Author Archives: Mike

2002-01-00: GTD

I started trying to apply David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” principles about 15 years ago (I’m writing this in March 2017), with imperfect results. His approach is oriented to executives and managers, but there is plenty of advice on the web to simplify it. I generally think it’s a good approach, and I recommend it. Here’s my take-away:

The key is to have a trusted system (e.g., a paper notebook or a computer application) that holds everything you need to get things done. The main point is: as soon as you find something that needs to be done, if you can’t do it in the next couple of minutes, get it into your trusted system (i.e., an inbox). Then you can stop worrying about trying to remember it, and trust that you’ll be reminded in a timely way. Just this simple principle is a great stress-reducer.

Around this notion, Allen recommends a workflow of five main steps (some refinements are possible; check his book for details, or find web resources):

  1. Collect (Inbox, etc)
  2. Process (actionable? next action?)
  3. Organize (add actions to lists)
  4. Review (daily: actions;  weekly: lists;  monthly/quarterly: projects;  annually: goals)
  5. Do (actions by context, priority, time, energy)

In my attempt to apply the GTD approach, I tried the following:

  1. Documented some life goals
  2. Identified some projects that support those goals
  3. Identified tasks that would move the projects forward (in a. spreadsheet named ProjectsTasks)
  4. Prioritized and tracked accomplishment of tasks in monthly reviews

I haven’t been entirely successful in executing this program, but I still think it’s worthwhile to be aware of the approach, and try to adapt it as much as makes sense. The links above are to some additional posts that expand on aspects of the approach as I was trying to apply it.




2017-03-0: Beyond the Northlands

Beyond the Northlands

Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas (2016)

by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough (-)


The sagas are an interesting mix of historically-based story-telling and fantasy, hard for a modern reader to understand without knowing their manner of composition and context. The “Vikings” are thoroughly stereotyped in most people’s minds, to the extent that the actual roles of the Norse in history is little known to most of us. Barraclough does an admirable job of putting all of this into a coherent picture.

One of her points is that succeeding versions of saga stories were reinterpreted to reflect the culture in which they were refined. Of course, this interests me because it is exactly what I am doing with Njal’s Saga (Neal’s Story). Her writing is vivid and full of humor. I can recommend this book to anyone with an interest in any aspect of the Vikings or sagas. It might be interesting to send her a copy of Neal’s Story.

I particularly liked the part on the West, primarily Greenland. Coincidentally, just after reading it, the Smithsonian Associate magazine (March 2017) had an article describing the latest research on the nature and fate of the Greenland colonies.



2017-02: Monthly review

NS: began making map to show relative locations of ranches and certain landmarks that figure in the story, e.g., waterways.

ISTRA: contacted Western Livestock Journal to inquire about archives. They’re at Colorado State University library in Fort Collins. Unfortunately, 1931 is missing. Still might find something interesting. Archivist Linda Meyer sent link to CO newspapers: which looks interesting.

Retirement: decided to move up start of SS benefit.

Finances: started trial of to see if budget, etc functions are worthwhile.

< Previous

Next >


2017-02-01: Digital legacy

Inspired by Joe Kissel’s book Take Control of Your Digital Legacy, this is a project to structure and record the data necessary to allow Susan, Chris or someone else to find and make use of the digital aspects of my legacy, and Susan’s. This includes:

  • Financial accounts
  • Photos
  • This “backlog”
  • Other websites under my DreamHost account (for and castle
  • Details of the published works under Castle Knob, including CreateSpace, Kindle and Smashwords, and including J Verl Silvester’s CS account for Code of the West
  • Notes for updated will(s)
  • Projects in progress, that might be taken over or finished by someone else





2017-02-02: Eagles/Kids

This would be a sculpture, along the lines of Swimmin’ Hole – Polliwogs. The scene would be set with a couple of kids on the swings, another waiting his turn, and another flying through the air having just “bailed out”. The quirk is that kids in flight, or just taking off (and maybe landing) are shown as eagles, or transitioning between kid and eagle.


2017-02-02: The End

This is an idea for a series of short stories, inspired by a remark made to me by a colleague at Unisys circa 1993. The remark was by John ?, a Texan who always wore western-style coats and cowboy boots, to the effect that if he learned he had a terminal disease, he would “take out” certain bad people. I think he had mafia types in mind, rather than political assassination, but it’s impossible to be sure now.

Anyway, the notion could serve as the premise for a series of stories involving different people in a retirement/nursing/hospice setting who “catch the meme” from one of their community, and separately carry out various schemes with various kinds of targets.


2017-02-02: Saved By Aliens!

This is just an idea, perhaps already done by someone else.

At a conference of astronomers, held at a time when society is going to hell in a handbasket (i.e., much like today), two astronomers hatch a scheme to convince earth’s leaders that they have detected an alien vessel heading for earth, apparently decelerating to stop in our vicinity in several years time. The hope is that this news will result in global cooperation to meet the impending crisis.

2017-02-02: Gant’s Woman

Besides Harry Gant’s manuscript for I Saw Them Ride Away, he left a rougher set of pages on the subject of women. I haven’t yet read the whole thing, but the bits I have read seem promising. Someone (Susan volunteered) needs to transcribe the text. Then Castle Knob’s crack team of editors needs to assess the viability of the project and create a plan for developing a publishable work.

The manuscript is in one of the large plastic file boxes that also contain photos and other material of Gant’s.

2017-01-27: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (2006)

by Janna Levin (1967-)

This novel (which I noticed due to her Black Hole Blues) is about two giants of 20th century mathematics: Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. By coincidence, I watched The Imitation Game (also about Turing) after I checked this out from the library, but before I read it.

I already knew the basics about Turing’s life, but practically nothing about Gödel’s. Though Turing’s life had a lot of sadness and ended sadly, at least he was happy when he was doing his best work. The impression from this book is that Gödel was pretty miserable most of his life.

I found the book interesting, but I would not recommend it unless you already have an interest in one or both of the subjects.

2017-01-27: Black Hole Blues

Black Hole Blues

and Other Songs from Outer Space (2016)

by Janna Levin (-)

This is a very interesting description of the long process of developing the first instrument to detect gravitational waves. At its core it is the story of Ron Drever, Rainer Weiss, and Kip Thorne; these are the three men who are likely to receive the Nobel Prize for this work. Levin finished the main part of the book as the instrument was on the verge of its first observations, and added a section describing them.

I especially liked chapter 6, which I asked Susan to read. It is really about about science in general, and the ways scientists work.

I was impressed enough with Levin’s work that I read two other books: How The Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

2017-01-27: Other Minds

Other Minds

The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016)

by Peter Godfrey-Smith (1965-)

Godfrey-Smith has a lot of experience observing and interacting with cephalopods, and says:

Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.

He describes the background behind the evolution of nervous systems and brains, and the behavior and mental capabilities of octopuses. He makes a decent case for intelligence in octopuses. Along the way he describes many of the general characteristics that support consciousness in our brains; presumably a creature with some of these characteristics would have some form of subjective experience. It would be like something to be one of these creatures.

The evolutionary investment in a large nervous system and relatively large brain has to have had a favorable cost/benefit ratio. Near the end he surprises us with the news that this investment resides in animal with a typical lifespan of only two years.

In chapter 6, in the section “Conscious Experience”, he describes the “inner workspace” theory, which assumes that the content of consciousness is the sensory and derived information that is the subject of attention at any moment. This is related to the inner-speech phenomenon. He also describes higher-order thought (“thought about your own thoughts”), such as “Why am I in such a bad mood?” or “I hardly noticed that car.” I would add that thought about others’ thoughts is also a key aspect of our conscious experience. One of the limitations of the octopus is that they are not social; they probably have no mental representation of the thoughts of other octopuses.

In the section “Full Circle”, he splits the term afference (meaning the inputs to the brain, contrasted with efference for the outputs) into two parts: exafference meaning the inputs that are caused by the outside world; and reafference meaning the inputs that are due to our own actions, as when a movement of our head affects the visual appearance of the world. The feedback loops involved are parts of the mental mechanism that underlies subjective experience. As an example he discusses writing a note for yourself; at some future time that note will become an input that will affect your behavior.

There is a lot of interesting information about octopuses and cuttlefish (not much about squid), which is quite interesting. There is also a good deal about the evolutionary path to subjective experience, which I found even more interesting.


1995-06-00: Uncle Nikki’s

The date of this event is uncertain; it was definitely during the summer of one of the early years of Prince Georges Stadium.

Susan and I attended a Bowie Baysox minor league baseball game at Prince Georges Stadium. We arrived fairly early, and the guy in charge of promotions asked if I would like to participate. Four people participated in the contest. If the Baysox hit a home run, the first one would win something; if the Baysox hit two home runs, the second would win something, and so on. If the Baysox hit four home runs, I would win a free dinner at Uncle Nikki’s in Bowie (a restaurant I had never been to).

As the game wore on, our interest flagged a bit (as it often does at baseball games), but after a while, the Baysox had three home runs, and three people had been honored by having their names appear on the left-field scoreboard. Now we were stuck: if we left, we wouldn’t be able to collect our prize in the event of another home run. To make it worse, the Baysox were three runs behind going into the bottom of the ninth. The crowd was pretty sparse by this time.

Well, the Baysox managed to load the bases, and had two outs. The last batter of the game came to the plate and the faithful few remaining watched in anticipation. Two strikes, and we’re ready to leave, when the batter hit a grand slam home run. The ball had barely cleared the left field wall, when the scoreboard lit up with “CONGRATULATIONS MIKE BLACKSTONE!”. The promo guy found us quickly, and gave us our coupons.

Not long after this, we went to Uncle Nikki’s, which turned out to specialize in catfish. It was a nice meal, but the story was even better.




2016-12: Monthly review

I made 2,016 miles in 2016! About 145 hours on the bike, moving and stationary.

We went to Shoreline for Christmas with Chris, Grant and Ren (and Grandot, Dina, Lew, Linda, Blythe, Garth, Joni, Laura and Laura’s son AJ). Ren played a lot of Monument Valley on my iPhone.

I downloaded the latest version of OpenCyc (4.0) and found it runs with no changes on MacOS with Java 1.7. I plan to start the tutorials, but many of the documentation links on are broken. Some documentation is available through an old MIT course site.

At the Browns, someone mentioned “The Orphan Train”, a book based on a mid-1800’s custom of sending trains full of orphans from easter cities to the mid-west, where they were sold to farmers as laborers. This reminded me that Harry Gant’s grandfather was said to have been adopted in Iowa in that time frame. It might be interesting to see if there is any evidence he was in that “migration”.

< Previous

Next >





2016-11: Monthly review

November was dominated by Disney World. We had a great trip with Ren, Chris and Grant, and with Carl and Renee. It was fun seeing Carl repeat experiences he had had with Chris at the same age. Ren was very good, with only one melt-down after a couple of long days.

I resumed work on Barbara’s snow globe project. It’s nearly finished.

While working on organizing my files as part of the migration to my new computer, I re-read the summary document of Mom, Gary, Dina and my emailed reminiscence in 2002. I mentioned it to Susan, and she suggested putting it into a book. She found a suitable picture for the cover, and within two days it was formatted and ready for review. After a couple rounds of review/update using CreateSpace’s digital proof facility, I ordered four hardcopy proofs, three for gifts (Mom, Dina, and Chris). They arrived quickly and are ready for giving. I won’t publish it.

I purchased PowerPhotos, and intend to use it to manage our pictures in the Photos app on the Mac.

I’ve been using my old Sirrus on the training stand, and am on track to get over 2,000 bike miles this year. Chris suggested making my goal 2,016 miles for 2016.

< Previous

Next >


2016-12-03: Sapiens


A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

by Yuval Noah Harari (1976-)

Sapiens has a very large scope: the entire history, and some of the future, of humankind.It is largely about the various revolutions (in the broad sense) that have created and changed humankind. Harari points out the effects of each revolution, including how it didn’t necessarily improve the lot of humans.

In the introduction, he provides a Timeline of History:

  • 13.5G ya (years ago) – Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.
  • 4.5G ya – Formation of planet Earth.
  • 3.8G ya – Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
  • 6M ya – Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
  • 2.5M ya – Evolution of genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
  • 2M ya – Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia.
  • 500k ya – Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
  • 300k ya – Daily use of fire.
  • 200k ya – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.
  • 70k ya – The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language. Beginning of history. Sapiens spread out of Africa.
  • 45k ya – Sapiens settle in Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.
  • 30k ya – Extinction of Neanderthals.
  • 16k ya – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.
  • 13k ya – Extinction of Homo floresiensis. Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.
  • 12k ya – The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements.
  • 5k ya – First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.
  • 4,250 ya – First empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
  • 2,500 ya – Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India -a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.
  • 2,000 ya – Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
  • 1,400 ya – Islam.
  • 500 ya – The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.
  • 200 ya – The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
  • The Present – Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
  • The Future – Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? Homo sapiens is replaced by super humans?

Harari starts with the Cognitive Revolution, the developments in the mental organization and capabilities that distinguish Sapiens from other humans, and from other animals. He is a bit vague about the exact nature of these developments, but emphasizes language, and its utility in spreading information about the world, about the relationships among members of a group (i.e., gossip), and about things that do not actually exist (e.g., spirits, tribes and races, human rights, corporations). The only domestic animal known prior to the Agricultural Revolution was the dog, at least 15k ya. Trade among different groups was primarily in prestige items such as shells, amber and pigments. “There is no evidence that people traded staple goods like fruits and meat, or that the existence of one band depended on the importing of goods from another.” People living in these times probably worked less than six hours a day, foraging or hunting. They had practically no chores, except to maintain their clothing, hunting/foraging, cooking and housing materials. For those who survived their first few years, they could live to their sixties. They had a varied and nutritious diet. They weren’t exposed to the pathogens carried by domestic animals, and suffered less infectious diseases. On the other hand, they were subject to accidents and hardship, and conflict between neighboring groups when competition became too intense.

The Agricultural Revolution resulted in reliance on growing plant crops and confining certain animals, and the need to establish settlements. The average farmer worked harder than foragers, and had a worse diet. The increased production of food expanded the constraints on population. Harari assigns blame: “The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.” Agricultural society includes specialized groups such as farmers and rulers, with various intermediary roles, and with uneven allocation of production. The resulting lifestyles for the farmers are not an improvement over foraging, but the process was a gradual ratcheting up of small changes, with no non-revolutionary way to unwind it. Another effect of this revolution was an expansion of time horizons. Foragers might look ahead a season or a year. Farmers and their rulers looked forward and back several years or even decades, seeing the result of the work prior years building projects (e.g., houses, irrigation systems, public works), and planning new ones.


Harari emphasizes the role of myths in organizing a society, by which he means not just pagan religious mythology, but also such myths as the rule of law and the belief in human rights. These myths support an imagined order, and must be installed by indoctrination. Three factors prevent people from realizing that the order is imaginary:

  1. Embedding the order in the visible, tangible world through symbols and rituals.
  2. Shaping our desires, for possessions, entertainment, experiences and relationships.
  3. It is inter-subjective, the result of beliefs (memes) shared by the vast majority of members of a society.

Agricultural society required a persistent way to organize surplus production. This was enabled by the invention of script, which originally supported accounting (i.e., mostly addition and subtraction), and later expanded to support general-purpose writing and mathematics. Money, an abstract but tangible representation of purchasing power, was invented for this purpose.

Harari spends many pages describing the expansion of agricultural society and the resulting empires. It’s mostly quite interesting.

Harari characterizes the Scientific Revolution in three parts:

  1. Admission of ignorance, and the possibility of disproving a belief
  2. Observation and modeling (e.g., with mathematics)
  3. Using theories to develop new abilities, and new abilities to develop new theories

The Scientific Revolution led to the notion of progress, fueled by the application of new abilities to economic or political goals. The worldwide enterprise of science doesn’t set its own priorities, but is funded by others with their own objectives. The interaction of science and money led to economic growth and capitalism. Capitalism is based on trust, and before the notions of progress and growth, no one would extend much credit because there was no expectation that things would improve enough to collect on the credit. The industrial revolution is an aspect of the Scientific Revolution.

Harari wraps up with two discussions: one on happiness, and one on the future of Sapiens as a species. Both are interesting, if a little depressing.


2016-10: Monthly review

Computer: I bought a Mid-2015 MacBook Pro 15″ (16GB RAM, 500GB SSD, AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics). I’ve arranged with Carl to store backups at his house.

Work: I retired on 10/28! The team at Estimation Program Office and some other colleagues gave me a nice send-off (Chevy’s) and made a VERY generous donation to Qhubeka / World Bicycle Relief.

I’ve applied for Medicare part B, and have to select a health insurance package by 12/14. After that, work-life will be over (hopefully). I intend to keep in touch with Dave and Rick, and have promised to help EPO with the Excel tools I developed. But barring an unpleasant financial surprise, I should now be able to focus on Susan’s and my personal projects.


< Previous

Next >



2016-10-21: Present Tense Storytelling

In a tips-for-better-story-telling article, Kat Boogaard recommended using present tense for more interesting stories, indicating that the tip applied both to verbal and written stories. In some commentary, Heather Yamada-Hosley had the following to say:

This can be true for IRL storytelling, but is absolutely not true for fiction. Unlike IRL, fiction relies on a narrator to present the events to the reader, in effect, making mere details into a performance. IRL, the speaker can take the place of the performance aspect, but in a novel, Present Tense hamstrings the narrator in several ways.

When I try to explain that Present Tense makes narrative sound more like exposition, denies the narrator the ability to condense and explain, forces the character to discover every tedious detail, makes scenic and other narrative introductions impossible, and blocks other narrative techniques that enhance the writer’s ability to convey the experience of the POV character’s events, I often get pushback examples of authors who have produced successful present tense novels, like, for example, Neal Stephenson. But IMHO, these novels succeeded in spite of being in present tense and not because of it.

There is also an intuitive but completely unfounded belief that Present Tense increases the sense of ‘immediacy’ in a story. But let’s consider that notion by examining the two most common POVs. One of the key differences between First Person POV and Third Person POV is that the former is told by the POV character from the story end, relating events as they recall they happened. This has the advantage of being more directly personal, in that we are directly in a single person’s mind. The reader does not have to switch emotional connections with characters and knows with deep understanding what the character feels and thinks. Assuming the storyteller is not unreliable, or noticeably more biased than a normal person, this provides a close emotional connection for the reader. But, First Person is distant in time. Intuitively, this would make First Person less immediate. The ‘current’ action is still described as though it just happened, but it is tempered and perhaps imperfectly remembered, so could seem a bit more distant. Third Person POV, on the other hand, is considered less close emotionally since the reader has to switch their emotional connection with each character POV change, but it is related just after events have occurred. ‘Current’ action in Third Person is told just after it happened.

But readers mentally adjust the action to whatever ‘current’ is for the story, distant for First Person or recent for Third Person. To the reader, ‘current’ is whatever they just learned. If you just learned your best friend had murdered someone a year ago, you would likely still react to this ‘news’ as strongly as if it had happened much more recently. Maybe there would be some difference if the difference was decades. But would it be any different if the murder occurred seconds vs minutes?

Changing from First Person to Third Person may make a story seem marginally more immediate since it is a change from the end of the story to recent events. But shaving a few seconds or less off to change from Third Person ‘just happened’ to Present Tense ‘happening now’ throws out a lot of narrative tools for no gain whatsoever.

A writer wanting the closeness of First Person without sacrificing any illusion of immediacy would be better off writing in Third Person, but with a single POV. Nothing in Third Person says that there must be multiple POVs or that the narrator cannot be the character looking back from a wiser time, just as First Person normally does.

I found these comments interesting, and expect to revisit them as I do more writing.


2016-10-15: The Forest Unseen

The Forest Unseen

A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012)

by David George Haskell (? – )

This is an excellent book for those interested in nature, in the tradition of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Haskell spends a year closely observing a very small patch of old-growth forest, and reporting what he sees, hears, smells, and feels. The book has around 40 chapters, each tagged with a date and a particular slice of the forest he sees: February 28th – Salamander; July 2nd – Fungi; November 21st – Twigs.

I found something interesting in every chapter, and in the theme running through them all: the interconnectedness of the web of life. A couple of passages I want to remember come from December 3rd – Litter, and from the Epilogue.

As he explores the forest’s leaf litter, dominated by fungi, and the interdependence among fungi, trees, and other species, he says:

… it is clear that the old “red in tooth and claw” view of the natural economy has to be updated. We need a new metaphor for the forest, one that helps us visualize plants both sharing and competing. Perhaps the world of human ideas is the closest parallel: thinkers are engaged in a personal struggle for wisdom, and sometimes, fame, but they do so by feeding from a pool of shared resources that they enrich by their own work, thus propelling their intellectual “competitors” onward. Our minds are like trees – they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.

After acknowledging Linnaeus and Leopold as his forebears he says this about the attraction of his close observation of his square meter “mandala”, and how many others in other environments might be observed:

We all differ in our ways of learning, so it is perhaps presumptuous of me to make suggestions for how to observe these mandalas But two insights from my experience seem worth sharing with those who would like to try. The first is to leave behind expectations. Hoping for excitement, beauty, violence, enlightenment, or sacrament gets in the way of clear observation and will fog the mind with restlessness. Hope only for an enthusiastic openness of the senses.

The second suggestion is to borrow from the practice of meditation and to repeatedly return the mind’s attention to the present moment. Our attention wanders, relentlessly. Bring it gently back. Over and over, seek out the sensory details: the particularities of sound, the feel and smell of the place, the visual complexities. This practice is not arduous, but it does take deliberate acts of the will.

The interior quality of our minds is itself a great teacher of natural history. It is here that we learn that “nature” is not a separate place. We to are animals, primates with a rich ecological and evolutionary context. By our paying attention, this inner animal can be watched at any time: our keen interest in fruits, meats, sugar, and salt; our obsession with social hierarchies, clans, and networks; our fascination with the aesthetics of human skin, hair, and bodily shapes; our incessant intellectual curiosity and ambition. Each one of us inhabits a storied mandala with as much complexity and depth as an old-growth forest. Even better, watching ourselves and watching the world are not in opposition; by observing the forest, Have come to see myself more clearly.

part of what we discover by observing ourselves is an affinity for the world around us. The desire to name, understand, and enjoy the rest of the community of life is part of our humanity. Quiet observation of living mandalas offers one way to rediscover and develop this inheritance.

Haskell has posted a gallery of photos from the site: