Recorded on December 20th, 2018
My wife got me excited about Gretchen Rubin’s book Outer Order, Inner Calm, and the Happier podcast she does with her sister. On episode 199, they reviewed progress on their respective “18 for 2018” lists. These are as simple as they sound — lists of things to do, see, make, or habits to adopt in 2018. They’re doing their “19 for 2019” lists and I like the idea much more than the tired, futile (for me) process of “new year’s resolutions”. Those always sound like “Be it known that once and for all I am going to correct longstanding character flaw X in my brain and 2019 will be the year it happens”.
The “19 for 2019” is more like a to-do list for the year, just like I make to-do lists for certain days. It’s a way to say, OK, I can only get so much done in a year. What things would I like to not allow to sit idle for another year? Those can be as mundane as “Paint the front steps” or “Build a bookshelf”. It’s so easy to let a year slip away without moving on a bunch of projects that would make life better if they were done.
By the way, reading “Outer Order, Inner Calm” is on my 2019 list.
Recorded on January 17th, 2017
I was looking for a previous post from last year, thinking that at some point I wrote about going without TV for a certain number of nights per week. I either didn’t write it or can’t find it. But we recently did it again, having relocated the Sony TV to the basement, covered by a plastic bag to keep out dust.
The first week is really hard. You don’t know what to do with the time while you get used to it. It’s like weaning yourself off sugar. But after a week, you look forward to and savor the quiet of the evening, and you realize that you have way more free time than you ever thought you did. Tonight we even found ourselves prepping our lunches for tomorrow. That 100% would not have happened if we still had the TV hooked up.
As I wrote the other night, our life preserver is Amazon Prime and a laptop, in case we go nuts and need to watch something. I mean, we’re not animals.
Recorded on January 2nd, 2017
With each passing year, as we all hurtle towards our eventual deaths, I keep coming back to this idea that it may (may) be an unwise use of one’s time to obsess over the bit-perfection of their lossless digital music library, or the neat and tidy suspended-animation state of RAW files in a Lightroom library. It seems to be a problem of math, where almost all of the factors are weighted heavily in favor of just doing what’s “good enough” to enjoy what we have for as long as we’re alive.
These are the factors I mean:
- Time to spend on maintaining these libraries. Finite and scarce. We don’t know how much time any of us has left. Cataloging FLAC files and RAW photos and their associated non-destructive metadata files is only for the nerdiest, with the most discretionary time available.
- Time to enjoy viewing or listening to the libraries. Also limited. Is in a zero-sum relationship with, and directly lessened by, #2.
- Hard drive space. Cheap and plentiful. Possibly the one thing that tilts in favor of spending too much time and attention on curating our collections.
- Usefulness to future generations. Inestimably low. No one after me will want to take care of, duplicate, back up, and tend to my digital libraries of crap, much less listen to or view them.
- Aesthetic value. I can totally hear the benefits of FLAC files. I can sometimes see the difference between a RAW file and a high-quality JPG.
- Size of collections. Growing faster every year, especially with photos. As more photos and audio files get added to the piles, the worth of each of those files — well into the tens of thousands now — decreases proportionally.
The alternatives? Living with iTunes Match as a primary library source for digital music, and dumping copies of your photos in Apple iCloud and Google Photos, since that’s where you’re probably going to look at them anyway. The beauty of this method is that you have so many tons of crap to lug around that if some small fraction of it gets corrupted, oh well — you have 98% of the rest still fine. Not a great way to go through life, but neither is feeling overly attached to digital data, spending precious hours being ruled by your computer and the file systems that house this stuff. If I knew I were going to die in six months, how much would I care about all this shit?
But who am I kidding? It’s not like I’m going to burn down my Lightroom library and my FLAC folders. I may never view or hear some of those things again ever, but I just keep adding to the piles like a fool.
Recorded on December 23rd, 2016
I became a Scrooge about Christmas long before Trump was a glimmer in the GOP’s eye. True, he has definitely put the nail in the coffin of whatever Christmas spirit I had left, but it was already petering out year after year anyway. I used to enjoy it a lot more — the whole production of the familiar music, the presents, the food, and the friends and family. I even made it past the middle adulthood hump to where we had radically dialed back the amount of present-buying to the point where it wasn’t an endless marathon of feverish shopping. It should have gotten better than ever, but at this point I’d rather we skip the entire thing.
As a child I believed in the whole Christmas story. I don’t anymore. It’s a story, and sort of a nice one except for the Herod/refugee/persecution parts, and the sci-if virgin birth stuff. The idea of religion seems more foreign to me with every passing year, and the more I learn about the cosmos, the more ridiculous it sounds that an all-knowing God would send a son to one tiny speck of a planet, when other forms of life are most likely plentiful out there. And then the idea that all that happened so he could die for our past and future sins… I have no idea what that’s all about.
Christmas started to feel like a holiday all about the rituals and the show. Tolerate the same tired songs, take your life into your hands as you venture out anywhere near a mall, and show up at the same million obligatory events as last year.
With the astoundingly bad choice of Trump for our next president, whether by an uninformed population, foreign disinformation, or both, I have almost zero hope for the country and for humanity. I don’t think that’s being hyperbolic, either. We can #resist all we want, but there is actually precious little the common person can do now to stop any of the destruction we’re headed for. If Trump wants to align our nuclear weapons with Russia in opposition to China, all we can do is hope we’re close enough to the initial blast that we don’t feel a thing when the end comes. If we avoid that, the best we can hope for is an authoritarian kleptocracy, a phrase I only learned about a couple of months ago. I haven’t seen any evidence to make me believe the contrary.
All that aside, assuming we get at least this Christmas, here are the parts I still like:
- It’s A Wonderful Life
- Lessons & Carols service from King’s College
- Egg nog
- Holiday Inn
- The lights in Can-Can in Carytown
- A Christmas Story
- Christmas in Connecticut
- A Christmas Carol with Basil Rathbone
- Peppermint ice cream
- The annual, fleeting idea that we could possibly be decent to each other
Recorded on September 23rd, 2016
I keep thinking about Andrew Sullivan: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours. Shortly before I read his article, I was thinking about how I spent the evenings of one summer when I was home from Va. Tech, renting movies with a friend after working during the days refurbishing computer terminals. I’d go to her house and we’d drink beer in her family’s basement den and watch actual VHS tapes1 of whatever early 90s movies were out then (like Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”, or similar). Maybe there was some sort of improvised dinner, but that was pretty much it for the night! When I got home, I didn’t have a shame-spiral email address weighed down by years of unanswered messages. There was no World Wide Web (at least that I had access to) to browse, no smartphones to check, no Twitter, no Facebook, and no CNN.com to rot our minds with every page refresh. 22-year-old me surely had fewer responsibilities overall compared to now (no house, no real job yet, very few bills, no debt). But beyond the absence of the actual things to take care of, there’s a difference now where we feel like the multiple channels of input require constant tending lest they get out of control. You don’t want your email to get too moldy and you don’t want to slight someone on whatever your preferred social media app is. The convenience of Amazon, online banking, mobile task management apps and text editors means there’s always some planning or scheming or writing or shopping you could chip away at in the in-between time.
Imagine if Sullivan’s article had been a passage from some sci-fi book in the 70s, a picture of what the coming network would do to those who dove into it too deeply. It reads like an account from the looming future:
In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
I’ve been (and will often continue to be) the person sitting alone at a bar or restaurant, staring at my phone. The reasons are: 1. I’m an introvert. Of course I prefer the safety of a device queued up with my favorite articles, posts by friends, and unorganized information to groom. 2. From what I hear, people at nudist resorts or nude beaches do not stare at each other. If they regard each other at all, it’s all in the eyes. Keep your gaze high. You don’t want to stick out. You do the same thing at a bar or restaurant where everyone is nose-deep in their phones. Now the phones encourage us to not look at each other at all. You don’t want to be the one weirdo staring around, looking up at the ceiling or smiling at the other patrons. “Who’s the creeper? Why doesn’t he keep to his phone? Why doesn’t he have a book?”
Even knowing all this, I don’t see myself completely swearing off my mobile devices anytime soon. But just like taking a shower every day is a good thing to do for your body (and everyone around you), it’s equally good to regularly step away from the electronic information-pellet dispenser long enough think about why we do it so often, and whether it’s how we want to spend 30 seconds here and there, multiple times a day, while we’re still alive.
No matter how much we fetishize the past, good riddance to VHS tapes. ↩
Recorded on September 22nd, 2016
There’s hardly anything I can add to Andrew Sullivan’s article that he doesn’t say better: My Distraction Sickness — and Yours
All those technologies re-connect me with dear old friends on Facebook, inspire me with beautiful photos from strangers on Flickr, and make me feel so close to my favorite podcasters (who are humans). But that network also provides an endless source of distraction, killing my attention and everyone else’s through a thousand tiny ephemeral cuts.
By the way: the irony of finding this article via a link from a friend on Facebook is duly noted. At least I learned some new words while reading it: “febrile”, “novitiate”, “caviling”.
“Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise.”
“Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.”
Recorded on September 13th, 2016
In my thicket of text files, I copied this tweet from Merlin Mann EIGHT YEARS AGO, and it’s still good advice:
Creative work, summarized: In the time you set aside each day to work your ass off, ignore anything that makes you consider stopping.— Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) July 26, 2008
I am usually awful at this, but in the rare cases when I’m good at it, I manage to keep going for an additional minute at a time, keeping my self-generated attention thieves at bay. I have to remind myself:
- If you want stop to check CNN, don’t.
- If you want to check your email inbox, don’t.
- If you want to check Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, don’t.
- Just keep working until you’ve put in a good chunk of time and made progress on something.
This is less a “how to be productive” post than it is a reminder to myself for when I forget all of the above.
Recorded on September 5th, 2016
A couple of my dear friends have died recently and it’s hard to process. It puts me in a darker place than usual. Two of the text files I keep on my phone are
Celebrity deaths that meant something to me.txt and
Celebrities I worry about dying.txt. Two things are apparent after considering these lists and the list-maker:
- Everyone dies. We just happen to be on the cusp of a whole lot of baby boomer celebrities leaving us over a short period of time.
- The lists are selfishly more about me, the time I grew up in, and my need to organize information than they are about the people on the lists, although I do love all of them. But it’s not like I’ve met them. I just want to remember that they are/were important.
This is the current state of
Celebrities I worry about dying.txt. The numbers beside all the names are their current ages. If they’re wrong, it’s Wikipedia’s fault.
Alan Alda (80)
Vashti Bunyan (70 or 71)
Carol Burnett (83)
Wendy Carlos (76)
Jimmy Carter (91)
Dick Cavett (79)
Noam Chomsky (87)
John Cleese (76)
David Crosby (75)
Judi Dench (81)
Bob Dylan (75)
Mick Fleetwood (69)
John Fogerty (71)
Peter Gabriel (66)
Emmylou Harris (69)
Debbie Harry (71)
Howard Hesseman (76)
Peter Hook (60)
Eric Idle (73)
Yusuf Islam (68)
Mick Jagger (73)
Billy Joel (67)
John Paul Jones (70)
Greg Lake (68)
Angela Lansbury (90)
Geddy Lee (63)
David Letterman (69)
Alex Lifeson (63)
Steve Martin (71)
Brian May (69)
Paul McCartney (74)
Michael McDonald (64)
Roger McGuinn (74)
Ian McKellen (77)
Christine McVie (73)
Joni Mitchell (72)
Stephen Morris (58)
Graham Nash (74)
John Nettles (72)
Anton Newcombe (49)
Bob Newhart (86)
Colin Newman (61)
Jimmy Page (72)
Michael Palin (73)
Carl Palmer (66)
Geoffrey Palmer (89)
Dolly Parton (70)
Neil Peart (63)
Tom Petty (65)
Robert Plant (68)
Iggy Pop (69)
Keith Richards (72)
Patrick Simmons (67)
Paul Simon (74)
Maggie Smith (81)
Mark E. Smith (59)
Bruce Springsteen (66)
Ringo Starr (76)
Patrick Stewart (76)
Stephen Stills (71)
Morton Subotnick (83)
Bernard Sumner (60)
Richard Thompson (67)
Edward Tufte (74)
Mary Tyler Moore (79)
Dick Van Dyke (90)
Tom Waits (66)
Scott Walker (the musician) (73)
Charlie Watts (75)
Bob Weir (68)
Bill Withers (78)
Stevie Wonder (66)
Neil Young (70)
Recorded on August 22nd, 2016
Freakonomics Radio recently re-ran this interview with Aziz Ansari. As you might expect, he is devastatingly smart. He co-wrote a book called Modern Romance (which I have not read) about the reasons that people date and marry today and how the rituals and methods behind those have changed from olde times. It sounds like less of an Aziz-standup book than one about a subject he was interested enough in to do actual research on.
So, smart dude, and one who freely admits his weakness for reading too much of the internet and wasting time on Facebook. And that makes me appreciate even more his distaste for taking photos with fans when he’s out and about. It’s not that he’s too good for it. It just gets in the way of being with his actual friends, and the photos aren’t that important anyway:
And you know, if people ask for a photo I have like a nice way of telling people, “oh I’d rather not take a photo but what’s your name? Thank you so much for watching my work and I’m genuinely very appreciative.”
So it becomes this whole thing. So you can either do that or you can have this real moment with a person where you say, “hey, how are you? Like, what’s your name? Like, thanks for watching my stuff. And I’m happy to do that.” That feels like a real thing to me.
Note to self: Resist the urge to take photos when I meet my celebrity heroes. Some people may be very cool with it. For others, it’s just one more annoyance in a long day, and would I really want to be the source of that? What would it prove anyway? That we’re now buds? No. It would prove that we were both in front of the same camera at the same instant, but not much else. Why can’t we be secure in the authenticity of a moment with another person, where we talk and listen to each other and we don’t ask them to give us yet one more thing?
Recorded on July 18th, 2016
Yep, there’s an irony to posting this on my blog and then tweeting a link to it, hoping that you’ll see it. Will your life be better because of it? I don’t know. Maybe by a small amount. But there will definitely be a time and attention cost, paid by you. Add up enough slices of time and they become real opportunity costs, where you could have invested those house as uninterrupted, big blocks, getting something more important done.
Cal Newport recently wrote about a video interview at Stanford with Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape Communications, and other companies. He says:
I just don’t appreciate social networking, which has blown up in recent years. In part, because [I recently attended a panel on social media where a panelist was] just raving about people spending twelve hours a day on Facebook…so I asked a question to the guy who was raving: the guy who’s spending twelve hours a day on Facebook, do you ever think he’ll be able to do what you’ve done? That’s the fundamental problem… people waste too much time on that.
I hopefully spend much less time on Facebook than Facebook would like me to. The notifications about local events and the ability to keep in touch with far-away friends make it too convenient a service for me to leave entirely, but man is it ever a low-return on investment of time. Twitter is a little better, but it’s still fundamentally ephemeral stuff. I would hate to see the aggregate number of hours I’ve spent in my life scrolling through both of them.
Recorded on July 14th, 2016
Last night I whined about how I couldn’t keep it all straight when multiple deadlines start piling up in parallel projects. My TaskPaper master file isn’t going anywhere, but I accept that sometimes life gets crazy enough that you need to swap part of your stuff into another system, just to get a big picture of what’s going on for the next few weeks and keep the momentum going of all those projects.
Here are a couple of projects in Trello on iOS that look a lot like actual projects (that I don’t want to show). I first listed some milestones for each project on various cards, then assigned them some due dates without thinking too much about it.
Then, on the non-mobile browser version, you have a couple of calendar views of all the cards that have due dates. I’m attempting to use those dates as milestones, not as “start and finish this task on this day” dates.
Here’s the month view, which makes it easy to see how close your tasks are getting to the final due date of the project (mine is labeled in red). You can also get a good sense of where you’re going to be loaded down. Magically, you drag cards around in the calendar and their dates change when you go back to the card details view. The final cool thing about Trello calendar views is that you can plug their iCal feeds into Google Calendar, if you really want to see how your aspirational milestones map against the existing commitments of real life:
I especially like the week calendar, because it groups your tasks by project, and you can read the cards more easily. It shows you clearly what you need to focus on today (or what you should have focused on yesterday if you waited this long to review everything).
I will give this a shot!
Recorded on July 13th, 2016
One thing that continually bugs me is that I don’t have a way to plan, achieve, and track daily progress on multiple projects. This is a problem whether I’m at work or at home. You’d think that Trello, Google Spreadsheets, Todoist or TaskPaper could solve this, but all of these systems are only as good as the person using them (me, unfortunately).
My mental model is like this: The end of a project is like the destination of a road trip. Let’s say we need to drive from Richmond, Virginia to San Francisco, California. Our trip starts tomorrow, and for whatever reason we have six full days to get there. We could fairly easily plan out how many miles we’d need to cover each day, how many hotels to stay at, etc. One trip (or a project) like that is pretty easy. You check in with yourself at multiple times along the way, and you can self-correct if you’re falling behind.
But what if you have five simultaneous trips (projects) going on, you’re not quite sure how many miles are necessary for each trip because there are no maps for that territory, and you don’t have good milestones planned out along the way? (Ignore the fact that this analogy breaks down because one person can’t physically be on multiple road trips at the same time.) If you’re like me, you abandon planning, figure out 100 miles at a time, and drive 1000 miles on Trip X in one day. Then you switch gears the next day because you realize Trip Y has been ignored, and pour in 1200 miles to that trip to make up for lost time, thereby ignoring the rest of the ongoing trips. You have no overall picture of how each day should be going.
Or, you do plan, you have a really good picture of what needs to happen each day, you do great for Day 1, and then on Day 2 your car breaks down and you don’t have the sense to renegotiate the outcomes, even though you realize there’s no way all these trips are going to reach their destination on time.
I have no answers here. Only weak analogies and a vague sense that I’m sticking my head in the sand, hoping for the best.
Recorded on July 9th, 2016
I know I spend too much time researching cameras and lenses I don’t have. It’s not the way to become a better photographer. The better way is… spend more time taking photos. Duh. But to do that also means spending time processing/editing photos (in Lightroom, for me). I thought about the time I spend in Lightroom, which I love, and wanted to do more of it, but also wanted it to not take over life. I thought, “there must be a non-sucky app for tracking time for personal/creative projects”. If I found that, it’d also be good to use for tracking time spent blogging, editing photos, working on music, etc.
I found this Forbes article about just such apps (I know: Forbes — just deal with the annoying quote of the day). From that article, Hours looks pretty good. Also, Eternity Time Log gets insanely good reviews on the App Store. I’ll give them both a try and report back later.
Recorded on July 4th, 2016
Yesterday, I was going through what I call a “box of shame”. It’s one of those boxes I end up with after I realize I have too much unprocessed crap on my desk and I sweep it all into a big box so I can keep working, knowing that I’ll deal with it later — sometimes much later. That’s no way to live, but it’s still one notch better than having your work held up by a bunch of stuff that’s physically in the way.
Among all the random papers and wires and half-filled Field Notes notebooks, I saw a Post-It note where I had scribbled, “Randy Pausch crucial desk clear”. No date on it, and no other context, but I knew that it was something that I wrote down to get out of my head while I was working on something else one day. And I knew it was a phrase I had heard during one of the many times I listened to the audio version of Randy Pausch’s “last lecture” at U.Va.
From the transcript of the “Time Management” (PDF) section of his lecture, here’s the part that my Post-It note referred to. And yes, it’s funny that I would be reminded of the wisdom of an orderly desk while sorting through a pile of desk clutter:
Paperwork. The first thing that you need to know is that having cluttered paperwork leads to thrashing. You end up with all these things on your desk, and you can’t find anything, and the moment you turn to your desk your desk is saying to you: “I own you! I have more things than you can do! And they are many colors and laid out!” So what I find is that it’s really crucial to keep your desk clear, and we’ll talk about where all the paper goes in a second, and you have one thing on your desk because then it’s like: “Haha! Now it’s thunderdome! Me and the ONE piece of paper.” I usually win that one. One of the mantras of time management is, touch each piece of paper once. You get the piece of paper, you look at it, you work at it, and I think that’s extremely true for email.
It should be instructive that a professor who knew he had a short time left in his life would still put such a high value on keeping a clear desk, an empty email inbox, and writing thank-you notes.
Recorded on June 27th, 2016
I learned today that one of my dearest friends from work passed away in her sleep last night. Everyone who knew her is shocked and saddened by the sudden loss. I saw her in the cafeteria just last week and she said, “We need to make lunch plans”, and I emailed a note to myself to remind me to do just that. When I returned to my desk I got distracted by some other surely more “important” task and never got around to scheduling it. It was a to-do that I let slip through the cracks and now it’s too late. This is a reminder to myself to not do that in the future. When you say you’re going to hang out with people, get those plans on the calendar. If good beer and good conversation are involved, that’s even more reason to put it high on your list of priorities. The same goes for travel to foreign (or domestic) lands. And it goes double for thanking people for small and big things.