Reader Request Week

Since rekindling things here on the blog back on November 1, 2016, I’ve been enjoy myself immensely writing about whatever I want. Rather than stick to one general theme (writing, technology, paperless) I’ve been trying my hand at anything that interests me. I’m not sure readers enjoy it as much as topical posts about writing, or tech, but I do.

Still, many people came to this blog originally because I wrote about writing, or about going paperless, or some other specific reason. So I wanted to give my readers the opportunity to suggest topics you’d like to see me write about. I thought I’d host a reader request week in the near future, where each day, I’d write a post based on a reader request I’d received.

Is there something you’d like to see my write about here on the blog? Drop your suggestions into the comments, or shoot me an email at jamie [at] jamietoddrubin [dot] com. It can be anything you’d be interested on hearing about from me. I’ll pick seven1 of the suggestions, and write short pieces based upon them. Those pieces will appear over the course of a week in the near-future.

Are there things you wish I’d write about more? Is there a particular topic I’ve never addressed that you are interested in hearing my take on? Now is your chance. Let me hear from you and I’ll do my best to rise to the challenge.

  1. Of course, I run the risk here of not getting seven suggestions, but I’ll take that chance for my readers.

Reference Books

As a writer, I take pleasure in my reference books. If I need a piece of information, it is at my fingertips within a few seconds. I imagine that all of the information contained in my reference books is easily accessible online. But I don’t derive the same pleasure typing a search into Google that I do flipping through the pages of a book.

I have five reference books that I make frequent use of when writing. They are:

  1. Strunk & White’s, The Elements of Style.
  2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.
  3. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
  4. The World Almanac, 2017 edition.
  5. The Oxford Atlas of the World, 23rd edition.

A sixth book that often comes in handy as a supplement to the Oxford Atlas is my  Rand McNally Road Atlas, 2017.

My reference books
My reference books

I turn to Strunk and White frequently when uncertain about word usage (is it “farther” or “further”). Sometimes I flip through it just to remind myself of all of the rules I break or ignore when writing. I’d likely be a much better writer if I heeded Messrs. Strunk and White more closely.

My dictionaries are there to help clarify the meaning of words, or in the case of Fowler’s, how we use words today. I often use the dictionary to get the proper pronunciation of a word. (Is it Caribbean or Caribbean? In this case, the dictionary is of little help; either pronunciation is valid). I don’t use my dictionaries for spelling. For one thing, the spelling checker in my word processor can handle most corrections. And if I am writing and need to know the spelling of a word, I typically pause, and say aloud, “Siri, how do you spell ‘sanctimonious?’”

The World Almanac is my starting point for any quick facts I need. I use these books frequently when pulling up facts for a post I am writing, or for a story I might be working on. I generally invest in a new edition each year, in order to ensure that the facts I am getting are up-to-date. Google might prove faster for some of these facts, but with Google, I have to take the time to vet the source from which I get the information. Admittedly, I get lost in my World Almanac as much as I might do going down some rabbit hole on the web.

Google Maps is a wonderful tool, particularly when integrated with other applications. But when it comes to maps, nothing beats pour over the large, glossy pages of my Oxford Atlas of the World.

For the kind of writing that I do, these reference books have proven extremely useful. I sometimes thing I might benefit from a few additional books: more detailed references on the physical sciences, or a biographical dictionary. But for the core of what I do, my reference books are good soldiers, and I would be lost without them.

The Best Laid Plans…

I try to get ahead of my day by listing everything I know I need to do in Todoist the evening before. I review it, and then arrange it in the order that I think it needs to be done. I made my list last night. There were 12 things on it:

  • Run test import of data for WO CAP
  • Import data into WO CAP production
  • Revise wish list for CAP release 2 based on feedback
  • Check on enabling CAP through AirWatch
  • Prepare for White Pages meeting
  • Develop initial DFD for White Pages
  • Verify that a database view is pointing to a particular database server
  • Re-test “Follow-You” printing
  • Investigate an issue with Change Management
  • Daily 15 meeting
  • Space management meeting
  • Data migration meeting

The first two things on the list were fairly urgent. I had good reasons for trying to get them done before 8 am. It would probably take about 90 minutes to get through both of them.

A bunch of servers were patched last night, and when I woke up this morning, I had a message telling me that one of the applications that I am responsible for was having a problem after the patching. So much for my well-organized day.

I got into the office just after 6 am (driving through a light snow, which itself was strange, given the weather we’ve been having lately), and proceeded to investigate the problem. It was an odd one, one I couldn’t explain, and I had a hunch that rebooting the server would clear it up. My hunches, in this respect, are very good. So I went into the server and rebooted it. I pulled up a terminal window and pinged the server so I could see when it was back online.

Any system or network admins among my readers will know well the feeling I had a few minutes later when the server had still not come back to life. I waited, and watched the packet: 100 packets, 200 packets… 600 packets. Ten minutes and the server was still down. A little voice in my head began to wonder: Did I reboot the server, or did I accidentally shut it down?

Prior to rebooting the server, only one service was failing. All of the other services related to this particular application were functioning normally. But because I decided to reboot the server, all the services were now down.

I made the decision to page a system administrator in order to get the server up and running again. If I had accidentally shut it down, I had no way of starting up myself. I waited miserably, wondering how my day had spiraled out of control so quickly. I began notifying people that we had a problem.

Twenty minutes later, I got a call. “Are you sure you want me to page a system administrator,” the caller asked, “I can ping the server.”

And so could I. It turned out I had in fact rebooted the server. It just took an unusually long time for it to come back to life. But come back to life it did. My hunch proved true. When the server came back on-line, all services were functioning normally.

So relieved was I that this unexpected problem only managed to consume the first 90 minutes of my day, that I actually felt elated. There is no way that I will have my first two tasks completed by 8 am, but I’ll get them completed by 9 am, which is much better than things were looking a little while ago.

Such are the best laid plans of mice and men…

Choose Your Own Narrator

In one of my favorite Isaac Asimov essays, “The Ancient and the Ultimate,” Dr. Asimov writes considers a book and what would happen to it when combined with technological improvements over time. The essay was written in the early 1970s, but Asimov postulates that there would be electronic books, that the batteries would get better and better; that the book would remember where you last left off. Soon the book would no longer need a power source, and eventually, what you’d be holding in your hands is—well, a book!

I was thinking about this essay the other day while considering a similar mental extrapolation I was performing with audiobooks. I don’t recall Dr. Asimov mentioning audiobooks in his essay (I haven’t gone back to check), but as someone who consumes many of his books though the audiobook media, I wondered what the future holds for audiobooks.

Audiobook started out as “Books on Tape.” Already the medium has evolved quite aways from there. The first audiobook I ever listened to was Isaac Asimov’s abridged version of Foundation. It was two or three cassettes long, and I was annoyed by the fact that I had to change them.

Audiobooks moved from cassette to CD, and then, thankfully, to a digital format that allows them to be downloaded and stored on my iPhone, or even streamed over my laptop or desktop computer.

Like regular books, audiobooks used to be available only in bookstores. Now, from a place like Audible, I can have an audiobook within seconds. So what’s next for audiobooks? How might we imagine their evolution, in the way Dr. Asimov imagined the evolution of the book?

For me, the unique element of an audiobook is what the narrator brings to it. After all, the text of say of the book is same in paper, digital, or audiobook format (assuming all are the unabridged editions). A good narrator can bring a new dimension to that text, so it seemed to me that where audiobooks are most likely to evolve is with narration.

Consider that with an e-book, we can customize our experience somewhat. We can change the font type, or increase the font size; we can alter the brightness of the text to suit our preferences. We can turn a standard book into a large-font book, and vice-versa.

Now consider how the technology behind voice emulation is evolving. With tools like Alexa and Cortona, and Siri, we’ve gotten a pretty good grasp of creating unique voices from computers. So one possibility, going forward, is computer-generated narrators for audiobooks. Just like Siri, we might select the gender and accent of the voice that reads us a book.

That probably wouldn’t sit well with voice actors, however. So I see a second possibility. As the technology improves, it will be come possible for a computer, using machine learning, perhaps, to be able to perfectly emulate anyone’s voice, assuming they have enough of a sample to work off of. As it turns out, many of the best audiobook narrators have hundreds, if not thousands of hours of such digital samples already. If those samples could be used to produce a computer-generated emulation of a narrator, then it might be possible, someday, for audiobook listeners to be able to choose your own narrator—just another customization option.

Of course, there would need to be a mechanism for voice actors to be paid for this emulated use of their voice. Perhaps they would receive an additional royalty each time someone used their voice. Perhaps, it would be setup more like a ringtone, where you purchase and download voice actor emulations, and can apply them to any book you have. An app store for voice actor emulations would be available as part of the service offered by audiobook services like Audible.

Taking this a step further, it might become possible to do this for any voice. With permission from (and payment to) the estate of, say, Bing Crosby, an emulation of Bing’s voice could be created, and I could have Bing Crosby read me Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Or better yet, I could have Isaac Asimov read me Shakespeare. Or Gilbert & Sullivan.

I’m optimistic that the technology won’t be the limited reagent in this particular evolutionary path. That will be left to the legal profession. But I suspect some kind of equitable arrangement can be reached.

Letters to the Editor

Years ago, when I opened a magazine or a newspaper, I skipped the Letters to the Editor section. It never occurred to me in those young and naive days that I would find anything of value in them. Today, the Letters to the Editor is one of the first things I read when turning to a new issue of a  magazine or newspaper.

The science fiction magazines were the first in which I began to seriously read the Letters column. In the letter columns, I found names that were vaguely familiar, and after I began to sell stories, I found the names of friends an acquaintances showing up there. When I was engaged in my Vacation in the Golden Age, I loved reading the letter columns (“Brass Tacks”) in the old issues of Astounding Science Fiction. Often there were delightful surprised, late 1939 or early 1940 issues with letters from a young Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury, both of whom were mostly still fans at the time.

I began reading the letter columns in other magazines later. I started with Scientific American. I was interested in readers’ responses to the articles, and especially the author replies. This was, in a popular sense, a microcosm of the scientific method in action, with research being summarized and commented on.

This broadened to other magazines, and newspapers more recently. Reading the Letters to the Editor has become one of the more enjoyable parts for me. I was reading the Letters column in a recent issue of Down East Magazine, and I began to wonder why I found these columns so interesting. After some thought, I decided it was because of the civilized tone the letters take.

Compared to the comment threads on social media, Letters to the Editor columns read like a breath of fresh air. They are not always well-written letters, but they get their points across clearly and concisely. The letters are focused on the subject at hand, rather than the letter-writer. And, of course, the letters are moderated for content and length. Even the most irate letters in the letter columns that I read seem calm, and reasonable when compared to a comment thread.

Over the years, I’ve done my share of letter writing.  My first Letter to the Editor that was published in a magazine appeared in Science Fiction Age, edited by Scott Edelman. That letter appeared in an issue in 1997, I think. I had a second letter appear in the magazine some time later.

In 2003, I wrote a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, which found its way to publication in the National edition. I’ve had a letter published in a local paper as well. Thinking about it, I believe I am batting 1.000 when it comes to Letters to the Editor. I’ve sent out four and all four have been published.

It has been a while since I’ve written a letter to the editor. These day, I enjoy reading the letter columns more than I enjoy writing letters to them. I’d rather spend my time writing here.

Lost Letters

The most frequent caution I received when writing my Going Paperless posts went as follows: “What if Evernote goes away? What then?” The more general concern might be expressed as “What if you no longer have access to all that stuff you put into the cloud?” It was never something I lost sleep over, but I understood where the concern came from. There is a tangibility to paper, to holding something, or filing it in drawer that provides reassurance.

But paper can be lost. It can be consumed by fire. Or it can just vanish the shuffle of day-to-day life. That’s what happened to a collection of letters I had years ago.

It was, in my mind anyway, a remarkable collection. I had letters from Piers Anthony, Susan Ellison (Harlan Ellison’s wife), Janet Asimov, Barry N. Malzberg, Senator John Glenn, George W. Bush, and several others. These weren’t letters that I picked up on eBay. I wrote to each of these people, and they took the time to write back.

Some of these letters were particularly special. I wish I still had the letter from Barry Malzberg. I wrote to him sometime in the late 1990s, or perhaps 2000. He wrote back a charming letter. Years later, I met Barry in person, and he became a mentor of mine in the writing field.

I wrote to Janet Asimov years after Isaac Asimov’s death, telling her how much his books meant to me. She replied kindly. I then wrote her again suggestion that final F&SF science essay collection was in order, one with all of his remaining uncollected essays. To my surprise, she wrote me again.

I wrote to Senator John Glenn after he flew on the space shuttle Discovery. I wrote to Piers Anthony several times in college. I wrote to George W. Bush after 9/11.

I had all of these letters slipped into sheet protectors which were securely locked into a binder. The binder had a prominent place on my bookshelves. And then, one day, it was gone. I moved from Los Angeles to Maryland in the summer of 2002, and I suspect that during the chaos of the move, the binder got misplaced, and I never saw it again.

Having those letters scanned into Evernote would not have restored their physicality, but it would allow me to read through them every now and then. That would be nice. Now, I can only imagine what they said. With the exception of a few brief passages here and there, the memory of what those lost letters said is gone.

Countless letters of historical value have been preserved over the centuries. Presidents’ entire correspondence is collected and cataloged. History has preserved many letters for a period of time far longer than the Internet has existed. And yet, when I think about how much information there is on the Internet today—impossible to conceive in anything but abstract terms—what comes to mind are those lost letters of mine.

In the history of writing, how many letters have been lost to time? Most of them probably wouldn’t contribute much. But there is almost certain to be gems of greatest importance scattered among them, just as lost as my letters from Barry Malzberg, Janet Asimov, and John Glenn.

My Field Notes Collection

Earlier this week, I received the first delivery of my second year subscription  to Field Notes notebooks. My subscription to The List gets me one of these deliveries each quarter, and I always look forward to it.

Since June 2015, I have been using Field Notes notebooks to serve as a supplement to my short-term memory, and they have proven far more useful to me than any digital substitute that I have tried. I have not been without a Field Notes notebook in my pocket since. I don’t run through them as quickly as some people might. I have filled nearly 7 of the 48-page notebooks since I started using them. That means, that over the last 20 months, I have built up something of a collection of Field Notes notebooks. It makes choosing the next one to use fun.

Field Notes Collection
My Field Notes Collection

The notebooks have made a real difference for me. Instead of trying to remember all kinds of things (and for the most part, failing) I have learned to make it a habit of writing them down. If I forget, I’ve got my notebook—always in my shirt pocket, or jeans pocket—to remind me. Most of these are ephemeral things: what to put in the kids lunches tomorrow; the name of the conference room I am going to for my next meeting; a list of things to pick up at the store. Sometimes, I’ll jot down funny things the kids do or say.

How I record information in the notebooks has changed over time. I used to just jot things down, and separate things by drawing a line across the page where the subject or topic changes. Now, I go one step further, adding a date below the line for each new day. That way I have some reference back to the day on which I jotted something down.

I keep all the old notebooks, not because they are immediately useful, but because, like a diary, they serve to show what I was thinking at a particular time. I have one notebook reserved as an index for all the others. I just record the start and end dates and the number I’ve taped on the pack of a particular notebook.

Old notebooks
My old notebooks

I love starting a fresh new notebook, and watching it become used and worn over time. Among my favorite that I have received across my 5 quarterly shipments to-date is the Lunacy edition. The design is clever. I may even use one of these as my next notebook.

Lunacy Edition
Lunacy Edition

The notebook peeking out of my pocket at this moment is a yellow, “Country Fair” edition for Virginia. Another week or two and I’ll be done with this one and move onto another one.

Virginia County Fair Edition
Virginia County Fair Edition

The most recent edition, which arrived just a few days ago, is the Field Notes “Utility” edition. This one comes in two page styles, either engineering graph, or ledger. The pages are thick, and there is a cool fold-out ruler for measuring things at the pack of the notebook

Utility Edition
Utility Edition

My biggest problem with Field Notes notebooks is deciding which one to use next. Of the ones that I have used so far, my favorite is probably the “Shenandoah” edition.

A Week Off Facebook and Twitter

Just over a week ago, I got a new iPhone to replace my old phone that gave up the ghost after valiantly sounding my wakeup alarm so that I wouldn’t be late to the office. Setting up my new phone, I made the decision not to install the Facebook and Twitter apps. I’ve now had more than a week off Facebook and Twitter, and it has been interesting.

To be clear, I am not completely off the platforms. I’ve just removed the apps from my phone. This has made a pretty significant difference. It turns out that I filled a lot of gaps checking Facebook and Twitter. Those gaps were much more noticeable this week. Any time I stepped into an elevator, I pulled out my phone, but there was no Facebook or Twitter to check, so I put my phone back in my pocket, and did nothing.

I learned that when one has a busy schedule, as I have had for the last several months, a few minutes of doing absolutely nothing can be refreshing.

The biggest downside to not having Facebook or Twitter on my phone was my inability to post photos. We have been having unseasonably warm weather here in northern Virginia. The last few days have approached 80℉, most unusual for February. While on my morning walk, I spotted trees in full bloom, and I snapped a photo, thinking it would make a good picture to post online. But I didn’t have the apps on my phone. Ah, well, I thought, I’ve got the picture, I can post it another time. I put my phone back in my pocket and kept walking.

Blossoming Trees in February
The photo I took of the blossoming trees earlier this week

Then, too, there have been a few times when something clever has occurred to me, something that I would have ordinarily posted to Facebook or Twitter. Instead, I just jotted it down in my Field Notes notebook, and moved on. The lesson for me: writing it down was enough to satisfy me.

One of the best parts of not having Facebook and Twitter on my phone was not seeing the barrage of political posts. It is no secret that we tend to create our own echo chambers with social media. In recent months, my echo chamber has become so loud as to be unbearable. This was certainly a factor in cutting back on Facebook and Twitter. I didn’t want to pull my phone out while relaxing between meetings only to be bombarded with political noise. I take it in smaller doses now, mostly from the newspapers I read.

Perhaps what surprised me most was that at no time during the last week did I feel compelled to download either the Facebook or Twitter because I just had to have them. Each evening, I’d pull up Facebook and Twitter, to see if I had any messages or comments to respond to. I’d spent less than five minutes skimming them, and then I’d move on to something else.

The fact that I am not as active on social media means that I am likely losing followers on Twitter, and Likes on Facebook, but I am willing to let those go. After all, I’m getting a little more peace-of-mind with a lot less social media. That seems like a good trade to me.

Self-Help Books

Self-help books are all the rage. They are the 21st century equivalent of the cookbook, at least in terms of their ubiquity in bookstores, physical and virtual. I was browsing through the new nonfiction releases on Audible a few days ago, and half the books listed could reasonably categorized as self-help books.

I find the category redundant. Reading is its own self-help. Reading a book can teach us something. It can also entertain us. Both help us in different ways. But they do help. So why, then, an entire category of books dedicated to self-help when reading is its own reward?

Self-help is one of those marketing phrases that masks intention. That intention is sell a lot of books with a magic bullet solution to some life problem. Marketing something as a magic bullet, however, is risky because the magic in magic solutions tends to be illusion.

I have read some self-help books over the years. I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done twice, for instance. The best, and most effective self-help book I ever read has been lost to the mists of time. It was a small, paperback book, that I picked up between my sophomore and junior year in college. The book was on how to take more effective notes in class. It was an eye-opener for me. The practical ideas it offered reshaped the way I approached my classes. My grade improved dramatically after reading the book. I wish I still had it. I’d praise it to the stars and recommend it loudly to everyone.

Around the same time—early 1993ish—I also read Anthony Robbins Awaken the Giant Within. It was an interesting read, but when I finished it, I was right back where I started. I had no idea how the book was supposed to help me.

The book on note-taking was the exception to the rule for me when it comes to self-help books. My experience with them has been closer to what I experienced with Anthony Robbins book. The lure of self-help book is the same as the lure of the lottery. We think that by reading one book (or buying one lottery ticket) we will change our lives. That is rarely the case.

The other problem I have with traditional self-help books is that they are often cast as “you should” rather than “here is how I did it.” Long-time readers of this blog will note that when I do write “how-to” posts (the blogging equivalent of self-help) I am careful to avoid phrase like “you should…” Instead, I’ll say “Here is how I made this thing work for me.” That is important because everyone is different. The guidance given by the he author of a self-help book might have worked very well for that author—they are giving an honest accounting. But that doesn’t mean it will work for the masses.

I prefer a more practical kind of self-help book. I find reading biographies to be of enormous help. I read biographies looking for small practical ways I can improve myself, based on what has worked for those that I read about. Reading, for instance, about how Isaac Asimov became a writer helped me become a professional writer. The lessons I gleaned from his autobiographies gave me practical tools that have served me well. I’ve taken similar lessons from biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, and many others.

Most of the book I read are self-help. Reading a collection of Andy Rooney essays teaches me how to write an essay. Reading a Simon Winchester book teaches me something about geography that I might not have known. For me, self-help books are everywhere, and don’t require a special label to be identified as such.

Never Say Never

As I get older, I find myself much less likely to take an absolutist position on things. I look back on the days when I did take absolutist positions—all those late night arguments in the college dorm—with mild embarrassment. When my kids say, “I would never…” I caution them with the cliché, “Never say never.” But they are young, and in my experience, the need for absolutes atrophies with age.

Even here on the blog, there are things absolutist positions I’ve taken, which, when I come across those posts today, embarrass me. I stated, quite firmly, for instance, that I could never listen to an audiobook. Five years later, I wrote about my 4th anniversary on Audible, and of the 143 audiobooks I’ve listened to during that time.

In the mid-1990s, I recall my utter disdain for pagers and mobile phones. “I’d never have anything to do with those,” I said to whoever happened to be nearby. Then, work provided me with a pager, and not long after, a mobile phone. I’ve been with one ever since, and my hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed by friends and family.

When I decided to experiment with going paperless, what I had I mind was cutting out paper entirely. I went immediately to one extreme to see if it was possible. I was chasing that elusive paperless office that I’d been hearing about since the mid-1990s. Eventually, I found that while I might be going paperless, the rest of the world was not, and I needed to be able to deal with the paper that the world pressed upon me. These days, I found a happy medium. I try to minimize the paper I use, but I still find it more useful to jot things down in a Field Notes notebook than to try to capture them in an app on my phone. There are practical limits to everything.

Even my opinions on taste moved away from absolutist. I have several friends (to say nothing of a mother) who are huge Beatles fans. I’ve never been particularly fond of the Beatles, and there was a time when I’d rant about my dislike of the band whenever the topic came up. These days, if someone likes the Beatles, good for them! It makes them happy, and why should that bother me?

Perhaps more than anything, I’ve found myself more open to ideas. If I can be convinced of something, then I will gladly change my opinion of it. When I was younger, I think I felt that changing my opinion was a sign of weakness, that I was a flip-flopper. I don’t believe that today. There is something like 6,200 posts on this blog, and if you go through some of the early ones, you will almost certainly find absolutist opinions I held that I no longer hold today.

I’m kind of proud of that. It makes me feel like a grownup, even if I don’t always act like one.

4 Years of Audiobooks

I listened to my first audiobook out of sheer desperation in February 2013. I finished it on this day, four years ago. It changed the way I read books more dramatically than even the advent of the e-book.

Time, or the lack thereof, was what forced me to turn to audiobooks. Prior to February 2013, I was certain that audiobooks weren’t for me. I needed to be conscious of that inner voice when I read. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone reading to me. In a post on this blog, I delineated 4 reasons why I thought audiobooks were not for me. Reading that post, I am reminded of the time I tried to convince my son to try bacon. He swore he wouldn’t like it, but very reluctantly, he tried it, and of course, he loved it.

So desperate was I to find time to read in early 2013 that I decided to set aside my disdain of audiobooks and give them a try. I reasoned that I could at least multitask with them, and I promised myself that I would only listen to audiobooks while working out.

My very first audiobook was Stephen King’s Misery, narrated by Lindsay Crouse. I started listening to it as I worked out on the elliptical machine in our guest room. When my workout was over, I found that I didn’t want to stop listening. So my promise to listen only during workouts lasted all of 40 minutes.

In the four years since that day, I’ve listened to 143 audiobooks spread across all genres. To get a sense of how this changed the way I read, keep in mind that since January 1, 1996, I have read—as of this writing—667 books. In the last four years of that 21 year span of time, I’ve read a total of 163 books. A full 87% of the books I’ve read in the last four years have been audiobooks.

Were it not for audiobooks, I’m certain that I would not have read nearly as much as I have managed. That is because I can listen to audiobooks under circumstances that traditional reading would not permit: commuting, exercising, daily walks, doing chores around the house, grocery shopping. I can listen to an audiobook in bed at night without worrying about the light of an e-reader disturbing my eyes, or that of my wife. When asked what my number one productivity tip is, I always say: audiobooks!

My favorite audiobook also happens to be my current favorite novel: 11/22/63 by Stephen King. The audiobook is narrated by Craig Wasson. This is one case where I cannot listen to other books narrated by Wasson. He does such a good job as Jake Epping/George Amberson in King’s novel, that I can’t possibly imagine him as any other character.

We can debate whether listening to an audiobook is the same thing as reading. I treat them interchangeably, for reasons I have argued elsewhere. I suspect that my primary form of reading will continue to be audiobooks into the foreseeable future.

Filling the Gaps

It is hard to believe that smart phones have only been around for a decade. Though only ten years have passed, I can’t remember how I filled the gaps of time while waiting to do something else. These days, that time is often filled looking at my iPhone.

I have this irritating habit of pulling my phone out of my pocket when I step onto the elevator. Since getting my new phone (one in which I deliberately refused to install Facebook and Twitter) I’m trying hard to break that habit. Still, I walk onto the elevator and my natural instinct is to reach for my phone. It feels strange just to stand there doing nothing.

What did I do in elevators before I had a smart phone? I can’t remember. Smart phones have sunk their roots so deep into my brain that it seems like I’ve always had one ready for use. But there was a time before smart phones. Indeed, I lived some 35 years before the smart phone came along. Why, then, can’t I remember what I did in elevators before my smart phone provided a distraction?

For that matter, what did I do while waiting in the lobby at the doctor’s office. Probably I read the well-worn magazines scattered across the table. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen magazines in waiting rooms for a long time. Charging stations, yes, but not magazines.

Now that I have taken Facebook and Twitter off my phone, I have less reason to pull it out of my pocket while waiting for something. I am slowly beginning to remember what it was like to just stand there and wait. But I am also beginning to recall just how frequent that waiting can be.

It leads me to recall how I managed to do lots of other things before my smart phone did them for me. Remember meeting friends at the mall after school? We’d pick a time and place, and that’s where we’d meet. If one of us was going to be late, there was no way to let the others know. We made it work.

I knew the roads in my old neighborhoods far better than I know the roads in my own neighborhood today. I would pour over Thomas Guides of the San Fernando Valley. It seemed, at one point, that I knew every street. Flying over the Valley (back when I flew) I could easily recognize houses and builds and streets from the air because of those maps.

Not so today. The Google Maps app on my phone takes care of directions for me. It makes it easy to get where I am going, but its the maps version of Cliff’s Notes, and I feel somewhat ashamed every time I turn to Google Maps.

For the first 35 years of my life, the morning weather report suited me just fine. A newspaper like the Los Angeles Times gave me what I needed to know. I got along without up-to-the-minute weather and BREAKING NEWS.

Refusing to install Facebook and Twitter on my new phone has been a good thing. Now, when I have to wait for something, I pull out my phone and check the weather, or pop open the L.A. Times or NY Times apps to see if anything has happened in the 30 minutes or so since I last checked.