Temptatious articles to read

This is why the potential is always there for me to get nothing done. Here are some of the top links that caught my eye from today's Arts & Letters Daily and Marginal Revolution sites. I could have spent a happy hour reading all of them, but I decided to confine them to my Readability queue instead. I may actually get around to reading these items in the next few months. We'll see if they're as interesting  to me then as they are today.

 

Sad necessities and the comfort zone

For many years, I’ve taken shameful (or shameless) advantage of Top Shelf’s annual $3 web sale of comics and graphic novels from their catalog. Not everything is $3, of course – but a large number of selected items from their catalog are remarkably discounted, with some inventory they’ve never been able to shift cut down to $1. Graphic novels on display for sale in a specia...

I scanned the list yesterday and started filling out my mental list of stuff I wanted: Eddie Campbell’s omnibus volume of the Alec stories and a Jeffrey Brown collection, and a few others.

But I caught myself. I didn’t feel that little thrizzle I used to feel when anticipating the comics I wanted to buy. Sad to say, I felt a little hollow in there. I also felt a little sad knowing I didn’t really need any of them.

Beyond the financial calculation, I’d also computed the space, time, and interest calculations. Space: I’m already maxed out on my bookshelf space and have dozens of great comics and graphic novels I haven’t processed yet. Time: I’ve had some of those books for literally years, yet I haven’t read them. So what makes me think that I would treat new books brought into the fold any differently? Interest: I’m certainly curious about these books, but the visceral interest just isn’t there. I’m simply more interested in other things now.

I think the time for profligate reading is behind me. At least for now. I feel more drive and interest in solidifying my career (as a contractor, I always work on shaky ground), spending more time with family and friends, and generally being more active. In some ways, I’m reading as much as ever, but the time I can devote to reading is shrinking and I am finding it easier to shrug off some items that I previously considered necessities.

Getting out of one’s comfort zone by trying some new behavior or activity is the modern panacea for self-improvement. I’ve certainly adopted it in the last few years by taking on leadership roles, trying new activities, and taking on bigger responsibilities – all while feeling anxious and ill-prepared. Moving out of my comfort zone by doing these new things stretched me and expanded my sense of what I could do. I’m glad I did them.

A slightly different aspect of expanding the comfort zone is not doing things that previously brought pleasure. Addicts of all stripes know that abstaining is an active struggle; it’s the struggle that moves you out of the comfort zone.

My struggle this year in deciding what comics to buy at the Top Shelf sale turned into a non-struggle. I found it sad, necessary, and surprisingly easy to set aside my desire for a yearly jolt of color and novelty. I wondered what I would replace that activity with. Which is when I started writing this post.

 

 

 

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Mara Gibson: Map of Rain Hitting Water

  • Those big dogs!
  • Chatting about art, the art instinct, the artist's life, etc.
  • I found that when I practiced every day, even if just for 15 minutes, my playing got better. Weird.

Mara held an annual recital for her students at the back of Boyce Piano Emporium on 15-501. I didn't realize up till then that she mostly taught elementary- up to high school-age kids, who sat at the front of the room, with about 7 or 8 of her adult students sitting behind them (along with all the parents). After the last little person played his song, Mara called my name and I could hear the titters and amused murmurs from the audience as I lumbered up to the piano to announce my recital piece.

"Hi," I said, "my name is Mike Brown and I started taking lessons with Mara about eight months ago. I'll be playing three short pieces by Dmitry Kabalevsky. And," I paused, looking around the room at the kids and parents, "I believe I'm the first person playing today who is over 6 feet tall." That got a nice laugh and Liz said later it definitely broke the tension.

Many parents came up afterward to congratulate me and expressed their wonder and admiration at my performing a recital piece in front of a room full of people. I thanked them and then waved my hand at the kids -- who had just done the same thing that I did. The parents seemed to think that performing was something children naturally did, whereas putting oneself in a position where one could fail (or succeed!) publicly was something they couldn't conceive of an adult doing.

Mara eventually left Duke with her husband, the artist Brett Reif, to finish her PhD. Since 2004, she has been on the faculty of the  Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City. She leads the life of a busy artist, academic, and mother and I'm so happy to see her making so many big contributions to her art and her community.

Mara has also started selling some of her compositions digitally: Canopy and the hypnotic Map of Rain Hitting Water (embedded below). You can listen to the full pieces and then purchase and download them to your computer. It is so cool to have a Mara Gibson playlist on my iPod!

[O Fortune, changing and unstable, your tribunal and judges are also unstable.
You prepare huge gifts for him who you would tickle with favors as he arrives at the top of your wheel.
But your gifts are unsure, and finally everything is reversed:
you raise up a poor man from his filth and the insufferable bullshitter then becomes a consul.]”

(via Chamber Music Today: medieval)

Progress Report: Content and Themes

I start a post with the intent to keep it brief, but I too often fall in love with the sound of my writing voice, and – as if I were having a conversation with myself – think about this or that idea which simply must be mentioned. I need to curb that tendency though; in technical writing, the worst thing you can do is to dump every thing you know into the documentation. It shows a lack of discrimination in understanding what to include and what to leave out. This makes the reader’s experience less pleasant and their job even harder.

For the longform essays, I try to follow the advice of academic writing coaches and start a post by writing a key sentence for each paragraph. When I see the thread of the argument, I can thicken the blessay with more detail and supporting evidence. Having decided what I will include, I am more likely to stay on track and let go of ideas or witticisms that don’t fit.

I try to. More often, I simply start typing and ramble away, generating huge rafts of text that need to be considered, pruned, tossed out, refined, etc. Whichever method I use depends on my mood, time, energy, and so on. I am consistent in my inconstancy.

I find that writing about my personal systems for organization or productivity or techie stuff are usually fun and easy to write. They can be long, though. When I write about things that are a little more personal and ruminative — such as my information packrat nature or what I find inspiring and why — I touch more chords with my reader(s). In the end, I write about whatever I want to spend time thinking about and playing with. I find that I’m not reading as much as I used to , but I’m writing more, and I think that’s a fair tradeoff.

One of my goals for the blog reboot was to burn through a lot of ideas that had piled up during the years when I was not blogging regularly. Then, after I’d gone through those, my plan was to see what was left for me to write about. But as I predicted in my first post, the more I write, the more I find to write about. I do sometimes raid the old list, but I as often pluck new ideas to think about as well.

Of course, the real topic of a personal blog is me, my life, my interests, and my exploration of my thoughts. And journaling the process of “learning as I go.” These posts are cups drawn from a well that, so far, thankfully, seems bottomless.

Progress Report: Routines

I seem to have two speeds when it comes to posting: the quick hit-and-run post with a link to something interesting, or a more in-depth musing that benefits from my walking around it every couple of days and judging how it looks from all angles.

What is also happening is that I find myself thinking about writing posts all the time. When something crosses my path, I wonder if it will make good blog fodder (blodder?). Newspaper columnists face the same situation; the column becomes a hungry beast that demands incessant feeding and attention.

My tools adapt themselves to the kind of writing I'm doing that day or week. I discovered I'm fine composing my quicker posts with the WordPress editor. Longer posts tend to start out in nvALT and may move to Microsoft Word, if I want to use the tools there. (I also keep a long list of ideas in nvALT and add to it all the time.)

I thought at one time I'd buy MarsEdit or some other desktop app to write my posts off-line, but I find that it's not really necessary. I build my posts up in layers, so the tool I use is independent of the writing/gestation process. I work on the words in several passes, move the text to WordPress, layer in the links in another, and then use the Zemanta plugin to suggest images or to spur my quest to find better ones. I don't always use the same tool for the initial drafts.

Before I publish, I preview the post and read it again in the browser; I regularly find formatting, typo, and phrasing problems that way.

This process is not bulletproof, of course. I would like a more scheduled, routine time to write and edit my posts, rather than the pockets of time I spend on it throughout the week. My drafting process feels too haphazard and too subject to disruption.

I'm at that point on the mastery curve where I've plateaued. The big a-HA! discoveries of technique and content came in the first 2 or 3 weeks, and I'm now trying to establish a regular writing routine, an assembly line that can crank out widgets in the shape of blog posts. The a-has are rather slower in coming and I need to be content waiting for the idea or insight that kicks me up to the next level.

Until then: make lots of pots.

Progress report: Epic or epigrammatic?

I started the Monday-Friday blogging cycle on July 30 and am surprised to find myself still here and churning out posts. My goal was to do 50 posts – 10 weeks of posting – and I passed the 5-week mark on August 31. So – to echo this blog’s subtitle – what have I been learning as I go? The next series of blog posts explores my typically blathering answers.

Epic or epigrammatic?

Andy Ihnatko said on a recent Ihnatko Almanac podcast that he yearns to do brief blog posts, a la John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog (my own model would be Michael Leddy’s Orange Crate Art). But whenever he starts writing, the post grows to 800 words and it’s not a brief 2-sentence comment that concisely distills his feelings on an issue – no, it’s a full-out deepdish essay that could be a chapter in a book. For Andy, Twitter is the microblog he prefers because it enforces a length restriction.

The desire for concision vs completeness is true for me. My gambit of setting a timer to write for 15 minutes worked for a week, and then not at all. When it alarms, I simply shut it off, continue writing, and maybe take a break later, if I think about it. I’m a natural longform blogger, I suppose. My posts on Doctor Who and being an information packrat were intended to be single posts with only a few sentences on my opinions. But the opinions quickly got out of hand.

I have, therefore, gotten a bit better at noticing when I will need to break a post into parts and adjusting the writing accordingly. If the goal is to post 5 days/week, then I break the long ones into multiple parts, artfully round off each part so it stands as a whole (I hope), and so meet my self-imposed quota.

This post, for example, started as a bulleted list of random sentences and ideas, which I shaped into four organized thematic sections, added links and more contextual “thickener,” as it were, and the draft mysteriously embiggened itself to 1200+ words. I was about to hit the Publish button on this monster when I thought, “Wait a second – I could get four days of posts out of this!”

And on such expedient decisions are great works of art made.

Soft animal

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
~ Mary Oliver

Assorted links

Claude Shannon, father of information theory, separated information from meaning. His central dogma, “meaning is irrelevant” declared that information could be handled as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness…It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.

Freeman Dyson, in his review of James Gleick’s book on information, in NYRB

Inspire yourself

I submitted the following YouTube videos of two artists performing immaculate work. Watch them now, and I'll talk about what I found -- and still find -- inspiring about them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tm5Ikl1AXw&feature=BFa&list=PL1B723A83ACB43835

[vimeo.com/31922652](http://vimeo.com/31922652)

Good golly, where do I start??

Let's start with the fact that I picked two performing artists -- not sports figures (don't like sports) nor writers (though I fancy myself of the writerly persuasion). I have always loved performers of all stripes -- dancers, jugglers, musicians, magicians, etc. These are people who have the courage to think they can entertain us, to show us something we've not seen before. You could call it hubris, or you can call it confidence. I would call it a belief and faith in their own skills and abilities.

Inspiration #1: If you believe you can, you can.

These are examples of the power of mastery. These are guys whose skills have been crafted, honed, protected, nurtured and sharpened over many years of deliberate practice and creating and performing songs and dances so that they can do what you saw over and over again, flawlessly. (There are other recordings of Jorgensen playing "Ghost Dance" and all of them are played at that fast tempo and sound pristine.) I'd call this the "iceberg principle" of success, except that I'm sure someone's already called it that. How many hundreds of hours of work did it take to conceive and execute those 3-4 minutes of diamond-sharp perfection?

Inspiration #2: Even Fred Astaire had to put in the hours to become Fred Astaire. Getting good doesn't happen overnight. It takes work. To echo Cal Newport's motto: Be so good they can't ignore you.

My banjo teacher has me say the syllables "e-ven" with every pluck of the string, and I am to keep saying it even if my fingers fumble through a particular passage. The goal is to keep the rhythm until I can collect myself and jump back into the song. As he puts it, "The other musicians aren't going to stop if you lose your place and start the song over. They're just going to keep playing."

Lookit how fast Jorgensen is moving those fingers! The pace doesn't stop and the rhythm doesn't slow down if he's having an off night. No matter how fast and frantic the music gets, he's calm, relaxed, poised. Jorgensen and Astaire are not just in the flow, they're controlling the flow. And they make it look easy because they've put in the work that makes the hard look easy.

In life, we don't have a band behind us pushing to keep the beat. But we have calendars and commitments to others and the seasons, among other pacesetters. Life doesn't pause until you have time to catch your breath. You have to breathe while playing like mad.

Inspiration #3: Work hard, keep practicing, and you can set the tempo (and look cool doing it). Eventually, it'll all look easy to anyone who hasn't done the work.

I have these two videos in a YouTube playlist called ENERGY! I return to these videos periodically when I'm flagging or in the doldrums. No matter how many times I see the videos in that playlist, I never tire of them. They always seem fresh. Many books and movies that were touchstones in my youth have not survived with me into adulthood, but these videos (and all the other books and music and DVDs that stock my shelves) have stayed with me for years.

Inspiration #4: Truly inspiring things stay evergreen; you can grow old with them and they will always have lessons to teach.

Finally, looking at these inspiring videos makes me feel like I want to create something as fun, as beautiful, as energetic, and as inspiring. And that, for me, may be the commonality among all inspiring things I hold close. I won't be able to play the guitar or tap dance like these guys, but I can attack what I want to do -- a short story, a blog post, a business, a PowerPoint presentation -- with energy, spirit, discipline, and (I hope) humor. These inspiring things teach me that that the audience or the customer will never see all the hours I put into the work. But if what I create connects, I want it to be a show-stopper.

My first year in graduate school, I took a course in structural mechanics taught by Bob Eubanks, a remarkable man who combined highly theoretical research with a very down-to-earth personality. He was powerfully built, bald with a little moustache, and had a habit of making noises as he breathed that combined humming, growling, and snorting. The impression he gave was that of a bull.

During the final exam, he sat at a desk at the front of the class, reading the newspaper and occasionally looking out at us. About an hour into the test, he must have seen something in our faces or our frantic scribbling that bothered him, because he got up and walked around the room, stopping behind each of us and giving a little grunt as he looked at our test papers. This was not a confidence-builder.

When his tour was complete, he returned to the front desk. “Gentlemen,” he said, “if I might make a crude suggestion… If sex is a pain in the ass, you’re doing something wrong.”

He went back to his newspaper. We all looked at each other and then at our test papers. Most of us decided to put our pencils down and rethink whatever problem we were doing. Thirty years later, when I find myself struggling with a problem of any sort, I remember Bob Eubanks’ advice, put my metaphorical pencil down, and try to rethink the problem.

Try this meditation: Imagine that you are the wood and the fire that consumes the wood. First, focus your awareness on the part of you that is the wood. You may tremble or gasp, feeling the jolt of your solidity disintegrating, your form changing. As you shift your attention to the part of you that is the fire, you may exult in the wild joy of power and liberation. It may be tempting to favor the fire over the wood, to love the burning more than the being burned. But if you’d like to understand pronoia in its fullness, you’ve got to appreciate them equally. Can you imagine yourself being the fire and wood simultaneously? Is it possible for you to experience the deep pleasure of their collaboration? * The preceding oracle comes from my book, PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.

How I rate songs in iTunes

I never fiddled with iTunes before I bought my iPod 5G in 2010 as my birthday present to myself. I found -- and still find -- iTunes to be both useful and maddening. Kirk McElhearn's Take Control of iTunes ebook is a great resource for the music fan who just wants to get things done in iTunes and I recommend it. But I daresay that one of the things within the ken of even the most novice user are rating music tracks. You can rate an album or each track of an album from 1 to 5 stars. Ratings are most useful in conjunction with smart playlists, where you can specify that only 5-star rated songs can be included or exclude any 2-star songs, and so on.

Jason Guthrie had the best selection of non-standard advice, with two ideas that I began using right away: use one-stars for punishment and rate tracks by intensity. So here's how I rate my tracks:

  • One-star tracks are songs I don't want to hear at all, ever again. One-star tracks are excluded from my smart playlists. And though I haven't done this yet, I could view all one-star tracks and simply delete them from iTunes so they never darken my earbuds again.
  • Two-star tracks are slow, haunting, somewhat melancholy songs -- Barber's Adagio for Strings comes to mind. These tracks evoke a  reflective mood. I tend to listen to this smart playlist in the morning, drinking my first coffee of the day, when the rest of the world is quiet.
  • Three-star tracks are a little more upbeat but medium tempo; the pace of a relaxed heartbeat, perhaps. Not surprisingly, most of the tunes I rate fall into this bucket and I can listen to this at any time; it's like a personal radio station of easy listening music and includes classical, pop, world, lounge, and other genres.
  • Four-star tracks are the upbeat, fast-paced tracks with a driving beat that put a silly grin on my face. "Jaan Pehechan-Ho" is the go-to example here, but so is "The Intro and the Outro." I tend to play this late in the day when my energy flags and I want a pick-me-up.
  • Five-stars ... I haven't come up with a need for five star ratings yet. So I'm reserving this classification until a great idea comes my way.

I don't rate absolutely every track in iTunes, as that way lies madness. I only rate those tunes I like well enough to want to listen to again. So my 2-, 3-, and 4-star playlists hold only a fraction of all the music I've recorded or downloaded so far, yet they're the tracks that give me the most pleasure.

The ratings by intensity reminds me of a tip I read from Michael Neill, I think, where he recommended creating playlists based on your mood. So when you're in a bad mood and want to feel better, create a ladder of playlists that take you from low to high. Start by listening  to the playlist with songs that resonate with your sad or angry mood. Then, move to a playlist with songs that are less dark, more bright. Then, move to a playlist of songs with happier associations. In this way, you can use your iPod to make yourself feel better just by listening to music.

And if you don't want to go to all the trouble of creating moody playlists, well, there's an app for that.

"Asylum of the Daleks"

Oh dear, my carefully crafted image as a man of the book and too clever by half will now fall to the ground when I talk about “Doctor Who” fanboyishness. Ah well – let the egg roll, as they say.  I don’t ride motorcycles or jump out of airplanes, I just document my little life on the web and try to pass the time agreeably with all I meet.

Please don’t look at me as I type this. It’s embarrassing.

Now, on to my Doctor Who viewing habits:

  • I usually purchase a season pass via iTunes for the SD (rather than HD) version.
  • I usually download it on Sunday morning and enjoy watching it Sunday night.
  • A day or so afterward, I read what Ross Ruediger and Steven Cooper have to say about the episode, finishing with the Wikipedia entry on the episode, to get a sense of what the mainstream reviewers thought of the show and any interesting tidbits the other fellows left out. I find myself  more in agreement with Steven’s reviews, as he packs a lot of context and interpretation into his posts, and usually highlights the best lines that really express character or emotion.
Now, Season 7 just premiered on Saturday night all over the BBC-speaking world, the reviewers have had their say. I won’t attempt to compete with them as they do a far better job than I could. Here’s some of what caught my eye from the episode, in no particular order:
  • The classic rule of writing is that the ending should be in the beginning. Those seeds should be planted early on. And it is, during Amy’s model shoot where she punches at the camera with HATE and LOVE written on her fingers. Clever Mr. Moffat – signaling his themes right from the start, punched right in your face. (With a tip of the hat, of course, to Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter,” where Robert Mitchum’s character has those letters tattooed on his fingers. One of those movie images that has entered into the collective unconscious.)
  • Jenna-Louise Coleman as Oswin was brilliant. As she was never in the same room as the actors she was talking to, she had to generate all the energy and interest in the scene herself. And it was impossible not to fall in love with her.
  • When Oswin bids the Doctor to “remember her,” Jenna Louise-Coleman smiles and looks directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall –  she’s asking US to remember HER. And we will, when she reappears in the Christmas special. Despite Ross’s impatience with the season 6 arc, it looks like The Moff is laying plans for another long-term payoff.
  • Making the audience see and fall in love with Oswin is rather like the device used in “A Beautiful Mind.” A clever trick played on an audience that believes everything it sees because that’s what medium forces you to do. Another masterful Moffat misdirection.
  • The moment when Amy hallucinates and sees a room of elegantly dressed men and women was so wonderfully surreal and unexpected that it took my breath away. A really bold choice; it doesn’t advance the plot, really, or reveal character, but it pushes the right buttons of disorientation and keeping you watching the screen to see what happens next. It’s the kind of moment you never see in a Davies script.
  • It was a show on a grand scale, but it didn’t feel as big or affecting as “Family of Blood” or “Amy’s Choice” or “The Girl Who Waited”. Hard to say why – possibly because it was so hard to believe that Amy and Rory’s marriage was over; the “Pond Life” mini-episodes that ran the five days prior to the season premiere showed them rolling with the flow of their odd life together. These two people have gone through fire for each other; this divorce gimmick felt like a gimmick and diminished whatever emotional power this subplot might have had.
  • Or the smallness of the show could have also been that there’s something terrifying about one maniacal Dalek on the loose or a small number of them in a confined space. But seeing a bazillion Daleks just sitting and quivering in place flattens the effect; more than one or two Daleks just isn’t scary. Though hearing a bazillion screaming Daleks is spine-chilling.
  • Loved the trapezoidal passageways in the asylum, as they call back to the First Doctor’s inital visit to Skaro.
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