“One thing I came to realize after college was that the search for purpose is really a search for a place, not an idea,’’ Gawande told the crowd of approximately 33,000 graduates, family and friends. “It is a search for a location in the world where you want to be part of making things better for others in our own small way.

“…If you find yourself in a place where you stop caring — where your greatest concern becomes only you — get out of there. You want to put yourself in a place that suits who you are, links you to others and gives you a purpose larger than yourself in some way.”

It is still the place where risks can be taken. When on Earth did the West End ever do a new play which hadn’t been developed somewhere else – usually at the National or the Royal Court or the regions? Commercial managements just don’t take that sort of risk. My West End producer used to say to me, ‘We’re in the giggle business, darling.’ And I’d sort of agree with him, but while I’m all for giggles, I’d also hope that some of what we do would be remembered for a little bit more than just that.

Stevereads on BookTube

Steve Donoghue at Stevereads writes about BookTube, a YouTube community devoted to booklovers. It's a fun survey of what he loves, dislikes, and questions about the community (why do so many of the vloggers tout Young Adult novels?). But his joy in the community is in their joy at sharing what they love, particularly the contents of their bookshelves and their bookhauls. Steve shares his own pile o' books from a single day's trawling and it's truly breathtaking. I adore his aside that he doesn't keep a TBR ("to be read") pile, because they will all get read.

His haul reminds me of my 20s and 30s when my friend Scott and I would do a book-crawl through all the used bookstores in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. I would often trudge home with bags o' books, less than half of which I ever read, probably. For me, it was always the thrill of the hunt and the serendipitous discovery -- the actual sitting down and reading always seemed a little more dutiful and less fun. Which for a booklover and reader like myself is an odd thing to say, but kind of true. I had more time to read then, I think, but used it less.

In my defense, when my obsession for a particular author or subject took me over -- like Chekhov or Hazlitt or Kotzwinkle or Montaigne or Delacroix -- I would scarf down whatever I could till only crumbs were left.

Blogs I Like: Sitcom Geek

Since then, comedy has always flickered in the background. I've been interested in comedy as a performer (when I acted in college and community theatre, it tended to be in comedies), as a consumer (watching classic sitcoms via Netflix is quite relaxing ["Wings" is my current before-bedtime snack], "The Big Bang Theory" reruns are fun to watch while eating supper, and the Flying Karamazov Bros. are funny as hell), and as a writer/critic (what was Bill Hicks up to? what the hell is Dan Harmon doing with those bloody circles?  how does telling three mini-stories in a single Big Bang episode change the viewing experience compared to a 1977 Mary Tyler Moore episode that focused on only one story for 25 minutes?).

As you can tell from that last paragraph, I have a sort of engineering relationship with comedy. I love reading about what makes comedy work. (Disclaimer: I've never written any skits or humor pieces.) If you see me watching a sitcom or standup special, I may nod, smile, occasionally bark out a laugh. Thing is, what I'm mainly doing is studying the structure, trying to guess where the joke is going, and also kind of watching it like I'd listen to an orchestra -- keeping an ear out for the unique sound or the pattern that's holding everything together, while remaining open to be surprised and delighted.

Over the last few years, I've been reading about comedy and comedy writers (And Here's the Kicker is great place to start), listening to comedy writing podcasts, and particularly enjoying James Cary's blog, "Sitcom Geek."

Cary set his sights on being a comedy writer long ago, writing shows for the Fringe festival, radio skit programs, sitcoms for radio and TV, and more. I enjoy his take on the writer's life from the British comedy writer's point of view, which is not all that different from any other writer's point of view: work hard and you may be rewarded but it's more likely you won't be, so keep working, get better, and try again. And his views on what makes a sitcom work or not work, appraising classic shows and modern alike for what they do that's worth noticing.

My favorite kinds of posts are when he praises the work of those he admires: this tribute to Bob Larbey, who co-wrote on our favorite sitcoms, "The Good Life," was tremendous fun to read. (That photo of Larbey makes him look like a mashup of Jay Leno and Marty Feldman.)

My other favorite posts of his are when he talks about the business of sitcom (the state of the industry, the primacy of hard work and solving problems, incremental improvements, advice to young writers) and the structure of sitcom (characters, plot, theme, research, performance). As someone experienced in the business, he's great at pointing at a comedic success while saying, "Look, did you see how long it took them to devise that concept? How long it took them to write it?" He's also pretty frank about not holding on to sour apples or grapes: if the BBC passed on your script but accepted a script almost exactly like it, it doesn't pay to kick up a fuss. Maybe their script was better, cheaper, hit the accepting editor on a good day -- it doesn't pay to get too up in your head and resentful about this business. Get back to work, figure out your characters' motivations, bring the funny. In other words: Keep writing.

His post "Theoretically Funny" is a great example of the kind of post I just eat up. These aren't templates for writing stories; if anything, they may be more helpful as ways to diagnose why a particular kind of story is going wrong. But they show the bones, the structure, the logistics of a particular kind of storytelling that not only has to make an emotional impact on a viewer, but also deliver a laugh every 20 seconds.

Generic Corporate Promo Video

Everything You Hate About Advertising in One Fake Video That's Almost Too Real | Adweek. Satire could be defined as "that which seeks to improve." Or, as Dick Cavett reported George S. Kaufman saying, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." In the case of this video and, particularly, the McSweeney's piece by Kendra Eash that inspired it, satire now seems to be simply pointing out what we're already doing. Maybe we're past all hope of improvement.

(via Daring Fireball)

Review: "In Our Time" podcast and newsletter

One of my long-term listening pleasures is BBC4’s In Our Time podcast. The show is hosted by Melvyn Bragg, a novelist, cultural reporter, broadcaster, and a member of the House of Lords, in no particular order. The show’s premise is to pick a significant topic from history, culture, science, art, philosophy, etc., bring in three scholarly or scientific experts on the topic, and let Lord Bragg serve as the audience’s guide and interlocutor. Bragg’s job is to absorb lots of detail (written and prepared for him beforehand by the week’s guest experts) and then attempt to lay out the topic from end-to-end for the eager-to-be-informed listener. All in about 43 minutes, which makes it fast-paced with lots of finely argued details and centuries of stories regretfully brushed aside or glossed over in an attempt to get out of the studio on time.

Still, that’s about the right length of time for an introduction to a big topic. It sounds like a frantic idea, to discuss Prime Numbers, the Nicene Creed, Montaigne, Renaissance Magic, or the Battle of Bosworth Field in under an hour, but I have to admit, Bragg delivers more often than not. (Take a look at their archives; the variety of topics is astounding.) He favors a strictly chronological narrative both to establish a context and structure the discussion, and is careful to make sure a decent foundation is laid before the more interesting aspects of the topic are discussed.

As someone who loves to learn new things and who particularly enjoys these kinds of scholarly panel discussions, I enjoy getting a condensed introduction to a topic or idea I know nothing about. I often want a taste, not a full meal. “In Our Time” delivers  that.

And it’s lovely hearing the experts talk. While some of the voices sound like particularly eccentric Monty Python characters, it’s bracing to hear younger voices, women’s voices, and ethnic voices taking their place at the table. These folks know their stuff and the deference they pay to each other is charming.

But you knew there was a “but” coming. For all that Bragg ably herds his cats, he has habits that make me want to scream. For someone whose day job is as a broadcaster, I’m often shocked by his lazy elocution and gabbled, hurried, mumbled words. He has an annoying habit of literalness; under the guise of “getting it clear for the listeners,” he tries to pin down whether Pocahontas actually did save John Williams’ life and did King Arthur and Robin Hood really exist, all while his experts squirm in their seats after having already said five times that there’s no hard evidence one way or the other.

While I’m on a Bragg-bash, I sometimes get annoyed when the topic is literature. As a novelist and a great reader himself, he often inserts his opinions and summaries into the conversation when I believe they don’t add much to the conversation. However, when the topic is well outside his familiarity, he becomes more humble and capably guides the experts through a forest of dense ideas. He’s at his best when he lets his guests talk.

After the show, he and the experts usually repair to a lounge for a cup of tea where the conversation continues, one assumes more free-spiritedly, and they lament all the good bits that had to be left out. He shares choice tidbits from these conversations in his weekly newsletter and a Radio 4 blog.

I enjoy these morsels he shares in his weekly posting; more admirable and humorous qualities of his character peek through. Here are some paragraphs I enjoyed from his post accompanying a show on the gladiator Spartacus:

Mary Beard told me after the programme that Crassus (he who said that no man can count himself rich unless he can afford a private army), the one who finally defeated Spartacus, had taken on the Parthians and himself been defeated. His head was severed and later used as a prop in a performance of The Bacchae at the Parthian court. A story like that is what I think, perhaps many of us think, classical historians are for.

The business of gladiators being killed in the arena and a great flurry of thumbs down going on seems to be ill-founded. Put simply, gladiators were very expensive. They were an investment. Their owners did not like them to be killed and therefore, of course, as privileged, rich and wealthy owners do, they fixed things so that they got what they wanted. So in the end gladiators were as much for show as for dead meat.

There was a discussion about whether Spartacus’s wife could possibly have spent time with him in the gladiatorial school, i.e. lived with him. She certainly seems to have been there when he was bought as a gladiator in the first place.

Curious how we seem to like men fighting each other or lions, bare-topped, shouted on by crowds. But it wasn’t long ago that much the same thing happened around these parts, is it? Crowds at hangings, crowds at bear fights, crowds at executions, women knitting as the guillotine fell. How much would it take for it to come back?

What would the 50-something you say to the 20-something you?

You’re going to need reserves of determination, and persistence, now, during the high points and right up to the moment you retire, if that ever happens. So, don’t be put off easily. You’re never too young, too inexperienced, too familiar, too old, too traditional, too radical, too uncool, too black, too female, too weird, too conventional, too deaf, too Portuguese, or too anything for anyone to stop you making the comedy you feel driven to make. And if you don’t feel that, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

And then I realize: The way for me to be better than my parents isn’t to do my taxes on time. That would be nice. But really I need to not give myself choices about how I spend my time. The more choices I have throughout the day, the more decisions I make, the more willpower I need, the more I get distracted from paying attention to the building blocks of a fulfilling life: gratitude, meaning, and ritual.

Being productive means simplifying how you use your time. Which in turn, simplifies your life.

Review: Elf, a reminder service to avoid overdue library fees

The Durham Country Library – which is a great organization I support with patronage and donations of both books and money –  does not notify me when books are either coming due or are overdue. This can be inconvenient when life gets hectic or I forget that the checkout period for DVDs is different from that for books. If you don’t have a system set up to remind you about such things, then it’s all to easy to forget when they’re due. library card found in pittsburgh pennsylvania

Enter Elf (from its About page):

Elf is a web-based and email tool for library users to keep track of their library borrowings. Elf is like a personal assistant, whose task is to help with keeping track of what one has on loan from the library.

Designed with the busy or avid library user in mind, Elf is ideal for families with multiple library cards or for individuals (writers, researchers, students, readers, etc.) who have cards from different libraries.

Elf makes it easier to keep track of what’s due, overdue or ready for pickup from one or more library accounts. Users have the option to consolidate their library accounts into one account if they wish. This account is checked everyday and email notices are sent when items are coming due, overdue or when holds are ready for pickup. As well, get up-to-date realtime information by browser.

How many people knew about Elf before I did? Probably everybody, I bet. And not a word from any of you! I only discovered it by happenstance, through the weekly Back to Work newsletter. 

Durham happened to be in its list of libraries, and I eagerly signed up. I set the level of advance notice I want to receive (3 days) and provided my cell number so I could be texted also. Elf also offers RSS and iCal feeds if you prefer to be notified that-a-way.

It’s a terrific service, it’s free, and it’s simple to figure out. If you use your library card a lot, you should check out (heh) Elf.

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The Conet Project

http://www.irdial.com/dorchester_antenna_closeup.jpg I must have heard about the shortwave numbers stations years ago on this Lost and Found Sound recording for NPR’s All Things Considered (original page, YouTube version).

The story was strange, the recorded sounds spooky, and the low-fidelity of the shortwave signal making them sound even spookier, as if other sounds and voices are edging their way into the transmissions. (I guess in this context, “spooky” has more than one meaning.)

It seemed – and still seems – so weird that in this day and age, when so much of the world is gridded and mapped and monitored that there are still spy organizations (for lack of a more correct term) out there doing this: playing a tune or song to alert whoever is receiving the transmission and then reciting a series of numbers, letters, or words. We don’t know who is sending the transmission, who is receiving it, or what the numbers mean.

And this is happening everywhere, it seems, not just the old Cold War countries. When I listen to the recordings of these stations, I feel an eerie tingle creeping up the back of my neck. There is still mystery in the world, still things that do not want to be known. I read somewhere that the best way to listen to these recordings is late at night, with the lights off. That sounds right.

The Conect Project has 5 CDs worth of these recordings collected from all over the world and over a long period of time. The first four CDs worth of recordings – collected over 20 years through 1997 – can be heard and downloaded for free via archive.org. Also free is the 80-page CD booklet in PDF, describing the project, the shortwave stations, and every track. You can also download the free sound files and PDF or order the CDs from Conet’s official site (which offers links to other sites on the numbers mystery).

The first four CDs are available as a digital file from Audible.com (for the exceedingly odd price of $2.09) or from Audible’s parent company Amazon for only 95 cents! Inexplicable.

Other resources: Wikipedia links to The Conet Project and Numbers stations, and the results of a Google search on “the shortwave numbers mystery.”

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Domestic Comedy

Exchange between me and Liz as we drove past Ravenscroft school. ME. That's where Matthew did his play.

LIZ. Yeah, that musical about Noah's ark. He was Ham.

ME. (Pause. ) (Seriously.) He was doing his best.

LIZ. (Pause.) No! His character! His character's name was Ham! He was the son of Noah!