Domestic Comedy

Exchange between me and Liz as we drove past Ravenscroft school. ME. That's where Matthew did his play.

LIZ. Yeah, that musical about Noah's ark. He was Ham.

ME. (Pause. ) (Seriously.) He was doing his best.

LIZ. (Pause.) No! His character! His character's name was Ham! He was the son of Noah!


Software: Audiobook Builder

Audiobook Collection Back in the days of iron men and wooden computers, I listened to audiobooks on cassette.

In 2001, I joined and listened to digitized audiobooks using my trusty yet problematic Digisette Duo-Aria; for years, my secondhand cars only had cassette players so the Digisette served me well. I preferred listening to audiobooks over music whilst commuting, traveling, or just motoring about. The other great thing about digital audiobooks was that I could listen to them anywhere, while raking the leaves or working out. Carrying my books everywhere was as important to me as carrying music everywhere was to other people. I also subscribed to Audible’s various monthly or weekly audio programs, like NPR’s Science Friday, in those dark days before podcasts.

After my second Digisette bit the dust and I entered a fraught period of unemployment, I stopped subscribing to Audible. My cars now had CD drives so I recorded BBC radio programs, burned them to CD, and listened to them in the car.

In 2009 or so, I bought an orange iPod nano as a birthday present for myself. I then began delving into the bizarre world of iTunes, how it manages music files, how it loads and plays podcasts on my iPod, etc. Audible-encoded files play very well in iTunes and with iPods of all kinds, so with my podcasts and Audible books now playable anywhere, and with a more dependable gadget, I was even happier.

Now, when I download an Audible file, it comes usually as one or up to three large files. But when I bought a few of the Doctor Who Big Finish productions via digital download, each track arrived as a separate file. Since they were originally published on CDs, and some of the productions are 2-CD sets, there could be upwards of 40-odd separate audio files to be managed. I can categorize the files as Media Kind “Audiobook” and they’ll show up with my other audiobooks. They would transfer to the iPod just fine, but the order-out-of-chaos maniac in me hated that they existed as individual files — I really wanted them to be in one or two big files, as the Audible books are.

Over the years, I had also collected many other MP3 files: stray podcasts or interviews not available from iTunes, audio programs I had bought, or coaching programs where the instruction arrived as lots of MP3 files. I had also recorded things off the web, such as this BBC2 radio documentary on the history of British comedy — four hour-long programs. It offended my sense of order to have all these files scattered in separate directories and not snugly nestled in iTunes where I could control them a little better. The iTunes interface really doesn’t handle these kinds of rogue files very well, in my experience, and I thought the whole operation could be made much easier.

To consolidate these separate files into a few merged files, I had been using the Join Together script from the amazing Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes site. It combined individual files into audiobook files and worked fine, but I wanted more of a standalone app.

After poking around, I tried out and bought Audiobook Builder from the App Store (link). It’s a great little app that takes all those separate audio files, merges them into iTunes audiobook files (.aab files), and deposits them into iTunes’ Books area, where they belong — NOT with the music! This makes the files much easier to manage.

One of the things I like about the app is that I can throw a ginormous amount of files at it — such as a directory of 36 MP3 files totaling 1.1 GB — and it will not crash or fall over. In this example, it will process all those files to produce three large audiobook files, each suffixed with “Part 1, Part 2,” and so on. The largest files will run about 11 hours each. Now, the process is slow on my 2007-era MacBook, I’ll grant you. It can take up to 45 minutes for it to chew through a gigabyte of audio files. That’s OK for me if I get the files I want.

I can then delete or archive or offload those original files to other media so they don’t take up room on my hard drive. Order! Contained chaos!

If you have have audiobook CDs, it’s simplicity itself to have Audiobook Builder compile them into proper iTunes audiobook files. The help file is good and, after experimenting with some small jobs — particularly when it comes to creating and naming chapters (if you want to do that) — its mysteries are soon revealed.

One tip: I like having an image of the book or speaker or interview subject as part of the file. The simplest way to get that image applied to your new audiobook is to do this:

  1. Go to Google Images and enter the name of the book or person.
  2. Select and copy the image from your browser.
  3. In Audiobook Builder, after you’ve created the project file, left-click in the box that says “Drag Cover Artwork Here.”
  4. Press Command-V to paste the image from the clipboard.

You can also use this method to copy images from your existing audiobooks to new ones you create. Easy-peasy.

Update: I should have added another important reason why I prefer the audiobook format over separate files: you can stop anywhere in the file and pick up later where you left off. With audiobooks, I can interrupt the recording, listen to other stuff while I work, go back to the audiobook when it’s time to commute home, select “Resume”, and I carry on listening from the previous stopping point. To do that with individual tracks categorized as Music, you have to manually select the files and activate the bookmarking capability.

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Current reading

The Relationship Handbook -- George Pransky.  The focus is primarily spousal relationships, though there are a few chapters dealing with parents and children. The core message is that our insecure thinking lowers our moods, which causes us to act defensively against our partner and they against us. The chief remedies include simply calming down until our thoughts look less real and choosing to talk about sensitive issues only when both partners are in their best state, when each partner's statements are understood and not simply reacted to. More important than "solving problems" is enjoying your partner's company and basking in a warm relationship. Simple language, readable, and applicable to fostering a better relationship with oneself as well. Pransky is of the first generation of Three Principles practitioners who worked with Sydney Banks. As with other popularizations of the Principles, it focuses more on revved-up thinking than with the other principles.

In These Times the Home is a Tired Place  -- Jessica Hollander. Before I started my grad school adventure in 2006, I was in a writing group that counted as its members two people who would go on to publish their fiction. One was David Halperin, who published Journal of a UFO Investigator in 2011. The other is Jessica, who went on to an MFA at the University of Alabama and last year published this book of short stories, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (publisher description). They're odd, off-kilter, ethereal stories (or maybe prose poems) that take place in the characters' mundane world of cheap duplexes, loud neighbors, families under pressure, and someone who keeps moving the Welcome mat to other apartments in the building. You know the saying that every line of a poem creates a universe? Every sentence in a Jessica Hollander story does the same thing. The stories all have a voice that is uniquely Jessica's -- a quality her stories had even back in the day. I would kill to write dialogue that oblique and funny, with such a light touch.

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer -- Sarah Bakewell. Bakewell attacks the life of Montaigne and the life of his Essays by taking the writer's chief question -- How should one live? -- and then drawing from the essays 20 different, sometimes contradictory, answers. Along the way, she paints pictures of the historical, intellectual, and cultural currents of his time (I did not know the horrific conditions in France caused by the Catholic-Protestant conflicts) and how Montaigne's message of Stoicism, skepticism, and delighted self-discovery has been viewed by other thinkers, writers, and readers through the centuries.

Serious reading, after all, should be active, focused, engaged—and Cooper suggested some ways to make it so.

First, read aloud—at least some of the time. “Every line of Shakespeare, every line of Milton, is meant to be pronounced, cannot be duly appreciated until it is pronounced.”

Second, read slowly. “Take ample time. Pause where the punctuation bids one pause; note each and every comma; wait a moment between a period and the next capital letter. And pause when common sense bids you pause, that is, when you have not understood.”

This led to the third dictum: “Read suspiciously. Reread. What a busy man has time to read at all, he has time to read more than once.”

Elsewhere, he added another piece of advice: Learn by heart at least a few poems and passages of prose.

A word fraught with meaning

The Night is Fraught With Peril I like embroidering my plainspoken, earthy, everyday, quotidian speech with particularly Victorianesque embellishments and verbally diabolic adornments that I dredge up from profligate readings of literature, ephemera, and old Monty Python sketches. Or maybe I just like words with lots of syllables.

To that end, I sometimes clot my electro-mails and casual conversation with antique or rarely heard (among my peers, anyway) vocabulary.

One that I use when I want to exaggerate my concern is fraught. It’s a word that I will see or hear often in the news yet hardly anywhere else. In the news, as with this story, it’s one of those received words, like “firestorm,” that is trotted out as verbal shorthand by newscasters for “a terrible situation” yet that I hardly ever hear in regular conversation. Fraught is a great word to use in headlines, like this one from the New York Times, because it’s only six letters. It packs maximum anxiety into minimal space.

My MacBook’s handy New Oxford American Dictionary defines fraught in its predicate adjective form (fraught with) as “filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable)”: marketing any new product is fraught with danger. The second definition is “causing or affected by great anxiety or stress,” as in she sounded a bit fraught.

Here’s the fun part:

ORIGIN late Middle English, ‘laden, provided, equipped,’ past participle of obsolete fraught [load with cargo,] from Middle Dutch vrachtenfrom vracht ‘ship’s cargo.’ Compare with freight.

So fraught is a cousin to the word freight! And freight is descended from a variant of vrachten. Fascinating. Freight itself is a neutral word — cargo, transport — though freighted with can be a figure of speech for “be laden or burdened with.”

Interesting how word meanings diverge. The world of commerce needed a word for cargo and baggage, the inner world needed another.

I wonder if the vowel sound in fraught, with its similarity to awful, may somehow help to twin those words in our minds.  Awful is more immediate and personal, whereas fraught sounds a bit distant, higher up the hill from the fray. Awful grabs the guts, fraught keeps the mess at arm’s length while acknowledging the high emotions.

I hope this disquisition on fraught has not been for naught nor has made you overwrought. (What rot.)

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Clifton StrengthsFinder

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al... In December, following up on an offer by coach Dave Kaiser, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder online test. Dave recommended the $9.99 version that gives you your top 5 strengths out of a menu of 34.

The StrengthsFinder is a 100+ item test that purportedly feeds back those parts of your personality that most dominate your outlook and behavior.

The test items are not questions, really; they’re  choices along a spectrum. So, for example, a pair of statements for an item might be “I have a commitment to growth” and “I have a commitment to values.” You then select whether either statement Strongly or Somewhat describes you, with Neutral there in the middle.

(For the record, I already know what my values are and I believe I live my life according to them. So I’m not worried about my values. I am more worried about stagnating and not growing. So I strongly identify with a commitment to Growth.)

Knowing one’s strengths, one can then theoretically leverage them more consciously and not fight against oneself. Knowing that my strength is Achiever rather than Deliberative, for example, means I can stop beating myself up for not thinking things through and instead take pleasure in action, which probably comes more naturally to me. This echoes an idea from business success literature I was reading 10-15 years ago, to make your strengths stronger rather than spend precious time and energy to shore up your weaknesses. You’re better off finding a partner or delegating to someone else those activities that do not play to your strengths.

There are, as there should be, skeptics of this test with well-founded criticisms. These strengths do seem skewed to the business world and isn’t there some value in finding, for example, that Empathy may be a weakness? Isn’t a sense of humor a strength? But, as the saying goes, “all models are wrong, some models are useful (some of the time)”. I chose to look at the test as perhaps providing a perspective on me that I might find useful.

My top 5 (oddly worded) strengths:

  1. Restorative: I like to fix things, solve problems, and create order out of chaos. This is pretty true, as far as it goes. I could not fix the big communications problems that hit a board I served on, but I could set up a network of volunteers who could efficiently deliver flyers to most houses in the neighborhood. This is probably the most action-oriented, outward-pointing strength I have.
  2. Intellection: Intellectually active and introspective. Very true.
  3. Empathy: Sense other people’s feelings. Also true, to the point, however, of stifling my own opinion so I don’t upset others.
  4. Input: “Have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.
  5. Learner: Desire to learn and continuously improve (yes). Here’s the interesting quote: “The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.” This actually helped explain to me why I continue taking banjo lessons even though I have no real desire to perform. I do find the learning process itself fascinating.

So, having received this wonderful information collected before me, what learnings and ideas can I draw from it to solve my life’s little problems? (See what I did there, didja, huh, didja?)

Dave gave me some good advice on how to use this information in my goal of starting a side business. Look at past jobs I’ve had, for example, and make lists of what I liked and didn’t like, then map those to the strengths. Chances are that the tasks I most enjoyed relate back to my strengths. Can I use that information to create a business that therefore plays to my strengths?

Or, similarly, pick any thing that I might want to do, and then look at solving the challenges through the lens of my strengths. I would not be a good car salesman, for example. But I would be good at researching, being a subject-matter expert, and perhaps sharing with others who need to know what I’ve learned.

Good, tidy stuff. But of course, I can’t stop ideating and intellecting all over the place. When does a strength become a weakness? As Dave said, when it’s misused. My strengths would not help me at cold-calling, for instance.

The strengths would not help me if I’m in the wrong environment. My Learner strength was strongly opposed to the PhD environment I put myself in because I’m a student, not a scholar.

I see a dark side to too much thinking and ruminating, not enough action; too much input, not enough reflection; too much emotion, not enough detachment; too much problem-solving, not enough problem-understanding. (Too much blog writing, not enough money-making? But I digress, which is another of my hidden strengths…)

I’d say the StrengthsFinder did highlight what I indeed feel are the dominant aspects of my personality. What I do, or don’t do, with my strengths, is up to me. However, as I daydream about what I might want to start doing later this year, I will be keeping these strengths in mind.

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In life, as in technical writing: you have to choose

A heap of scrap metal. One of the chief rules of tech writing – or at least one of my chief rules – is to not dump into the manual every scrap of information I have on hand.

The tech writer’s job is to present, to select, to shape. As with art, it’s not just about what you put in, it’s about what you leave out.

One of my freelance jobs was to create a help file for a program on crop genetics, a knowledge domain that was literally beyond my ken. I could not hope to understand the ins and outs of how to use that program in the six short weeks I worked on the project because I couldn’t understand what it output and what you could use the output for.

In that case, I opted for my standard fallback plan: make the help file procedural (describe the mechanics of using the program) rather than conceptual (the big ideas and concepts on crop genetics that inform the program’s design). If you don’t know where to start, go with procedural first: most users are simply bewildered by a new application’s user interface and appreciate any sort of road map that helps orient them to basic operations.

Then, after you’ve played with the application for a while, you can begin to divine a little more of its purpose, what it could be used for, and perhaps how to write topics that make more specialized operations easier for the user.

I’m not a scientist, but I am an avid user of applications. I can play with an app, push buttons, look at file extensions, note the preferences options, and pretty much plot the entire outline of a procedural help file in my head. I was lucky enough to have the developer and some expert users at hand, so I could quiz them on common workflows or on what a beginner would need to know vs. an expert user. Through playing around, reading old documentation, and interviewing experienced users, I created a help file/user guide that I think got most users 80 percent of the way there. For a product that had no help file before I got there, I think it was a good start.

What would have sunk the project was to pretend to know more than I did. Had I simply dumped my notes onto the screen, in the hopes of conveying the false impression that I knew what I was writing about, then I would have done the user a disservice. If an application’s interface is inscrutable and upside-down, then a help file that is equally obtuse or eccentric is simply another insult thrown in the user’s face. It means I have not served as their stand-in and advocate. Instead of me making sense of the application so that they could use it to meet their needs, I have instead forced them to do the sense-making.

The old saying goes “if everything is important, then nothing is important.” It’s up to me to select what’s important for the user to know, what is less important, what is not important. I put those choices into the document, release the document into the world, and wait for the feedback that tells me whether I got it mostly right. If I’m lucky, I get another chance to make the next version a little better.

It has been only very recently that I’ve thought about how this lesson applies to life. Or my life, in particular.

The way I’ve typically spent my time and filled my head is to stuff myself full of projects, both urgent and non-urgent, real and imagined: acting, arts classes, writing groups, neighborhood board, yoga class, reading, writing, brainstorming a new side business idea, watching every episode of “Parks and Recreation” or “Clatterford,” moving every icon on my MacBook desktop 10 pixels to the left, opening every PDF downloaded in 2013 to judge it worth keeping – in short, an insane amount of activity.

As I’ve pared away my responsibilities outside the home, and in general slowed down my analytical thinking, I’ve noticed how I’ve splattered my energy and attention all over the place. I enjoyed myself, no doubt about it, but I was always a little frantic too.

Because, I think, I had not done my job and selected what was important, what was less important, what was not important. I did not choose. Choosing was actually quite terrifying because I have always had a case of FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”) (Wikipedia, Article). The series of posts I did on being an information packrat echo this theme: the present-day discomfort of hoarding anything – information, experiences, books, salt-and-pepper shakers – is easier to bear emotionally than any supposed pain of missing out on something in the future. The chaos in my head of trying to DO IT ALL, of making sense of all this stuff, of attempting to manage it, was stressing me out.

Recently, on re-reading and re-listening to the works of Michael NeillGeorge Pransky, and Sydney Banks, I decided to reduce my multiple input streams and multitasking and multiple-priorities. As best I could, I chose to sit quietly a little more often than I do. And have a little less on my mind. My mind is forever a-buzzing with ideas and projects and strategies, and I was exhausted. It was time to choose and edit which thoughts to listen to, which ones to let go, and which ones could wait for a while.

Letting my thinking settle down has, to a degree, also slowed down my manic need to fill my day with activity. I don’t know why that is, but it is. I’m not initiating many projects or meetings nowadays. I’m not furiously brainstorming my next side-business idea and trying to figure it all out. I’m re-reading a book instead of rushing to the next one. I try not to chase the next thing I simply must do before doing the next thing. Everyone has preferences and I’m able to hear them a little better now that the noise in my head has subsided.

As for distinguishing between mindful activity and mindless web surfing, well, I’m still working on that. It’s like distinguishing between craving and hunger; I know what will make me feel more satisfied later so I know what choice makes sense now. Sometimes I do binge, and that’s OK.

Another saying in the self-help world: “how you do anything is how you do everything.” I hope I can learn how to do in my life what I’m able to do pretty successfully in my work. It takes time and practice. There are false starts and do-overs. I’m on the lookout for feedback that tells me whether I’m getting it mostly right. I hope to make the next version a little better.


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DOOMSDAY IS ... Friday (for 2014)

Which means that Friday falls on: doomsday_sign


  • the last day of February (this is the key fact if you remember nothing else. Doomsday is always the last day in February for every year.)
  • 4/4, 6/6, 8/8, 10/10, and 12/12
  • 5/9 and 9/5
  • 7/11 and 11/7
  • March 7 (7 days after the last day of February)
  • January 3, except for leap years (years divisible by 4), when it’s January 4

It’s easy to remember Doomsday for the even months. To remember the day for the odd months, use the mnemonic, “I work 9-to-5 at the 7-11.”

The algorithm was developed by mathematician John Conway, creator of The Game of Life and a good egg all around.

Isn’t it wonderful knowing stuff like this? I can never know enough fun stuff like this. I don’t remember where or when I first stumbled across the Doomsday algorithm, but I have always enjoyed it and it’s quite handy when someone asks “what day does September 24th fall on?” So…

  1. For 2014, Doomsday is always on Friday.
  2. Doomsday is therefore on Friday, September 5th.
  3. Add 21 to get September 26th (multiples of 7 make the addition easy).
  4. September 24th is Wednesday.

A bit of mental math never hurt anyone. That said, I have not gone down the rabbit hole of learning all the rules of the algorithm so that I can mentally compute the day for any given date. Whilst I appreciate that it would make my mind a little more nimble mathematically, I prefer the lazy man’s way of simply looking at a calendar.

However, there are no shortage of sites where you can learn the full algorithm if you want. My favorite site for the algorithm includes lots of background information and additional resources. But maybe you need your hand held till you build up your confidence (and there’s no shame in having your hand held). In that case, use’s remarkably well-hidden Doomsday Calculator. which steps you through each calculation till you can learn it by heart. Click the “Show/hide all steps” link to see all the steps on one page.

As for me, I will continue to check each new year’s calendar for the last day of February and start my calculations from there.

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Let the calendar decide

Bacon Cheeseburger and Teriyaki Burger - The H... Oliver Burkeman writes the weekly This Column Will Change Your Life for the UK Guardian. The column is a brief, cheeky, well-researched survey of self-help topics of all sorts, from philosophy to life hacks. Burkeman is himself an author of a self-help book that is on my personal wishlist.

He had an interesting confluence of topics recently: one on “triple constraints” and one on adopting a 12-week, rather than 12-month, perspective on goal-setting.

The “iron triangle” is that eternal triad of choices from which only two can be selected. The classic triple constraint is “You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.” Burkeman lists constraints for other domains, such as home cooking (“tasty, nutritious, or easy to make”) and vacations (“exotic, cheap, or relaxing”). Resources are limited and choices have to be made. As Burkeman says,

…[H]istory is littered with the corpses of businesspeople and politicians who foolishly thought they could ignore [the triple constraint]. Respect it, on the other hand, and even the sky may be no limit. When JFK promised to get a man on the moon within a decade, he wisely didn’t also promise to get it done cheap.

But the triple constraint isn’t the only model for this kind of choice theory. David Sedaris writes about meeting a woman who went to a management seminar where she was told that everyone has four burners in life: family, friends, work, and health. Turn off one of those burners, and you’re a success. Turn off two of those burners, and you’re a big success. The woman Sedaris described had chosen to focus on work and friends — and she was a big success.

James Patterson wrote about juggling five balls: family, friends, health, spirit, and work. The work ball is made of rubber while the others are made of glass. If you drop the work ball, it’ll bounce right back. But if you drop any of the other balls, they’ll scuff or scratch or shatter permanently.

As Burkeman says, the idea is to realize that you can’t have it all, that life is about trade-offs and you have to make choices. But some people, when faced with this menu of choices, paralyze themselves and decide not to choose. And because they refuse to choose, they may endure suffering worse than the momentary pain of having to give something up. Even if the giving up is only for a little while. And so instead of moving forward even a little bit, mindful of constraints, they choose to stay in place.

Is there a way to make that choosing easier? In an earlier column, Burkeman described the psychology of the “goal-looms-larger effect”: that burst of extra energy you get finishing all that work just before leaving on vacation. By the same token, the further away a goal is, the less urgent it appears and so the less hard you work towards it. This inclines us to slack off and think, “Oh well, that’s months in the future — I’ll start tomorrow. Or next week.”

The 12-Week Year argues that a year is simply too long of a timeframe to work with. The goal is so far away that one never feels the emotional juice to run toward it. And too many unpredictable events — health crises, home emergencies, sick family members — over the course of a year that you can’t predict or plan around.

So the authors instead suggest breaking the calendar year into smaller 12-week “years.” Scale your goals and tasks to fit inside that smaller box, create a list of weekly tasks that you can check off, and you stand a greater chance of meeting your scaled-down “annual” goals. By the end of the calendar year, you’ll have likely accomplished far more than if you’d spread the work out over the standard 12 months.

This isn’t a new idea to me. JD Meier, in his book Getting Results the Agile Way, and on his Sources of Insight blog, has long recommended adopting three major accomplishments for the year, each quarter, each month, each week, and each day. It’s not hard to see how one can take a large goal, such as losing weight or finding a new job, and then break those big amorphous goals down into smaller, more concrete quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily tasks. The 12-Week Year authors have taken that chunking-down idea and packaged it in a smarter way. (I’ve not read their book, so I’m sure they’ve added their own flourishes and enhancements to the process, too.)

So maybe one way to reconcile oneself to tough choices — whether triple constraints, four burners, or five juggling balls — is simply to timebox. Pick a period of time — whether it be 12 weeks, from now till July 4th, from March 15 to April 15 — make the hard choice and try it out. Play with it. Leave one of the burners off, drop one of the balls. You can do it knowing that it’s possible to pick them up again in the next time period. This way, you can rotate through each area of focus throughout the year, knowing that your choice is both firm and not forever.

This reminds me also of Steve Pavlina’s “one week on, one week off” idea, which he attributes to Napoleon Hill. Go full out for an entire week — writing, programming, cooking — and then take the next week off.

These issues are alive to me at the moment because, of course, I have choices to make and focus is sometimes hard for me to achieve. Too many wonderful things to do, not enough time for everything I’d like to do, and no optimal blend that will balance everything on a daily basis. So the solution that bubbles up for now is to not try to balance things. Pick an area or project, focus on it during my evening project-time, and let go of those things that don’t fit in the timebox. When the project is done or at a place where it can be maintained with minimal effort, then see what else in my life needs that attention. Look for balance in the long-term.

That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see how it goes.


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If you have concluded that “Ignorance is bliss” and prefer to cater to your perverted appetite with your favorite predigested food, which is so tempting, so sweet in the mouth, so easy to gulp, so smooth to swallow, so stimulating, and so fashionable, then lay this book aside until you have learnt through disease and pain that it pays to adopt the natural and moral diet.