Thoughts on The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Yesterday, I finished read Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. I loved it. It is an excellent overview of the history of the digital age, from Ada Lovelace, right up through Google and Wikipedia.

The book took a logical progression through the history of computer hardware and software innovation, which was a great way to see how technology evolves over time, each big discovery informing the next one. Two things in particular stood out about the book.

First, there was a familiar feel to the style in which it was written. It didn’t take long for me to recognize it. The book reads like an Isaac Asimov science history book. There are clear descriptions of technology that make it accessible to the lay person. There are also gripping, inviting biographies of the players involved. These combine to make for a fascinating narrative that reminded me of books like Asimov’s Guide to Science.

Second, in reading the book, I was moved to want to do the kind of innovating things that the people in the book were doing. This often happens to me when reading nonfiction. Reading a book on, say, Richard Feynman, will draw out a desire in me to be a physicist. Reading a book on Winston Churchill draws out similar feelings on being a statesman. The Innovators was no different. Except that I have been living in the technology world since I first played with a computer at the age of 10 or 11 years old. And I’ve been working in that world as my profession for the last 20 years. That profession, like any, can grind on you after a while. But Isaacson’s book did something remarkable. It rekindled my joy in information technology. It made me realize that I am already working in this industry, and unlike the other biographies I’ve read whose subject I envy from afar, I live this one. It’s pretty rare for a book to do that.

The book covered the evolution of Windows and Mac, and also covered the birth of Linux. If it was light on any one area that I would have wanted to read more about, it was the birth and evolution of UNIX. UNIX wasn’t mentioned in the book until the chapter on Linux, in which casual mention was made that Linux was based on UNIX, an operating system developed in 1970. That was about it. But overall, the scope of the book was broad, and fascinating, and I raced through it, enjoying every minute of it.

This was my second Walter Isaacson book. I read Einstein: His Life and Universe back in 2008 and I really enjoyed that one as well. It’s difficult to say which one I enjoyed more, but I’ll give the edge to The Innovators since it helped rekindle my joy and fascination in information technology.

My New Obsession: Simplicity and Automation in Technology

I have spent the past two and a half years going paperless. During that time, I wrote more than 120 posts about my process and the tools I used. I knew I was approaching the end of those posts when I began to find it difficult to come up with new topics to write about. I’d written about everything I had done, and I hesitated to write about those things that I had no direct experience with.

But my urge to write about technology hasn’t waned. Indeed, it has grown over time. And so, you can expect more from me on technology subject, centering around what is my new obsession: simplicity and automation in technology. While I’ll have much more to say on the subject, my basic thinking goes something like this:

There are tons of tools out there that are supposed to make us more productive. In my experience, however, the tools accumulate and the accumulation of tools lends itself to a decrease in production because we’re stymied by the question: which tool do I use for this job?

Consider the word processor/text editor. There are countless varieties of these beasts that all do about the same basic task: they allows to write and store our writing. But which one is the best tool for the job? That will vary by person, but there are probably some elements that you could look at to narrow the scope. Part of it involves what that job is. Are you writing code, or a novel? Email or poetry? There is a balance between functionality and simplicity. You don’t want to have to learn more tools than you need to do the job, but each tool you use needs to be simple enough, but broad enough to do that job effectively.

Then there is the complexity of the tool. A tool like Microsoft Word can do a heck of a lot, but it also can be cumbersome to use, maintain, and because it isn’t focused on a specific task, it can be awkward for some things. On the hand, a basic text editor, like Notepad or TextEdit may be too barebones. Where is the balance?

Automation is another consideration. On a computer, at least, it should be possible to automate any repeatable task. But operating systems tend to muddy the waters. They abstract the interfaces to the point where automation can become difficult, or require intermediary tools that complicate the process. For the best possible automation, it seems to me that the simplest possible tools are required.

I’ve been thinking about these things quite a bit lately, in part because I am trying to simply and automate as much as I can. Automation has the benefit of freeing up time to pursue passions, time that might otherwise be occupied by drudgery, and repeated tasks. Going paperless allows for some automation that I would not have otherwise had. But I think there is more than can be done.

So, I’ll be writing more here about my pursuit at technological simplicity and increased automation, two things that might seem mutually exclusive, but which I think can lead to less time spent in drudgery and more time spent doing the things I really enjoy. Like any experiment, I may end up proving myself wrong. But knowing what I know today, I don’t think so. So if you’re interested in this type of thing, stick around. I’ll be writing more. I don’t have a set schedule right now because I’m still coming up with a framework of how simplicity and automation might work for me. But as I try things out, as I experiment, I’ll write about it, and I encourage and look forward to discussion on what works and what doesn’t.

Going Paperless: Using Evernote at Home and with Family

This is part 4 of my set of categorization posts which collects my Going Paperless articles into various categories to make them easier to find in the context of a given topic. And today’s topic is using Evernote to go paperless at home and with the family. As before, there may be some overlap with other categories, as some articles don’t fit neatly into just one box. They are listed beginning with the most recent articles.

Fall Day, Soup Day

Yesterday was the first really fall-like day we’ve had this year. Sunny but cool and windy. It was a day off for me. I’ve been working hard on a software rollout project at the day job. This weekend was supposed to be a rollout weekend, but it was postponed thank in large part to flaws in the software that we uncovered and that the vendor now has to go and fix.

So I spent my day yesterday trying to relax and not be frustrated over the fact that our hard work is now delayed. Kelly took the kids out for the day, and I lazed around the house. I watched a movie. And I made soup.

The cold weather, coupled by a scene of cold weather in the movie, made me crave soup. I decided to make my Apple, Ale & Cheddar soup, but knowing that Kelly prefers a healthier soup, I also made a sweet potato soup for her. I went to the grocery store to stock up on what I needed, and then spent an hour or so in the afternoon preparing and cooking the soups.


They both came out really good. I had 3 bowls of my Apple, Ale & Cheddar soup after I made it, and I brought some for lunch with me today. I picked up a loaf of sourdough bread at the store and had that with the soup. It was fantastic. When Kelly and the kids got home last night, I had their soup all warmed up for them.

It was chilly again this morning, and the house was cold, so I finally turned on the heat this morning. I tend to see how far we go into fall before the heat gets turned on.  This year, we made it a month.

Going Paperless: 14 Productivity Articles for Evernote

In part 3 of my set of categorization posts, I collect 14 Going Paperless articles I’ve written that relate directly to productivity. As with the other index posts, this one lists the articles beginning with the most recent. There may be some overlap as some of the articles fall into more than one category.

Next, I’ll have an index of posts for using Evernote around the house and family.

Response Times, Rejectomancy, and Other Excuses to Avoid Writing

Back in my early days as a writer, I used to spend waste time poring over entries in the Writer’s Marketplace (this was before the Internet) to see how long it took a magazine to respond. I would carefully track all of my submissions, and then spend time calculating average response times. And when I got rejection slips, I’d ponder over the meaning of every word trying to find some hint of meaning in an otherwise bland form letter.

I don’t do this any more. Part of the reason is that I now better understand the markets to which I submit today. Part of the reason is because the majority of my writing these days is solicited. And part of the reason is that if I want to spend my time writing, I can’t afford to spend it pondering over the meaning of a word on a rejection slip.

Response times

As a data junkie, and quantified selfer, you’d think I’d be really into the measurements that surround the submission and publication process. And perhaps, in a loose way, I am. I track all of my submissions in a Google Spreadsheet (a template of which is freely available to anyone who wants to use it). But I find that these day, I don’t spend much time looking at the data, or putting it to significant use. In part, I think that’s because I’ve learned there really isn’t much that I can control in the process, and data is most helpful for things which we have control over.

Some of this comes from experience. Let’s say that a magazine’s average response time, according to my data, is 33 days. I submit a story to them. What is the point of checking on the story any time before 33 days? Given that the average response is 33 days, I’m kind of wasting my time expecting something before then. If I get a response sooner, great. But instead of checking and worrying and wondering if my story has been received and read, I feel like my energy is better spent working the next story.

After 33 days has past, then what? Well, what can I really do about it? An editor will get to my story when they get to it. That 33 days is just an average. Trying to guess when the response will come in seems needlessly worrisome to me today. What if the story hits 66 days? Well, I’ve probably written two or three other items during that time, maybe more if I’m not constantly worrying about the ones out on submission.

Then, too, my 33 days average is based on a pretty small sample. I’ve never been into the crowd-sourcing tools for submissions, like Duotrope, not because they charge money, but because I’m dubious of the data quality. My idea of a high data-quality service would be one where the magazines are supplying realtime response rates to the service. You’d get much more granular and probably more accurate response rates that way. Then, too, whether or not we like to admit it, editors jump around in their reading piles. I’ve had stories accepted at magazines 4 hours after submitting, that normally take 2-3 months to respond. Context plays a role in the response time process.

The bottom line, for me, is that the bulk of my enjoyment is in writing stories and articles. And nothing prevents me from writing more of them once others have been submitted–unless I get bogged down into constantly checking the status of my submissions. Thankfully, I’ve grown out of this phase.


Rejectomancy is another time-killer in a writer’s life. “Rejectomancy,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is the fine art of reading into rejection slips. That is, pondering over every word and trying to decide what it says about your story. Consider this:

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For #TBT: Why So Serious?

This one, courtesy of my mom. I love this photo, which had to be taken around 1976, I think. My only question is, why am I so serious-looking in it?

TBT Why So Serious

Going Paperless: All About Searching in Evernote

This is my second in a series of posts indexing my Going Paperless articles into categories so that it is easier for folks to find an article on a specific subject. Searching is a big part of Evernote, and knowing the ins-and-outs of searching can make Evernote a more powerful tool for Going Paperless. Here are the articles I’ve written on searching in Evernote. As with the previous post, these articles are listed most-recent first, but that doesn’t mean the older articles don’t contain useful information.

Happy searching!

20 Years at the Day Job

Last week, I started receiving congratulatory messages from folks I’m connected to on LinkedIn. They were congratulating me on the fact that this month, I’m have my 20 year anniversary at the day job. It reminded me of that fact, and indeed, this Friday, October 17, 2014, will be exactly 20 years since my very first day on the job with my current company.

I understand that these days, it is pretty rare for someone to work at the same job for 20 years, especially someone in IT. I’ve had people tell me that they are amazed by this, and I’ve had people tell me it is the worst possible thing that you can do in IT. I happen to fall into the former camp: I am rather amazed that I’ve been with the company for 20 years. But I’m even more amazed at how quickly that 20 years has flown by, and all that has happened during that time.

I started with the company just shy of four months after graduating from the University of California, Riverside, fresh with a degree in political science. Naturally, I went into IT. When I started, the position that I applied for was called a “Microcomputer Support Consultant” and don’t let the “consultant” part fool you. It is not what we call consultants today. Basically, my job was to work on the corporate help desk (I’d never even heard the term “help desk” at the time) and fix people’s computer problems. When I started I’d never used email before, had no idea what the “web” was, and had no experience with networking. I learned quickly.

For the first few months, it seemed pretty touch and go, and I can remember thinking that maybe this wasn’t the right job for me. But I stuck it out. I had a pretty good first year, and things got better. By 1998 I’d become an IT manager and continued in that role through Y2K and until about 2002 or so. 2002 was probably my peak in terms of sheer success. I was on the fast track at that point, and when time came to announce the company’s annual President’s Award, I discovered, much to my amazement, that I was a recipient.

I worked my first 8 years for the company in southern California. But I’d wanted to come back east for some time. In the summer of 2002, I had the opportunity to do that, and I’ve been in the Virginia office ever since. Not longer after I moved, I changed career paths. I went from being an IT manager to being a software developer. I’d burned out on the management side, and needed a break from the politics. I learned that there’s a lot of politics in software development, too, but as I was the only person on my team in the Virginia office (and still am today) I could avoid a lot of it.

It’s also amazing to realize how many people have come and gone in the time that I’ve been working for the company. I lived through the Dot Com boom, and the bust afterward. I lived through Y2K, and 9/11, and two government shutdowns. I have a mousepad in my office that I got back in 1995 or so, and it has photos of a bunch of us who worked on the help desk back then. Here it is, and you can see the 23-year old version of me circled on that mousepad:


Of all of the faces that appear on the mousepad, only mine and one other are still at the company. I’m in regular contact (via Facebook or email) with four others. Two people on the mousepad have died in the time since the photos were taken.

When I started at the company, on that very first day on October 17, 1994, I was given a desktop computer in my office. It was a Windows 3.1 machine with an Intel 386 processor, 16 MB of memory (which was an astonishing amount for 1994) and a 40 MB hard drive. Twenty years later, I have a Dell Laptop running Windows 7, with 8 GB of RAM and a 300 GB hard drive. Times change.

For me, the Golden Age was the years 1997-2001. The Dot Com boom was in full swing. My career was in high gear. I got my pilot’s license during that time, as way of reducing stress. I worked long hours back then, arriving at the office at about 5:30 am, and sometimes not leaving until 8 pm, in order to avoid the horrendous L.A. traffic. We had a great team during those years, and we did a lot of good stuff. The camaraderie during that time was unlike any other time I’d experienced, and I occasionally turn a nostalgic eye on those days and wish things could be like that again.

But they can’t. People evolve and so do companies and organizations within then. When I started in 1994, “IT” was not even a buzzword. Today, IT is one of the biggest players in the service industry. Companies can’t live without IT. It is become very process-driven, and that has its pluses and minuses. Truth be told, I prefer the days when the processes were less formal, and the quality of service to internal customers was the priority. There was a lot more personal interaction, and I think people felt like really cared about helping them.

I was 22 years old when I started at the company. 20 years is a significant milestone only because it is a round number, a multiple of 10. For me, a bigger milestone is 22 years, which will come on October 17, 2016 The reason this is a more significant milestone for me is that is marks the day on which I have spent half my life working at the same company. Half my life!

I wouldn’t have stayed this long if I didn’t generally like what I did. Mostly, it is the people I get to work with that keeps me at the job. That, and the fact that, even after 20 years, I am still learning new things almost every day.

Going Paperless: Paperless Organization in Evernote

A few weeks ago, I mentioned how my regularly scheduled Going Paperless posts were coming to an end, but that I’d continue to write posts off-schedule, as I had time and found something worth posting. I thought I’d start with a series of “index” posts that collect some of the articles I’ve written into categories. And since I am asked about organization more often than just about any other topic, I’ll start with the posts I’ve written related to organizing notes in Evernote. What follows is a list of Going Paperless articles I’ve written on organization. I list them most recent first, as the more recent posts are more up-to-date. But that doesn’t mean the older posts aren’t useful. In case here they are:

Next time, I’ll have a index of Going Paperless posts related to searching in Evernote.

A Look at My Reading in 2014 (So Far, Not Much Science Fiction)

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t been reading much science fiction. Strictly speaking, I haven’t been writing much of it either. My more recent stories have been more along the lines of mainstream alternate histories, with a slightly (barely detectable) element of science fiction to them. This isn’t anything intentional. I just go where the stories take me, and lately, they haven’t been taking me into the galaxy. But I thought it was strange that I wasn’t reading much science fiction either, so I decided to look at what I’ve read so far in 2014.

To-date, I’ve read 30 books in 2014, and it has been a fairly eclectic year. Back when I was a kids and would check books out of the library, there was a requirement to check out nonfiction as well as fiction. Over time, that developed into a habit, and for the early years of my reading list, I kept a pretty good balance of fiction-to-nonfiction. Then, I drifted. Some years, I read a lot of fiction, other years, a lot of nonfiction. This year, the balance seems to have returned.

Type of books

16 out of 30 books to-date have been nonfiction. That comes out to about 53%. Drilling into the categories of books that I’ve read this year, things get more interesting.

Category of Books

Almost a third of all of the books I’ve read are biographies (which include memoirs as well). 9 biographies to-date. But that is more than half of the nonfiction reading that I’ve done this year. The next biggest category is “mainstream” fiction; that is, books that don’t fall into the usual genre categories. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is one example. 13% of the books I’ve read this year (4) have been on baseball. Science fiction makes up only 10% (3) of the books that I have read in 2014.

The vast majority of my reading these days is via audio book. Indeed, a full 90% (27) of the books that I’ve read so far this year have been audio books.

Format of book

2 of the books have been e-books. And I read 1 paper book this year.

Finally, there are the re-reads. Occasionally, I re-read books that I particularly enjoy. This year was no exception.

Format of book

About 25% of the books that I’ve read have been re-reads. I can accept that ratio. Some years its lower and some years its higher. I sometimes think that with the limited time I have for reading, I should always read something I’ve never read before. But then I think, ah, what the heck, I read for fun, to learn, to relax, why not re-read something I really enjoy every now and then?

I don’t rate the books that I read. My list of books that I’ve read since 1996 has some bold titles, which indicates books that I would recommend to others. That’s about as close as I get to rating them. So far this year, I’ve marked 18 of the 30 books that I’ve read (60%) as “recommended.” That seemed pretty high to me, so I went to look at past years. Here is how they line up:

Recommended Books by Year

Why such an increase in the last 2 years? It goes coincide with when I started listening to audio books, so perhaps the voice actor’s performance changes my perception of the book. But I like to think I’ve just gotten better at selecting books I think I will enjoy reading.

With 12 weeks remaining in 2014, I’d estimate completing another 10 books before the year is out. It’s possible the number will be higher. Several of the books I’ve read this year have been very long, and that tends to skew things. Still, I don’t see an uptick in the fiction ration. It may hold the same, but I’m pretty content with nonfiction at the moment. I’ve learned to just go with the flow, and read whatever I feel like reading. It all works itself out in the end.

3 Productivity Tips from Winston Churchill

I am often astonished by how little technology can really help make me more productive. More often than not, it adds distractions. Take word processors, for example. I’ve argued before that a word processor for writers should do 3 things really well. When word processors don’t do these things, I have to spend less time writing and more time messing with settings and options and other nonsense.

I have also argued that the best project management books, in my opinion, are those that you don’t find in the self-help or business section of the bookstore, but instead in the history or biography section. That’s because, rather than telling somewhat what they should do, history and biographies illustrate what someone did do to be productive or successful. Which brings me around to three productivity tips I took away from reading William Manchester’s massive 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill.

Some context: Churchill worked in all parts of the English government. But at his peak, he was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during the Second World War. That makes for a pretty busy guy. And keep in mind, Churchill didn’t have email, spam filters, text expanders, project management software, and other productivity tools to help him out. At the same time, he didn’t have Microsoft Office to hinder him, either. Given this, here are 3 productivity tips I took from Churchill during this time.

1. Work where you are most comfortable

It is well-known that Churchill spent most of his morning in bed. What is less well-known, I imagine, is that most of that time was spent working. Churchill worked where he was most comfortable, and when he was comfortable, he was a more effective worker. I don’t think this argues that we should work in bed, but I think it does go to the environment in which we force ourselves to work. I have a home office, and I often feel like I have to work in there. But sometimes, I grab my laptop and go into the living room, or even to the public library and do some work there. Working where I feel most comfortable helps me be more productive.

2. Use the simplest possible system of priority

I am a failure at GTD. I’ve read David Allen’s book twice, and I understand the principles, but the system is far too complex for me to manage. Indeed, on the occasions I’ve tried, I found myself spending more time trying to manage my time than I did doing actual work. This is not a criticism of GTD, this is an admission of failure on my part. I need something simpler.

Priority is a good example. I’ve seen all kinds of systems involving how best to prioritize tasks, and almost all of them–whether Franklin-Covey, GTD, or some other system–are too complex for me. In general, I need to know what I should be working on now. When I finish that, I’ll worry about the next thing.

But I’ve found myself drifting to a model that Churchill used throughout his career in government. He used this system to delegate tasks to others, but I look at from the other side. How I handle tasks coming in.

As Churchill would dictate memos, which he often did while in bed, he would add one of two tags to the memo before it went out. Urgent memos were tagged “Action this day.” For these, he expected a response or action to happen the same day the memo was issued. For less urgent memos, he would tag it (in a different color) “Respond in 3 days.” This meant he expected a response within 3 days of the memo being received.

Looking at it this way, I generally see my own tasks as falling into one of two categories. The thing I should be doing now (“action this day”), and the things I should be doing later (“action in 3 days”). It is for this reason that my to-do list is a simple text file, each line is a to-do item, and the thing at the top is the thing to work on now.

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