All posts by Jamie Todd Rubin

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

Spring is the Best Season

A tree in bloom on my morning walk.

This time of year I can often be heard saying, “You can’t appreciate spring until you’ve been through winter.” By “you” I mean me of course. I lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years and I missed spring there dreadfully because winter was nothing more than pages on a calendar. On my walk this morning, there was no doubt that spring had arrived.

Spring is my favorite season. It is renewal, of course. New leaves on the trees, a kind of new beginning. The new year used to be the first day of spring. I think it still should be. At least then it would bear some relation to astronomical events. Spring means baseball and baseball means spring. My birthday falls shortly after the spring equinox. I used to begin my annual re-reading of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies in the spring, always attempting to finish on April 6, the day he died.

Summer is nice when you are still young. Summer means a break from school and, at least until I was 16, it meant no work. Summers today are hot and humid and there is no “summer break” for me as a grownup. Retirement is now closer than the beginning of my working career, and the think I like to imagine best about it is waking up in summer and not having to do anything. The last time that happened I was fifteen.

Fall is a close second to spring in my book. But fall is less optimistic than spring. The days grow rapidly shorter. The air gets cooler and instead of being filled with the fragrance of flowers, it smells of decaying leaves.

Winter is an odd bird. It can be cold, snowy, wet, dark and long. But it is necessary to make spring the great season that it is.

I always find it difficult to imagine a cold winter day in the middle of summer, and equally difficult to imagine a warm summer day in the middle of winter.

Enjoy the spring! Here are some pictures of spring I snapped on my walk this morning.

The Desk and The Desktop: Musings on Productivity, Part 1

I. The Desk

Lately, I have been thinking about a desk. It is not a fancy desk, but in my imagination, it is a homemade desk. It is not a big desk. It doesn’t have any drawers, but it has a good sized surface. On the surface I imagine some blank paper, and a pen. In front of the desk is a chair. How productive is it possible to be with just a few tools like that? A paper, a pen, a surface on which to write, and a place to sit?

Do the tools really matter? Or is the person using them? Consider, for instance, John Quincy Adams. Without much more than paper, pen and a place to write, Adams had one of the most remarkably productive lives I can imagine: Minister to the Netherlands, Portugal, and Prussia, followed by a stint in the Massachusetts Senate, and then as a United States Senator for Massachusetts (while also serving as a professor at Brown). Then he was off again as Minister to Russia, then Minister to Great Britain. After that he became James Monroe’s Secretary of State for eight years. He then served as President of the United States for a term. But that wasn’t enough for him. After his term ended he served for 18 years (until his death) in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That seems a productive life by any standard. I’ve read several biographies of John Quincy Adams and it isn’t exaggerating much to say that he did this almost entirely through the use of pen and paper. His public writings are exhaustive. And in addition to all of that, Adams found time over the course of his life to fill 51 volumes of a diary totaling more than 14,000 pages. He did all of this without computers, the Internet, spreadsheets and Word documents, shell scripts, Siri and Alexa.

When I think about this it boggles my mind and I feel downright lazy in comparison.

Adams had more than just pen and paper, of course. He had a good education, and a phenomenal mind (I’ve read that he was probably our smartest President in terms of raw brain power). He had a library of books which was his version of the Internet. And he had time. The things that distract me today hadn’t been imagined. There was no radio, television, streaming services, or digital media. No email, texts, tweets, and alerts to disturb Adams’s focus. Time was, perhaps, Adams’s greatest productivity tool.

When I think about Adams and productivity, I think about a desk, an empty surface, a pen, a sheet of paper, and plenty of time to fill it.

II. The Desktop

I have a public screen and a private screen. When I am sharing my screen in meetings, I only share my “public” screen. There is a plain background, no icons on the desktop, and no windows open except for those that I need to share.

My private desktop is usually a disaster. Here is what it looks like as I write this post:

My cluttered desktop

More than just an empty surface with paper and pen, eh? Let’s see, I’ve got a browser window open (only one for a change!), but there are four tabs open in that one window. I’ve got a text editor open to a control file I was messing with. I’ve got Visual Studio Code open to a project that makes use of said control file. I’ve got Apple TV open because I never shut it down after watching something yesterday afternoon. I’ve got Apple Music open because I was listening to music while I worked. Let’s see, what else: Skitch, Bluetooth settings, Activity Monitor, Terminal, Calendar, the Console app, and of course, Obsidian, where I am writing this.

I have all of my documents available to me going back to college. I’ve got all kinds of apps and tools I can use for getting things done. I’ve got high-speed access to a large portion of the world’s information. Moreover, I can take all of these tools with me, carry them around in my pocket if I wanted to. And yet, I often feel lost when it comes to being productive. It makes me wonder:

Which is more productive, the desk or the desktop?

Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking

Watching The Crown on Netflix recently, I noted that every episode has the following warning at the top-left of the screen when it begins:

Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking

I find these kinds of warning silly. I imagine that there are people who, upon seeing such a warning, will stay away from the program. This is the intended function, I suppose. But such a warning is nothing more than a dare to younger people.

Interestingly, in the case of The Crown at least, anyone reading said warning and then eagerly watching the show hoping for sex, nudity, language, and smoking will be somewhat disappointed. I have made it a little more than halfway through the second season and so far have not encountered any sex, nudity, or language (other than that of upper class English). Smoking, however, is another matter. Perhaps the warning should read:

Smoking, Smoking, Smoking, Smoking

It occurred to me for the first time (perhaps because I am slow on the uptake) that these warning are listed in order of seriousness, although that doesn’t seem to be quite the right word. Harmful to young minds, perhaps? If that is the case, I am rather amused.

Sex, when safe, doesn’t seem particularly harmful. If nudity were harmful I think we’d all be taking showers in our swimwear. Language, well, they do say the pen is mightier than the sword, and certainly words can sometimes hurt, but I’m not sure that is what the warning is about. Finally, we come to smoking.

Of all four items in this list, smoking is the only one I know of that causes cancer. I do find it a little ridiculous that the warning has made its way from cigarette packages to television shows on a streaming service that I willingly pay for (as opposed to say broadcast television). But still, I think we can all agree that smoking is harmful. And there is a lot of it in The Crown.

Incidentally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I am really enjoying the show. I think that John Lithgow’s performance as Sir Winston Churchill is about the best Churchill I’ve seen done. Back in the summer of 2014 (I think) I read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Churchill and it was phenomenal. Indeed, parts of it were incredibly moving, such as the death of Marigold Churchill. That moved me so much that I wrote a post about it that has become a surprisingly evergreen post, though I have never figured out why. Anyway, the show is a good one, well-written, and well-acted, and while I can’t speak to its complete historical accuracy, it’s fun to watch.

Still, every time I start a new episode, I am reminded of the warning: Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking. Each time I eagerly await the first three (the fourth is a given) and each time, I come away a little disappointed. (Indeed, The Crown is downright prude compared to Bridgerton, a half dozen or so scenes of which I have caught while Kelly watched it. The warning on that show might read: Sex, Sex on Stairs, Sex in Baths, Sex in Hallways.)

Here are some thoughts that come to mind when I see the warning:

  1. If anyone is looking for a name for an album or painting, you could do worse than Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking.
  2. Sex, Nudity, Language, Smoking reads like an order of operation. In old movies, doesn’t the (implied) sex come first and the smoking come last?
  3. I wonder what Churchill would have had to say about warnings like these? For language, at least, we know, as he is famous for his quip about ending sentences with prepositions: “That is the kind of English up with which I will not put.”

There is at least one good thing about the warning: without it, I would have had nothing to write about this evening.

Given that warnings like these seem to proliferate, it makes me wonder if I need a warning at the top of each of my posts here on the blog. I have some ideas but they all either involve sex, nudity, language, or smoking, and out of an abundance of sensitivity on my part, I will spare sharing them with you.

Post-Pandemic Party Playlist

I’m not what you’d call a particularly social butterfly. I have no trouble in a crowd and often have fun. But I also have days when I don’t feel social. Lately, I’ve been daydreaming of a post-Pandemic party. We have this huge deck which we haven’t really taken advantage of, as far as parties go, thanks to everyone being isolated for the last year.

A few days ago, I began to put together what I call a “Post-Pandemic Party Playlist.” Just a bunch of fun songs that I imagine playing in the background while we have a bunch of friends over, the grill fired up, a cooler full of drinks on the deck, and food scattered about the house. I imagine some people downstairs playing pool or ping pong in the family room. The kids might be in the game room playing Xbox with their friends. The grownups are all out on the deck, or hovering around the food in the kitchen.

Normally, I find these kinds of parties to be fun, but I’m an early bird, and am ready to wind things down by 7 or 8 pm. But in my imagination recently, I picture these parties going on well into the night. I picture a lot of joking and laughing. I imagine a kind of release and relief. No one is talking about the Pandemic. For a few hours, we all pretend it never happened and just enjoy the fact that we can be out with friends, having a good time again.

Kelly and I are both scheduled to get our second dose of the COVID vaccine later this week. Maybe such a party isn’t too far-fetched sometime in the not-too-distant future. We have a Karaoke machine. I think we’ll have to include that in the party as well.

Oh, and if anyone is wondering what’s on my playlist. Here it is. I listened to it a couple of times today while spending most of the day writing code (yes, working on a Saturday). It made the time go by quickly.

  1. Thunderstruck by AC/DC
  2. Strip Adam Ant
  3. Love in an Elevator by Aerosmith
  4. Lonely People by America
  5. Blame It on the Bossa Nova by Annette Funicello
  6. Love Shack by the B-52’s
  7. I Want to Conquer the World by Bad Religion
  8. Fun, Fun, Fun by The Beach Boys
  9. Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles
  10. Shelter from the Storm by Bob Dylan
  11. Wild in the Streets by Bon Jovi
  12. Let the Day Begin by The Call
  13. Tubthumping by Chumbawamba
  14. Viva la Vida by Coldplay
  15. Tessie by Dropkick Murphys
  16. Pump It Up by Elvis Costello
  17. Vacation by The Go-Go’s
  18. There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York by Louis Armstrong
  19. Be Good Johnny by Men at Work
  20. Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond
  21. Feelin’ Love by Paula Cole
  22. Goodbye-Goodbye by Oingo Boingo
  23. In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel
  24. Supernatural Superserious by R.E.M.
  25. I Love L.A. by Randy Newman
  26. Freewill by Rush
  27. On the Loose by Saga
  28. Come on Eileen (cover) by Save Ferris
  29. Spam by Save Ferris
  30. Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty
  31. Jump by Van Halen

I imagine this list will continue to grow until this imagined party actually takes place. Listening to it gives me hope that this party will eventually happen.

100 Consecutive Days of Blog Posts in 2021

Today marks one hundred consecutive days of blog posts that I have written thus far in 2021. 109 posts in 100 days, totaling about 70,000 words. As I said in my post of January 1,

I miss the days of just sitting at the keyboard and pounding out something that just occurred to me. And so rather than waiting for what I feel is a “post-worthy” idea, I’m going to swing back to posting here when things happen to pop into my head. What that means for you is more posts in 2021.

I’m happy to say that so far, this is true. I wrote a total of 51 blog posts in all of 2020, and have more than doubled that in the first 100 days of 2021. Comments and discussions are on the rise as well, more than triple so far than all of 2020 combined.

Overall, I’m very pleased by this. It isn’t always easy to come up with something to write every day, but it is always enjoyable, a part of the day that I always look forward to.

I am working this weekend. It is crunch time for a software project that me and my team has been working on for just over a year, and which will roll out in a few more weeks. Having this blog as a place to come to let my thoughts run free after (or before) a long day’s work is something that I am grateful for.

Thanks again for being such a great audience!

Passive-Aggressive Facebook Posts

Certain Facebook posts try my patience more than others. In particular is a class of passive-aggressive posts that remind me of the now old-fashioned chain letters that used to sweep through email inboxes. If you are on Facebook at all, I’m sure you’ll recognize these.

There are two types of these passive-aggressive posts. The first usually begin like this:

I know most of my friends won’t share this, but…

You’ve seen these posts. They attempt to bully their way into getting shares by, what? Making people feel guilty because you have no intention of sharing the post? I’ve got to say that I’ve never felt guilty for not sharing a post.

This kind of post most reminds me of the old email chain letters that command you to forward the message to 10 friends and you’ll have good luck. On the other hand, if you ignore the message, you will be sucked into a sinkhole before sunset.

There is another type of passive-aggressive post that I see frequently. These turn up more in ads for puzzles and games and usually begin by saying something like:

Only people with 160 IQ can solve this puzzle.

There is, of course, absolutely no evidence whatsoever for these claims. What makes them successful is that people find they can solve them rather easily and therefore assume their IQ must be 160. Forget the fact that IQ measures a problem solving ability specific to IQ tests. It seems patently silly that these posts make the claims that they do. This is what I like to think of as the “I dare you to try my product” type of advertising.

When I think about the things that want to make me give up on Facebook, these passive-aggressive posts are at the top of the list. But these proliferate because they are successful at breaking out of all of the noise.

It recently occurred to me that I get the same feeling browsing Facebook that I had while wandering through the strip in Gatlinburg, Tennessee a few years ago. It’s just a mess of competing novelties that no longer have anything to do with its original purpose.

Look, I’m sure most of you won’t share this post and get the word out of just how awful these passive-aggressive Facebook posts are. I figure that it takes someone with an IQ measured at least 165 to take such a brave course of action.

Meta-Productivity: A Philosophical Diversion

A good way to waste an afternoon is to look at all of the apps on your computer and wonder how it is you get anything done at all. Even better is spent the afternoon considering what it means to be productive in the first place.

It occurred to me on my vacation that I have spent ten years looking for ways to be more productive without any real idea of what I mean by “more productive.” Speed is often a surrogate for productivity (“get it done faster”) because it is relatively easy to measure. Efficiency is another surrogate, but how do you measure efficiency when it comes to productivity? I realized that I have no idea.

I find myself in these ruts now and then, when I reconsider my entire toolbox. What apps take more time than they are worth? What apps are really nothing more than productivity mirages? It occurred to me that in many ways, I was at my most productive when my tool set was small. Back in college, I worked wonders with littler more than Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS. Why is then, that today, I “need” so much more to be productive.

The result of these ruminations of mine boiled down to five questions I asked myself which I will list here, but will address in future posts.

  1. What does it mean to be more productive?
  2. What, if anything, about the tools that I use enables or prevents me from being productive?
  3. Are there repetitive tasks I do that should be automated?
  4. Is it ever productive to be unproductive?
  5. Is there a set of processes and tools I can identify that once and for all (or at least for the foreseeable future) can settle the questions of productivity so I no longer have to think about it?

I am seeking an endpoint. I am tired of spending time looking for ways to be more productive. I want to have a set of tools and processes in place that work well enough, and then use them without thinking much about their role in productivity. They are just tools to get things done with little fuss. For years I have found that I put more and more time into looking for ways to make something more efficient that I am spending too much time on productivity improvements instead of actually getting things done.

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet. It is my hope that by writing about them, I’ll work out the answers to that by the time I get to that fifth and final question, I’ll have a list of things to do that will, once and for all, allow me to close the book on productivity.

R.E.M. and College Years

Someone mentioned that we recently passed the 30 year anniversary of the release of R.E.M.’s Out of Time album. That was a watershed album for me. Indeed, R.E.M. turned out to be the soundtrack of my college years, and the years immediately after.

I knew of R.E.M. before college. In high school, during the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher’s strike of 1989, R.E.M.’s “Stand” was a kind of anthem of the silliness of that two week period when we didn’t have to go to school. But it was in college that I really come to know and appreciate R.E.M.

Prior to college my tastes in music were fairly vanilla. It was my friend Dan, who I met my very first day at U.C. Riverside, who beat a good sense of musical taste into me over a period of four years. Dan introduced me to Elvis Costello and Bad Religion and Black Flag and the Dead Kennedy’s and the Velvet Underground. For that alone I’ll forgive him his The Cure and Morrisey. But Dan also showed me that R.E.M. had albums, and quite a few of them even before Green. And they were great albums.

Out of Time came out on March 12, 1991, and I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was when Dan played it for me during that spring of our freshman year. If I listen to that album today, I am back in the old Aberbeen-Inverness dorm. I can smell the carpets, and hear the music playing while I studied for a general chemistry test.

A year and a half later, just after the beginning of my junior year, R.E.M. came out with Automatic for the People (“Automatic for the people automatic for the people automatic,” I can hear Dan chanting) which is my favorite of all of R.E.M.’s albums. I had spend the summer working in the dorm cafeteria and wondering if it was possible to turn my mediocre grades (up to that point) into good grades. Automatic for the People was the anthem of that turnaround. I was listening to that album while studying for a political science test on European politics with my friend Shannon. That was the first test I can ever recall not sweating at all. I was prepared. I got a perfect score on it. While I sat in the lecture hall taking the test, I could hear “Try Not to Breathe”, and “Nightswimming,” and “Everybody Hurts” playing in my head.

Three months after I graduated (and started a job with a company that I remain with coming up on 27 years later), R.E.M. came out with their Monster album. We got tickets to see them in concert for that album. It was only the third concert I’d ever been to and it was fantastic. Four years later, in the midst of the crazy dot com boom, I got to see R.E.M. again, this time at the Greek Theater in L.A. as part of their Up tour. We had seats much closer to the stage and once again, it was a great show.

R.E.M. has such an eclectic variety of music. I love songs like “Perfect Circle” (Murmur) and “Camera” (Reckoning). My kids know and love songs like “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (Document) and “Superman” (Life’s Rich Pageant). I laugh and sing along with Michael Stipe’s drunken version of “King of the Road” (Dead Letter Office). And I try (usually unsuccessfully) to hit the high notes in “Tongue” (Monster).

As you might imagine, I listened to some R.E.M. while writing this post. I think I’ll listen to some more when I catch up on a week’s worth of work email this morning. And maybe I’ll throw in some Elvis Costello for yucks.

Thoughts After a Long Day of Driving

Forgive the short post but I am mentally drained. I spent 9 hours driving today, and have another 8 hours or so of driving tomorrow to go.

While I drive, I listen to audio books and think thoughts. On the drive today I finished up George Dyson’s excellent book Turing’s Cathedral. I also got through most of Cal Newport’s newest book A World Without Email. Tomorrow, I’ll turn my attention to Alan Turing.

Here are a few things on my mind:

  • I peeked at my work email. I didn’t mean to, since I am on vacation, but I sort of did it by accident. I learned that people have scheduled 6 meetings with me for when I am back on Wednesday, including 4 between 11 am – 1 pm.
  • My Python code could be more efficient than it is. I tend to go for speed, to get something working quick and dirty, rather than look for elegant solutions. But I appreciate elegant solutions.
  • Remember when hotels had stationary in the desk drawer? Even before COVID?
  • The Easter Mass this year took 40 minutes. Is it me, or does that seems unusually fast?
  • What does it mean to be productive? I’ll be writing more about this at some point.
  • Isn’t it strange how some hour-long meetings feel like they last a week, but a week-long vacation feels like it lasts an hour?
  • Isaac Asimov died 29 years ago today.

Back home later this afternoon!

On Travel By Train

I have taken three long train rides in my life. I define “long” as being “overnight.” The first long train ride was from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. The second was from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The third, many years later, was from Oxnard, California to Seattle, Washington. None of these train rides involved any particularly luxury: no berth in a sleeper car, for instance. I have taken the train many times between Washington, D.C. and New York City. I have also taken the train from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Those were not what I would consider “long” train rides.

Of all of the modes of travel we have at our disposal, I think trains have the potential of being the best. The coach cars that I sat in on the long train rides were more luxurious than First Class on airlines I’ve flown on. The train to Seattle had a dining car which I took advantage of (I was traveling alone) and which was more comfortable and had better service than any flight I have ever taken. This alone makes trains, for me, at least, a more comfortable means of travel than airplanes.

Trains haven’t done too well, but I think it is because everyone is in such a hurry to get where they are going. Trains force you to slow down a bit. They can travel fast, but not as fast as airplanes. They are better for seeing places, whether it is towns, cities, or open country. Airplanes pass miles overhead and the land below is nothing more than an abstraction, often obscured by clouds. Plane rides feel long because there is often no feeling of forward motion. On a train, you can always tell how quickly you are moving just by looking out the window.

Trains would be a good way of getting people to slow the pace of life a bit. What’s the big hurry anyway?

The main problem with trains, it seems to me, is their infrastructure is outdated. If the infrastructure could be improved, if the technology could be upgraded, if the computing power we had could be put to use normalizing scheduled and making train travel more predictable and reliable, I think they’d give the airlines a run for their money. I don’t think the airlines would like this one bit.

I would love to see a network of high-speed trains that crisscross the country. I would much rather hop on a high-speed train to Los Angeles if I had to travel for work. I could work on the train more comfortably than I could on a plane. I could see more of the country along the way. There is something soothing about the rhythmic clack-clack, clack-clack of the train rolling along the track.

Trains also have great names. At least they used to. Airplanes are anonymously bland in comparison. At best, when listening to air traffic control, you get something like “Cactus 519,” Trains have names like the “Afternoon Twin Cities Zephyr”, the “Katy Flyer”, the “Lone Star”, and the “Meteor”. “I’m taking the Meteor to San Francisco,” sounds so much better than, “I’m flying Southwest to the Bay Area.”

The names alone should put the airlines out of business.

Recommendation: UsesThis

I am fascinated by how people work. It is part of the reason I love reading biographies. I’m always on the lookout for little nuggets of inspiration and ideas that I find when reading them. In a biography of Thomas Jefferson I learned about commonplace books. In a biography of John Quincy Adams, I stole his line-a-day diary idea as an index for my own diary. I’ve tried sharing my own methods on this blog, to say nothing of the interview I gave in Lifehacker’s How I Work Series back in 2014.

You can imagine, therefore, how delighted I was to come across UsesThis the other day while doing a Google search. UsesThis has short interviews with hundreds of people from all walks of life, talking about how they work and the tools that they use.

The site has interviews beginning way back in January 2009 and right through the present. It is fascinating to see how rapidly some tools change over that 12 years span.

If anyone has an interest in how people work and the tools they use, I’d urge you to check out UsesThis. It’s a whole lot of fun.

For Want of a Good Email System

When I first began using email, it was entirely text-based. I used a variant of mh mail beginning in 1994 and every now and then, after trying to do something relatively simple in my current email systems, I long for the days of mh.

Here are some things I miss about the old email system:

  • Simple integration with other tools. For instance, I could easily search my messages using regular expressions. You have to jump through a bunch of hoops to come close to doing that in Apple mail or Outlook today.
  • The ability to have scripts update your .sig file to provide useful information to mail recipients right there in the message signature. (At one point, I had a script update my .sig file with how many unread messages I had in my queue, and an estimate of how long it would be before I read any new incoming messages.)
  • The distraction-free feel of plain-text messages. There is some kind of mathematical relationship between junk mail and a messages markup content. Back in the days when most messages were plain text, it was harder for junk mail to grab someone’s attention.
  • Archiving email was simple. Folders were single plain-text files delimited in clearly documented ways. There were all kinds of tools for parsing mail folders, and for searching and extracting messages.
  • Minimal alerting. No desktop alerts when new mail arrived. No annoying chimes either. You checked your messages when you felt like it. It was more like going to the mail box to collect the day’s mail, rather than checking the new message count every 5 minutes to see if you missed something.

I am surprised that more email clients don’t support Markdown as a plain-text alternative to HTML and RTF email formats. Of course, anyone can type Markdown into a plain-text message, but it would be nice if email clients offered an option to render that Markdown the way some text editors provide a preview mode for Markdown.

I wish I could go back to a system of email like this. I know it is possible in theory, but in practice, I’d be out-of-sync with the rest of the world and I’m not sure how practical that would be.