Practical Automation

Last week, I went to start our older car and the battery was dead. This is about the 4th time this has happened in the last year, and it is entirely my fault. I left the lights on again.

I left the lights on because I tend to turn on the headlights whenever I am driving, day or night. Our new car, of course, has automatic headlights and I don’t have to think about it. The older car buzzes a warning if you shut down the car and the headlights are still on. Only, that warning buzzer is no longer working. It died about a year ago.

So, if my routine is slightly disrupted when I arrive home, as it was last week, then I forget to turn off the lights, and the next morning: dead battery. This, by the way, is why pilots—even experienced ones—always use checklists.

We called AAA and they came out and jumped the car and all is well. Except: it will happen again.

I thought about ways to prevent this. I could stick a Post-It on the steering wheel to remind me to SHUT THE LIGHTS. But, I might not look at the Post-It if I was dealing with getting the kids out of the car, along with backpacks, and everything else. What would be great is if that buzzer was still working. I wondered if there was some other way.

Then it occurred to me!

I was an early adopter of the Automatic Link. This is a device that plugs into the data port on your car and acts as a kind of Fitbit for your vehicle. I have one in each of the cars and the data it provides can be fascinating and useful. I only drive the older car to-and-from work (the car probably gets less than 1,500 miles/year), and I often forget that the Automatic Link is in the car. But I had brilliant idea.

One of the features of the Automatic Link is that it integrates with the IFTTT (If This Then That) service. One of the triggers is “when the ignition is turned off.” So, I setup an IFTTT applet that does the follows:

IF my Automatic Link detects the ignition is turned off, THEN sent me an SMS telling me to make sure the lights are turned off.

And guess what? It worked! There  is sometimes a delay of 10 or 15 minutes, but ever since I enabled that little piece of workflow, within aa few minutes of shutting down the car, I get a text message that reads “Honda CR-V’s ignition turned off. CHECK LIGHTS!”

Usually, I shut the lights off, but now, if I forget, I’ll have a reminder within few minutes to check. Hopefully this will forestall future dead batteries.

This, by the way, is an example of what I like to call practical auto-mation.

Thoughts on Explore/Create by Richard Garriott

When I was 13 years old, in 1985, I discovered Ultima IV. This was a top-down role-playing computer game. It was unlike any other game I’d ever played. For one thing, the world was richly detailed and interactive. For another, even more important, the game was not about killing monsters. It was about 8 virtues that you, as the character, had to preserve. If you stole gold from someone, that affected your honesty. If you ran away from a fight, that affected your courage. If you bragged to a villager, it affected your humility. It was a paradigm-shifting experience for me. I loved playing the game. And I loved the sequels that followed.

The game was created by Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British. Last week, I read Garriott’s new book, Explore/Create: My Life In Pursuit of New Frontiers, Hidden Worlds, and the Creative Spark. The book is a delightful journey through the life of someone who has done more than just create virtual worlds, but someone who has seen more of our world than most people alive today ever will.

Garriott’s book, as the title suggests, alternates between two big parts of his life: exploration, and creation. Garriott has been to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, and toured the Titanic. He was also a space tourist, flying on a Russian Soyuz rocket for a 2-week stay on the International Space Station. (Garriott’s father, Owen Garriott, was a NASA astronaut, spending 60 days on Skylab, and flying the Space Shuttle.)

But Garriott also had a creative vision, and was the brains behind some of the best computers games ever created, including the Ultima series of games.

The book is packed with anecdotes from Garriott’s experiences, from performing magic tricks for moonwalkers like Ed Mitchell, to the evolution of the 8 virtues in the Ultima games. While I enjoyed the exploration parts of the book, I loved the “create” sections. I loved learning how the Ultima games came to be, loved learning how features were added, and how the games grew and evolved over time.

Explore/Create is a fun read, especially for anyone with the explorer bug, or anyone who loves computer role-playing games.

A few years ago, I learned that Garriott was Kickstarting a new game, Shroud of the Avatar, which would be a 21st century descendant of the Ultima games. I became an early backer, and watching the game evolve over time as it gets closer and closer to release has been a joy. As a backer, I have access to early releases, and have played the game with the Little Man, who also seems to get as much joy out of it as I do.

If you are interested in exploration, creation, a polymath, and old-school RPGs, I recommend Garriott’s book. It’s a treat.

LinkedIn Skeeves Me Out!

I have been thinking about ditching LinkedIn. I have enough trouble keeping up with Twitter and Facebook. I tried keeping up with Instagram for a time, but it was too much for me. I find Twitter useful, and I’ve got something of an audience there. Facebook is good for keeping up with friends and family. But LinkedIn…?

I’m not sure what the value of LinkedIn is. For one thing, it has among the worst UI/UX’s I’ve encountered. The only time I ever go to LinkedIn is to accept a request to connect with someone. Each time I go there, I feel like I’ve been transported back to the late 1990s when websites were in their experimental stage, and attempted to use every feature available in HTML, even when those features were horribly annoying. (Remember <blink>!)

More than that, however, LinkedIn just skeeves1 me out. Whenever I roll my eyes at the short bios people put in their Twitter descriptions2, I remind myself that things are a lot worse on LinkedIn.

I’ve kept LinkedIn this far because I’ve used it for professional connections. I’ve got more than 500 connections there, and I think I know about 50 of those people. I never go to LinkedIn to browse the feed there because it is the most unbrowsable feed I’ve ever encountered.

That said, for the purposes of this post, I risked sanity and opened up my LinkedIn feed. Here are some of the things that my professional network feed contains:

  • A viral video on how to welcome a new person to your organization.
  • Lots of photos of people’s office desks.
  • Lots of sponsored ads by places like Booz Allen.
  • Posts offering secrets to become a [courageous | innovative | productive | affable | etc.] [CIO | CFO | CTO | COO, etc.]
  • Tons of posts telling me about people’s new roles, new jobs, new skills, or work anniversaries.
  • Ironically, a post on “The End of User-Friendly Design.”

I imagine there are people who find a lot of value in LinkedIn, but I am hard-pressed to see what that value is. I am harder pressed to understand how they find that value in all of the noise.

What I really don’t like about LinkedIn is how it tells you who has been looking at your profile—and by contrast, if you look at someone’s profile, they know you’ve been looking at it. On rare instances when I want to look at someone’s profile, I’ve taken to opening up a private browsing window and browsing LinkedIn anonymously.

I have tried to keep my LinkedIn profile more or less up-to-date, but I am not sure why. I don’t use the service, and I know so few people on the service, that there seems no point in continuing with it. It is not a hard decision. I use Twitter and Facebook daily, but I actively avoid LinkedIn. It’s probably time to give it up.


  1. This is a term that Kelly uses to describe something that she finds creepy or gross.
  2. A topic for an entire post.


On Sunday the Little Miss was watching television in our bedroom while I was rocking the baby in the rocking chair. The Little Miss left the room for a few minutes. The TV remained on. I wasn’t watching it, and I have a pet peeve about a television playing when no one is watching it. She returned to the room a few minutes later with paper, and markers, and set down in front of the television to draw and color.

“Are you watching the TV,” I asked, “or are you coloring?”

The Little Miss stood, gave me a stern look, and said, “Daddy, I’m multitasking.”

She is her mother’s daughter.

I know this because I have no knack for multitasking. I used to. Back in 1999 and 2000 when I got my pilot’s license, I was at the pinnacle of my multitasking proficiency. I doubt anyone can safely fly an aircraft in Los Angeles airspace without having the ability to multitask: flying the aircraft, talking to air traffic control, looking for traffic, and studying a chart or checklist, all at the same time.

As I have grown older, this talent, such as it was, has all but withered, and can’t be relied upon. This, perhaps, has served as my singular motivation for seeking out ways to automate repetitive tasks over the last few years. Rather than trying to do multiple things at the same time myself, why not have a computer, tablet, or smart phone do one or more of them for me?

Kelly is a multitasking master. She makes it look effortless. Like a baseball player who has a swing so natural they don’t even think about it, I’ve seen Kelly do four or five things at the same time without breaking a sweat. Not so, me.

If the television is on and Kelly is talking to me, I usually have to ask her to mute the volume or turn the TV off. I can’t focus on both at the same time. Although I often want to listen to music while I work, I often find it too distracting. If I listen to the music I slow down on my work. Or, I don’t hear the music.

I’ve found that the Little Man has taken after me in this regard. If he is getting dressed in the morning, he can’t do it with the TV on. He’ll stand in front of the TV with one arm in a sleeve, and the other poised to go into a sleeve, but staring distractedly at the television. I empathize with him.

I often listen to audiobooks while doing other things, but it can be precarious. Most frequently, I listen to books while I walk. This works well for the most part, but if my mind wanders even the slightest—hey, when did they start building that building?—I have to rewind because I won’t have heard the last ten or twenty seconds of the book.

Problem-solving is part of my job. Last week, I had a particularly complicated math problem I was working out in some code I’d written. I was at the kids’ school, in the carpool line to pick them up, and standing around with the usual crowd. Someone was trying to talk to me but I had a hard time replying because I was trying to work through the math problem in my head.

Automation has mitigated this for me. I’ve written a lot over the years about how I’ve automated different parts of my daily life. This takes some of the burden of multitasking off my brain and transfers it to a computer. Still, I am always impressed by someone like Kelly who makes multitasking look easy. She can make the kids’ lunches, while holding the baby, and talking on the phone.

I can do all of those things, too. Just not at the same time.

What I Read on the Last 21 January 16ths

On Monday, I  was glancing at the list of books I’ve read, and thought it would be interesting to list the book that I was reading on that day—January 16—for each of the last 21 years.

  • 1996: Science, Numbers, and I by Isaac Asimov
  • 1997: Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan
  • 1998: Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • 1999: Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
  • 2000: The Life of Greece by Will Durant
  • 2001: My War by Andy Rooney
  • 2002: Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson
  • 2003: Forever: A Novel by Pete Hamill
  • 2004: The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin
  • 2005: My Manhattan by Pete Hamill
  • 2006: Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear
  • 2007: The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt
  • 2008: (Not reading anything on this day)
  • 2009: Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters by Richard Winters
  • 2010: C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich
  • 2011: Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939
  • 2012: Astounding Science Fiction, January 1942
  • 2013: Impulse by Steven Gould
  • 2014: Work Done for Hire by Joe Haldeman
  • 2015: (Not reading anything on this day)
  • 2016: My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall
  • 2017: Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester

I ended up including what I was reading on Monday, which actually makes the last 22 January 16th. Twice in that time, once is 2008, and again in 2015, I wasn’t reading anything on January 16. This happens occasionally, when I am between books, and can’t decide what to read next.

Facebook and Google like to remind us about what we were doing on a particular day. In many respects, I prefer looking back to what I was reading on a particular day. For some reason, I can look at what I was reading, and remember quite clearly where I was, and what I was doing while reading that particular book.

Girl Scout Cookies

The other day the doorbell rang and we found ourselves facing an unfamiliar Girl Scout and her father. She was going around the neighborhood selling Girl Scout cookies. I guess it is that time of year again.

I know very little about the Girl Scouts as an organization. In fact, everything I know about the Girl Scouts centers around the selling of cookies. That’s can’t be a good thing.

I am sure that the Girl Scouts do a lot more than sell cookies. I imagine that their activities are similar to what I’ve seen in the Cubs Scouts. They learn things, they make friends, they volunteer their time, they socialize. But if the only thing I really know about the Girl Scouts is that they sell cookies, then a PR problem exists. The Girl Scouts should be about a lot more than selling cookies.

The Little Miss recently joined the ranks of the Daisy Scouts, and so far, there has been no talk of hocking baked goods. Frankly, I am not looking forward to the time when selling cookies becomes a significant activity. I don’t like the idea of kids hocking things as a way to raise money. It is emotionally manipulative, for one thing. Who can say no to a cute 6-year old? For another, selling isn’t for everyone. Some people are uncomfortable pushing things on family, friends, and especially strangers.

When the Little Man’s scout pack recently raised money for a new Pine Wood Derby track, they attempted to do so by sending the kids home before the holidays with a catalog of junk to pawn on family and friends. The pack would earn a percentage of whatever was sold.

I took the packet home and immediately tossed it. I told the Little Man that he didn’t have bother selling junk to his family and friends. Instead, we would just make a donation to the pack, specifically for the Pine Wood Derby track.

Setting the emotional manipulation aside, the other problem with Girl Scout cookies is one of scale. It is one thing to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies for four bucks from a neighbor kid. But in the area that we live in, the scale of things is much larger. We don’t get asked to buy Girl Scout cookies by one neighbor kid. We get asked by dozens of people:

  • Neighborhood girls.
  • Parents of Girl Scouts at work.
  • Out-of-state relatives.
  • Friends whose kids attend different schools.

If we bought one box of Girl Scout cookies from every person who asked us to buy cookies, we could open up a cookie store.

What gets lost in all of this is what the scouts themselves get out of selling cookies. Sure, there are prizes they can win if they achieve certain sales benchmarks. And some of the money from the cookie sales must go back into the local packs. Here is what the Girl Scouts website says about revenue from the cookie program:

One hundred percent of the net proceeds from Girl Scout Cookie sales are reinvested back into the originating council to fund activities and Girl Scouts’ Take Action projects, which positively impact their communities. Each council determines its own revenue structure depending on its cookie cost, local retail price, and the amount that is shared with participating troops and groups. On average, Girl Scout council net revenue is approximately 65–75 percent of the local retail price; the amount shared with participating Girl Scout troops, referred to as troop proceeds, is approximately 10–20 percent of the local retail price.

I think it says something that Girl Scouts require cookie sales to fund their programs, when the Boy Scouts don’t require a similar stream of cash to fund theirs.

The Girl Scouts should be about more than selling cookies, and probably it is. But the only time I hear about the Girls Scouts is during cookie season, and that, I think, is a problem.

A Modern Shopping Cart

Here is an idea for a modern shopping cart that I offer freely to any and all grocery stores and retailers. The shopping cart hasn’t changed much in the last four decades. With the exception of the annoying mechanism that locks the wheels just before I reach my car (my car being parked far away because that was the only parking spot I could find in the lot) the shopping cart is what is was when I was a kid. Technology has improved, and I think we can see significant improvements toward a modern shopping cart if that technology is applied.

The shopping cart is designed to make it easy to carry your groceries as you make your way through the store. But there is the potential for it to do much more. More and more grocery stores have introduced self-checkout lanes to speed up the process of checking out. But what if the shopping cart itself handled all of this? Here is what I propose:

  1. On the handlebar of the cart, a small computer touchscreen is mounted. The screen contains a bar code reader as well as a place to swipe a credit card.
  2. When you load an item into your cart, the cart detects what is loaded, displayed the item on the screen, and calculates the price so you can see a running total of what your bill will be.
  3. If you remove something from your cart, it is removed from the total.
  4. If you add something like produce, where price is based on weight, the cart can detect how much the item weights and calculate the price, adding it to the total.
  5. The bar code reader can scan your club card, so that the prices are adjusted based on special club pricing the store offers.
  6. The bar code reader can also scan coupons. Since the cart knows what you’ve added to it, it can deduct from the total the value of any coupons you scan.
  7. The cart has the ability to be linked with a second cart, so if you are doing a lot of shopping (with your spouse, for instance), the total displayed is the total for both linked carts.
  8. At any time, you can get running total of how much the groceries in your cart cost. This is useful if you do weekly grocery shopping and are trying to stay on a budget.
  9. When adding an item, the cart can alert you when a less expensive, generic brand is available, and how much that would save you.
  10. When you are ready, you can swipe your credit or debit card to pay for the items. Then you can just walk out of the store, avoiding all the lines. There could be a station near the exits just for bagging groceries you’ve paid for. If you want to pay cash, you can line up, but you still know exactly how much you will pay, no one will have to scan the groceries.

I doubt many stores would go for this. Though it would save time, and probably save consumers a lot of money, there isn’t much incentive for a grocery store to implement such a system. The idea is for consumers to spend more money, not less, and knowing exactly how much you have in your cart would upset this model.

Macworld, and a Broken User Experience

Macworld broke their digital magazine app. They had a good thing, and then, for no obvious reason, they changed it and now it is a lot worse. Why do people always have to mess with the user experience?

Prior to this change, reading Macworld on the iPad was a pleasure. They followed a model that many magazines use, a model which works very well for the medium: swipe left/right to move between articles, swipe up/down to scroll through a single article. In its latest incarnation, the app behaves much more like a traditional magazine. You swipe left/right to turn the page. There is no up/down swiping.

This doesn’t sound that bad, but I’d gotten used to the old model, it worked well for me, and there was no obvious reason to change it. Also, it seemed to me that the font sizes were larger, making a page easier to read for my aging eyes. I suspect the new experience is designed to make the magazine feel more like a print magazine… but why? The font is smaller and harder to read, and there is no obvious way of enlarging it, other than zooming in on the page, which is an annoying extra step.

The Scientific American app works the way Macworld used to work. You swipe left/right to move between articles, and up/down to scroll through the article. In that app, you can set the size of the font, so that scrolling through the article is easier to read. This is also the way the New York Times app works.

I’ve noticed that electronic version of magazines divide their user experience into one of two categories:

  1. Swipe-and-scroll, like Scientific American and New York Times.
  2. Magazine emulation, where the app is essentially a PDF of the print magazine. Down East magazine, and Smithsonian magazine behave like this. And now, so does Macworld.

There are UI/UX advantages that the iPad, iPhone, and other tablets present over traditional magazine formats. If I wanted to read the print version of the magazine, I’d subscribe to the print version. Macworld doesn’t have a print version, and for some reason, they’ve gone from the good experience of the swipe-and-scroll model, to the weaker, awkward experience of magazine emulation.

If I had to guess, I’d say that it was a move to save money. Good user experience comes at a cost, and it is probably easier to produce a PDF-like experience than it is the swipe-and-scroll model. I imagine the size of the issue is smaller in the new-and-improved format. Still, Macworld is produced by IDG, which also produces PC World. And PC World uses the better format that Macworld used to use.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The new format is a big step backward in user experience. The cover story of the January 2017 issue of Macworld is a review of the MacBook Pro. The tag line for the cover is: “The touch bar makes the Mac fun again.” The opposite could be said of the new Macworld format. It was fun, but the change back to traditional magazine format has sapped that fun.

Caesar Salads

Does anyone make just a regular Caesar salad anymore? Lately, when we go out to eat, I’ve been ordering Caesar salads. For some reason no one seems to make just a plain Caesar salad anymore. Everyone has to distinguish their Caesar salad in some way in order to make it stand out. Here is what I look for in a Caesar salad:

  • Romaine lettuce
  • Shredded parmesan cheese
  • Anchovies
  • Crutons
  • Caesar dressing

Romaine lettuce is a given most of the time. The other day, however, the romaine lettuce was mixed with kale. Kale is apparently a trendy new leafy green. It reminds me of my college days working in the dorm cafeteria. We would decorate the salad bar with kale. It makes it difficult to eat in a salad. Kale does not belong in a Caesar salad. Keep it on the salad bar.

The thing I like about Caesar salads is that they are simple. There are five ingredients. If a restaurant adds something to the list, it is no longer simple, and no longer a Caesar salad in my mind. There was broccoli in my “Caesar” salad the other day. I like broccoli, but not in a Caesar salad. One establishment added tomatoes to my Caesar salad.

Kelly always orders here salad dressing Sally-style1. I, on the other hand, take what they give me. One day, I got a Caesar salad with oil and vinegar instead of Caesar dressing. Another day, I ordered a Chicken Caesar salad, and was given a plate full of Caesar salad dressing with some Romaine lettuce to go along with it.

It is almost impossible to find a place that offers a Caesar salad with anchovies. So many people have refused anchovies in their Caesar salads that restaurants have stopped offering them. They have ruined Caesar salads for the rest of us. I’ve been to a few places that offer Caesar salads with anchovy Caesar dressing. The dressing probably contains something like “anchovy paste.”

Caesar salads are light, simple, relative inexpensive dishes. Can’t we just keep them that way? There is no need for embellishment.

  1. I just made up that phrase. If you get the reference, feel free to use it.

Painting the IT Bridge

Working in IT is exhausting. It is an endless series of projects, each one more art than science in its execution, and each one reshuffling the deck and attempting to improve upon the last one. The exhaustion derives from the constant firefighting, moving from one flare-up to the next, while trying desperately to gain a few yards on this project or that one. Unlike football, there are no first downs in the IT world. Instead, there is a single desperate struggle to get the ball into the end zone before you’re clobbered. And once there, you have to do it all over again.

When I step back and look across the years I’ve worked in IT, I am reminded of painting a bridge. By the time you finish, it’s time to start over from the beginning again. What IT lacks is stability. There is always a new operating system version, always a new patch to Microsoft Office, always a new and better way to manage your email, always more and more layers of security to fight through in order to do your work in the first place. Remember the humorous opening to Get Smart? That is what IT security is like for most of us these days.

Security aside, very few software technology improvements I’ve seen over the years add value commensurate to the effort it takes to make them available. Microsoft Word was at its prime when it was still a DOS application. There is little that people use word processors for today that could not be done by Word 5.5 for DOS, or WordPerfect, or even WordStar for that matter.

Email programs have grown increasingly complex, but few contain groundbreaking features that actually make it easier to manage your email. Each new version is supposed to be an improvement, but what it is improving? I have to go to third-party plug-ins like Boomerang, or Mail Butler to find features that really make it easier to manage my email.

Operating systems should be invisible, and yet in most cases, they turn out to be the most visible part of a computer system. I have this theory that on devices that are easiest to use, we tend not to realize that an operating system is there behind the scenes. On those that are most difficult to use, the operating system is standing in our way. Think of the early iPods, which were intuitive, simple, and performed their tasks well. Then think of, well, Windows 10, or macOS  Sierra, operating systems which can’t seem to get out of your way.

I long for stability in software. Instead of churning out version after feature-filled version, I’d prefer to see bug-free releases that last a long time. As a end-user, it would be nice to have a working piece of software that I can get used to and not worry that a feature, function, or keyboard command will change with the next release.

Instead of making changes for the sake of a pre-determined release schedule, make software that does exactly what it is supposed to do, and let it alone. A word processor is a good example of this. At its heart, it is a simple tool that allows us to write. Imagine if all our software could be that simple and easy-to-use.

Parental Empathy

On Monday, the baby started daycare. She is going to the same in-home daycare that our oldest daughter went to. We loved it, and so did our daughter, and we were lucky enough to find a spot there, five years later. On Monday, Kelly also started back at work after four and a half months off for maternity leave1. It meant that Monday was the beginning of a new schedule and routine for all of us. And it meant a return to that feeling of parental empathy.

It also meant leaving the baby at daycare. She’d never been away from us, and here we were going to leave her with, what must to her seem like complete strangers. Despite having gone through this before with my son and daughter, I had moments over the weekend when I wondered if the baby thought we’d be abandoning her with strangers, never to return.

I have this tendency to empathize with the baby in this regard. Perhaps everyone does? I always thought the empathy came from the writer’s part of my brain—the part I’ve trained over decades to see the dramatic in everything. What would the baby think? She has no frame of reference for what happened to her on Monday. It bothered me a little, but not too much. Kelly and I told ourselves that she wouldn’t remember it, anyway. Would she?

Of course not! I tried thinking back as far as my memory would take me, and I can’t recall anything from my first two years. There are some spotty memories after I turned two years old, but they have certainly been enhanced by photos I’ve seen over the years. Still, there must have been a time when my parents left me with someone with whom I was unfamiliar. I might have been very unhappy about it. I might have screamed and cried and carried on, and wondered if I’d ever see my parents again. But I have no memory of it.

When the Little Man required some minor surgery and had to be put under general anesthesia, the doctor told us that they medicine they used to put him under would wipe his memory of the whole event. That seemed to be the case. And I imagine the same will be true with the baby.

Kelly called me when she arrived at work and I asked her how everything went. It went fine. Of course it did. And I’m sure the baby was happy to see us when we picked her up. It helped to be busy at work. The day seems to pass more quickly when you are busy, and your mind is occupied by other things.

My brain tries to make everything into a story, and I imagined how this one would go: Mother and father nervous when dropping their baby off at daycare, not wanting the baby to feel abandoned. Fast-forward two years, to her last day of daycare—and the inconsolable child, tears streaming down her face because she doesn’t want to go to the preschool. She wants to stay right where she is.

  1. No, it wasn’t paid maternity leave. She had to use up all of her accumulated leave, which got us through three of the four months.

Tracking What I Read

I started tracking the books I read in 1996. I was 24 years old, and given that I am not quite 45 at the time of this writing, it means I’ve been tracking what I read for nearly half my life.

Over the years, the form my list has taken has changed, but it has always been available online. There were versions that were in a database, with different front ends. But it became too much to manage, and a few years back I moved it to a simple text file, which I keep in GitHub, where anyone can view it.

As of this writing, there are 661 books on my list. I no longer track the length of the books. I tend to read more longer books than shorter ones. 661 books in 21+ years seems like a lot to me. But then I see other people’s lists and my list pales in comparison.

I enjoy browsing other people’s lists of books that they have read, especially when they are home-grown lists, not lists contained in a service like Goodreads. Despite my love for reading, sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing never caught on with me. The trouble is, there are so few people out there publishing home-grown list of what they’ve read.

The one I’ve followed the longest is What I Have Read Since 1974, maintained by Eric Leuliette. His list currently contains 2,808 books that he has read since 1974.

Another list that has always impressed me is the list of books that Art Garfunkel has read since 1968. His list, through 2016, contains 1,246 books, nearly double what I have on my list.

Just as I was inspired to keep a list of books I’ve read by seeing other people’s lists, a few people have been inspired by mine. I recently came across the list of books that Heather Wardell has read, for example.

I have a few simple rules for keeping track of what I read. These rules have evolved over the 20+ years I’ve kept my list in one form or another. They work well for me, and I present them here in case anyone finds them useful:

  1. I keep the list in plain text. Plain text isn’t going away, doesn’t require special software, and is easy to maintain. As I mention, I host my plain text file on GitHub so that I can share it with anyone.
  2. I include one book per line. This makes it easy to get a count of how many books you’ve read. In GitHub, the file shows line numbers, which makes it even easier.
  3. I only include books I’ve finished. Books I am currently reading don’t appear on the list until I’ve finished them. Books I don’t finish, no matter how far along I got, don’t get onto the list.
  4. I keep track of the title, the author, and the date I finished reading the book. I don’t worry about fiction or nonfiction, or the classification of the book. I can look that stuff up if I want.
  5. I do like to know the medium I read the book in. An e-book gets a + after the title; an audiobook gets an @ after the title. A paper book gets no special adornment.
  6. I don’t rate the books. I don’t find rating useful. That said, a book which struck me, and which I would definitely recommend to others gets an * after the title.
  7. I sometimes re-read books. Those titles will appear on the list more than once, but subsequent readings are marked with an ^.

I like keeping my list, and I like to watch it grow. In many ways the list acts as a kind of autobiography for me. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a title on the list, and remember very well where I was when I read that book.

Do you have a home-spun reading list (i.e. one that is not maintained in Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc.)? I’d love to see it! Drop the link in the comments.