Close-up photograph of an onion slice.

I’m pleased to announce two new open-source code libraries for the Perl 5 programming language, my first contributions to the CPAN in well over a decade. They represent a significant milestone in a side-project I’ve quietly but obsessively pursued for the last couple of months, some effects of which have become immediately visible on this blog.

Getting the nitty-gritty out of the way: Web::Microformats2 can parse, query, and serialize HTML documents marked up with Microformats2 metadata. Web::Mention provides a Perl object representation of Webmention-adherent HTTP requests, with methods to verify, determine authorship, and extract content from valid mentions. Both modules are free and open-source, released under the MIT license.

The modules bring to Perl two of the many “building block” concepts espoused by IndieWeb, a relatively small but worldwide community promoting technologies and policies that encourage people to self-host their web-based content. I have a lot of thoughts about the surprisingly impressive and frustratingly obscure IndieWeb movement that I plan to explore in a future post. For now, allow me to describe my specific attractor to it, and how I’ve implemented it for the sake of my own blog.

After I saw it in action on Watts Martin’s blog in February, the particular IndieWeb concept of backfeeds struck me as a killer app, and I knew immediately I wanted it for Fogknife. A website with a backfeed pulls reactions to its content from across the web, sorting them all together and representing them meaningfully on its own pages. This felt like an obvious next direction to move in after my brief experiment with Disqus and my subsequent and somewhat more successful use of posts aware of their own Twitter-links.

Starting a couple of days ago, Fogknife began running on an experimental and unreleased branch of Plerd. It uses both of my new Perl modules to make backfeeds possible, and you can see a live early example underneath this post about my recent read-through of a new Odyssey translation. All the facepiles and comments come from Twitter reactions to that article. (The bridging step between the suddenly IndieWeb-enabled Fogknife and Twitter, a silo that doesn’t give a hoot about any of this stuff, is the aptly named Bridgy service run by Ryan Barrett and Kyle Mahan.)

I consider these modules unstable and fragile, and use Fogknife as their live-fire proving grounds — via the Bridgy-fed backfeeds as well as the manual webmention-suggestion form that currently appears under every post. I expect therefore Fogknife’s support for webmentions and backfeeds to start out rather wobbly, but I do plan to continue improving it by increments, with all such improvements carrying over into new releases of the public Perl modules as appropriate.

When everything seems reasonably stable, I’ll follow up with an official Plerd release so that other bloggers may squeeze similar magic from my humble little publishing platform. Until then, I hope that the rather nerdier Perl modules will prove interesting to my fellow web-worried programmers.

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The lid of a silver MacBook Pro, covered with all the stickers described in this article.

Ashrind the MacBook, subject of last week’s post, has returned to my hands from its likely final visit to an Apple Store with a healthy new battery, a good-as-new keyboard, and — I hope — a few more years of viable use. Before I left it at Providence Place, I took the attached picture of the stickers it has accrued on its lid. How about I share the stories behind them, in celebration of Ashrind’s continued resistance of digital dotage?

Even though this laptop has served as an inseparable companion since 2012, I didn’t start decorating it before early 2016, and the bulk of its glued-on accoutrements date to only the last calendar year. Never really one to sticker up a laptop or a car or the backs of street signs near my house or anything, I didn’t become a laptop-decorator until the role was thrust upon me, as I shall now relate.

Duck Duck Go: In early 2016 a community manager at Duck Duck Go noticed that my bespoke blog software makes DDG its default search utility, and mailed me a stack of these stickers in recognition.

It took this unexpected act of pleasantly personal corporate outreach to get me to consider pasting any stickers at all to my heretofore unblemished MacBook lid. It seemed more like a badge, though, an emblem with a tiny true story that would make me smile a bit every time I saw it, far more than a typical glue-backed company logo from a conference goodie-bag or whatnot. So I stuck it on.

Black Lives Matter: A whole year after receiving the DDG stickers, I purchased and affixed this one as a reaction to Jeff Sessions becoming U.S. attorney general. I wrote a Fogknife article about all this, at the time. Certainly, I feel today about the slogan and the movement to which it refers exactly as I did then.

Since this represented the first time I sought out and obtained a sticker with the express intent of laptop decoration, it had the unavoidable side effect of opening the door to all the stickers that would follow.

National Park Service: First of all, I should note that this sticker looks just awful after more than a year of rubbing against the ribbly little villi that line my bag’s laptop-sleeve.

Vinyl stickers resist these destructive effects of my bag’s protective nubbins, I have learned, while paper stickers are all too happy to give up their ink to any such persistent source of friction. By continuing to display this sticker I realize that I mark my laptop as the gallery of a first-timer stickerer, and really I ought to show a modicum of corrective dignity and just peel this one off.

As to why this huge arrowhead claims this corner in the first place: in late January 2017, four days after Trump’s inauguration, the Twitter account of the Badlands National Park posted a bunch of climate change facts. Observers tended to interpret this as a doomed but meteor-bright act of defiance against the incoming anti-scientific administration, which had wasted no time in ordering federal agencies to stop educating the public about global warming.

The tweets, of course, vanished within hours, even though their publication had made news headlines around the world. I felt very moved by this bravely futile candle held against the flood of New American Ignorance, and I wondered if the likely self-sacrificing act of this anonymous federal employee would turn the logo of the National Park Sevice into a sign of resistance. I gambled a sizable sticker-spot on it.

The Apple Store employee who checked my laptop in last week asked me if I worked for the Park Service, and I said “no”, feeling unmotivated to offer any further detail. So, no, I don’t think it ever really caught on, not even with me.

Perl 5: Even though I use the language every day, I’m not entirely sure how or when the velociraptor got adopted as a co-mascot for Perl 5 alongside the hairy old O’Reilly camel (and not to be confused with Perl 6’s butterfly, or the stylized onion that represents both languages and neighboring territories). But, I do like it: it embraces Perl’s reality as a dinosaur among practical programming languages, but one that can shred through work quite efficiently when necessary. (And which can also make a frightfully bloody mess, if deployed carelessly…)

Anyway, by the time I put my third sticker on Ashrind I could tell where things were headed, and I wanted to rep my beloved and favorite general-purpose proglang.

“Praise Love”: This candy-colored and vaguely chthonic goaty friend comes from the hand of Gloombones, an artist whose ouvre of gooey happy-necromancy cartoons I discovered early last year. Embodies no meaning to me other than its own self-evident grinfulness.

Last week at a coffee shop a little girl ran right up to this sticker, practically planting her face on it, agog and delighted. Unsure how to react to this I kinda just waved hello, and then her mom ushered her away and out the door wordlessly.

Empire Tea & Coffee: My standby coffee shop in Newport, Rhode Island, the sleepy seaside city I lived in for over three years, and where I continue to rent an office. Nothing much to add here!

Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation: Recalling my positive feelings at Duck Duck Go showering me in vinyl stickers, I supported my nonprofit buying a sticker-stack with our own logo, and naturally I affixed mine the moment we received them.

We’ve sent a few others around, but not in any habitual fashion, let alone an organized one. We really gotta remember that we have these! People love stickers, I hear.

CRU Cafe: During a recent visit to this classy corner establishment in Newport, a barista approached my table and handed me this sticker while complimenting the others. I am an easy sell.

And that filled up the last space, so those are all of Ashrind’s sticker-stories. (Unless I peel that National Park Service one off, anyway…)

The front cover of the Atari 400/800 Basic Reference Manual, depicting a late-70s-looking father and son programming a late-70s-looking computer together.

I draft this post, unusually, on my little Raspberry Pi 3. I had to spend much of this morning making it minimally palatable for desktop use, since before today it served only as an occasional display-free server for one experiment or another. Today it gets to act as my desktop computer pro tempore, because yesterday I dropped off my first-generation MacBook Pro (mid-2012, Retina display) at the nearest Apple Store for a battery replacement. The prospect of life without this machine, even for a few days, invites me to reflect on why I’ve chosen to reupholster a relatively ancient computer rather than taking the more mundane — and much faster — path of buying a newer model.

Certainly, I could both afford and professionally justify another such purchase, and I’ve taken that road many times since I first adopted a Mac laptop as my primary personal computer in 2001. This MacBook Pro, which I long ago named “Ashrind”, represents my sixth such machine. (This includes a couple of work-purchased laptops from my last salaried job, and skips over a sessile Mac Pro I used at home for a while.) Ashrind’s purchase in 2012 made for an average of about one new lappie every two years — followed by six years and counting of coasting on this single machine.

The gentleman in the Apple Store advised me that the elderly Ashrind would, in mere months, cross the veil into unsupported territory. They’d replace its battery for a nominal fee — an in-patient procedure, due to the user-inaccessible components of all MacBooks built this side of Steve Jobs — but it would almost certainly represent the computer’s very last first-party repair. The store guy did not explicity say that I ought to therefore consider purchasing its inevitable replacement, but I recognized the words as politely driving me in that direction. I do not begrudge the nudge — had I been in similar straits with any prior laptop, I would have leapt at the excuse to go shopping. Doctor’s orders, after all! But not this time: the $200 replacement fee seemed entirely reasonable, and not just because it represents a tenth of a new MacBook’s minimum cost.

Other than the dying battery — and looking past its merely skin-deep scuffs and pockmarks — the six-year-old machine does not feel old at all. Unlike, say, my sequence of iPhones, each instance of which has always started to stutter and lag under the weight of new OS versions and the always-increasing demands of ever-heavier web pages, no part of using Ashrind has ever made me wish for a newer computer — not for a faster processor, or better graphics capability, or novel controls. It feels in the spring of 2018 every bit as flexible, powerful, and vital as it did the day I first unpacked it in the autumn of 2012.

“This is the peak,” wrote Marco Arment in his own paean to this product line, which Apple continued to produce through 2015, and still sells as a lowest-end MacBook Pro option. “This is the best laptop that has ever existed.” I certainly cannot offer disagreement! But the excellence of this particular computer to one side, I wonder if it also bespeaks a more general trend in personal computing.

I have a hypothesis that, outside of specialized use (including bleeding-edge photorealistic 3D gaming), the advancement of microcomputer technology has seen a somewhat sigmoid curve. After a period of slow and steady evolution through the mid-late 20th century, the 1990s and 2000s saw an explosive period where Moore’s Law seemed to rule the land. I worked in a computer store and then in IT during much of that time, and well do I recall the ubiquitous jokes about how PCs felt like bananas: fresh and flavorful when first brought home, only to blotch over with obsolescence overnight.

But during the current decade, I feel like that curve has flattened back towards the horizontal, resembling once again the modest generational-advancement pace of what we might call the pre-Windows era. I offer, as circumstantial evidence, two of my own personal computers: Ashrind, coasting along the flat top of the sigmoid curve I envision, and then on its bottom stroke we find “Renenldo”, the Atari 800 I used and loved — all 48K of it, never upgraded — from 1982 through 1990. (Its name came from a BASIC program I wrote, probably typed in from a magazine, that generated random but vaguely pronounceable non-words.) For all the years I used Renenldo, it and all its peers — which in the United States included the Apple ][ and the Commodore 64 — defined home computing, with relatively little pressure to upgrade. But with the 1990s there began to pass through my life a starkly sloping stack of PCs and laptops of varying pedigree, each of which utterly humbled its predecessor in terms of capability and relevance to its contemporary software and internet context.

It really does feel like we’ve moved beyond that now, and in so doing have returned to a gentler time when replacing the battery to give one’s primary laptop a few more years of life seems no stranger than visiting a similar procedure upon a beloved, trusty automobile. That’s my hope, anyway! Despite the attractive novelty of the touch bar or the extra-extra-thin profile of more recent MacBooks, checking Ashrind in for one last manufacturer-supported tune-up feels — maybe for the first time in my computer-using adulthood — more like responsible maintenance than undignified avoidance.

The front cover of The Overneath, by Peter S. Beagle. It has no illustration on it.

Continuing my streak of reading only the most recent books by writers with careers reaching back a half-century, I borrowed The Overneath as soon as I noticed it on my local library’s new-fiction shelves. My knowledge of Beagle extends to dim memories of seeing the animated adaptation of 1968’s The Last Unicorn on HBO, and my eight-year-old self finding it too quiet and sad to enjoy. As such, I fell into this book with no expectations other than let’s read some fantasy shorts by a super-old dude. Well: I loved it.

While not strictly a retrospective — all the stories have original-publication dates in the current century — Beagle seems to have structured the book with his own past work in mind. It opens with a Last Unicorn prequel, providing an origin story for Schmendrick, the inept magician who would later travel with the titular monoceros. This segues into two new stories about unicorns, informed by Arabic and Chinese legendaria, with settings and tone to match. A final unicorn story set in colonial America rounds out the book, with a second Young Shmendrick story at the midpoint.

And in the rest of the pages, all manner of things. A gnarly ode to a real-life troll statue that lurks under a bridge in Seattle. The story of two sweet old ladies who must fix their aquarium after they accidentally add a decoration cursed with a pirate-ghost. A day in the life of DEA agents patrolling the American desert with a dragon-proofed jeep. And so on!

I cannot lie: Knowing practically nothing about the author other than his age, I expected at every page to cringe at some evidence of oh-grandpa outdated cultural mores. Part of me had my bony finger raised and ready for an extended tut-tut session given the lack of women in the initial triad of unicorn stories, but these are immediately followed by two stories that neatly neutralized that complaint. Had I really wanted to reach for it, I’m sure I could have found something to offend in Beagle’s depiction of an ancient Chinese judge, or a Native American mystic, or a Jamaican-born exorcist. But I chose not to strain myself so, and allowed myself to instead feel utterly charmed at the diverse cast with whom Beagle has peopled these stories.

The book does contain one undeniably cringeworthy story, and I find its inclusion curious. Each tale opens with a brief editorial preface, and Beagle uses this one to all but apologize that the attached story is really not his best work — but he found it so meaningfully personal that he felt obliged to include it anyway. And there proceeds a story about an older man who, through a computer he barely understands, befriends a space-alien girl and chats with her regularly until her space-alien dad shows up and reveals she’s space-alien underage, and so he stops, the end. It reads like a pathetically self-denigrating Kilgore Trout novella, and — as the introduction promised — not at all at the level of the rest of the collected prose. “Peter S. Beagle, did you get catfished?” I asked the book, aloud. What happened here? I will never know.

This lampshaded oddity is offset by the hundred subtleties found throughout the collection. Personally, I found the book full of writing lessons, even though I seldom write fiction per se — the whole volume shot through with so much quietly masterful expression. I recall, for example, a particular moment in the final story as a reformed scoundrel prepares to end his exile in colonial Maine. He packs nothing but a few mementos from his time in the wilderness, each suffused with memory and experience, and reflects that he leaves with far more than he arrived with. I have to say that I felt rather the same way, by the time I finished this book.

(And if that sounds hokey, it is only because I can’t write as well as Peter S. Beagle.)

My creative pace with this website skipped a beat because I last week moved to Providence — the first major relocation I have undertaken since relaunching this blog in 2014. Reasonably settled now, I plan to resume the site’s weekly-ish pace starting with this post.

I began Fogknife, in part, as a reaction to the isolation I felt during my first iced-in winter on Aquidneck Island. My partner and I removed ourselves back to the mainland for expressly quality-of-life reasons, choosing to bear significantly longer daily commutes in exchange for the promise of richer social and cultural opportunities that living in a real city brings.

For all my moping over its spartan nature, Newport was good to me. I will do my best to carry the projects and habits I began there — Fogknife included — into this new context, and work Providence’s increased event-density into inspiration rather than distraction.

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OmniFocus's current Mac icon, shaped like a big purple checkbox.This year marks my tenth anniversary using OmniFocus, the small family of Mac and iOS productivity applications from the Omni Group. I do not exaggerate to say that the Mac edition of OmniFocus has served as the glue of my life as a doer-of-things over this whole span. Not consistently, mind you — more than once I’ve let weeks, even months pass without tending to its lists of lists. Exactly once I took the opportunity of a new major release to declare “OmniFocus bankruptcy”, punting countless stale projects to start fresh with an empty task-database. Either way, I always find reason to return and stick with it once again for a long time.

Today finds me stepping through a pleasantly extended dance with the big purple checkmark on my Mac’s dock. After so many years, I have found my best approach yet of working with OmniFocus, such that it feels far more like a companionable assistant than a burdensome nag. In this pattern, I consult the program’s Forecast pane throughout the day, both to whittle down my daily task-list and to build up the next day’s priorities. Between tasks I revisit the app’s Inbox pane, reviewing the jotted-down proto-tasks I’ve recently captured for later cogitation, deciding the next steps for each. These become the raw materials for actionable tasks that, eventually, wind up on the next day-long shortlist, with all its invitingly empty checkboxes.

In recognition of how much this software-assisted cycle has helped me over the years, and in the hope that it may help someone else as well, this article describes several strategies I use when working with this glorified to-do list program. I focus here more on overall approaches than on software-specific tips-n-tricks.

Goal: Mind like water. While I did read David Allen’s Getting Things Done back when I first started using OmniFocus, I ultimately found it more useful as a backgrounder for the program’s design philosophy than as a guide to using it. In a way, OmniFocus reifies GTD, giving you a single place to capture tasks, tie time-and-space contexts to each one, and then forget about them until it’s time to focus on them. When it all comes together, I really can approach the “mind like water” state that Allen espouses in this talk from 2008*.

I don’t expect anyone else who relies on the program to use it precisely as I do, so your mileage may very much vary regarding the following list of personal habits and philosophies — except, perhaps, for the first point, which I understand as a core tenet of OmniFocus’s objectively intended use.

Always Be Capturing. Reduce the friction between yourself and your OmniFocus inbox, minimizing the length of time a newly realized task must sit in your meat-memory. Ideally, as soon as you perceive the need to get something done — and it could be anything, in any scale or context, from “buy cat food” to “respond to this email” to “deliver this six-month client project” — you can have that noted in your inbox within moments, and then eject it from your active attention, letting you return your focus to your current task. (Less than ideally, you’re driving or showering or something when a possible task hits you — but you can hold one or two things in your mental cache until you have a chance to inbox them safely.)

An inboxed item can wait until you’re ready to focus on your next inbox-processing session, sometime in the next day or three.† At that point — and no sooner — you’ll promote it into a time-deferred project filled with sub-tasks, or recognize it as a ten-minute doddle you can knock off right away, or change your mind about its relevance and just delete it.

(This doesn’t include emergencies, of course! Sometimes things pop up for which we really do need to put everything else aside, because they honestly can’t wait a few hours. Crisis management lies outside the forte of OmniFocus. On the other hand, in assisting you with continuously storing and processing the “everything else” that you must put aside when crises do emerge, OmniFocus can help make the transition from tactical emergency-mode back into strategic normal-work mode much less painful.)

OmniFocus gives you lots of ways to add stuff to your inbox, both inside and outside the actual applications — some of which I must admit I’ve never really figured out, like “clippings” or direct Siri commands. I tend to use a mix of the apps’ buttons, the control-option-space global keystroke on Mac, and the email integration feature. The latter I use in two ways: I forward to it all non-emergency email that requires a response from me, and when an idea hits me while I’m out walking I’ll pinch my iPhone’s mic-button and say “Send a new email to My OmniFocus”, and proceed to dictate the item’s content as its subject line. (This latter trick works because I have an address book entry for someone named “OmniFocus”, first name “My”.)

Organize time via deferrals. When I want to mark a task or project as a candidate for my attention on a certain day, I mark it as deferred until (and not due on) that day. Because I set OmniFocus to include deferred items in my Forecast tab (via its checkbox at Perspectives → Show Perspectives → Forecast), I can see with a click everything that my recent-past self thought I could get done today.

My thinking here tends towards the short-term: at the start of my work-day, if that list looks short, I’ll often browse my projects to “defer” some tasks to today. I’ll also do this for new tasks important enough to deserve my more-immediate attention. If the end of the day approaches and I have some leftovers, I’ll defer them to tomorrow. (Items have a handy “+1 day” button under the Defer Until field in the detail-pane, and I hit that button a lot with no shame. Three times apiece, on Fridays.)

Of course, I also defer tasks that I know lie in my future, but, for one reason or another, I can’t focus on yet: for example, writing a wrap-up report for a project that doesn’t wrap up for another month. I’ll define as many of the project’s subtasks as I can, stamp the whole thing as deferred for four weeks, and then happily forget about it, secure in knowing that OmniFocus will float it back into my sight-line just in time.

I also made myself a custom “Deferrals” perspective-tab which lists only deferred items, ordered by their defer-dates relative to today; OmniFocus intelligently and pleasantly groups these into today, tomorrow, next week, next month, and finally a fuzzy three-months-out blob. This view omits due-dates and calendar appointments and other stuff I can’t actually do anything about, giving me a nice summary of my likely future actions into time-chunks that grow appropriately coarser with greater distance from the present’s certainties.

This perspective will also show tasks whose deferral-dates have slipped into the past — something that happens to me frequently. This doesn’t mean failure, or even anything overdue; it just means that I expected to work on something during a certain day, and it happens that I didn’t. In this case, I feel no regret in just kicking ahead its deferral-date as needed.

Make and use a “Waiting” context. I have a context called “Waiting”, whose status I marked as On Hold, and which has no particular location or other information associated with it. When the next step in a project literally involves me waiting for something to happen — an email response, a package arrival, and so on — then I represent it with a task — “Wait for Jim-Bob’s reply”, say — and assign that task the Waiting context.

The task will then inherit the context’s On Hold status, causing OmniFocus to represent it as a blocker, preventing access to all subsequent tasks even though I cannot act on it myself. The program draws the task as grayed-out, with its “Waiting” context acting as a nicely self-documenting label.

But as we usually don’t feel content to wait for something indefinitely, I will most times set the Due field for that task to the date at which I shall be done waiting. (By default, I’ll just kick the “+1 week” button here.) Should the task become overdue, then it’s time for me to take action. If it’s an email reply I’m waiting on, for example, perhaps I’ll send another status-request email, and kick the due-date into the future for another week. (And also note this on the task’s notes-field, so that if it happens for two weeks running I’ll know to escalate appropriately.)

For most of the time I’ve used OmniFocus, “Waiting” has been my only defined context. I just haven’t used contexts very often, though I’ve very recently started experimenting with them once again, as I describe further below.

Use due-dates only for literal due-dates. I set the Due date-field only on tasks that actually have real-world deadlines attached to them. The due-date of my “Pay taxes” project is April 15; the due-date for obtaining a present for a friend is the day before their birthday. This sets an upper-bound in time for focusing on its constituent sub-tasks, and so long as I’m on the right side of that boundary I will use the Defer Until field to lightly pin times I intend to actually focus on the tasks, as I describe above.

(My exception to this restricted use of the Due field involves the way I pair it with the “Waiting” context, described earlier.)

I used to set the Due field to the date I thought I ought to work on a task, rather the way I use the Defer Until field now. This had the effect of items falling into cherry-red “overdue” status all the time, and my phone reminding me every day of all the ways I continuously fell behind schedule, in tasks both crucial and trivial. This made me not want to use OmniFocus. The Omni Group paired the release of version 2.0 in 2014 with a set of advice-articles from other long-time users; from one of these did I glean the strategy of using Due only for real, hard deadlines, and Defer Until as a more flexible date-pin. After declaring task-bankruptcy and starting with an empty database, I adopted this strategy myself, and I haven’t looked back since.

Use contexts only for physical-location prerequisites. Much like I use the Due field only for tasks that have real-world deadlines, I create and assign contexts (besides my beloved “Waiting”) sparingly, limiting them to physical locations representing the only places that certain tasks can get accomplished.

Right now, I have only “Home” and “Office”, and then “Hardware store”, “Supermarket”, and a few other shops. And even though I accomplish most of my work in my home or office, I assign these contexts only when I must be at that location to fulfill the task. For example, only my home has a printer in it, so I’ll assign a “Print this out” task to “Home”. Only the hardware store will sell me a new screwdriver, so its context gets affixed to the “Buy new screwdriver” task.

The vast majority of my tasks, though, involve doing something on my computer. And since my main computer, a laptop, travels with me throughout the day, I don’t bother setting the context field for most of my OmniFocus items. That works out just fine!

Only quite recently have I begun geotagging contexts, letting OmniFocus send me a little reminder-ping through my phone whenever I approach a location tied to an available task which I can accomplish only there. I haven’t used this feature long enough to call it a definitive part of my long-term OmniFocus strategy, but I will admit to finding it pretty cool.

Trust the judgment of your past self. Often, a task will come up in my list of tasks for the day, and I’ll think: Is this really that important? Often it seems too “fun”, a next step in a personal project mixed into a daily task-list otherwise full of bread-winning client work, perhaps.

But here, I have learned to put faith into the judgment of the past self who found this task valuable enough to put into OmniFocus, and then to furthermore assign a deferral-date to. I can try to put myself into the mind I had then, and feel free to ask whether the value I saw in the task then remains true today. But unless I today find the task completely outdated or otherwise disagreeable, I’ll make an effort to focus on it exactly as my past self wanted.

I seldom regret this.

Drop stale projects ruthlessly. As I wrote above, I think very little of clicking the “+1” buttons below the Defer Until field on tasks for which I just don’t have the attention to spare today. There comes a point, though, when it seems like so much can-kicking, especially if I find myself marking the project as reviewed without any changes for week after week, stretching into months.

Very often, these fall into the category of “nice-to-have” goals — either personal projects, or work that would benefit clients or myself professionally but which nobody’s explicitly asked for. In any case, potential progress on these projects keeps getting shouldered out of the way by more important or interesting work.

In time, and for each of these, I have to face the fact that I clearly don’t want to work on this project. With no other force in the world (such as money) encouraging me to do it anyway, I’ll just keep kicking that can. And that’s when I mark the project as Dropped.

To lessen the sting, I reserve the right the copy the project’s checklist and paste it into an project-ideas archive file, outside of OmniFocus. This leaves the door open to picking it back up again, someday, when I feel actually ready to give some time and attention to it. But OmniFocus is about what deserves my attention today, and so it doesn’t belong there.

Take joy in completion, but do not dread commencement. Checking tasks’ checkboxes brings a feeling of forward momentum throughout the day. Completing (and dropping!) entire projects delivers an extra boost, causing whole rows of work to vanish in glory from your OmniFocus sidebar. When I don’t check myself, this pleasure in making things go away drifts inexorably into an adversarial relationship with my OmniFocus database, something not so much to complete as to defeat.

Seeing my inbox as a column of enemies to mow down may feel fun in the short term, but I try not to lean hard on this visualization — because it makes inboxing new items, or adding new tasks to an existing, evolving project, feel terrible. It makes the very act of planning feel like a step backwards, like fighting a boss-creature in a video game who keeps healing itself away from an end-point of ultimate victory.

Thinking of work as a foe to vanquish forever represents a category error, one whose impossibility to achieve can lead only to frustration. So long as I remain alive and healthy, I will have work to do — much of it, happily, of my own choosing, with a pace I set for myself. OmniFocus helps make this possible. To keep my use of it meaningful, I must see the act of capturing a task less as another burden to struggle against and throw off than as an investment, one which after some tending will sprout a profit of accomplishment, or wealth, or — yes, even just relief.

And that’s how I use OmniFocus today! I hope it proves at least as useful to me for another ten years.

* If that video looks a bit dated, note that it coincides with my adoption of OmniFocus. Watching it way back then did help me set my initial attitude towards the software and its use, and I expect that the talk still holds up today.

† I’m sure some OmniFocus fans get all meta about this, making a repeating project just for inbox-clearing! I personally don’t find that necessary. That little pale-blue stripe signifying unprocessed items in the Inbox tab feels like a pebble in my shoe, and I look forward to shaking it out.

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Photograph of an index card pinned to a corkboard. Written on it, in pencil, is the personal mission statement described near the end of this post.I learned the value of mission statements — super-succinct summaries of an entity’s raison d’être — while starting to organize the nonprofit I co-founded a couple of years ago. Since then, my application of mission statements has transformed and expanded, growing in steps from legal-document practicality to defining the heretofore unwritten goals of a long-lived group project, and finally to serving as a pocket-sized personal guide-star.

While I researched how to launch a nonprofit, all the better books I consulted agreed upon the ratification of a mission statement as a first step, something the would-be founders should accomplish before making any further major decisions about the nascent organization. This task has the founders unanimously agree upon a short statement of the nonprofit’s reason for existing, and then enshrining it such that it always sits in the sight-line for both themselves and any of their successors leading the nonprofit in the future.

Here is the mission statement of that nonprofit, standing today just as it did two years ago:

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF) helps ensure the ongoing maintenance, improvement, and preservation of the tools and services crucial to the creation and distribution of interactive fiction, as well as the development of new projects to foster the continued growth of this art form.

Half the magic of a well-implemented mission statement lies in how it defines, by omission, everything the nonprofit doesn’t do. A nonprofit that pursues every noble-sounding goal it sees, even ones that all its constituent members individually appreciate, would quickly lose all its focus to effectively accomplish anything at all. In IFTF’s case, we’ve several times passed on opportunities to help causes in the general sphere of interactive fiction that just wouldn’t fit in the intentionally narrow mission we gave the organization. Board members have quickly learned to say “that sounds great, but I’m not sure it would be on-mission” — and not to feel like an uncaring jerk while doing so.

This negative angle does include a happier corollary: when the board encounters a promising project proposal that does fit the mission, this compatibility often amplifies our interest in the idea into outright excitement. We’ll trip over each other to find the best ways that the organization can help realize it, confident that we’ve found something rare and good. That’s a healthy and meaningful mission statement working exactly as it should: as passive gatekeeper, and active energy-focus.

IFTF also follows the common pattern of other multiple-program nonprofits by dedicating volunteer committees to the oversight of its various ongoing public-service projects. Each of these committees has, at its core, a charter document, and each of these charter documents begins with a mission statement. Here for example, is the chartered mission for the IFComp committee:

IFTF’s IFComp Committee oversees the operation of the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (“the Competition”). Its membership at any given time includes the Competition’s current organizers as well as its official advisors. As a group, they have the power to set the Competition’s year-by-year direction and definition.

It works for bringing a group of volunteers together under a common cause, which is all the charter cares about. However, this statement doesn’t have much to say about IFComp itself! This is why a year ago, around the same time I decided to make 2017 the final year I’d run IFComp before passing the responsibility along, I led an effort to define a separate mission statement specifically for the competition.

In retrospect, this represented a turning point for me in my view and usage of these things. Prior to this, I helped craft mission statements to affix to legal entities because of an external expectation that they exist. My proposal to add one to IFComp, however, came entirely self-directed, and only during my fourth year as its organizer. After my experiences with IFTF, a project of IFComp’s complexity and teamwork suddenly struck me as quite naked in lacking a mission statement, even though it had managed without one for its prior 22 years.

And once I had proposed it, the whole IFComp committee took this task seriously! After some weeks of discussion in email and chat, we produced the following mission statement, which now heads the competition’s About page:

The Annual Interactive Ficton Competition (IFComp) welcomes all kinds of text-driven digital stories and games, making them freely available in order to encourage the creation, play, and discussion of interactive fiction.

I like it.

Finally, the idea to write a mission statement for myself didn’t occur to me until the start of this year. (This may have flowed naturally from my official passing-along of IFComp duties with the turn of the calendar’s page.) I know very well that I have hardly invented the idea of personal mission statements; in fact, I likely drew on my dim memories of their description in Stephen Covey’s First Things First, read decades ago on a mentor’s advice.

So some day in late January, I set some time aside to draft something to replace my life-long pre-installed mission of “I wanna do stuff I like.” I did get as far as writing something down, at least:

Through study and toolmaking, I strive to foster the stability and growth of myself and my communities, in wealth, wisdom, and happiness.

As I type it out again a few weeks later, it reminds me how it does not look fully baked yet. In particular, “study” feels like it’s doing a lot of work here. I decided at the time that it covers reading, blogging, gameplay, podcast production… just about all my interactions with culture, really, and honestly that seems overloaded. And the rest feels a tad generic — who doesn’t want those things?

Still, a start. I liked it well enough to pencil it out on an index card and pin it to the corkboard on my office wall, per the photograph accompanying this article. I consider that a fine staging area, not as ephemeral as the whiteboard hanging beside it, but hardly permanent either. It has already proved its worth as a razor, encouraging me to cut away several ill-fitting projects I’d been dragging along for months. I can only keep it pinned at eye-level for now, and plan to revisit it later in the year for further sharpening.

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Bullwinkle the moose standing beside text reading 'The 2A Society'.The present mainstream understanding of the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment paraphrases to something like “All American citizens can carry guns around all they want, and use them however they please, and no part of the government may question this.” Quite recently, I have learned that this comes from a very specific interpretation of the original, oddly punctuated, and rather ambiguous sentence actually in the Constitution. Within my own lifetime, the NRA — once a society for hunting enthusiasts, radicalized into right-wing politics only in the 1970s — successfully crowded out any reading but this one, and in the process claimed private ownership of a front-page slice of my country’s foundational document. I want to see it taken it back from them.

The NRA, and its well-funded advocates in the current American government, are quick to redefine any suggestion to moderate the ownership, trade, or use of firearms in the most extreme terms, often as a direct challenge to the Constitution itself. No matter how mild the proposal, these advocates respond as if they heard only a demand to confiscate and ban all privately held guns forever. And too often, I see counter-responses from moderates that step right on into this baited frame, shifting into an argument that they can never win. One might start out, for example, with an argument to regulate gun use and ownership with universally available but mandatory licensing, just as we do with automobiles. But upon exposure to the old “Oh, so you want to ban all guns, then?” trap, they leap into its jaws, accepting the change of subject and reciting the low mortality statistics from countries that do practice restrictive gun bans. And that’s that conversation surrendered, with the NRA side not budged an inch.

I call upon the proponents of responsible gun ownership to ignore this frame entirely, and to present instead a new framing that moderate gun-rights supporters could reside in permanently. I propose that they, too, root their arguments in the Constitution, acknowledging the permanent presence of the second amendment and working with it rather than pushing against it. The NRA believes that they own the second amendment, and that they alone know its meaning. They are incorrect. The amendment itself is not the opposition here — it is those who would twist its antique and uncertain language towards their own, evil purposes.

As such, I would love to see a new and organized movement set itself against the NRA and its poisonous interpretation of this centuries-old set of 27 words, countering it with its own interpretation. I suggest “The 2A Society” as a possible name of this organization, making its subject matter clear, and directly denying the NRA’s claim as the second amendment’s sole reader or adjudicator.

The silly logo I threw together at the top of this article shows the mode I have in mind here. With a soupçon of self-aware humor, it draws on my personal connection with American hunting culture, an activity I never directly participated in but which I gained respect for through my many years as a moose-ensconced Mainer. I played around also with other iconography, drawing instead on my equal-parts Massachusetts heritage and manipulating a photo of a rifle-bearing Minuteman statue, overlaid with an Olde-Englishey typeface and situating everything within a five-pointed star. But I find that, more than such dully jingoist imagery, I prefer the lightness that a cartoon moose suggests, shining gently but steadily in the face of the NRA and its intentional miasma of darkness and despair.

(And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that this organization necessarily secure a license to use ol’ Bullwinkle per se. Please think of him here as a placeholder for an original character design. “Dewey, the 2A Moose,” perhaps…)

I am not the one to launch this movement, because I lack sufficient interest or investment in firearms ownership. I simply know from personal history that the United States is full of responsible gun owners who feel no alignment with the modern NRA’s message of fear and hate in service of greed — or its eager trade of countless childrens’ lives for freewheeling gun sales. And I know also that the American allies of such a “2A Society” would itself be vast in number, and I would count myself proudly among them.

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A photograph of a stained-glass window bearing an eye-in-the-pyramid symbol.

Received The Last Guardian from a thoughtful in-law for Christmas of 2016, but put off playing it for many months. I had played the two previous major works of Team Ico, and so shared the expectations about the game’s emotional ordnance that had preceded its release by several years. Given our family loss immediately after the holiday, my wife and I did not feel ready to face this game, which centrally features an enormous, cat-like companion that we knew we’d unavoidably feel a real bond with — because Ueda and company are very, very good at what they do. We knew also that this would make ourselves vulnerable to real-enough sympathetic trauma, far too soon.

We made the right choice. The Last Guardian simulates the entire emotional journey of life with an adopted pet, accelerated to video-game speed, and with its natural drama and danger inflated proportionally to match the creature Trico’s two-story height. To accomplish this, it presents not just a believably simulated animal, but an illusory animal mind, and then requires the player to build their own heterophenomenology of it — their own internalized model of the creature’s subjective world, in order to communicate well enough across the human-animal barrier to navigate the objective game-world together. It succeeds so well. I’d never experienced any fantasy quite like it before.

Your journey with Trico takes you from initial wariness through growing trust as you both gradually explore how you complement one another beyond merely trading amusement for food. (Granted, there is that, too!) This carries low moments along with the high ones. The shared pain when the pet gets hurt, the worry when it gets sick. The animal surprising you with its own kind of concern and sympathy when you fall ill or injured. The frustration when, no matter how strong your bond may become, you find things you just can’t communicate to the companion who has put all its trust in you, and do your best to cope. It’s all effectively represented here, and I found myself extremely willing to believe in the mind of the enormous, cold-nosed, muscular Trico, his thoughts slow, earthy, but undeniably present.

Once it forges the link between beast and boy — and, by extension, to the player as well — all the game’s emotional high and low notes feel stunningly amplified as they reverberate along that bond. In-game moments of pain and fear cause real anxiety, exactly as we’d expected. This applies even to minor beats: whenever the boy needs to slip out of Trico’s view for a bit, the creature howls its worry at the separation, and my partner and I in our living room would act exactly as we would if our cat started had moaning two rooms away. In fact, we — I, especially — would semi-consciously talk to Trico constantly, reassuring him (and his big soft wet eyes) when we re-appeared, and singing the food-food song I used to sing for Ada whenever the boy returned bearing a treat for him. (There is, in fact, an in-game “pet Trico” verb, always available but mechanically necessary at certain parts of the story, and I dare any player to not vocally soothe the on-screen creature while using it to calm him.)

The game increases the emotional stakes in the early mid-game when it becomes clear that Trico had suffered abuse earlier in his life. Even as I type this I feel a lurch of emotion to recall this realization dawning on me, gradually, over the first hours of play, and we found ourselves learning to recognize and work around the animal’s trauma-remembrance triggers. I remember, too, the disgusted outrage I felt when the game’s villains start to actively exploit these triggers against poor Trico, and the angry triumph that welled up when he and I would find ways to fight back.

Due to all this, we needed at least six months of calendar-time to proceed through the whole game, even though the experience involves a few dozen hours of gameplay at most. My wife and I would push ahead in Trico’s world, with all its strains and obstacles, until the cumulative stresses stacked up to a shatteringly fragile degree. And then we’d take a few weeks off. Trico would wait for us, and greet us with relief when we felt ready to return, and we’d venture on a ways further.

As dizzying as its low points get, the game’s emotional high points soar. The fantastic setting allows for a literal spin on the classic “Who rescued who?” animal-adption bumper sticker, with more than one moment where you reach for Trico in desperation, and he reaches back with teeth or tail to pull the boy to safety. Besides these incidents, though, the game’s ongoing proof of its central human-animal bond serves also as perhaps the game’s most underappreciated facet: The Last Guardian contains the finest verisimilitude for riding an animal that I’ve had the pleasure to play.

While the little player-character can clamber around on Trico’s thickly feathered back from the get-go, he gains the ability to direct the big animal’s movements only later in the mid-game. And I mean direct literally: you can tell Trico where to go, though voice and gesture cues (themselves generated by certain stick-and-button combinations), but it’s up to Trico how — or, indeed, whether — to interpret your instructions.

If you tell Trico to trot across a wide room or down an open corridor, he will generally pad along in the direction indicated. But request a more complicated or dangerous maneuver, and Trico takes his time. Not out of stubbornness, though it may seem that way at first. Trico will look in the direction the boy points, and flick his ears, and pause. Maybe he’ll sit on his haunches for a bit, while considering the flying buttress or crumbling pillar you’re asking him to leap atop. But then: he shuffles to a calculated position, bunches up his muscles, and launches, carrying the whooping boy who grips his pelt, and (usually) sticking a graceful landing.

After a while, I came to feel like I knew how to not so much drive as accompany Trico through the stony, airy fortress that you together pick your way across and up. This experience felt worlds different not just from the many in-game sections where the boy must climb and jump around by himself (while Trico watches, groaning in worry), but from literally every game I’ve ever played where the player-character mounts a horse and proceeds to treat it like a jeep made of meat. In other video games, mounting a horse (or a dragon, or a war-bear, or what have you) instantly re-wires the controller directly into the brain and muscle of the animal, and you proceed to simply trundle it around effortlessly. Guardian’s approach of keeping the controls always focused on the boy, even during times when Trico carries him, reinforces the game’s core theme of animal companionship. It de-emphasizes control in favor of communication, of the certain kind of communion that only happens between a bonded human-and-animal pair.

The Last Guardian asks a lot of trust of its player, for a level of emotional investment that leaves the player feeling uncannily vulnerable. By the end of the game, I felt very glad I gave it my trust, even as I also felt glad for waiting until I stood on firmer emotional footing in real life.

A photograph of Ada, a tuxedo-patterned cat, starkly lit and looking patiently at you.

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Photograph of a broken toy robot, lying in the grass.This post contains spoilers.

Because I had let praise for the game burn for most of a year in my social-media circle prior to trying it myself, I knew about Nier: Automata’s final consequence many gameplay-hours before encountering it. While the event itself therefore didn’t surprise me, I did find myself disappointed at how loosely coupled the whole epilogue seemed when set against the preceding hours and hours gameplay. I awoke the next morning unexpectedly angry about it all. A little bit of introspection explains and dispels the latter reaction, but the deeper dissatisfaction lingers, a flaw endemic to the way I mishandled my approach to this brokenly beautiful and deeply strange video game.

Clearing the anger away, first: common knowledge tells us that the act of smiling, or raising one’s gaze off the gray pavement and towards the brighter sky, can improve one’s immediate mood a little bit. The brain, perhaps, observes the body as it displays the effect of happiness, and so it retroactively generates a little happy-feeling in order to make it sensible. Just so, when I thought of seeing all my saved progress in Nier get deleted in slow-motion the previous evening, screen by screen and line by line, my self-observer figured I must have done so in a pique of rage. Dutifully, it served up a steaming platter of disgusted anger with the game, even though I never felt that way while actually playing it! I knew this would fade in time, but for the whole morning I seethed, wishing I could delete the game more: from my memories, from the universe, for all time.

With that having burned itself away, I can now fall back to my original disappointment with the ending and epilogue. Considered by itself, I did enjoy the final end-credits bullet-hell shootout, and its unexpected twist where gradually accumulating messages of international encouragement lead to assistance from the helpful ghosts of these past players. (While I knew about the final deletion, I didn’t know the specifics of the path that led to it.)

This experience ties in solidly with the oddball main-game mechanic where, Dark Souls-ishly, you continuously stumble across crumpled android bodies representing other internet-connected Nier players who’d recently hit a game-over nearby. Besides looting their stuff, you can “pray” for them to give them a small in-game bonus. (As with actual prayers, you never receive any feedback about this, and must take it on faith that the game actually does anything at all with your kind thoughts.) Further, each corpse offers a little “death poem” about its predicament, assembled by its player, and you yourself can compose these when you fall in battle. It’s a wonky-fun way to connect with otherwise unseen Nier players around the world, and the epilogue harkens back to this by inviting you to assemble from similar menus a one-line encouragement (or discouragement, or dismissal of the game as a piece of crap) displayed to players struggling through the final challenge.

However, other than a single line of incidental dialogue, nothing else in the game interacts with or even acknowledges this respect-the-dead mechanic. No other characters remark on the lifeless bodies littering every part of the landscape, whether desert wasteland or treetop village, much less suggest the value of tidying them up. And the game doesn’t acknowledge this lack of acknowledgment, either; it treats the phenomenon as an external projection onto the world’s surface, invisible and insubstantial to all but the player. Now, I didn’t mind this while playing the core game; it seemed just another oddity in a game so rattlingly full of oddities, a game which like my beloved Deadly Premonition stuffed so much enthusiasm and variety into its casing that I felt quite willing to overlook the visible seams. But that the game’s ultimate ending, the note that it chooses to leave us on (and permanently), would choose this particular loosey-goosey mechanical aspect over anything else in the story, the characters, or the world they inhabited? It seemed so strange to me, and unsatisfying.

When I asked for comment on Twitter, friends who love the game argued that its ending connected strongly to the work’s other overall themes. I can only defer to them here, due to my other major difficultly with Nier: the characters and the anime-style melodrama arcing between them are so very stylized and abstract that I had a lot of trouble feeling connected to any of it myself, much less personally invested. I assume much of this comes from my bringing Western prejudices and expectations to a work that would prefer I approach it a little less concretely, with more of an appetite for style and suggestion than concrete exposition.

As time passes — even just a day or two — I already feel myself softening a bit towards some of Nier’s peculiar design and aesthetic choices. For example, I hungered from the start to know more about the main characters’ striking appearance, especially their bizarre costuming: deadly katana-wielding battle-androids who resemble porcelain-skinned teenagers dressed in gothic lolita fashion, all flowing black skirts and high heels. The civilian groups they mingle with comprise adult men and women dressed practically in drab earth-tones, marking the protagonists as quite odd-looking within the game’s world as well, even though nobody in that world ever remarks on the difference.

I couldn’t help but let myself expect some future plot discovery that would reveal their basis on their forgotten inventor’s beloved childhood dolls, charged with personal meaning — or perhaps the same inventor’s tragically lost children. But: the game provides no explanation at all! My seeking “sense” in why 2B and 9S look like Harajuku teens posing for tourists’ Instagram feeds represents me bringing an entirely incompatible frame to my reading.

If I let go of taking everything so goddamn literally for a second, I can start to make some pleasantly loose but real thematic connections between the costumes and the larger setting. I do love Nier’s depiction of a city some centuries after humanity’s extinction, the tall gray buildings reclaimed long since reclaimed by green, tenacious nature. It is haunting, and beautiful, and lonely and sad too. And viewed in that light — mixing with the android warriors’ self-deceiving mission based on their inability to accept their forebears’ death — 2B’s black dress starts to seem positively funerary, mourning raiments for a dead world, even as new life continues to thrive all around her.

So, that’s cool. I like that. And I like other individual aspects of this game too: the unexpected turn into deeply traumatic horror that 9S’s story takes, and the bleak humor found in various interactions and side-quests involving the “machine lifeforms”. But Nier: Automata presents so much of its overall narrative and theme through profoundly stylized abstraction, with the costuming serving as only the most obvious surface example. I’m afraid I just did a bad job processing most of it. While I felt fine just letting it pull me along for the ride during my dozens of hours chewing through the main game, by the time the ending reached out to make its amazing personal and emotional connection that had so deeply affected my friends, it mostly passed right through me. I expect I may appreciate the game, ending gimmick and all, more in memory (while also enjoying the irony of that, I suppose). But I regret missing out on any more immediate appreciation — and, as such, I find it hard to not to feel today a little regret about investing as much time and attention into the game as I did.

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ALTI know of Oliver Sacks’s work through a somewhat oblique angle, mainly through his many guest appearances on Radiolab (consistently one of my favorite podcasts over the last ten years). It was through Radiolab that I heard about his terminal illness in 2015, and his death soon after. A recent episode focused on how he spent his final months writing, writing feverishly, every moment that he could. If I understand correctly, this resulted in three posthumously published books — a memoir, a farewell, and The River of Consciousness, Sacks’s final collection of popular-science essays. The Radiolab episode mentioned the latter by name, and so I read it last month.

River does not make its connective theme obvious, though it assures us that it does contain a deliberate arrangement; its preface, written by one of Sacks’s colleagues, relates how the doctor prescribed the order of the book’s contents two weeks before his passing. The essays do share a common interest in the creative self (to borrow the title of one consituent article), a study of how the best work we make comes not just through focus and study on some topic, but also allowing ourselves to put things down for a time, to always investigate new interests, and check that our old assumptions still hold — while also minding that we don’t forget them entirely.

The book’s initial essays give us miniature biographies for two of Sacks’s personal heroes, focusing attention on the lesser-known parts of their careers. Two articles concern Darwin’s long life after On the Origin of Species’s first edition, where he continued his self-motivated studies in biodiversity, often recruiting his ever-growing brood of children as co-investigators. He published book after book, and at the same time never ceased to revisit and revise Origin, the masterpiece of his youth, into new editions. Sacks writes too of Freud’s initial career as a neurologist, and the author of at least one groundbreaking study in that field, prior to starting his foundational dig into psychoanalysis. Sacks maps out how the latter calling, while both distinct from the earlier one and also utterly eclipsing it, still grew out of Freud’s years of thorough exploration of a neighboring topic before inspiration and intuition drove him in new directions.

Running through the book’s midsection is its title essay, an informed speculation on an apparent paradox revealed in the study of human consciousness that I read with great interest, especially after my only recent digestion of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained from 1991; I welcomed this survey of more current research on the subject. Essays on the banks of River’s “River” include observations both personal and professional on the nature of everyday cognitive failures regarding mishearing, misperception, and migraines. And then “The Creative Self” relates many examples from the scientific literature — as well as Sacks’s own experiences — that suggest the mind’s ability to fork off a “hibernating” sub-self to continue working on interesting problems below the level of consciousness, their solutions bubbling up in brightness when one least expects it. Sacks ends this essay on such a high note, celebrating the rare moments when this creative self, prize in its jaws, returns and re-merges with his own conscious self — a state he identifies, simply, as his best self.

After a reprinting of the subtle and poignant “A General Feeling of Disorder” — serving as the one overt nod in this book to its author’s imminent mortality — River ends on a warning that struck me as something like Sacks’s own, short and focused version of Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. In the last essay of his final book, Sacks admonishes the reader to beware the scotoma in scientific research — here using the clinical term for gaps in an individual’s perception that originate in the brain, such that the person isn’t conscious of what they can’t see. Sacks describes the startling ease with which scientific discoveries, even published ones, can slip away forgotten for years, decades, or longer. It reminded me of women like Rosalind Franklin who didn’t receive timely recognition for their own work, but Sacks here writes of a broader phenomenon here that doesn’t necessarily happen due to willful ignorance or intentional suppression. Rather, knowledge needs to circulate to stay current. If a publication doesn’t catch on and find a home among the broader scientific community, then all the information it contains, no matter how true and valuable, will necessarily pass into darkness. This occurs whether the information gets blocked by opponents, or merely fails to thrive due to an accident of unlucky timing.

The fact this happens anyway, even despite best intentions, means that diving into the archives from time to time in search of lost knowledge remains a valuable skill for any researcher, one that Sacks himself exploited many times during his long career. And that’s the note he leaves us on.

As is very much anyone’s right after decades of authorship, Sacks peppers all his essays liberally with references to his earlier writing. I allowed myself to let this justify the pleasure I feel when I link within my blog posts to my own ever-growing history of online writing, however infinitely less interesting or relevant it may be. In particular, River contains a multitude of callbacks to 1970s’ Migraine, and to a lesser extent The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The latter appears to serve as Sacks’s most well-known book, and I’ve already begun reading and enjoying it for the first time, however odd it feels to read the voice of the same author from 30 years earlier.

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