The Mathematics of Reading, Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the mathematics of reading. I considered the matter closed until I re-read my post and realized that there were a few questions left unanswered, and I wanted to address these.

In the previous post, I asked, why do we focus so much on how many books we read? I suppose that it is an easy number to count. Thinking about this, however, brought more questions.

1. What is the goal of so much reading?

The Quartz article quotes Warren Buffet. The secret to his success, Buffet said, was to read a lot. Knowledge accumulates like compound interest. The implication in this quote is that reading leads to success. Thus, the more one reads, the greater their chance of achieving success.

But that isn’t why I read. I read because I enjoy reading. I read because I want to learn new things. I read because I want to learn old things. And I read because I want to be entertained. I count books because I can, but it has been a very long time since I set a reading goal.

When I started keeping my list back in January 1996, I had a goal of reading a book a week. That’s 52 books a year. In the 21 years since, I think there has only been one year that I have exceeded that goal—2013. I used to count words because books vary in length, but words are a more consistent measure. But I stopped that, too, and just allowed the list to take care of itself.

2. How diverse should our reading be?

While I don’t know this for a fact, I often suspect that attempts to read 200 books a year are aided by reading shorter books in a prolific genre. Self-help books, business books, romances, mysteries, science fiction novels. There is nothing wrong with this, but if the goal of reading so much is to acquire knowledge to build success, then it seems to me a more diverse scope is required.

At least, it is for me.

That wasn’t always the case. A glance through my reading list’s early years will tell a story. Over time, my reading habits have changed, and settled. Whereas I used to read a lot more fiction, the vast majority of my reading today is nonfiction. I sample all sorts of subjects. Some I find more interesting than others, and often times, my curiosity about one subject leads to another.

3. Is it realistic to think we can absorb the contents of 200 books a year?

For you, perhaps, but for me, it is not likely. I have on occasion, re-read books, and have been amazed upon re-reading at discovering just how much I had forgotten from the first time around.

According to the Quartz post, you can get through a 50,000 word book in a little over 2 hours if you read at 400 words per minute. That isn’t a remarkable reading speed (although in all honesty, I have no idea how fast I read). But how does one measure comprehension? How do you know you’ve absorbed what you’ve read?

This is a challenge even reading 50 books in a year. For those books that struck me in some way, I will often write about them (sometimes here) and that helps me think about what I’ve read.

Too often, however, I’ve found myself finishing a book at 7:55 pm and starting the next book at 7:57 pm with barely a breath in between to consider what I’ve read. I tell myself I should wait to the next day to start the next book so that I have time to think about what I just finished reading. But I’m too eager to start on the next book, and I’m sure my comprehension suffers. I can only imagine how it would suffer if I tried to read 200 books a year.

The Mathematics of Reading

Recently, a friend linked to a post claiming you can easily read 200 books a year. I’ve seen variants of this post before. It goes something like this: the average American spends so many hours a year on social media, and so many hours watching television. The average American reads about so many words per minute, and the average nonfiction book is 50,000 words. The mathematics of reading says it would take roughly 400 hours a year to read 200 books. Give up some of your Facebook time, give up Netflix, and you’ve got plenty of time to read 200 books a year.

As a fairly prolific reader, I am skeptical of the practicality of these claims.

I have kept a list of all of the books I have finished reading in the last 21 years. As it stands today, my list contains 664 books. That’s an average of 31 books/year. Based on the math above, you’d need to read about 10 million words/year in order to finish 200 books. I consider myself a fairly prolific reader, and yet in 21 years of reading, in my best year (2001, if you are wondering), I barely exceeded 6 million words.

If you take the math and the claims at face value, then yes, I should be able to read 200 books a year. But there are problems.

First, perhaps the nonfiction books read by the author of the post cited above averaged 50,000 words, but that is not my experience. The nonfiction books I read often exceed 100,000 words, and many are double or triple that in length.

Second, despite how easy it sounds, I don’t see it being practical to cut out social media and television for those who find them to be useful, entertaining mediums.

Third, even we did cut out these distractions, there are practical limits. I know because I don’t watch much TV and I try to limit my social media presence, and I try to cram in as much reading as I can in my day, and I still only manage to read 50 or so books in my best years.

If I break down a typical work day, it looks something like this:

  • 5:30 am Wake up
  • 6:00 am Commute to office (listening to an audiobook)
  • 6:15 am Start working
  • 10:00 am Walk for 30 minutes (listening to an audiobook)
  • 10:30 am Back to work
  • 12:00 pm Walk during lunch (30-60 min, listening to an audiobook)
  • 3:30 pm Commute home (listening to an audiobook)
  • 3:45 pm More work
  • 6:00 pm Dinner with the family
  • 6:30 pm Family time (homework, reading, hanging out, etc.)
  • 8:00 pm Get kids into bed.
  • 8:15 pm Write
  • 8:45 pm Get into bed, maybe watch TV for a little while
  • 9:30 pm Lights out, read on Kindle, or listen to audiobook
  • 10:00 pm Asleep

If I was being optimistic, I might get 2-1/2 hours of reading in each and every day. Over the course of a year, that amounts to 900 hours of reading. And yet I still only manage to max out at 50 books (and more likely, I’m apt to read 30 or so.) Why am I not reading 200 books a year?

There are a couple of reasons:

  1. Books vary in length. I tend to read longer books.
  2. Given how busy I am, I am more or less forced to listen to audiobooks if I want to get any reading done at all. According to WolframAlpha, a 100,000 word book can be read silently in about 6 hours. But when narrated aloud, it takes about 11 hours. So it takes me nearly twice as long to listen to an audiobook as it does to read the same book on paper. Except it doesn’t. Because in many instances, if I had to read the book on paper, I’d never have the time for it. Thanks to audiobooks, I can listen to books while I walk, while I commute to work, while I am waiting in the carpool lanes to pick up my kids from school, and while I am doing chores around the house.
  3. Life happens. My sample day above is fairly typical now. But in the spring, baseball starts, and there is Little League practice. There is Cub Scouts. There are school events. There are countless little deviations from a typical day that cut out the time available to read. I love to read, but I also want to see my kids grow up. I want them to love to read, too.
  4. I don’t just read books. I try to keep myself informed about current events through newspapers and magazines. On any given day of the month, I’ll try to squeeze in time to read the New York Times. I subscribe to WIRED, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Scientific American, Macworld, PC World, Linux Journal, and Down East Magazine. These help keep me informed about what’s going on in the world today. The time it takes to read these takes away from the time to read books.

Why do we focus so much on how many books we read? It seems to me we use this value as a substitute for how smart we are, or feel. This makes no sense at all if the 200 books we read each year are all cozy mysteries, or bodice-rippers. I think, however, that by focusing on nonfiction, the author of the article in question was saying that reading lots of books keeps us learning new things. I agree with this, and I try hard to read a wide variety of nonfiction, history, biography, science, sports history, whatever piques my interest.

Still, why 200 books a year?

I suspect that some of this comes from articles like this one from Inc. Magazine, which talk about leaders who swear by the amount of reading that they do, and how it helps them be better leaders. In it, the author writes that:

  • Mark Cuban reads more than 3 hours every day.
  • Arthur Blank reads 2 hours a day.
  • Billionaire entrepreneur David Rubenstein reads six books a week.
  • Dan Gilbert, self-made billionaire and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reads one to two hours a day.

The article says that many of these leaders are very busy, but find reading so important and valuable that they fit several hours of it into their otherwise busy schedules.

What I’d like to know, and what the article doesn’t say, is whether or not these leaders read 3 hours a day, or 6 books a week, before they were billionaires. Not all of us can afford the time required. Three hours of reading a day, no matter how much I’d love to do it, is pushing the edge of practicality for me given everything else I have to do.

I read somewhere that Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have consumed something like 20,000 books in his lifetime. It seemed incredible to me. So I did the math. If I managed to read 50 books a year—about my practical best—from now until I retire at, say, age 65, I’d add about 1,000 books to my list. So on the day I retire, my list of books would contain 1,665 entries.

Assume, in retirement, that I was able to double my reading, and that I live for another 20 years. That’s 100 book/year, for 20 years, or 2,000 more titles on my list, bringing my grand total to 3,665 books. By many standards, that is an awful lot of reading, but compared to Thomas Jefferson, who helped found the country, wrote the Declaration of Independence, created the University of Virginia, was governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President, and a 2-term President—four fairly busy jobs—it barely scratches the surface.

I love reading, but the mathematics of reading can, at times, be seriously depressing.

ETA: See “The Mathematics of Reading, Part 2.”

Business Cards

Last week, I hosted a meeting in my office. I met the visitors in the lobby, escorted them to a conference room, and we took seats. There were introductions—four of them, and me—followed by an exchange of business cards. Well, not really an exchange. I didn’t have any business cards to give them. I haven’t had business cards for my day job in quite a while.

Business cards are one of those quaint appurtenances that the business world can’t seem to shake. The people with whom I were meeting were part of a technology company. You would think that by now, we would have a standardized electronic alternative to business cards. It is truly remarkable that we don’t.

There have been attempts to replace business cards with digital equivalents, but none of them have seemed to take. There are companies like Inigo and Haystack, but I have yet to run into someone—anyone—offering a digital business card instead of a physical one. The problem is that there is no overwhelmingly accepted standard for contact information. You’d think that by now, a standard, like vCard, would have filled this niche, but I just don’t see it happening. Maybe it is happening in niche markets. Maybe electronic business cards are the hip trend in Silicon Valley. But they are virtually unheard of in my part of the technology world.

I’ve wondered about this, just like I’ve wondered about whether or not we will ever truly have a paperless office. I suspect the reason is not so much about the availability or accessibility of the technology required for digital business cards, but that such a business card simply can’t compete with the simplicity of a stiff, and sometimes glossy piece of paper.

For technology to compete in this way, it has to be easy and as tangible as its analog equivalent. That is why I use business cards in the writing world. It’s easy to hand someone a card with pertinent contact information. Everyone has their own process for handling business cards. There is no confusion about the exchange process. You don’t stand there in the bar, saying, “Hang on a second, let me open this app and send you my info… darn it, I can’t get a good WiFi connection.” Instead, you pull a card from your wallet and hand it over. You take a card being offered and stuff it into your wallet.

In my experience, technology is never that easy. This is part of the reason I carry a Field Notes notebook wherever I go. Despite the good progress made by a variety of digital note-taking software companies, I still find it much easier to jot quick notes and reminders down with pen and paper, than to pull out my iPhone or iPad, open up and application, and type in the note.

Then, too, business cards are often a form of expression that conveys more than just contact information. People are always coming up with interesting, eye-catching designs. These designs are often integrated into the card itself, making it difficult to translate into digital form.

Business cards have another important use that can’t possibly be filled by their digital equivalents. They make great bookmarks. I can’t count how many hundreds of business cards I’ve put to good use holding my place in a book.

TV Guide

Readers of a certain age will remember, perhaps with the nostalgic fondness that I do, a weekly digest magazine called TV Guide. I recently saw a copy of TV Guide on a newsstand, and immediately thought that it wasn’t the same magazine I knew growing up. It was larger, the pages were in color, and a quick glance told me that it probably contained less about what is on television tonight than the TV Guide I knew—and perhaps for good reason. Countless channels and the realtime Internet makes it hard for a print magazine to compete.

Though I am not much of a primetime television watcher these days, I have a fondness for the old TV Guide. The issues were digest sized, just like the science fiction magazines of the day. The cover was always colorful, but the pages themselves were black and white, and gave off the vague scent of newsprint.

The magazine contained a few short features, but the fast majority of the issue was taken up by the television listings. The listings were just that: lists. A page was divided into two columns. Times were generally listed in half-hour increments, although occasionally, some news program might start five minutes before the hour.

The entries within each time slot were simple, and clear. First there were the channel, various colors white or black ovals contain the channel number, follows by the name of the program in ALL CAPS. The more popular programs might have a short description. You might see something like:

11:00 (9) (13) (19) (26) HAPPY DAYS
Richie (Ron Howard) is tormented by unrequited love. Connie: Mary Cross.

Sometimes, the titles were followed by category: HOLLYWOOD SQUARES—Game; or PTL CLUB—Religion. Movies were listed with their run times: MOVIE—Drama “The Daredevil.” (1972) George Montgomery plays a racing-car driver whose bad luck makes him a patsy for gangsters. (1 hr., 55 min.). Sometimes, at press time, the magazine had no idea what would be playing, and simple report: MOVIE—To Be Announced. Could you imagine that happening today?

I enjoyed reading through the listing, looking for my favorite shows, and seeing if they were new or reruns. Sometimes it was hard to tell.

It’s hard to imagine this is how we used to discover what shows were playing on television. Today, I can ask Siri to find a show, or pop up the guide that comes with the cable service, and search for what I am looking for. Those guides have all kinds of filters and favorite functions, but I almost never use them. I suspect most people don’t use them either.

I wish someone would invent a channel guide that had the look and feel of an old TV Guide issue. It could be a theme that you could apply to your normal cable channel guide, like a CSS stylesheet. It would give your screen the yellow, faded look of oxidized paper. There would be two columns of listings that you could scroll through, and you could customize the channels that were displayed in the guide so you wouldn’t have to see the hundreds of channels you weren’t interested in.

Of course, at the end of the day, the result would be the same. I’d flip through the guide, reading the descriptions, and coming to the conclusion after a few moment that there was just nothing good on television.

Solo Flight

Digging though a zipped archive this week, I came across all of my notes and documents from back when I was taking flying lessons between September 1999 and April 2000. Turns out, I’d written about some of my flights after I made them, and I came across what I’d written about my first solo flight. I thought I’d share it here. I flew out of Van Nuys airport, north of Los Angeles, California. Keep in mind that when I wrote this, it was just after my solo flight in September 1999. I was 27 years old.

I flew solo today!

At first, it seemed like it wouldn’t happen.  The weather was great this morning, but a topical storm of the Mexican coast sent thunderstorms our way and by noon, those storms were passing through Southern California.  In fact, Pete and another student were stuck at Santa Paula airport until the rain passed, which delayed our lesson by nearly two hours.  (Pete had called me earlier in the day to see if we could reschedule to 2 PM).

But, by 3:30 PM, things had gotten better.  The cell had passed, it hadn’t really rained at Van Nuys, the winds were fairly calm and the ceiling was high.  So we taxied out to runway 16R for a takeoff.  Our first touch and go together was with a tailwind on 16L.  We were told by the tower that they would be switching runway directions after our touch and go.  The tailwind had the effect of making our landing roll long, which is a little nerve-racking on the short runway.  After the takeoff, we headed south, turned left crosswind, and then the tower told us to continue the left turn until we were on base leg for 34R.  I did so, and we did another touch and go, this time to the north.

On the downwind, Pete quizzed me on emergency procedures if there was an engine fire.  He then simulated an engine failure and had me glide the plane in.  My glide would have been too short for 34R, but the tower switched us to 34L and I was able to make the runway, although Pete teased me about it somewhat.  We did a full stop and taxi back, taxied to 34R and did another takeoff.  This time, Pete showed me how to do a soft-field takeoff, which is where you try and get the plane off the ground as quickly as possible and use ground effect to build speed.  We made another approach and Pete simulated an engine failure again.  This time I turned right away.  Pete said he liked that much better.  In fact, I was high and had to slip the plane a bit in order to get it down to the runway.  This was a full stop as well and this time, we taxied off the runway to the “CFI” benches along taxiway echo.  Pete called the tower and told them that this was going to be my first solo.  He then got out and took my logbook and wished me good luck.

This was it.

I called the tower for taxi, and they gave me my choice of runways.  I asked for 34L, but I meant 34R and that is where I taxied to.  I called for takeoff clearance and the controller was friendly enough, “Uh, 573, that’s 34R that your are at.”

“That’s what I meant,” I said, “Sorry.”

“Okay, 573, cleared for takeoff on runway 34 right.”

“34 right, 573.”  I said.  I was going through checklists in my head and started saying them out loud.  I checked that the mixture was rich, flaps up and carb heat was off.  I checked my seat belt, and shoulder harness, took a deep breath, and throttled up to taxi onto the runway.  I lined up with the centerline as best as I could, took another deep breath, and said, “Here we go.”  Then I smoothly applied full power.  I was nervous at this point.  My heart was pounding and I had a little trouble keeping it right on the center line, but I was close enough.  I was still talking out loud, just to make sure I was checking everything.  “Cengine ages green,” I said.  I meant “engine gauges green”.  I was really nervous.  “Airspeed is alive.”  At 50 knots I pulled back on the yoke and added a bit of right rudder–

And I was airborne.  “Whoo-hooo!” I said.  I had a big grin at this point, but I was still concentrating and still a little nervous (although less than a few seconds before).  I didn’t really have much time to think about the event, I just focused on the tasks at hand.  I climbed out at about 65 knots, and turned right crosswind just south of the VA hospital.  It had gotten a little bit bumpier out–or maybe it was just my imagination.  As I crossed over the 405, I turned downwind and leveled off at 1800 feet.  I kept scanning the instruments, as well as keeping the airport and tower well in sight.  As I came abeam the tower I said, “573 downwind abeam, for full stop and taxi-back.”

“573 runway 34 left–that’s the big runway–34 left, clear to land.”

“Okay, clear-to-land, 34 left, 573.”

Abeam the touchdown point, I pulled the carb heat, and powered back to 1700 RPM, I held the nose up and trimmed the airplane and as the speed came below 85 knots, I added 10-degrees of flaps.

I turned base at Victory Blvd. and then turned final.  I added 10 more degrees of flaps and kept repeating over and over as I lined up with the runway, “Keep the nose down, keep the speed at 60 knots.”  I pitched for 60 knots and retrimmed, set full flaps and said, “Okay, seatbelts and shoulder harnesses are on, mixture is rich, carb heat is on and fuel is on.”  (That was the pre-landing checklist.)  When I knew I had the runway made, I idled the throttle.  I kept the nose down and passed over the numbers.  Then, keeping the winds level, I gradually started to bring the nose up, slowly, slowly, making minor pitch adjustment–now back, back–and touchdown!  I held the nose off until it dropped down on the centerline.  I did it!

“573, you can takeoff again, or taxi back around, it’s your option.”

“I need to taxi past the CFI benches.”

“Okay, make a right turn at the next taxiway, and then a left turn and stay on this frequency.”

“573,” I said.  I followed the instructions and I a made my left turn, the tower said, “Did you hear your instructor, 573?”

“Negative,” I said.

“He said you can go around again if you want to.”

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

“Okay, then 573, cleared for takeoff on runway 34R, that’s the next left taxiway.”

“Cleared for 34 right, 573.”  I pulled the plane onto the runway 34 right, took a deep breath, and throttled up.  I went around again and this time, the details are just about completely obscured.  I know that I was thinking I had to do at least 3 takeoffs and landings to make this an official solo.  I was also watching for traffic.  I got 34L again for the second landing and that was just as good as the first.  This time, I requested a taxi to the CFI benches and actually taxied there.  I had done 2 takeoffs and landings so far, and I wanted to see how Pete felt.  I pulled the plane next to the benches and Pete came up.  He asked how I was feeling, said I was doing a good job and said that I didn’t have to taxi back each time any more.  I asked if I could do touch and go’s and he said okay, as long as it was on the big runway.

I called the tower to taxi back to 34L.  As I pulled up the tower said, “573 you are cleared for takeoff on 34 left if you are ready, if not, don’t worry, there is a cessna on final.”

“I need a second,” I said.  I held short of the runway, and went through my checklists again.  Flaps up, carb heat off, mixture rich, etc.  Then I said, “573 ready for takeoff.”

“573, hold short of 34L for the Cessna on short final.”

“Holding short, 573.”  I tried to look for the Cessna but the angle was no good and my wing was blocking final approach.  After about a minute (at least, it seemed that long, I saw the plane cross the threshold.  He touched down, rolled and then took off again.  Once he was off the ground, the tower said, “573 cleared for takeoff runway 34 left, follow the Cessna head on the upwind.”

“Cleared for takeoff on 34 left, 573.”  Off I went again.  I kept my eye on the Cessna in front of me on the climb out.  When he turned on his downwind, I started the turn on base.  Once I was on downwind and level, I grew a little nervous because it started to drizzle.  We hadn’t talked much about flying in the rain, and I thought I might make this my last approach.  However, I had lost count at this point, and wasn’t sure how many I had done.  The rain had stopped as quickly as it started so I continued.  There was a lot of chatter at this point on the frequency.  There was a jet arriving for 34R and I knew that would complicate things somewhat.  It wasn’t until I was abeam touchdown, that I could finally break in with, “573 downwind abeam for touch and go.”  I had already pulled the carb heat and powered back to 1700 RPM.

“573, uh, continue downwind for now, expect me to call your base around the Ventura freeway.”

“Continue downwind, 573.”  This didn’t make me as nervous as I thought it might.  Immediately I added some power so as not to lose any more altitude.  The Ventura freeway approached more quickly than I expect, but just as it did, tower said, “573, you can turn base now.”

I did a total of 5 solo takeoffs and landings that day. Afterward, as is traditional, we tore up my shirt tail, and decorated it.

Solo Flight

Rubik’s Cube

I noticed not long ago that the Little Miss was carrying around a small Rubik’s Cube. “Where did you get it?” I asked her.

“I got to pick it out as a prize at school,” she told me.

I asked her if she knew what it was, and then I explained to her how it worked. You moved it around this way and that, in an attempt to get a solid color on each of the six sides of the cube. She then began trying and it kept her occupied for some time.

Until I saw the Little Miss with the Rubik’s Cube, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen one. I was 8 years old in 1980, when the Rubik’s Cube was licensed to be sold by the Ideal Toy Company. I don’t remember when I first got one, but I remember a time when I seemed to be obsessed by them.

I never managed to solve the Cube, although I eventually got to the point where I could get multiple sides in solid color. When the Little Miss’s Rubik’s Cube was idle one evening, I picked it up and tried my hand at it. It wasn’t the full-sized cube that I was used to, but a smaller, key chain variant. Still, it didn’t take long before I began to recall some of the moves that allowed me to made progress.

Later that week, while attending the Little Man’s Pinewood Derby competition, I noticed one of the scouts beside me with a similar puzzle, in this case one called the Megaminx. It reminded me of two similar puzzles I had to compliment my Rubik’s Cube.

The first was Pyraminx, a Rubik’s-style puzzle in the shape of a 3-sized pyramid. I seem to recall that one being much easier to solve than the Rubi’s Cube, and thus I tended to prefer that one because I could make more progress than I could with the Cube.

The other was Rubik’s Snake. In my memory, this was called “Rubix’s Magic Snake.” This was a different type of puzzle, one in which you could create all different kinds of shapes by twisting and turning the snake. The puzzle was to figure out how to make this shapes from a simple outline or image.

These Rubik’s puzzles made their debut right around the time the first handheld electronic games emerged. Both required hand-eye coordination, both often involved solving puzzles (remember Merlin?). Both were simple, one a simple mechanical device, the other a simple electronics device. They offered hours of entertainment (and not a little frustration).

It was nice to see the Little Miss playing with a puzzle that I played with when I wasn’t too much older than she. Maybe if she plays with it enough, she’ll be able to solve it. While writing this post, I looked up the mathematical theory around the optimal solution for the Rubik’s Cube, and despite having a much greater understanding of mathematics than I did as an 8-year-old, the explanation still managed to go over my head.

Content Marketing

Several times a week, I receive email from various content writers, content managers, and content marketers asking to provide content for this blog. I receive so many that I have developed a form reply that goes out as soon as these come in. My form reply reads:

Dear {Content Marketer},

Thank you for your interest in writing for my blog. While I appreciate your interest, I don’t accept unsolicited guest posts at this time. Best of luck with your article elsewhere.


Etc., etc.

I have had, since 2012, a written guest post policy for the blog, but I suspect most content marketers don’t take the time to read the policies for the blogs they query.

Recently, I have noticed that content marketers are getting more creative with their queries. It used to be a simple message asking to write content for the blog. Today, they will often refer to a specific post I’ve written, and say something like, “I have written an article that fits your audience and correlates to your post {insert link here}.” It’s nice to know that these content marketers know my audience so well.

Some of the queries emphasize these writers abilities to write about anything I would want them to write about. I find this difficult to believe. Anyone can write about anything, but I suspect few people can write well on any subject at random. I write about a great deal of subjects here, but I don’t always find it easy to do so, and I’m not always sure that I do it well. Maybe I’m just not as good a writer as the content marketers.

Many content marketers are willing to provide content for nothing in return. They are not, so far as I can tell, looking to be paid. Call me old-fashioned, but as a professional writer, I expect to be paid for the writing that I do. How is it that a content writer makes his or her money? I suspect that they have sponsors and are paid when their content is published somewhere, and that content promotes whatever their sponsor is selling. I could be wrong about this.

I’m not fond of the term “content” to refer to the writing that one publishes. I have no problem calling what I write articles, essays, columns, posts. But to call it “content” abstracts it into meaninglessness. Who wants to read content? I give me an interesting article, a humorous blog post, a well-reasoned essay. But content? One is not writing an essay, one is not creating art, one is not telling a story, one is creating content as if it is nothing more than lorem ipsem placeholder text.

Perhaps it is simple semantics, potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto. If there are any content marketers reading this post, please take heed: I produce all my own “content.” I’ve been doing it for more than ten years, and 6,100 posts. I enjoy doing it, and I am not looking to farm out the work.

I doubt this post will prevent future inquiries. Indeed, as I was writing this post, I received a follow-up to an earlier query to produce not just content, but high-quality content for my blog. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to convince content marketers that I don’t need them. I wonder if I could enlist a content marketer to produce content arguing against content marketing? I could feature it right here on the blog!

What I Read in January 2017

With the first month of 2017 at a close I thought I’d list out and say a few words about what I read. I managed to complete four books in January, all of them nonfiction:

  1. The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
  2. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
  3. Explore/Create: My Life in Pursuit of New Frontiers, Hidden Worlds, and the Creative Spark by Richard Garriott
  4. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester.

We listened to The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher on our drive home from Florida early in January. This was the late Miss Fisher’s most recent book, a memoir of her early days on the movie set in what would become one of the most iconic sagas of all time. It was funny, and fascinating, and a little sad, too. There is something slightly unsettling listening to the voice of the recently departed talking to you with no premonition of what was to come. I had a similar unsettling feeling watching an episode of The Dick Van Dyke show the evening after Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the end of January.

In the 21+ years that I have kept my reading list, I have never read the same book twice in a row. That is, until I re-read Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen early in January. I read the book for the first time on vacation in December, and I loved it so much, and didn’t want it to end, that I started it again from the beginning as soon as I finished it. It was the best book I read in 2016.

Richard Garriott is one of those polymath characters that fascinates me. I first knew him by his gaming handle, Lord British, when I played in 1985 what is still one of my all-time favorite computer games, Ultima IV. Garriott is an explorer, a magician, has taken a submarine to the Titanic and a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station. And he is still making great games, descendants of the Ultima spirit. I read his book, Explore/Create in mid-January, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I like reading biographies about things. Way back in 2006, I read Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, which, although contains the word “history” in its subtitle, is really a biography of the city. I’m not sure what called my attention to Simon Winchester’s book, Atlantic, but my fascination with the sea, and the fact that it seemed like a biography of the Atlantic ocean drew me to it. I was not disappointed. The book was chock full of stories about the history of the ocean, the sailors, the battles, the storms, the ships, the fish, the geography. It was a wonderful biography of the sea. I enjoyed so much that, late in January, I began reading its companion book, Pacific, also by Simon Winchester.

I also began reading Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 in January, but as I have not yet finished it, it will have to wait until later in February to make it on my list. Other book I’m considering for February include:

  • The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible by Simon Winchester.
  • Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester.
  • Assignment in Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Leibling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay.
  • Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum

What did you read in January?

8 Reasons I Use Todoist As My To-Do List Manager

Back in the fall of 2016, I switched my to-do list manager from a simple text-file based list to Todoist. I made the switch because I was looking for something with more capabilities than what my text-file offered—in particular, the ability to schedule tasks for certain dates and times. I chose Todoist because it looked like it could do everything I needed. I made sure to play with it for several months, and now having become a Todoist “Expert” (based on the Karma ranking they app provides), I feel I’ve used it enough to write about it, and to give a strong recommendation for folks looking for a to-do manager.

Here are my top 8 reasons I think Todoist is a great to-do list manager:

1. It is easy-to-use. You type in your to-do item and it adds it to your list. You can easily assign a to-do item to a project by prefacing the project name with a # sign as you type.

2. It is available everywhere in a consistent way. The app looks the same on my MacBook, iPad, iPhone, and in a web browser. There is nothing new to learn.

3. It has natural language recognition of dates. One of the things I have discovered about using to-do lists is that if I don’t give an item a specific date or time to complete, I don’t complete it. Todoist makes it easy by allow you to type in natural language dates. I can type: “Write post on Todoist tomorrow,” and the “tomorrow” is recognized as a date and assigned that date accordingly.

Todoist natural language

4. It integrates with my calendar. My calendar is the central place I use for managing my days. As I add things to my to-do list and assign them dates and times, those dates and times also appear on my calendar so that I don’t have to be looking at Todoist at all to know that I have things to do.


5. Sharing is easy. My wife uses Todoist and we have a shared project called “Family.” We can assign tasks to one another in this project, and the tasks show up on our respective lists—and also on our calendars. When one of us completes a task, the other is notified.

6. The Karma feature is a powerful motivator. Todoist implements a unique feature called Karma, which gamifies the process of managing your to-do list. You get Karma points for completing tasks, using advanced features and function. The more points you get, you accrue different levels of usage. (When I hit 7500 Karma points, I became an “expert.”) Karma also helps ensure you are using the tool correctly. If I don’t complete a task on a given day, I can reschedule it, and the Karma features encourage this. They also let me set daily and weekly goals, and track trends.

Karma Trends

7. It has a useful API. My old to-do list was integrated into some scripts I had that allows me to automate my timekeeping at work. Filling out my timesheet and charging back to projects became simple and easy by parsing completed items in my to-do list. Todoist’s API was easy enough to use to allow me to replicate this functionality using Todoist instead of my old plain text file.

8. It integrates with Alexa. While I don’t use this functionality as much as I could, Todoist does integrate with Alexa. So if I am in the kitchen and realize we are low on milk, I can simply say, “Alexa, add milk to my shopping list.” Alexa does this, and as I have configured Alexa to use Todoist as my list manager, the item goes on my Todoist shopping list.

I resisted to-do applications for a long time, because they often seemed to add more effort than they saved. But Todoist has found the right balance. It is easy to add items to a list, search a list, organize lists into projects, schedule and assign tasks, and the Karma feature makes me feel good about all of the things I’m getting done. I definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a to-do list manager.

“Where Are You From?”

When someone asks me, “Where are you from,” my usual, terse reply is, “New York.” Being one of the more populous states, saying “New York” is never good enough. My response is usually followed by another query, “Oh, where in New York?” I used to say New York City, but that leads to further questions about from where, specifically, in New York City I hail, so I’ve taken to saying, “The Bronx.”

But even this response has its caveats. I was born in a hospital in far north Manhattan, so I guess, technically, I’m from Manhattan. And after being freed from that hospital and released into the wild, I lived in the Bronx, so if you don’t count my brief stay in the hospital that immediately followed my birth, I’m from the Bronx.

The problem is, I only lived in the Bronx for about nine months. I have no memory of my time there, and so I wonder about the legitimacy of claiming that I am from New York/New York City/The Bronx in the first place.

So if not the Bronx, then where am I from?

We left New York for the suburbs of New Jersey, and I spent the next seven years there. It was in New Jersey that I learned to read; it was in New Jersey that I checked out my first library book; it was in New Jersey that I discovered astronomy, and got my first telescope, and saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.

The problem is that I have no real connection to New Jersey. I am a lifelong New York Yankees fan, and I come by this legitimately, but for New Jersey, I feel no particular fealty.

Then, at the beginning of second grade, we moved from New Jersey to New England, and specifically, to Warwick, Rhode Island, where I spent the next four years. I never became a Patriots fan, but I did start to think of myself as a New Englander, although not enough to claim it as the place that I am from when asked that question.

After completing fifth grade, we moved again, this time to a suburb of Los Angeles, California. I would remain in California for the next 19 years. I was educated in California, attending junior high school, high school, and college there. After college, I began my career in California—at the same company at which I am employed today, more than 22 years later.

I didn’t particularly like California when I lived there, but I have grown fond of it in the 15 years since I moved away. And if I am asked, “Where did you grow up?” as opposed to “Where are you from?” I usually say, “I grew up in L. A.”

After leaving Los Angeles, I moved first to Maryland, where I spent about 6 years, and finally to Virginia, where I live today.

I supposed that an honest, accurate answer to the question, “Where are you from?” would be, “Well, I was born in the Bronx, grew up in New Jersey and Rhode Island, was educated in California, and then returned to the east coast to live and work in the mid-Atlantic states.”

All three of my kids are Virginians, something that, as a New Yorker/New Englander/Californian is hard for me to believe despite the evidence for it in front of me every day. When they are asked they question, their answer, at least, will be a lot simpler than mine.

Pinewood Derby

Each year as January rolls around, parents of Cub Scouts are busily constructing (or purchasing) Pinewood Derby cars for their scouts. As I write this, the Pinewood Derby competition for our pack took place a week ago. The kids all seem to have a good time, but it is something of a farce.

In theory, each scout is supposed to construct their Pinewood Derby car—with the help of their parents for the trickier parts. In practice, I’m not sure that is how it actually works. This was our second year participating in the Pinewood Derby, and in both years, while the concept of the car we produced came from the Little Man, the construction thereof was done entirely by me.

Perhaps this is common in the younger ages. Last year, the Little Man was a Tiger. It made little sense to hand him a saw and have it with the wood. This year, as a Wolf, it still didn’t make much sense to have him sawing away at the block of wood. He might have helped with the sanding of the wood thereafter, but what 7-year old wants to stay indoors and sand wood when there is mild winter weather out? What 7-year old would choose care measurements over going to a friend’s house?

So it was left to me to saw, and sand, and paint the Pinewood Derby cars. And it was left to me to try to get the wheels on in such a way that the axles were moderately level. And of course it was left to me to weigh the car, and determine if more weight was needed to bring it up to the 5-ounce limit.

Each year, we produced what I think were good-looking cars. So did everyone else in the pack who participated. This led to the suspicion that either our pack contains a remarkable concentration of highly skilled woodworking 6-10 year-olds, or that their parents are providing the bulk of the skilled labor, just as I did. That makes the Pinewood Derby less a competition between the scouts and more of one between the parents.

Pinewood Derby Cars
Pinewood Derby cars from 2016 and 2017.

We (I) produced a tank this years. That’s what the Little Man said he wanted. Last year, it was a police car. When performing a trial run on our pack’s newly acquired Pinewood Derby track, our tank barely made it to the finish line. This resulted in some mocking comments from the surrounding scouts, something that wasn’t very scout-like in my opinion. I warned the Little Man that his car was likely to come in last in each of the heats we ran.

Turned out I was wrong. The tank came in last only once in four heats. In the other three heats it took third place, and was a hair away from taking second place in one race.

Perhaps most telling of all about how scouts themselves perceive the event come from a comment the Little Man said to me as we headed home after the morning’s race. “Next year, Daddy,” he said, “you should build a fast car like those ones we saw today.”

The Problem with Reading Books on an iPad

This week I was reading An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek. It is another in my quest to read at least one biography of every U.S. President. While reading it one evening, it occurred to me what the problem is reading books on iPads.

It was just after Kennedy got the nomination for President. He took a well-deserved rest at the compound in Hyannis Port. The town of Hyannis Port had showed up in the book before, and of course, its connection with the Kennedy family is famous. But I never really thought about where it was. So I pulled up Google Maps. The following is a fairly accurate account of what followed:

  • I search for “Hyannis Port.” I zoomed in close to the shore so that I could get a look at the beach area of the town.
  • I switched to Google Earth view. I noticed that several of the houses had opened up their swimming pools recently. The pool covers had not yet been put away and were visible beside the pools.
  • I looked to see if anyone was sunbathing. No one was visible. I guess it was still early spring and chilly.
  • I tried to identify the cars in the driveways. Some driveways had a dozen cars in them,
  • I realized that Warwick, Rhode Island wasn’t too far away (at least, not in terms of scrolling), so I scrolled over to Warwick.
  • I found the house I lived in from 1979-1983 and began to check out the neighborhood. It was a brand new neighborhood when I moved there. It looked considerably older now.
  • I looked for my school. Then the baseball fields where I played my first Little League games.
  • Since T. F. Green airport was not far from there, I scanned the airport. They seemed to have added a runway in the last 30+ years. I tried to see if there were any planes on approach, but grew bored with the search.
  • I jumped up to Castine, Maine, and found my cousin’s house. I noticed that in the current satellite photo, his Prius was clearly visible in the driveway.
  • I typed in “Spring Valley, NY” and began exploring the place where my grandparents lived. The place looked remarkably good, considering its age, and there were signs of recent improvements.
  • I switched to Google Street view and got a good look at the yard that I used to play in. I spent a lot of time getting the right angle to see one particular tree—and sure enough, it was exactly as I remembered it.
  • I explored the woods we used to play in to see if they were as big as I remembered. They weren’t. But the abandoned drive-in theater—the one that was abandoned 30 years ago—was still abandoned, so not everything had changed.

By now, nearly an hour had slipped by and when I came up for air, I tried to remember why I started browsing Google Maps in the first place. Then I remembered I was reading about JFK’s brief vacation after the nomination. I was eager to continue reading, but it was time to get the kids to bed. Then I needed to shower, and get things ready for the next day.

JFK would have to wait until I was back.

This, my friends, is the main problem I have with reading books on an iPad.