Google Reader

Mike Shea praises Google Reader and then realizes that maybe absorbing so much ephemera of the moment may not be a good thing.

I’ve long used Merlin Mann’s “Probations folder” idea for news feeds, as I find I also like to scarf up new feeds like candy as I surf, only to have a bellyache later in the week when I see 157 new items lying in wait. As a result, I keep my active daily feeds down to an arbitrary number, between 25 and 30. Some of them, like LifeHacker and Marginal Revolution, can drown me in posts in a single day. Others, like PostSecret, only post once a week, so I don’t consider them active. I like to keep the number of inputs to a controllable number; it’s rather like keeping only as many books as you can stuff into a bookcase. To make room for new books, I either toss out old ones or consider whether this new one is really worth keeping.

Like Mike, I also enjoy Google Reader’s “Share” feature, as a quick and dirty way for me to go back to things I want to remember. (Bloglines had the same feature, but it must have been well hidden, as few people used it or referred to it.)

And on a related note: I’ve often thought that, when I become the benevolent dictator of the world, I would remove time limits on news broadcasts. They would last as long as they need to last, be it 10 minutes or 4 hours, depending on how news-busy the day was. Likewise, newspapers would have a weekend edition and maybe 2 or 3 editions during the week, if there was enough news of worth to warrant it. I think the pressure of a daily product that MUST BE PRODUCED leads to poor news judgments being made on the part of editors and publishers and broadcasters. And it leads to the problem Mike Shea touches on: maybe there’s too much news to absorb? How can our 10,000-year-old brains and emotional systems process and cope with all the ideas and feelings this morass of news induces?

I think having a few days off from the news (a news fast, as some call it, or even a Google Reader fast) gives our brains time to sort and judge and evaluate. Otherwise, we’re stunned into a submissive state that only wants more more more input to keep our neural networks tingling and excited, when perhaps we need more more more time to mull, consider, and ponder.

The Sociology of Suicide Notes

From the newsletter that accompanies BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed program, hosted by the ebullient Laurie Taylor:

Whenever the subject of suicide or attempted suicide comes up in conversation I can be relied upon to describe a piece of research on suicide notes that was published some years ago (even though I’ve tried, I can’t find the exact reference any more).

What the researcher had done was collect a large selection of suicide notes written by two classes of people: those who had successfully ended their own life and those who had failed for one reason or another to kill themselves (attempted suicides).

He then submitted these two sets of notes to a computer analysis in the hope that this might throw up some interesting differences in style or subject matter.

As I remember he found clear evidence that the notes written by the ‘attempted suicides’, by people who had not taken quite enough pills, or not sealed the door sufficiently well to prevent noxious gases or fumes escaping, were heavily philosophical in tone. The writers spoke at length of life no longer being worth living, of the meaningless of existence, of the impossibility of optimism.

These were in stark contrast to the suicide notes written by those who had succeeded in killing themselves. These notes tended to be much shorter and much more practical than those provided by attempted suicides. One for example simply said “You’ll find the car keys on top of the sideboard and the will in the top desk drawer.”

There are thousands of other research papers on the subject of suicide. Indeed, it could be argued that sociology first asserted itself as a distinctive subject back in 1897 when Emile Durkheim first tried to formulate a structural and cultural account of its incidence which did not rely upon any psychological understanding of individual desires and motives.

The Hands of an Artist

The Illustration Art blog has two wonderful posts on the great Mort Drucker. This one focuses on how Drucker drew hands, and this one focuses on how he drew and differentiated hair. Tiny tiny things that you don’t notice very much as a casual reader of Mad parodies, but take them away, and the experience lessens.

Artists in Love

David Apatoff has a lovely, heartbreaking post on his Illustration Art blog about a Polish student imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz, how he fell in love with a fellow prisoner, and what became of them. I don’t know where he got the story, but thank the gods that the story still exists.

"My Documents" set as read-only???

I hope I’ve just solved a nasty nasty problem that had me furious at my computer, myself, my life, and my prospects.

I’m working on a new hard drive with a fresh install of Windows XP and have been slowly rebuilding my apps and directories since January.

Recently, while working on a critical document for class, and after several hours of labor, Word absolutely refused to save the file to my hard drive. Had I been thinking, I might have tried saving the file to my second drive or my external drive. But you know how it is. Late at night, tired, and panic tends to cut out my higher self-management skills. It seemed as if the hard drive had suddenly become read-only but that was impossible. It seemed to be working fine otherwise. And it only seemed to happen after I’d been working on a document for about 20 minutes or so. Word otherwise behaved typically (I always avoid the use of the word “normal” with Word.)

Afterward, I ran the XP disk doctor and defrag, and even reinstalled Office 2000. I noticed that Word acted snappier than before. Surely, Shirley, my problems were o’er.

But just a few minutes ago, this infuriating behavior happened again. I printed out the document this time, so I could at least rebuild the document later. And then, because Google is your friend, I searched on “microsoft word not saving my documents!”.

Scanning the results led me to this IBM page from 2004 where we discover that

In Windows XP, Microsoft sets the My Documents folder as read-only…Windows XP no longer cares about the “read” state of directories, only of files. As far as the XP operating system is concerned, security permissions replaced the “read-only” folder attribute.
WTF?? I checked the properties for My Documents, and sure enough, its read-only attribute was set. I turned it off for My Documents and its subdirectories. So I’m now hoping against hope that I’ve seen the last of this problem.

Godamighty, but can Winterson write!

The British novelist Jeanette Winterson has maintained a web presence for many years. (She even went to court to protect other writers’ privileges when some wanker registered jeanettewinterson.com and refused to release it to her. She won her suit and, of course, no one thanked her for her efforts.)

Every month, she posts her latest journalism to the site, a general update column, and a poem she’s read that demands to be shared.

She’s one of Britain’s great culture warriors and, my god, does her passion for art and culture and her disappointment and hatred of the politicians and vulgarians (on both sides of the pond) come through clearly in this month’s selection of writings.

Jeanette Winterson - Journalism - The Times : Books - The Fight For Culture
“It is important to say this, because we are often fed the line that poetry and story-telling are contrived or artificial, and certainly that they are entertainment or luxury goods – in any case, stuff we don’t need. We need playstations and ready-meals of course, and cheap flights to places we don’t want to go, and two cars per family, but art? Now that’s really self-indulgent.”

Jeanette Winterson - Journalism - The Times : Books - The British Library
“I can (just) hear the arguments that not everyone wants opera or experimental theatre, (myself, I do not want war, but I still have to pay for it), but I cannot accept any arguments that jeopardise a prime cultural resource that is in trust for the nation and must be passed on to future generations.”

Jeanette Winterson - Column - March
“What any creative person needs – all they need – is not praise or blame, but an active and grown-up engagement with the process of making things. That process is necessarily experimental, either in part or in the whole, and sometimes things work well, and sometimes less well. Sometimes things work for a big audience, sometimes only for a few. That’s how it is, and I wish, really wish, that we had a mature culture, interested in creativity, that could understand that. “

Don't Fear The Creeper

Datajunkie runs a great series of scans on Steve Ditko’s “Beware the Creeper!” series that he created for DC. I actually remember having the first issue but never knew others followed.

What I like about this post is the casual examination of Ditko’s storytelling style over the series and how it changed when he returned to the character years later. Also, that it’s liberally illustrated with scans from the issues themselves.

Organizing my books

We’re studying classification in my Organization of Information class. One of my classmates shared a link to a posting about arranging and classifying your personal library by the color of the book’s spine. The link was from the Design Observer blog (though the site has been unavailable to me recently). This spurred a lot of discussion on the mail list about our own personal methods for arranging our book collections at home. Here’s my typical over-the-top response.




I remember reading a designo tract years ago suggesting you group your books by color, by size, or by the publisher’s insignia, the latter of which I found most intriguing for some reason. Imagine all the O’Reilly and Penguins and Modern Library books clumped together.

Another way to arrange your personal set of books would be by autobiographical timeline–when did you acquire them? What associations and nostalgia would they bubble up in you? (I think I got that idea from “High Fidelity.”)

I have 3 vertical bookshelves in my home office, 2 out in the room, 1 in a closet with the record collection. After a lifetime of grouping books by author or genre, I went a few years ago with a totally randomized approach. I just threw them on the shelves in no order, two-deep. Periodically, when I got too familiar with what was on the top 2 shelves, I’d switch them out with books from the lower shelves. I think I did this because I enjoyed being surprised by finding a book I’d forgotten or enjoying the juxtaposition of 19th-century diarists shelved next to “The Mole People.” It broke down the categories in my own head so that I had to keep seeing the books anew.

But it did become too much work to find the book I was looking for and I often found myself tearing the shelves apart when hunting for a specific title. I loved browsing my shelves but hated trying to find something on them.

Inspired by Marc Brodsky, I’m purging my books so that I can only keep what I have shelf space for. (Marc purged his entire collection down to what would fit on a 2-foot shelf, but I’m not that strong.) It’s an arbitrary limit, but aren’t they all? It’s a practical limit anyway.

Lord Peter Wimsey says in one of his stories that one’s library is like a carapace, a shell we carry with us that reveals signs of our travels, interests, and philosophies over the years. I’m finding lots of categories of books that I don’t need or have time for or have lost interest in, which seems kind of a shame, in a way. As a result, most of my collection is sitting in piles on the floor of my office.

As I re-shelve, the closet bookcase becomes the main Holder of The Books. I’m putting them back in rough genre/subject matter/author clumps: journals/diaries/letters, reference, essays, computer, etc. Art books tend to go on the bottom shelf, which has the most headroom, though all my Delacroix books (his journal and letters and various monographs) sit together in one place, as Hinar described. (Reminds me of how The Book Shop on Franklin Street does it; all of the biographical or other material on a writer is shelved with that writer’s novels and stories, so you don’t have to go all over the store to find the books dealing with an author.)

One bookshelf is devoted totally to my graphic novel collection, which are arranged by creator (all the Alan Moore stuff in one place, all the R. Crumb in one place). Anthologies are all grouped together. And then within those clumps, pretty much random. I’m not big on alphabetizing by author/title/date/etc. I know geographically about where a book should be, and if it’s in that region, I’m happy. The remaining onesie-twosie books are non-clumpable, and therefore randomized. The top two shelves hold unread or unprocessed books/comics/magazines.

The 3rd bookshelf has a shelf dedicated to current schoolwork/papers/registration junk, with other shelves holding most of the fiction and poetry. I tend to group authors together, but not alphabetically. For poetry, I tend to group them on a timeline from ancient sources (Greek translations, through to India, China, Japan) to modern (Wright, Rexroth, Sexton). I never noticed that till I wrote that sentence and I have no idea why I do it.

The top shelf holds the books I’m currently reading (or was reading before school threw itself bodily into my path). When I put a book I’m reading back on the shelf, I place it on the far left. Books I’ve not read recently migrate to the right, over time. So when I have time to read something, I’ll reach for the leftmost book first; I don’t have to stop and wonder where that book I was just reading went to. (When I stop reading a book, I either stop at the end of a chapter or stop so that I start reading again on the first full paragraph of the left page.)

It would be a good idea to leave about 10-20% room on a shelf for more books, but that ain’t gonna happen.

Aside: My personal book purge makes me wonder – wouldn’t it be interesting to junk a public library’s classification system every 75 years or so, and start over again with a new system based on the learnings and experience gained from using the old system(s)?

Other links of interest:

Good Questions: How To Arrange My Bookshelves?
http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/ny/good-questions/good-questions-how-to-arrange-my-bookshelves-012749

bookshelf on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/santos/27538777/

Superpatron - Friends of the Library, for the net: Books arranged by colour
http://vielmetti.typepad.com/superpatron/2006/07/books_arranged_.html

Books arranged by colour on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/popsie/156057963/

Huddersfield Public Library Reading Area on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/organised/98972109/

Huddersfield Colour Coded on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/organised/98972115/in/photostream/

The library labeled their color-shelved books as the serendipity shelves.

Evaluating Virtual Machines for Personal Use | Altiris Juice

I’ve been thinking for awhile about installing a virtual machine product. I want to read this article from the Altiris site to see what they say about the different products.

Based on my reading, Msft’s Virtual PC is the easiest to set up on a Windows machine, esp if I’ll be installing Windows XP. VMWare is the most capable, but the most complicated. Altiris’ own software virtualization product works amazingly well for virtualizing individual application installs, but I think it’s more for developers who can handle the abstractions than Joe Computeruser. (My comments about Altiris’ SVS program are on this thread at Donationcoders.com.)

Magic with a Glass Topped Table

This Google video shows some amazing illusions worked with a glass-topped coffee table. It reminds me of Slydini’s famous trick of snapping a coin through a table. But like the best tricks, it takes something familiar – a penetration illusion – and makes you see it fresh.

Jeanette Winterson - We Need Poetry

From one of Jeanette Winterson’s latest columns, this one on why we need poetry:

And in the way of things, the memory gets used to being fed something more useful than crossword puzzles, and will deliver you the lines you need, when you need them. Poetry, because it has rhythm and because it is made out of breath, is easy to remember. It fits under the tongue like a slowly dissolving pill, but there are no side-effects – well maybe there is one; the next time you open your mouth to speak, something of the poem stays with you, and laces your response. In that way, poetry makes poets out of all of us, enlivening our personal capacity to speak with feeling and with an honesty that comes of being able to find the right words.

Lotus Notes and GTD

When I was using Lotus Notes years ago and far away, I made these notes to myself of how I was implementing GTD (or at least task management) using Lotus Notes. We’d been forcibly removed from Outlook, which was familiar, to Notes, which was stark and unfriendly.

Anyway, here are the notes so I can find them again later:

1. Here’s a post I wrote years ago on the DavidCo board: http://www.davidco.com/forum/showpost.php?p=16631&postcount=8

2. Here are notes I wrote up a little while after the above post:

Herewith, some stray notes on how I’m working with GTD at my job using a variety of tools. I’m more fortunate than most, in that I have only 1 project to occupy me full-time, though many are the one-off tasks my manager assigns me. (My contract is ending in a few weeks, and the work winding down, so I have a little more free time on my hands to scribble these notes.) Apologies in advance for the length.

LOTUS NOTES – I hate it, but what can you do? Rather like David’s method of ‘dumbing down’ Outlook, I’ve done the same with Notes. I only use a fraction of its power because 1) I don’t want to be a Notes guru and 2) the IT honchos have locked down the templates so they can’t be updated.

I discovered I prefer living in the email view over any of the other views, so it’s my home base. I’ve found that I prefer a two-dimensional approach to managing my mails; this translates into a single level of folders. However, I use folder names to provide an index, which let me scan quickly for the items I need. A typical folder name will be “P: 8bit: comms plan approvals”. Translation: P=project, 8bit=the overall project name, and then the specific sub-project. When the sub-project is all done, I move those mails into the “P: 8bit” folder, which holds ALL the mails for the 8bit project. It’s much simpler for me to know that all the project mails are in one place; makes them easier to search, and so on. I have as many P: folders as I need and delete/archive as needed.

I write up meeting notes for the various sub-teams we meet with (yes, putting my college degree to work). I keep a separate folder called “P: 8bit: Meeting notes” to hold that data. Useful to troll through during the weekly review for undone next actions, who-said-what-when issues, a record of ongoing work, and so on.

I also have a series of Reference: folders for corporate spam, personal stuff, anything NOT a project. I try to avoid having lots of folders as I find that, in my cleverness to categorize precisely, I’ll put one item in this folder, forget that I created that folder, and then create a new worded-slightly-differently folder tomorrow. What a mess. So I follow the precept ‘do the simplest thing that could possibly work,’ hence a few large buckets for emails.

I find I use the Drafts folder a lot. If I’m interrupted in the middle of a mail, I save it to Draft. If I’m framing out an article or a big email to go out to lots of folks, I’ll work on it and save it to Draft. So it holds in-progress work that I can pick up again later.

To a limited degree, I do use the Copy to Calendar and Copy to To-do List functions, the former more than the latter. When I had to track the vacation schedules of the folks on our team, I’d copy their mails to a to-do list category I’d created called “Team Schedules”, with their vacation dates in the subject line. This let me quickly scan who was in or out. When they came back, I deleted the to-do. It was a handy list. But I tend to use paper for my GTD lists.

NaNoWriMo '06 - Lessons Learned

The blog went quiet in November because I decided to once again compete in the National Novel Writing Month competition. I blogged a bit about the comp last year when I dropped out then dropped back in. By then, though, it was too late and I only had about 30-some-thousand words by month’s end. I’ve since learned that this is called the “sophomore slump.”

This year, I stopped work on the short story that’s taken my attention off and on throughout this year and plunged into nanowrimo ‘06. I got my friend Sue in California to do it with me for our first comp, in 2004, and we’ve done the comp together ever since. I should add, she has won every year.

She had difficulty with her book this year, but finished just in time. I, by contrast, had it pretty easy, apart from dealing with effluvia of the moment like family obligations, job, and school work. I thought about what made my freshman effort a success, and what could I do this year to be successful again.

I decided to go back to the source: Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! book. I read it in 2004, didn’t read it in 2005, and decided that I probably should read it/skim it for 2006. I rediscovered Baty’s checklists and reminders that helped me to reconnect with what made nanowrimo fun:

  • Get a magic totem that you always have with you when you write. For me, this is my black fedora-type hat that I wear. When Liz sees me wear the hat, she knows I’m writing.
  • Get the music going. I have a Baroque playlist on Rhapsody that helps put my brain in the right mood.
  • Make the writing a priority. I’m astonished at how many low-value activities I discard during nanowrimo.
  • Have fun. This should not be work (though there’s effort).
  • Go for quantity, not quality. I think I took my story way too seriously last year. I was also trying to figure out a plot, what would happen next, which was not good for me. I worried too much about it. The main thing is to meet the daily word quota. It gave me great freedom to bring boring scenes to an end and start up something fresh.
  • This year, I read in and out of Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing, and it really turned my thinking around on plot. His contention is that plot is what you remember in retrospect. But for the writer writing, the process is more about structure: I just finished a slow passage with two people, I now need a fast passage with lots of people. Or: The last chapter took place in the past, the next chapter needs to take place in the present. The structures a writer uses to help him or her write a novel don’t have to be as elaborate as Henry James, and they don’t need to be obvious to the reader (solving that puzzle is part of the reader’s fun) but I think they’re like a rhyme scheme for a poet: they provide spaces that the writer’s imagination is challenged to fill, and that challenge is part of the excitement of writing and imagining a world and characters. They also help to pull the writer along and keep the discovery process fresh.
  • Delaney is also pretty strict about writers starting at the beginning (no funky playing around with time, few flashbacks) and, even more importantly, setting the scene. Describe the setting. I found this to be incredibly valuable in getting my character into a physical space that would often come back to play a part later in the scene. I’m a believer in this now.
The Sunday prior to Nov. 1 I was strapped for an idea. I looked through my notebook and other loose pages for novel-length ideas, and was about to do my long-unapproached ghost story, but that’s always struck me as maybe novella length, working toward a single effect, and not suitable for the grab bag that is the novel.

I was about ready to grab Sue’s idea, till I thought for some reason about all the self-help books I’ve collected on my shelves. I thought, “Hm, what if someone goes to see lots of self-help gurus? Then, I could just spew all this self-help gunk I’ve been reading for years in the character of a guru, and that would up my word counts effortlessly!”

Well, not effortlessly, maybe, but I found the experience of writing about memory improvement, tarot, meditation, and journaling all helpful in the sense of putting down what I think I know into a narrative stream. And too, it was always a pleasure to do a core dump of these subjects and see my word count go up and up without having to worry about plot, character, or emotion.

My idea for the book’s structure was that my character could go to a guru then spend a chapter consolidating his gains or losses, then off to the next guru and consolidation. A very simple two-part structure, with an introduction and an ending. Any development, if it happened, would happen on its own along the way.

The structure worked quite well (though I never followed it strictly, it did help get me started), as I was never really strapped for stuff to write, though I did often wonder “what can I put him through next?” The tarot and meditation sections both kept me busy for 3 or 4 days apiece, which I thought was pretty cool. This structure also had the very helpful gambit of bringing in someone new every couple of days. I was always surprised by who showed up to take the stage for the next bit of guru-dom, and even I chuckled to myself now and then and shook my head at what what these strange people were doing and saying.

Another thing that helped me out this year was my decision to go for 2000 words/day when I wrote. I missed about 3 days early on in the month, and the “2000K every-day” mantra eventually got me back on track. I finished two days early with an incredible (for me) 5000-word burst that finally put me over the top. (I knew I had to work late the next two nights, so I had to make the heroic effort or work even harder on those two nights to do both my work and the novel.) I find it very easy to generate about 1000-1200 words in a sitting, but that last 500-800 words were a struggle. When I could, I broke the writing up into two daily sessions about 1000 words each, and that worked very well.

Nanowrimo always teaches me something about my writing process and I learned a lot that I hope I’ll take back to my short-story writing. Someone in my writing group asked me why I did it, why not just write the novel normally. A couple of reasons would be:
  • It’s more fun this way.
  • I like doing it with Sue.
  • I need the practice. I get hours and hours of writing practice in November that I don’t get throughout the year.
  • I’m often surprised in a way that I’m not when writing normally. I didn’t know I had this idea in me, and I didn’t know that what came out would be pretty good (I’d say I got about a third or more of really good material that can be shaped later.)
  • It helps me remember that writing can be fun, that sometimes I don’t need great ideas to get started. All I need to do is sit down and write.
Links

Links Roundup - Hard Drives Failures, Flintstones

The main theme of these links is recovering or preparing to recover from hard disk failure, inspired by a co-worker’s sad experience last week. Most of these links come from the indispensible Lifehacker site (what did we do before Lifehacker??)

Recover data from a crashed hard drive - Lifehacker
http://www.lifehacker.com/software/disk-recovery/recover-data-from-a-crashed-hard-drive-146386.php

Ask Lifehacker: Reinstalling Windows? - Lifehacker
http://www.lifehacker.com/software/windows/ask-lifehacker--reinstalling-windows-137288.php

Why you need a Linux live CD - Lifehacker
“Help2Go is running an article on why you (a Windows user) should download and burn your very own Linux live CD in prepartation for your darkest Windows hours.”
http://www.lifehacker.com/software/disk-recovery/why-you-need-a-linux-live-cd-136639.php

Dowload of The Day: BartPE - Lifehacker
“BartPE is a free utility that lets you build a live CD-based copy of Windows XP that can be used for data recovery.”
http://www.lifehacker.com/software/downloads/dowload-of-the-day-bartpe-116599.php

GRC|SpinRite 5.0 to 6.0
http://www.grc.com/spinrite.htm
Hold your nose re the web design and explore the screenshots and stuff. Been around for years, has a great reputation

SpinRite - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpinRite
Includes a link to criticism of Spinrite’s marketing claims

Geek to Live: Build your “PC on a stick” with MojoPac - Lifehacker
“Set up your “PC on a stick” with portable software MojoPac, a standalone Windows installation that runs directly from a flash drive or iPod. Plug in your MojoPac-enabled portable drive into your buddy’s PC, launch Windows from it, and use any application or document directly from the drive, no footprint left behind on the host PC. Great for anyone who works on several PC’s on a regular basis - or who just wants to separate certain apps and documents from a computer they use - MojoPac is a convenient, portable Windows virtual machine.” http://www.lifehacker.com/software/windows/geek-to-live--build-your-pc-on-a-stick-with-mojopac-208338.php

Backups
http://www.langa.com/backups/backups.htm
This is the strategy I use

ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Project Blog: Biography: John K on
Flintstones Animators
“I love cartoons where you can tell the animators apart. The tricky part is figuring out what names belong to what drawing and animation styles! “The Flintstones” when it runs in syndication, has a stock set of credits on the end of each episode. They list four animators. And, if the names ever agree with the persons who actually animated a particular episode, it’s sheer coincidence. And get this… In the early days of Hanna-Barbera, one animator would animate a whole 25 minute cartoon by himself!”
http://www.animationarchive.org/2006/09/biography-john-k-on-flintstones.html

Writing the Perfect Scene
http://www.rsingermanson.com/html/perfect_scene.html
Hard-core fiction-writing structure; I like this scene stuff but I think his snowflake method is loony

Six-word stories

Catarina.net has a wonderful thread asking people to suggest six-word stories. The lead-off story by Hemingway is poignant, and one of the commenters observes that sad stories seem easier to write in this compressed form. I contributed the history professor story.

"Monday-morning lines"

John Sutherland’s Guardian article on the contention that some of Shakespeare’s worst lines were written the morning after a big drunk is amusing, though it feels kind of rushed into print to fill space on a slow news day. Alhough all of the Macbeth examples were pretty well chosen, it feels as if Sutherland is basing his argument on lines pulled at random from the text; he’s making a big statement based on weakly presented evidence.

Still, he does cite Kermode and others who testify to some of the Bard’s “crap lines.” And I don’t doubt that it’s true. Running a theatre, acting, and writing plays consumed lots of time and energy, sometimes the muse snoozes, and there’s no better way to relax your mind than to leave your workroom and get snockered.

I also assume Shakespeare wrote without benefit of an editor or readers (apart from his fellow actors), and since the canonical texts were largely re-membered by his fellow players, is it beyond the bounds of belief that maybe they threw in a few lines of their own that we now attribute to the Great Man?

The article reminded me of Anthony Burgess’ book on Shakespeare, where he says that most everyone in London at that time walked around half-drunk because there was no reliably potable water supply. As a result, they drank the beer, wine, and other fermented beverages that were safer to drink than the water.

Eh–so what? In plays that are so big and sprawling, there are places for odd lines, lazy writing, strange motivation, and lapses in the plot, just as there are places for witches, ghosts, assassinations, passion, and all other things that grab an audience’s wayward attention. Shakespeare didn’t write well-made plays, he wrote great plays. We shouldn’t be surprised that Shakespeare wrote lazy lines now and then; what’s surprising is that what he tossed off “without a blot” is still so good and still lives.

Liz cracks me up

We were driving through the miles ‘n’ miles of shopping center near the 70 and 540 intersection. As we drove down the faux Mayberry Main Street blocks of chain stores, I said, “To think, all that was here before was just trees and unproductive land.” Pause. Then Liz said, “And now, it’s servicing America.”

For whatever reason, that just cracked me up.

Al & Mel's "Lost Girls"

For a man widely described as a recluse and rarely given to interviews, Alan Moore is all over the place. First with “V for Vendetta” and now with “Lost Girls.” This page at Top Shelf Comix links to all or most of the interviews he’s been giving since the book’s release.

Top Shelf reports it’s sold out the 1st and 2nd printing, so they’re going to a 3rd printing.

Phillips on death

The world without the people who matter to us is not the same world and so not the world at all. Life becomes progressively stranger as we get older - and we become increasingly frantic to keep it familiar, to keep it in order - because people keep changing the world for us by dying out (mourning is better described as orientation, the painful wondering whether it is worth re-placing oneself).

Adam Phillips, Side Effects

Doppelganger

I blogged about my new Honda Fit earlier this summer. Given that I’ve seen so few Fits in the Durham area, I felt very pleased that I was the only one on my block with a Fit, and an orange one at that.

When Liz and I left the Carolina Theater recently, we walked to the side street where I’d parked the car. (As the offical “new car” in the family, the Fit is the default go-in vehicle for errands and trips.) As we walked, Liz thought she saw a Scion, also orange, parked across the street.

But no–parked directly across the street from my orange Fit was another orange Fit. WTF?!? I thought I was the only one with an orange Fit in Durham! It was spooky, let me tell you. And that neat feeling of being the only kid on the block with a new toy faded quickly away.

Rating my GRE study materials

Part I dealt with how I prepared for the GRE. This is Part II.

  • Flash cards. The best thing I did was create my own flash cards. I used the Princeton Review book as my basis, but any of the books would have done. This made the learning more personal, and I could put page references to the book on the card, in case I needed to refresh my memory. (All of the GRE books seem to not believe in indexes, and the tables of content seem undernourished.) I referred to these when waiting for the bus to take me to class and found myself really liking them. They’re a useful tool if you believe in the “little and often” strategy.
  • Sample tests. The best thing about the CDs that come with the practice books are the sample tests. They’re timed to resemble the actual test, and the Kaplan and PowerPrep tests mimic the actual interface used on the actual GRE test. It’s great rehearsal for what happens. They don’t operate exactly the same as the real GRE; the real GRE questions calibrate to your answers, pushing harder questions on you when you answer correctly and easier questions when you get them wrong. But it’s good enough so the experience on test day isn’t so alien.
  • Practice books. The best tell you what to expect, explain the basics behind the math concepts, and offer sample tests. After you’ve read about the concepts and the formulas, really the only thing you can do is practice practice practice, and that’s the value these books provide. But why in God’s name are they so frickin’ oversized? What’s the idea? The smaller-sized Barron’s Passkey book was much friendlier and more portable for just that reason.
  • GRE PowerPrep software and GRE 10th edition book. Written by the makers of the GRE test, the book was OK, but is official orthodoxy and so its rules are not to be taken too literally. The non-ETS books emphasize shortcuts and tactics rather than recommend full-bore seriousness.
    • The first two sample tests in the book are best because they contain answer explanations. I stopped doing the book’s tests after that because they did not explain how to derive the math answers–how can I identify what I’m doing wrong unless I’m told where I went off track?
    • The PowerPrep software was OK, but very primitive; it took over the video to render a 640x480 resolution. Fortunately, the sample tests offer explanations and look like the real thing.
    • I believe in 2007 the GRE will debut new test formats and sections, so a lot that’s familiar now to the GRE aftermarket may need significant rethinking.
  • Princeton Review book and CD. Rani loaned me these and was complimentary about the book. It’s written more irreverently than any of the others, which I liked a lot, and was a good place to start. I actually laughed out loud here and there.
    • No index, and the TOC could be better–good luck finding the section on permutations and combinations. Great answer explanations.
    • The CD is fair; it links to the Princeton website where they try to hook you with offers for more prep and tutoring. Contains 4 sample tests but these do NOT mimic the actual GRE test interface, so a demerit there; no other prep materials, so another demerit.
    • Nevertheless, a good and friendly place to start and I used the book’s tactics quite a lot as I worked through the GRE today. It’s got a great procedure for handling the quantitative comparison questions, including the best explanation of permutation and combination questions I’ve read. I also appreciated its templates for the essay questions.
    • The CD sample tests track your scores so you can see how they improve (or decline, in my case) as you progress. I found these scores to be similar to the actual scores I got.
  • Arco. I think this is the name of it (I’ve already returned it to the library). Fair explanation of math concepts, OK math questions and explanations. Good for extra practice but not serious study.
  • Barrons. I had the big book from the library, which I wound up not using because I ran out of time.
    • However, I bought a smaller trade paper, the Passkey to the GRE, from B&N and found that very useful; it seemed to include most of the important material from its big brother and took up less room in my bag so I could carry it to work and read it at lunch. (The Passkey book does not include a CD.) Its math section condensed all the math facts you needed to know and memorize in one section, which I found myself constantly referring back to when I needed the formula for figuring the area of a trapezoid. 12 points for convenience right there.
    • The Passkey contains 3 sample tests and lots of math practice questions with good explanations. I found the math problems REALLY hard, and they seem to favor really tough geometry figures–find the area of the non-shaded portion of a square filled with four shaded semi-circles, that kind of thing.
    • One of the interesting things about my personal learning process was discovering that sometimes I did way too much calculation, and other times I used shortcuts to get an answer that Barrons would explain in the most elaborate way. It’s an odd thing: most of these books say “don’t waste time calculating,” yet they explain the answers to their questions in ways that involve elaborate calculation.
  • Kaplan 2004 GRE review. Richard at work loaned me this book/CD. Of them all, I’d place this at the top of the heap. The book had great advice, somewhat different from the Princeton book, and I liked reading the differences. For example, Princeton provides sample templates for the essay questions. Kaplan instead recommends writing the body of the essay first, and finishing with the intro and conclusion, which I found to be excellent advice.
    • They also had great test-day advice, such as avoiding coffee, eating lightly, and bringing a small snack to stave hunger.
    • The book contains good explanations of math concepts and good sample questions and vocabulary.
    • The CD is good and bad. It has lots of helpful resources for refreshing yourself on math, including a flashcard program for math and vocabulary, good overview of the basic math strategies, and a diagnostic test that highlights your problem areas so you can create a personalized study plan.
    • The CD includes 3 sample tests that mimic the GRE interface and provide an amazing amount of detail on your test-taking style. For example, after finishing a test, Kaplan shows you the five questions where you spent the longest periods of “think-time” plus whether you answered the question rightly or not, questions where you changed your answer (and whether you switched from incorrect to correct or correct to incorrect), and a brief estimation of your performance.
    • One of the eye-openers for me was its observation that I tended to spend lots of time on questions where taking the time didn’t make a difference–I tended to get those questions wrong anyway. This played into how I handled tough questions on the actual test.
    • So lots of great resources are on the CD. Unfortunately, the CD is mired in the worst of late-‘90s multimedia production: cutesy animation, overly clever script-writing, plonky music, video snippets of actors giving you test advice, etc. And the UI takes over the monitor–there’s no way to skip these damn videos once they start. So to get to the great content, you have to suffer through excruciating UI design. Perhaps the more recent editions are better; I hope so, because the material is excellent.
  • Exambusters GRE study cards. Business card-sized flash cards; probably best for studying vocabulary. I didn’t find them as helpful to me as my homemade flash cards and rarely used them.
I learned too late that my local technical college offers a GRE math prep course. Had I known about it beforehand, I’d have surely signed up for it.

But I think there comes a point where, you know, I’m not going to progress much further than where I am right now. When I found myself consistently missing about half of my questions and getting well below 600 on my math questions, I figured that I’d hit the wall. Carbo-loading wasn’t going to help. So I hoped to get at least a 580 so I’d meet the minimum grad school requirements. To get 640 exceeded what I dreamed I could do.

My standard reply to this is: the questions must have been easy. But maybe a more uplifting answer is that I was exceptional today – and lucky.

V:800 Q:640

Tremble before my mighty godlike intellect, puny humans….

Atlastatlastatlastatlastatlast … After a week and a half of anxiety-producing study, cramming, and practice tests, I took the GRE General test this morning and received the above preliminary verbal and quantitative scores. (The final scores arrive in a few weeks.) My brain is still throbbing from the effort, but moreso from being gob-smacked by my scores, which were way way WAY higher than I expected. (For those who don’t know, nor care, the highest scores you can receive are 800.)

Here are my various thoughts on the GRE experience in random order:

  • I really wish I’d started earlier and worked more steadily. I learned through this and a recent oral presentation in class that when i get anxious and nervous, I get mightily distracted from everyday life around me. I need to feel that I’m on top of the situation to feel OK about how things will go. In this case, though I’d started studying in May, by dedicating my Sundays to the cause, it was too much to load onto one day. I should have instead picked sections to work on throughout the week, and dedicated 2 or 3 sessions of math to every one verbal session.
  • Thank goodness for friends who have taken the GRE and saved their prep materials. Mike had taken it earlier this year and felt so unprepared that he said he froze for 10 minutes when he saw the first math problem; he recommended I concentrate on studying the math. Rani and Richard passed along their GRE prep books and accompanying CDs, which came in handy when it was time to do practice tests simulating the GRE experience. I also checked out 2 books from the library and bought a small Barron’s Passkey book for the GRE. This was overload, no doubt, but having them close by made me feel better.
  • What helped the most? Making my own flash cards. I used these a lot when riding the bus to school last month. I stopped using them in the last 2 weeks when I turned to the CD-based review tests, but I think now I would have benefited by continuing to test my memory. One of the things that makes the GRE less worrisome is knowing the square root of 3 and knowing on cue what 4/5 is as a decimal and a percentage without having to do the math.
  • My god, I never realized how big the GRE aftermarket is, what with all the books, and online prep, and other materials. I even discovered too late that Durham Tech has a GRE math prep course, which I surely would have taken had I known about it.
  • I didn’t worry too much about the essay questions: I had general templates in mind for each type of question and trusted I’d be able to spew usable material when needed, as this is what I do for a living, folks. I think I did pretty well here. My own strategy: using the last 5 minutes to read through the essay and make sure the intro and conclusion line up, and sprinkling keywords throughout that tie everything together.
  • Since my summer class ended, I’ve spent most of my free time doing GRE math problems and taking the sample tests from the prep CDs. I’d take a GRE book to work and do 10 or 20 problems at lunch. Before I went to bed, I’d take a GRE book downstairs and work a page or two of problems. I was consistently getting about half wrong and half right. This is when it hit me that, you know, I’m only going to get to a certain level of good with this stuff, and that’s it. When will knowing the formula for finding the area of a cone ever get me out of a jam? I also finally crystallized why self-discipline is such a self-defeating strategy. Self-discipline requires imposing your will on yourself, and this constant fighting with yourself wears you out. It’s just too tiring. But when the goal means something to you, is important to you, self-discipline is not an issue at all. You just do what you have to do and suffer what you have to suffer until it’s done, so get on with it. Liz says cancer survivors are the same way; does it take self-discipline to go through chemo? No. You just know that you have to do it, no matter how painful it is. When you’re not fighting yourself, I think half the battle is won.
  • Luck is not a bad thing either. There’s a great quote from Jimmy Dean that goes, “You should push your luck every day. Because you might be walking around lucky and not know it.” On the drive to the testing center, I was going a little too fast and saw a patrolman sitting in the median, pointed in our direction. I moved to tap the brake to turn off the cruise control and tapped the gas instead. (The car is still new to me.) I swerved a bit before I regained control and expected to see flashing lights in my rearview. But no. I continued on my merry way and the cop either didn’t see me or didn’t care. As I sped along, I thought of Jimmy Dean’s quote and smiled to myself. I was walking around lucky today. This occurred to me again during the verbal test; one of the reading comprehension pieces (a test I’ve not done well on in practice) was on jazz and I enjoyed reading it. What luck, to have a piece on jazz as part of the test. Answering the questions was easy.
  • Liz wanted to see Tres Chicas the night before the test. I left work at noon, worked another practice test (on which I performed abysmally), and walked with her to the concert at American Tobacco. Although my thoughts strayed to the problems of combinations and ratios and percentage comparisons, it was good to get away from the computer, sit in the open air, and just chill. There’s more to life than the GRE and at a certain point, I realized I was not going to see major improvements in my math performance even if I worked problems for the next 12 hours straight. So I gave my mind a break and relaxed.
  • On the day of the test, I ate lightly, did treadmill for about 20 minutes, and avoided coffee. I felt pretty good, and there’s enough adrenaline anyway that more stimulant isn’t needed.
  • Liz and my co-workers will no doubt be relieved that I will now stop obsessing and talking about the GRE.
  • Well…the scores I got flabbergasted me. I honestly didn’t think I did that well. The verbal is way, way better than I thought I’d get, and the math is at least 100 points or more over what I expected. I really don’t know how it happened, because the questions were at least as difficult as the ones I’ve been working this past week. On some, I was plainly guessing, going with gut instinct. The Kaplan prep CD keeps lots of statistics on the sample test scores, and one of them that impressed me was that I spent lots of time deliberating on some questions when the final result really didn’t matter–I usually spent lots of time on questions I got wrong. So when I felt the time running long, I’d go with my best guess and move on.
  • Lessons learned: Is it possible to logically convince oneself not to worry too much? Or is that hard-wired? I noticed a big decrease in anxiety when I adopted the idea, “Let’s assume I’ll get into grad school no matter what I score. Let’s assume I win.” For whatever reason, that cut away a good bit of anxiety. Also: start early and adopt the strategy “little and often.” Chip away at this stuff and let understanding grow, if it wants to. Also: maybe I should believe in myself more. On my last two big challenges, I’ve exceeded what I thought I could do. So perhaps the GRE tested me in ways I hadn’t expected.
Part II: Rating my GRE study materials.

Update: The final scores confirmed I got 800 on the verbal, 600 on the math, and 5.5 out of 6 on the two writing prompts.

Rules for Computer Use

Mike Shea’s latest essay in another in the trend of many of us who are sticking our heads up out of our neatly organized gopher holes to ask, “What was the point again?”

I prefer Copernic Desktop myself, but I really liked his very simple rules for computer use. I especially liked this one:

Don’t customize, optimize, or tinker - the result is never worth the effort.

I’m notorious even to myself for tweaking my computer, desktop, folders, etc.

I’d probably add, “Never make any changes to the computer after 11 p.m.”

I also like Reinhard’s Weekend Luddite system, though I usually need Sunday to back up the PC, run various maintenance programs, etc.

Stephen Colbert Commencement Address

Stephen Colbert’s 2006 Commencement Address at Knox College
In addition to very good advice I learned in my improv class earlier this year, he adds this:

I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.