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.

Fantastical_Todoist

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.

Cursive Handwriting

Over the weekend, I heard the Little Man mention cursive handwriting. He is in second grade, and it was in second grade that I began learning cursive handwriting. I asked him if he was learning it. “A little,” he said. Apparently, they were working on writing their names in cursive.

I am a cursive skeptic. Though I learned to write in cursive in second grade, I never enjoyed it, and moreover, I never saw much personal value in it. Perhaps it made me write a little bit faster, not having to pick up my pen from the paper, but it certainly didn’t make me write any neater. And unless you are Isaac Asimov, when is faster better when it comes to writing?

Apparently, cursive writing is one of those divisive topics. Gather a room of people together, and half will be for it, the other half against it. The arguments I read in favor of cursive writing don’t convince me. I’d prefer my kids to learn to write, period. If they are more comfortable doing so using print writing, or cursive, the important thing is that they are learning to write.

I don’t remember when I stopped using cursive writing. I think I stuck it out, reluctantly, through seventh grade. In seventh grade, I started printing again, mainly because it felt more natural to me, I could actually do it faster, and most importantly, I could read what I had written later on, something I had a great deal of trouble doing when I wrote in cursive. I recall my teachers pushing back, taking points away for not writing in cursive, but I stuck to my guns, eating the points in favor of better comfort and understanding.

Since then, I have rarely used cursive. I took the LSAT (on a whim) in 2003 and recall that they required you to write in cursive for the essay questions. That seemed ridiculous to me, and it put me in something of a quandary because I wasn’t sure I remembered how to write in cursive.

Clarity is the most important element in writing, and anything that impedes clarity should be replaced by something that improve it. I recall worrying so much about getting the cursive letters to look right that I wasn’t fully focused on what I was writing. This had to have effected the clarity of my thoughts on paper.

I do use cursive writing when I sign my name (although like most signatures, mine is more of a personalized mark than the individual letters of my name), but only when signing for official purposes, or on things for people I don’t personally know, like signing a book or a magazine.

When I sign my name for friends or family on cards and letters and other correspondence, I print my name. I fear that a cursive signature is too formal for such circumstances, and moreover, it is too illegible.

My grandfather’s handwritten letters are all in cursive, and few people can read them. I can get through a page in an hour, so illegible was his cursive handwriting. I much preferred when he typed his letters, even though he tended to use ALL-CAPS when he did so.

Interior Decoration

Here is something I have noticed: the interior decoration of homes we visit—friends, and family—are vastly superior to our home. In several of the homes we visit, the living rooms and kitchens and dens could model for magazines. To apply the term “interior decoration” to our home would be an example of using an alternative fact.

A favorite recent distraction of mine is reading through issues of Down East magazine, to which I have a subscription. I love Maine, and the magazine allows me to have a little bit of Maine each month. The photos of wonderful, and many of the photos show stylish homes with interior design that seems, for lack of a better term, “grown up.”

While the homes we visit might not reach the levels that appear in Down East magazine, they are certainly grown-up compared to our home. Until recently, we didn’t even own a formal dining room table. We acquired one just in time for Thanksgiving. It is a large table that easily seats six, and takes up much of our small dining room. It looked great in the furniture store, and somewhat out-of-place in our house.

Perhaps one problem is that there is no uniform design philosophy for our decorating. Maybe our friends and family simply have a vision of what they want their home to look like, and have the good sense (and money) to execute that vision. If there is any vision in our interior design, it can be best described as “clutter.” It can be even better described as “chaos.”

We have pictures on the walls. We have a relatively new sofa in the living room. We did remodel our kitchen a few years ago. But despite all of that, our home still does not have that same mature, grown-up look as that of friends, family, and even neighbor’s homes we’ve visited.

I cannot account for this. Often, after visiting a friend’s house, and taking the careful design—each item looking as thought it belonged exactly where it was—I wonder if I missed some class along the way that everyone else has taken. Was Interior Decorating 101 a requirement in high school, and I somehow missed it and fell under the radar?

The more likely answer is that I just have no knack for it. After all, I wear jeans, tennis shoes, and t-shirts to work (in the winter, I’ll wear long-sleeve shirts) and think nothing of it. Style is not my forte.

I don’t know if the design styles we see in friends and family’s homes have names—classical, New England, California casual—but if I had to apply a name to the “style” of our interior decoration, such that it is, I’d call it the LEGO style. One can find LEGOs in every room of the house, including the bathrooms. It is the unifying design theme that keeps our home from the brink of dullness.

Though I’ve never asked anyone, I do sometimes wonder if visitors to our home look around at our interior decoration and say to themselves, “Wow! How is it that everyone’s house besides my own is so well decorated? I mean, look at this place!” They are transfixed by my bookshelves, or the antique typewriter in the corner.

Then they sit on the relatively new couch, shriek, and jump up, looking back at the couch to see what bit them.

It was LEGO. Of course it was.

Not a Phone Person

I am not a phone person. Maybe I was at one point, no longer. I will go to great lengths to avoid talking on the phone. I talk on the phone a lot at work, but that is because most of the people I work with are on the west coast, and I am on the east coast. There, at least, I am being paid to talk on the phone.

My grandfather was not much of a phone-talker. I always liked talking to him on the phone, but whenever I called him, I felt like he couldn’t get off the phone soon enough. I suspect it was because I was paying for the long-distance call and he wanted to minimize my phone bill. This was in the days before unlimited long-distance plans made such concerns obsolete.

There are some people who get me on the phone and never let go.

Then there are all the calls I don’t care to take. The American Red Cross has called me dozens of times asking me to donate blood. I was a regular blood donor for years, and then had a bad experience and decided to give it up for a while. They don’t take no for an answer, so I ignore the calls.

The truth is, I get far more phone calls that I ignore than I answer. These days, if I don’t recognize a phone number I don’t answer the phone. I also don’t listen to voicemail, which I gave up years ago. It is an outdated technology.

Part of the problem is that I rarely have anything to say to people on the phone. I’ve had phone conversations on numerous occasions that have gone much like this:

“So what else is new?” the person on the phone says.

“Well, I’ve retired my voicemail,” I say.

“I know, I read about it on your blog.”

Substitute “read about it on your blog” with “saw it on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram.” Social media allows me to keep up with friends and family more efficiently than a phone call.

I actually prefer video chats. I do these frequently with coworkers, and when I call family, I prefer video chats to phone calls. I prefer texting to phone calls. When Kelly and I were dating, we texted for more than a month before we finally resorted to an actual phone call.

We have one of those phone plans with rollover minutes. I use so few minutes that I have, as of this writing (I just verified this) 5,222 minutes including my rollover minutes. That’s 87 hours or more than 3-1/2 consecutive days worth of call time. Combined, Kelly and I used 43 minutes of call time on our last bill—most of which was Kelly. At that rate, it would take us 10 years to consume the 5,222 minutes—and that’s not counting the new minutes we add each month.

If you are looking to reach me, your best bet is not to contact me by phone.

At the Edge of an Ocean

While on vacation, I watched the kids walk to the edge of an ocean. It wasn’t their first time to the ocean. They’d been to Sand Beach in Acadia National Park, which looks out into the Atlantic. But on this beach, the Atlantic spread across the horizon from one side to the other.

It took a photo of the ocean as it looked that day.

Edge of an Ocean

Watching the kids stand there, I imagined a young John Adams looking out at the ocean from the hills overlooking Boston. It must have looked formidable. Eventually he crossed the ocean, taking the 40-day long voyage to Europe. Did Adams ever wonder if faster travel across the Atlantic was possible someday? I wanted to explain to the kids that the ocean is so big that it once took people 40 days to cross to the other side. Today, it can be done in six hours or less.

Instead, I kept silent. They kicked their toes in the sand, got their feet wet, and returned to where I was standing so that we could get some lunch.

When I read last week that Gene Cernan had died, I thought of my kids staring out at the ocean. Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon, and I get the sense that he felt it was a dubious title. He didn’t want to be the last man to walk on the moon.

Did Cernan, as a child, ever stand at the ocean and marvel at how big it was? Did he look up at the moon and think, no one will ever get there! I have read a great deal about the Apollo program over the years. I feel like I know many of the astronauts in the program from the numerous biographies, and histories I’ve devoured. I have also read about the early attempts to cross the Atlantic ocean, attempts made before Christopher Columbus. As a pure technical challenge, it is probably harder to go to the moon than it was to make that first Atlantic ocean crossing.

Still, it should have gotten easier. It takes practice. How many ships (and lives) have been lost crossing the Atlantic ocean? Too many to count, probably, but it is easier now than ever before, due largely to the fact that we kept trying. We learned from our setbacks and we pushed forward.

I was an infant when Gene Cernan stepped onto the moon, something that was a non-event compared to when Neil Armstrong did it three years earlier. History tells me that people had lost interest. We’d done it, now let’s go do something else. Let’s fix other problem. I understand this and empathize. Or I do until I stand at the edge of an ocean, marvel at its size, its power to shape the weather, and very world itself.

It took a long time for us to conquer the ocean. Leif Erikson made his way from Europe to North America, and it would be another 500 years before Christopher Columbus did it. The moon is harder and it will take more time, but I am still optimistic that one day, traveling to the moon will be as routine as traveling across the ocean.

I’m equally optimistic that someone other than Cernan will bear the title of “last person on the moon” when my kids stand at the edge of an ocean, watching their kids walk timidly toward the shore.

Practical Automation

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

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

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

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

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

Then it occurred to me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Explore/Create by Richard Garriott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LinkedIn Skeeves Me Out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.


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