Category Archives: Meta

Book Peddler

Today’s trip down Random Wikipedia lane introduces us to book peddlers, who were ‘travelling vendors (“peddlers”) of books.’ I’m not sure why book peddlers warrant a wikipedia entry, when other door-to-door salespeople like broom peddlers or brush peddlers don’t.

I’ve never peddled books much, but I’ve peddled blogs plenty of times. I’m a lousy peddler, though. I admire a good peddler, but it’s not for me. There is a good reason why in my career I have ended up in engineering departments instead of sales departments. I just want to focus on making good products and leave the sales work to teammates who are much better at it.

I am beginning a Twitter exile, partly to devote some of the time that Twitter sucked away to my family, but also to take some of that time to get back to doing some blogging. I don’t seem to be able to both blog and tweet at the same time. For me, it’s either one or the other.

So in exiling myself from Twitter to return to blogging, the arises whether to peddle my blog entries over on Twitter, despite my absence there otherwise. The question boils down to this: why do I write at all? Is it for the social rewards of praise from others? Or is it for the reward of a job well done?

Twitter in its purest form provides the former, blogging in its purest form provides the latter. While I have, on occasion, created a well-crafted tweet, it is more a source of quick, easy, (though ephemeral) social rewards than a place where to get the satisfaction of a job well done. And while I have, on occasion, written a blog entry that provided the social rewards of being widely praised, most of the time, even the blog entries I gained deep satisfaction from writing have largely gone unnoticed and/or unfeedbacked.

And so an experiment: I’m going to quit peddling what I write, and I’m going to remove all analytics from my web site, and all comments, so unless someone takes the trouble to email me, I will have no idea whether anyone reads my stuff or not. Any peddling will come purely from the kindness of strangers, not from me. Is writing well its own reward? I guess I’ll soon find out.

Xenotilapia leptura

Xenotilapia leptura is a species of fish that lives in Lake Tanganyika in Africa. It is currently in no danger of extinction.

But this will change.

Lake Tanganyika is the second-largest freshwater lake in the world by volume. It is located in the East African Rift, which is being formed by the African tectonic plate splitting in two and drifting apart. Sometime in the next 10 million years, the split will become large enough that a new ocean will form between the two new plates.

What will become of Lake Tanganyika when this new ocean forms in the East African Rift? Will it be incorporated into the new ocean? Will the change be gradual, or catastrophic? Will the salt water from the world oceans suddenly rush into the lake? Or will the saltiness increase very, very gradually?

These are important questions for the future of Xenotilapia leptura. You cannot just plop it into a saltwater ocean and expect it to survive. It needs the saltiness to increase gradually, so that the species has time to evolve with the change.

* * *

It is amazing to think that we can see 10 million years into the future of some other species, but barely see 10 days into the future of our own. Every day a new startup company is born, or within an existing business a new project is launched, with a mission to invent some new technology that will change the world.

Ten days from now, Apple will announce something.

appleevent

What rough automaton, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Will we, as a species, have time to evolve with the change? Or will the change overwhelm us?

* * *

I have been on Twitter now for seven years. There have been murmurs now that Twitter has changed, for the worse, and people are dropping out. Frank Chimero:

Here’s the frustration: if you’ve been on Twitter a while, it’s changed out from under you. Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch—our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

But perhaps Twitter hasn’t changed. It’s just a dumb new ocean, flooding in. We’re the ones who haven’t changed, who haven’t evolved fast enough to survive the new saltwater.

I’ve dropped out of Twitter three times this year. I don’t want to blame Twitter for it. I just have trouble adapting to the changing environment. Twitter for me has become like Fox News is for many senior citizens — it’s entertaining and informative, but it also leaves me bitter and angry and frustrated at the world, 24×7.

True, there are some things worth being angry about. But I can be angry about those things without Twitter. It’s the things not worth being upset about that’s the problem.

I’m just not very good at dipping my feet into that ocean in moderation. It pulls me down deep, every time. And as a result, I become a lousy husband and father in the real world, and my productivity plummets.

When I’ve taken breaks, the anger and bitterness leaves, and everything in my life gets better. I’m happier, the people around me are happier, and I get a hell of a lot more useful stuff done.

I’m taking a long, looooooooong break from Twitter this time. I’m not planning to come back until (a) the bitterness is gone again, and (b) I have a real plan for using Twitter in moderation. Until then, anytime I feel like expressing anything, I’ll do it here, on this blog.

* * *

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

SS Mormacmail

Today, the Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune sends us to visit the SS Mormacmail. SS Mormacmail actually the name of four different cargo ships built during World War II. The first three of these ships were converted to escort carriers and renamed.

Escort carriers in WWII were typically just normal cargo ships with a flight deck built on top of them. They were slower and had less armor than regular fleet carriers, but they were much less expensive to make. They were used, therefore, mostly as their name suggests, to provide air cover while escorting convoys.

All of which is quite fascinating to me because my father worked on aircraft carriers as an electronic technician when I was growing up. However, he didn’t work on small carriers such as these; he worked on “supercarriers” like the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the kind of ships that were crown jewels of the fleet. But for every glorious USS Enterprise there are a dozen cheap clunky USS Stargazers, doing the more ordinary work that needs to be done.

* * *

As an aside, I was struck by this sentence I read this morning, linked to by Rod Dreher, written by Anthony Bradley:

For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

Which rather fits the theme that the Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune seems to be revealing. We live in a culture which tells us the greatest attribute a human being can possess is fame, and with it, glory. I feel like I have absorbed this message too much myself. It’s an unhealthy mindset to have, because the vast majority of humanity will fail to achieve it, and it will leave you unhappy in the end.

In a healthy culture, we ought to dismiss Fame. Honor, on the other hand, is both virtuous and achievable. We ought to be honoring Honor itself.

* * *

The first SS Mormacmail was purchased by the US Navy in 1941, converted to an escort carrier, and renamed the USS Long Island. Here is a picture of it at Pearl Harbor in August 1942, with the sunken USS Utah to the left, and the larger carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) to the right.

USS Long Island

Because so much of the US Pacific fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Pearl Harbor, the USS Long Island was pulled into service in 1942 during the Guadalcanal Campaign. However, once more capable ships had been built, the USS Long Island mostly spent the rest of World War II transporting troops and cargo and operating training missions.

By the way, the Hornet in this picture is not the USS Hornet (CV-12) that currently sits as a museum a few blocks from my home in Alameda, CA where the USS Enterprise and other old nuclear wessels used to dock. The Hornet pictured above was sunk in three months after this photograph was taken in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The CV-12 was named to honor the CV-8, commissioned a year later in 1943.

* * *

The next two SS Mormacmails were both sold to the British Royal Navy. The first was rechristened the HMS Battler, and the second became the HMS Tracker. The HMS Tracker provided antisubmarine support during the before, during and after the D-Day invasion.

* * *

Finally, a version of the SS Mormacmail was built where the name stuck. It launched in 1946, and served as a cargo vessel until being decommissioned in 1971. It appears to have spent its career shipping cargo between the US, Sweden and South America.

mormacmail

* * *

So it was for all four versions of the SS Mormacmail: not a famous existence, but an honorable one.

Swash

1. You were surfing the Internet yesterday. You somehow drifted to the Wikipedia home page. You clicked the “Random Article” link. It brought you to Swash:

Swash, in geography, is known as a turbulent layer of water that washes up on the beach after an incoming wave has broken.

 

2. You don’t intend to drift. You don’t mean to get lost. You worry that the currents will pull you far from land, send you circling aimlessly, repeatedly, without hope of ever reaching a destination.

You intend to get somewhere. You want to make a big splash. You dream of making an impact in the world.

 

3. In an experiment, people like you were paid $3 to take a test and turn the test in to a examiner. The examiner would do one of three things:

  • Look at the test, say “uh-huh” and put the test in a pile.
  • Put the test in the pile without looking at it or saying anything.
  • Immediately shred the test.

Then you were offered 30 cents less ($2.70, then $2.40, etc.) to retake the test.

If your work was acknowledged, even ever so slightly, you retook the test far more often than if your work was ignored or shredded. In fact, having your work be ignored was almost as bad as having your work be shredded. You are not primarily motivated by money. You get meaning out of your work from the acknowledgement of other people.

 

4. Swash is the middle ground between meaningful work and Sisyphean uselessness. Swash is where you end up when your dreams are broken.

 

5. You have edited a few Wikipedia entries in the past. You don’t know if your efforts made Wikipedia better or not. Nobody acknowledged your work. You don’t know if your edits still persist. Most likely, they have all been rewritten or deleted.

Much of your writing — your blogging, your tweeting — is like that. The big waves, the ones that people notice, the ones that persist in people’s minds, break just beyond your reach. Maybe you make a small impact, for a short moment, in a small corner of the world. A couple retweets here, a nice comment there. In the long run, though, all your efforts scroll off the screen and end up ignored and forgotten in a mighty ocean of data.

 

6. It turns out that you are not a mighty wave. You struggle and travel a great distance to land upon that shore, and all you end up doing is wiggling a pebble or two. In the great scheme of things, you barely matter. You slink back into the sea.

 

7. Perhaps that random Wikipedia entry was an omen. Perhaps you should click that random link again. And again. And again.

For you are Swash, a small turbulent layer of water along the shoreline, coming and going with the tides, whose meager purpose is simply to expose and acknowledge other forgotten and ignored fossils, just like yourself.

Uh-huh.

 

Swash

Photo credit: jemasmith on Flickr via Creative Commons license.

2012 Vacation Photos and Baseball Player Names

Back on the old Baseball Toaster, I wrote 8,320 entries of various sorts.

I recently surpassed that number of posts on Twitter, and I have now reached my 10,000th tweet.

I wanted to do something special to commemorate the milestone, so I dug something up out of my old bag of tricks, and made a slideshow of my Top 30 2012 Vacation Photos and Baseball Player names.

Check it out.

* * *

If you enjoyed those, here are some older, similar slideshows built on outdated technology:

Writing Logistics

Mark Duggan writes about the planning fallacy over on the Pinstriped Bible:

The world is a complicated place full of random chaos and your brain works by grouping clusters of that chaos into an easier to understand model. In my model of the morning, there were only a few things going on.

I am definitely running into that fallacy head on with my writing right now. In my mental model of the morning, I walk my daughter to kindergarten, walk home, eat breakfast, and then write for about three hours until it’s time to go pick her up.

I don’t plan for common but irregular things, like the kids leaving a mess that needs to be cleaned up, or ants invading my kitchen after a rainstorm, or a doctor’s appointment, or an email that needs a quick response, or a news event that interest me, or a friend who pings me and wants to chat.

Nor do I plan for black swan events, like my mom calling me from Sweden last week and telling me that my brother had a stroke. (He’s fine now, it turned out to be a minor one, thank goodness.) I’m 6,000 miles and nine time zones away from that, and it’s really out of my hands and nothing I can do, but something like that completely fills my available mental capacity.

But the one big thing I really don’t plan for in my mental model is the time it takes to think. Just to think things through, make associations, build mental models for solving a problem.

I think this is a particular problem for me because of the kinds of things I like to think about and say and write. If I have a strength as a human being, it’s my ability to think about things more deeply and broadly than others. If I only write about shallow things (hello, Twitter), or pursue something deeply but narrowly (hello, Catfish Stew), I feel like I’m limiting myself. Part of what I want to accomplish in my experiment as a writer is to figure out what is the best combination of width and depth that works for me.

Duggan has a suggestion:

The problem is almost always oversimplification. If you want to know how long it will take to get ready in the morning or how long it will take to drive home during your lunch break, don’t make a list of tasks and guess, time yourself when you do it. Measure the act itself, not your mind’s recreation of a simplified version.

I’m having trouble fitting the writing task into my three-hour window. I need to adjust my model of writing to fit the data. Either I need to get more narrow and/or shallow in what I think and write about to be able to fit my writing into that window, or I need to give myself permission to not publish something every day.

Or a combination. My “Quantum Moneyball” article yesterday, for example, gave people headaches:

Thinking broadly and deeply about something is fine, but probably what I need to learn most is how to do better is to bring that deep and broad thought back into a narrow context so people can relate to it more easily. Because people learn most effectively when that learning is only slightly different from what they already know and believe. As Ben Casnocha recently pointed out, you learn most from people who mostly agree with you:

In order to even have a coherent conversation with someone, you need to share a language, basic values, assumptions, conversational norms. … If these basic table stakes aren’t met — 98% of the game, in my view — there’s no productive conversation to be had.

. . .

Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.

So maybe the model for me is something like this: pursue one deep and/or broad topic per week. If that topic takes me more than one day to write about, so be it, and I won’t publish that day. But then, after that topic is explored broadly, pursue that or other topics narrowly and or shallowly for the rest of the week.

Let’s see how that goes.

Keeping My Eyes Up

When I come back after an extended break from playing soccer, whether because of injury or vacation, I always struggle to recover my field vision. When the ball comes to me at these times, my eyes seem to naturally want to look down at my feet and at the ball, instead of looking up to see where the other players are on the field. My decision making and my overall play suffer quite a bit as a result. I have to consciously and repeatedly remind myself to keep my head up. It takes me a few weeks to get back in the habit of assuming I have control of the ball with my feet so that I can look around and make good choices on where to move the ball.

I’m in a similar state right now with my writing. Back when I was blogging regularly, I understood without much conscious effort what the objections to my piece would be, so that I could address those objections in advance. But when I haven’t written in a while, I lose that habit. When I’m rusty, I have to deliberately go through my writing and make sure I’ve thought through those potential objections.

My first two entries after returning to blogging this week generated about 40 readers each. So I didn’t worry about needing to restore that habit so fast, I figured my readers will be patient, and it will come. But my story yesterday about MLB’s Customer Alignment Problem surprised me by finding it’s way to over 2,000 readers. And so my rustiness became a bit more of an issue.

So let me address a couple of things that I screwed up yesterday:

  • I assumed my audience of 40 were all regular readers of mine, and that they would know that the island I lived on was Alameda. Understandably, many of the new readers did not know that, and assumed when I said “island” that it was some rural place. That made my complaints about my cell phone coverage confusing. What I wrote only makes sense if you know that Alameda is a densely populated island, and there are many buildings in the way that interfere with cell phone coverage. I also didn’t mention that even though the cell phone coverage has improved of late, I still choose to continue to live without one.
     
  • My biggest mistake was not specifically mentioning MLB.tv by name. The people who have MLB.tv and root for a team outside the market where they live love the product. I should have made clear that for those people MLB.tv is, like ticket sales, an area where MLB does get direct feedback. My point wasn’t that MLB gets no direct feedback from their direct sales to fans, but that the ratio of indirect-to-direct revenues is increasing at a rapid rate.

Some minor mistakes there, but when you’re trying to improve, that’s OK. Science shows that if you want to improve, you should aim to fail about 20-50% of the time. Right now I’ve made clear mistakes in 33% of my blog entries, so that’s about right.

Hopefully, I’ll soon stop making these particular kinds of mistakes, and progress on to making more challenging ones. I plan to write a little bit about politics soon. That makes pre-covering your objections particularly important, because when it comes to things where people already have pre-formed opinions, people will read what they want to read, instead of what you write. I’m sure I’ll learn all kinds of new lessons from that.

The Intersilosphere

Here’s day 2 of my experiment in learning to become a writer. I’ve got an hour and a half now to write something, and it just doesn’t feel like enough time. I am operating on the assumption that learning to work within these restraints will be good for me. My problem is that my particular brain doesn’t seem to be designed to work within such restraints. It tends to make a million connections between things, and I have a very hard time knowing when to stop making those connections.

So it doesn’t really help that I just finished listening to James Burke’s delightful new speech called “Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll.” If you’ve watched Burke’s previous PBS series called “Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed“, you’ll recognize my problem in Burke. Burke specializes in drawing seemingly endless lines of connections between things. In this particular speech, he manages to draw connections between Mozart’s music and the invention of the helicopter, and the crash of a fleet of ships off the coast of France in the 16th century and the invention of the toilet roll.

But Burke does manage to pull all these seemingly random connections together under a common theme to make a point, which is this: the industrial revolution began with a recipe from Descartes about how to break things down into their component parts to study them. These disciplinary silos are what brought us the incredible detailed knowledge of the world we humans now possess. However, Burke argues, these silos have become so specialized and detailed that most major innovation now comes in “the unexplored no-man’s land between the disciplines.”

If I wanted to follow a conventional path to a writing career, I would probably try to plant myself firmly within one of these disciplinary silos, and grow within it. After all, within these silos live the corporations who have the money to pay you for your skills. For instance, I probably have enough connections and respect within the baseball writing industry to get a foot in the door there. I have the technical skills to immerse myself in baseball statistics. But I resist, because that’s not where I feel like my particular brand of brainpower would be best suited.

I am aiming for that no-man’s land Burke speaks of. I have a lot of interests: from baseball to computer science, from neuroscience to politics, from poetry to business, from religion to aesthetics. In between these things, that’s where the most exciting stuff remains to be discovered.

REBOOT

Please select boot device:
HARD DRIVE 1 : PROGRAMMING
HARD DRIVE 2 : SYS ADMIN
HARD DRIVE 3 : DATA ADMIN
FLOPPY DRIVE 0: BLOGGING
Arrow up and down to move selection
ENTER to select boot device
ESC to boot using defaults

<ENTER>

BOOT UP FLOPPY DRIVE 0 (Y/N)? Y
ARE YOU SURE (Y/N)? Y
ARE YOU REALLY REALLY SURE (Y/N)? Sorta, yeah.

OK . . .
BOOTING UP FLOPPY DRIVE 0 . . .
LOADING MODULE SMH . . .

Three and a half years ago, I wrote my final blog entry on Baseball Toaster. Although I’ve written a few blog entries sporadically since then, I’ve basically been retired from blogging.

I didn’t retire because I no longer enjoyed writing. I retired because I had spread myself too thin. At the time, I was:

  • Running and moderating a blog network with over a million page views a month
  • Writing on two blogs almost daily
  • Programming full-time for an internet startup company
  • Planning a major remodel of my house, and
  • Trying to keep a wife and three kids, one of whom was entering her terrible twos, happy

Looking back on it, that was ridiculously ambitious of me. It was too much. I was spread so thin, I was only able to do a half-assed job on everything.

I HATE doing a half-assed job at anything.

* * *

Jason Parks and Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus have coined a term (or precisely, a Twitter hashtag) for the kind of dedication it takes to maximize your talents and turn them into success: #want. #Want is about focus: dedicating 100% of your energy towards a goal. For athletes, this means practicing hard, working out, eating right, studying the game — all day, every day. You sacrifice your life for your sport.

But this doesn’t just apply to sports. The Silicon Valley startup culture is rife with #want. If you’re starting up a business, and you’re not working 100 hours a week to get that business running, you’re doing it wrong. #Want is expected, even mandatory–or so the culture tells you.

* * *

Leah Libresco has a different term for people dedicated to #want: secular monks. She notes that our culture fails to properly recognize what people with #want are trading away: intimacy.

If we were honest about what these jobs entail, we’d talk less in terms of success and more in terms of sacrifice and seclusion from the world. If we recognized the single-minded focus that drives Rosin’s interviewees to think of intimacy as obstacle, as life-thwarting, we might not hold it up as the ideal, the logical next step for the best and the brightest. Or, if the work is truly important and can only be done by using smart, high-energy graduates as emotional cannon-fodder, maybe we’d start thinking about how to reintegrate them into normal life, once their time of service was up.

* * *

Programming in particular is a monk-like job. It requires intense concentration. To be productive at all, you need to isolate yourself and work in silence, without interruption, for long stretches of time. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I had no problem with this. I would simply work from about 10pm to about 3am, and get 90% of the work I needed to get done during those lonely hours.

But as I tried to program as a 40-something while juggling a blog network with a family of five, this became impossible. There were four people in my family who needed intimacy from me, and I couldn’t give it to them. Even when I was physically at home, I wasn’t mentally at home.

I slowly came to admit to myself that my days as an effective programmer were over. It was time to leave the monastery. Libresco addresses this, too:

The high-commitment jobs that drive Rosin’s interviewees to forgo intimacy and that sunder Slaughter and her peers from their families are pernicious because we don’t yet have an expectation of when and how to leave them. There’s no exit strategy, no moment when your life as a turbine ends, and your real life as an adult with responsibilities and vulnerabilities begins.

I have a friend who recently retired after 27 years in the Coast Guard. The military, of course, has a deep understanding of the kind of sacrifices that its men and women make for the greater cause. They have procedures for deciding how and when a soldier should advance on with a military career, and ritual retirement ceremonies to guide its retired military into the next phase of life.

No such guidance exists in civilian life. How and if and when you are done, it’s up to you to figure out. Without a good model to follow for such things, we make inefficient choices. We make mistakes. It’s messy.

* * *

“I’m not 18, and I can’t start out like a raw cadet. No, there comes a time when a man finds that he can’t fall in love again. He knows that it’s time to stop.”

–Montgomery Scott, Star Trek: TNG, “Relics”

So three years ago, I shut down the Toaster. I stopped blogging. I remodeled the house. I got the startup handed off to other people. Then I took some time off, as they say, to ‘spend time with the family.’

This week, my youngest daughter started kindergarten. I feel like, finally, all the things that were on my plate three years ago have finally been cleared off.

But like Scotty in Star Trek, I can’t go back. Scotty realized he couldn’t be chief engineer of a starship anymore. And I can’t reboot myself into another programming job. It’s time to transition into something else.

* * *

When I’m faced with a major life decision that I’m uncertain about, I like to imagine myself on my death bed looking back at my life. Will I regret one choice or another? In other words, where’s my #want?

I’m certain I won’t regret it if I don’t program computers anymore. I’d like to start my own business (and be fully in charge this time), but I don’t think I’d regret it too much if I didn’t. I suppose I might regret not taking some other high-paying, high-tech job if my kids decide to make some expensive choices about college.

But there’s one thing I’m certain I’ll regret. If I don’t do this, I’ll always have this one big WHAT-IF hanging over my head: what could I have done if I had tried to be a writer?

So many of people in the Baseball Toaster community, both bloggers and commenters, have gone on to do amazing things. But they were all professional or aspiring professional writers, while I was just doing it as a hobby. My career was elsewhere. But what could I do if I focused on the task like they did?

Maybe nothing. Maybe I’d fail. But I’d always wonder.

I don’t want to wonder.

* * *

So I’m rebooting myself today as a writer. I’m making a commitment to write.

A commitment with one caveat: I won’t trade intimacy for #want. I will write, but I will be disciplined about it. There will be clear boundaries about when I am working, and when I’m with my family. When the alarm rings for me to go pick up my daughter from school, that’s it. I hit publish, perfect or not.

So every day, while my kids are at school, I will write and publish something. I will learn how to manage both my words and my time more effectively. I will try my best to become a full-assed writer instead of a half-assed one.

* * *

What will I write? Where will it lead?

I don’t know.

But I’d guess that although I’m giving up on being a programmer for internet startup companies, there’s one aspect of that world I won’t easily let go of: a preference to boldly go where no one has gone before.

 

<Alarm>

Linkblog

As a first step in trying to get myself to write more and shorter blog entries, I have set up a link blog, at linkblog.arneson.name.

For this, I set up a bunch of “If This Then That” tasks over on ifttt.com. Every time I mark a favorite on Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Delicious, Tumblr, Flickr, or Google Reader, IFTTT will take that content and create a blog entry on my linkblog.

Next, I hope to create a tool where I can click a button on the linkblog, and it will grab the linkblog entry content and include it for a new post on this blog. Then all I have to do is add some short commentary without doing any time-consuming work of cutting, pasting, saving and so forth. All I’ll have to do is my normal reading of my feeds, and click the “favorite” button whenever I see anything I might want to comment on.

On Becoming a Better Blogger

I have five unfinished blog posts in my editor, and another three or four in my head. But I can’t seem to get any of them done.

There’s been a rash of events recently that’s left many people trying to make sense of. Steve Jobs. Al Davis. Game 6. Occupy Things. Libya. The Euro mess. And most recently, Penn State.

I’d like to be a better blogger, and be able to comment in a timely and interesting manner on such things. But I usually end up trying to tie too many things together into one story, and it takes me forever. And then they wither on the vine, too late to be plucked.

I am reminded of a triathlete I read about. He was told by his coach that he’d never be a champion until his worst event became his best. That turned out to be the case.

I probably need to suck for awhile to gain some mastery of my weaknesses in this medium. I need to practice, to experiment, to learn the short, quick hit. I need to learn how to let the *blog* tie my themes together, instead of the *entry*.

Apologies, then, in advance, for whatever sucky stuff I may subject you to in the near future.

Now, Ken, hit the damn Publish button.

Why a no Chicken?

In a recent episode of Louie, Louis CK tells a joke that he admits he doesn’t know how to finish. It involves a duck who thinks he’s special because he has a green head.

This blog entry — heck, this blog — is like that. I’m not sure where I’m going with it, I don’t know how it will end, I just have a feeling that I’ve got something here that can come together in the end.

* * *

I recently took one of those online narcissistic personality tests. I scored “normal”. But the only reason I even got as high as normal was because I had an over-the-top score in the “superiority” subsection. I’m not vain or power-mad at all, but dammit, facts are facts. I’m special. I have a green head.

* * *

The Louie show fascinates me. If you put me in a focus group where I was holding one of those dials while watching it, I’d probably flatline at the bottom the whole episode. I squirm, I cringe, I feel uncomfortable the whole time I’m watching it, thinking “I hate this I hate this I hate this.” Based on my real-time reactions, the network execs would probably cancel the show. But when you ask me afterwards how I feel about the episode, I usually love it. Love love love it.

Nobel Prize winning behaviorial economist Daniel Kahneman had demonstrated how humans have two distinct kinds of happiness. There’s a happiness that one experiences in the moment, and there’s a second kind of happiness that one feels in remembering things afterwards. The two kinds of happiness don’t necessarily correlate with each other at all.

The standard sitcom focuses like a laser on the experiential kind of happiness. We’ve all watched these shows–30 minutes of set up, punchline, laugh–but the remembrance of it usually leaves us feeling empty. I think Louie’s uniqueness stems from an indifference to the happiness of experience, if not an outright avoidance of it. The show cares more about afterwards, the happiness of memory.

* * *

Steve Jobs recently retired as CEO of Apple Computers. It’s been a helluva career. In the one and only commencement speech he ever gave, Jobs said:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

From most accounts, Jobs could be a mean sonofabitch to work for. The experience at the time of creating all those great Apple products was probably miserable thanks to Jobs’ harsh taskmastery, but after seeing the results, the memory of it afterwards was probably amazing.

* * *

So three cheers for Steve Jobs and Louis CK. They inspire me to want to follow in their footsteps, to connect the dots of my life and do amazing things.

But there’s one nagging question I have about this philosophy: what if you only think you have a green head? What if your self-image is deceptive? What if you’re really something other than what you think you are? Why a duck? Why a no chicken?

* * *

There’s a scene in another episode of Louie where Louis CK has lunch with a Hollywood executive. She asks him for his sitcom ideas, and he starts explaining his idea for a show that avoids experiential pleasure. But he can’t explain how it’s special, how it pays off in the end. He’s envisioning a green-headed duck, trusting that the dots will connect and there will be a green-headed duck in the end, but what he’s describing sounds to the executive like a chicken with some sort of deadly disease.

It’s safer and easier, not just for network executives but for human beings in general, to follow the immediate feedback, to trust the constant data streaming in from our current state of happiness, rather than ignore that short-term data and believe that something larger and more rewarding will emerge.

Postponing pleasure now for a bigger payoff later is very risky. If you’re not special, if you can’t make the dots connect, if there’s no big payoff in the end, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no heaven waiting for you after a virtuous life, if you don’t really have a green head, then you’ve got nothing to show for it but misery. No happiness from experience, and no happiness from memory, either.

That’s why shows like Louie don’t get made very often. That’s why companies like Apple are unique rather than ubiquitous.

* * *

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve worked in the high tech industry from the infancy of the world wide web, and I’ve seen a lot of companies (including some of mine) start out with the Applest of intentions. But then the feedback starts coming in, from customer service and sales, and it’s nearly impossible to say “nope, our customers are wrong and our vision is right.” Because usually the customers are right and your vision is wrong. So you follow the feedback. Be the bird that you are, and you usually have a pretty decent gig.

* * *

Modern electronic writing is primarily a pleasure-of-the-moment activity. Today’s blog entry is forgotten tomorrow. Our tweets are out of mind as soon as they scroll off our feed. We’re reacting in the moment to last night’s game, this morning’s article, tonight’s political speech. Which is fine, that’s what these media are meant to do. They’re chickens. Chickens are great, as long as you’re not expecting a duck.

* * *

Lately, I’ve had offers to write for a number baseball outlets out there. I’ve thought about trying a Craig Calcaterra, to see what I could accomplish I left my old, higher-paying career to commit to writing full time.

But so far, I’ve (mostly) resisted that temptation. My gut tells me, “don’t make that commitment.”

It’s partly because I don’t have all my ducks in a row in my personal life to make that practical right now. I quit writing regularly two years ago because I was juggling too many balls in my life, and I ended up doing a half-assed job on all of them. I hate feeling like I’m not living up to expectations, I hate feeling like I need to work 24/7 in order to avoid feeling like I’m not living up to expectations, so I resist making commitments that would create any expectations. Hence, for now, this blog, where I can do what I like, when I like, how I like with maximum flexibility and minimum commitment.

It’s probably also because I’m narcissistic enough to believe I’m unique. I’m not ready to cooped up and commit to a life as a chicken. I’m not ready to accept that this is how I finish this story. I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I’m my own species, who simply has not yet encountered the right variety of poultry to fall in love with.

Simplicity I

Stuff.

Stuff trespasses in stealth,
like a twisted
thief in the night.

At first, stuff
just violates a drawer, but
then too a closet, and
an attic, a garage, a now-homeless car.
Stuff overflows the furniture, the floors
and next, moves
beyond the physical spaces
until you find you carry

a hard drive full of stuff, plus
a backup drive full of stuff
(in case you lose
the hard drive full of stuff), plus
a blog, two blogs, three blogs, plus
a facebook and a twitter, plus
a linkedin and a tumblr, plus
a yahoo and a flickr, plus
a google and a google plus, plus
three hundred friends, plus,
on each…

And where
among all this stuff
do you keep yourself?

Lock this silent prowler out
before your own figure
dissolves away to darkness.

Mascots in the Wild

It’s been two years since Baseball Toaster shut down. On the first anniversary, that final day felt like it was only yesterday. Now, it feels like a lifetime ago. Not sure why, but maybe it’s because I’ve completed all the things I quit the blogging scene to accomplish.

Now as that checklist is finally done, and I’m trying to figure out what next to do with my life, I find myself drifting back to my old scene. Today, for example, Toaster alumnus Josh Wilker has a blog entry that compels me to respond with a little story.

* * *

After Toaster, I decided to take a sabbatical from baseball. Stopped watching it on TV, stopped going to games, stopped playing fantasy baseball, and only read about it minimally. I wanted to stop doing so many things half-assed, and give full concentration to my other priorities in life. Plus, my four years of running the Toaster had burned me out on baseball for a while. I needed a break.

That summer, I took a trip with my family to Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. Some good friends of ours in the Coast Guard had been stationed there. It’s a long trip. It took us longer to get there, door-to-door, than it takes me to get to my brother’s home in Sweden. There aren’t any direct flights to Detroit from Oakland, so we took a roundabout flight that stopped in Ontario (the California one) and Phoenix before arriving in Detroit. We then rented a car and drove an additional six hours to get there. Our friends’ home was literally off the last exit in the United States. Miss that offramp, and you end up in Ontario (the Canadian one).

When you’re a six-hour drive from the nearest major airport, you feel like you’re in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. All your cares back home might as well be on the moon, you’re so far from anything you’re familiar with.

One day, we take a trip to nearby Fort_Michilimackinac. While touring the fort, we come across this Native American gentleman giving a demonstration on how the local tribes worked deer hides:

At one point during the demo, he says, “When you get home, you should google my name. Levi Walker, Jr. You’ll be surprised.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. So when we got home, we googled it. Levi Walker, Jr. is the man who was once the Atlanta Braves mascot Chief Noc-a-homa.

He was right. I was indeed surprised. Because I had gone to a place on earth and a time on earth that felt as far away from my recent life as a baseball-obsessed blogger as possible. And baseball still followed me there.

At that point, I felt like if I ever went on an African safari, I’d run smack dab into Stomper. I could go snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and find Billy the Marlin swimming around. And if I took a rocket to Mars, I would be greeted upon landing by a Furry Green Monster.

You can try to let go of baseball, but it doesn’t matter. Baseball still has a grip on you. You can try to run away, but if you do, don’t bother turning around. Baseball will be gaining on you.

Addo Elephant Park, South Africaphoto © 1999 Brian Snelson | more info (via: Wylio)

 

I don’t know what this coming year has in store for me. I am free now, like a zoo animal released back into the wild. I have no predictions for what will happen next. I can only say this: Look out! Here come the elephants.

Don’t Yet Bid Kid Adieu

No! Ken has not really retired!
He’s not stiff, ceased to be, or expired!
His beautiful plume
Hasn’t gone to the tomb;
His voice ain’t invisible choired!

No, his squawk isn’t really declining.
He’s not nailed to his perch for enshrining.
I assure you his Voom!
Will shortly resume
As soon as he’s done with his pining.

Review: Caprica pilot

I’m knocked down today with the H1N1 or the R2D2 or the Educated L337 or some such malady, so I took advantage of the couch time to watch the Caprica pilot, which is now available for viewing on Hulu.  Quick spoiler-free first impression:  I will definitely be watching this series.

More, with spoilers:  I’ve been hungering for a sci-fi series to follow since Battlestar Galactica ended.  I tried FlashForward and V, but I think the relentless realism of BSG’s take on human behavior ruined those newer shows for me—the characters’ behavior in those shows just seemed false, and often ridiculous.  In Caprica, under Ron Moore’s guidance, we can be confident human behavior will ring more true.  Like Darth Vader, Zoe Graystone may be “more machine now than” girl, but we can also be sure she won’t be spewing any corny love poems to Natalie Portman.  The force in Ron Moore’s fantasy isn’t a simple two-sided object.

Sure, I had some complaints.  The Graystones had no clue that their daughter was basically the greatest computer genius of all time?  Zoe’s two-line text message to her mom took more than three seconds to transmit, but her entire emotional experience of those three seconds got successfully transmitted to her avatar in real time?  Okaaaay.

On a wider scale, the tone seemed a bit subdued.  Unlike BSG, there isn’t a single goal that everyone is working toward. There isn’t a Starbuck-like character to root for and give the show a positive, kick-ass vibe.  Knowing how badly this is all going to turn out in the end, it makes you wonder if anything truly redemptive will come from out of Caprica.  Goodness knows BSG just kept getting darker and darker and darker.  Do I really want to be led down such a destructive path, by a cast of characters who all, except for maybe young William Adama, are motivated by questionable ethics?

But perhaps that’s the point of this exercise.  The best fiction puts a mirror to us and helps us understand ourselves.  Our goals are multiple, not simplistic.  Our characters are layered, not cardboard cutouts.  Our ethics are questionable, not boilerplate.

The show even contemplates that last paragraph, questioning simplicity vs. complexity.  The monotheistic faction in the show insists that there is a right and a wrong, as opposed the more relativistic philosophy of the polytheists.  Joseph Adama was clearly conflicted about his own relativism, in which he functioned as an enabler to organized crime.  The pilot hints that he will be taking a more moralistic stand in the future.  But stark moralism has its potential evils, as well.  It can turn their proponents into terrorists, for one thing.

Which philosophy is better?  How do you define humanity?  Where do we draw the line between ourselves and our technology?  What’s the right thing to do?  Those are questions worth exploring.  Whether Caprica can succeed in addressing these issues we face in our real lives while also connecting us emotionally to an entertaining drama remains to be seen, but it’s worth the attempt.

Exploring these questions is what inspired me to start blogging again.  I have some things to say on these issues that I don’t think are being said by others, so I feel compelled to get them down.  It will be good to follow a show that can trigger new trains of thought, new things to write about.  Hopefully, my efforts too will be worth the attempt.