“Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them— Updated!

I first wrote about the suite of applications, services, products and gadgets I use to keep my head above water almost three years ago.  In the intervening time things have changed (Smartr/Xobni, for example, has gone away), hence this fresh list.

Here are my 14 “Change Your Life” apps and how I use them. Please share yours in the comments.

Artefact Cards: Not all productivity apps are digital.  The Artefact Cards are a new entry on this list, one developed by my friend John V. Willshire of Smithery.  These cards are deceptively simple: small, blank playing cards with a bright color on one side and white on the other.  Add a fine-point Sharpie and you have a playful, tactile medium for ideation, iteration and collaboration.  The physicality of the cards is what makes them so useful: I have the sense that when you touch something you own it, at least in part.  When John and I met for coffee in London a few weeks ago, he brought me a couple boxes.  When we opened them up and started writing and drawing the ideas came flying fast.  The cards are different than Post-Its at least in part because of the slide-around quality… it’s easier to ideate, rearrange and juxtapose.  Use these cards, and you’ll find that group think-it-out sessions become more interactive— I keep a few with me in my pocket Moleskine notebook all the time, and just ordered a Desk Set because I’m almost out!  John is eloquent on how these things came to be here.

(Smithery has created a companion app for scanning and organizing the written-upon cards, but I haven’t used it yet.) 

Blank Index cards: I’m a fan of writing things down on pieces of paper rather than just taking digital notes, although I’m also a passionate scanner and tagger (see Evernote section, below).  The Artefact Cards are great for taxonomy and exploration, with one idea per card in atomic style.  But when I need more space to write down or organize more information, I use blank 5 x 8 index cards like these.  These are always in my backpack, and they also make handy entertainment for kids when trapped in boring grownup environments (my kids both love to draw).

Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities in columns by family member, so, for example, if my wife and son are doing something together it’s easy for me to see that I’ll be the one to pick up our daughter.  Cozi is my least favorite daily productivity app because the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky).  Another ding is that Cozi has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for either me or my wife to update and keeps the different strands of family activity separate but juxtaposed.  The ads are intrusive on the free version, so I pay $5 per month.  Wayne Yamamoto, the CEO of Charity Blossom, once quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.

Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web.  It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video.  It’s a better interface and user experience than Google Drive (see below).

Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  Evernote isn’t an app, it’s a movement.  It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable.  The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $45 per year for premium because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices– rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is necessary.

Evernote is for asset management rather than task management: its focus is on nouns (information to keep track of) rather than on verbs (actions to be performed).  If I had one wish for Evernote, it would be that it should acquire ToodleDo (see below) and integrate it.

Guy Kawasaki is a fantastic apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.

My love for Evernote became even more profound (hard though that was) when I added…

ScanSnap Evernote Edition Scanner (by Fujitsu):  Small, fast and powerful, this scanner integrates seamlessly with Evernote: I shove all business cards, receipts, PDFs, notecards, Artefact cards and the like into Evernote.  If you buy this, then get in the habit of sorting and tagging things daily: it will only take a couple of minutes, but when you later need to find that thing that happened that time, you’ll be glad you did.  Evernote released the Scannable app a few months ago for on-the-fly scanning via a smart phone.  It also integrates with the ScanSnap.

Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea.  When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simply BCC this service with when you want the reminder and it will send you a message at that time.  So, if I ask a client or colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “tuesday@followupthen.com” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back.  You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera.  The free version is robust, and at $2 per month the lowest level of the premium service is probably all you’ll ever need.  From my friend Adam Boettiger.

Google Drive: Formerly Google Docs, Second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  While the capabilities of the word processor and spreadsheets aren’t as good as Microsoft’s, Google gets collaboration better than anybody.  For example, their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employee’s time a few years ago, and the ever-better integration with Gmail and Google+ make this a killer.  Google is trying to eat Dropbox’s lunch, but I still use them both: sometimes I don’t want everything to go through Google.  On the other hand… 

Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired.  Call me and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work) and I can pick up the one want.  Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number.  Google Voice now integrates nicely with Google+ and Gmail.  During my time in Norway, I only wish that it would forward to my Norwegian mobile number, but at least it goes to my Vonage VOIP number, which is virtually in the USA.

Instapaper:  A Niagara of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (I sometimes think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing.  Often I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption.  If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably looking at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are must buys.  I also recommend upgrading to Premium, as it gives you quicker and better access to the archive of things you read once and are now trying to remember.

Moleskine Volant Mini:  I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times.  It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard a slow process.  Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the other person is saying.  The detachable sheets at the back also make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over.  Find these in a lot of bookstores, art supply stores and online.

Rory’s Story Cubes: These are more of an insight pump than a productivity app.  Nine six-sided dice have pictograms on each side.  Roll the dice and see what combination of icons and images come up.  The dice are handy for changing your perspective on a situation that might have become sclerotic, or help you break through a barrier in your thinking.  Along these lines, just yesterday I saw a real copy of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards, and I may buy a set since the iPhone app I’ve tried is unsatisfying.

The Story Cubes have helped my son in a regular battle with his Daily Journal assignment from school.  He’s a talented writer, but sometimes has trouble coming up with something to write about.  Tossing the cubes and then selecting a few of them helps him get started.

Randomness has its uses.  Way back in college, I stumbled across my friend Karen Schiff throwing Tarot Cards and nearly passed out in judgmental shock.  Karen, serene, then explained that she didn’t think the cards had mystical properties, but that throwing them made her think in directions that she wouldn’t think natively.  It was a powerful moment that stuck with me, so I look for implements of controlled chaos like the Story Cubes.

Toodle Do: This member of my daily web services was introduced to me separately by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman.  Don’t let the stupid name fool you, this is a robust to-do-lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization.  The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t Scrooge out and neglect to buy the smart phone and tablet apps: that’s $5.98 that will accelerate your use and organization.  Fans of GTD will love this.

As I mentioned above, Evernote should buy Toodle Do and integrate it.

Trello:  Another from my friend Adam Boettiger: it’s a digital index card bulletin board of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is great for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work.  I think of it as a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Inside the Trello space, it’s easy to absorb and prioritize tasks and manage assets. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished.

So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Please leave comments!

Vonage = a Practical Tip when Moving Abroad (Notes from Bergen)

From the “Department of Things I Wish I’d Taken Care of Faster” Department…

Executive Summary of this post: if you’re moving out of your home country, then get a VOIP line that lets your relatives call as if you’re down the street.

The Story: Before we left Oregon at the end of last summer for our school year in Norway, I asked Vonage — I’ve been a customer for years — to upgrade our ancient box to the new model that has a more nimble power source that can work just about anywhere in the world.  They did.

Then we got to Bergen and the wifi in our rental house sucked.  I worked with our landlord over the next few months, raising the bandwidth, replacing the physical modem/router, adding a repeater, and eventually more than one person could be online at a time.

During those months, we used Skype to stay in touch with family, colleagues and friends, and I love Skype.  As a Skype Premium subscriber, I can use Skype to call any telephone in the USA as part of my membership… all for just $7 per month.  It’s wonderful.

But it’s hard for my parents and in-laws to use Skype to call us.  It’s also hard to pass a computer around the way you can pass a cordless phone around.

A “figure out the Vonage line” reminder kept popping up in my To Do list, and eventually I dragged out the wireless phones that our landlord had abandoned using years ago.

Early experiments yielded a dial tone but only for a few seconds.  I deduced that the rechargeable batteries inside the handsets were fried, trotted off to Clas Ohlson (the everything store here in Bergen), switched out the batteries, and SHAZAM! we had a phone with an Oregon number with a handset in the kitchen just like at our home in the USA.

It’s a slight exaggeration to call the impact of this phone “transformative,” but only slight.

My parents and in-laws are now just a quick call away, and we’re not tethered to the laptop when we talk with them.  Chatting is now more casual, and we feel closer.  My niece’s 91-year-old grandmother will never figure out Skype, so it’s great for her to be able to call directly, too.

Moreover, the base of the Vonage box is wired directly into the modem, and then the phone base is wired directly into the Vonage box, and then the phone base uses a different set of frequencies.  The result is that if I’m talking on the Vonage phone then another person can stream a video or talk via Skype or Facebook Messenger without the bandwidth battle screwing up everything.

If you have super-strong wifi in your home (we don’t here in our 400-year-old retrofitted and extremely vertical house), then there are other options than Vonage.  Skype has a series of phones, for example, and my friend Shelly Palmer just profiled a coming-real-soon service from Cablevision called “Freewheel” that combines wifi and smartphones in a cheap way that might work just as well.

If you’re moving abroad for more than a month, Vonage is a great solution for bring home just a little closer.

Applications vs. Appliances

Although this post is mostly a how and why exercise, on the more theoretical side the physical presence of a phone in the kitchen has taken up a nice little slice of cognitive space for the family.

When all activities go through the same screens or suite of screens (phones, tablets, laptops), then no particular activity rises to the surface of consciousness.  Having a dedicated device for voice communications focuses our attention on voice communications because the appliance extrudes into our meat-space environment.

For example (and hilariously), when I was at the supermarket and had a question about something on the list and couldn’t raise anybody on Instant Messenger, I used Skype Out to call the Vonage line.  In other words, standing just blocks from a fjord I used a Skype number virtually in Beverly Hills to call a Vonage number virtually in Portland.  My not-virtual family members flipped out because they’d never heard that phone ring before, but they answered the phone when they’d ignored all the screens.

There’s a growing body of thought about “the voice as app” over the last few months (Shelly talks about it eloquently), but I’m talking about something different: having an appliance for an activity rather than an application.

Applications sink below the surface of awareness in everything-devices.  Appliances remind us of their existence simply by taking up space.

Daniel J. Levitin — in the “Organizing our Homes” chapter of his remarkable book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload — talks about how in an ideal world we’d have one computer for work, one for hobbies, one for taxes and the like.

In other words, we’d sort activities by appliances rather than by programs because as we move from appliance to appliance (rather than from application to application on one device) our brains refocus, recharge and reengage.

In our ever more-virtual, more-digital world, there is a powerful efficacy in dumb old matter: taking notes on paper, talking on a phone, reading a pulp-and-ink book (a “book book” as my friend Peter Horan says).

Turns out, the old AT&T “reach out and touch someone” commercials were right.

Thanks to the Kindest of Strangers

Dear Reader, please help me get this post to Charlie, my hat rescuer, so that he knows how grateful I am.

The Story: If you’ve seen me or photos of me the last few years, then chances are you’ve seen me wearing this cap:

MenWithHatsThe cap is from the Goorin Bros shop on NW23rd Street  in Portland, and I loved mine so much I got one for my boy so that we could be hat twins.

Then, last week, as I was getting onto the Tube in London, I looked around and realized that my beloved cap was gone!*  I thought I’d dropped it before I’d stepped onto the train, so I stepped off. Then the doors closed and a man with a distressed expressed knocked on the glass from inside… holding my cap.  I dropped it inside the now-departing train.

A mime dance ensued in which, I hoped, I realized that the man was going to stop at the very next tube stop with my hat.

The train bearing my hat disappeared. Two minutes later another train appeared.  When I got to the next stop and the sea of embarking and departing bodies settled to a trickle, there he was with my cap in hand.

When I thanked him, offered to pay him, asked him if I could do anything in recompense, Charlie’s answer was a bold-faced lie: “anybody would do the same,” he said.

Not so.

Most people wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t notice when another person dropped the cap in the first place, wouldn’t pick up the cap and signal to the hat dropper, and certainly wouldn’t take 15 minutes out of their days to return the hat to the dropper.

I managed to snap a picture with Charlie:

HatRescuer

(What do you call a selfie with two people? An “Us”ie?)

And I gave Charlie my card and the promise of dinner if he ever makes it to Oregon.

Now I’d like to get him my repeated thanks, so let’s play the Six Degrees of Separation game.  If you would please be so kind as to share this post on your Twitter or Facebook feeds, I’m confident that my thanks will reach Charlie soon.

And the Good Samaritan award goes to…

 

* By the way, the moral of this story is, “don’t try to scan a picture of a receipt into Evernote while you’re boarding a train or risk losing your beloved cap.”  Sigh.

 

Looking Back on “The Fall Guy” — an Aria of 80s Sexism

The Lee Majors-crooned theme song from his old TV show “The Fall Guy” snuck into my head this morning.  It’s a stumper as to why or how this happened, and it proves only that I watched way too much TV in my youth.

The series (about a stunt man who is also a bounty hunter with two young assistants) ran 1981-1986 with a staggering 19.9 rating.  The theme song (which ran for a staggering minute and forty-one seconds) got stuck deep enough in my cranium that some odd collision of neurons brought it back up to consciousness.

So I went to YouTube, repository of all video ephemera, and found the theme song in seconds:

The first two lines (four seconds) of the “Fall Guy” theme song reveal a lot about the show:

Well, I’m not the kind to kiss and tell,

But I’ve been seen with Farrah.

Nobody under 40 will get the reference: Lee Majors was married to Farrah Fawcett in 1976, when she hit it big with “Charlie’s Angels.”  He was already a big hit with “The Six Million Dollar Man.”  They separated in 1979, divorced in 1982, but apparently remained on stable enough terms for him to include the reference and for her to cameo in the 1981 pilot.

What’s interesting about the reference is that in the first moments of the series (and each episode) the viewer is reminded that the star of the show — not the character, the star — has  been famous for quite a while, played other characters, had a famous marriage to another star.  From the first moment, in other words, the series deliberately blurs the line between star and character.

This is somewhat rare for movies and television.  Ordinarily, our default definition of “immersion” is to think of losing ourselves completely in a story where we forget that the character is played by a person with a life.  Instead, “The Fall Guy” credits — and the series’ habit of getting celebrities to make cameo appearances — articulated a different sort of immersion that included both characters and performers.

Back to the theme song: this morning I sunk into my chair to watch the opening credits on YouTube… and found myself surprised by an aria of sexism across at least three dimensions. 

Dimension #1: the theme song, “The Unknown Stuntman” (lyrics by series creator Glen A Larson, Gail Jensen, and David Sommerville) talks about how the singer performs deadly stunts with actresses, only to then watch as the actresses fall into the arms of their leading men rather than into those of the brave stuntman.  But the singer is a chauvinist, saying that he has “never been with anything less than a 9” and brags that “I never spend much time in school, but I taught ladies plenty.”  It’s not a surprise that the ladies decline to spend time with him.

There’s also a weird anti-logic in the song in which the male actors are valuable enough to merit stunt doubles but the actresses do their own stunts.

Dimension #2 isn’t about the theme itself, but about the history of the performers named in the song: Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek, Sally Field, Cheryl Tiegs, Raquel Welch, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood. Of them all, actor-directors Redford and Eastwood still have vibrant careers, while the actresses are all either dead or largely retired.  Career longevity for women is criminally shorter in Hollywood than it is for men.


Dimension #3: in the opening credits, there are many, many images of Lee Majors and co-star Douglas Barr in various action sequences, but only one image of the third stunt person cum bounty hunter, Heather Thomas, who wanders through swinging doors in a tiny bikini.

While “The Fall Guy” was never my favorite show, I did have fond memories of it… memories now complicated.  Allegedly, there’s a movie version in development with Dwayne Johnson attached. 

I wonder if they’ll keep the song.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

I Want to be my own Big Brother: an App Daydream

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” (Gwendolyn Fairfax in Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”)

I’m skeptical about how much corporations benefit from the data I generate.  If tracking my every movement worked, then Facebook would not keep trying to sell me the icky Peloton Cycle — “The only bike with LIVE and on-demand classes streamed to your home” — about which my lack of interest is complete.  To put it plainly, I’d rather have a prostate exam with no lube that ever get on an exercise bicycle to do a spin class anywhere, let alone one where I have to grunt and sweat alongside virtual neighbors. 

Companies use my digital ramblings to try (and usually fail) to sell me things that might have interested me in passing but do so no longer.  The butterfly net of big data swooshes past me and captures who I was, not who I am now.

But golly I’d like to have access to that data.  I spend time (loads, too much) searching through three different email archives, Evernote, Facebook, old Tweets, pictures on my camera phone and journal entries trying to dope out variations to recurring questions about what I was thinking or doing, when I was doing it, where, and why I was bothering in the first place.  Sometimes I even look into my web browsing history across different browsers on different machines.

Little of this includes other information about where I was geographically, who I was talking with, and what was going on in the background as all this was happening.

Big companies and governments have access to this information… sometimes under the pretense of not linking all the bits and bobs of Brad-shaped data to my personally identifiable information (PII), except in the case of government where it’s all me all the time. 

My friend Renny Gleeson calls this a “data contrail,” with my activities carving a big slash through the world like a jet leaving a visible white cloudy line in its wake.

But why don’t I get access to my own information?  I’d like all my traces bound up in a tidy dashboard that I can see at my leisure… sort of like Apple’s Time Machine but for my whole life.  Data visualization please, stat!

In my daydreams, I think of this as an App, called “Diary” or maybe “iDiary,” that hooks up all my activities and makes them easily seen on my phone or tablet. 

Beyond just trying to catch the string of a passing thought, if I suddenly find myself thinking of pizza, then I’d like to know that I walked by 13 pizzerias, saw three ads for Domino’s, and that the episode of “The Most Popular Girls in School” my daughter showed me was sponsored by Pizza Hut.

Everything should be in my Diary: where do I drive?  Who do I talk with as I’m driving?  Include emails and notes, what I post and view on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google searches, where my GPS-enabled phone has been (with me along with it, presumably), what I watch on TV or Netflix, what sounds are happening in the background where I am (because if Arbitron knows, why shouldn’t I?), what am I listening to on Spotify, and what billboards are in my peripheral vision. 

The creepy thing isn’t my having access to this information, although it could quickly lead to Narcissism At Scale (oh look, a new acronym— NAS!), it’s that this information is already out there, just disorganized, owned by disparate competing corporations and governments, and it’s easily misinterpreted to my disadvantage.

At the minimum, the price of corporations tracking me and recording my movements and actions in laundry pen for the rest of time should their sharing what they have written down about me in a way that is easy to access and manage.

I want to be my own Big Brother.  

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Notes from Bergen 3: Paternal Victories

“Dad,” my teenager daughter asked one recent morning as she picked her way through over-easy eggs, seedy toast and Earl Grey tea. “What have you eaten for breakfast?”

At a quick scan it’s an innocuous question, but down, deep down, subterranean with stalactites, a parenting victory glints in dim light.

Here’s what I mean.

This year in Norway is a steep climb for both H, my 13 year old daughter, and W, my 9 year old son. The mountain is rockier for the teenager.  At 9, you still orbit Mom and Dad, so if they’re around and happy (and we are) then you’re pretty much OK. But at 13, particularly for girls, your identity foundation is your friends.

H’s friends are back Stateside.  Sure, she has made new friends, but it’s not the same.  The temporariness of our 10-month stay here in Bergen makes it hard to set fresh intimacies in concrete.

One unplanned but happy product of this for me and for K (my wife) is that H is closer to us than she would have been back home.  At a moment when she’d pull away it turns out that she doesn’t have that far she can go.  So even though sometimes it’s like living with a werewolf, at least this is a werewolf I know.

Both kids are busy.  They do Norwegian immersion school from 8:30 until early afternoon, then come home to do Math and English from an American home school curriculum.  Even though it’s about the same number of hours of schooling and homework as they’d have back home in Oregon, the daily rupture from one learning environment to another rubs at them, but if we put them in Norwegian school they’d be learning material they’d already learned back home— and they’d be bored.  School in Norway is slower than in the US.  That’s both bad and good, but if they’re going to be up to speed when they get back to Oregon then the home schooling is critical.

Take a generous helping of busy, add it to a heap of lonely for the BFFs who get her, toss in a language barrier, short days and a lot of different cultural presumptions and that equals a steep climb.  Add puberty to that mix where the daily baseline of her body swerves and bobs like a New Delhi taxi driver fighting post-work traffic… and that’s why it’s harder for the 13 year old.

So back to breakfast and when H asked me if I’d eaten.  What prompted the question was when I made a move to filch W’s second piece toast— mostly as a way of motivating him to stop reading and finish breakfast already, okay, sheesh — before I walked him to school.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I had a scrambled egg, coffee and I’m now eating this banana.”

“Okay,” H said, and went back to to her own toast.

This is a paternal victory because it shows two things.  First, and less importantly, a thought about somebody else (in this case dear old Dad) send ripples across the pond of adolescent narcissism.  H noticed — while I was making over-easy eggs, toast and tea for her and making scrambled eggs with cheese, toast and coffee for W, plus lunches — that she hadn’t seen me eat anything myself. Huzzah!

I now have dim hopes that one day she’ll realize that clean laundry doesn’t magically waddle into her room, scale her bed like a mountaineer and then fold itself into neat piles.  But I’m not calling my bookie on this one.

The second, more important, thing is that the message about eating a good breakfast because it fuels you for the rest of the day has seeped through the skeptical, plastic wrap outer layer of the teen brain and tinted the reflexive reptilian core.  If H is giving me a hard time about eating breakfast, then that means she has internalized the lesson enough to throw it back in my face.

When I realized this an hour later, I nearly cried with happiness.

There are no “one and done” conversations with kids. You keep having the same conversation over and over, keep suppressing the audible sighs (again? I have to talk you through this again???) and finding the tiny tree-lined place of inner calm before starting over.

Here’s the other paternal victory of this morning.

W has mild A.D.D., and so progress from bed into clothes to breakfast to teeth brushing and then jacket zipped and shoes on and out the door can be challenging before the coffee hits his bloodstream (caffeine helps A.D.D. kids focus).  I was juggling stuff in the kitchen and so K (also known as Mom) was helping him with the teeth and hair brushing. 

As I came down with his lunch and backpack, I said, “Okay, big guy. It’s isn’t raining so put your Nikes on—”

“No—” K interrupted from the other room.

“—And if it’s raining when it’s time for me to pick you up I’ll bring your boots with me,” I continued smoothly as if K had said nothing.

But my face registered that her interruption bugged me.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t just my face. My two itchy middle fingers might also have given me away.

“Dad?” W said. “Why’d you—”

“Later,” I said.  “On our walk.”

We zipped up, put our reflectors on our arms and headed out into the pre-dawn morning. 10 steps later he turns to me with a “fess up” expression.

I explained that when I told him to put the Nikes on I had the situation under control: I didn’t need input from Mom at that moment.  Plus, the way she had said, “no” irked me.  There were nicer ways she could have said what she was going to say, which was that it could rain at any moment and that she didn’t want W’s feet to be wet and cold.

“Are you still mad?” he asked.

“Nah, I’m over it.”

I explained that before I told W to put his Nikes on I’d looked outside and seen that it wasn’t raining.  Since he woke up with aching feet (at 9 his feet are nearly as big as mine: he’s going to tower over me before he can drive) I thought he’d be more comfortable walking to school in the sneakers that give his feet better support.  And if it’s wet then I’m happy to lug his boots with me to school when I collect him after school, or when he meets me at Chaos, our Tuesday afternoon hangout.  My morning kid footwear strategy, to use lingo I didn’t share with W, had already taken potential precipitation into account.

So here’s the victory.

After I’d explained my rationale to W as we walked he thought about it for a moment and said, “Huh.  Actually that was really smart.”

“Thanks,” I replied without a hint of dryness.

Unlike the breakfast question from H, having my 9 year old see the benefits of thinking ahead — and also understanding that Dad isn’t just the guy who fetches breakfast but also has a brain — didn’t make me cry.

But it sure made me smile.

Pragmatics: you can only walk through one door at a time

Sharon washed up at the table next to me during a post-conference dinner here in Bergen and opened up over beer and reindeer steaks. She’s a bright young woman about to finish a Masters in finance and economics who doesn’t know how to approach the post-graduation void.

Sharon started reeling off different directions and opportunities, but I could see she wasn’t energized by any of them.

That’s when I shared my practical way to chop overgrown forests of life decisions into mental lumber out of which you can build thoughts and plans. Then, my conversation with Sharon recurred and recombined into conversations with Diane and Adam and Abby,* hence this piece.

At every life transition you’ll stand in front of three unlocked doors, but just like with real doors you can only walk through one of these metaphors at a time.

The doors are What, Where or Who.

What: you know the job you want or the industry in which you want to find that first gig to lead onwards and, with luck and late nights, upward. If What is ascendant is your astrology then you don’t care where you live or who is living there with you. If you want to be a baseball journalist, you go where you find an opportunity even if that takes you to a Podunk town you can’t even find on Google Maps without zooming, where nobody has ever heard the word “barista,” but where somebody will pay you to cover the minor league feeder team (among a bunch of other less tasty assignments).

Where: you don’t care that much about how you’ll make a living, although selling sex toys door to door is out because you get tired of explaining what goes where. Sure, you want to have friends around, but the players change while the stage remains the same. It’s Seattle that has captured your heart: the hills, the water front, the coffee culture. You like seeing dead trout hurled around Pike Place Market. You’re a Where person. Every town’s got some of these folks; they’re the “Mayors” of different sub-communities.

Who: it’s not that you don’t have standards about what you do to keep ramen on the table, and there are places that make your underarms itch if you even think about living there. But you’ve made the big choice about Who you’re going to live with and be buried next to after you die, and that person has a What or a Where pulling him or her, so you’re going along for the ride. (This time. It’ll be your turn to be What or Where later because that’s fair.)

The trick when you’re looking at three different doors is to be honest with yourself. Right now, are you a What, a Where or a Who?

The problem is that being honest with yourself sucks.  It’s really really hard.

It’s much easier to listen to all the other voices: your friends, your family, your teachers, your vague sense of what people like you do with their lives at certain stages.

A good test to see if you’re lying to yourself is to listen for the word “should” in your internal monolog.  “Should” coaxes you to turn the wrong door handle.  Sometimes.  Yeah, you should pay your bills, and if you’ve got kids they come first.  I’m not talking about the brush-your-teeth-twice-each-day should.  I’m talking about continuing to practice law even though you hate it just because you got a law degree.

Don’t be a ventriloquist’s dummy.  Which door is important?

I used to think I was a What.  In fact, I was so convinced I was a What that I spent a decade getting a doctorate in Shakespeare studies because the plan was to teach undergraduates about Shakespeare no matter where that happened or how little I’d be paid to do so.

Whoops.

Then I thought I was a Where, moving back to Los Angeles after grad school to work in Hollywood then in the Internet.  (Look, Mom, I have practical business skillz that feed the kids— who woulda thunk it?)

But Where wasn’t true either.

Turns out, for the last few years I’ve been a Who.  My wife Kathi wanted to move to Oregon, and then I found myself surrounded by pierced hipsters sipping micro-roast coffee.

Then, Kathi got a Fulbright to study in Bergen, Norway (#wet, #dark, #expensive, but #fjords and #happywife), and here I am for the school year.

Anybody want some reindeer sausage?

I haven’t always been a Who: we wound up in Los Angeles after grad school because at that time I was a Where and Kathi was the Who.  We’ll switch roles again and again.

That’s another thing I’ve found myself sharing with people like Sharon and Diane and Adam and Abby: after you pick a door and walk for a while, you’re going to find yourself standing in front of another three doors.

If you want to experience paralysis, then ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your life.  That’s like asking somebody if they prefer to die in a ballooning mishap or from brain cancer: it’s a long way down either way. 

I prefer the question, “what do you want to do NEXT?” 

Pick a door.  Start walking.

* Sharon, Diane, Adam and Abby are all pseudonyms.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Against Disruption: Louis Menand, Douglas Adams, Books and Technology

Have you ever smacked into a glass door when you didn’t realize it was closed?  I have.  It hurts.  The intersection of my face and a glass door happened at my great aunt’s tiny desert house in the 80s, where the mix of a trick of the sunlight and my distracted boyhood mind made the door invisible.

More alarming than the pain was the surprise.  A barrier I could not see had prevented me from making progress in the direction I wanted to go.

Many people and many businesses have this problem.

Sometimes life throws you glass doors, and the trick is to find your gratitude.  You need to appreciate that now you know about the barrier while you’re rubbing an aching schnoz. 

I felt this way after reading Louis Menand’s insightful, generous and intelligent piece “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” in the latest (January 5th) issue of The New Yorker, which shows that the paperback book and the bookstore itself were relatively recent developments in the United States:

Back when people had to leave the house if they wanted to buy something, the biggest problem in the book business was bookstores. There were not enough of them. Bookstores were clustered in big cities, and many were really gift shops with a few select volumes for sale. Publishers sold a lot of their product by mail order and through book clubs, distribution systems that provide pretty much the opposite of what most people consider a fun shopping experience—browsing and impulse buying.

Allen Lane created the mass-market paperback in England when he founded Penguin Books in 1935, and Robert de Graff brought it to the United States in 1939 when he launched Pocket Books.

Menand synthesizes several books in this article, leading to useful nuggets like:

The key to Lane’s and de Graff’s innovation was not the format. It was the method of distribution. More than a hundred and eighty million books were printed in the United States in 1939, the year de Graff introduced Pocket Books, but there were only twenty-eight hundred bookstores to sell them in. There were, however, more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters—not to mention train and bus stations. De Graff saw that there was no reason you couldn’t sell books in those places as easily as in a bookstore.

The mass-market paperback was therefore designed to be displayed in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space. People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.

Reading Menand’s terrific piece, I kept waiting for him to connect the dots between the birth of the mass-market book seventy or eighty years ago and the rise of Amazon.com over the last few years.  Perhaps the fact that I was reading The New Yorker on an iPad made this all the more compelling a connection, but Menand is a historian rather than a futurist, so he didn’t make the link and the article pivots instead into a discussion of censorship.

So what was my glass door?

A lifelong book lover, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, in Encino in the San Fernando Valley.  Back then, L.A. was a great bookstore town from tiny little specialty shops like Scene of the Crime for mysteries, Dangerous Visions and A Change of Hobbit for science fiction, to broader bookstores like Alpha Books, the Bookie Joint and Midnight Special… to name just a few of my then favorites now long shuttered. 

For years, I’ve blamed Crown Books, Borders, Barnes and Noble and, of course, my own love/hate relationship with Amazon.com for the death of the independent bookstore in one of the biggest — and most readerly — cities in the country.  Intrinsic to my resentment was a conviction that until these black mustachioed villains skulked onto the scene my beloved bookstores had been there forever.  They were institutions!  Instead, Menand shows compellingly that they’d just been around since around the time my parents were born.  If my grandparents were still alive they could have told me this… if I’d thought to ask them.

Smack.

The glass door connects to a perspective on technology and innovation that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams articulated in his hilarious and smart 1999 London Times article, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” –

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

(Add smart phones, tablets, wearable computers, 3D printers and automated homes to Adams’ list to update it for 2015.)

For me, bookstores were “just normal” because they were already there when I started reading, but my normal is different than my grandparents’ normal was. 

This is like the conversation I have with my kids about how back in the stone age before they were born people had to watch television shows when they were on rather than record them and watch later, and how it wasn’t that big a burden because there weren’t that many channels anyway.  My son looks at me like I rode a brontosaurus to the office.

The book-selling and business that Amazon is so effectively pressurizing hasn’t actually been around that long, similar to how general literacy hasn’t been around that long.  That  means that rather than think about how Amazon disrupts the book-selling business, it might be more useful to think about how the mass-market book-selling business is still pretty new and still evolving.

This might seem like a subtle distinction, but the problem with disruption as a buzzword — and oh boy is it a popular buzzword lately — is that it sets up binary* David versus Goliath dynamics where the realities are more complicated.

Life is easier when you only have to worry about two entities: the Empire and the Rebellion, the Federation and the Klingons, the Ducks and the Buckeyes, Russia and the USA.

But the reality is that more than two entities are in play most of the time.

Over the course of the last few decades: book selling, buying and reading has increased by many orders of magnitude.  More people buy books and read for pleasure now than they did when my grandparents were born.  This happened because of the reduction in costs in the creation of books and the ease of distribution in the selling of books, first with paperbacks and then with Amazon.com.

That’s not a disruption.

It’s an eruption.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

* Americans love binary arguments: Deborah Tannen talked about this is her useful 1998 book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.

My 2014 in Books

I read a lot — magazines, two newspapers, email newsletters, and countless social-media-shared links I chase down digital rabbit holes. I’d never know anything, for example, without Jason Hirshhorn’s magnificent daily Media Redefined.

But I’m lost without books.  Actual books.  Whether paper or digital, if I’m not reading at least two books then I get grumpy and feel IQ points oozing out of my ears and down the shower drain.

So one year ago, inspired by my friend David Daniel who keeps a list of books he wants to read, I decided to keep a list of books I finished in 2014. Since it is now 12/31/14 and I’m not going to finish any of the three books I’m reading at the moment, what follows is my 2014 list with brief remarks added.

Note: with the exception of My Side of the Mountain I am not counting re-reads. Often, at night, or when I’m in need of a visit with an old friend, I dive back into a novel I’ve already read. My kids are the same way. Since I tell the two of them that this doesn’t count for their reading, I’m not counting it towards my own.

Looking back, there’s a lot of fiction in this list.  I need fiction like I need oxygen (except when I’m writing fiction), and most of the business writing I read comes in articles.  I wonder what the fiction/non-fiction balance will be next year?

So here’s the list:

Dashner, James.  The Maze Runner.  Finished 1/1/14.

I read a fair amount of YA or children’s books, usually in quest of reading matter for my kids, but in this case it was for a project a friend and I were contemplating. Not bad but not good enough for me to read any farther.

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Finished 1/4/14.

A fun ride, albeit only pancake deep. I inhaled this over a day or so at the start of last year. A good yarn for any of the digerati who mourn the loss of bookstores and wonder about the future of book-length reading in a digital age.

Elberse, Anita. Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking & the Big Business of Entertainment. Finished 1/22/14.

Interesting and thoughtful, and powerfully presented. What I wanted, though, were more connections outside of entertainment to the rest of business and human endeavor. A missed opportunity.

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle. Finished 1/23/14.

A frustrating book… it annoyed but compelled me in a similar way to Aaron Sorkin’s just-finished HBO show “The Newsroom.” There’s a smugness to Eggers that grates, and I don’t think he understands how companies like Facebook and Google work.

Asaro, Catherine. The Spacetime Pool.  Finished 2/5/14.

Novella in Asaro’s fantastic “Saga of the Skolian Empire” series, which is great fun for people who like space opera with good physics and a bit of romance.

Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes: a Rivers of London Novel. Finished 2/15/14.

#4 in Rivers of London. I saw #5 on the shelves at Foyle’s in London last week and am excited to read it when the e-book comes out in a few days. This series is delightful fantasy set in modern-day London, written by one of the many “Doctor Who” alumni who go on, like Douglas Adams, to write novels.

Semmelhack, Peter. Social Machines: the Next Wave of Innovation; How to Develop Connected Products that Change Customers’ Lives. Finished 3/09/14.

A good introduction to the Internet of Things, more practical than visionary.

Craighead George, Jean.  My Side of the Mountain.  Finished 3/11/14.  

I read this when I was a kid, found it on my son’s shelf, and re-read it with lip-smacking pleasure.  I was looking in particular for a discussion of how you want a machete rather than an axe, which I remembered from a book I read decades ago, but didn’t find it in this terrific book. Anybody out there know what I’m talking about?

Thomas, Rob.  Veronica Mars: the Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Finished 4/3/14.

Loved the Veronica Mars movie that came out around the same time and couldn’t get enough of it, so I read the novel. Fun. Nailed the voice and sensibility of the series. I look forward to the next one, which comes out soon.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: a Revolutionary Approach to Success. Finished 4/11/14.

One of the best business-y books I’ve read in the last few years, I tore through this after Dana Anderson praised it at the AAAA’s, and had the pleasure of trading notes with Adam Grant subsequently. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. It’s brilliant, and — perhaps more importantly and certainly a surprise coming from a social scientist — it’s beautifully written.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Cocaine Blues.  Phrynne Fisher #1.  Finished May sometime.

Between May and July I inhaled seven of these murder mysteries set in Victorian Australia.  Karen, a woman who practices Tae Kwon-do with my son back in Oregon, and I talk books, and she was flying through them. These are like McNuggets: I kept tearing through them at high speed until I hit a satiation point and stopped.  Formulaic and with a bit of the Ensign Mary Sue about them, I recommend these to historical mystery lovers who also like a recurring cast of characters. The Australian TV series based on these (streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime) isn’t bad, although not as good as the books. Things rarely are.  Just this note for all this series.

Greenwood, Kerry. Flying Too High. Phyrnne Fisher #2.  Finished May sometime.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Murder on the Ballarat Train.  Phrynne Fisher #3.  5/28/14.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock.  Phynne Fisher #4. Finished 6/13/14.

Greenwood, Kerry.  The Green Mill Murder. Phynne Fisher #5. Finished 6/16/14.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Finished 6/20/14.

A friend — either Ari Popper of Sci Futures or Brian Seth Hurst of Story Tech — recommended this to me at CES.  Good popular science journalism, but I don’t have clear memories of it now, which is a bit of a ding.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Skin Collector. Finished 6/24/14.

I read it because of my affection for The Bone Collector, but it wasn’t very good.

Miller, Derek B.  Norwegian by Night.  Finished 7/13/14.

My friend Rishad Tobaccowala recommended this to me when he found out I was moving to Norway for the school year.  It’s fantastic: an emotionally engaged and heart-stopping thriller starring an 80 year old Korean War Vet set in Oslo. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Clint Eastwood should direct and star.

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  Finished 7/13/14.

This book taught me a lot about how I sabotage my own productivity: I read it with passionate intensity in paper, and then bought a digital copy to bring with me to Norway. It’s on my “to re-read in January list,” which isn’t a long one.

Greenwood. Kerry.  Blood and Circuses. Phynne Fisher #6. Finished 7/18/14.

MacLeod, Hugh.  Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Finished 7/23/14.

I admire MacLeod and hadn’t gotten around to reading the book for no good reason. It’s short, sweet and smart. Don’t miss, particularly if you like his cartoons.

Greenwood. Kerry. Ruddy Gore.  Phynne Fisher #7. Finished 7/24/14.

Russ, Joanna.  The Adventures of Alyx.  Finished 8/14/13.

Back in college, my friend Keylan Qazzaz wrote her senior thesis about women in science fiction with a particular focus on this book. I picked it up a few years later, but never got around to reading it.  Then, as I was packing for Norway and grabbing books from the “I’ve been meaning to read this” pile (a big pile), I saw this.  Turns out, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas featuring a terrific protagonist who seems to have amnesia between each story.  More strong space opera.  A bit hard to find now, but quite good.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.  Finished 8/31/14.

I enjoyed the Atlantic excerpt of this book and decided to read the whole thing, which I did in short order.  It’s a powerful antidote to the “genius alone is his garrett” Romantic myth that still pervades western notions of creativity and genius. However, I’d have liked more on how groups collaborate, and think that his focus on the pair is unnecessarily limiting.  Still a worthwhile read, and in addition it lead me to Carse (see below).

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Finished 9/9/14.

Play is important to how I think about disruptive technologies (much more about this in 2015), and a few years ago my friend and partner Susan MacDermid mentioned this book from the 1930s.  It’s a tough read — continental philosophy that seems deliberately, almost hermetically sealed away against non-specialist readers — but worthwhile and interesting and useful for my thinking.

Powers, Tim.  Expiration Date.  Finished 9/20/14. 

Powers wrote my all-time favorite time travel story, The Anubis Gates, but I never managed to get into this one or it’s quasi-sequel (see below) even though I’ve had them for years.  Powers’ imagination is powerful and intricate, and it takes time to settle into the worlds he creates.  By the time I made it to page 50 I was hooked, and then I was sorry when it ended.  Don’t give up on this one too easily.

Wilson, Daniel H.  Robopocalypse.  Finished 10/10/14.

My friend Renny Gleeson recommended this, and it’s yummy sci-fi candy along the lines of the Terminator movie series only updated to include how the world works post-internet.  For paranoiacs worried about AI, this is either something to embrace or something to avoid for fear of never sleeping again.

Carse, James P.  Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. Finished 10/12/14.

As I mentioned, the Shenk book turned me onto Carse.  Like Huizinga, this is far from an easy book to read or understand, but it’s an important meditation on play.  It’s particularly important for Americans, I think, with our cultural tendency to bottom line everything and be more concerned with the final score than how the game was.

Gawande, Atul.  The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Finished 10/21/14.

Gawande is one of those people who does so much in a day to make the world a better place that he makes me feel like a loser, even though I’m sure that if I said this to him in person he’d charm me into feeling like a superhero until the next morning.  He’s a terrific writer, and in our information-overload era this book is both moving and useful for anybody who despairs of getting the important things done.

Mann, George.  The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation. Finished 10/28/14.

The Steampunk genre and movement appeals to me, but I keep holding back because it feels like it will turn into an addictive time-suck that will pull me far deeper than just reading the novels.  Suddenly, I’ll be going to maker fairs and dressing in lots of metal-studded leather.  I just don’t have that kind of time.  This is also why I rarely play video games and don’t drive a motorcycle.  Still, I ran across this book at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and was so interested that I found myself reading it while walking down El Camino Real on my way to a dinner.  For Sherlock Holmes lovers as well as Steampunks, this is great fun.  I also read the sequel immediately thereafter (see next entry) and a cluster of free short stories on Mann’s website.  Like Ben Aaronovitch, Mann is a Doctor Who alum.  I’ll read more of this series eventually.

Mann, George.  The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation.  Finished 11/6/14.

Scalzi, John.  Lock In. Finished 11/16/14.

Fascinating notion about telepresence for quadriplegics (a reductive description, I admit) as background for a compelling near-future science fiction adventure story.  Scalzi’s voice is the closest to a 21st century Heinlein that I’ve found, particularly with the Old Man’s War series.

Bach, Rachel.  Fortune’s Pawn. (Paradox Book 1.) Finished 11/22/14.

IO9 compared this to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and since she is my favorite living science fiction writer I immediately bought the first one.  Bujold it ain’t, but it’s not-bad space opera.  One key difference (literature geek spoiler alert) is that while Bujold practices Austen-like free indirect discourse, Bach’s narrative is first person, which is harder to carry off if you’re not practicing the skaz a la Mark Twain in Huck Finn.  I really like how Bach’s protagonist is a kick-ass woman mercenary soldier, but I wish the writing was better.

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Finished 11/29/14.

Rishad and Renny both put this on lists of influential books, and I loved every page both as a Pixar fan and as a consultant who watches businesses get in the way of their own success time and time again.  I managed creatives for many years, and wish I had this book on my desk when I started. Don’t miss. Like Adam Grant’s book, this one will stick with and help any business leader.

Powers, Tim.  Earthquake Weather. Finished 12/22/14.

See above note on Powers’ Expiration Date.  I was delighted to discover that Earthquake Weather was a quasi-sequel, because that made it easier to get over my usual 50 page learning curve with Powers.

Connelly, Michael.  The Burning Room: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished 12/29/14.

My last completed book of 2014, which I finished on a plane this Monday.  Is there anybody who doesn’t love these books?  Connelly seems to be easing Bosh towards retirement or a dramatic death, and while I’m eager to see how it all ends I despair at the notion of a fictional Los Angeles without Harry Bosch solving crimes in it.

Looking forward to 2015: I’m currently reading four books that I hope to finish in January or February:

Daniel J. Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston’s Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

(After I finish these two, I’m ambitious to dive into Daniel Goleman’s new Focus, which seems to be along similar lines to both of these.)

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology.

And although I haven’t read it, I picked up Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom in London. If you want murder mysteries set in the same time as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, don’t miss this excellent series. 

Any must-reads for the coming year?  Please share in comments below…

Paris as a way of seeing

Here is the view of the shop across the street from our flat in Paris’ Le Marais district early this morning, the day before Christmas, when I was the first one up and could watch the city come to life with a cup of coffee in one hand and my iPad-provided New York Times in the other:

LeMaraisMorning

As the white-uniformed chef or assistant arranges food on a tray in the background, the woman on the ladder scrapes dirt and grime from the windows and ledge above the shop.

A commitment to aesthetics — and how that commitment draws a special form of attention from the viewer — defines my experience of Paris this trip.

Summertime, back home in Oregon we have friendly, yummy Farmer’s Markets with sumptuous fruits and foods, and if you go to buy tangerines you’ll see overflowing boxes of them at every stand.

Here, at a market near the Eiffel Tower that emerged clanging and thumping during our first night at a nearby hotel (before we moved to Le Marais), the December fruits were ripe and wet, the fish was fresh, the breads warm and the cheeses— oh, the cheeses!… but it was the display that moved my heart above my rumbling stomach.

Instead of a random box of tangerines, we saw delicate pyramids. The meats were laid out with loving and artistic precision.

The high incidence of casual beauty in Paris amazes me: the only other place I’ve seen this is Tokyo. 

(Note: this is not to say that Americans are bad at aesthetics: we aren’t. But function and efficiency trump aesthetics in our priorities most of the time.)

For W (my nine-year old son) it’s his first trip to Paris. Yesterday the four of us went to Versailles. W and I talked a lot about aesthetics, as well as how Versailles was a remarkably conceited compliment that the French kings paid to themselves, enforcing a way of seeing their power. We haven’t had that conversation in the US, or in Vancouver, or in Bergen, or in Amsterdam, or in Krakow.

Paris invites aesthetic attention, almost demands it.

A few years back the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote a remarkable book called “How Pleasure Works,” where he showed that how we approach experiences defines our ability to take pleasure in them.

Bloom deploys Gene Weingarten’s famous story about how violinist Joshua Bell didn’t get a lot of tips when he performed anonymously in the DC Metro — in contrast to his sold out performances at great concert halls — to show how cognitive frames make pleasure possible.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet anticipated this four centuries ago when he said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Paris is one big cognitive frame that flips my aesthetic contemplation switch to the “on” position and keeps it there.

Next stop, taking the children to the Louvre after brunch.

P.S. You can see a TED talk by Paul Bloom about how pleasure works here.