someone in between. People sometimes wonder what’s so great about the sport. You hear all kinds of arguments from baseball fans (of which I am one), but the best line I’ve ever heard is simple: baseball is there to be enjoyed. And I enjoyed it tonight, even though it was in a video game. I love the dynamics of the game, the skills required not just on the athletic side, but on the mental side as well. I love the instincts that develop: flipping that grounder to second because you know without looking that there is already a running on first. I love the chess match between pitcher and hitter, each trying to outguess the other. And of course, I love the history.

It’s been many decades since I last thought that playing in the majors could be a reality (I think I might have been ten). But playing The Show tonight after spending my week coding made it feel like I was playing in the majors. It made me feel good, and that’s just about the best think a video game can do.

I played one game already, but it’s a beautiful evening for baseball. As Ernie Banks would say, “Let’s play two.”

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Speaking in Complete Paragraphs

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In various books I’ve read, a person has been described of someone who “speaks in complete paragraphs.” I knew, theoretically, what that meant, but until fairly recently, I’d hadn’t encountered it myself in a conscious way. Two people come to mind as ones who speak in complete paragraphs: Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman.

I’d heard Walter Isaacson talk before, but it wasn’t until I heard him on the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast that I realized he was one of those people who speaks in complete paragraphs. Neil Gaiman is another person like this. I’ve seen him speak on a number of occasions and he, too, is one of those rare people who seems to be able to speak in complete paragraphs.

Anyone can ramble on. I certainly find myself doing this when I speak, but people like Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman seem to create works in their mind the way many writers do on a page. They form complete, coherent thoughts into smoothly rendered speech. If you didn’t know they were speaking off the cuff, you might think they’d memorized what they were saying–not just the words, but tone, inflection, everything about it. This is one of those superpowers (like a phenomenal memory) that I’m always envious of. When you can speak in complete sentences, you really sound like you know what you are talking about.

When I hear myself speak–on podcasts I’ve been on, in interviews I’ve done–I never sound as smooth as Isaacson or Gaiman. Often, I think I sound scattered. My sentences aren’t complete, let alone paragraphs. Also, I sound just like my brother, and when I hear myself on a recording unexpectedly, my first thought it: when was my brother on a podcast? The one time I met Neil Gaiman, when I was a presenter at the Nebula Awards in 20121, we were gathering for photos and I saw him carrying the two awards he’d just won. All I could think of to say was, “Wow, Neil, are those things iron?”

Neil Gaiman, me, and Joe Haldeman at the 2012 Nebula Awards.

When I was young, I often received compliments on my writing like: “You write how you speak.” Or, “I can totally picture you saying this because this is your voice.” I have to disagree. My writing tends to be colloquial, sure, but it is also far more polished than if I were trying to speak my thoughts aloud. Indeed, I have, thus far, been unable to use dictation software for the very reason that I don’t write how I speak.

Both Walter Isaacson and Neil Gaiman sound like their writing. Even when speaking off the cuff, I could imagine reading what they were saying as if it were written on a proof-edited page.

Podcasts are the big thing these days, and occasionally, I’ve been asked why I don’t have a podcast. “Well, I’m a better writer than I am a speaker,” I say. “If I am going to do something, it might as well be something I am halfway decent at.” It is not that I am a terrible speaker; I just can’t help comparing myself to those people I’ve heard speaking in complete paragraphs. It is really an amazing thing to behold.

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  1. I also accepted an award for Ken Liu when he won for “The Paper Menagerie.”

Some Companions On My Morning Walk

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

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

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

Another buck, paralleling my path this morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Project Manager and the Passports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only all meetings could be that efficient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. I may be paraphrasing here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes in Obsidian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: An example note in Obsidian

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

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

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

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

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

Documents in Obsidian

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

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

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

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

Figure 5: My new microwave oven note

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

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

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

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

Notes are just files in the filesystem

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

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

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

Establishing a baseline

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

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

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

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

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

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