I’m in my 25th year of working from home as a freelancer, and over the years I’ve learned how to work productively, and how to avoid wasting (too much) time. A lot of people are suddenly discovering what it’s like to have to work from home temporarily.
Glenn Fleishman, a fellow author of Take Control books, has just released a free book with tips and advice on how to set up a home office, and how to get work done. Like me, Glenn has been working at home for years.
We’re in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. In the middle of a global viral outbreak, you were told or asked to work from home—and you’ve never or rarely had to be productive where you live before. What to do? We’re here to take at some stress out of your life with a new, free book that details how to set up a home office and balance work and home life for those not accustomed to it.
Did I say that the book is free?
In this book, you’ll learn more about how to:
Stake out a physical space, even if it involves setting up a curtain or moving a bookshelf
Pick or adjust a chair if you plan to sit
Figure out the right mic and headphones or speakers for your needs
Add a monitor for efficiency, or use software to turn an iPad or other devices into a second display
Stand while you work without necessarily investing in a new desk
Set working hours to avoid never being off the clock
Put up a sign or otherwise signify when you’re working to those around you
Invest a tiny amount or a lot into noise-canceling headphones or earbuds
Use videoconferencing to replace meetings and casual conversation you miss from an office
Adjust your expectations and that of your employer to how much work you can produce, initially and in the long haul
Take regular breaks to avoid burnout, but if you get in the zone, you can stay there, too
Juggle the simultaneous burdens of full-time home parenting with home working
This weekend, I started reading This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. He is a neuroscientist who had previously been a professional musician, and the book explores why we enjoy music and how it affects the brain.
It started off interestingly, showing that this was a book by a scientist exploring a topic in which he had personal experience. But then I got to a few areas where he made ridiculous statements, a couple of which were outlandish, and one that was just false. This showed that the book had not been fact checked, and made me wonder about everything else in it: if there were mistakes like this, they cast doubt on everything the author says.
The author was discussing the way information is stored in the brain, comparing it with the way data is stored on computers. He says:
People who work with image files all the time are able to look at the stream of 0s and 1s and tell something about the nature of the photograph—not at the level of whether it is a human or a horse, perhaps, but things like how much red or gray is in the picture, how sharp the edges are, and so forth. They have learned to read the code that represents the picture.
This is simply ridiculous. You cannot tell anything about the contents of any file from “the stream of 0s and 1s.” You could tell something about some types of files if you look at the hexadecimal interpretation of those 0s and 1s, but only if they contain metadata (such as the type of file, the creation date, etc.). There is nothing in a file that gives you any idea of its contents by simply looking at the raw data.
He doubles down shortly after the above statement:
Similarly, audio files are stored in binary format, as sequences of 0s and 1s. The 0s and 1s represent whether or not there is any sound at particular parts of the frequency spectrum. Depending on its position in the file, a certain sequence of 0s and 1s will indicate if a bass drum or a piccolo is playing.
I think the only polite thing that I can say is that this is fantastical. The idea that “a certain sequence of 0s and 1s” in any way suggests which instrument is playing, which note is played, or anything at all is ludicrous. Audio files are sampled 44,100 per second, meaning that in each second of music, there are 44,100 discrete segments, combined in “frames,” of audio data. Each of these frames of data contains an abstraction of the sound, and it is not broken up into sections for which instrument is playing, what note is played, etc. The fact that a scientist can write this, and that a publisher fact checked it, is literally beyond belief.
Finally, there’s this:
The research on the development of the first MRI scanners was performed by the British company EMI, financed in large part from their profits on Beatles records. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” might well have been titled “I Want to Scan Your Brain.
Alas, this is the kind of thing that, perhaps, one may have remembered hearing, but that a fact checker should have corrected. It was the CT scan that EMI developed; the history of the MRI is quite complex and took a long time to become a viable diagnostic tool. It began in the 1950s, and took a couple of decades to become useful.
It is beyond disappointing to read this sort of error. I know about these things, and was able to detect them, but I don’t know much about the other things – such as how the brain works – that the author discusses. So there’s no way of knowing whether he is correct, and I simply cannot read a scientific book with this doubt in my mind.
In early December, I decided that I wanted to spend some time reading a series of books. I’ve been reading mysteries and crime fiction for decades, and this is a genre where there are very long series, such as, for example, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, which ran for 40 volumes, until the death of the author. Unfortunately – and I’ll discuss this more later – his estate decided that it was worth containing novels with that character written by others. One of them was unfinished at his death, and his agent completed it, and there have been eight more since then, writing by Ace Atkins.
So I went back through the series that I enjoy, and decided to re-read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. I had read about a dozen of them, many years ago, but had not gone any further. So I decided to buy all of the books, a few at a time, and read them. I completed the first 23 novels (and one volume of the "complete collected short stories") in about two months, and put off reading the latest (or last) one until a few days ago. I thought that I would perhaps save that one for a time when I wanted to dip back into the character, but decided to complete the series.
What I didn’t know when I began re-reading these books is that the latest novel, Blue Moon, is the last one. Not really, though. It’s only the last one that Lee Child will write. He’s announced his retirement and is passing the series on to his brother, Andrew Grant. (Lee Child is a pen name of James Grant.) I have no real interest in reading books by a surrogate author, so I won’t be reading any more.
The Jack Reacher novels are light reads. They read quickly, and, in some cases, I was able to complete on in an evening. They are well plotted and well paced, but relatively simple in execution. Reacher is an interesting character, a man who roams, almost, as Child has said, like a knight errant. He helps damsels (and dudes) in distress, out of a code of honor that he learned in the military. He has no attachments, and never stays anywhere more than a few days, unless he’s in a novel. This is, of course, somewhat unrealistic, but it is similar to the way in westerns some stranger would come into town, then ride off into the sunset.
He’s a very big man: 6′ 5" tall, or nearly a foot taller than Tom Cruise who played him in two movies, and weighs 250 lbs. Because of this, fans of the series could not accept Cruise’s depiction, and a TV series is on the works for Amazon.
He is also a violent man, with the reptilian part of his brain often taking over. But he also has a propensity for meeting female cops – and sleeping with them – so, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his lack of fine traits, seems to make women swoon easily, even though he is often described as "ugly." But they know he won’t stay long, so his exploits – always tastefully written – are just punctuations to complex stories of crime and punishment.
The books follow Reacher after he leaves the Army, where he was an MP, and there are a couple of books that reach back to when he was still active in the military, including one which leads directly into the first book. His understanding of the military and his experience as an MP gives him a unique outlook on crime, and he is a believable character.
in the first novel, Child writes a lot in an almost Hemingwayesque style. Which he later drops. Though it comes back again at times. While that style may work with the character, it’s a bit frustrating. Another element that I find annoying – and that I skip – is the detailed descriptions of firearms, with an almost erotic discussion of their features, muzzle speeds, and deadly effects. The fight scenes are also too detailed for my taste. Some fights – often fisticuffs, rather than gun battles – run for a few pages, and I just read the first sentence of each paragraph to know what’s happening, because the details aren’t important. I do understand that some people like that stuff though.
Over 23 books, there are a few duds, but for the most part, these are top-shelf crime novels. Child’s plotting is confusing in a couple of the novels, but it’s never the type of Harlan Coben-esque plot where you think you know what’s happening, then something unexpected happens, then something else unexpected happens, and so on. I find this fatiguing; it’s almost as if the author is toying with readers. Reading a Jack Reacher novel, you know what you’re getting: a clear ethical dilemma in which honor wins. His choices are sometimes illegal, but one can understand his reasoning.
Child is very careful to make sure that Reacher’s stern morality is constantly present, but he also constantly underscores some of the character’s weaknesses, such as his total cluelessness with technology. When computers, then mobile phones, come into the story, Reacher is always fat fingered and perplexed about these devices, though eventually manages to figure them out enough to exploit them when needed, as in the final novel, Blue Moon. (It’s a minor plot point, but I won’t include spoilers.) Reacher has many quirks, some of which reflect the author’s lifestyle (he drinks as much coffee as he can) and others which, hopefully, do not (he never washes clothes, but buys new clothes every few days and throws the dirty ones away).
As series go, the Jack Reacher novels are quite strong. There are highs and lows over this many books, and rarely do people read so many in such a short time, as I did. Reading like this allows you to see the similarities that may jar during a binge, but which are reassuring when you read one a year.
If you like this sort of novel, check them out. You won’t be disappointed.
Despite the multiple cultural inaccuracies and Spanish dialogue of Google Translate quality sprinkled throughout, the manuscript was acquired by Flatiron Books for seven figures in a nine-way bidding war. Hailed as a modern-day “The Grapes of Wrath” by the writer Don Winslow, it was heavily promoted for a year, poised to be the book on the immigrant crisis.
I’m not equipped to chime in on the issues around this book, whether the person should or should not have written this story being of a different cultural background than her subjects.
However, I can comment on the question of “Spanish dialogue of Google Translate quality.” Being a former French > English translator, I have assisted a few best-selling authors with bits of French texts in their novels. Not being native French, I also had my son – who is bilingual from birth – check and edit my translations. I’ve also edited English texts in works in other languages; essentially the opposite direction from this book.
For an American author to not find a native Spanish speaker to translate, or at least check the “Google translations” is a very serious error. It’s not that hard to find people to “fact check” translations. With seven figure advance, this suggests that both the author and publisher had the means to hire a professional translator to go over the text and make corrections.
There is really no excuse for this sort of thing in books. Are publishers and authors so cheap they don’t want to spend what would probably be a few hundred, or maybe a couple thousand dollars for this sort of work? Shame on them.
“Not much surprises me these days but this news did,” said Ian Rankin of Lee Child’s revelation this weekend that his brother, Andrew Grant, would be continuing the Jack Reacher series. Child said: “For years I thought about different ways of killing Reacher off. First of all, I thought he would go out in a blaze of bullets, something like the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It would take an army to bring him down [but] Reacher had to have an afterlife after I was done.”
I find this really annoying. When I read a series – particularly a crime or mystery series – it’s not just about the character, but also about the author. Continuing a series with a different author is just wrong. When Robert B. Parker died, I was sad, but his characters have been continued by others, and there is even a movie coming out soon with Mark Wahlberg based on his Spenser character.
But there are others. Dick Francis’ son continues his series; there have been Ian Fleming follow-ups; series by Robert Ludlum and Thomas Clancy have been strung along; and the best-selling fantasy series The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan, was continued by Brandon Sanderson.
I’ve actually been binging the Jack Reacher novels since early December. I had read a dozen of them many years ago, then lost interest, but I wanted a series I could read over a few months. I’ve read 19 of them so far, which leaves five more to go. I won’t read any written by anyone else.
Wilbur Smith has also gladly collaborated with co-authors in recent years, saying that “my fans have made it very clear that they would like to read my novels and revisit my family of characters faster than I can write them. For them, I am willing to make a change to my working methods so the stories in my head can reach the page more frequently”.
This is a related issue. Publishers are pushing authors of popular series to write more, and, if they could get two books a year instead of one from best-selling authors, they’d be very happy.
It is painful for me to have to write the following lines. I cannot conceive of writing my autobiography. It seems to me that those who can do so are those who have led purely public and exterior lives, or those who can successfully conceal from themselves what they prefer not to know about themselves – there may be a few persons who can write about themselves because they are truly blameless and innocent. In my experience, there is much for which one cannot find words even in the confessional; much which springs from weakness, irresolution and timidity, from petty self-centredness rather than from inclination towards evil or cruelty, from error rather than ill-nature. I shall be as brief as I can.
I think it’s fair to say that for anyone interested in the life of T. S. Eliot, this is a thunderbolt coming from beyond the grave. There has been much speculation about Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale, and as far as I know, this is the first time that any such statement from Eliot has been seen.
Most books about business are written by people involved in creating and managing companies: founders, CEOs, or venture capitalists. They are able to leverage their unique experience building businesses because they have been in the thick of things. But this approach can also lead to a certain type of tunnel vision: looking at something from the inside can often make it difficult to see how something actually operates.
Gillian Tett, author of The Silo Effect, comes to business from an interesting background: she trained as an anthropologist, earning a PhD from Cambridge University. Her experience studying social groups gives her a different point of view from those who have only looked at businesses from within, and this allows her to examine the way companies are structured without the preconceptions that most executives have. She is also a high-level executive with The Financial Times, so she can look at companies from both perspectives.
Lewis Shiner’s latest novel Outside the Gates of Eden is a saga that begins at a Dylan concert in 1965, then follows a musician and his friends as they age, up to the present. This novel has a huge scope, with moving scenes about music, and about a generation growing up.
Many high-concept business books present amorphous ideas about how to succeed in business, but Growth IQ by bestselling author, Tiffani Bova, is extremely concrete. This is not a book about turning your company upside down or inside out using trendy new concepts from a TED talk, but rather a book that looks at the way businesses really work and how to achieve growth.
The ten growth paths, a list “built on the back of long-standing management thinking and frameworks ” are all practical and applicable to all sorts of businesses. However, this is no quick-fix book: the ideas here call for a long-term approach.
There’s something about reading about the lives of people — biographies, memoirs, letters, and journals — that is both boringly quotidian and immensely fascinating. Watching lives play out in slow motion, like a literary reality show, especially in journals and letters, could almost be a radical concept in this day of abbreviated attention spans. Yet the honesty in these works — aside from the self-editing that their authors have performed when composing them — is a welcome alternative to condensed appraisals of great people’s lives.
I’m currently reading the letters of the great poet T. S. Eliot. I have just started the first of eight quite heavy volumes. At nearly 1,000 pages each, the sum of text in this works outweighs Elliott’s own writings by a huge factor. Is even one volume of these letters as great as the 56 pages of his Four Quartets? Of course not, but the letters provide insight into a life that can be both banal and interesting as the man makes his way through a career in letters.
As it stands, in my reading, it is only 1917. World war one is a major preoccupation, (“Life here simply consists in waiting for the war to stop.”) and Elliot has recently married in what we know will be a disastrous marriage. In some ways the knowledge of how things will turn out — the inherent spoilers — makes reading these letters even more interesting. I’m no expert about Elliot’s life, but I have read a biography of him, and I know the major events that occurred during his lifetime. Seeing them occur almost in real time in the letters puts them into perspective. Reading about this man and his financial difficulties makes him seem more like a normal person, and erases the patina of great writer that his name bears.
Of course, he was a great writer, and that’s why reading his letters is interesting. I am at the point where he has his first serious job at Lloyd’s Bank: “I sit in a small office with a mahogany desk and a tall filing cabinet, and feel much more important than my salary warrants, as I have charge of all the balance sheets of their foreign correspondence, filing and tabulating and reporting on them.” And, “I am absorbed during the daytime by the balance sheets of foreign banks. […] All this has made me want to find out something about the theory of banking, and especially Foreign Exchange. Incidentally, tea is served at four.” This humdrum job as a clerk at a bank provides income for the young Eliot, now 28 years old, who has recently written and had published his first major poem: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (Though his parents seem to contribute often to cover his expenses.)
And you read about his anxieties, both personal and about the world in general. “The world seems a complete nightmare at times; nothing that could happen would be surprising. I wonder if there will ever come a time when we should look back and find that the period we are living through seems quite unreal in retrospect.”
As these volumes continue, I will follow the writer’s life through his day jobs, his publications, his job at Faber & Faber, where he would spend much of his life as an editor, and his Nobel prize. I will read about the composition of his great poems: The Waste Land, and The Four Quartets. I will read of his marital difficulties, and of the banalities of his everyday life. The great writer will appear, as great artists do when you look at them up close, to be a rather ordinary man from day to day. That will make him seem more human, more approachable, and ultimately more interesting.
Collections of letters like this are mostly compiled for scholars, and there are probably not many people read them for pleasure as I do. But there is something immensely enjoyable about the slow process of reading through someone’s life, especially through their own words.
So far, I have purchased the first four volumes, and will get the others as I progress. If you’re interested in T. S. Eliot, check out volume 1. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)