Unpacking my library - FT.com

James Wood: “I deface nearly all my books, with both annotations in ink, and lots of dog-earing. I also write to-do lists in the endpapers, or telephone numbers, or names of people I must email. These latter often prove more interesting than any of my literary comments: years later, I stare at them, trying to work out who these people were.”


Unpacking my library - FT.com

When my grandmother—whose reading was limited to the Bible and Guideposts, and whose life was circumscribed by the tiny yard around her tiny house in tiny Colorado City, Texas—died 20 years ago, I was pierced, not simply by grief and the loss of her presence, but by a sense that some very particular and hard-won kind of consciousness had gone out of the world. Hers was the kind of consciousness that is not consciousness as intellectuals define it, but is passive rather than active. It allows the world to stream through you rather than you always reaching out to take hold of it. It is the consciousness of the work of art and not necessarily of the artist who made it. People, occasionally, can be such works, creation streaming through them like the inspiration that, in truth, all of creation is.

Do you accept the love people have for you? Do you celebrate your successes and see yourself in your divinity? Do you accept all the gifts the universe wishes to provide for you? Because you see, Dear Ones, you are always in charge and the universe has much it wishes to offer you, but you must be willing to receive. Are you still stuck in worthiness issues that keep you small and uncomfortable? Open your heart, open your life expression to all the gifts that are your birthright! Remember, you must accept the invitation to become a dance partner with the universe. ~Archangel Gabriel

On hitting 50 (blog posts, that is)

Inspired by Shannon’s example, I decided to forge ahead and write M-F blog posts for 10 weeks. And rather remarkably, to me, I hit that goal without missing a day or calling for a do-over. Last Friday I posted my 50th entry.

What surprised me about the experience:

  • I thought I would exhaust my list of 20 or so ideas. I now have about twice that many on my list, plus about 15 draft posts in various stages of completion. Which proves what I said in my first post: the more I write, the more I can write.
  • The time between me getting an idea and then creating a decently readable post shrank. I experimented with ways to plan out long posts so they weren’t so exhausting to write, though with mixed success.
  • I can pretty much tell within about 20 minutes of writing whether I can finish a post in a sitting or whether it needs more time.
  • I thought I would need fancy software but the WordPress setup has served me quite well and it gets better all the time. I still like starting some drafts in nvAlt, but I tend now to keep my drafts in the WP Dashboard.
  • I tend to prefer the longform essays.
  • Continuing to discover little idiosyncrasies in my style (such as my love of parenthetical asides or constantly adding “and” clauses to sentences) and occasionally surprising myself with a felicitously turned phrase or metaphor.

What pleased me:

  • I restarted the blog in response to creative constipation; I had stuff backed up I wanted to write about but didn’t know how. The regular writing unblocked whatever was jammed and the words and ideas simply gushed out for the last two months. (Here endeth the metaphor unsavourie.)
  • Whenever I’ve felt blue, it’s usually because I’ve not been exercising my creativity muscles. Shortly after restarting the blog, the dark cloud lifted and I began enjoying the process of planning, experimenting, and publishing. Writing is mood-altering!
  • I like going back and reviewing the stuff I’ve written. I often forget what I’ve written about, and it’s like finding lost treasure.
  • I suppose because it was the last week of mandatory posting, I pushed out several posts that I had started in Spring 2011 but had never had enough reason to actually finish. The Davies and prospective memory posts had waited a long time to be given their due and each flew near the 2000-word mark. The satisfaction I felt in finally publishing those ideas and opinions – really committing to them and then marking them as done – felt so good.
  • I really like being able to go back and fix a typo or rephrase some clumsy sentence. A blog post is never finished, only abandoned.
  • Instead of my evenings being spent watching cat videos on YouTube or moving all the icons on my desktop 2cm to the left, I’ve spent them creating and producing things. What I always thought of as my distractible nature never bothered me while I wrote. And I felt much better about how I spent my time.

What I wish I could have done:

  • I would have liked establishing a routine for writing every day at the same time. But since I typically wrote in the evenings, then perhaps that was my routine time.
  • I wish I could have written shorter posts. The longer posts took a lot out of me and I sometimes felt kind of stunned the next day. I just like to blather on. I guess.
  • I wish I could have found better graphics and maybe more multimedia. I like illustrations or pictures with blog posts and while Zemanta can find some interesting stuff, I sometimes just settled for what I could find in a hurry.

What I won’t miss:

  • Spending almost every Monday through Friday evening staring at a computer screen! There was one period where I successfully stayed one day ahead of schedule, and I remember one glorious patch where I had three short posts all lined up and scheduled for publishing through the end of the week. I was never able to repeat that.

What I still want to play with and figure out:

  • I want to invest in the Thesis theme or something similar and more plugins. I would like to play around more with the site’s look and feel. It’s a rather bland looking site.
  • My friend Mike Uhl, who writes two very focused blogs, continues to urge me to commit to a theme. Not for this site, which will remain a repository of jottings and fancies, but perhaps my next one.
  • A Creative Commons notice and how to attach it to the end of every post.

A few remaining points:

  • I will continue to write posts, but not to a schedule. I look forward to a break. One of the great things about this project is that I now have a new hobby. If I’m ever at loose ends and wonder whatsoever shall I do – writing a blog post is the activity that will leap to mind.
  • I have purposely not promoted the blog. I haven’t advertised my posts on either my Twitter or Facebook accounts. This blog has been my private lab where I could try things out, play around, and generally make lots of pots while letting the process work its magic on me. When I start a more focused blog, it will be to support my side-business and then I will be more interested in the social media side.
  • It’s not the goal that’s important, after all, it’s who you have to become to achieve the goal. In the past 10 weeks, I’ve become someone who spends his free time writing, getting better at writing, and sharing what he knows (or thinks he knows). And it’s been great.
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Remembering to remember (practice)

The previous post talked about prospective memory (PM) research. Today’s post is about learning to work with your prospective memory so you don’t forget to remember what you want to do. (God, do we writers love playing with phrases like “don’t forget to remember.” Annoying.) Post-It Note Art Collage (PINAP)

PM requires you to plan ahead so that the retrieval cue will be spontaneously triggered. If you don’t plan ahead, then your brain must spend precious cycles monitoring the environment for the retrieval cue. The human cognitive system can’t keep up a prolonged task like that, so you have to keep a few things in mind (heh – this stuff just writes itself) when establishing the PM task.

The following tips are explained in more detail below, but be prepared: you’re going to hear stuff you’ve heard a zillion times before. Also annoying, I’m sure. If there’s a theme tying these separate tips together, it’s also the oldest theme in the book: mindfulness.

  • Remove the delay in delayed intentions: do it or lose it
  • Use good external cues
  • Anticipate the triggering cues: use implementation intentions
  • Beware of busy and demanding conditions
  • Address the special problems of habitual PM tasks

Remove the delay in delayed intentions: do it or lose it

A PM task is a delayed intention; the longer the delay, the likelihood increases that you will forget the cue. The delay can be more hazardous if you successfully retrieve the cue yet cannot execute the task for some reason – just as you begin to do the PM task someone walks in and interrupts you, for example.

Thoughts fade from consciousness after only about 2 seconds without refreshment or rehearsal. If you’re in a hectic or pressured situation, then it’s even more likely you’re going to forget what you intended to do. Therefore, if you can do the task now, then do it now. Don’t delay.

But if you have to delay, then…

Use good external cues

The best way to ensure the PM cue will be triggered is to externalize your intention, put it in the environment where you’ll be sure to either literally or figuratively trip over it. Assume, in other words, that you will forget and plan how you will work around that forgetting.

Hence the age-old advice: if you need to take your moss-covered three-handled family gredunza to work the next day, then put it by the front door where you’ll see it before you leave.

You can extend that advice by associating a task or intention with any convenient object. If I wake up in the night and think of a task I want to do in the morning, then I’ll take the box of tissues by my bed and stand it upright on the floor. If I’m working in my office and want to remember to check that the back door is locked before I go to bed, then I’ll pull the trashcan out from under the desk and put it in front of the door. Once I’ve set the object in place, I can safely send the PM task to the background and continue with my foreground task. When I see the tissue box or trashcan, my first thought is usually, “What’s that doing there?” quickly followed by, “Oh yeah! I wanted to …” and the miracle of life goes on.

Other advice along these lines is to use a tickler file or leave yourself a voicemail or a Post-It note on the bathroom mirror. The goal is to get your attention by having the cue stand out from the quotidian.

Anticipate the triggering cues: use implementation intentions

I wrote a bit about implementation intentions here:

An implementation intention basically says. “I will do behavior x when y happens so that I can achieve z.” The objective is to have your environment deliver the cue for the behavior you want to encourage.

So avoid saying, “I need to remember to send Scott that email.” Instead, say “I will send Scott an email immediately after I sit down at my desk so that he can order the tickets.” These simple when-then directives can also support goals and encourage better habits. This method has proven effective across numerous populations: drug addicts going through withdrawal, schizophrenics, frontal lobe patients, and older adults.

To make the intention even more memorable, say it out loud and pat yourself on the head (laugh, but the subjects had to do that in a study where there were no other retrieval cues available).

A disadvantage of this method is that it requires time and mental energy to think of and then phrase an appropriate intention. If you are in a demanding environment, this may not be useful. So, if at all possible …

Beware of busy and demanding conditions

We are poor multitaskers and in the middle of a swirling, hectic day you are not likely to remember any promises quickly made as you’re walking to the printer or just before the phone rings. Even if you try setting implementation intentions, you need to clear some mental space by shutting out the noise and distraction surrounding you; that effort can simply overtax your cognitive processes too much.

Interruptions also take their toll; if you’re interrupted just as you’re about to execute a PM task, then it’s important for you to set a new, strong cue as quickly as possible. Writing things down or setting reliable external cues, like alarms or reminders built into your email or calendar systems, can help you to remember to execute future tasks.

One of my practices, if someone asks me to do something while I’m in transit or can’t write anything down, is to ask the person to send me an email. I am good about turning email into tasks, and that way I can simply track that task in my productivity systems. And if the other person forgets to send the email? Not my problem! I win!

Another underrated tool: the humble checklist, a standby of airline crews and, if they listen to Atul Gawande, medical teams and physicians. You can’t think and do at the same time; you can do one or the other, but not both. In a stressed environment – even life or death environments – doing is easier if the steps are already laid out for you.

Side note: I have found that creating a checklist for certain procedures or workflows is a great way to capture long-term knowledge or experience, either my own or someone else’s.

Address the special problems of habitual PM tasks

Habitual PM tasks are things like taking medication, closing the chimney flue, turning off the oven, making sure the door is locked. With such actions, you may repeat the task because you can’t remember you performed it or you may think you performed it when you actually didn’t. Again, using external aids – like pill organizers or alarms or homemade checklists – can help keep you on track.

Again, the challenge is to make yourself pay attention to what you’re doing. You can manipulate some part of the environment to flag that you have or have not done the task. For example, I have sets of exercises to do when I practice my banjo. I use a sticky note to flag the set of exercises I do in the current practice session. The next time I sit down to practice, I can quickly see the exercises I practiced last time and the set I need to practice this time. Again, it’s so simple as to sound almost trivial, yet it’s those little tricks that often enable older adults to perform better in some prospective memory studies than young college students.

Other things you can try:

  • If possible, block out all other distractions and focus exclusively on the task. Don’t think about anything else. In fact, describe aloud what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Engaging the vocal and aural areas of the brain will make the task more lively and memorable.
  • Try to increase the complexity of the task or execute it in an unusual or different way. Cross your arms as you take your pill, turn around three times and say “three-handled moss-covered family gredunza” as you close the flue – anything you can do to make the task more memorable.
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Remembering to remember (theory)

One of the sweet ironies of my time at SILS was that I entered with a long-term interest in personal information management, yet I never took a single PIM class nor did any research on it. Remember Last Night?

Another of my long-term interests is human memory and my personal library has always had lots of memory books, starting with The Memory Book on up to Moonwalking with Einstein, with a diversion through Francis Yates’ magisterial The Art of Memory.

My last literature review project as a PhD student combined these two interests. It was on the topic of prospective memory, a charmingly oxymoronic term that has been described as “remembering to remember.” Herewith, a post that compresses some of that research because I thought it was too interesting not to share.

Prospective vs. Retrospective

Its opposite, retrospective memory, is what most of us are familiar with: a memory of an event that occurred in the past. This type of memory has been thoroughly researched for decades and has spawned a bewildering number of models: visual memory, semantic memory, autobiographical memory, sense memory, location memory, working memory, etc. We use retrospective memory to remember a small detail from a single day in our childhood or information we crammed the night before the test or hours of  Monty Python sketches. (I am surprised that there are so many different conceptual models attempting to describe only certain aspects of memory and that there is still no one model that encompasses all of them.)

By contrast, prospective memory (PM) research has only been actively studied over the last 20 years and the research protocols are still being worked out. Also, prospective memory is about remembering a specific piece of information that must be recalled at a specific time in the near future. Prospective memory’s two key components are 1) remembering to do a task and 2) executing the task at the opportune moment. If I forget to do the task at the time it should be done, the task is said to have failed. If I remember to do the task, but after the opportune moment has passed, then the task is considered failed.

For example, I need to buy pasta for dinner. The prospective component of that task is remembering that I need to buy the pasta on the way home from work. If I remember to do so as I drive past the grocery store, then I have a chance of successfully completing the task. I may not have thought of the task all day, yet I may spontaneously recall it when I see the Harris Teeter sign from the road. This means I have to interrupt my foreground task (driving home) to execute the PM task and then resume the foreground task. However, if I remember to buy the pasta only after I pull into my driveway at home, then I have failed the prospective memory task because the optimal time for its completion has passed. Prospective memory includes not just remembering the task to be completed, but also successfully carrying out the intended action. And after I’ve completed the task, I can safely forget all about it.

(Retrospective memory plays a role in any PM task. After all, I have to remember how to drive a car, the directions to the store, the brand of pasta to buy, and so on.)

PM Failure

An interesting note that is struck by some of the literature is the social/moral aspect of prospective memory failure. If one forgets an address or a phone number, it is simply chalked up to a failure in retrospective memory (“I’ve always had a bad memory for names”); it is seen as a property dissociated from the person. Yet, a failure of prospective memory may call my reliability into question; my wife may label me as “careless” or “complacent” (among other things) (Winograd, 1988; McDaniel and Einstein, 2007). I can handle breaking a promise to myself, but if you were depending on me to execute the task, then social pressure may affect how I choose to remember the intention (Meacham, 1988).

PM is also critical in medication adherence, which is a tremendously active and rich research domain in its own right. I could forget to take my medicine at the right time(s) or take it too often. Also, most memory errors made by airline pilots tend to be prospective in nature.

A PM task can fail for multiple reasons: I didn’t encode the task properly, I was distracted when I attempted to encode the task or missed the retrieval cue, or I was doing some habitual action – like commuting or getting dressed – that interfered with the cue, etc. If I am on auto-pilot when driving home from work, then I may not remember to turn right instead of left and so we have no pasta for supper.

McDaniel and Einstein (2007) recount a heartbreaking anecdote of a new father whose failures of prospective memory—which included not ensuring a potent enough reminder cue and performing actions outside of his daily routine—led to the suffocation of his infant son in the back of his locked car. In this case, the father put his infant son’s car seat in the back and the child fell asleep. As the man drove to work he fell into the daily rhythm of his commuting habit, thought about his workday, turned to go to work instead of turning the other way to go to the daycare center, parked, and exited the car having totally forgotten about his son. The authors emphasize that failures of prospective memory are not moral failings, but instances where the human cognitive processes are under such stress—interruptions, lack of sleep, too much sensory input—that the task cannot be recalled.

PM Skeptics

There are PM skeptics to be sure, and they make damnably good points.

For one thing, you can almost effortlessly recall lots of details about what you did and where you went today, even though you may not have paid much attention to events at the time. Retrospective memory happens without our even trying.

Prospective memory, on the other hand, requires that you be mindful, pay attention, and burn some cognitive energy considering where and what you’ll be doing so you can encode a persistent cue in your environment to trigger the PM task. That could mean setting an alarm on your cell phone (time-based cue) or knowing that you’ll see the Harris Teeter sign on the way home (event-based cue). But is the PM task really a memory task in this case or just good planning? PM may only be a convenient – and confusingly named – blanket term encompassing diverse processes: behavior, attention, awareness, planning, monitoring, and so on.

Crowder (1996) employed a devastatingly simple rejoinder to the use of the term “prospective memory,” a term that he believed distracted researchers from the real problem under study. If one took the phrase “I must remember to do that task” and removed the words “remember to,” then the problem simplified from one of memory to one of planning and intention – “I must do that task.” Revising “forget to perform” to “fail to perform” yields the same result (Crowder, 1996).

There is also the suspicion that, because prospective memory is explicitly defined as “successfully carrying out the intention,” what should really be studied are how people set intentions, what are the cognitive processes backing them, and so on. Memory is about forgetting or remembering; successfully carrying out a remembered promise is about something other than memory (social rewards or self-image, for example) (Crowder, 1996). Intention as a concept could be subdivided into the memory for the intention, remembering the intention, and then executing the intention (Smith, 2008).

***

If you want more (more! MORE!) then hie thee to the Wikipedia entries linked above. Suffice to say, it’s a fascinating topic.

The next post will be about strategies to increase the chances of successfully completing a PM task. My references and other articles of interest follow below.

References

Bower, G. H. (2000). A brief history of memory research. In E. Tulving & F. I. Craik (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Memory (pp. 3-32). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Craik, F. I. M., & Kerr, S. A. (1996). Prospective Memory, Aging, and Lapses of Intention. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 227-237). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Crowder, R. G. (1996). Commentary: The Trouble with Prospective Memory: A Provocation. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 143-147). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Dobbs, A. R., & Reeves, M. B. (1996). Prospective Memory: More Than memory. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 199-225). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Dodhia, R. M., & Dismukes, R. K. (2009). Interruptions create prospective memory tasks. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(1), 73-89.

Einstein, G. O., McDaniel, M. A., Marsh, R. L., & West, R. (2008). Prospective memory: Processes, Lifespan Changes, and Neuroscience. In H. L. Rodiger III & J. H. Byrne (Eds.), Cognitive Psychology of Memory (Vol. 2, pp. 867-892). Oxford: Elsevier.

Ellis, J. A. (1988). Memory for Future Intentions: Investigating Pulses and Steps. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Interpersonal Relations and Prospective Remembering (Vol. Some Observations on Prospective Remembering, pp. 371-376). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Ellis, J. A. (1996). Prospective Memory of the Realization of Delayed Intentions: A Conceptual Framework for Research. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 1-22). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Ellis, J. A., & Cohen, G. (2008). Memory for intentions, actions, and plans. In G. Cohen & M. A. Conway (Eds.), Memory in the Real World (pp. 141-172). New York: Psychology Press.

Elsweiler, D., Ruthven, I., & Jones, C. (2007). Towards memory supporting personal information management tools. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(7), 924-946.

Elsweiler, D., Baillie, M., & Ruthven, I. (2008). Exploring memory in email refinding. ACM Trans. Inf. Syst, 26(4), 1–36.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions. Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

Graf, P., & Uttl, B. (2001). Prospective memory: a new focus for research. Conscious Cogn, 10(4), 437-450.

Guimond, A., Braun, C. M. J., Rouleau, I., & Godbout, L. (2008). The relative importance of suboperations of prospective memory. Applied Neuropsychology, 15(3), 184 - 193.

Harris, J. E. (1984). Remembering to do things: A forgotten topic. In J. E. Harris & P. E. Morris (Eds.), Everyday Memory, Actions, and Absent-Mindedness (pp. 71-92). London: Academic Press.

Hicks, J. L., Marsh, R. L., & Russell, E. J. (2000). The properties of retention intervals and their affect on retaining prospective memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(5), 1160 - 1169.

Kliegel, M., McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2008). Preface. In M. Kliegel, M. A. McDaniel, & G. O. Einstein (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Cognitive, Neuroscience, Developmental, and Applied Perspectives (p. xiii). New York: Lawrence Elbaum Associates.

Koriat, A., & Ben-Zur, H. (1988). Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues (pp. 203-208). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Kvavilashvili, L., & Ellis, J. A. (1996). Varieties of Intention: Some Distinctions and Classifications. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 23-51). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Marsh, R. L., Hicks, J. L., & Landau, J. D. (1998). An investigation of everyday prospective memory. Memory and Cognition, 26, 633–643.

Marsh, R. L., Hicks, J. L., & Cook, G. I. (2005). On the Relationship Between Effort Toward an Ongoing Task and Cue Detection in Event-Based Prospective Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(1), 68 - 75.

McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2007). Prospective Memory: An Overview and Synthesis of an Emerging Field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Meacham, J. A. (1988). Interpersonal Relations and Prospective Remembering. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Some Observations on Prospective Remembering (Vol. Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring, pp. 354-359). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Park, D. C., & Kidder, D. P. (1996). Prospective Memory and Medication Adherence. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 369-390). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Rabbitt, P. (1996). Why Are Studies of “Prospective Memory” Planless? In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 239-248). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Sellen, A. J., Louie, G., Harris, J. E., & Wilkins, A. J. (1997). What brings intentions to mind? An in situ study of prospective memory. Memory, 5(4), 483–507.

Smith, R. E. (2003). The cost of remembering to remember in event-based prospective memory: Investigating the capacity demands of delayed intention performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology-Learning Memory and Cognition, 29(3), 347–360.

Smith, R. E. (2008). Connecting the Past and the Future: Attention, Memory, and Delayed Intentions. In M. Kliegel, M. A. McDaniel, & G. O. Einstein (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Cognitive, Neuroscience, Developmental, and Applied Perspectives (pp. 29-52). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Thöne-Otto, A. I. T., & Walther, K. (2003). How to design an electronic memory aid for brain-injured patients: Considerations on the basis of a model of prospective memory. International Journal of Psychology, 38(4), 236–244.

Winograd, E. (1988). Some Observations on Prospective Remembering. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring (Vol. Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues, pp. 348-353). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

 

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Science must leave beauty at the margins of experience as it pursues truth. Art must leave truth at the margins as it pursues beauty.

In the end, science will hopefully produce knowledge that helps us to live more intelligently. Art will produce works that help us experience life more fully. But neither the art nor the science is, in itself, life. That is why we don’t want a society run by either scientists or artists alone. We want a society that has a place for both.

Review: "The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter"

Over the 2010 Christmas vac, I took six books with me but read only one: the 700-page The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter. The book is a compilation of emails exchanged between Doctor Who producer/head-writer/show-runner Russell T. Davies – the man we have to thank for the series’ 2005 reboot and reimagining – and Benjamin Cook, a young reporter for the Radio Times magazine and the monthly “Doctor Who Magazine.” Cook initiated the exchange just before David Tennant’s final season as the Doctor. The first email in the book, in fact, is Cook asking to do an article on the nuts and bolts of how a script is written, from inception to filming. Fortunately for us, Davies rather cheerfully and enthusiastically took the risk of exposing his process to Cook. That’s an element of Davies’ psychology that emerges throughout the book: he puts himself into uncomfortable places where he feels particularly vulnerable, though it scares him to death. I admire that a lot. But another less attractive aspect of his personality is that, once in those spaces, he squirms and fidgets and complains until he tires himself out and realizes that, well, this is where he chose to be.

As Davies says elsewhere in the book, he’d never be able to write a proper, straightforward “here’s how to write a script” manual. His process is too personal, interior, and – to an uncomfortable, disquieting degree – emotionally shredding. His emails are chatty, breezy, and one could have probably squeezed all the air out of those emails (especially the one-line bantering and texts between he and Cook) and shortened the book by a good 300 pages.

But I cared not! And I wanted more! I loved every page and lugged the book everywhere we went in Florida (despite its murderously block-like shape, the book is surprisingly lightweight). I loved the light and easygoing conversation between Cook and Davies that made me feel I’d stumbled on one of the great casual correspondences of all time. I read it before going to bed, on awakening, while everyone else napped, after everyone else went to bed. I had been steeping myself at the time in Tennant’s run on the series via Netflix and various Doctor Who review sites and that was good prep for reading the book. My familiarity with the episodes made the behind-the-scenes, chaotic, mad energy of their creation – how the scripts started out in a different place from where they finally ended, fixed in form forever – all the more fascinating to me.

One of the book’s threads is the progression of Cook and Davies’ email relationship from that of observer and subject to confidantes and even collaborators. As the book progresses, Cook the observer texts Davies from the set or at some public event and lobs one or two questions without comment. As an observer, he explicitly starts out by not commenting on bits of script that Davies sends him, does not react as a fan, and does a good job of staying detached. But there are a few crucial points during specific episodes where Cook proffers advice and Davies actually listens.

One I remember is Cook urging Davies to not insert a cliffhanger in the final moments of “Journey’s End” and instead to let Donna’s absence have its time and weight with both the Doctor and the audience. I still can’t quite believe Davies at first wanted to pull the emotional rug out from under the viewers by sticking to his adventure-serial template. But it’s an indication of Davies’ lack of ego when it comes to his writing that he considers the advice and realizes that the quieter moment would make a better story in the end.

And as their conversation progresses, we see Davies trusting Cook, asking him questions, getting his advice. Along the way, Davies doesn’t shy away from the personal questions about his family, his relationships, the crushing demands of his job, and the fears and anxieties that knot his guts at 3 in the morning.

I found myself worrying about the poor man’s health. The pressures and the pace of his business and public life, and the anxieties that hover over him every minute, mean that he gets hardly any rest, no vacations, and I’m sure he subsists on fast food and coffee. Add to this his chain-smoking as he writes a script and the terribly irregular hours he keeps, and you have someone who is rapidly burning himself out.

As for his writing process, we never really get to know the specifics of how Davies does what he does. As he explains in his first email, the entire process takes place in his head and he comments often that even if he knows what will happen later in the story, if he gets stuck on page 1, then he doesn’t go past page 1 until the problem is solved. What does this tendency lead to? Procrastination. Of the worst kind. It’s as if he wants the first draft to be his last draft. So while he doesn’t describe the process of writing a script, what he describes in his emails to Cook is the process he puts his mind, body, and emotions though as he squeezes out yet another 10 pages before collapsing at 3 a.m. or sunrise.

Some of the book’s most horrific passages to me include his self-laceration before the altar of his procrastination. He oftentimes doesn’t start his script until well after it’s due, and sometimes not even then. He is constantly terrified of the challenges that are set before him and that he sets before himself – how do you whip up a galaxy-spanning story when you’re dog-tired from rewriting other scripts, making decisions about what effects to cut from another script to meet the budget, and worrying about leaks to the press that will be badly managed by BBC Publicity?

He is blessed by having understanding producers who rearrange schedules and budgets so he can have the creative room to craft his story and script – and still he procrastinates! Davies laments to Cook that the cast is off to watch a concert being given by a recent guest star on the show, yet he is stuck in Cardiff writing a script. On the side, he’s also created a spin-off series called “Torchwood” and with other writers crafts a 5-part story that will air on 5 consecutive nights. He attends story meetings, they hash out the fates of certain characters – and still he hasn’t started writing his share of the scripts, which leaves the other writers having to write around him.

A Doctor Who Christmas story, “The Next Doctor,” had a grand but rather weak ending. Davies writes on seeing the episode later that he knows now what the problem was and how to solve it, but of course it’s too late. His procrastinatory writing style and the unbelievable pressures of being responsible for a multi-million pound franchise that employs hundreds of people in Cardiff take their toll.

As a writer, I was most interested in what he says he does and what he actually does. He says he hates writing treatments (a precis of the story’s plot and themes) and yet proceeds to write treatments in his emails to Cook. And when he realizes that he’s done so, he’s surprised to find that he’s solved a thorny story problem or gotten an idea that will spur the next burst of ideas and decisions. I wanted to ask Davies – are you listening to yourself? Are you seeing what actually works for you?

Davies often has some poignant regrets and reflections on the way that “Doctor Who” chews up and devours his energy and ideas. I was not aware that Davies rewrote every script before he considered it good enough to pass along to the production crew. Oftentimes, the amount of work he put in would have earned him a co-writer’s credit yet he refused to take on-screen credit for it. (This is probably why, even though the stories in the RTD era may have been uneven, the tone and voice of the show remained consistent throughout. By contrast, the Moffat era’s stories have varied in both quality and tone.) So, in addition to the stories he is in charge of writing, he’s also rewriting every script that he has commissioned from other writers. The Writer’s Tale  includes an example of a few pages of script submitted by another writer and then Davies’ rewrite of the scene; it’s fascinating to study. The information from the original script is there, but the patter between the Doctor and Donna in Davies’ rewrite is more lively, energetic, and funny.

Steven Moffat has said that the writer must think about the big, action-packed movie idea he’s been waiting years to write –  and that’s a good place to start a Doctor Who story. Davies complains and rages that some of his best ideas, the ones he was saving for a miniseries or when he had more time to really develop them, have to be sacrificed to the merciless production schedule. Case in point: the dark “Turn Left,” which supposes that the Doctor died and then all sorts of disasters happen to Earth that he could have prevented. The result is England as a police state – an idea and image that Davies wanted to address as a subject on its own. Instead, due to production mishaps (including his own procrastination), he has to sacrifice a cherished idea to be a subplot on a Doctor Who story. He bridles and kicks and screams about the unfairness of it all and it kills him to know that he has no alternatives. The story needs to be written. He has no other ideas, or no other ideas that will work. And the show must go on.

Another worry he has – and a legitimate one, I think – is his fear that his time on Doctor Who will leave him so changed that he can’t anymore write scripts about two people simply sitting in a kitchen and talking. Davies made his name writing comedy and drama, not science fiction (even though he had been a Doctor Who fan all his life), with two shows in particular that brought him to the public’s attention: “Queer as Folk,” about the lives of three gay man in Manchester, and “Bob & Rose,” about a love affair between a gay man and a straight woman. These are real people in the everyday world, free of genre considerations. But will he be able to go back? Since leaving Doctor Who in 2010, he helped write and produce another “Torchwood” mini-series and is planning a series called “Wizards vs. Aliens.”

Throughout the book, and as evidenced by his long, funny, chatty, gossipy emails, Davies lives the life of a working writer. That’s what I most admire – he is not precious about the writing process or about the profession. Writing is a job and the writer shows up to do his job – end of story (so to speak). He knew he was in charge of a show that consumed an enormous amount of public money, and he was zealous in ensuring the public got its money’s worth. While he has a generous spirit and seems to be a genuinely nice man, I have no doubt he could be maddening to work with and could be cold in dealing with personnel or other issues that would affect the show’s quality.

I am hoping someone is planning to do a similar book with The Moff! And if they don’t, that’s OK. For me, The Writer’s Tale is a book so big and so rich that I will happily re-read it every Christmas.

 

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This is why my favorite quote on writing comes not from a book about writing but from a book about meditation—The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise by Karlfried Graf von Dürkheim. Though he wrote about Zen meditation practice (and unfortunately in a sexist way), most of what he says applies to the practice of writing as well:

“Only to that extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring….

"Thus the aim of the practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a man to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered….

"Only if we repeatedly venture through the zones of annihilation can our contact with the Divine being, which is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.”

To write honestly is to pass through the “zones of annihilation.” It is to be “assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered.”

And if you’re willing to undergo all that—to see whether your ideas can survive the purging fire of editing—then you can emerge with something that’s firm, stable, and worth sharing with the world.

Panhandlers

On my old blog, I devoted a long post to thinking about moral and ethical responses to panhandling. English: Panhandler in Oceanside, California.

One economist suggested only giving money to those who are not asking for money; a playwright suggests giving when you feel charitable and holding back when you don’t.

I was reminded of that old post by this Yahoo News article on a street panhandler who, when arrested, claimed to have made $60,000 last year from begging.

What made the article more interesting were the sociological bits of how this subculture operates, such as the “Hobo Rules” (which is different from the Hobo Code):

As the man explained, the hobo rules include never making verbal contact with drivers unless to say “thank you” and taking turns with other panhandlers in a 30-minute rotation.

The Hobo Rules define the fine line between soliciting for a charity and begging:

Panhandling, or begging, is to “request a donation in a supplicating manner” versus solicitation, which involves asking for a donation. The “Hobo Rule” of not making verbal contact with people before a donation is given seems to be what differentiates what panhandlers do from solicitation.

And maybe it’s just me – and who are we kidding, it is – I found this paragraph fascinating in its explication of the city’s attitude to policing panhandlers:

Begging is a right held by individuals or organizations, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. Oklahoma City has an ordinance on panhandling four pages long and includes specifications such as: No one can beg or solicit using manners, gestures or words that intimidate a reasonable person to believe his person or property are in threat of danger; blocking or interfering with the passage of a person or vehicle; and no begging or soliciting of people entering public buildings, in line for tickets, riding on public transportation, at ATMs, within 20 feet of outdoor seating for cafes or restaurants, nor at mass transportation stops.

 

 

 

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Review: Doctor Who, S7, Eps. 1-5

I have thoroughly enjoyed showrunner/head writer Steven Moffat’s fresh take on Doctor Who, and I’ve equally enjoyed Matt Smith’s take on the character and the deepening relationship between the Doctor and his new companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). Part of the excitement may have been being in on Seasons 5 and 6 as they’ve been broadcast; I came to the 2005 reboot late and gorged on Netflix streaming of the episodes as my school and work schedule allowed. The redesigned Doctor Who title card for serie...

The problem with coming to the show late was that the conversations around the episodes had already happened, so it was like coming to a party late only to find the leftovers – paper plates, cups, empty bottles and cans, and handsful of snack foods strewn all over the counters and tables – after all the people have left the house and moved on to the next party. So part of my excitement about seeing the episodes as they’ve aired is also waiting to see what the reviews are like, whether I agree with them, leaving comments, and joining in the conversation myself.

I do have to often remind myself – this is just a TV show and there are reasons beyond reasons why stories and seasons work out as they do. Reading The Writers Tale by previous showrunner and the man responsible for the series reboot Russell T Davies showed just how haphazard and crazy-making is the production that goes on behind the scenes. I’m sure Moffat’s reign has been no different. That so many good episodes get made that delight so many people is something to be thankful for, and I usually find something to enjoy even in the so-so episodes.

Anyway – the final episode of this mini-season aired over the weekend, so here are my (I hope) capsule comments. And keep in mind I’ve only seen these episodes once, so, caveat emptor. Also – Spoilers!

Asylum of the Daleks

Well, I babbled on all about this episode in a previous post. I’ll reiterate that, despite the story’s longing to impress with its epic scale, it still felt like a small episode. Small emotionally, that is. I could never believe that Amy and Rory would have separated, so that seemed like fabricated conflict and it was never referred to again (much like Amy’s inability to have children; she adjusted to that pretty well, didn’t she?). But the Doctor’s discovery of Oswin’s true nature – and the show’s toying with the audience all the way through till the twist – is classic Moffat and was absolutely brilliant. He has a weakness for being too clever by half and loves high-concept structures (such as Donna Noble’s life in the library, which used the standard TV technique of jumpcuts as part of the storytelling method).

Still, a throat-grabbing season opener, written with his typical quickness and smash-panache. It’s probably unfair to ask other writers to create Moffat-type blockbuster stories; he’s really the only one who can do that kind of story justice. And he’s one of the few to actually play with timey-wimey stories, though I fear he over-relies on certain types of time-travel stories to the exclusion of others.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

A romp, which is what was called for, but not a story I’ll come back to often. The villain was the kind of unrelieved evil bastard that we rarely see in the series and I was frankly glad for the Doctor to send the guy to his reward, morals be damned.

What I liked most, though, was the interplay with Rory’s Dad, Brian, and the changes that occur to him due to his adventuring in the TARDIS.

Amy, particularly, finds herself still to be the girl who’s waiting for the whine of the TARDIS. Why is the Doctor’s gaps between visits getting longer and longer? Also, that chilling moment of dialogue that Steven Cooper captured so well in his review:

When Amy tells of her fear that one day he’ll simply stop showing up and she’ll be left waiting forever, he promises her, “Come on, Pond. You’ll be there till the end of me.” Amy cheerfully replies, “Or vice versa,” and then there’s an odd, rather horrible pause until the Doctor finally says softly, “Done…” He immediately pretends that he just meant he had finished what he was working on, but it’s obvious that something important has been set in motion. An ominous portent for the future, and a signal that the time for carefree adventuring is over.

Also, the way he looks longingly at Amy and Rory as they gaze down at Earth. The look of immense sadness on the Doctor’s face is a signal to me that he already knows their future. And this is one of his last chances to let that sadness show.

A Town Called Mercy

Not much of Amy and Rory in this episode, but a great setting and a moral quandary reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Doctor is better used here, and the acting and speeches are all done to a faretheewell. For such a talky episode, I found it absorbing. Definitely one I’ll see on a threepeat.

The big honking bash-us-over-the-head-with-it clue is that the Doctor was taking the Ponds to a Day of the Dead festival. Oh come on! Isn’t that a little too on the nose?

The Power of Three

Most reviewers commented that this felt like a classic RTD episode: invasion of Earth, big emotions, UNIT. Good stuff and props to the writer Chris Chibnall for delivering an episode that delivered on the emotions but not so much on the story.

I agree with most of the reviews that say the ending did not live up to its promise, but when does that ever happen in most stories? The premise is always the best part, with Acts 1 and 2 exploring the implications of the premise. Act 3 usually comes up short. It’s even worse in genre stuff like science fiction or Doctor Who (I like The Moff’s description of the show as fantasy and fairy tale). As Harlan Ellison has said of writing science fiction, the emotional and intellectual content has to always sink below the level of the rococo furniture of plot, pacing, logic, etc. How many really great Doctor Who endings have there been? RTD hit the reset button multiple times, as did The Moff in “The Big Bang,” so let’s just be glad the ending didn’t take up more time.

The A story for me was the Ponds finding that they enjoyed real life, non-Doctor life. I couldn’t quite believe that Rory missed the running around and adventuring; he always struck me as the one most likely to want to settle down and live a normal life. And Brian’s pointed question to the Doctor of what has happened to his previous companions was gloriously and gravely delivered by Matt Smith.

“Some left me, some got left behind, and some—not many, but… some died. Not them, Brian. Never them.”

Does the Doctor know at this point what will happen next? If he does, how dare he look at Brian in the face, and smile, and salute? Even so, that final moment is gracious and wonderful.

The highlight, the sheer emotional pinnacle of the season thus far is the conversation between the Doctor and Amy, where he confesses his love for both Rory and Amy – “you’re imprinted on my hearts” – and that he’s never running away from things, but running to them before they fade – as Rory and Amy will fade. It’s a heart-choking moment as they simply sit and enjoy each other’s company. Amy is the companion whose life has been the most affected – even abused – by her time with the Doctor. It’s astonishing how Gillan lets Amy absorb those experiences and still find peace and happiness with both Rory and the Doctor.

Again – is this the Doctor stealing one last moment of closeness with the Ponds after the New York adventure? Just because we see these stories in a particular order doesn’t mean Moffat isn’t playing timey-wimey games with us.

The Angels Take Manhattan

Oh. My. God. I had to watch the last 20 minutes standing up as I was too anxious and scared to sit without squirming. Typical Steven Moffat story! Timey-wimey, breakneck speed, fabulous images, chilling plot twists, and darker, more jagged emotional edges for the Doctor. I was aghast at how he left River to get herself free of the Angel and then not noticing the price she paid to get free – and her determination to keep him from knowing the price all of his companions pay. Although River didn’t play a big part in the story’s big moments, her presence made this a family episode and she lent considerable weight to the emotional moments.

Amy and Rory are getting older, as is River – but not the Doctor. The Doctor loves Amy and Rory but we know he also likes the company of the young and can’t bear to see these short-lived humans he loves wither and die. How to resolve this? And – the actors playing Amy and Rory have stated they don’t want to do any cameo appearances on later episodes. The Ponds’ farewell has to be final, and Moffat must craft that type of story. (Unless he’s lying. Rule One: Moffat Lies.)

Yes yes yes, there are plotholes. (How come Amy and Rory aren’t scooped up the big Angel when they’re not looking at her? Why aren’t the Doctor and River taken by the graveyard angel? Where do Amy and Rory wind up when they’re sent back?) But as Moffat has said, the scene on the roof with Amy and Rory is where they grow up, where they come into their own and are free of the Doctor. The Doctor offers little help to anyone in this episode and suffers the most loss. The cleverness that enabled a reboot of the universe and escaping death on the beach is not present here. Amy’s final scene, as she has to say good-bye to the Doctor and give instructions to River without turning to look at them, was powerful and wrenching. I’m sad that Rory didn’t have a similar farewell scene, but his moments on the rooftop made up for that.

Notice how the headstone didn’t include their years? Probably not significant. The point was to show that they had lived long, full lives – without the Doctor. And continued to help him with the writing of the novel that provided the clues he needed to get him out of the dilemma with the Angels. That device is so reminiscent of what Sally Sparrow does in “Blink”; Moffat really loves to pieces and overuses the Bootstrap paradox of time travel, and I dearly wish he could think himself out of that device and play a little more.

I so, so want a few lines in a future episode where he looks them up in old newspapers or books – why did they stay in New York? How did they survive their first days in New York with no ID, no money, no friends, no comforts of home? How could two people used to the comforts of the modern era adapt to mid-20th century life? But then, hadn’t they survived much worse? Maybe it’s enough to know that they lived happily ever after and – though they didn’t decide it on their own – had stopped waiting and started living.

Final stray thoughts

  • I’ve enjoyed Moffat’s series-long arcs, with all their clues and secrets that only made sense after the season was up and I saw the episodes again. Despite Moffat’s contention that this mini-season would be made up of standalone blockbuster episodes, I still think he has laid clues and elements that tie the stories together into a whole. I can’t wait to watch these episodes again, now that the Ponds – I should say, the Williams – have well and truly left the scene.
  • One of the visual motifs many commenters noticed was that each episode had blinking, buzzing light bulbs on the verge of going out. I don’t think that has any deeper significance than being a visual/sonic element to tie these stories into more of a thematic whole. I will note that Moffat likes buzzing light bulbs; just watch “Jekyll.” Also, I remember Francis Ford Coppolla talking about a scene in “Godfather II,” where Vito Corleone’s first victim pauses in a hallway to screw in a lightbulb that’s blinking and buzzing. Coppolla’s contention, as I remember it, was that something odd has to happen just before a major explosive event, something out of the ordinary that signals the extraordinary that is about to come. Think about those eerie moments before Sonny is killed in “The Godfather”; he knows something is wrong but doesn’t know what. Similarly, I think Moffat told the writers or production team to throw in some buzzy light bulbs to signal to the audience that something was about to happen, so keep watching.
  • One of the thematic motifs for this season has been endings, growing older, and growing up. Amy and Rory are aging faster than their friends, she needs reading glasses, River needs to keep up a bravura front (wasn’t she supposed to be growing younger?). But the Doctor hates endings and the Doctor never ages. As one reviewer has remarked, series 5-7 have been about the companions – these stories have been about Amy and Rory’s journey.
  • I think the blockbusters idea sounded great on paper and made for great-looking episodes – better than anything seen in the RTD era – but their size and scale failed to deliver what a good bottle show like “Amy’s Choice” could. The stories were so big and so swift, yet had to compressed to less than 45 minutes. that there was no time to let the emotional moments breathe. I missed those moments.
  • Various reviewers made much of Amy’s repeated warnings to the Doctor not to travel alone, that traveling solo unmoored him from his moral bearings. No one ever mentioned that Donna Noble said this to the Doctor way back in “The Runaway Bride.” So I couldn’t help but think this was simply reiterating a point that had been made very effectively years ago. And I couldn’t see right off what Amy’s observation added to it.
  • Also, let’s remember – it’s early days yet. After I’ve lived with these stories for a while, and seen the episodes again, I may feel very differently. Moffat’s stories have always rewarded repeat viewings.
  • Can we have a round of applause please for Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill? I was not impressed by Gillan in “The 11th Hour” but by the time of “Amy’s Choice,” I thought she was great and she only got better, with “The Girl Who Waited” being her masterwork. And Darvill, stuck with a potentially thankless part, made the most of it and became a great source of decency, strength, humor and humanity in the stories.

I may yet have another Doctor Who related post up my sleeve at some timey-wimey in the future. Until then – waiting impatiently for the Christmas episode!

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Having fun with Wikipedia

Wikipedia has become such a daily part of my online life (like email – remember life before email? Anyone?), that it’s both startling and a little thrilling to find outré articles or even stray sentences and paragraphs that make me do a double-take and read them again to make sure I read them right. English: Unidentified man wearing Max Headroom...

There’s something about that flat, unemotional, just-the-facts style that makes the bizarre content even more absorbing and, in some cases, hilarious. Like in high school, when we were first introduced to the thesaurus and promptly looked up all of the synonyms for “prostitute.” (Forgive! We were kids! The words sounded funny!)

Herewith, a selection of Wikipedia articles that have caught my eye over the years. And stuff that I spent way too much time this evening discovering for this post.

Some excerpts are just sentences that I found worth keeping or pondering; others will, I hope, lead you to click through and read the full articles. There are many funny, weirdly interesting, unusual, poignant, and even downright creepy stories lurking within Wikipedia’s vast and lightly inhabited archive.

At the bottom of this post are some links that can help you with your own explorations.

Polybius (video game)

Polybius is a supposed arcade game featured in an Internet urban legend. According to the story, the Tempest-style game was released to the public in 1981, and caused its players to go insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress, horrific nightmares, and even suicidal tendencies. A short time after its release, it supposedly disappeared without a trace. Not much evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered.

Walter Cronkite

Cronkite trained himself to speak at a rate of 124 words per minute in his newscasts, so that viewers could clearly understand him. In contrast, Americans average about 165 words per minute, and fast, difficult-to-understand talkers speak close to 200 words per minute.

Florence Foster Jenkins

From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy … Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins apparently was firmly convinced of her greatness. She compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the abundant audience laughter during her performances as “professional jealousy.” She was aware of her critics, but never let them stand in her way: “People may say I can’t sing,” she said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

Doll Man

The covers of Doll Man’s comics frequently portrayed him tied in ropes or other bindings, in situations ranging from being tied crucifixion-style to a running sink faucet, to being hogtied to the trigger and barrel of a handgun. The persistence of this male bondage motif in Doll Man comics among others can be contrasted with other comic books which historically portrayed women in positions of vulnerability and submission.

Um, the er, um, f-word

Battle of Ryesgade

The Battle of Ryesgade was a nine-day series of street fights in mid-September 1986, in the Copenhagen street Ryesgade. It was the most violent event in a long-standing conflict between the Copenhagen city council and the city’s community of squatters. Faced with an ultimatum to leave their illegally occupied housing or face eviction, the squatters instead fortified the streets around their building so strongly that it became a cop-free zone. They took advantage of this lack of control by burning down a building belonging to the Sperry Corporation. For nine days, massed police unsuccessfully attempted to evict the squatters. The civil disorder was of a magnitude never before seen in Denmark. After communicating a manifesto through the media, the defenders finally abandoned the squat and dispersed without being apprehended.

Outsider music

Lucia Pamela (1904-2002) was a St. Louis, Missouri-born multi-instrumentalist and former 1926 Miss St. Louis who, in 1965 recorded the album Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela. The self-funded album (released in 1969) consisted largely of Pamela breathlessly telling listeners of her adventures in outer space where she meets intergalactic roosters, Native Americans and travels upon blue winds.

Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion

The Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion was a television signal hijacking in Chicago, Illinois, on the evening of November 22, 1987. It is an example of what is known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion. The intruder was successful in interrupting two television stations within three hours. Neither the hijacker nor the accomplices have ever been found or identified.

Scroll down to the external links section of the Wikipedia article and watch a recording of the video on YouTube.

Henry Darger

Henry Joseph Darger, Jr. (ca. April 12, 1892 – April 13, 1973) was a reclusive American writer and artist who worked as a custodian in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously-discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story.

Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon vividly recalled being in the same room with L. Ron Hubbard, when Hubbard became testy with someone there and retorted, “Y’know, we’re all wasting our time writing this hack science fiction! You wanta make real money, you gotta start a religion!” Reportedly Sturgeon also told this story to others.

Pen spinning

Pen spinning is known as “pen mawashi” (compare for example mawashi-geri, “round-kick”) or, more disparagingly, “ronin mawashi” “college student spinning” in Japan where the pastime has been popular since at least the 1970s, and where the Pen Spinning Association Japan is now dedicated to promoting the aspiring art form.

Ishi

Ishi (ca. 1860 – March 25, 1916) was the last member of the Yahi, the last surviving group of the Yana people of the U.S. state of California. Widely acclaimed in his time as the “last wild Indian” in America, Ishi lived most of his life completely outside European American culture. At about 49 years old, in 1911 he emerged from the wild near Oroville, California, leaving his ancestral homeland, present-day Tehama County, near the foothills of Lassen Peak … Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to the man because it was rude to ask someone’s name in the Yahi culture. When asked his name, he said: “I have none, because there were no people to name me,” meaning that no Yahi had ever spoken his name.

User:Ardonik/I ate my cat

I’m using this page to record translations of the English phrase “I ate my cat” in (hopefully) every written language ever conceived by man.

Michael Fagan incident

Michael Fagan (born 1951) was an intruder who broke into Buckingham Palace in Central London and entered the Queen’s bedchamber in the early hours of 9 July 1982. The unemployed father of four children managed to evade electronic alarms as well as both palace and police guards.

The Game (mind game)

The Game is a mental game where the objective is to avoid thinking about The Game itself. Thinking about The Game constitutes a loss, which, according to the rules of The Game, must be announced each time it occurs. It is impossible to win most versions of The Game; players can only attempt to avoid losing for as long as they possibly can. The Game has been variously described as pointless and infuriating, or as challenging and fun to play. As of 2010, The Game is played by millions worldwide, although in theory, the whole world is playing it.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” is a grammatically valid sentence in the English language, used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs.

Boston Molasses Disaster

The Boston Molasses Disaster, also known as the Great Molasses Flood and the Great Boston Molasses Tragedy, occurred on January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. A large molasses storage tank burst, and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The event has entered local folklore, and residents claim that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses.

 Lenna

Lenna or Lena is the name given to a 512×512 pixel standard test image which has been in use since 1973, and was originally cropped from the centerfold of November 1972 issue of Playboy magazine. It is a picture of Lena Söderberg, a Swedish model, shot by photographer Dwight Hooker. The image is probably the most widely used test image for all sorts of image processing algorithms (such as compression and denoising) and related scientific publications.

Five Tibetan Rites

The Five Tibetan Rites is a system of exercises reported to be more than 2,500 years old which were first publicized by Peter Kelder in a 1939 publication entitled The Eye of Revelation. Although practically nothing is known about Kelder, one source reports that Kelder was raised as an adopted child in the midwestern United States, and left home while still in his teens in search of adventure. In the 1930s, Kelder claims to have met, in southern California, a retired British army colonel who shared with him stories of travel and the subsequent discovery of the Rites.  Originally written as a 32-page booklet, the publication is the result of Kelder’s conversations with the colonel.  The Rites are said to be a form of Tibetan yoga similar to the yoga series that originated in India. However, the Five Rites and traditional Tibetan yoga both emphasize “a continuous sequence of movement” (Sanskrit: vinyasa), whereas Indian forms focus on “static positions”. Although the Rites have circulated amongst yogis for decades, skeptics say that Tibetans have never recognized them as being authentic Tibetan practices.

Cool Wikipedia lists

Wikipedia:Unusual articles

This page is for Wikipedians to list articles that seem a little unusual. These articles are valuable contributions to the encyclopedia, but are a bit odd, whimsical, or something you would not expect to find in Encyclopædia Britannica.

The motherlode of pages to while away many a carefree hour or twelve!

List of lists of lists

On Wikipedia, many lists themselves contain lists.

Certainly, this has to count as both a ridiculously recursive title, yet an oddly noble example of Wikipedian organization.

List of common misconceptions

This is a list of current, widely held, erroneous ideas and beliefs about notable topics which have been reported by reliable sources. Each has been discussed in published literature, as has its topic area and the facts concerning it. Note that the statements here are the correct facts, not the misconceptions themselves.

Sources/References

Wasting time with Wikipedia?A great great great collection of links contributed by Web surfers like yourself. Start here.

Best of WikipediaSadly, looks like a cobweb site now, but hosts a good archive of topics.

Metafilter links:

The Wikipedia Knowledge Dump (WikiDumper.org)

From the bold to the beautiful, from the wicked to the wise, every day the Wikipedia team relegates possibly “inappropriate” submissions to the garbage dump of time. Here, we make selected “potential” rejects immortal and preserve them for posterity. (All of these entries have been nominated for deletion at the time of posting.)

Seven Most Bizarre Wikipedia Articles

Strange Wikipedia Articles - U2 Community Blog post

10 Interesting And Unusual Wikipedia Articles

Software: MacBreakz and Joe Ergo

You. You who are reading this blog post.

You have already spent an ungodly number of hours sitting down, hunched forward, staring unblinking into this screen.

Do we really need your computer to remind you that you need a break every now and then? Sadly, yes.

MacBreakz (site | YouTube) is the more sophisticated of the two. I used this software extensively when I was spending 4-6 hours a day writing my thesis. It offers a good variety of stretches and ergonomic tips. It also monitors the intensity of your activity; if you're mousing around a lot or furiously typing to beat a deadline, it will pop up a reminder to take a micro-break of a few seconds. It nags because it loves. It's more expensive ($25) than most shareware, but worth it if you spend a lot of time on the 'puter.

Joe Ergo (App Store) is lighter weight, but also much cheaper ($2). Set a time for when you want to receive a reminder to take a break and then minimize the window. Joe Ergo offers fewer stretches, but that's OK -- it's the break that counts. I set the interval at 25 minutes (yes, like the Pomodoro). If I'm only on the MikeBook for an hour or so on a weekday night, then I'll use Joe Ergo.

I guarantee you will be surprised at how swiftly the interval you set passes and how irritating you will find these reminders. Starting the software and setting the interval is your calm, wise self looking out for the impulsive, in-the-moment, future self who wants to keep clicking those YouTube links until well past your bedtime.

In addition to giving my body a break, I also want to give my eyes a break. One of my eye doctors said that, when you stare into the distance, the muscles that focus your eyes relax. But when you focus your eyes onto a bright screen only a foot or so away from your face, the muscles tense up and "go all out like a Masseratti." Both programs above remind you to do eye exercises as well.

I also put wetting drops in my eyes when I take my break. My cataract doctor recommended keeping a wetting agent of some kind nearby and to use it often. He said he was horrified to see his wife working on her laptop and not blinking for minutes at a time. As he explained it, when the eye is moist, its surface is smooth as a marble. But when you stop blinking, the eye's surface begins drying out here and there and the surface gets rougher. The result is more refraction of light, glare, and squinting.

I recommend GenTeal liquid gel drops; I keep a bottle by my monitor at work and at home. It's tough to remember to do it regularly, but your eyes will thank you.