My Year in Reading: 2016

December 31st, 2016

It wasn’t great. While I did read some really nice books this year, plus lots of rewarding shorter stuff (mostly in The New Yorker and The Ringer or via links encountered on Twitter), I only finished . . . thirteen books. In fact, it’s been eight years since I read as many as twenty books in any calendar year.

That’s just not cutting it.

As I look back at the reading notebook I’ve kept for the past twenty years, it’s not hard for me to recall the prevailing conditions that have led me to read more books (graduate school, daily bus commutes) or fewer (social media).

For 2017, I’m creating my own prevailing conditions for reading more, starting with a commitment to spend much less time—and radically less grazing time—on social media. Here are some other things I’m doing:

  • rearranging my office slightly
  • setting calendar reminders
  • creating a specific “Read These Next” list for my computer desktop, with separate categories for research, fiction, general nonfiction, and other things like poetry and graphic novels
  • moving my Kindle and Goodreads apps front and center on my phone and tablet

And now I’m reinforcing all of that by telling all of you that my goal is to average reading one book per week for 2017.

What’s your reading goal for the new year?

Photo by Hernán Piñera, shared via a Creative Commons license





What’s your default mode?

December 26th, 2016

Cards on the table: I’ve decided to make my default mode writing-for-publication as a means of discovery.

(Or maybe I should label that “Fair Warning!” for those of you who decide to follow me. ;)

Here’s a thing I’ve discovered about myself as a writer: Setting aside some private correspondence with friends, family, and clients, everything I write needs to be composed with an eye toward eventual publication. Even morning pages, journal entries, and the like can be reshaped into something that helps others along the way.

What I’ve been doing up until now includes lots of introspective scribbling—what I call “noodling”—that doesn’t help much. I mean, it can be useful in its way, but I find that I tend to circle around topics rather than working all the way through them. It’s an unproductive sort of navel-gazing. That’s not fruitful for me or for others. From where I sit, we need a lot of fruitful thinking captured in prose (and poetry, and scripts, and every other artistic form) that frees us from the traps of division we’ve caught ourselves in.

Writing for an audience also includes a solid dose of introspection for me, but framed in a way to connect it with others’ concerns. It takes me out of solipsism into something much more fruitful. It performs work.

The practical implications of this? More minutes per day spent writing (that number of minutes should be in the hundreds for me, every single day, yet often it’s in the tens), and more pieces published here, in other venues, and ultimately in the form of books. You should expect to see more essays, more stories, more poems, more tweets, and my first books in 2017.

Lots of people write; many people want to write; some people were meant to write. This is me staking out my turf as a member of that last category.

A mercenary appeal: If there’s something you want me to write for you, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

An artistic/political appeal: If there’s some topic you want me to pursue in my work because you think I’d do a good job with it, please let me know that, too.

Now, over to you:

  • What has your default mode been?
  • What should it be?





Thoughts on ARRIVAL

December 12th, 2016

[No spoilers here.]

Yesterday I went to see Arrival. I thought it was very good. In particular:

  • Really interesting script
  • Fine cinematography
  • Excellent cast (Renner, I like; Adams and Whitaker are longtime faves of mine, and they’re very good here.)
  • Truly outstanding sound design

But what I liked most about the movie is that it is unabashedly pro-intellectual. Without giving anything away, Adams and Renner play professors (a linguist and a physicist, respectively) whose job it is to understand the aliens who have come to visit Earth.

They’re not intellectualizing things for the sake of it, or theorizing to theorize. They’re faced with a huge, highly practical problem, and they lead teams of brainy people (supported by highly professional soldiers) trying to unravel that problem.

Why I think this is important

For a long time now — and especially recently — we’ve been subjected to a narrative that people who think (and who think for a living) somehow aren’t “real people.” That’s a false, divisive, and counterproductive notion.

Having worked with my hands, and coming from people who do, I have great respect for that work. It’s vital and honorable. Besides the need for physical toughness, there’s often a lot of creativity, resourcefulness, and mental toughness that goes into that work.

But brainwork is also vital and honorable. And, crucially, it’s real. Arrival underlines the importance of that.

We’re facing a lot of problems these days, from racism to climate change to terrorism. We need everybody’s talents to solve them. That doesn’t mean Ph.D.s should talk down to the rest of us, or that intellectuals should call all the shots. But we need creative brainpower and deep knowledge now more than ever.

All of this ought to be obvious. Arrival reminds us that it isn’t.






Filling my dance card with writing work.

April 17th, 2016

dance_card4

Greetings, esteemed blog visitor!

Life and work have been treating me well. That said, with some big projects recently wrapped up, I do have unclaimed space on my dance card for the coming months.

In other words: Need a writer? Know of someone who needs a writer?

For lo these 17 years gone by, my work has spanned traditional journalism (I love writing magazine features), content marketing, corporate copywriting, and B2B brand journalism for hardware and software companies. Clients and editors come back to me for my ability to help people understand not only the workings of technology, but how tech can have a profound impact on business and life challenges they care about.

Two things I’d love to do more of:

1. Big projects with corporate clients. For instance, last fall I spent a couple of months completely rewriting the site of a network security company that was launching new product lines while rebranding after a merger.

2. Absorbing byline stories built on research & interviews. Short- or longform, magazine or digital. Particularly welcome are stories that combine business and tech (see above), stories dealing with neuroscience, and profiles of interesting people solving problems in new ways.

Happy to supply samples and references, of course. Please just drop me a line in the comments or through the channel of your choice (itemized here).

Looking forward to working with some of you soon!






If you had known then what you know now…

April 3rd, 2016






Crossover sci-fi/fantasy actors.

March 24th, 2016

As an extension of a dinner-table conversation with my kids, I asked friends on Twitter to name actors who have done work in more than one science-fiction or fantasy universe. This is what we came up with.

 






Your best recommendations for science books.

March 6th, 2016






Remember that “It doesn’t matter.”

March 2nd, 2016


Milton Glaser and his most famous design

Milton Glaser and his most famous design



Nine years ago I linked to Milton Glaser’s lovely essay, “Ten Things I Have Learned.” Tonight I was motivated to return to one passage of it:

Last year someone gave me a charming book by Roger Rosenblatt called ‘Ageing Gracefully’ I got it on my birthday. I did not appreciate the title at the time but it contains a series of rules for ageing gracefully. The first rule is the best. Rule number one is that ‘it doesn’t matter.’

‘It doesn’t matter what you think. Follow this rule and it will add decades to your life. It does not matter if you are late or early, if you are here or there, if you said it or didn’t say it, if you are clever or if you were stupid. If you were having a bad hair day or a no hair day or if your boss looks at you cockeyed or your boyfriend or girlfriend looks at you cockeyed, if you are cockeyed. If you don’t get that promotion or prize or house or if you do – it doesn’t matter.’ Wisdom at last.

I needed to read that tonight, and I thought maybe you might be able to use it, too.

Image source.





Algorithms for Work

February 23rd, 2016

formula

I’ve spent too much time over the years noodling about lifehacks, organizational systems, and so on. The more I work, and the more deeply I experience life, the more I believe that:

  • Yes, there are various little techniques and bits of footwork that help us organize ourselves, BUT . . .
  • For the most part, it comes down to a fairly short list of master algorithms that are sometimes hard to do, but not actually that difficult to understand.

I’m going to build this post slowly as I encounter algorithms that I think deserve to be on that short list. Your feedback will be eagerly received.

The Algorithms

Keep your decks clear. You can relate this to David Allen’s “open loops,” any number of decluttering systems, or simply the old wisdom to clean up after yourself. The core concept is to keep your mind clear to do good work.

Find the balance between tight and loose. My friend Geena frames this as “focus on your path but vigilantly scan the horizon for incoming.” I would generalize it to include a balance between (a) rigorous discipline and principles and (b) creative openness and fluidity. You must have both to succeed.

Keep moving. The essence of life is to move and change and grow. When you find yourself stuck, do what it takes to get un-stuck. This applies also to your body: you don’t need to be a pro athlete, but you DO need to move within your own physical capabilities.

Connect. So much of the value of life exists in relationships. Don’t worry about “networking” or the specific rules of relationships; just connect with the people who are important to you.

. . .

[image source]






A quick note on Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.

February 14th, 2016

U.S.-Constitution-Wikimedia-469x281

Short Version

If you don’t want Obama’s nominee to fill Scalia’s seat, that’s fine — but focus on the Senate confirmation process instead of subscribing to the nonsense that Obama shouldn’t make any appointment in the first place. He actually has to make an appointment as part of his explicit job duties.

Longer Version

I seldom talk about politics here, but sometimes things are so illogical— independent of which party or politician they come from — that I feel the need to set down my thoughts.

There’s this absurd notion going around that President Obama should not nominate someone to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Scalia. It’s absurd because Obama is explicitly obligated to nominate a successor by Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which states:

[The President] shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

It says “shall.” Obama actually must make an appointment . . . because the Constitution commands him to.

Now, you may not like whoever he nominates. That’s cool. The Senate may not approve his first nominee, or his second nominee, or any nominee. That’s also cool, in the sense that the Senate has that prerogative. (It wouldn’t be so cool from the standpoint of gumming up the works of the Supreme Court . . . but it’s still the Senate’s prerogative.)

But Obama — who still, for whatever it’s worth, has one-ninth of his Presidency still to serve — actually must make an appointment, or he’s not fulfilling the explicit duties laid out for him by the Constitution.