All posts by Jamie Todd Rubin

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer, blogger, and Evernote Ambassador for paperless lifestyle. His stories have appeared in Analog, Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and 40K Books. He vacations frequently in the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Jamie lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two children.

All of this has happened before…

While reading about the life of the people of ancient Rome in Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ this morning, I came across this brief, but rather remarkable passage concerning music in Roman life:

Old men mourned that recent composers were abandoning the restraint and dignity of the classic style, and were disordering the soul and nerves of youth with extravagant airs and noisy instruments.

In other words, grown-ups complaints of “that hideous rock-n-roll” (or disco, or rap, or fill-in-your-own-genre) are nothing new, and never have been. Indeed, I’d guess that some wise person living in ancient Rome shook her head ruefully at the thought that the reaction of the elders to the music of the younger generation was nothing new; that it happened in ancient Greece before, and Egypt before that, and so on, and so on, back to the dawn of music’s history.

Or, put another way, grown-ups have been telling kids to get off their lawns for as far back as recorded history can take us.

My Favorite Guest Post of 2014

I was fortunate to be asked to write quite a few guest posts in 2014. But my personal favorite was one that I wanted to write. Fortunately for me, John DeNardo and the other good folks at SF Signal were willing to have me, and they published my post, “Daddy, What’s Dungeons & Dragons” on their site in late August.

This post came about because I had seen that a new version of the Player’s Handbook had been issued. I hadn’t played D&D in 25 years, but I ordered a new version of the book, and when it arrived, my son, 5 at the time, saw me open it, asked what it was, and when I told him, said, “Daddy, what’s Dungeons & Dragons?”

I am grateful to SF Signal for being willing to publish the post. If you haven’t seen it yet, and are interested in checking it out, head over there. You might also peruse all of the other great F&SF-related content that SF Signal and its contributors provide on a daily basis.

Going Paperless: How I Use Evernote to Remind Me of Everything

Several months ago, I ended the regularly scheduled series of Going Paperless posts, with the emphasis on “regularly.” I felt that I was beginning to stretch the ideas I was writing about. I decided that I would only write new Going Paperless posts when I had a good idea. And so today I’m back with a post on how I use Evernote to remind me of everything.

I make use of a very simple to-do list manager that consists entirely of plain text files. It works well for me, but it has one significant drawback: there is no easy way to do reminders in my system. Fortunately, I don’t need that feature as part of my to-do list system because it is built into Evernote, and I use the reminder features there extensively.

Reminders in context

One of the great features of Evernote is that it allows reminders in context. I have written about this feature before, but it is worth re-emphasizing it here. Let’s say I get a document in the mail on which some future action needs to be taken–car registration, for example. Without Evernote, I might toss a copy of the document in a pile on my desk, with a Post-It note reminding me when it was due. I might also stick a note about it on my calendar. But the calendar note would be separate from the document itself and if I saw the note on the calendar, I’d still have to go hunt for the document somewhere.

With Evernote, I follow 3 simple steps:

  1. Scan the document
  2. Organize it appropriately (put it in a notebook, and tag it, if necessary)
  3. Set a reminder on the note to remind me that I need to take some action on it.

In the case of the car registration, I set the reminder to 10 days before the due date. When I look at my list of reminders in Evernote (on my home screen), I see it there waiting for me to take action.

Evernote Reminder

Clicking on the reminder take me to the document itself. Having the reminder linked to the actual document is a powerful feature. It does two important things:

  1. It saves me from having to remember to do the thing. Evernote will send me a reminder when it is due.
  2. It saves me from having to search for the document when I am reminded, because the reminder is attached to the document. This makes it much easier for me to act on the reminder as soon as it happens.

A substitute for Post-It notes

Over time, my Evernote reminder system has become a substitute for Post-It notes. I use it for all kinds of things. And all of those things have some sort of context attached to them so that it is easy to take an action. For example, have a reminder to test and change smoke detector batteries when Daylight Saving time begins. The note itself is pretty simple:

Smoke Detector Reminder

The “Instructions” link is simple an Evernote note-link to another note, containing the instruction manual for the smoke detector. Clicking on the link takes me to that note, so that I don’t have to go hunting for it.

Smoke Detector

I might have simplified things by attaching the reminder to the smoke detector instruction note directly, but in this case, I prefer to have a “history” of the times I changed the batteries, and so the individual notes give me that history: one note for each change/reminder. They get filed in my Timeline notebook so that they don’t clutter other things.

For those interesting in more information about using note links, I’ve written in detail about using Evernote note links elsewhere.

Continue reading Going Paperless: How I Use Evernote to Remind Me of Everything

A Few Brief Programming Notes

I am here at Disney World, having a blast with the family. I have been entirely immersed in vacation, and I guess that means I’m doing something right. A few notes for the next couple of weeks:

1. I mentioned that I would be posting a new Going Paperless post on Tuesday, but as you may have noticed, no post. This was poor planning on my part, thinking I’d get the post written while at Disney World. Silly me! But never fear, the new Going Paperless post will be coming out on Friday.

2. Although I am on vacation for the next 3 weeks, my email does not seem to care. While I am reading my email periodically throughout the day, you can expect slower than normal response times over the next few weeks. Basically, if it seems to me that the message does not require an immediate response for some business reason, I am likely not to response for several days, or even a week or more. Please be patient with me.

3. For those wondering, yes, I have been writing every day, despite the fact that there have been some long days. Today for instance: We left the hotel room for the Disney World parks at 7 am and didn’t get back until 8:30 pm. In between, I had a blast, and also managed to walk 22,109 steps (10 miles), and yet I still managed to write nearly 600 words when I got back to the hotel this evening, this despite being utterly wiped out. The streak continues at 514 consecutive days.

4. Tomorrow is our last day at Disney World. We then head down to the gulf coast, where I plan to relax quite a bit more.

And with that, I am off to bed. Good night everyone!

A Quick Check-In from Disney World

The first leg of our vacation is complete, and the second leg has just started. We left the house Saturday morning, and drove to Florence, South Carolina, which is our usual first night stopping point. We did the entire 403 mile drive making only one stop, in large part because the kids were entertained and well-behaved. According to my Automatic Link data, the first leg was 182 miles, and took us just over 3 hours.

First Leg

That was  impressive, but the second leg was even more impressive, at 218 miles and hitting 31 MPG (not bad for the Kia Sorento):

Second Leg

We spent Saturday night in South Carolina, and then drove down to St. Augustine, Florida on Sunday. We wandered around the old town Sunday evening. This morning, we made our way to Orlando and arrived at the Disney World resort around noon. We spent the afternoon wandering around Downtown Disney, had an excellent dinner at the Rainforest Cafe, and then returned to the resort, and walked around the grounds to get some air. The sun set just as we completed our walk.

Coronado Sunset

The drive was good for audiobooks. I listened to more than 10 hours of Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ on the way down. I also managed to write 600+ words on the first night of vacation, and another 1,000 words last night. And as soon as I get this post finished up, I’ll be tackling my writing for this evening.

So far, vacation has been great. A lot of driving, but most of that is over now for a couple of weeks. Everyone is having a good time, the weather is great, and I feel far more relaxed than I felt on Friday.

We are here through Thursday, and then we head down south to the gulf coast for the rest of our vacation, before we begin the long drive back home.

My 6 Best Reads of 2014

I thought about waiting until 2014 is actually over before posting about my best reads this year, but I figured if there is a late-comer in the next few weeks, nothing prevents me from revising my list. It would have to be a really fantastic late-comer, but anything is possible.

Note that I called this my best reads of 2014. I did this because many of the books I read this year were not published in 2014. I want it to be clear that these mark the books that I most enjoyed reading this year, even if they weren’t published this year. Call me quirky.

Indeed, calling these “reads” is a little disingenuous, too, as most of these were audio book, and I listened to them. I have come, reluctantly, to accept that reading and listening are two different activities, but for the sake of simplicity, they produce the same result within me, and so I use the phrases interchangeably, much to the dismay of many. Again, call me quirky.

To date, I have read 36 books so far this year. That is down from last year, but there were a couple of really long book this year and that makes up for some of it. 20 of those 36 books (56%) were nonfiction. 6 of the 36 books were re-reads of books I’d already read. Here then, are my best reads of 2014.

6. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

I’d never read anything by John Irving before, and wracking my brain, I can’t think of what it was that made me decide to tackle A Prayer for Owen Meany. But I thought it was fantastic, and this is one example where an audiobook almost certainly gives added dimension to the printed page, for Joe Barrett’s impression of Owen Meany’s unusual voice was pitch-perfect. Indeed, because of Joe Barrett’s excellent narration of this book, I sought out other books that Barrett has narrated.

5. The Martian by Andy Weir

This book was a hard science fiction-fan’s playground. What happens when an astronaut is accidentally left-behind on the Martian surface? How long can he survive? Turns out, a pretty long time. This novel was the exception to the rule that technical description in a science fiction novel can be boring and get the way. I listened to much of this book on the long drive home from our summer vacation in Maine, and that meant that Kelly–who is anything but a hard science fiction fan–listened to it a well. She got caught up in it for while. Eventually, she drifted to sleep, lulled by the highway, but when she awakened, the very first thing she asked me was, “Did he make off the planet?”

4. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Fleder

If the human lifespan ever stretched out to the point where multiple careers were possible in a single lifetime, I think I’d turn my attention to becoming a sportswriter, and specifically, a baseball writer. The long pieces in this collection appeared throughout a 50-year span of Sports Illustrated, giving a picture of the game, and its participants (to say nothing of the times in which they played) in a way that only baseball sportswriters can capture

Continue reading My 6 Best Reads of 2014

Coming Next Week: A Brand New Going Paperless Post!

Back in October, I announced that my regularly scheduled Going Paperless posts were coming to an end. The emphasis was on regularly scheduled and the reason was mainly because I felt like I was beginning to reach too much for ideas for the posts I decided that instead, I’d only write one when a good idea struck me.

I have a good idea for one now, and you can expect to read it next week, on Tuesday, December 16, if you are so inclined. (While you are reading the post, I will be wandering about Disney World with my family.)

Just wanted to give everyone a heads-up. You may now resume your regularly scheduled week.

Joys of a Text-Based Reading List

January will mark the 20th year I have maintained the list of books that I read each year. I started my list back in January 1, 1996, when notions of self-tracking in the digital age hadn’t yet risen to their current ubiquitous levels. Over those two decades, I have read 590 books (I’m in the middle of my 591st as I write this) and my list has been maintained in (so it seems) nearly as many formats.

In the early days, I kept my list in a Microsoft Access database. I did this because it seemed to me to the be most efficient way to store the data, and I was very big into efficiency back in those days. Eventually, this format was migrated into MySQL. But I found over time that the queries I would make against the data were not nearly as sophisticated as those I imagined I would make. Modeling the data and maintaining it took more time than it was worth.

Eventually, the list moved into a page in this WordPress blog. And for many years, that page was manually maintained. About a year ago, I took the final step at simplifying my list, making it into a simple, plain-text file stored on Dropbox, and writing a simple plug-in for WordPress to read and render the text file as a web page.

This is an example I think is pretty typical: design starts out overly complex because the practical use cases are difficult to imagine. Over time, the design is simplified to focus on just those use cases that are important and meaningful. While my reading list started out as a highly normalized database, today it is a simple text file, and I can do more with it in less time than I’ve ever been able to do before. Today, I can ask all sorts of questions about my reading list simply by knowing a few basic commands at the command line.

My reading list as a text file

Reading list text file

I use Sublime Text as my default text editor in both Windows and Mac, and Sublime Text has a few features that help simplify the maintenance of my list. The biggest win is that I don’t need to record the number for each book the way I used to. I simply add a new line to the file with the title and when I look at that title in Sublime Text, I can easily see what number that book is (in the order for which I’ve read it). For instance, I can see that Revival by Stephen King is the 589th book I have read since January 1, 1996.

What I track about my reading

I used to capture all kinds of information about what I read, but I found that I almost never used it. I used to categorize and classify the books, and break them into fiction and nonfiction, and the gender of the author. But I never used it. So I simplified things in the text file. Today, I capture just a few pieces of information:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Date completed

I have a few symbols I use after the title which indicate information useful to me:

  • * = a book I really liked, and would recommend.
  • @ = audiobook
  • + = e-book
  • ^ = a repeated reading (that is, I have read the book more than once).

This turns out to be enough information, and to satisfy most of the questions I have about my reading list and reading habits.

Querying my reading list

One “secret” of my productivity is that I am a big command-line junkie. I have been since I first started playing around with Linux in the mid-1990s. I realize that not everyone uses the command line, and not everyone is comfortable with it, but for many things, I am much faster at the command line than with an app and a mouse.

I always have at least one command window open, whether on a Mac, or Windows (where I use Cygwin). That saves me the step of having to open one when I want to query my reading list. I also have some aliases that speed things up. For instance, if I want to edit my reading list in Sublime Text, I simply type “reading” at the command line, which opens the file in Sublime Text.

But what about querying the list? Well that is pretty easy, too. Here are some examples:

Continue reading Joys of a Text-Based Reading List

Charting Twitter Follower Counts Over Time

There was a time, two or three years ago, when I paid close attention to Twitter statistics, and in particular, that ever important Number of Followers. It’s a number so in vogue that I’ve seen in mentioned in half a dozen TV shows. Somewhere along the way, I pretty much stopped paying attention. The last time that I can remember really watching the number was nearly a year ago, when I was about to head off on vacation. The only reason I kept an eye on it then was because I was about to it 2,222 followers.

Well, it’s a year later, and for some reason, the number caught my eye today, probably because it is creeping close to 3,000 followers. The thing is, it has been a climb, but a very slow one. When I looked at my follower count today, it stood at 2,975. That’s an increase of 732 followers over the course of an entire year! Wil Wheaton I am not.

Back in August, I was playing around with the APIs of many services, including Twitter. I decided to write a little script that would capture changes in my Twitter follower count over time. My script grabs my follower count once per hour–24 times a day–and stores the data in a comma separated file. With more than four full months of data, I thought I’d plot it out today. Here is what it looks like:

Twitter followers over time

The chart begins with me at about 2805 followers and ends with me at 2975 followers. That is a change of 170 followers over 4 months. Or about 1.4 new followers per day on average.

In August there is a big jump–due in large part to my articles at The Daily Beast and 99U. But then things pretty much smooth out and go sideways. I wanted to see if I could predict if I would hit 3,000 followers (I have 25 more to go) before the end of the year. But generating a trend for this chart doesn’t work well because the data is skewed in August.

Still, I can predict a range. The difference in follower counts over the last year is 732. That is about 2 new followers per day. Over the last 4 months, that number is 1.4 new followers per day.

Starting with the low number, and considering that as of today there are 27 days left in the year, then 1.4 * 27 = 37.8 new followers by the end of the year–which would put me over the 3,000 follower mark, with 3013 followers.

If we take the larger number, we get 2 * 27 = 54 new followers by the end of the year. This also puts me over the 3,000 follower mark, with 3,029 followers.

Of course, the trend is volatile. The number can go down, or it might go up significantly. In any case, now I have reasonable confidence that I will pass the 3,000 follower mark by the end of the year. And with that I can stop paying attention once again–until January 1, of course, when I will just have to check to see how my prediction panned out.

Thoughts On 500 Consecutive Days of Writing

Yesterday evening, I hit a new milestone: 500 consecutive days of writing. I’ve gotten used to writing every day. It has become a part of my life, but still, 500 days without missing a single day seemed pretty remarkable to me. But when I woke up this morning and checked my data, this is what I saw:

500 days of writing

During this 500 consecutive day writing streak, I:

  • Wrote 447,399 words.
  • Averaged 895 words per day.
  • Spent, on average, 36 minutes per day writing
  • Spent a grand total of about 300 hours of my time writing.
  • Wrote 5,384 words on my single best day
  • Wrote 20 words on my single worst day.

Practical ramifications of writing for 500 consecutive days

Technically, my 500 consecutive days of writing is a subset of my overall effort to try to write every day. I started this effort back in February 2013, and all told, I have written 643 out of the last 645 days. The last day on which I did no writing was July 21, 2013, when I was traveling home from the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop.

The obvious question to ask of a streak like this is: has it helped you improve your writing? I think that is most certainly has. Of course, it is hard to be objective in this regard. I tend to think I am one of my toughest critics when it comes to my own writing. But there are some more objective ways of looking at this.

1. More sales

In the 21 years that I wrote between 1992 (when I started) and just before I started writing every day in February 2013, I sold a grand total of 8 stories and articles. That comes out to about 1 sale every 3 years.

Since my consecutive writing streak began in July 2013, I have sold a grand total of 11 stories and articles. That comes out to 1 sale every 45 days.

Put another way:

  • Not writing every day = 1 sale every 1,100 days
  • Writing every day = 1 sale every 45 days

I cannot find any more concrete evidence that writing every day has helped me enormously. It certainly does not mean that there is not room for improvement. But the fact that I have made 11 sales to markets that pay at least professional rates (some quite a bit more) tells me that my work is good enough for the editors of those markets.

Writing more means producing more, and thus having more things to send out, but it also means I am practicing my craft every day and (hopefully) getting better at it with each passing day. This in turn ups the quality of each thing that I send out.

2. More confidence in my abilities

I have now been asked at least half a dozen times to produce something for an editor on spec, and each time, I have turned it around quickly, and what I produced was good enough for the editor to buy and publish.

Continue reading Thoughts On 500 Consecutive Days of Writing

5 Tips for FitBit Newcomers

With the holidays approaching quickly, people are beginning to think about New Year’s resolutions. Getting into better shape is always one of the more popular resolutions. And with the explosion of wearable tech devices–like a FitBit–on the market, I imagine there will be a lot of people eager to improve their fitness with the help of their new device. With that in mind, here are a few tips I’d offer for getting started with your FitBit (or similar) device in the new year. These tips come from my own experience. I’ve used a FitBit Flex almost constantly for the last 2-1/2 years, tracking more than 10 million steps.

1. Spend the first week or two establishing a baseline

A FitBit device doesn’t automatically improve your health or fitness simply by wearing it. What it does do is provide an effortless way of collecting data about your physical activity and sleep behaviors. For me, one of the most difficult challenges in trying to improve myself has always been measuring that improvement. And to measure improvement, you need to set a baseline.

When I first got my FitBit, I spent about 2 weeks, just going about my normal behavior, and trying to forget that I had the new device. This allows you to establish a baseline and from that, you can set realistic goals.

From your baseline, you can see how much walking you do in a day–and even when you do that walking. If you find that your baseline is 4,800 steps per day you might try upping it to something reasonable like, 6,500 or 7,000 steps per day.  The baseline will also tell you when you are not being active during the day, and might help you to plan times when you can be more active. Below is an example of a day’s activity for me.

A typical day's activity

 

Your baseline will also include an estimate of how many calories you burn throughout the day, and this can help in determining how many calories you should consume.

It is worth spending time that first week or two wearing your device and not worrying about it because the baseline will prove to be a valuable calibration tool in the long run.

2. Identify common milestones

Once I established my baseline and set some goals, I found that it was useful to have a few pieces of information handy to help me meet my goals each day. For instance, since everyone’s stride is different, I thought it would be useful to know how many step it took me to go one mile. I used my FitBit device to help figure this out, and it turned out that I typically take about 2,200 steps in a mile. How is this helpful?

Well, my current goal is 7.5 miles per day. If I happen to be at, say 13,000 steps, and know that I need about 2,000 more to make my goal, I know that all I have to do is walk one mile.

It also helps to know how far a mile is. For instance, I know that one walk around the city block on which my office building resides is just about 1 mile.

If you don’t think in terms of steps or distance, but instead, think of calories, you can identify similar milestones. For instance, you might learn that you burn 600 calories walking one mile a normal pace. I find these milestones useful in helping me make ad hoc adjustments to my activity throughout the day.

Continue reading 5 Tips for FitBit Newcomers

Thoughts on the Star Wars Episode VII Trailer

I was five years old when the original Star Wars was released in theaters. I don’t remember seeing any trailers for the movie. I just remember my parents taking me to the drive-in to see the movie. That’s right: the first time I saw Star Wars was at the drive-in.

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I remember seeing the trailer for the movie and feeling more excited about a movie than I had ever remembered feeling before. I watched the trailer over and over again, and I remember I was almost out of my head on the evening that I went to go an see the movie.

I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I watched the trailer over the weekend, expecting to be filled with the same excitement I had when I first saw the Episode 1 trailer. I was disappointed. The trailer didn’t move me at all.

This probably has much more to do with me than it does any problem with the trailer or the movie. I’ve just moved beyond Star Wars. There are far too many series out there today and far too few one-out movies–or books for that matter. I understand this, of course. The economics of it is clear. If a movie is successful, why risk something else, when you have a built in audience for a sequel. Still, I am tired of sequels and remakes, just as I am tired of television dramas that are serials rather than series. I’ve even grown tired of book series. I’m sure there are lots of people awaiting George R. R. Martin’s Winds of Winter, but I burned out after A Dance with Dragons.

Let’s face it: judging a movie by its trailer is like judging a book by its cover. But it is all I have to go on so far, and so far, I saw nothing new in the story, nothing to make me say, “Ah, now that looks interesting.” Everything I saw in the trailer is simply recycled from earlier movies: the settings, the characters, the problem (“the dark side, and the light”), the weapons (we saw a double light saber in Episode 1, so a triple light saber is the next logical step). And, of course, the music.

Having been at that critical impressionable age of 5 years old when Star Wars first came out, there was no way to avoid being a fan of the movie. Yet even at five, I never remember wondering what happened to all of the characters after the Death Star was destroyed. Nor did I wonder about them in the time before the story takes place. Still, a part of me hoped for something spectacular in the trailer, and I was a little saddened that I didn’t find it there. I hope that others do.