Mallarme: “My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.”
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.
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.
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
Many people wait, wanting to be certain before they step into the flow, not realizing the flow is the path of certainty. Surrender, Dear Ones, surrender and know that through the flow you are accepting that magical invitation to be a glowing, joyous, empowered, treasured dance partner with the universe. ~Archangel Gabriel
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Now, on to my Doctor Who viewing habits:
Ross Ruediger had a rather sour take on season 6 of Doctor Who. He had problems with Matt Smith’s puppydog energy and showrunner Steven Moffat’s “celebration of the clever” in dialogue and plotting the season-long story arc, which culminated in the solution to the mysteries of how the Doctor “died” and his connection to River Song.
It’s a matter of taste. I believe Moffat when he says that kids have no trouble following the plot complications and it’s the fans and critics who complain the most. I certainly enjoyed the cleverness of how (most) everything in seasons 5 and 6 clicked together; I like trying to outguess a master storyteller like The Moff. And I don’t think the arc worked against the show’s episodic nature, although I could argue that this is a Doctor Who for the modern age of TV, and season arcs, DVD collections, and being a flagship moneymaker for the BBC necessitate all sorts of choices that couldn’t have been imagined during the Classic Series’ run.
I like Moffat’s and Matt Smith’s conception of the Doctor as a man who doesn’t ruminate and smolder over the past; there’s a colder, more cerebral, more dangerous edge to this Doctor than I’ve seen in the previous two incarnations. The choice he forces on Rory in “The Girl Who Waited” is a prime example of this
I agree with Ross that Smith is probably a better dramatic actor for this part than Tennant, but the modern Doctor is now an amalgam of producer and actor, more so than it ever was in the classic series. And, Moffat is giving Smith stuff to play with that Tennant never had. Moffat is clever and a little shifty, therefore so is the Doctor (and Sherlock!). And Smith adds his own dollop of secret sauce to the recipe; I always have the feeling that, in most every scene, Smith’s Doctor is holding back some information he’s telling no one else, and this knowledge informs the actor’s choices of glance and gesture. I daresay this is information that is never vouchsafed to the viewer.
Given that the Doctor is a time traveler, it’s inevitable that he will know more than the people around him, and so he has to guard against spoilers; therefore, he can’t really tell his companions all he knows. But also, as he hinted at in “Amy’s Choice”, he has a lot of darkness to contend with in his personal history. Being openly emotional might unravel his rather tightly wound demeanor. Without the distractions of monsters and dashing here and there and fixing the TARDIS, he would have to contend with his past. Maybe even forgive himself. Better, perhaps, to live in an eternal now – of Daleks, Amy and Rory’s marriage, life-threatening dangers, seductive puzzles – and not raise ghosts.
Ross pointed out a qualitative difference between Moffat’s cleverness and Davies’ naked emotion. For me, the emotion in Moffat’s work is more powerful dramatically because the characters are so restrained so much of the time. The Doctor’s tears at the end of “The Doctor’s Wife” and the utter joy at Amy and Rory’s wedding party are proof of that for me.
But I will allow that nothing in Seasons 5 and 6 have come close to the feelings of sadness and loss as did “Dalek” or “Family of Blood” or “Midnight” or “Turn Left.” Those moments were, I think, given some extra polish and handcrafting by Davies because those were the kinds of moments that moved him; Moffat would have emphasized different moments, different beats, different colors. That’s simply how writers are. Doctor Who is neither Davies nor Moffat; it’s both of them, and everything that came before them. And the mythos is greater because it can contain them all, from the mugging of Tom Baker to the gravity of Christopher Eccleston.
What I like particularly about Moffat’s stories, beyond the whipsmart dialogue and whiplashing plot twists (and even if it were only those things, I’d still love them), is something I never perceived in Davies’ work: the surreality of Moffat’s imagery. The child in the gas mask, the astronaut in the lake, the Weeping Angels, the mad version of London at the start of “The Wedding of River Song”: these are arresting images and TV thrives on arresting images. They’re attention-getting and get people talking. And they don’t lose their potency on successive viewings. The Season 7 opener contained one surreal sequence in particular that knocked me backwards; it was the kind of experience I’d never have had in a Davies story.
I had intended this to be a review of the first episode of the new Season 7, with a brief digression about Ross’s review. But as usual, my words got away from me. Tomorrow: my stray thoughts on “Asylum of the Daleks.”
Dear Ones, the ego self, that part of you that wishes to keep you small and separate in order to retain control, will rail up whenever you are about to take a huge leap in growth. It will do so by activating fear and doubt. So, why not, rather than allowing that fear and doubt to control you and stop your progress, see it instead as an indicator that something wonderful and empowering is about to break through? Remember all movement is forward movement and by staying in surrender and flow you will be navigating the Shift with the greatest amount of ease and assistance that is available to you. ~Archangel Gabriel
The paper dates from 2005 and it could be argued that the world it was created for has already passed. Google and now Dropbox are offering two-factor authentication to provide extra security for sites that can hold the keys to your online identity. However, if you don't have a password-generation program, Bernie's paper contains several different algorithms for generating personalized and tough-to-crack passwords.
The method relies on scrambling a word by adding numbers, capital letters, and special characters according to a set of input rules. By memorizing the input rules and a few tokens, you can create a medium to strong password for any site you visit.
So there are two parts to the following method, which Bernie explicitly identifies for generating logon passwords:
A. TOKEN CREATION
B. CREATE THE PASSWORD
Here are some examples of these rules in action from Bernie's paper:
For a Yahoo account:
So, for any new site I visit, I can generate a memorable password that has special characters, capital letters, and numbers and (generally) avoids any dictionary words in its components.
What if the site I'm on doesn't let me use special characters or imposes a character limit? I usually drop the special character and simply go as far as I can until I reach the character limit.
Again, the paper has many more examples of different ways to mix and match these rules. He includes different tweaks on the rules to generate both simple to remember and difficult passwords.
After several years of drought in North Carolina, we've enjoyed a relatively mild and wet summer with only a few counties experiencing even mild drought. But the rest of the country is suffering. The Atlantic Magazine presents a disquieting set of NASA satellite images of the Mississippi River: the first image from 2011 shows a Mississippi swollen by storms and the second, from this year, shows the drought's effects.
One definition of stress is not accepting that things are the way they are. In other words, wishing things were different.
Apart from Stevereads and the Ihnatko Alamanac have to say on the matter, I have paid no attention to the DC Comics reboot of its entire line of superhero comics. So when I see references to it in the mainstream press, I pay a little more attention.
Writing Lois Lane out of Superman’s romantic mythology just seems … weird. Like setting Tarzan in Alaska. How can you turn your back on over 75 years of all that history? I’m sure they’ll bring Lois back in somehow, and this lets the new writers cut loose on creating some new mythologies, but still … There’s something mysterious and seductive about an alien humanoid with godlike powers falling in love with an aboriginal female of a primitive species. Call me an old curmudgeon who hates change.
That said – today’s classic reading on the topic is Larry Niven’s hilarious essay, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” and that title tells you everything you need to know. The gross-out implications almost write themselves, don’t they? Sit back, relax, and prepare to snort into your morning coffee.
But if it seems to you that the songs of today don't have that same kick anymore, then science has confirmed your intuition. The BPS Research Digest summarizes an article from the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts proposing that pop songs have indeed become more sad and more emotionally ambiguous. Here's the paragraph that caught my eye:
Unambiguously happy songs like Abba's Waterloo sound, to today's ears, "naive and slightly juvenile", the researchers noted. And whilst modern songs in a similar style, such as Aqua's Barbie Girl, can still enjoy huge commercial success, they're usually seen as a guilty pleasure and savaged by critics.
I will at some point have to decide whether I can accept my pleasures as pleasures and to hell with guilt and shame.
Well, in that spirit, why not go out with one of my faves from that happy, happy time? I remember buying the 45 for this song because it had a great beat and just sounded like a fun record. I would sometimes listen to it after a hard day at my first job as a reporter for a smalltown newspaper. I put this 45 on, flopped on my sofa, and tried to draw in its energy and pulse, like it was caffeine. (This was before I started drinking coffee.) The video is meh but I recall it made a big splash when it appeared. Another sign of the changing times.