New Office, All Done!

Two and a half months after moving into the new house, my new office is now completely setup the way I want it. Yesterday I completed the task of organizing the books on the shelves, as I mentioned. I opted to keep the same sort order I originally used, alphabetical by author and then chronological within an author. It was just easier that way. There are a couple of sorting exceptions where a large book is involved, but otherwise, they are back in order after more than 10 years of disarray.

It took a long time, and I was up late working on this. I didn’t want to quit until I had it done. The sorting was complicated by the fact that the books had been arranged in no real order, beyond how they came out of the boxes. That meant a lot of hunting down a book in order to put it in its proper place. What I did was sort the books in LibraryThing based on their entry date. That way, I had a rough idea of what shelf they were on by where they showed up in the list. I worked one shelf at a time, removing all of the books on the shelf, and then refilling it with properly sorted books. At the peak of the process, this meant I had books scattered everywhere.

Once I was finished, I straightened up the rest of the office, got rid of a bunch of junk I’d been collecting, and after lunch, here is how my mostly-complete office looked:

My office, looking east
Looking east, from a slightly different angle
My office, looking south (and into the living room)
My office, looking northwest

I say “mostly” complete because we still have to have French doors installed between my office and the living room. Everyone will be happier when this is done, given my volume of work-related called and video chat.

While putting the books in order last night, I took note of how many of them were signed. The result: 52 of them: a full deck.

991 Books

More than two months after moving into the new house, I have finished cataloging all of my paper-based books. I used LibraryThing to catalog them because the iPhone app made it easy to scan barcodes and enter ISBNs. While cataloging the books, I purged again. I did this before the move as well. In this round, I donated 128 books.

My bookshelves after the Second Great Purge

The majority of the books I got rid of in this latest purge were Piers Anthony paperbacks. I had been collecting these since I first discovered Anthony in junior high school, and some of them dated back to that time. It was a little difficult letting these go, not so much because of the nostalgia they created, but because of the memories of the hard-earned money I spent to buy them. Hopefully, they will take on a new life for another reader.

I kept a few of the PA paperbacks. I kept a paperback copy of Race Against Time. I remember checking this book out of the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library before I knew who Piers Anthony was. I read it at a fever-pace over the course of a few hot summer days. Eventually, I obtained my own copy, and I kept this one as a reminder that books can surprise you and be a window into all kinds of new discovery.

My copy of Race Against Time

I also kept a rare paperback copy of Kiai! by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes. I haven’t read this one, but the book happens to be signed by Piers Anthony and I couldn’t give that up. I kept several PA hardcovers, including his INCARNATIONS OF IMMORTALITY series, which I remember really enjoying.

My signed copy of Kiai!

Going through all of my books, I was surprised at how many I found that were signed by the author. Dozens of them. They fall into two broad categories: books that are signed to me personally, and books that I obtained already signed. I have several signed Asimov books that fall into the latter category. I have one Will Durant book in this latter category along with several volumes of Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Times that are signed.

There are many more books that are signed to me, including perhaps 10 by Harlan Ellison, half a dozen by Barry N. Malzberg. And there are many books signed by authors who have since become my friends.

I am left with 991 printed books. I have about 400 e-books and nearly 800 audiobooks from Audible that are not part of this catalog. This also does not count all of the magazines I have, including a complete set of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, and a fairly complete set of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION from 1939-1950.

My next step is to organize them. Right now, they are on the shelves in a completely haphazard fashion. Once, long ago, I had them arranged alphabetically by author, and then chronologically within each author. I am planning on changing that. I’ll organize the fiction books alphabetically by author and then chronologically within each other. The nonfiction I plan on breaking into several categories that are useful to me. These include: biography/memoir, science, history, sports, NASA/space exploration, essays and criticism, and reference books. I may need one or two additional categories, but we’ll see. With the purge complete, the books should all fit neatly on my existing shelves. I’ll post another picture when the reorganization is complete.

Here is an interesting fact: according to LibraryThing, if all of my books were stacked up, they would reach about 550 feet, which is just shy of the height of the Washington Monument.

Prediction Algorithms: You Might Also Like…

Amazon is a fairly poor predictor of what I might like to read next. For some reason, their algorithms just don’t work well on me. I am trying to think of a time when Amazon suggested a book, and I thought, Yes, that is exactly what I need.

I’m thinking about this today for two reasons: first, because I’m in one of those in-between states, where I can’t quite figure out what to read next; and second, because of an Amazon email that’s been sitting in my inbox since yesterday with a subject: “Discovery your next read.”

The email was well-timed, what with me at sea between books, so of course I took a look at it. The list offered ten possibilities broken into five groups. They are as follows:

Recommended for you

  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I suspect this is because I recently read The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life by Richard Russo. Okay, maybe this is a fair recommendation, but there is a little luck involved here, as I will explain shortly.
  • The Pioneers by David McCullough. This would be a great recommendation, right up my alley, if not for the fact that I have already read it.

Based on your reading

  • Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. This is a better recommendation than the Anne Lamott because I just finished reading Empire Falls. See, I went from reading about Russo to wanting to read his writing, not more about writing. That’s the problem with the Lamott recommendation–well, one of them, anyway.
  • Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation by Dennis Tenen. I suspect this is because I am partway through a fantastic book called Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum, a history of the word processor. The only problem is, I’ve stalled on that book, not because it is bad–it is fantastic. But I am looking for something else at the moment. That makes Plain Text interesting, but not right for the moment.

Inspired by your wishlist

  • The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. It does sound interesting, but no, not now.
  • Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life by Steven Strogatz. Order certainly emerged from chaos here, where I got not one but two books by Strogatz, someone I’ve never heard of. What is on my wishlist that inspired these recommendations?

For you in biographies and memoirs

  • Ten Innings at Wrigley by Kevin Cook. Okay, I have this audiobook, and it is downloaded to my phone, which is what I do for books that I plan on reading in the near future. This is a good prediction and recommendation, and I’ll give Amazon credit for this one.
  • For the Good of the Game by Bud Selig. Interesting that both recommendations are related to baseball. This would be a good recommendation as well, yet once again, I have already read this book. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much I sent Selig a note, and even got a response from him!–Although it is possible the response I got was a form letter.

For you on Amazon charts

  • Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens. I’m sure it’s a great book, but it’s not up there on my radar anywhere.
  • The New Girl by Daniel Silva. Not sure why Amazon would recommend the 19th book in a series when I haven’t read the first 18.

Okay, so if I were generous, I’d say that generally speaking, Amazon made 3 good recommendations: The Pioneers, Ten Innings at Wrigley, and For the Good of the Game. The problem is that I have already read two of those, so in practice, Amazon made only one good recommendation. One is better than none, I suppose, but it doesn’t encourage me to take their recommendations seriously.

There are two problems, as I see it:

First, Amazon doesn’t seem to know which books I have read and which I haven’t. I mark books “Finished” on Goodreads, which Amazon owns, so they have access to that data, and could, in theory, use that to eliminate recommendations and replace them with others. Moreover, I have finished 365 audiobooks on Audible, which Amazon also owns, and from which, they should be able to tell what I have finished and what I haven’t. That seems like a simple problem to fix.

The second problem is more complicated. Predictions work better, I suspect, for readers who read primarily within a set genre or two. But what of an eclectic reader, someone who reads, say, a classic collection of sportswriter interviews, and follows that up with a Hollywood memoir, after which he reads a book about NASA engineers, and then just for kicks, a book on the White House chiefs of staff. I suspect Amazon’s algorithms are good at saying, “If you liked the Kingkiller Chronicles, then you should try…” But how good are they at making recommendations for someone like me, whose whimsy is often guided by the butterfly effect of reading? Given that series of four books I j just listed, what direction does an algorithm take?

I empathize with Amazon’s prediction bots at times like these, when I am floating on an ocean with no interesting books in sight. Today, just to read something I started The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns from Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins. Maybe this one will take.

R.I.P. Jim Bouton

I read in the Washington Post this morning that Jim Bouton had died at age 80. He pitched for the Yankees in the 1960s, but was perhaps most famous for his groundbreaking book, Ball Four. It is a fantastic look inside baseball in the late 1960s. If you are a fan of the game and haven’t read the book, you should. I think it is #3 on Sport Illustrated list of best sports books of all time.

My kids knew of Jim Bouton as well. As I took them to camp this morning, I mentioned that he had died. The Little Miss said, “Who is Jim Bouton?” and the Little Man replied almost at once. “He’s the inventor of Big League Chew.”

In an eerie coincidence, last night, I was reading For the Love of the Game, Bud Selig’s new memoir about his life in baseball, and there was some mention of Bouton and his book. Then I saw his name and face in the paper this morning.

Reading, Halfway Through 2019

I’ve been out of town, and busy with work, but I wanted to check-in briefly now that the year is half over. I set a goal this year of reading 100 books (down form the 130 I read last year). How do things stand?

As I write this, I just finished my 59th book of the year (Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy). That puts me about 8 books ahead of schedule. Overall, my reading time is down this year from last, but I think that some of the books I’ve read this year have been shorter than my average and that has helped to balance out the difference. Last year, the average length of a book I read was 454 pages. This year, so far it is 412 pages, one page less than my 24 year average of 413 pages.

I’ve got a lot of books queued up, and not sure what I am going to settle on next quite yet, but I snapped this photo of the books currently piled on my desk, any of which would serve as a good possibility.

Books stacked on my desk

Do Fifth-Graders Still Learn to Read Newspapers?

Sitting in the terminal at Dulles International last week, I happened to look around me at the passengers waiting for their flights. While there were hundreds of passengers, I saw only a single newspaper among them—the one that I was reading. Later that week, while sitting in our Pittsburgh office, a co-worked passed by, did a double-take, and backtracked. “I had to stop,” he said, “because I never see anyone reading an actual newspaper anymore.” I was reading a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

The most practical lesson I ever received in elementary school came when my fifth-grade math teacher took it upon himself to teach the class how to read a newspaper. As he model, he used our local paper, the Providence Journal. I remember nothing about the contents of the paper on that particular day, but the lessons he taught us have stayed with me. 

He taught us, for instance, how to identify the lead story in the paper. He taught us the basic format of news stories, and how to tell who wrote them. He described the difference between a news story, an editorial, and an opinion piece. He taught us about sources and the basics of factual news reporting. He did all of this at a level that fifth-graders could understand. (He also taught us how to read the stock page, which I think was his original point, since this was, after all, a math class.) 

Since then, I have been a fairly steady newspaper reader, although there have been gaps. When I lived in Los Angeles, I read the Los Angeles Times. My local paper today is the Washington Post, but I still read the L.A. Times, part out of nostalgia, and part because I enjoy the writing. When I travel, I try to sample the local fare in news reporting, and am often surprised by how good the smaller papers are. You can learn a lot about a place by reading an issue or two of its local paper. 

The Little Man recently turned ten, and by chance, I was ten when my fifth-grade math teacher taught our class how to read the paper. It made me wonder: do schools still teach kids how to read a newspaper? Did they ever, or was my experience unique? In the intervening decades between my fifth grade experience and the Little Man’s, the Internet emerged and grew with all of its promise and problems. Still, with kids spending so much time on screens these days, the importance of newspapers can’t be overstated. I thought about how I might explain this to the Little Man. I started by considering the advantages a newspaper provides over social media, blogs, radio, and television news broadcasts. 

  1. Reading is an important skill to develop and a daily newspaper ensures that practical reading material is available every day. Some of that reading may be a stretch, but like any form of exercise, it’s good to aim high. 
  2. At the same time, newspapers provide a means for keeping up with current events. The Little Man grows increasingly curious about the world, asking all kinds of questions. As that continues, the newspaper can help feed that curiosity. 
  3. Newspaper reporting is not instantaneous. The benefit of a day’s delay allows for more accuracy in reporting. Facts can be checked, multiple sources consultant and corroborated, and in-depth analysis by experts can be brought to bear. 
  4. Editorials provide good examples of persuasive writing. They are brief, and focused. This is a skill that is particularly useful in high school and college. Whether or not you agree with the editorial writer, the model used in most papers is a good one. 
  5. Newspapers provide a mechanism for debate and discussion, correction, disagreement, and expression. If you read something that you think is factually wrong, if you disagree with an opinion piece, most papers provide a means of debate and discussion through their Letters to the Editor page. 

There are intangibles to newspapers as well. You might discover a writer you enjoy reading, and looking forward to his or her columns (always with frustration when they are on vacation and the paper puts out a re-run). The first time this happened with me was reading Al Martinez’s column in the L. A. Times. Then, too, many newspapers still have some great sportswriters, among them, Tom Boswell at the Washington Post

Although many newspapers are now available in digital format, I prefer printed editions, if for no other reason than they provide a daily reprieve from reading on a screen. 

I don’t know if fifth-graders are still taught to read a newspaper the way I was. But that single lesson stands out more than any other as one that has had a continually positive impact on my life. In teaching me to read a newspaper, my fifth-grade teacher helped me learn how to think better for myself, using what I read in the paper as both a learning tool, and a sounding board. 

I’d hate for the Little Man to miss out on that. 

Back from Pittsburgh

I have been in Pittsburgh for work since Tuesday. My days have been long (between 12-13-1/2 hours a day) and I haven’t had any time to write here. I got back home late yesterday afternoon, and was so sleep-deprived that I was completely out-of-sorts. After a good night’s sleep, however, I am feeling back to myself again. I noticed that Kelly has the new house looking completely unpacked and setup. All that’s left to unpack is the other half of my office.

I had a view of this church during my stay in Pittsburgh this week. I desperately wanted to get to a game at PNC Park. Wednesday looked like the prime night, but I ended up working late. When I got to the hotel restaurant, the Pirates were losing 7-1. But they came back and won 8-7 so that would have been quite a game to be at.

There is also a small bookstore that I meant to get to around the corner from where I was working–Desolation Books. I didn’t make it there this time, but hope to get back there the next time I am in town.

Halfway Through the Goodreads 2019 Challenge

Today I finished my 50th book of 2019, a few weeks ahead of pace. The book was On Democracy by E. B. White. It is an aptly-timed collection of White’s essays and comments on democracy and freedom, put together by his granddaughter, and with an introduction by Jon Meacham.

Last year, I read 130 books. I aimed for 100 books this year because I’d planned to read a few books which I knew to be particularly long. At this point I am 5 books ahead of pace, and I plan to gain some more ground before the end of the month with several books that I mentioned the other day. That will allow me to tackle some of the longer books in the second half of the year, including over the summer.

2019 Goodreads Challenge

4 Years of Field Notes

If you have seen me in the last four years, then you know that I am rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my back pocket. I can no longer recall exactly how I discovered these wonderful notebooks, but they have changed my life. A few days ago, I turned to the first Field Notes notebook I ever used, and saw that I started it on June 24, 2015–just about four years ago. In that time, I have become a subscriber to their quarterly notebook list, collected probably around 100 of their notebooks, and filled nineteen of them. These volumes sit on a shelf by my desk where I keep all of my important reference volumes.

My Field Notes volumes

One volume (not among the nineteen) I used as a simple index of the others. Looking at that one, you can see that it took me a while to fill those volumes at first. I filled five of them in 2016, five in 2017, and five in 2018. I’ve filled three so far in the first half of 2019, but that number is going up more rapidly these days as the way that I used these notebook has evolved.

My Field Notes index

When I started, these notebooks served as a kind of short term memory for me. I’d jot down things so that I wouldn’t forget them later. Flipping through the first volume, for instance, I see ideas for blog posts, scribbles from visits to the dentist, and bumper stickers I found amusing (“Condoms prevent unwanted minivans.”) There are some things that I no longer know what they are for. Numbers like 27.975. I think it was for some code I was writing because there’s a reference to a GitHub repo. There’s a surprising amount of math worked out longhand in the pages.

In those early volumes, I rarely dated anything, other than the date I started and finished the volume. It wasn’t until volume 7 (12/20/2016 – 3/18/2017) that I regularly started dating the pages. By then, I’d become more accustomed to pulling out my notebook without feeling embarrassed. Not only are there restaurant names, there are server names (so that I don’t forget). I even occasionally write down what I plan to order.

There are lists of all kinds, including lists of books that I plan to read so that I don’t forget. I don’t always get to the books right away, but I do eventually. Some pages have notes from meetings (before I started using Composition Books for that purpose), more math being worked out, and fairly detailed notes from historic sites we visit. (I am the one on the guided tours, scribbling in my notebook as we move through the 300 year old house.)

The two most recent notebooks have taken yet another step forward in their evolutionary development. I filled these much faster–within about a month, or a rate of 12 notebooks a year. With these, I start each day scribbling the date on the next blank page. Then, my day gets logged as it happens, and the various random lists, math, memory aids is right there among it all. A typical day now fills 2 pages. This has been a great aid for helping me with more detailed journal entries at the end of the day. Since I have been logging what I eat again, that finds its way into the mix. Here’s what today’s entry looks like, so far:

A page from 6/16/2019

I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, along with two pens, one black, and one blue. On rare occasions when I have set it aside, I feel the way I do when I’ve left my wallet at home. I love the variety of the notebooks, and the themes that the folks at Field Notes come up with. Right now, I’m carrying around one of their Mile Marker editions.

Friends and family have grown used to me pulling out these notebooks to jot things down. They only make fun of me a little. But when they want to know something about what happened a few days earlier, I occasionally here them turn to Kelly and say, “Ask Jamie, he’ll know. He probably wrote it in his notebook.”

And I probably did.

Some Summer Reading

As one who likes to tempt fate, here is a list of some of my upcoming reading for the rest of June and early July. I say “tempt fate” because as I have said before, my reading is guided almost entirely by the butterfly-effect of reading. In other words, I make plans, and the butterflies laugh. That said, here’s what I am looking at:

  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (currently reading)
  • No Cheering in the Press Box by Jerome Holtzman (currently reading)
  • All Those Mornings…At the Post by Shirley Povich
  • The Great American Sports Page edited by John Schulian
  • The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Voilel Moller
  • One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman
  • Range: When Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  • Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir by Linnie Marsh Wolfe
  • On Democracy by E. B. White
  • Ten Innings at Wrigley by Barry Abrams
  • Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
  • The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
  • An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa (1942-1943) by Rick Atkinson
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

What are you looking forward to reading this summer?

Reading Outdoors

When I lived in L.A. my apartment had a small wraparound porch. One side of the porch faced south, the other faced east. The east side was the shady side and the south side the sunny side. I spent countless hours sitting on that porch, chair propped back, feet up on the railing, and a book in my lap. I read The Three Musketeers sitting on that porch. I read 2001: A Space Odyssey on that porch. I read Carl Sagan, and Isaac Asimov, and Tom Clancy, and Agatha Christie on that porch. One of the things I missed most when I left L.A. was reading on that porch.

In the 17 years since, I still haven’t read outdoors as much as I did when I had access to that porch. The places I have lived just weren’t as conducive to reading outdoors: vagaries of the east coast weather, combined with a lack of a quiet place to read outside made it difficult. We had a small area in the back of our old house that I tried to read from on numerous occasions, but it never lasted long. On that porch in L.A., I could spend the entire day reading.

At the new house, we have the deck. A few days ago, I went out there in the late afternoon when the humidity was low and breeze rustled through the trees. I had a book with me, and my youngest daughter, and we sat out there, she watching the birds, while I read. An hour passed in the blink of an eye. It was delightful.

This afternoon, when all of my meetings were over, and the house was quiet, I went out there again. I took along one of the books I’m reading, Jerome Holtzman’s No Cheering in the Pressbox (#93 on Sports Illustrated top 100 sports books of all time). Once again, the humidity was low. A freshening breeze rustled the trees and kept the bugs away. I sat on a deck chair in the bright sun, and propped my feed up on another chair, and read. It was delightful. It might even be better than the porch in L.A. Time will tell.

Reading on the deck

We need to populate the deck with decent deck furniture, but I realized right away that an umbrella of somekind is critical. I forgot how bright a white page is when reflecting the light of the summer sun. Still, I enjoyed sitting out there. The house is situated far enough from main roads so that there is no traffic noise. With the breeze blowing, all I could hear was the wind in the trees. The sun felt warm, and the book, thus far, was excellent.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of reading done out on that deck. I may even get some writing done out there. Heck, it was so nice out today that I considered taking my laptop out there and doing some work.

I still miss the porch in L.A. But I miss is a little less now, thanks to the new deck.

Writing in the Digital Age: An Introduction

Writers of old had it easy. Take sportswriters, for instance. When it came to actually sitting down and writing, their biggest decision was which brand of typewriter to use. Some of those manual typewriters could be tiring, but the stories were rarely that long. They filed their stories by wire, and then went out for steaks with the players, or each other.

Writers today have a lot more overhead. At least, this writer does. Few of us write on typewriters anymore. The Royal QuietComfort that sits here in my office has a broken A key, which would make writing difficult. Instead, I have to make a series of interrelated decisions that impact my ability to produce copy:

  • What platform should I write on (Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS)?
  • What tool should I use for my writing (Word, Scrivener, Notepad, Vim, Google Docs, etc., etc.)?
  • Where do I store my files (locally on the hard disk, in the cloud, and if so, which ecosystem to I align myself with: iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive)?
  • How do I manage revisions to my writing?

For those turn-of-the-Twentieth-century sportswriters, these decisions were relatively easy: A Royal typewriter, paper and ribbon, a filing cabinet, and some carbon paper could handle all of this. Why have things become so much more complex?

This question has fascinated me for a while now, perhaps because I can never seem to settle on the right combination of options. I suspect this is because there is no “right” combination, and that makes things more difficult. I thought that technology made things easier, but the longer I’ve been writing, and dealing with technology, the less certain I am of this. 

In some areas technology does make things easier. It is amazing what I can do with the Alexa that sits here near my desk. But there are other areas where the choice of technology can lock you into ecosystems that may not fully align with your workstyle.

In this series of posts, I plan to explore the question of technological complexity from my own perspective as a writer. I’ll start by talking about tools specific to writing, but over time, I plan on running the gamut of tools I use on a regular basis. I want to explore not only the complexity of these tools, but look for ways to simplify. As a writer, I naturally want to spend my time writing. More and more I see tools getting in the way of writing. If that wasn’t the case, why do so many tools now add a “focus” or “distraction-free” mode? What choices can I make to simplify my writing ecosystem?

Writing is not the only area which tools add complexity. I see it in how I manage communications (email), and media (photos, books, videos, etc.). Even something as simple as contact management has grown inordinately complex.

I’ve been reading Jerome Holtzman’s classic book No Cheering in the Pressbox, and when I think about these sportswriters and the tools they used to get their jobs done, and compare them with my own, the complexity of my systems seem out of all proportion.

I’m attempting a top-down approach here starting with the choice of ecosystem, then the tools. And since I come to this through the perspective of a writer, that is the lens through which I will examine this question.