Category Archives: essays

Two Score and Four

I turned 44 today—two score and four. It marks only the second time in my life that my birthday falls on Easter Sunday, which is a fabulous illustration of the vagaries of the lunar calendar. (The first time my birthday fell on Easter Sunday was in 2005.) The kids woke me up this morning with happy birthday and happy Easter greetings.

Forty-four is not a milestone like 40 or 50, but it holds a special significance for me nonetheless. Three months after graduating from college, I started a job at a company that I still work at today. I was 22 years old on my first day at work at the company. A little later this year, at 44, I will be have been at that same company for 22 years—half of my life. There is something both amazing, and frightening at the thought that there may be a 22 year-old who started with the company, who was yet born when I started there, back in 1994.

My plans for my 44th birthday are modest. This morning, I am reading the Sunday papers. A little later this morning, we are heading to a friends’ house for Easter brunch. There is an ice cream cake (my favorite!) in the freeze for tonight. Mostly, I am looking forward to spending the day with the family, and maybe making some progress on my reading of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, which I expect to finish sometime this week.

Mysteriously Anonymous Dentist and Doctor Offices

I had to call my dentist office recently to reschedule an appointment, and the call reminded me of a strange phenomenon I encounter any time I call a dentist or doctor office. The phone rings once, twice, and then a spritely receptionist says, “Dentist office.” Sometimes, they said, “Dentist office, how can I help you?”

This happens when I call the doctor’s office as well. Whether it is my doctor, or the kids’ doctor, a phone call to the office always results in the receptionist answering, “Doctor’s office.”

Understand, I am not being deliberately coy here. I am not trying to hide the name of the dentist or doctor’s office by anonymizing it in the generalized form “Dentist office” or “Doctor’s office.” I am telling you, word-for-word, what the receptionists say when answering the phone.

The point is that they don’t identify which dentist or doctor’s office you happen to be calling. As it turned out, when I called to reschedule my appointment, I gave the receptionist my name, and she was puzzled, “I’m sorry Mr. Rubin, but we don’t have an appointment on record for you. The last appointment we have on record  is from back in 2011.”

I had called the wrong dentist’s office, something I would have known immediately if, instead of identifying themselves, vaguely, as “Dentist’s office,” they had said, “ACME Dentist’s” (Now I am being coy.) I would have know instantly that I had called ACME Dentists by mistake.

Doctor’s offices do this to. This a thing, apparently. It is as if a built in assumption exists that if you are calling the number, you know name of the office which you are calling, and there is no need to repeat it for clarity. Except, this isn’t how most businesses operate over the phone. Most businesses are eager to remind you who you have reached. It is a convenient way of confirming that you have reached the right place.

I called Virginia EZ-Pass this morning so that they wouldn’t deactivate the transponder in our second car because it hasn’t been used in the last year. I was greeted with a “Welcome to the Virginia EZ-Pass Customer Service line.” Yup, I’d come to the right place.

Why is it that dentist and doctor offices never identify themselves over the phone? Is there some good reason for this that I can’t fathom out of pure common sense?

Perhaps the dentist and doctor offices are onto something with their attempts at anonymity. Whenever they call me to confirm an appointment, the number displays on my phone as “Dentist” because that’s how I have it in my contacts. Perhaps, from now, when they call, instead of answering, “This is Jamie,” I’ll respond will equal anonymity.

“Hello, this is a patient,” I’ll say, once again restoring balance to a topsy-turvy world.

The Perfect Time Machine

Books are the perfect time machine. They can take you into the past, allow you to travel to pivotal times and places in history. And yet, they have the perfect protection against paradox: books provide no ability whatsoever to change the past. I thought about this recently while reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.

Biographies seem particularly susceptible to time travel. You hope back to some past era, and for a period of days, jump through the life of some famous person. You learn their family roots, and you are there long before the subject is famous. You are there when they are born, a pink and wrinkled baby, wailing for warmth and milk. That baby, often in surroundings, will change the world in some important way.

Long biographies take a particular toll. You come to know the subject better than they could possibly know you. You are, in fact, invisible to the subject, the way a good time traveler should be, never giving any hint that you are there, observing. Regardless of the subject, a certain anxiety steadily builds up with the foreknowledge you have that the subject lacks. I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s massive Lincoln: The Plains Years and the War Years, and when Lincoln was born, I thought: this little baby will go see a play one day, and that will be the end.

The intimate knowledge that time travel brings can often make you feel as if you are friends with the subject. This has happened to me on several of my jaunts back to colonial America. Twice I’ve gone back to witness John Adams’ extraordinary life. He lived a long life, but on the day he died, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I found myself saddened almost to tears. Thomas Jefferson died on the same day.

At times I want to shout at the book: “Don’t go to the play!” I plead with Lincoln. “Don’t head down to Brazil!” I tell Theodore Roosevelt, knowing that the injuries and illness he’ll sustain on that journey, to say nothing of the bullet he took giving a stump speech, will lead to an early grave.

But books have built-in protections from the paradox of time travel, protections that cannot be beat. No matter how much I yell and plead, Lincoln cannot hear me, will never hear me, and he will head off to see “Our American Cousin.” Roosevelt will plow unheeded through the Brazilian jungles.

Time traveling through history and biography gives the pleasure of meeting amazing people. Yet at the same time, as we grow to know these people, we also know we have to say goodbye to them. And unlike the subjects, we know the where and when of that goodbye. The foreknowledge lends a weighty anxiety that is the baggage of any foray into the past that we take. It is as inescapable as the knowledge of our subject’s fate. Still, I am an addict. I can’t help but travel back. There are just so many people to meet. So many events to witness.

H.G. Wells’ time machine was a complicated device, so I find it both comforting, and a bit ironic, that the real thing is so much simpler: nothing more than bound paper and text. With this perfect time machine, I can, it seems, go anywhere.

Chasing Comets: Retiring from Science Fiction

I decided that I wanted to be a science fiction writer sometime late in 1992, and I wrote and submitted my first stories in early 1993. In the 23 years since, I’ve lost count of the stories I’ve written, the number of submissions I’ve made, the number of rejections I’ve received. In that 23 year period, I sold 11 stories, and twice as many pieces of nonfiction.

Over the last year or so, my interest in science fiction has waned. While the most recent stories I’ve sold have had elements of science fiction, they are not essential to the story. I haven’t read the science fiction magazines in a long time; I rarely pick up a new science fiction book these days. This has nothing to do with the genre, and everything to do with how my interests have evolved over time.

At the same time, I’ve been having a blast with my blog writing—when I can find the time to do it. The blog writing does not pay in the same way that science fiction writing does, but money was never my primary driver for writing. I write because I enjoy it.

Then, too, my science fiction stories, while good enough to be published in the pro magazines, never made waves. And while I firmly believe that with enough practice, I could continue to improve my craft to a point where I am better equipped to write good stories, I can no longer afford the time that would be required to make these improvements.

I am not giving up writing, but I am acknowledging that there is some writing that I am no longer interested in doing. I’ve done my best, and made it farther than I thought possible back when I started. But, like a pitcher who no longer has command or speed, it’s time for me to call it a day. There are other things I want to do.

I want to spend more time with my kids. “Daddy, why are you always working?” the Little Miss said to me this weekend, when I was typing away at the computer. I had no good answer for her. I feel guilty each time my kids ask me to play, and I tell them it will have to wait.

I plan to continue writing about the things that interest me here on the blog, although I suspect you won’t see me writing much about writing; or science fiction. Those are subjects that I have covered more than enough. I also plan to continue writing nonfiction pieces as the opportunities to do so arise.

None of this is to say that I am giving up science fiction forever. I find that my interests are cyclical. Some of those cycles are short, like the period of the moon’s rotation around the earth. Others are much longer, like a comet that passes by once in a century. I can’t predict when, or if, this particular comet will return, but if it does, I’ll look to hop on for a ride.

I wasn’t sure I should even write a post about this, or if I should just fade out the scene without much fuss. I decided to write the post because I have made a lot of friends in the science fiction world; friends that I am lucky to have; friends that I hope to keep, despite my retirement from the genre.

Ten Checkout Lanes?

My local Safeway store has 10 checkout lanes. Nine of these are regular checkout lanes, and one of them is for self-checkout. The self-checkout has 6 stations where customers can tally their purchases and bag their own groceries.

When I visited the store Saturday afternoon to do some shopping for the week, just two of the 9 checkout lanes were open. While waiting in line at one of the two open lanes, it occurred to me that I had never seen more than three, or perhaps four lanes open in all of the times (hundreds!) that I have visited the store.

With time to kill while I waited, I wondered why grocery stores are built with 10 checkout lanes any more these days. When my local Safeway was remodeled five or six years ago, it came with ten bright and shiny checkout lanes to replace the ten less shiny lanes that were bulldozed when the old store was torn down. In all of that time, even of the busiest days, like Thanksgiving, I’d never seen more than half of the nine lanes open.

If I were a reporter, I might have located the store manager and asked if they knew of a time when all nine regular checkout lanes were in operation. I’d have been surprised if they could give me even one instance. It is understandable. After all, nine open lanes means paying nine people to attend to the checkout lands. It means needing to pay for additional baggers, and if there is never a need for more than four or—rarely—five lanes, then why pay for nine people?

But that begs the question: why have nine regular checkout lanes at all? Why not have five lanes, and use the space currently occupied by the surplus lanes for additional stock? Passing through the store, even at a busy time, those idle checkout lanes stand out.

Often, the longest line at the grocery store is for the self-checkout lane. It is the lane I use most frequently. But it seems to me there should be some kind of additional discount for using the self-checkout lane. You swipe your own merchandise and bag your own groceries. And what benefit does the lane provide? It might make checkout faster if more of the regular lanes were open, but with only a few open at any given time, people gravitate to the self check-out lanes.

Self-checkout is often like airport security. If you get behind a frequent-flier, you can move through security quickly (presuming that you yourself are also a frequently flier). There are people who can move through self-checkout quickly, and those who seem bewildered by the entire system. They look as though they have no idea how they found their way into this line in the first place.

I can tell you how they got there: they followed the rows of idle checkout aisles, until they found some activity at the far end—which turned out to be the self-checkout.

Future Reading in 2016 (and Beyond?)

The post I wrote on Saturday on what I’ve read so far this year got me thinking about the kind of reading I have been doing lately. While predicting what I will read next week or next month is always a challenge—mostly because my future reading is often driven by my current reading—I scribbled out a list of books that I would like to be able to read in the near future. Many of these are books I’ve been wanting to read for years, but haven’t around to. I list them below, exactly how I listed them out last night, in the order they came to me.

  • The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands
  • Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years by Carl Sandburg
  • Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marinates
  • The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow
  • Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (not scheduled for release until the fall of 2016)
  • The Story of World War II by Donald L. Miller
  • Reamde by Neal Stephenson
  • John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan
  • The Second World War (4 volumes) by Sir Winston Churchill
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4 volumes) by Robert A. Caro
  • The Abominable by Dan Simmons
  • Jefferson and His Time (6 volumes) by Dumas Malone
  • End of Watch by Stephen King
  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
  • The Civil War: A Narrative (3 volumes) by Shelby Foote
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
  • Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (a re-read)

Mostly, I just go where my current reading takes me, but the recent reading I’ve done has me primed for the kinds of books I’ve listed above.

Reading in 2016, So Far

I have had this tendency to read a lot of fiction at the beginning of the year. That trend seems to have ended this year. I have complete 7 books in the first 9 weeks of the year and all of them have been nonfiction.

  1. I Remember Me by Carl Reiner
  2. I Just Remembered by Carl Reiner
  3. This Time Together by Carol Burnett
  4. Even This I Get to Experience by Norman Lear
  5. My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall
  6. What’s So Funny? by Tim Conway
  7. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

As of this writing, I am well into my 8th nonfiction book of the year, No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And honestly, there is no end in sight. Waiting in the wings, I’ve got:

  • The Tides of the Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness by David Gelernter
  • The Story of World War II by Donald L. Miller
  • The Second World War by Sir Winston Churchill
  • The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick
  • The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow

There are recent works of fiction I am looking forward to, including:

  • Arkwright by Allen Steele
  • Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer
  • End of Watch by Stephen King

But the fiction keeps getting shunted aside for the nonfiction, and I can’t say I see that changing any time soon. Gone are the days when my years would begin with book after book of fiction (and especially, science fiction). Perhaps most surprising—to me, at least—is that I really don’t mind the change.

Tinkering

With the baseball season nearly upon us, I have taken to tinkering with my baseball simulation ideas once again. This time, my vision is a little more clear, at least with respect to what I want to do with the resulting data.

For those who have no idea what I am talking about, for years, I have been fascinated with the idea of writing a baseball simulation. Many of these simulations already exist, but I find that building it myself helps me learn. Also, my goals are somewhat different from the goals of the existing simulations:

  1. My simulations are not interactive. That is, you don’t play the manager. There is a bootstrapped starting point, and the simulations run based on that starting point.
  2. The output of my simulations is data.
  3. Part of what I am doing is writing tools to make use of the data.
  4. Ideally, I’d run 100 years of well-simulated baseball, and have a century of data to play with.

That had been the point of my tinkering now and then over the years. With a century of data, all fictional, it would be interest, I thought, to see who held the all-time home run record, who had the most stolen bases, how many perfect games were played, etc.

More recently, I’ve had another idea that goes beyond this. I had so much fun writing my last published story, “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” that it occurred to me that with the data from 100 years of simulated baseball, I could begin to write a series of fiction (alternate universe?) baseball stories about the various seasons, games, standout players, etc. I wouldn’t have to make up the game situations, since my simulation data would provide all of that.

I have also turned to a more tool-based model, and have thus started calling my simulation a “baseball OS” since it is entirely based on command-line tools. I’ve created a GitHub repo for this which I am making public for anyone who wants to peek at what I am working on. Right now, there’s nothing more than documentation, because I haven’t yet rewritten the stuff from last year to fit this tool-based model. I am working more on the framework, the goals I want to achieve, and the milestone features with each release.

This may seem silly, esoteric, or a waste of time, but I can’t begin to express the delight I have in working on this effort in little chunks of time here and there. It relaxes me, teaches me new things, and keep my coding chops as honed as I can manage. I imagine I derive the same pleasure from this effort as someone who works with wood making furniture, or someone who relaxes by painting landscapes.

The time I’ve been spending on this might also explain why I haven’t been writing as much here, although that isn’t the only reason. The day job has been busy as well.

Need a Little Patience…

Physicist Alan Lightman had an interesting editorial in Saturday’s Washington Post. In “What the detection of gravitational waves teaches us about patience,” Lightman noted how:

I was struck by the fact that the leaders of the scientific project are well into their senior years… they have been working on this project, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), for 40 years.

Lightman goes on to note that,

The world at large, and the United States in particular, has developed an unfortunate need for instant gratification. We not only live in the age of information. We live in the Age of the Now.

This resonated with me for several reasons, not the least of which is my current re-reading of Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The evolution of discovery in atomic physics is often compressed in text books, but Rhodes does a fantastic job of illustrating the decades worth of study and experimentation—to say nothing of the brilliant minds—that helped us see the structure of the atom. An entirely new field—quantum mechanics—emerged as a result. None of this happened overnight. Instead, scientists worked patiently for decades to gain these insights and understandings.

I think there is some truth to Lightman’s assertion that our need for instant gratification affects our patience when it comes to scientific discovery. When told of the cost of theoretical research, the response is often: “What are the practical benefits?” This question is a reflection of that need for instant gratification. Practical applications are not always known ahead of time, but as scientists such as Neils Bohr used to argue, such research allows us to better understand the rules of the cosmic chess game.

I find it convenient to stream movies and TV shows, and to receive same-day orders through Amazon Prime. But I also think we need to do a better job of teaching young students the process of scientific discovery. The scientific method does not serve instantaneous gratification. It is a cumulative process, often slow, and painstaking because it builds upon itself, and it is self-correcting. Hypotheses must be tested experimentally; results must be published and peer-reviewed. All of this takes time.

Instant gratification makes some aspects of life easier. Ordering movie tickets online and having them available on my phone when I walk into a theater is a nice convenience. But there are some things which require a little patience, and scientific discovery is among the most important of these.

Re-reading Books

From time-to-time, I re-read books. Since 1996, 17 out of every 100 books that I read are books that I have already read. Over the course of 20 years, that adds up to over 100 books that I’ve re-read. I sometimes feel guilty about this. Why spend the time reading a book I’ve already read, when I could be reading something new? After all: so many books, so little time.

I recently started re-reading Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and in doing so, I realized that there are, for me at least, three good reasons for re-reading books.

1. I enjoyed the book

There are some books that I enjoyed so much, I look forward to re-reading them. For years, each April, I’d re-read Isaac Asimov’s 3-volume autobiography. Over the years, I’ve read those three books 13 or 14 times each.

I loved Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 (I haven’t watched the mini-series), and I especially loved Craig Wasson’s narration of the audiobook. I have read/listened to that book 5 times.

I tend to re-read a book for the sheer pleasure of it at times when I feel I need a bit of a mental boost, and the book that I choose to re-read always serves its purpose.

2. I don’t remember much about the book

I mentioned that I am currently re-reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I first read this book in December 2003. If you asked me what I thought of the book, I’d tell you that it was one of the best books I’ve ever read on project management. But the intervening thirteen years between my first reading, and my present reading reminded me of just how well the book integrates scientific development in historical context. I had forgotten all about this aspect of the book, and this time around I am finding it fascinating.

This is true of other books that I’ve read, and return to years later. I sometimes feel like I read books in a coma. I am totally in the moment when I read them, and can recall the gist of the book months or years later, but much of the details, even the interesting details, seem to abandon me. Returning to a book that I read, and don’t remember well offers new insights and surprises for things I’d forgotten, or glossed over the first time.

3. Additional context brings out new understanding

My re-reading of The Making of the Atomic Bomb cemented in my mind a third reason for re-reading books from time-to-time: additional context brings out new understanding. In the 13 years since I first read the book, I have read an additional 369 books. Those 369 books included many books on history and science. A few years ago, for instance, I read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, which gave me the best education I’d received to-date on the Great War.

While reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb this time around, the context that I have in understanding the formative times in Europe, during which some of the scientists who played a key role in the development of the bomb lived. Having that context provides me with a wider scope of understanding than my first reading.


I no longer fret over re-reading books. I am satisfied with my reasons for re-reading, whether it is for pleasure, to refresh my memory, or to add more context to something I’d read in the past. Sure, using time to re-read a book means that I can’t use that time to read a book that is new to me. But I read an average of 40 to 50 books each year. That means that at least 33 to 40 of them are “new” to me. I can live with that.

Laughing Myself to Sleep

Everyone seems busy these days. The popularity and proliferation of productivity advice reflects this busyness. I am always on the look out for tips and hacks for packing more into a day. All of this busyness adds to my general stress level, and I am, therefore, also on the lookout for ways to ease my stress.

One way has been my daily walks. I started my twice (and sometimes thrice) daily walks back in 2012 as a way of breaking up my day, and avoiding what I call “coding comas.” I listen to audiobooks as I walk, which helps get my mind off work, and I come back fresh and ready to tackle what’s next. On the days I get in a decent amount of walking, I generally feel better, and there’s a good reason for that. Walking is good for you.

Since 2012, however, my busyness has steadily increased, to the point where, more often than not, my walks are crowded out in favor of meetings and other work-related activities. When I don’t get my walk I don’t feel quite as good at the end of the day.

To counteract this added stress, I’ve changed my evening routine slightly. I used to read, or listen to an audiobook before going to bed. Instead, for a while now, I have been watching funny shows. I don’t watch them on live TV, but instead watch shows that I’ve bought through the iTunes store. I’ve watched episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show, and All in the Family. Recently, I’ve been rematching episodes of Modern Family. The latter gets the mosts laughs from me. And I do laugh out loud at these show.

Often, I have to suppress my laughter because Kelly will already be asleep. But suppressing the laughter only makes me want to laugh harder. The laughter feels good. I watch a show or two before setting aside my iPad, turning over, and going to sleep.

I’ve discovered a few things:

  1. The laughter takes my mind off the stresses of the day, and it keeps them off.
  2. I go to sleep smiling.
  3. I fall asleep much faster after I’ve had a few laughs.

It’s not news that laughter helps to reduce stress. But I think it has been much more noticeably effective for me as my days get busier and I’ve had less time for other things that help keep my stress level down.

What’s more, I wake up in the morning feeling well-rested. That is good, because I generally have a very busy day ahead of me.

Time Management for Kids

The world is a busy place. Busy people need to find ways to better manage their time. An entire software industry has evolved to help with this. From to-do list apps, to calendaring, to email management, and reminders, the software is there to make it easier for us to do more in less time. There are countless books on time management as well, more than any reasonably person could read in a lifetime.

The proliferation of books and software to help us better manage our time begs the question: Why are we so bad at managing our time in the first place?

I’ve given this question some thought recently, and have come to the surprising realization that my schooling never included time management skills. One could argue that learning to deal with a full load of classes, nightly homework, extracurricular activities, and after-school jobs was a life-lesson in time management. But even in the midst of all of that, I felt the stress of knowing I had more to do than the time to do it in. What might have helped was some specific training in actual time management.

Thinking back to my school days, I can not recall any such training. We were left to our own devices to figure things out ourselves. Yet it seems like high school is a particularly good place to provide some real time management training for students. Such training would provide immediate, practical use for students who feel there just isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done.

Learning how to estimate levels of effort, even in schoolwork would have been a useful skill to learn at an early age. Learning how to get things out of your head by making to-do lists, learning how to prioritize tasks, learning how to review you day or week, all of these things would have been useful to me in high school, and all of them I had to figure out on my own. By the time I had them working for me, I was decades out of high school.

And yet, go browse books on time management, and you’ll find an unlimited supply filling an obvious demand. I clearly wasn’t the only one who didn’t learn how to best manage my time while in school. If you start young, it seems to me that a skill like this can become second nature. Moreover, you can emphasize from an early age the importance of not filling every minute of your day.

With so many people seeking out solutions to better manage their time, it seems like teaching time management in school is a no-brainer. By doing so, you end up with less stressed, more well-rounded students. And perhaps, those happier students could set an example for their stressed out, busy parents.