The bones beneath the skin

A few months ago, I was struck by this tweet from HiroBoga. For whatever reason, a circuit snapped in my head and I Got It. All my little productivity obsessions and systems were all about creating my own infrastructure: my calendar, my to-do list, my inbox, my habits, all of it. If I were to look at myself and my life as if it were a business, then these are the tools I need to make sure the business runs efficiently and doesn’t fall behind. We all do it with our reminders for paying the bills, balancing the checkbook, getting the car’s oil changed, keeping receipts in a shoebox for income taxes, etc.

But these systems are not the thing itself that I want to accomplish; rather, they’re the mundane roads and bridges that help me get where I need to go.

Transitioning now to the grad-student life, I see that I’ll be an entrepreneur of a sort: I have to define my domain of interest, find interested backers and supporters (faculty to be on my committee), find funding (grants, fellowships), create a product line (articles, studies), create a network of professional contacts, etc. And this “business” needs to be supported by an infrastructure that helps me get the work done.

Reading that tweet helped me realize that what I’ve been doing this year and especially the past few months was preparing infrastructure to support me in my new life. I couldn’t have said what I was doing or why, but now I can.

So this is what I did:

  • Back in March, Liz and I sat down with a spreadsheet and looked at our finances and began thinking about how to make this transition work, could we afford it, what about health insurance, professional dues, subscriptions, mortgage, car insurance, groceries, etc. I told a friend of mine at school we were doing this and she said, “That’s so grown up!”
  • I bought a 23” Dell widescreen monitor, with an external speaker, so that I had a big, bright screen where I could tile windows and not have to squint. The speaker lets me listen to my iTunes music while I work. As has been well-documented, the biggest productivity gains come from having large or multiple monitors, and I have to say it’s been the best purchase I’ve made in a long time.
  • An Apple external keyboard, with the number pad, lots of function keys, etc. to trick out my 13” BlackBook. Great key action and easier to type on than the laptop’s keyboard. (I bought this and the monitor over the no-sales-tax weekend.)
  • The above purchases also meant a total re-think of my desk and office layout at home, and that arrangement is still ongoing. But still, part of the process.
  • Bought a new pair of walking shoes since I’m walking a lot more now on campus and to and from the bus. (Also bought with no sales tax.)
  • Speaking of the bus: I got a TTA transit card (free rides for a year, courtesy UNC’s CAP program) and a gatecard that lets me park at the American Tobacco parking deck near the Durham bus terminals. The Beauteous Liz and I made a test run of the TTA route beforehand to get a feel for how long it takes. I decided I could live with the longer ride-time since it means I now don’t have to drive through traffic, and it lets me get some last-minute reading in before class.
  • I’ve been reading tons of blog posts from Cal Newport’s Study Hacks site, which I think is an essential read for students of whatever stripe. It’s geared mainly to undergraduates, but graduate students will find plenty here to help them. Cal recently turned in his dissertation – Congratulations! – and I’m adopting several of his techniques for reading, notetaking, filing, etc. as part of my systems infrastructure.
  • I bought several hundredweight of Mac programs too – DevonThink and Bookends spring immediately to mind – to help me manage the various information streams flowing into my tiny head.
  • I also bought a cheap telephone to keep in my office, since I’m lucky enough to have a phone jack already installed. Randy Pausch recommended in his time management lecture to make sure there’s a speakerphone option, so you can work while listening to the soothing on-hold music.

Even my silly posts on writing lit reviews and research papers document my experiments with creating repeatable processes to reduce the chaos and mechanical effort of getting through school. There will always be thinking and writing, and they will always take time and will be hard work. but I want the tools, habits, and systems to help with some of the heavy lifting so I don’t have to spend thought and energy engineering a new process every time. I’ll be using this blog as a place to document some of those terribly nerdy student things.

And I hope these tools can be adapted and re-fitted to other jobs and assignments I take on as I move through the academy’s alimentary canal.

Downstream, Upstream

One of the ways to make sure a change in your life sticks is to make what you want to do so easy to do, you can't avoid it. Another way is to adjust your environment so that going back to the old way is more difficult. Not given to easy solutions, I suppose, I opted for the latter.

I've now started my first semester as a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science (SILS). I was 12 hours from finishing my master's, but it was clear to me that the master's wasn't going to help me; I was going to stay where I was, career-wise. Unlike my friend Mike, who'd gotten his MBA in the same time period and thus had both the sheepskin and the experience, I would have only had the diploma with no relevant work experience or internship to back up the education.

But I saw that I loved the campus environment and was good at this type of work. I also found very encouraging support from fellow students and key faculty. And some opportunities came my way that I did not want to ignore. So, for many many reasons too numerous and tedious to list here (though "100 reasons I'm in PhD School" would be a good topic for a post), I opted to make some severe changes in my life.

The most critical one was to leave my full-time job and drop down to about 10 hours a week--enough to cover my weekly car payment and provide some spending money. I also helped to interview and train my successor. The finality of my decision really didn't hit home with me till we started interviewing candidates: someone else will have this job and, if the school thing doesn't work out, there's no going back. That's when this whole adventure started getting Real for me.

(This may be because I'm from a generation and upbringing where Having a Job is the primary sign of worth and usefulness to yourself, your family, and your self-esteem. Not having a Real Job is just strange and odd to me, like looking at a picture of myself printed backwards.)

The image I use to describe this to people is that of a ratchet: turn the ratchet, it clicks past the notch--and can't turn backward. The ratchet only turns one way. Likewise, I've made changes to my environment such that I can only move forward; I can't go back. And while it's a little terrifying, this commitment is a good thing for me. I've left jobs before without a second thought, because I was fortunate enough to have some safety nets in place--my parents, The Beauteous Liz--and I was confident I could find another job in the local tech-writing field if I needed one. My skills were portable and I had the freedom to go where I thought the jobs were the most interesting (though after 4 years at a place, I was always ready to leave and try something new).

In this case, I am my safety net. Liz is still there, of course, as is our house, our friends, etc. But there are hardly any tech-writing jobs out there nowadays, and the good times are past when the table was so full you could live off the crumbs. This, among many many other reasons, was why I made this choice to take the fellowship and invest in myself now, rather than wait. The wave was cresting, and I wanted to ride that current as it moved downstream rather than continue to paddle and waste my energy trying to make it back upstream. And the commitment that this racheting effect enforces is important to me right now. There's no easy escape hatch back to my old life -- it's up to me to make this work. It's a challenge I feel ready for.

Links harvest

Pretty soon I will lay off the “As a Rip van Winkle returnee to your country, what I notice is….” approach. But I have to say that it is striking to come back – from the world of controlled media and not-always-accurate “official truth” in China – and see the world’s most mature democracy, informed by the world’s dominant media system, at a time of perceived economic crisis and under brand new political leadership, getting tied up by manufactured misinformation. No matter what party you belong to, you can’t think this is a sign of health for the Republic.

This wonderful but cruel game never stops testing or teaching you. “The only comment I can make,” Watson told me after, “is one that the immortal Bobby Jones related: ‘One learns from defeat, not from victory.’ I may never have the chance again to beat the kids, but I took one thing from the last hole: hitting both the tee shot and the approach shots exactly the way I meant to wasn’t good enough. … I had to finish.”

Dahl on travel and civilization

In this excerpt from Roald Dahl’s Boy, his mother asks if he wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China.”

You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magic lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous anymore. But it was a very different matter in 1933.

I love the use of that word fabulous. It saves the passage from sounding like a cranky-old-man reminiscence.

Dahl gets his wish and is posted to Africa, where he will work for three years straight, with no opportunity to visit home or see his family. I admire the detail and compression in this paragraph as he summarizes three years of his life into a paragraph.

…I got my African adventure all right. I got the roasting heat and the crocodiles and the snakes and the long safaris up-country, selling Shell oil to the men who ran the diamond mines and the sisal plantations. I learned about an extraordinary machine called a decorticator (a name I have always loved) which shredded the big leathery sisal leaves into fibre. I learned to speak Swahili and to shake the scorpions out of my mosquito boots in the mornings. I learned what it was like to get malaria and to run a temperature of 105 degrees F for three days, and when the rainy seasons came and the water poured down in solid sheets and flooded the little dirt roads, I learned how to spend nights in the back of a stifling station-wagon with all the windows closed against marauders from the jungle. Above all, I learned how to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilisation.

Dahl on the life of businessmen and writers

In the following excerpt from Roald Dahl’s Boy, he’s left public school at 18 to take a job with Shell Oil company. He is taking their internal training courses and is learning the business.

…[E]very morning, six days a week, Saturdays included, I would dress neatly in a sombre grey suit, have breakfast at seven forty-five and then, with a brown trilby on my head and a furled umbrella in my hand, I would board the eight-fifteen train to London together with a swarm of other equally sombre-suited businessmen. I found it easy to fall into their pattern. We were all very serious and dignified gents taking the train to our offices in the City of London where each of us, so we thought, was engaged in high finance and other enormously important matters. Most of my companions wore hard bowler hats, and a few like me wore soft trilbys, but not one of us on that train in the year of 1934 went bareheaded. It wasn’t done. And none of us, even on the sunniest of days, went without his furled umbrella. The umbrella was our badge of office. We felt naked without it. Also it was a sign of respectability. Road-menders and plumbers never went to work with umbrellas. Businessmen did.

I enjoyed it. I really did. I began to realise how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whiskey than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

Roald Dahl's "Boy"

A very nice habit we picked up from Liz’s parents was her dad reading to her mom. We’ve adapted that to me reading to Liz before she turns out the light for bed (I’m an owl, we stay up later). After much experimentation, we’ve decided that memoirs are the best before-bedtime subject matter. Even then, there’s an awful lot of variation in memoirs that makes them entertaining enough to read aloud and keep our interest for the weeks it takes to read 10-20 pages a night. Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy, published in 1984, is a fine example of the kind of memoir we enjoy. It’s well-written, with vivid scenes, conversations, and observations; it doesn’t sag, get overly poetic in description, or droningly philosophic in its digressions. It satisfies also what I recall Roger Ebert quoted George C. Scott as saying he wanted to see in movies: show me people I’ve never seen before, in a place I’ve never been before, saying things I’ve never heard before.

Boy covers Dahl’s first 18 years, growing up in England, attending public schools, and then his transition to manhood, just before he joined the RAF in WWII. It’s a time when boys were brutally caned by headmasters and housemasters for utterly capricious and arbitrary reasons, motor cars attained high speeds of 30 miles an hour, and anesthetic was never used when visiting the dentist or lancing a boil (he describes watching, fascinated, as a clever doctor performs the latter operation on a sick boy). Liz almost screamed several times: “Why aren’t they using anesthetic, for God’s sake?!?”

But Dahl is describing the past, a foreign country and, as LP Hartley said, “they do things differently there.” On the occasions where a serious operation is needed–his sister needs an appendectomy, his nose is sheared off in a motorcar crash and needs to be sewn back on–the doctor comes to their house, lays a clean cloth on the gardening table, soaks cotton in ether to knock the patient out, and gets down to it. Otherwise, Dahl reports, anesthetic was simply not often used in the 1920s and ‘30s, and one was simply expected to take it.

Liz also had me skip over the numerous passages devoted to boys being whipped, caned, and treated like dirt by the adults and others with power over them; the cruelty Dahl describes is simply too harsh to take. In one episode, he describes the boys perusing someone’s caned bottom and admiring the housemaster’s technique with the cool attitude and commentary of connoisseurs. Dahl at one point apologizes for telling so many of these stories, but the book is a skimming of the memories that made such a deep impression on him that they were the moments that stood out. Being whipped by a master who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury was enough to convince him that this God business was obviously wrong; and he said that, as an adult, sitting on a hardwood chair for too long awakened the feelings he had as a child sitting down after being caned, and he would have to stand up.

It’s an unsentimental look back at his life, funny, gentle, and at times horrific, very well told.

"Dreams with Sharp Teeth"

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE&hl=en&fs=1&w=300&h=242]

Thanks to the glory of Netflix, Liz and I saw this documentary that I can assure you never visited  the Carolina Theatre. It's a bio-doc on the writer Harlan Ellison, 72 years old at the time of the movie's release in 2007, and covers an impressive sweep of his life, with samples of him reading from his stories, talking heads quotes from friends and other writers about his influence and the impression he's made on their lives, and various NSFW-language interviews that evoke the man's history, philosophy, irritations, annoyances, and, now and then, joys. (The YouTube video here is from the movie; it's HE in his most typical mode of full-flow righteous anger--well-deserved, in this case.)

I was introduced to HE as a sophomore in high school and didn't look back for nearly 15 years; his personality and writing were vivid, electrifying, throat-grabbing--uncompromising, is the word that leaps to mind. Uncompromising to the point of lunacy, sometimes, but all in the name of dignity, self-respect, and justice, which for HE are paramount virtues.

"Dreams with Sharp Teeth" was a real test, as Liz had never experienced Harlan and was put off by his abrasive and, it must be said, obnoxiously show-offy personality. But she said she grew to like him better as the movie went on; you see the grit, energy, anger and just plain orneriness (an old-fashioned word that Harlan would love) that took a bullied little kid from Painesville, OH (a metaphorical town name, if ever there was one) to Los Angeles and success, of a sort. The movie confronts the fact that, although his writing has always been admired by his peers and lauded by fans, his career never really took off. His labor in the vineyards of genre fiction, teleplays, and short stories won him many writers' awards, but not mainstream success.

The documentary recognizes the respect that is paid to his longevity and his highest writing achievements--especially some of his most important short stories from the 1960's, such as "Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." But he still remains a marginal literary figure, it seems to me, a miniaturist in a culture that likes The Big Novel, the province of a dedicated few. His legacy, in addition to his thousands of stories and awards, may be more in the writers he has inspired who've gone on to produce Babylon5, the revamped Battlestar Galactica, and other TV series, or had more commercially successful writing careers themselves (such as Dan Simmons and Neil Gaiman, who pay tribute to HE).

As Gaiman says in the interviews, HE's greatest creative act has been this character called "Harlan Ellison." Partly sincere, partly schtick, with a freakish a memory for cultural and historical details, a fast-talking patter, and in-your-face energy--an electrical storm front on legs--driven by a hair-trigger temper and a determination to prove he's better and smarter than the bullies around him.

He says, in a poignant reflection, that being beaten up every day by bullies makes you an outsider. I think that, in many ways, large pieces of him are still hurting and still wants a happy childhood.

Another legacy of his childhood is that he sees the world as a big bully that shouldn't be let off the hook. In fact, the bully should be shamed, kicked where it hurts, and his nose should be rubbed in it. ("Revenge is a good thing," he says in a 1981 TV interview.) It powered his writing and his political and civil rights activism, his numerous lawsuits against studios and networks, and made him a fiercely loyal friend and ally. But it also meant he couldn't pick and choose his battles because everything--from a Writers Guild contract to the wrong brand of yogurt at the grocery store--demands a shouting confrontation, and if you cross him, then get ready for screaming phone calls.

While he never got to be one of the writers of great movies, as I think he dearly wished to be, it's hard to imagine him being happy on a movie set. To have the sort of control he wants, he'd have to do what his acolytes have done: become the producer and helm the entire enterprise. But that would mean he'd have to be the boss, and I'm guessing he'd not enjoy that role. He considers writing his holy chore, not producing or directing. Although I think he'd love meeting and kibitzing with the actors (his life's wealth could be said to be the devoted friendships he's gained of rich and famous people), he'd be driven to mania and a rusty chain saw by the thousand compromises and trade-offs that are a major movie production.

And also, he's always been an outsider; to be a producer/director would mean having to work inside the system, and he couldn't flatter and cajole the suits whose primary concerns are the budget and the schedule, not the story. HE knows his confrontations and lawsuits have  poisoned the studios and investors against him and made him virtually unemployable except by a few younger-generation writer/producers who see him as a mentor who inspired them when they were teenagers. He says he has accepted that condition--though it's hard to be sure. Regret and disappointment are other  major themes in his work.

The movie is a wonderful hagiography of Ellison (much better than the similar "The Mindscape of Alan Moore" in 2005) though it does assume that he's loved by his fellow writers, which isn't always the case. "The Last Dangerous Visions" issue is lightly touched on and then set aside. There has been some criticism of the movie because none of his enemies are interviewed--HE reportedly told the director, Erik Nelson, that he's known by his impressive enemies list and they should have a hearing in the documentary--but Nelson replied that HE was his own worst enemy.

I've grown up seeing HE's image in photos and television interviews, and it's poignant to see how he has aged. The geeky kid in his teens becomes the slim, handsome, dynamic ladies' man in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is a round matzoh ball who looks like Larry "Bud" Melman. The fire is still there, but the heart attacks, surgeries, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other maladies (none of which are described in the documentary) are catching up with him.

I came to HE's writing first via The Glass Teat, which a high school friend introduced me to. For the next 15 or so years, I became an Ellison fanatic, read all the stories, interviews, columns, etc. His last great book of stories, to my mind, is Strange Wine. He's written some remarkable stories afterward--"The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" was selected for Best American Short Stories 1993--but I've not enjoyed them as much as I did his early work. His art has evolved from pulp genre fiction, to his own brand of fantasy, to, in the last 20 years, a Borgesian lyricism and vision, with non-linear stories that are collages, impressions, prose poems, descriptions of mood and interior states rather than character. That I can't connect to this vision--which eschews the traditional short story and plot props I'm accustomed to--I will take the blame for. As an artist, HE  continues to evolve and follow his muse where it leads him; not all of his old fans can do the same.

I was often struck by the fact that HE wrote two or three novels during his years as a pulp writer, but none afterward. I think this was a shame and a missed opportunity. It could be that his inclination was more for the pointed message, the singular effect, the impatient prophet--maybe he had too many things to say--a sprinter, rather than a marathoner. Of course, the screenplays he wrote (such as his famous unproduced screenplay for "I, Robot") also took as much time and measured energy to write as a novel. But I think movies called to him as an artist in a way novels couldn't.

The documentary features television interviews from his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, and a small tour of his remarkable pop-culture museum of a house, which is stuffed to bursting with books, ephemera, and toys. It struck me as the magical treehouse his 8-year-old self would have wanted to live in, a very safe and cozy Xanadu (complete with secret passageways and pizza) that's retreat and recharging station and probably everything HE would have ever wanted.

It will be odd the day I wake up and hear that Harlan is not part of the landscape. I wonder whether he will see death as a bully or a friend.

Where to start. For the fiction,  The Essential Ellison is a good but large and baggy collection; Deathbird Stories is an earlier and more compact volume that contains many of his classics. Dangerous Visions is his groundbreaking SF anthology; I've not read it in decades but still remember some of its stories. His Dream Corridor comics are interesting curios, but not essential.

I daresay that his reputation, like Gore Vidals, may rest on his essays, which are remarkably supple yet all of a piece. It's in these essays (and the introductions to his stories) that the Harlan Ellison voice and "character" were forged, and I can recall more happy moments reading them than I do his fiction. Sleepless Nights in the Procrusteam Bed is the best nice-sized volume that shows his range. The Harlan Ellison Hornbook reprints his 1960s essays and they're all immediate and throat-grabbing. Harlan Ellison's Watching contains his fugitive movie criticism; The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat contain his classic dissections of network teevee in the 1960s--truly a snapshot of another era and full of opinions that are still scarily relevant.

In the 1980s, he started a fan club thing called The Harlan Ellison Record Collection, which made available recordings of him reading his work. (This was pre-Internet days, kids -- it was all done by mail and Pony Express.) Listening to him performing (not reading, performing) "Prince Myshkin, or Pass the Relish" and "Waiting for Kadak" are more fun than reading them. I also hugely enjoyed the 60-min interview of his "Loving Reminiscences of the Dying Gasp of the Pulp Era"; he clearly has a great nostalgia for that period of his young manhood, and there are times he can sure sound today like a cranky old man lamenting the good ol' days.

But it's the recordings of his public lectures that are the most entertaining. Of the On The Road series, my friend Scott says that the preferred order would be vol. 2, then 1, then 3.

Link harvest


  • James Fallows on the China Xinjiang / Uighur controversy: “The point about separate fact-universes is one of the sobering marvels of the modern info-age. It’s true within the United States, as discussed long ago here; and it’s true between countries, as China, Turkey, and the rest of the world all digest different versions of the Xinjiang ‘truth.’ Main point: the internet, mobile phones, and other info technology, far from eliminating the country-by-country differences in information and belief, in some ways may increase them, as each little info-sphere is able to reinforce its own view of the world.”
  • Wonderful account of a man remaking his life as a pen-and-ink artist of theater rehearsals. I’m officially jealous.
  • Garden path sentences.
  • Personal informatics.
  • The fate of the Neanderthals. Modern humans have driven thousands of species to extinction without exerting itself; this explanation makes perfect sense to me.
  • Funny, rueful poem: “Rereading Jane Austen’s Novels”.
  • Evan Dorkin’s you-were-there account of seeing Monty Python’s stage show at NYC’s City Center in April 1976 (complete with some Playbill scans). Now that is a birthday gift worth remembering.

There are times when I am terribly presumptuous, to visit my personal feelings on other people’s way of living a life. In truth, I’m very egalitarian in that way. I’m an elitist because I think there are too many stupid people in the world. But one must not pity them; one must take an AK-47 and kill them. You just need to kill as many stupid people as you can find. Go out in the streets and ask them if they have ever heard of Guy de Maupassant. No? Bam, you’re dead. Have you ever heard of Bessie Smith? No? Bam, you’re dead.