Category Archives: essays

Fan Mail and the Law of Coincidence

I woke yesterday morning to find an unusual email message in my work inbox. The message was from someone in my department with whom I have never worked. In her message, she told me she was “an admirer of my work,” referring to a requirements document that I recently produced, and praising its clarity. I replied with a thank you, and jokingly said that while I’d received fan mail for my fiction and nonfiction writing, this was the first piece of fan mail I’d ever received for a technical requirements document.

In truth, it had been quite a while since I received fan email of any kind (not counting comments I get here on the blog) mainly because I haven’t written much outside the blog lately. So it was delightful to awaken to such a message and read that first thing in the morning, instead of some kind of emergency related to a pending rollout I’m working on this weekend.

Then, in an odd coincidence, I received two more emails from various work colleagues yesterday, praising various documents I’d written for this recent project. One person told me how nice it was to have someone on a project that could write. Another called a different document I wrote “fantastic.” Keep in mind that writing documentation is an ancillary part of what I do, almost an afterthought. But it is still nice to hear that people find the documentation useful, and to hear from three different people in the same day–well, in more than a quarter of a century at the company, I think it is the first time that has happened.

It was more than enough to make for a happy day, and lift my spirits from the stress of the current rollout effort. As it happened, it didn’t stop there. Just before heading to bed last night, I received another fan email. This time, it was from someone who had just read my story, “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” (now freely available on InterGalactic Medicine Show’s website). It was a sweet message, and it meant a lot, considering that “Gemma Barrows” is my favorite of all of the stories I’ve sold to date.

It amuses me that my day began with fan email–and by purest coincidence, such mail seemed to sprinkle throughout my day. It brought a smile to my face when I woke up, and put a smile on my face just before I went to bed. That’s what I call a pretty good day.

The New Baseball Season

Major League Baseball should do everyone a favor and forgo the 2020 season. I say this as a lifelong baseball fan, a former player (as a kid), and a student of the history of the sport. There are three reasons why baseball should take a deep breath (wearing a mask, of course) and forfeit the season. There’s only one reason that they won’t.

Let’s start with why they should forgo the season:

  1. The baseball season is a marathon, which is part of the magic of the game. Whether its the current 162 games played in regular season, or the 154 games played in an earlier era, it is still a long road to the playoffs. Each game is itself a marathon, being played without a clock, and 162 of those clockless games are packed into 6 month regular season. The entire dynamic of the game is centered on this stable arrangement, like planets orbiting a star at the center of a solar system. Change those dynamics and chaos ensues. Planets fall inward to crash into the star, while other are flung out of the system entirely. We’ll see this in a 60 game season:
    • A 10 game win or loss streak can have a disproportional effect on the outcome of a season for a team.
    • Batting records will be skewed by the shortened season. Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak went 56 games, which is 4 games shy of the entire new season.
    • Being hot and being in a slump take on new perspectives in a grossly shortened season. With “hot” hitters, we could conceivably see much higher batting averages from we are used to. It’s even conceivable that for a period of 60 games, a batter could hit .400. The opposite is true of batters in a slump.
    • If your teams wins the series in a 60 game season, is that something to celebrate? Or, like Houston’s dubious win a few years ago, it is something to be humiliated by?
  2. The entire 2020 record book will be one big asterisk. Meanwhile, I can’t imagine anyway really believes that the stats produced in a 60-game season will have any meaning or value in a record book where the average season length over 120 or so is between 154 and 162 games. If a player does finish the season at or about .400 in hitting, does that show up without a note in the almanacs? Is such a feat deserving of an batting title? Does it even make sense to award batting titles, Cy Young awards, Golden Gloves and the like in a 60 game season? With nearly every stat and achievement from a 60 game season questionable when compared with a season that has 2.7 times as many games, I can’t see the value of the record book for 2020. I imagine that sabermetricians will find ways of attempting to compare apples to apples, the way they do with “field effects” and different era comparisons, but still, really?
  3. The draw of the season will be about the novelty not the game itself. I suspect there will be a fair amount of interest in the games played in 2020, but not for the games themselves, but the novelty of the situation. Managers can’t bump umpires–you have to keep your 6 feet of separation; batters hit by a pitch can’t charge the mound. But will they? The novelty of the situation will keep us watching more than the games themselves, which is a shame. Baseball is an elegant performance to watch, but we’ll miss the performance in lieu of the theater in which it will be played.

The reason that baseball won’t cancel the 2020 season? Come on, you already know the answer: money.

The real question for me is: will I watch any of the games? I don’t know. Late in the winter, I get this eager feeling in my belly. Spring is just around the corner, and I can smell baseball in the air. The first games of the season, when the air is often still chilled, are fun to watch. The players are easing back into things. Any one game doesn’t matter that much at that point. Now, the spring is behind us, and the players will start playing in the heat of summer. Each game will matter more than in a regular season. Indeed, each game will matter 2.7 times more than normal, and that will put pressure on the players and change the way they perform.

I suppose the real winner in all of this is the Houston Astros. Remember what happened in the offseason after Houston was caught cheating in the World Series? I can imagine Houston players were looking forward to road games, especially road games in Los Angeles. What they needed was a major distraction–and that is exactly what they got. What pitcher is going to make his displeasure known by throwing inside on an Astros batter, when getting tossed from a game means sacrificing 1 of the 10 or 11 starts you’ll get this season–assuming your aren’t suspended for hitting the batter?

My Journal in the Days of COVID

Toward the end of 2017, I switched to a new format for my journals: nice big Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, the kind with 96 pages of heavy paper in each volume. These are, by far, my favorites of all of the various journals I’ve used over the years, from simple notebooks, to the brick red Standard Diaries.

This morning, I closed out the 6th volume in this format and cracked open the 7th (I buy these Moleskein notebooks four at a time because I have this silly fear that they will stop making them). As I was closing out the 6th volume, labeling the front cover and spine, I noted the dates: February 6 – June 25, 2020. I started this volume just before the COVID-19 pandemic set its teeth upon us. I noted something else, too. The date range is small than most of my previous volumes of equal length. I wasn’t certain so I went back to check.

Charting my recent journal volumes by days per volume.
Number of days in each volume of my journal since 2017

Each volume has 98 usable pages. With the exception of my first volume in this format, where I was excited about the new format and writing more than usual, this most recent volume contains significantly fewer days than my average, meaning I have been writing more each day since February. Skimming through the volume bears this out. Indeed, my entries are considerably longer, often detailing the news of the day as it relates to the pandemic. Rarely in previous volumes do I report on the current news, other than to call out notable events to provide context for when they happen in my life. But in this most recent volume, events unfolded so quickly that I sometimes had to make bulleted lists of all that happened, like this example from March 13:

A list of current events in my journal

I also find that I used this most recent volume as a way to vent my concerns and frustrations about the pandemic as a way of relieving stress. Sometimes I go on for a page or more venting these concerns. I don’t generally do this in my journals, so this is an indication of particular stress on my part, I suppose.

This made me wonder how many other people are recording their experiences during the pandemic in a similar fashion. So much history is captured this way that rarely sees the light of day, I imagine. Sometimes, it finds it way into public view, often long after the face: John Adams and John Quincy Adams diaries paint fascinating pictures of life in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America; war letters from during the Civil War, World War I and II have a similar collective effect. I wonder if, a century from now, a Ph.D. candidate will make a study of life during the pandemic and turn to those journals that still exist for a look into what the world was like? Of course, digital records and journals may exist was well, but I’m still skeptical of their durability compared to paper.

I did make one interesting experiment in this most recent volume of my journal. Beginning on March 5, influenced by both the beauty of John Quincy Adams’ handwriting in his journals, and my desire to write more during the pandemic without growing tired, I switched from my normal mode of printing, to cursive entries. (see above). This experiment lasted until June 10th, most of my 6th volume. I stopped for one reason: I found it difficult to read my own handwriting at times. These journals are a reference book for me, and I sometimes imagine my kids (and perhaps, one day, their kids) reading through these. They need to be legible first and foremost, and try as I might, my cursive writing is less legible the faster I write.

Experiment tried, experiment failed.

The Adams Family

I have been fascinated by the Adams family since reading David McCullough’s biography John Adams in the summer of 2001. Adams, to me, was a remarkable man. I’ve often named him as my favorite president (careful to point out that I say my favorite president, not the best president). From time-to-time, I’ve browsed John Adam’s diaries with great delight. I enjoyed reading about Adam’s from Jefferson’s perspective in Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Jefferson. The story of Adams’ and Jefferson’s tumultuous friendship–captured in Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood–is remarkable for its time. In any case, McCullough’s biography of John Adams has for nearly twenty years now been one of my favorites, and one I’ve re-read on several occasions.

This morning, I finished reading John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub, and have found a biography of the son that matches McCullough’s of the father. What a great read. I’ve often felt that there are two qualities that drive people to greatness: genius, or extremely hard work. John Quincy Adams is the rare result of both, and his accomplishments bear that out. JQA was a more prolific diarist than his father and I have now started to immerse myself in Vol 1 of his diaries, with Vol 2 waiting in the wings.

I read The Education of Henry Adams two years ago. Henry was the son of Charles Francis Adams and thus the grandson of JQA and the great-grandson of John Adams. The family had its share of tragedy, and yet it continued to produce some remarkable people.

A paragraph toward the end of Traub’s book sums this up as follows, astounding when you think of John Adams relatively humble beginnings 285 years ago:

The Adams name rolled on in gently ebbing waves of distinction. Charles Francis Adams III, who married the granddaughter of the secretary of the navy under President John Quincy Adams, served as Herbert Hoover’s navy secretary. (He had prepared for the role by successfully defending the America’s Cup.) His son, Charles Francis Adams IV, served as president of the aerospace firm Raytheon. The Roman numerals have marched all the way down to our own day in the form of John Quincy Adams VII, surely one of the very few “VII”s in a nation that has forsworn a hereditary aristocracy. This John Quincy Adams has a blog.

What would John Adams have thought of blogs, I wonder?

Oh, the profanity!

In many ways, I still see myself as just a kid. I think the same thoughts I did when I was a kid, I occasionally ask the same questions I did when I was a kid. While reading about a particularly fascinating profession, I will to this day, say to myself, “When I grow up, I want to do that.” Some things, I guess, you never grow out of. Take profanity, for instance.

Let me start by saying I have absolutely no moral objection to profanity. It is just another means of expression. It’s not a means of expression that I use in the ordinary course of my day. My aversion to profanity comes from some deep-seated fear when I was a kid, that if said a “bad word,” I’d be in big trouble. I’m not exactly sure where this came from. But it stuck with me. With the exception of a period of a few years between 7th and 9th grade or so, when everyone around me was using profanity the way we use “like” today, I have avoided it.

Actually, it’s not even that I’ve avoided using profanity. It’s just not something that is in my daily lexicon. Whenever I do end up using a bad word, I almost instantly regret it. Not because it was a profane, but because it was a bad word choice. There’s almost always a better way for me to express a thought other than using profanity.

The fact that I don’t generally use profanity is another of those things that makes me see myself as just a kid. Friends and family use profanity and I think, wow, they’re so grown up; when I grow up, I’ll be just like them. It rarely comes to pass. Indeed, there are three occasions when the probability that I’ll use profanity increases dramatically.

First, in fiction. I’ve said before that writing fiction, for me, is in many ways like method acting. I need to feel what the characters are feeling. And since generally, the people around me use profanity more than I do, characters in my fiction will use it from time to time. I have no problem with profanity in fiction, television, movies, etc. What I find interesting is that people object to this, to the point that they are willing to call you out on it. When my story, “Take One for the Road” appeared in Analog (June 2011), it received several reviews in the usual places. I remember only one of them, however, from someone who objected to the grumpy old man in the story using the word “shit.” It was the only bad word in the story, and in my mind, it was completely in character. Any other expression in that situation by that character would have seen unrealistic. What I find most interesting is that I have no problem writing dialog with profanity, but when I re-read it, I am always a little uncomfortable. It’s that little kid in my thinking he’s going to get his mouth washed out with soap.

Second, while writing code. There are two use cases here. One is where I am deep in the code, in a kind of coma that takes over when I am trying to hold the complicated logic of a program in my head. I’ll finish up a piece and execute it to test it, and something goes wrong. When that happens, I’ll let out a string of profanity that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. I am always alone when this happens. The second use case is similar, except that when I execute the complicated piece of code I just completed and it works, I’ll usually allow a good old, “fuck yeah!”

Third, is when I injure myself. Bang a knee, step on a Lego. Whenever it happens, it’s usually followed by a “Shit, oww!”

Of course, I enjoy a good dirty joke, but I am especially fond of joke that use profanity in clever ways. Two examples, that I won’t repeat here, can be found in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. They are the last two jokes in the books, numbers 639 and 640. If you can find the book, it’s worth looking them up.

We’ve tried not to make a big deal about profanity with our kids. We generally don’t use it around them, but we also know they hear it at school, and see it on TV. We don’t make a big deal beyond explaining that there is a time a place for it, more so with kids. I think they will end up using profanity more than I do. It’s kind of built into the language for them these days. Of course, when they have used it, it is Kelly who handles it calmly and rationally. I am usually too busy rolling around on the floor laughing.

A Moment to Vent on Blogs

Allow me a moment to vent on blogs. If you don’t know want to read a “back-in-my-day” rand a la Andy Rooney, by all means, skip this one. I have a few complaints, in no particular order.

  1. Lately, I’ve been getting way more requests than normal for guest posts and other content for my blog. I have a site policy that says I almost never accept unsolicited guest posts, but no one seems to pay attention to these. Yet it seems like I’ve received half of dozen request in the last few days. Which leads me to wonder:
  2. Are blogs so hard up for content these days that they can only survive by outsourcing their content creation?

Do you ever notice how terrible many of these requests are?

  • Do you accept guest posts? If yes, I’ll provide you a well-written article and 100% related to your website niche.
  • I’m a blogger and freelancer, so you’re website is such a find for me. I’d like to contribute a guest article to your blog because I believe your audience will find my ideas interesting and useful.

In my head, I invent interview questions for these guest-blogger candidates:

  • What makes your article well-written?
  • If it is so well-written, why not put it on your own blog?
  • My blog has over 6,500 posts ranging across countless subjects. Tell me how your well-written article is 100% related to this “niche.”
  • What, in your opinion, makes my website “such a find” for you?
  • What makes you believe my audience will find your ideas interesting? Half the time, I don’t know if my audience finds my ideas interesting.

Some of these folks are persistent. Many of them, when they haven’t gotten a response from me, ask to speak to my manager.

Why my blog? Certainly, it can’t be the numbers; they are not what they were five years ago, but I gave up caring about the stats on the blog a long time ago. This is a place, where I can sit down and write about what’s on my mind. If people read it, I’m delighted. If people comment, I’m even more delighted. But the act of creation is what satisfies me, and anything beyond that is gravy.

Then, too, I’m skeptical that any of these potential guest bloggers have actually read what I write, or for that matter, have even looked at this blog. If they had, they’d notice almost at once the absence of any kind of advertising. They’d have to go back a long way to find a guest post (there have been a few over the years, but always at my request, not the other way around). If making money is the object of these guest posters, then I’d think one look at my site would scare them away.

Which brings me to my second complaint. I find myself visiting blogs less and less because, more often than not, they seem almost preposterously monetized. I’ve seen single articles take 30 seconds to load because that’s how long it takes all of the ads to load around the three or four hundred words of text. I stumbled onto Boing Boing recently, after a long absence, and, man, what happened? The site felt almost unusual under the weight of ads and pop-ups. I imagine the articles are still as good as ever, but it seemed impossible to get to them.

And what’s with all of the pop-ups? You get halfway through an article and suddenly there’s a pop-up asking you to for the love of God subscribe to their newsletter! You know what those pop-ups remind me of? They’re the digital versions of those annoying magazine inserts that I have to tear free from the paper copies of magazines I get. But the pop-ups are worse: I can’t tear them out!

Look, I get that people want to make money from their blogs. It seems to me that the real money comes from skill and value, not from buckshot guest post requests. I’ve never put ads on this blog, heck, I don’t even use that Amazon thing that earns you money when you recommend books. But that isn’t to say I haven’t made money as a result of the blog. I’ve been paid to give talks, and write articles for magazines because of things I’ve written about here. I like that better than choking the screen with ads and pop-ups. Even so, I’d be happy just writing.

Which brings me to my final complaint: I wish I had time write here more. I can’t quite describe the enjoyment I have sitting down and bashing out a silly post on bird-watching, or toilets. I don’t even mind announcing big goals to the world, uncertain as to whether or not I will meet them. I just like writing here, and I wish I could do it more.

Forgive the venting. There are always going to be people wanting to find a shortcut. Given that I enjoy writing here so much, it’s just hard for me to fathom why a shortcut would be necessary. That, and recently, it seems that everyone in the world is requesting to write an article for this blog.

The Owl in the Woods

This morning, I can add another creature to the menagerie I’ve encountered in the woods behind our house. I’ve heard owls (or perhaps, this one owl) hooting around the neighborhood from time to time, but until this morning, I’d never seen one. Then, while on the final leg of my morning walk, making my way up the hill that leads back to our house, I saw a huge bird swoop down out of the trees and land on this broken stump. At first I thought it might be an eagle (I’ve admitted elsewhere that I am no birdwatcher). Then, as its big eyes followed me on a swiveling head, I realized I was looking at an owl.

A brief tale of owls: (I’ve certainly told this story before so forgive me if you’ve already heard it). After I sold my story, “Take One for the Road” to Analog, I got a request from Dr. Stan Schmidt to make two small changes to the story. One was so minor I can’t even remember what it was. The other involved owls. It seems that in one point in the story, I’d referred to the hooting or shrieking of a night owl in the distance. Stan asked if I wouldn’t mind changing the phrase “night owl” to “owl” since, “the ornithologists among Analog’s readers would find the term “night owl” redundant. Of course, I made the change.

This morning, however, as I walked past this night owl at 9 am with a hazy sun overhead, I wondered about Stan’s request.

Incidentally, I have no idea what kind of owl this is, and if anyone can identify it from my poor picture, taken at distance, I’d love to know.

New Writing Project

Today, I am beginning my final attempt at writing this story that I have tried to write off and on for nearly 7 years now. It is, I think, a novel, but I won’t know for sure until it is finished. If I can’t do it right this time, I’m giving it up as too difficult for me. That said, I’m not giving up without a fight. I have a plan this time, which I didn’t have in my previous attempts. I also have a secret weapon that I hope will make this last attempt a success.

The plan: I’m giving myself a season to write the first draft and a second season to write the second draft. Start today, I plan to be finished with the first draft by August 31. At that point, I plan to take the month of September off from writing and not even look at what I wrote during that time. Then, beginning on October 1, I’ll start the second draft with an aim to finish it by December 31.

The secret weapon: this time, I have an outline.

That may come as a surprise to longtime readers. In the spectrum of plotters versus pantsers, I’ve been a proclaimed pantsers for a long time. Indeed, all of the short fiction I’ve sold was produced without outlines of any kind. And therein lies the rub: I have, to this point, written only one draft of a novel, way back in 2013. I never moved beyond that first draft because it seemed relatively incoherent. I’ve made numerous attempts at the story I intend to start today, and all have failed. In considering why this may be so, I decided to swallow my pride, and assume that at least part of the problem was that for something so big, I need an outline to provide waypoints for where I am going. My pal, Bud Sparhwak, will be pleased.

Armed with an outline, I plan to get started today and see how things go. I’m feeling pretty good right now, but that just may be the excitement of getting started. We’ll see how I’m feeling in mid-July, when I am deep in the middle of this thing–and on August 31, I’ll know once and for all if I am capable of writing this thing.

I don’t plan on doing any updates along the way. There just isn’t the time, and given my schedule, any time I can spend writing, I want to spend working on the story. But I will post an update by August 31, letting you know one way or another, if I succeeded in completing the story.

Never having used an outline before, I don’t know what a novel outline is supposed to look like. Mine consists of many sheets of yellow legal paper with a rough outline of all the chapters, and more pages that break each chapter down into things that I think need to happen. There’s also random notes scribbled here and there and various arrows point this way and that. I could have typed it up, I supposed, and brought some more order to it, but I like the chaotic feel of it. It feels like I am less locked in to a specific line of events, and have a kind of fuzzy map of how things are supposed to happen. If the outline works, and the story is a success, maybe I’ll post those pages someday as an example of an outline that worked–for me at least. (I suppose, it would be equally useful to post the outline if the story doesn’t work out, as an example of something that doesn’t work, but I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to do that.)

I’m trying not to think in terms of metrics on this go around. You can do the math and figure that for a 90,000 word novel, I need to write about a thousand words per day, on average. If my past experience is any guide, I’ll be well ahead of the curve in the first week or two, then I’ll hit the curve for a while, before falling off. I’m hoping that outline will serve to protect me somewhat from that falling off, but only time will tell.

So what’s the story about? I’m not really sure myself. I usually can’t answer that question until after I’ve written the first draft. But from what I know right now, it’s about baseball, and growing old, and the strange effects of… well, if I ever sell the thing I don’t want to spoil it so for now, you’ll just have to use your imagination.

1,000 Books Finished! And It Only Took 25 Years

On Saturday, May 23, I finished reading The Reformation, Will Durant’s 1,000 page book on, well, the reformation in Europe. There was a nice symmetry to the length being about 1,000 pages since this was also the 1,000th book I finished since I started keeping a list in January 1996. That is a span of over 25 years. For those curious, here is graphical breakdown of those years:

For those unfamiliar with my list, I keep it using a few simple rules:

  1. Only a book that I finish gets on the list. Unfinished books don’t show up.
  2. I don’t rank books, but a book that I would read again, or recommend, I’ll make bold on the list.
  3. Re-reading a book counts as a finished book. Thus, the list is a list of all books I’ve finished, even those read multiple times. It is not a list of distinct titles.
  4. What constitutes a book? I use my judgement. There are a few short books (#789 The Testament of Mary is one. But I also counted the full issues of Astounding that I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age as books since they were of equivalent length.)

I finished the very first book on my list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov, on January 13, 1996. I was in New York at the time, on vacation. I can no longer recall what possessed me to start keeping a list. It is possible that I had already come across Eric W. Leuliette’s list of what he’s read since 1974. In any case, I managed to keep the list going in various forms and mediums. Twenty five years later, I finished my 1,000th book. The canonical list has, for some time now, resided in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Here’s the first page with entries from 1996, and the most recent pages leading up to and including my 1,000th book:

Sometimes I’ll add some additional notes in the notebook that don’t appear on any of the other forms of my list.

So, it took me 25 years to finish 1,000 books. That’s somewhat deceptive, however. From 1996-2012, I read either paper or the occasional e-book. In that time, I completed about 500 books. That’s about 16 years or about 31 books per year, on average. In early 2013, however, I decided to give audiobooks a try as a way of allowing myself to get more reading done. Since 2013, I’ve read an additional 500 books, so that’s 500 books in 7 years or about 71 books per year on average. My page has been increasing!

In 2017, I decided to see how much I really could read, given the freedom audiobooks provided, and the fact that I had slowly been increasing the speed at which I listen to audiobooks. (Today, I usually listen to a book at somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75x normal speed, depending on the narrator). I set a record in 2017, reading 58 books that year. But that record didn’t last long. In 2018 I read 130 books; in 2019, 113 books. So far in 2020, I’m on pace to read 110. Indeed, I sort of sprinted to the 1,000th book milestone. At the beginning of May I’d read 983 books. That means I read an additional 17 books (including 2 books that were over 1,000 pages each) in the first 23 days of the month. It is, by far, a record-breaking month for me, and one that I am not likely to repeat for some time.

Given the pace I’ve set for the last 3 years, I’d predict, assuming no significant changes, that I’ll finish my 2,000th book in July 2029, a little more than 9 years from now. What took me 25 years to do the first time, should be much quicker the second time.

The books that I read run the gamut of the Dewey Decimal System. While I haven’t looked recently, I think nonfiction outpaces fiction about 60/40. In the last 3 years, it’s probably more like 70/30.

Why read so much, and why list it out? Well, I’ve said elsewhere how I look at my reading as my real education. I learned to read in grade school; I learned to think critically in high school; I learned to learn in college. Once college was over, i was finally prepared to learn–and then had to enter the workforce. So reading is my way of learning. The list acts a reminder of what I’ve read (and what I’ve learned), but also a kind of literary autobiography. I can look at the list and for nearly any book on it, I can recall where I was and what was happening in my life when I read it.

And what about before the list? I’ve often wished I started my list much earlier. I was 24 years old when I started it and 2 years out of college. Looking back over that time, and thinking about books I read in college, and high school, books I read in grade school. Books I got from Weekly Reader and checked out of the library, children’s books that I read on my own or with help from my parents, I’d estimate the total to be not more than 500 books, and probably somewhat less than that.

When I finished the final words of Will Durant’s The Reformation on Saturday, I was sitting out on the deck, enjoying sunshine. I had a quiet, private moment of achievement. Then I started on the next book. I jumped from the middle ages in Europe to the present achievements in physics with Brian Greene’s latest, Until the End of Time, which I’ll like finish today and mark down as book #1,001.

I occasionally get questions about my reading and my list. If you have any, feel free to drop them in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them.

Math Lessons in the Age of Social Distancing

Many of us are acting as teachers or teaching assistants for our kids these day. Schools are closed and remote learning is the order of the day. We rely on teachers and teachers rely on us. There is a kind of symbiotic relationship here that is new and different from the past.

And then, there’s math.

I learned math differently from how it is taught today, and I find some of how it is taught today to be confusing. I suppose that research and studies have shown that kids learn math better the way they teach it today, then how it was taught when I was learning it (or for that matter, when Isaac Newton, or Euclid and others learned it). It still often seems nonsensical to me. Thus we hit upon a problem: my kids are taught math in a way that I don’t really get, but I am relied upon to help them learn math in this age of remote learning. I can’t help but fall back on the ways I know.

The Little Man had a math test yesterday involving fraction. The test focused primarily on multiplying and dividing fractions. For one set of questions, the instructions indicated the answers should be given in simplest form. The Little Man was marked off on three of these questions. He gave answers of 7/2, 8/3, and 11/6 respectively. His teacher marked these wrong and said “close” for each one.

The Little Man came to me puzzled as to why these were wrong. “Well,” I said, “let’s look at the definition of ‘simplest form’ in your text book.” We checked and the textbook gave the definition as a fraction in which the numerator and denominator could not be further reduced; that is, they only have a common factor of 1. Well, this was true in all three cases, so I sent the Little Man’s teacher a question, asking for clarification so that I help the Little Man understand his error and avoid it in the future.

His teacher said that his answers were improper fractions and that improper fractions were not in simplest form. I dove into the ancient and dusty parts of my memory to see if I could recall this from my own math classes, but there was nothing there. Maybe she’s right. Still, the definition given in the text book made no mention of improper fractions. It was generalized to “fractions.” I thanked the teacher for the clarification and then said the following to the Little Man:

“Buddy, you basically got these wrong on a technicality–like evidence of crime being tossed because it was come upon improperly. The thing to remember is, if you were an engineer in the real world, and someone asked you to calculate a measurement, and you came up with 7/2 as an answer, that answer is precise and correct, and would have served whatever engineering purpose it was needed for. Your boss would have been happy, and the bridge you were building based upon the calculation would be structurally sound. Sure, the answer was in improper fraction and might not technically be considered simplest form the way 3-1/2 is, but they are mathematically equivalent. You were mathematically correct, and definitionaly wrong.”

This is small potatoes, I know, but it is a frustrating part of being an amateur teacher. It is virtually impossible to unlearn how I learned math and equally difficult to comprehend how it is taught today. For me, math is a tool and I’m not as concerned about the theory. I use all kinds of math every day in my job. 7/2 is just as good as 3-1/2 and in the real world, when we are all trying to be efficient with our time, it also faster to come up with (one less operation to perform). Kelly has been trying to teach the kids how to study–practical advice that will be useful for them in all of their schooling going forward–and something I think was never taught well in my schooling. I am trying to teach practical problem-solving.

Fractions, improper though they may be, are more practical than mixed numbers.

No Motivation

I woke up this morning feeling completely unmotivated. I’ve got three requirements meetings scheduled for this afternoon. I’ve run 13 of these meetings over the last couple of weeks, with 9 scheduled this week. And three of them are today. I think part of the lack of motivation comes from working ceaselessly for the last 4 months. Normally, by this point in the year, we’d have driven down to Florida for spring break, at which time I would have taken a couple of days off. We may have headed up to New York or out to West Virginia for a weekend family getaway. None of that has happened, of course. The days run together, and the motivation well runs dry without some mental downtime to rejuvenate it.

I’ve often wondered if major league baseball players ever get that feeling. You know, you’re two thirds of the way through the season, there’s still 50 games to play, the team is in the cellar, and you wake up knowing that you’re starting at second base, batting cleanup, far from home, and just feeling like you can’t stay another night in a hotel, can’t bring yourself to swing at another pitch in batting practice. Of course, these are professionals, and are paid to play, so they muscle through somehow. But even those players who are living their dream and love to play ball must have days like this now and then, right?

Baseball is on my mind because it isn’t anywhere else, and I miss it more than I realized. My year is divided into two parts: baseball season, and winter. Baseball provides mental balance for me. The often disturbing news in the morning papers is balanced by the box scores, and sports columns. That’s missing from the papers now and so one place I go each day for a little rejuvenation is gone. Maybe baseball will find a way of coming back this season, but it won’t be quite the same.

These are all small considerations in the face of the larger Pandemic (are we capitalizing this yet?). After all, what is baseball when people are getting sick, people are dying, people are out of work, people are suffering. Maybe it is familiarity during a time of uncertainty that I find comforting. The unknowns pull the levers of anxiety. Because of this, I have to limit myself to thinking about today and not worrying too much about what may happen tomorrow. When I start to think about tomorrow, or the next week, I find that my motivation is sapped just a little bit more.

The show must go on, and so when my first meeting starts early this afternoon, I’ll be ready to go, regardless if the motivation is there or not. I could take a day off at some point, but it seems wasteful to take a day off when all I’ll do is sit at home. Besides, even if I took a day off work, I can’t take a day off from helping the kids get their school work organized, checking their work, answering their questions. If I am doing that, I might as well be getting some work done, too.

Interestingly, my motivation to write has been growing lately and my appetite for reading is as insatiable as ever. This morning I completed my sixth book in six days. It was Frank Deford’s memoir, Over Time. It was, perhaps, the best book I’ve read this year, a complete surprise, and one of those books that I read with absolute delight and dread. The dread came from the certainty that the book would end, and all I wanted was for Deford (who narrates the audiobook version) to keep spinning his tales, making me laugh out loud over and over again. If I ever doubted the value of a book to lift my spirits in troubled times, Deford wiped away those doubts with each delicious anecdote.

My favorite airport

I just finished reading Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, a wonderful book about air travel written by a 747 pilot. I came to this book via Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows, which I read back in February. Reading books like these often make me wish I’d stuck with flying. Twenty years and a month after getting my private pilot’s license, who knows what adventures might have been tucked into the lines of my logbook?

Approaching London over the Channel in 2007.

Skyfaring had me thinking of airports, desolate places in our current time, and not my favorite places in the world in general. When I was flying, I never minded airports, and indeed, enjoyed flying into smaller airports with pilot’s lounges and the satisfaction of knowing I could grab a burger while the plane was fueled and didn’t have to pass through security on my way back out to the plane (this was in the days before 9/11, of course).

It’s easy for me to list the airports I dislike the most, LAX being at the top of the list. I flew into LAX five or six times last year and always planned my arrivals and departures to be as early in the morning as possible in order to avoid the crowds and the rush of traffic into and out of the airport. On my last trip through LAX, they’d moved the Uber pickup to distant location and things seemed rather chaotic. I wasn’t looking forward to heading back there.

I don’t mind Washington-Dulles that much. It’s pretty easy to get into and get out of. I find it odd that the underground tram system that have takes you far past the D and C gates so that you spend more time walking back toward the gates than you do on the tram itself, but I like to pretend there is a good reason for this.

I’ve always had a fondness for Van Nuys airport, and for Camarillo airport. Van Nuys was my home base back when I flew, and I often flew out to Camaillo and its luxuriously long runway. (Van Nuys has and 8,000 foot runway and a 3,000 foot runway and I can count on two hands the number of times I was able to land on the long runway.)

Some airports seems too big–Atlanta and Denver come to mind. WhenI fly somewhere, I’ve been on a plane for a while, and want to be out and on my way to my destination. I the quicker I can get from the plane and off the airport property the better. Airports that make you take shuttles and trams from one part to another slow this down and annoy me, although I’m less annoyed if I can pick up train into town directly from the airport. (I know you can do this in Denver now, but the last time I flew in there, the train was closed for some reason.)

In all of the airports I’ve flown into, both as passenger and pilot, there is one that stands out in my mind as my absolute favorite: LIH, also known as Lihue Airport on the southeastern short of the island of Kaua’i in Hawai’i. I’ve flown in and out of this airport twice. My most recent trip to this airport was in 2005, right about the time this blog got its start. But my memory of that airport has stayed with me, and I judge all other airports by it to this day.

At the time Lihue was a fairly small airport. The long runway was 6,000 feet. Much of the airport was open or outdoors, which was new for me. The single best experience I’ve ever had in an airport took place in Lihue at the end of my last trip there. My friends who I’d vacationed with had left earlier in the day. I had a red-eye to LAX and then a connecting flight to Washington Dulles–a long flight. The day before, I’d picked up a couple books in a local bookstore. One of them was Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I got to the airport fairly early for my 10 pm flight. The United counter hadn’t opened yet. Once it did, I checked in, and then headed to the gate to make sure I knew where it was. From there, I went to the bar for one final Mai Tai.

There was an area outside the bar and some other shops that was a kind of open air sitting area. Almost no one was around. The sky was the kind of blue I’ve only ever seen in Hawai’i, and the trade winds were blowing. The air smelled amazing, and the silence was interrupted only occasionally by the rumble of jet engines. It was still something like 2 hours before my flight. It was still sunny. I found a bench, sat down, and began reading Alan Alda’s book. I was lost in words and in the feeling of the trade winds. I think if my flight had been delayed or canceled, I wouldn’t have minded in the least. I could have sat in that spot all night and been happy. It was one of the more peaceful moments I can remember, and certainly the most peaceful, relaxing time I’ve ever had in an airport.

That’s why Lihue Airport remains my favorite airport. I haven’t been back there in 15 years and I imagine it has changed some. But I’ll always remember it as it was on that day.