Open letter to my niece

My sister's baby was due July 31, but has decided to make everybody wait. She and her husband have started a private Facebook group for family and close friends to come together around the impending birth. I posted this letter the other day, and a lot of people have said they're moved by it, so I thought I'd share with everybody.

Note that they are using the nickname "Kishkah." It makes sense for us Jews. The rest of you can Google it. Enjoy.

Dearest Kishkah,

I know where you are is warm, and food comes whenever you want it, without effort. I also know that change is scary, that New England is getting ready to enter its cold season, and that trying to get attention for food is not a happy prospect.

But there are some things you should understand.

The world you are entering is amazing. There are trees and flowers and big metal boxes that move people around at remarkable speeds. There are love and heartache.

There are smells and tastes — refueling your body in this world is so much more wondrous than getting nutrients through a cord.

The planet you will inherit is in need of some help, to be sure, but we are currently adding one day to the human life span every two months; by the time you can vote, we'll be closer to adding a day to the life span every day or two. You'll be a member of the first generation that could potentially live indefinitely, and I have no doubt you and your cohort will use your lives for good, to help each other and the world as necessary.

It sounds like a big responsibility, but understand that you'll have help. Your parents will be your first line of help, but there are hundreds of hands right behind them. In no time, you'll be able to communicate with them and with others you will introduce into the group. And soon after that, it will be your turn to run the show — a much bigger show than the one you're running now, which is composed of merely a single choice: to stay in the comfort you feel now, or to take a bold step into the world.

I hope you'll choose the second. We'll see you soon.

Love,
Uncle Josh

Shooting Savannah’s squares (photos)

The city of Savannah has a downtown that is, I believe, unique among American downtowns. It is certainly not the only planned city in the country, and it may not even have been the first — some of those New England factory towns were drawn out from the beginning — but it may be the most beautiful.

The original city was built in 1733 and included 24 squares, designated as public parks and meeting places, sprinkled every couple of blocks. At the northern end of downtown is the Savannah River, which provides a natural border between Georgia and South Carolina, and at the southern point is Forsyth Park with its signature fountain. In roughly the center of downtown is Colonial Cemetery, which has been shrinking over the centuries as the need for wider roads came about and some of the ground was paved over (the headstones have been moved to a wall of the cemetery).

My wife and I undertook to walk all the squares one lovely morning recently. Here you'll find photos from all 22 squares, Forsyth Park, Colonial Cemetery and Emmet Park, which lies above the river. We started at Forsyth and then moved on to Chatham Square, working our way west through the squares to Whitefield Square, then up to Troup Square and east through the squares to Pulaski; you'll get the idea if you follow the map from our starting point to our ending point.

We did stop to look around the Scottish Rite building, which, at six stories, is among the tallest buildings in town, and we stopped at a couple of shops along the way, as well. All told, we walked a bit over five miles from Forsyth to Emmet; we then walked to lunch at the Pirates House, took a tour there, and took a more direct route to our car back near Forsyth; probably closer to a mile, maybe a little more.

More on Savannah's squares from Visit Savannah »

You can see the squared version of the photos on Instagram, or continue reading for the full versions.

As I mentioned, we started at Forsyth Park. The decision to start at a southern point and walk north instead of going the other way was based entirely on the abundance of free parking near Forsyth. Here's the park's famous fountain:

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Next up was Chatham Square, a shady spot with several large live oaks.

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Then over to Monterrey Square, home of a monument to Casimir Pulaski. Monterrey is, I think, my favorite of the squares. It is close in proximity to two of my most common destinations downtown (Congregation Mickve Israel and the Scottish Rite building), and some of its benches are outside the flow of most of the foot traffic.

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Then to Calhoun Square.

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I'm not sure I'd ever made it out to Whitefield Square, but there were about a dozen people there, though none sat in the gazebo.

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I'm very curious as to why there's an armillary sphere in Troup Square. I do know that a drunk driver once ran it over and people really missed it while it was being repaired.

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Lafayette Square, named for the Marquis de Lafayette, who was famously a visiting orator in Savannah, is one of many squares with a fountain in it.

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Sgt. William Jasper stands guard over Madison Square.

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Pulaski Square has some of the gnarliest oaks downtown (some of the midtown parks compete well, though).

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Orleans Square is another one of my favorites. It tends to stay quiet, but there is often a child balancing along the fountain wall. The low-hanging oak branches provide plenty of shade.

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James Edward Oglethorpe, the man who founded the colony of Georgia (named for King George) and the city of Savannah, watches over Chippewa Square, which is what you see in the background during the bus stop scenes in the movie "Forrest Gump." Trivia: In the film, the bus goes the wrong way around the square. Also: The bench is in a museum; don't visit the square looking for it.

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This arch is the entrance to the Colonial Cemetery, which sits at the intersection of Oglethorpe and Abercorn.

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This little gazebo sits next to a basketball court in Crawford Square. Thanks to the kind gentlemen who didn't mind us taking photos that included them.

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Oh, look, there's a tour going on in Greene Square.

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Another fountain, this time in Columbia Square.

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More shade, in Oglethorpe Square — where, apparently, it's autumn.

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Wright Square has a really, really tall monument.

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I don't have a lot to say about Telfair Square, other than it's fun to see the view at the rear of the Jepson change every now and then. But you can't see it in this photo, so I guess you'll just have to come visit.

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This monument in Franklin Square is dedicated to the chasseurs voluntaires, who came to help fight the British in the Battle for Savannah in 1779.

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Ellis Square is known for its fountain (which a lot of people and animals cool off in), but I love this sculpture of Johnny Mercer reading a newspaper while leaning on a fire hydrant. I've said, "good morning," more than once.

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Johnson Square has two of these fountains.

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John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church, preaches in Reynolds Square.

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Despite the fact that it sits next to a parking garage and boasts some of downtown's only 10-hour parking meters, Warren Square is really quiet. And green.

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Washington Square is named for the volunteer fire company that was once at that site.

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And finally, anchoring our walk, is Emmet Park, overlooking River Street and the Savannah River.

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If you live in the Savannah area or have visited, what's your favorite square? Why?

Are you your cause? Art, and life, for your own sake

He died seeking the cause, seeking A cause. He was already dead, he never really lived — uptown, downtown, crosstown — his body was found all over town.

Every now and again I wander back toward the edge. I rewatch "Piñero" (watch) and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and remember to be open my eyes a little — maybe not wider, but differently, both outside and inside (myself and the house).

In a world in which we're focused on Baltimore and Ferguson and train wrecks and royal babies and underinflated footballs, we need to take time to remember that while the world might be bigger than us, we are not. And further, we are us. I am me. You are you.

I often look to others for inspiration, but those I feel most inspired by are people who do things outside my field(s). I understand the Miguel Piñero portrayed by Benjamin Bratt. That got me started doing some spoken word about 11 years ago, and I've since had some of those poems published in juried journals and compiled chapbooks.

But street artists like Shepard Fairey (known for the Andre the Giant "Obey" posters and the Barack Obama "Hope" posters), Banksy, Invader and even Mr. Brainwash make me want to dabble in something different; not what they do, since that's not my thing. But they open my eyes in different directions.

The same holds true when I watch parkour videos.

David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, mentions something along these lines when he talks to Marc Maron. Byrne grew up in suburban Baltimore, and it wasn't until he went off to college at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) that he started meeting black people and Jews and rich kids and people from California — California! — who all helped broaden his horizons and help formulate what became his style: something of a fusion of a variety of influences. Did you know he couldn't actually speak any French when he wrote "Psycho Killer"?

These artists and poets and athletes don't do it for the money (though Piñero eventually made a living writing for TV and Fairey and Banksy have become well-known artists), they did it, and continue to do it, for themselves.

The important thing, though, is to remember something Rick Rubin tells Tim Ferriss: Compete only with yourself, and don't think too much. Write a better song tomorrow than you did yesterday; don't try to write a better song than The Beatles wrote. Lead with your heart, then let the brain look at what the heart has presented.

He died yesterday, he’s dyin’ today, he’s dead tomorrow. Died seekin’ a Cause, died seekin’ the Cause, & the Cause was in front of him, & the Cause was in his skin & the Cause was in his speech & the cause was in his blood but he died, he died seekin the cause. Seekin A cause. He died deaf, dumb and blind and he died and never found his cause because he never, you see, he never never knew — HE was THE CAUSE.“

What are you going to do for you?

[Both excerpts from Miguel Piñero, "Seekin' the Cause".]

Gribble House


Six-year-old Thelma says hello to us at Gribble House.

In 1909, a triple ax murder took place at the downtown Savannah home of Eliza Gribble. The crime was never really solved. Just before she died, one of the victims said her husband, JC Hunter, did it, and he was tried and convicted, but then had his death sentence commuted to life in prison and he was later pardoned.

It seems Hunter walked with a cane and was in his 60s. You'd think one of the three victims could have gotten away.

The house was torn down at some point in the 1940s or '50s to make room for a warehouse, which still stands on that spot and is used for things like parking and charging Segways for tours.

And at night, the building opens for the Gribble House paranormal experience. It's no ordinary ghost tour.

First, you sit in a welcome room, where your guide for the night plays you some of the recordings made during some visits, and then you see this video from the show "Ghost Adventures."

And then you're invested with a flashlight, an AM transmitter, which apparently ghosts can manipulate, a K-II meter, an infrared thermometer and another sensor that lights up "when a presence is nearby" and "can be manipulated by a presence blinking the lights" — I'm putting that in quotes, because, well, I don't know what the actual science is and I don't know what this device was originally created for.

The guide brings you around to the places you're likely to find a presence, and lets you explore for an hour or so. Our K-II meters didn't do much of anything, but the other device lit up quite a few times, and we got some interesting audio out of the transmitter (hear a snippet at the top of the post).

Overall, it was fun. If you're in town, go enjoy the experience. And then you can walk down the street to Lulu's Chocolate Bar, where you can get something to eat or drink, like, say, a piece of pecan pie with some homemade caramel pecan ice cream.

Introducing The Bearded Brain

in-the-earsYou may have seen me, over the past couple of weeks, posting on social media about The Bearded Brain, a new email newsletter I've put together.

Just a little bit about it: It's a collection of some interesting stuff I've seen, listened to, and, sometimes, discussed with friends throughout the week.

It's free, it's weekly (I send it on Tuesday), and I think you'll find it interesting.

You can see an issue here, so you know what to expect.

It's off to a good start, and I'd appreciate you trying it out for a couple of issues. I use a third party tool, so you can do your subscribing through them, and later unsubscribe with them if you wish, so there's no awkward, "Uh, Josh, I think I'm good" moment if you don't like it.

You can sign up here.

Thanks for checking it out!

3 things to make your life easier in 2014

Three quick small changes you can make in everyday habits to shave some time.

1. Loop the other way when you tie your shoes.

This takes some getting used to, since you've been tying your shoes one way for decades. It took me about a month to make this automatic, but the knot definitely holds more strongly.

2. Eat more of your apple.

Do you routinely ignore apples as a snack because they leave you wanting a little more (or alternatively because you have to look for apples that have been pumped full of steroids to get bigger and so they don't taste like anything)? You're leaving too much core. I don't know what the guy in this video did with his seeds, but leaving only the seed pouch and stem, you wind up leaving a bit of apple a touch smaller than an avocado seed.

3. Peel your hard-boiled eggs by blowing on them.

This takes some practice, and the baking soda and temperature change are both important – the first time I tried, I didn't cool the eggs very much and the shells didn't pop off. Once you get the hang of it, though, you can peel a half dozen eggs in a minute or two instead of ten.

What things do you do to increase your productivity?

Three things you can read every week to get smarter in 2014

I read a lot. Most of the stuff I read is absolute crap, but I read it because I'm hoping it will teach me something. But no longer. I spent 2013 consuming as many words as I could, and I figured out that there are three things I could read every week that will make me smarter.

That's not to say I don't think there are other useful newsletters out there, and that I'll stop reading books and features and news and such. I'm just going to be more picky – a little more selfish with my time.

These are the three things that I read every week, that I think you should, as well.

1. James Altucher's weekly Twitter chat. James Altucher has done a few things right in his life, and a lot of things wrong. The things he's gotten right vastly outweigh the others, though, and I think he's a really smart guy (I recommend his book, Choose Yourself!, as well). He hosts an "ask me anything" Twitter chat Thursdays from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Eastern. During that hour, tweet him at @jaltucher and he'll respond.

I tend to go to his Twitter page and refresh every few minutes so that I can monitor the answers, and then I have the option to check out the question if I wish. If you can't catch it live, you can always head to his page later and scroll back through. You get not only his collected wisdom, but also you get to read what people are asking about, which might give you some ideas as well.

I think you can get just as much from lurking here as you could participating.

2. Mitch Joel, Alistair Croll and Hugh McGuire's weekly link exchange. Each week, three entrepreneurs collect one link for each of the other two, resulting in a blog post every Saturday on Mitch Joel's blog titled Six Links Worthy of Your Attention. Some weeks you'll find more interesting than others, but that will come down entirely due to personal preference. Give yourself a little time; it's worth at least reading all the explanations, and if you wind up clicking something, you might be in for 15-20 minutes of reading or watching.

The links run the gamut from entrepreneurship to education to space exploration to music, sculpture and everything else.

3. Brain Pickings weekly. Maria Popova writes long-form blog items that are really, really interesting. She writes on writing, habits, music, language, science and a variety of other topics, and she always has interesting take-aways from people who know their fields and have names like Einstein, Fitzgerald and Sontag (that is, names you've heard).

Each Sunday, she sends out a newsletter that can help you through your first pot and a half of coffee (you can't tell me I'm the only one, especially on Sunday morning).

Other newsletters I get include a daily email from Web Urbanist, which usually includes some cool photos with a little text (recent ones included a former subterranean brewery that is now a bunch of hot tubs and heated pools, and a post on large concrete arrows in the middle of the U.S. desert that appear to point nowhere but in the 1920s helped direct mail traffic by air before the use of radar), and a weekly offering from C. Hope Clark at Funds for Writers; she writes about the craft of writing, and also about marketplaces, grants and contests.

What do you read consistently that you'd like to share?

What’s wrong with online reading (question mark or period, you decide)

This is the 500th post on this blog (for those of you who have been with me online for a while, you know I've had a few blogs and this is more like the 1500th post I've written, but it's an interesting enough milestone for this specific post, I think).

Settle in. If (big if, it turns out) you actually read this post for comprehension, it'll take a good half hour or so, starting with the 15 minutes you're about to spend clicking through this presentation from Randy Connolly at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

We've known for a while (through studies and our own behavior), that we scan, rather than really reading online. And it appears that the earliest eye-tracking studies we had are still relevant; essentially we look at the screen in an F pattern, reading the first few words of each line, and maybe the first and third or second and fourth paragraphs on a page.

So we don't read in-depth when we're looking at a screen, but isn't the web a great place for learning?

Not really, it turns out. We have such short attention spans that we just jump from hyperlink to hyperlink, scanning pages and not absorbing very much. Our retention is terrible.

With the glut of information available, you might also think that we'd get a wider diversity of viewpoints, but that's also incorrect. In social spaces, we tend to follow those who agree with us. In research, we search Google, and, if we don't like the first two results, most of us just change our search term.

This surprised me: Only one in six people can identify which search results are sponsored and which aren't, so there's a good chance that 80% of the people reading online are getting their information from advertisements.

Wow.

The other interesting thing in the presentation is the implication for newspapers (start at slide 76). People who read a hard copy (the physical newspaper) tend to read every section and read articles of all types. People who read online self-select their stories, and tend to read more entertainment and less information. Because it's entertaining, which is why we call it entertainment.

Newspaper design has changed a fair bit since the advent of the Internet, too – pages used to be full of dense, small type, with few photos and small-to-medium headlines. Now, pages feature lots of white space, huge headline type, and large, colorful images.

I can't help but think circulations are not only dipping because younger people aren't buying the paper, but also because people who have read newspapers for years are unimpressed with the website-ification of the printed product. [That's another discussion for another day.]

The biggest thing I learned from this presentation was this: We're born to scan. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are always on the lookout for danger or food. Reading requires a lot of focus, and we've only been able to spend that focus on reading since the advent of leisure time. On an evolutionary scale, that's not a very long time.

Bottom line: if you really want to comprehend something – and if you want your kids, students, friends, etc., to understand something better – give them a book, or write them a letter longhand.

Or make evolution move faster. Just sayin'.

Create something

Rodney Mullen is an icon from my youth. He was the first to do a lot of things with a skateboard. From a public eye standpoint, he was usually overshadowed by Tony Hawk, but from a skating standpoint, the two were complementary – Hawk did a lot of power moves: high air, lots of twists and spins, while Mullen did a lot of board flips and slides and tricks that take place over a short jump.

While Hawk worked on getting a little more hang time so he could get one more rotation in, Mullen worked on getting his deck to do something different, like ride on its side or do a couple of flips with a rotation while he was in the air.

But this is not about Tony Hawk vs. Rodney Mullen.

This is about creating something.

If you're the kind of person who's into presentation, Mullen's TED talk isn't going to do anything for you. But the content of the talk? Wow.

Mullen's the kind of innovator who never needed a large stage, or a drawing board, or conventional tools. He took the thing he loved doing, and did things with it nobody'd ever done.

Because he wanted to.

Because creating is fun.

So go out, and create something. Because creating's fun. Do it for the sake of creating something. Don't worry about the rest; just go out and do it. And do it with purpose. If you're not ready to create something big, create something small. Let it grow. It doesn't matter what your scale, just create.

What’s the value of free?

Oh my. Did you watch that video? Because if not, you should. It's about a prayer book. A really old one. That was written on top of three other books. By that, I mean whoever wrote the prayer book had these three books. He cut them up, erased them, bound them again, and then wrote the prayer book.

A thousand or so years later, the prayer book winds up on a professor's desk, and they try to figure out what lies underneath the prayer book.

And they found previously undiscovered works by Archimedes. Archi-fucking-medes. Previously. Undiscovered. Works.

And guess what? After a decade of work and doing all sorts of amazing things to reconstruct it and gave us all the work they did for free. For fucking free! Seriously, it's all right there at that link!

A whole bunch of people spent 10 years of their lives on this, and we have it for free use, for the love of knowledge.

Think about that the next time someone offers you something for free. Don't just shrug it off because you think "free" means "worthless." Consider that you could be privy to something amazing. You might not be – but then again, you've probably paid for plenty of stuff that might be considered crap.

Want some other stuff that's free that I've found absolutely amazing?

» The Flinch, by Julien Smith
» The Hero Handbook (PDF), by Nate Green
» 279 Days to Overnight Success, by Chris Guillebeau

Now go. Get reading. If you don't like them, I'll double your money back.