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 Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

Stalking the Music

Now and then, I see one of those memes asking parents to name something from their youth that their kids wouldn’t recognize or understand. There are plenty of obvious answers to this, but one occurred to me recently as I listened to my kids ask Alexa to play various songs for them (many of them from the Descendants franchise).

The ability to ask for and instantly hear any of several million songs is something that I couldn’t do at my kids’ age. Indeed, to listen to music, I listened (mostly) to the radio. If there was a song that I really liked, waiting and waiting, hoping with each fade out that the next song (after the inevitable commercial break) would be the one that I was waiting for was my only real tool. I can remember daydreaming about the ability to listen to any song I wanted to, any time. The closest I came, as a kid, was by stalking the music like some game hunter sitting patiently in a blind, finger poised over the trigger of the “record” button on the radio/tape player I had, waiting for the desired song to play.

Even that was imperfect. Often, I was surprised and caught off-guard, and I’d cut off the first few bars of the song. Or, the D.J. would jabber into the first part of the song and so the recording would be corrupted by his banter. Even when I did manage to catch the song perfectly, it was often buried in the middle of a tape, and I’d have to hunt around for minutes trying to find it. So much better was record album in which I could simply drop a needle in the appropriate groove.

Now, none of that matters. It is not even quaint; it is an extinct activity. If I want to hear a song, I have only to ask for it to be played. I get a perfect digital version, far better quality that what the radio played, or what I managed to capture on tape. To my kids, the thought of stalking the music is inconceivable.

And yet, there is something of a letdown to the ability to hear a song whenever you want. Perhaps it is the spontaneity of the radio, or eager anticipation, but asking Alexa (or Siri) to play a song for me diminishes the experience in some small, intangible way. The exceptions prove the rule. Occasionally, there is a song that is not available from Apple Music, and when that happens, it seems, my need to hear the songs grows desperate. It is a rare throwback to the days I spent stalking the music with a radio and tape player.

Today is Great: A Daily Gratitude Journal for Kids

I’ve written quite a bit about diaries, journals, and notebooks over the years. I got a relatively late start with my own diary. I was already 24 and I wish I’d started sooner. A few years back, I tried to get the Little Miss to start a diary, but as with many diaries, it didn’t last very long.

So I was delighted to learn recently that my friend Vicky, who runs the popular Mess for Less blog, has a new book coming out called Today Is Great: A Daily Gratitude Journal for Kids.

Her book birthday is coming on October 1, so if you have kids interesting in diaries and journals, and who are looking for a fun way to ease into the process, be sure to check out the book!

Tube of Holding

Now it can be told! After decades of research, I have discovered the secret toothpaste manufacturers don’t want you to know about. But let me back up. First, my credentials:

I have been brushing my teeth roughly twice daily for nearly five decades. Call it about 33,000 observations. Each time, I am required to take hold of the tube of toothpaste and squeeze it onto the brush. I can’t properly guess how much toothpaste has been consumed in this activity over the decades. Call it a lot.

The reason I can’t properly estimate the amount of toothpaste is the crux of the issue. It is far easier to estimate the number of tubes of toothpaste I’ve run through over the years. Call it half a dozen tubes a year, giving a value of close to 300 tubes of toothpaste. Isn’t it simple multiplication to figure out how much toothpaste you’ve used? I hear you asking.

You would think. But you would be wrong.

After careful observation and analysis over the decades I have come to an inescapable conclusion, one that will shatter your perception of the toothpaste industry forever: The volume of toothpaste in a tube exceeds by a great deal the volume of the tube itself. Yes, there is more toothpaste in the tube than the tube can hold.

How can that be? I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but that doesn’t change the facts of the case. Take the current tube of toothpaste, for instance:

The current "empty" tube of toothpate
My current “empty” tube of toothpaste

The tube has been flat as a pancake for the last two weeks, and yet, twice a day, with a bit of effort, three of us are able to squeeze a blob of toothpaste onto our brushes. Empty though it seems, it keeps producing toothpaste. I suspect a wormhole, or tesseract, or perhaps a twist on the old D&D bag of holding: a tube of holding.

Why then, would the TIC (toothpaste industrial complex) not want you to know about this? Isn’t this a break-through discovery that could revolutionize all kinds of storage and delivery systems? Sure, but at what cost? If the world discovered an infinite supply of toothpaste in a single tube, no one would buy toothpaste anymore. What would four out of five dentists recommend the, eh?

I’m recording all of this in my lab notebook each night and will continue to see how long this empty tube of toothpaste continues to keep my teeth in tip-top shape. In the meantime, do me a favor, will you? Feel free to take full advantage of this incredibly discovery of mine but keep it under your hat for the time-being. The last thing I need right now is to be hunted down and lectured to by the TIC. I get enough of that from my dentist.

Editorial Changes

As my wife will attest, I am a creature of habit. There is nothing extraordinary about this to me, as it seems this is the way I have always been. It does mean that when things change, I can get a little uneasy. This change goes for many things, including the editors of the magazines I read. I remember, for instance, a decade ago when Mariette DiChristina took over the helm at Scientific American from John Rennie. What changes would that mean for the magazine I’d been reading for a long time?

Some months back, after Kathleen Fleury left her post as editor of Down East magazine and Brian Kevin took over, I began each new issue of a magazine by skimming the editorial that month to see, if perhaps, another change was coming. Each magazine gave me a few nervous moments, until I saw that things were continuing as normal. But a few days ago, as I turned to the editorial in the September 2019 issue of Scientific American, I quickly discovered that Mariette was leaving, and the September issue would be her last. She’d been the editor for a decade, and I liked the general direction of the magazine during that time. Indeed, if I am being completely honest here, I was just getting used to her as editor. As I said, I am a creature of habit.

Well, now a new editor will take over, and inevitably there will be changes, and I will wonder about those changes until they are a settled thing, and I have another decade to get used to them.

I suppose this isn’t much different from editorial changes from the writers’ perspective. I sold a story to Stan Schmidt at Analog just a few years before he retired as editor of the magazine after 33 years. When Trevor Quachri took over, I was nervous. But I ended up selling him another story, and two editorial so that worked out in the long run.

Then, too, I suppose the angst I feel at a new editor is similar to when I get a new boss. I’ve been with my company for 25 years as of next month, and I have probably had 10 or 12 bosses during that time. Each time, it is a little unsettling.

As it happens, I think the September 2019 issue of Scientific American looks particularly good (I’ve only had a chance to read one article so far). It certainly sets the bar high for whoever takes over. I think that is a good thing. As with most jobs, an editor should try to leave things better than she found them. I think Mariette DiChristina did just that.

I’ve Never Seen the Wrath of Kahn

Until last night, that is. Unable to sleep, I took a break from the late Tony Horwitz’s excellent (so far) Spying on the South, and decided to watch a movie. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn was one of the recommended movies. Now, I’d seen bits and pieces of it before, but never the whole thing. I knew parts of the story line, but had no continuity. So I decided to watch it, and see if it measured up to the hype.

It did.

The story was so good, in fact, that I hardly noticed how quaint and dated the special effects seemed. I’m glad that I took the time to see it, even though it didn’t help much with getting to sleep.

Enlightenment

In our new house I am discovering things that I love, and things that annoy me. The things I love are big things, and fortunately, the things that annoy me are little things. But they still annoy me. Take the bathroom on the main floor.

Stand in this bathroom, if you will, and face the window above the toilet. The window looks out into the deck, which in turn looks out down the slope of our yard toward the bike path that dives down into the local park.

Right above you, smack in the center of the room, is a typical bathroom fan. To your right, above the sink is a pair of lights. To your left, above the shower/tub is another light. Okay, now, turnaround. Just above the towel rack, you’ll find a light switch panel with three switches. Turn on the switch to your left. Remember, you are facing opposite to how you started. The left switch is the one closest to the sink. Flip it on. On goes the light above the sink. So far so good.

Next there is the center switch. Of course, the fan is right above your head in the center of the room. Flip that switch on, go ahead… and now the light above the shower is on.

Maybe it is just me, but it seems that if you have a light switch arrangement where the switches are left, center, right, and the left switch controls the light on the left side of the room, wouldn’t it make sense that the right switch controls the light on the right side? And the center switch, with nothing else to do, would control the fan in the center of the room.

When I go to turn on the light above the shower, I inevitably reach for the switch closest to the shower, but on goes the fan. And vice versa. To me this is just bad user interface design. Why would someone do this?

And in case my description hasn’t been clear, I sketched a diagram for you. A represents the light above the sink. B is the fan, and C is the light above the shower/tub. The smaller letters represent the switch positions.

It’s a small thing, I grant you, but it’s one of those things that has continued to annoy me since moving into the house.

84 Charing Cross Road

And sometimes, desperation and persistence wins the day. I have been going through an unusually dry spell in terms of what to read next. I am reading, slowly, The Great American Sportswriter edited by Schulian, but I’m taking it in bite-sized chunks. I have struggled and struggled and struggled to find something that will awaken me from this summer drowse and fill the world with color. No Cheering from the Press Box, edited by Jerome Holtzman riled me from this slumber for a moment, but that was way back in June.

Last night, out of a combinations of boredom and desperation, I flipped through every page of James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die in the hopes of finding something. As I reached the Ds, I considered re-reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which I recall loathing in junior high school when I had to read it. This is the level to which I have fallen. I told myself I was being noble by giving a second chance to a book that a teenaged version of me scorned. But I pressed on. I made it through the entire book, skimming, at least, every entry, and making note of a few: Dispatches, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, A Book of One’s Own, Ongoingness, Lonesome Dove, The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

As I drifted off to sleep, bookless, one of the titles lingered in my thoughts, more of a place than a title, really, 84 Charing Cross Road.

This morning was beautiful: sunny and clear, with the humidity blessedly vanished, and temperatures in the upper 60s. I headed outside for my morning walk, and took in the wonderful weather, and that was the last time I noticed it. Or anything else on my walk for that matter. I began listening to the audiobook version of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and I was lost in the delightful letters between a New York Bibliophile, and the employees of Marks & Company Antiquarian Booksellers, lead primarily by Frank Doel. Those letters were wonderful, and Hanff’s witty style put a silly grin on my face for the entire morning.

Though short, this has to be one of the best books I’ve read all year. It surprised me, caught me off guard, and quickly and dramatically transformed my desperation into gratitude. But there was also a sadness. It is unlikely that a story such as this could ever happen again. People just don’t write letters anymore, for the most part. And a correspondence such as this could not be replicated in e-mail; it is not, I have found, a medium that lends itself to a literary style.

Sometimes, a book like this is just what I need to stir things up, and before I know it, I find that there is indeed plenty out there that I am interested in reading. I am hopeful that is precisely what happened here this morning.

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