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What's in my bag of ideas? — Michael Ham


What's in my NOW?

April 6 · Issue #140 · View online

One interesting person shares the tangible and invisible things that are influencing the NOW — 3 physical, 2 digital, and 1 invisible.

I retired 20 years ago after a diverse career that included writing, programming (on the IBM 1401 using Autocoder and on the IBM 7044 using FORTRAN; decades later on the IBM PC using Forth), systems design, teaching, and marketing. I worked in mathematics, software, and educational and admissions testing. My undergraduate studies were at St. John’s College in Annapolis MD, whose Great Books program encouraged me to read and study as a lifelong practice. I later served as director of admission and tutor at the college.
My personal interests include cooking, reading, movies, Go, walking, and conversation. I follow David Hume’s advice to find “relish in the common occurrences of life, the right enjoyment of which forms the chief part of our happiness.”
I’m married and have two daughters, a son, and five grandsons.

My “bag” contains things I wish I had known when I was younger.
Early is important. Tom Gilb’s one-word rule has consistently proved invaluable. 
Set and achieve goals. Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People helped me through a bad case of burnout when I applied the book’s ideas. I also once found John Crystal’s Where Do I Go From Here With My Life? helpful.
Make tasks enjoyable. When a task is enjoyable, you don’t have to push yourself to do it. Spend some thought, effort, and even money to make necessary tasks enjoyable, particularly tasks done repeatedly, like exercise or cooking. To make walking enjoyable I tried distraction (audiobooks, music) but then decided to make the walk enjoyable in itself. For me, that solution was Nordic walking.
Shaving was once a boring, tedious, hateful chore, so for decades I had a beard. Then I decided to make shaving enjoyable, a great way to start each day, and nowadays I am clean-shaven. My guide explains how I did it; the basics are in this post.
Find pleasure in learning new skills. Learning is a common task, particularly learning new skills. Early stages can be frustrating (particularly for adults who mainly use skills they’ve long since mastered), so learning how to enjoy learning new skills is especially worthwhile.
Find pleasure in the little things of daily life — in your handwriting, for example. Many now have not learned good handwriting, but it’s easy to pick up as a new skill, and good handwriting is a pleasure for both writer and reader.
Learn how to edit your own writing. Robert Graves and Alan Hodge help you learn how to be The Reader Over Your Shoulder — how to read your writing as would a reader who lacks the context of your internal thoughts and intentions, who sees only the words on the page. The book’s excellent guidance includes examples (which you can download) that demonstrate the application of their rules and principles. 
Do not edit as you write. As Peter Elbow observes, writing should flow freely during creation. Trying to edit as you write leads to writer’s block. Edit after writing, and ideally after sleeping on it — let your unconscious mull it over, then edit. 
Include implicit spending in your budget. Suppose you buy a dishwasher. You pay for it (including installation) and now enjoy its benefits with your only ongoing expense being dishwasher detergent. That’s what I used to think, and I was repeatedly and mysteriously short of money. I had overlooked what I was implicitly spending each month. 
An average dishwasher costs $970 installed and has an average lifespan of 9.5 years. I finally realized that owning a dishwasher implied replacing it at some point — thus, owning a dishwasher implicitly involves spending (on average) $8.51 per month: $970 ÷ (9.5 years × 12 months). It’s easier to “spend” $8.51 each month (by putting it aside into savings) than to “suddenly,” “unexpectedly” have to pay $970.
Learn what to eat (and how to enjoy preparing it). A type 2 diabetic, I must exercise care in eating. For 5 years I followed a low-carb/keto diet, but a physician’s comment made me reconsider. I switched to a whole-food, plant-based diet and soon the doctor discontinued my meds. Like the vegan diet, a WFPB diet excludes meat, dairy, and eggs, but it also excludes both refined foods (sugar, flour, fruit juice (whole fruit is fine), etc.) and highly-processed foods manufactured from refined ingredients using industrial methods. For example, I now eat intact whole grain, not grain that’s been cut, polished, smashed, or pulverized. You can read what I’ve tried and learned. (Whatever your diet, it should satisfy the essential criteria for a good diet.)
Read a lot — and selectively. When I find myself repeatedly recommending a book, I add it to this list.
Play good games. Go/Weichi/Baduk has proved to be endlessly absorbing, and it’s especially good because its handicapping system makes every game closely fought, even between players of disparate abilities. And I wish in my youth I had played snooker instead of frittering my time away playing pool. 
What's in your ...?
We want to hear about unusual and unusually useful items that you have in your desk, bag, closet, fridge or where ever you keep things. It can be anything really: work bag, pantry shelf, beauty drawer, toolbox, etc. Start by sending an email to with a photo of the things in your chosen space (you can use your phone). If you get a reply from us, fill out the form. We’ll pay you $50 if we run your submission in our What’s in my …? newsletter and blog.
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