Friday, March 29, 2013

What I Read Today - Friday March 29, 2013

On Keeping a Notebook in the Digital Age

By Elizabeth Spiers in Architecting a Life

A few days ago I had a moment of sheer panic because I couldn’t find a pen. I went through the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of penlessness (Denial: Maybe I don’t need a pen? I don’t need a pen! Anger: Where is my goddamned pen?! Bargaining: If you give me your pen, O nice, accommodating waiter, I’ll leave you a bigger tip) and finally got to the final stage, Acceptance: Alternatives to Pen.

I desperately needed a pen because I had an idea. And I feared that it would slip away from me before I could write it down. My ideas are very slippery and they disappear quickly, easily abetted by distraction. And so I’ve developed a routine of pulling out a notebook and writing them down before they escape, and this process is so much a part of my innate behavior at this point that missing either the pen or the notebook creates an intolerable amount of anxiety about idea loss.

In this case, I resorted to my smartphone and emailed myself the note with a category heading in the subject line. And all was technically fine. But it’s not my preferred method.

My preferred method for idea capture is something akin to Steven Berlin Johnson’s idea of keeping a “spark file” which he’s written about on Medium. (Johnson is a prolific and versatile writer who has covered a wide range of subjects. I would particularly recommend his book The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. It’s rare that “I couldn’t put it down” can be said of a book on disease and city planning, but it’s true in this case.)

He notes, “...Most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful.”

In order to exploit this particular quality of idea formation, he keeps what he calls a “spark file”: “A single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books.” He doesn’t try to organize them. The randomness is intentional. He reads them over every few months and finds themes emerging — connections between fragments that wouldn’t seem apparent if those fragments were presented in isolation.

I do something similar myself — making disjointed notes in a notebook, entering them into a master file, and reviewing after long stretches.

I’ll do it anywhere but I definitely have venues and times that are more productive than others. Modes of transportation are particularly fertile — subways, airplanes, trains. Areas where I can be alone while sitting in a room full of people — coffee shops, dinner solo at a bar, jury duty — are ripe for observation. The evening works better than the morning, but mostly because I’m more alert at the end of the day than the beginning.

But for me, the note-taking works primarily because I have learned to separate my putative spark file from my task list. If I feel the impulse to make a note to myself about something that needs to be done, I put it somewhere else — my actual to-do list or a list of potential projects.

In Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen (also recommended, especially if you manage people in a creative industry), he distinguishes between ideas and “action steps” — separating your notes, sketches, etc., from things that need to be done.

This may not be true of everyone, but I find that I’m the most creatively fruitful when I approach pure creative work and execution separately. If I start with the execution, I’m much more limited in how I think about what I want to accomplish. I won’t pursue a story idea further because I think it’s going to take more time than I have. I won’t explore an article topic because I don’t have all the research at hand. I don’t want potential action steps to make pursuing a new idea seem too intimidating or insurmountable. So I keep separate files for those — mostly task lists associated with specific projects and a master list for overall prioritization.

I also have something called a “backburner file ” — also a Belsky invention — a task list for pie-in-the-sky projects that are interesting but not high priority. (One such backburner project that I can say with 99% confidence I will never do: No Comment Magazine, a monthly publication consisting exclusively of write-arounds on famous people who won’t talk to the press.)

For those of us comfortable with the digital age, the plethora of note-taking apps makes idea capture fingertip-convenient. I’ve used Evernote for work purposes and keep most of my idea files in Google Docs. But that said, my first medium for idea capture is still pen and paper — usually in a highly disposable three-by-five paper notebook that I carry everywhere and fill up at a rate of about one a month. This is partly a function of immediacy (I don’t have to open an app and find a file) and partly a function of the fact that I’m terrible at typing on a smartphone and it takes me longer to get the words down if I try to do it digitally. But I also like the romance of physical handwriting, even though my atrocious penmanship falls somewhere between “five-year-old” and “average medical professional” and this sometimes means I’m unable to decipher pieces of what I wrote. I concentrate less when I’m typing and my first drafts often have missing phrases because my fingers have failed to catch up with my thoughts. Writing things down enforces slowness, and by extension, thoughtfulness.

Notes from a random page of my notebook:

news ticker on a story about Newtown shootings: “Experts say that it is okay to tell your children that you don’t know why it happened.”

fish on antidepressants swim away from the pack

Short story about twins named Elemental and Ephemeral

From Solomon: “The biggest stress is humiliation; the second is loss. The best defense, for people with a biological vulnerability, is a ‘good enough’ marriage, which absorbs external humiliations and minimizes them.”

Everything is an idea for something, something that touches the imagination, a fact that seems relevant or maybe just a statement I find interesting — either because it resonates or because I disagree. All of it is fodder for continued work or thinking on the topics. It’s also important to me to record the ideas that my instincts tell me are bad. (Elemental and Ephemeral? I definitely scribbled that one at a bar.)

Sometimes they contain a germ of something good. Sometimes they serve as contrast, existing simply to remind me that there are better ideas worth pursuing.

One model for me is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books. Lichtenberg was an eighteenth century German physicist whose scientific accomplishments have become somewhat overshadowed by the popularity of notes he took on English transactional ledgers (informally called “waste books”) that were later published by his sons. His waste books are a collection of short personal reflections and quotations covering a wide range of topics and infused with wit. He is the master of the aphorism (“We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world”) but peppers the notebooks with whimsical observations (“They sneezed, wheezed, coughed and made two other kinds of sound for which we have no words in German”). They are idea rich, and not always rich with good ideas. And I like to imagine they probably went a long way in shaping the rest of his professional life.

That’s certainly the case with Joan Didion, who writes in her classic essay, “On Keeping a Notebook” (which you can find in her essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem), that she keeps a notebook not to record what happened (she has no interest in keeping a diary), but to record details as they felt to her. “We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées,” she writes. “We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

If I go back through my ersatz spark file now, each note triggers the memory of something I was thinking at the time, but the fragments look disjointed and nonsensical. It’s a text that is, per Didion, meaningful only to me.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What I Read Today - Friday March 1, 2013

From:  The Wall Street Journal
Friday 03/01/2013

Noonan: Obama Is Playing a New Game He seems to think the way to win is by trying not to make a deal.


Larger Everyone has been wondering how the public will react when the sequester kicks in. The American people are in the position of hostages who'll have to decide who the hostage-taker is. People will get mad at either the president or the Republicans in Congress. That anger will force one side to rethink or back down. Or maybe the public will get mad at both.

The White House is, as always, confident of its strategy: Scare people as much as possible and let the media take care of the rest. Maybe there will be a lot to report, maybe not, but either way the sobbing child wanting to go to Head Start and the anxious FAA bureaucrat worried about airplane maintenance will be found. This will surely have power.

And in truth, the sequester's impact may be bad. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, a 22-year House veteran and ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, this week warned of "over 170 million jobs that could be lost." That's actually more jobs than America has, and it's little comfort to say, "But she's a famous idiot," because Washington is full of famous idiots who are making serious decisions about how the sequester cuts are to be applied.

If the sequester brings chaos and discomfort, it's certainly possible the Republicans will be blamed. But it's just as possible President Obama will be. Not because the sequester idea came from his White House—that probably doesn't interest anybody outside Washington—but because a) he's the president, and presidents are expected to take care of things and work out agreements, not "force the moment to its crisis," and b) he's the chief executive of the federal government, and therefore capable of directing agencies to make sure all cuts are in wholly nonessential offices. I was thinking the other day of the General Services Administration scandal—the red-carpet retreat in Vegas, the toasts, the shows, all paid for by taxpayers. Maybe the president could start there.


How's the president's game going? What's new is that almost everyone does seem to understand he's playing games. He used to get more credit. His threats of coming mayhem and his lack of interest in easing it have dimmed his luster.

Certainly in the past few weeks he's become more aggressive and gameful. A crisis is coming—a series of crises actually, with more ceilings and the threat of a government shutdown—and he is not engaging or taking ownership. The "We're not speaking" thing with Congress is more amazing and historic than we appreciate. Only a president can stop that kind of thing, and he doesn't. He doesn't even seem to think he owes the speaker of the House—the highest elected official of a party representing roughly half the country—even the appearance of laying down his arms for a moment and holding serious talks. He journeys into America making speeches, he goes on TV but only for interviews the White House is confident will be soft.

He doesn't have time for Congress, but he has time to go on Al Sharpton's radio show and say Republicans care only about protecting the rich from taxes. Which is the kind of thing that embitters, that makes foes dig in more deeply.

But here's what seems really new. Past presidents, certainly since Ronald Reagan, went over the heads of the media to win over the people, to get them to contact Congress and push Congress to deal. Fine, and fair enough. But Mr. Obama goes to the people to get them to enhance his position by hating Republicans. He's playing only to the polls, not to Congress, not to get the other side to the bargaining table. He doesn't even like the bargaining table. He doesn't like bargaining.

Where does that get us? We are in new territory. There is a strange kind of nihilism in the president's approach, it's a closed, self-referential loop. And it's guaranteed to keep agreement from happening.

Meanwhile, the president has been receiving some raps on the knuckles from journalists and thinkers who've been sympathetic in the past. There's a lot of coolness toward what the president is doing, to his threats of coming disaster. Howard Fineman in the Huffington Post, in a piece called "The Celebrity President," noted that Mr. Obama "doesn't hide his disdain for Congress," for the "folkways of traditional Washington" or for Congress and the media. The president in the next few months should avoid "cheap theatrics," Mr. Fineman added: "Somebody has to be an adult in this situation, and it falls to the president."

Bob Woodward famously slammed the president after he suggested, at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia, that maintenance of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln would be delayed. Before that he'd warned work might have to be slowed or stopped on the USS Truman. Mr. Woodward, on MSNBC: "So we now have the president going out [saying] 'Because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country.' That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."


While the president is bringing a partisan edge and soft-voiced pugilism to the drama, the first lady is becoming . . . let's call it culturally dominant, and in a way that seems politically related, that seems fully networked and wired. Michele Obama is omnipresent—dancing with Jimmy Fallon, chatting with Rachael Ray, on "Good Morning America" talking about the kids and another show talking about the bangs. On ABC she accidentally said something factually incorrect, and they thoughtfully edited it out. Mrs. Obama's presence reached its zenith, one hopes, Sunday night at the Academy Awards when she came on, goofily star-struck military personnel arrayed in dress uniforms behind her, to announce the Best Picture award. It was startling and, as she gave her benediction—the movies "lift our spirits, broaden our minds, transport us to places we can never imagine"—even in a way disquieting.

This would not be an accidental assertion of jolly partisan advantage. It seemed to me an expression of this White House's lack of hesitation to insert itself into any cultural event anywhere. And this in a 50-50 nation, a divided nation that in its entertainments seeks safety from the encroachments of politics, and the political.

I miss Michelle Obama's early years, when she was beautiful, a little awkward, maybe a little ambivalent about her new role, as a sane person would be. Now she is glamorous, a star, and like all stars assumes our fascination.

It can be hard to imagine after four years in the White House, whichever party you're in, that people might do all right for a few minutes if they're free of your presence. There's a tendency to assume you enliven with that presence, as opposed to deaden with your political overlay.

All of this—the president's disdain for Congress and for Republicans, the threats of damage unless he gets his way, the first lady's forays—is part of the permanent campaign, and the immediate sequester campaign.

But they push it too far. It feels uncalibrated, over some invisible line.

It looks like what critics have long accused this White House of being—imperious, full of overreach, full of itself.

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies, please contact Dow Jones Reprints at 1-800-843-0008 or visit