Category Archives: Personal

The Value of Not Getting to the Point

I read somewhere recently, I forget where, that the purpose of people getting together for a conversation over a beer or coffee or lunch or dinner is that it the food and drink spare us from the burden of needing to have something to say throughout the whole conversation.

This was a revelation to me. All this time, I assumed that the primary purpose of lunch was lunch. All this time, I figured that I was just lousy at conversation because being an introvert made conversation awkward and laborious for me. For everyone else, conversation seems comparatively effortless. But it seems from this data that conversation must be harder for everyone else than I had assumed.

My oldest daughter is a freshman in college. She recently texted me and said she wanted to talk. I asked, what about? She got annoyed at me for asking.

I was clueless as to why. I guess the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all of us, there’s always some area of life where we’re so incompetent we don’t even know we’re incompetent. This area, apparently, was one of mine.

She asked if we could just talk about something stupid. So I called her, and we talked about Donald Trump and the presidential race and stuff like that for a good long while. I didn’t ask about what was really bothering her.

Eventually, the conversation turned, and we finally got to talking about the thing she wanted to talk about. But that probably at least half an hour into the conversation. We segued slowly and organically from the stupid stuff into the real issue.

And this, too, was a bit of a revelation to me, that someone would not want to get straight to the point, that someone would need a nice long conversational warmup before they’d feel comfortable enough to be ready to talk about something more uncomfortable. I’m very much a get-to-the-point kind of person. I tend to say what I mean, or nothing at all.

Language is imprecise. Our feelings don’t always have direct translations into speech. It’s hard to explain what we feel, to say exactly what we mean. We have wants and desires and emotions, and we often try to rationalize those feelings. Those rationalizations are often logically incoherent. But it’s hard to see the incoherence of our own rationalizations because our points of view are so limited. And often (if we’re not falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect) we intuit that our rationalizations may be incoherent. So we’re cautious in what we say. We know that there can be social penalties for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way to the wrong person.

All this adds up to making the act of talking about something sensitive daunting. There is a vulnerability in speaking. That’s why our culture has all these rituals and conventions around conversation, like idle chit-chat and coffee and such: to build enough trust in the environment where we can feel comfortable enough to overcome the vulnerability inherent in speech.

I never fully understood this before. I feel like everyone else understands it, though, because they act as if they do. But if they do, it must be an intuitive understanding, a grokking, not an explicit fact that people state out loud. Otherwise, I probably would have heard someone say it explicitly sometime before in the almost 50 years I’ve been in this earth.

Having now finally come to this understanding, it occurs to me that perhaps this is the great flaw with Twitter, why everyone I know on Twitter seems to eventually run into a wall with it. The 140-character format pushes you to get straight to the point. There is no room for the idle chit-chat and sips of coffee and other conversational rituals that let us dance around the sensitive issues. Without these rituals that are built into real-life human-to-human conversation, the problems with speech that those cultural rituals are designed to prevent come flooding in.

There is so much hair pulling and teeth grinding about what people should and should not say online, and how they should or should not say it. And maybe all that hair pulling and teeth grinding arise because our online conversational cultures, and the technological platforms they reside on, have not had the time to evolve into something that works, the way that our real-life conversational culture has.

There are many, many more people who are clueless about how to behave in online conversations than there are people who are clueless about how to behave in offline ones. How I came to be the flipside of that, I don’t know.

And it also occurs to me that there is a value in stating explicitly the things that are mostly just intuited about human nature and human culture. I want to explore these sorts of things. There is a risk, though, a vulnerability, in stating these things. The people who intuitively grasp these things will feel as though I am insulting their intelligence by stating something so obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it isn’t meant as an insult to their intelligence, it’s meant as an insult to mine. I need to say these things because I’m the one who doesn’t understand these things. I need them explained to myself.

Which is all a roundabout way of stating something that maybe could fit into a tweet: I plan to start saying things that aren’t obvious to me but may be obvious to others. Sorry if you fall into the latter category and I waste your time. Such is the risk of saying anything, ever. And sorry for the roundaboutness in getting to this point. I seemed to need it, for some strange reason.

Forty-two Boxes

One.

Listen:

When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop. . . . But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.

Steve Jobs

Two.

Beginning a story with a quote often implies that the rest of the story will say same thing as the quote, but with different words. This story follows that formula. The opening quote serves as a box within which the rest of the story is confined.

This story is not original. It says what Steve Jobs said in the above quote. It says other things that other people have also been saying for hundreds and even thousands of years. So why bother telling this story?

We tell stories because there are simple approaches that don’t address the complexity of the problem. We tell stories because there are convoluted solutions where people have stopped. We tell stories because sometimes the underlying principle remains, but the old, elegant, once-beautiful solution has now stopped working.

Sometimes the lock changes, and we need a new key. Sometimes we refuse a key from one person that we will accept one from another. Sometimes this particular key won’t work for us, but a different key will click the door open. And sometimes we need to try a different door entirely to get into that room.

We tell stories because we are human beings, endowed by our creator with the delusion of hope. We tell stories in faith, believing, without evidence, that communication will forge a key that unlocks something incredible and amazing.

Three.

I got mad at my kids recently for having a messy room.

It’s such a cliché, I know. In that moment, I was an ordinary parent, just like everyone else, easily replaced by a thousand identical others.

Although, that’s not exactly true. I had my own, different angle on the messy room story. I didn’t really get mad because their rooms were messy. I got mad because their messiness was starting to spread out into my spaces, the common areas of the house that I keep clean. I did not want my space to be a new frontier for their stuff to conquer.

Wait, that’s not exactly the whole story, either. I didn’t even get mad because their stuff was getting all over the house. I got mad because when I suggested that we go to IKEA, like a good Swedish-American family, and look for some solution for where they can put their backpacks and schoolbooks and binders and such, so that I can keep my spaces clear of their stuff, they laughed.

I got mad because they laughed.

Four.

Is a story a kind of technology?

The word technology derives from the Greek words for “skill/craft” and “word”. Since a technology is a set of words about skills, perhaps a story is the original technology, the underlying technology upon which all other technologies are based.

We craft our words into a story, to transfer information from one person’s brain to another person’s brain. The more skillfully we craft our words, the more effectively that information is transferred, retained, and spread.

The most celebrated technologies of our times, Google and Facebook and Twitter, are merely extensions of this original technology. They are the result of stories built on stories built on stories over thousands of years, told orally, then in print, then digitally, all circling back to their original purpose. They are ever more effective tools to transfer, retain and spread information from one human being to another.

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Why I Have Stopped Tweeting

Because my hands are full. Literally. In each hand, I am carrying a whipped cream pie. I carry these pies with me 24/7, one in each hand, which prevents me from tweeting. I shall carry this burden with me until I find the inevitable person who is wearing both Google Glass and an AppleWatch at the same time, at which time I shall throw these pies at said person for being such a pretentious twit. And then, having completed what I was sent here on earth to accomplish, I shall at long last be satisfied with my life, and I shall immediately thereafter ascend into the heavens.

The End.

Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters

NigerianEmbassy2

Random Wikipedia sends us today to the Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters, which is a subdivision of the Pan-African Parliament. The Pan-African Parliament was established in 2004, and is similar in scope and goals to the European Parliament, aiming for central banking, unified currencies and free-trade zones. Obviously, to establish free-trade zones, you need rules and regulations regarding trade, customs and immigration between countries. Hence, this committee, probably tasked to create an African version of the Schengen Agreement.

Back in 1988-89 when I worked as a translator at the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm (shown above, with me in the open window), I would not have envisioned that Africa would have come this far in 25 years. But they’re about at the same place the European Union was back then. In 1989, it wasn’t called the EU yet; it was the European Community. There were economic subgroups like the EEC and EFTA, but no common currency. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen, and as a consequence, Sweden and Finland were not yet willing to join such an alliance. The pieces were there, but it had not yet all come together.

Of course, there are some unstable countries in Africa, especially in North Africa after the Arab Spring revolutions. But Europe in 1989 similarly unstable when the Berlin Wall fell. It would have been really interesting to still be working in the Embassy to experience the Nigerian reaction to the Berlin Wall falling, but I left that job in June of 1989, and the Berlin Wall fell in November. My successor as translator worked there in interesting times, to be sure.

NigerianEmbassy1

Wow, look at how serious those young professional translators looked back in 1989!

“Please! Spare me your egotistical musings on your pivotal role in history. Nothing you do here will cause the Federation to collapse or galaxies to explode. To be blunt, you’re not that important.”
–Q, to Jean-Luc Picard, in the Star Trek TNG episode, “Tapestry”

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m living the life of the version of Jean-Luc Picard who didn’t get stabbed in the heart by a Nausicaan in that episode of Star Trek– the one who didn’t become a famous captain, the one who lived life too cautiously, who didn’t take risks, who drifted in life with no particular plan, and who as a result ended up with a decent, but forgettable and unremarkable career. But then I think, wow, I worked in European diplomacy as Communism was falling, and I worked in Silicon Valley as the Internet was starting, I got involved in blogging as social media became a thing, I covered the A’s as Moneyball introduced the world to statistical analysis. I’ve witnessed a lot of history unfolding, even if I never was the one who captained any ships to glory. All those events probably would have rolled on more or less the same without my being there. We can’t all be a Jean-Luc Picard (primary version). It is the nature of hierarchies that most of us, at best, are lucky just to be a Jean-Luc Picard (alternate version). I’ve been lucky.

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.

My Letter from 1989 about the Earthquake World Series

Grantland posted an oral history of the 1989 World Series and earthquake the other day. That prompted me to dig up an old letter I sent to my friends and family outside the Bay Area, mostly in Sweden, about my experiences during that time.

A bit of background: in October of 1989, I had just returned from a year living in Sweden with my girlfriend (now wife) Pam. Pam was staying at her parents’ house and I was staying with her brother, until we could find jobs and afford to get our own place.

In hindsight, this letter is quite long, full of unnecessary details and subplots, not unlike a Victorian novel. It also lacks a good plot, because, well, no buildings fell down around me or anything. Nobody in the story was hurt, nobody was rescued. But in my defense, this was back in the days when you couldn’t just send an email or post something on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram and have everyone you know around the world instantly know what’s going on in your life. My Swedish friends probably got some horrific pictures on TV of collapsed buildings and fires and thought San Francisco had fallen into the sea. We weren’t so overwhelmed with data that a lack of filtering was a problem. TL;DR was not a thing back then.

So, here it is, what I wrote back in 1989:

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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.

Eavesdropping

For us Oakland A’s fans, this year has been a dream. Very little was expected of the team this year after GM Billy Beane traded three of the A’s best players over the winter. When the A’s lost nine games in a row in May, we fans resigned ourselves to our low expectations having been met, another disappointment in growing series of disappointments. The A’s haven’t had a winning season in five years. But in June, some magic wand was waved over the team, and suddenly everything changed. With just three weeks left in the season, the A’s are now in the lead for a wild card playoff spot, and just three games behind Texas for the best record in the American League.

I headed out to the Oakland Coliseum on Saturday to soak up some of the magic vibes. The A’s were playing the Baltimore Orioles, in the midst of a dream season of their own. The Orioles haven’t had a winning season in 15 years, but here they were tied with the hated New York Yankees atop the American League East division.

The Orioles scored single runs in the second and third innings to take a 2-0 lead. This subdued the crowd a bit, and the focus of the people around me started drifting away from the game.

This is not the same boy as in the story

In front of me sat a young boy about 8 years old. To his left was another 8-ish boy, perhaps a friend, and the friend’s younger sister and father. They boy’s mother had made a pre-game appearance and scolded him very sternly to sit nicely and behave properly while seated here with this other family, and then had left. In the top of the third one of the kids pulled out a hand-held video game console of some sort, and they began to play. The three heads all gathered around the tiny screen.

Behind me sat a row of older men and women, all probably in their fifties or sixties. One of them was wearing a Cal shirt, so I introduced myself as a fellow Cal grad, and chatted him up about his experiences at UC Berkeley. He said he graduated in ’73, which put him there at the peak of the whole protest era. He remembered walking through Sproul Plaza the day after one of these protests, the condensation from the previous day’s tear gas still dripping from the trees, stinging his eyes.

Another lady in that row then launched into a lengthy monologue. I can’t remember it word for word, but I’ll paraphrase it thusly:

My oldest daughter lives in Riverside. It’s a great place to live. It’s an hour to Disneyland on the 91, or and an hour to downtown LA on the 10 if the traffic isn’t too bad. And San Diego’s easy to get to, about an hour and a half down the 15, and you can also get to Palm Springs in an hour heading east on Highway 60. It’s fantastic.

We took a trip down there a couple weeks ago. I had surgery for uterine cancer two months ago, so the kids had been all cooped up, and you know, they needed to get out. So we headed down 101 first to Soledad, where another of my daughters lives. Her husband works in the prison there. Then we continued down 101 to Paso Robles where our oldest son lives, and then on 101 through LA to the 10 and then down the 215 to Riverside.

The day before, I had blogged about how it was an error to mistake data for function. Here was a remarkable example of avoiding that error. You’d think uterine cancer would consume a person’s life — that fighting it would become the primary function of her life. Yet this lady somehow managed to make cancer sound like merely a data point on a highway map of Southern California.

The word “cancer” has struck me with more emotional impact lately, as my brother-in-law Jim died of melanoma in August. Up until then, I had been fortunate enough not to really know anyone who had been struck down by cancer. But now having seen someone close to me suffer from it, it’s far less of an abstraction to me now, hearing about all the chemotherapy and radiation and medicines, hoping that one or some combination of these will miraculously work. Having that lady mention Paso Robles struck me double, because about six weeks before he died, Jim took a trip from his Arizona home here to the Bay Area. We watched several Euro 2012 soccer games together. Then we said goodbye, and he and his wife headed down to Paso Robles to do some wine tasting. It was the last time I saw him. There were no miracles.

The somber mood of myself and the crowd quickly reversed itself in the bottom of the third. Stephen Drew led off with a solo homer to cut the Orioles’ lead to 2-1. The boy in front of me cheered enthusiastically, jumping up and down with his arms high above his head. The crowd seemed to sense some magic happening, as the chants of “Let’s Go Oakland” grew louder and more intense as the A’s got one hit after another. When Yoenis Cespedes hit a bullet single up the middle to give the A’s a 3-2 lead, the crowd went crazy.

Chris Carter followed with a two-run double down the right field line. Cespedes read the ball perfectly off the bat, and took off running. As that powerful body flew around the bases, so fast that he nearly caught up with Josh Reddick one base ahead of him, I couldn’t help but marvel at what an amazing athlete he is. His swing and his running stride have such an lovely combination of power and grace and speed, that I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Yoenis Cespedes is a beautiful human being.” Not in the sense of him being a nice guy, since I know nearly nothing of his character, but of his body. His strong yet fluid manner seems almost the Platonic ideal of human motion.

The inning ended with the A’s ahead, 5-2, and the crowd abuzz in an intoxicating mix of joy and disbelief. As it turned out, that was all the scoring there would be. The game then marched ahead straightforwardly, without much more excitement.

As the outs piled up, the kids in front of me started getting a little bored and restless again. At one point in the 6th inning, the boy picked up some empty peanut shells and tossed them into the air.

* * *

At the exact moment the peanut shells left his fingers, his mother returned, carrying two boxes of pizza.

“What are you doing?” she shouted at him, as the peanut shells fluttered harmlessly to the floor. “I told you very specifically that you needed to behave! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

What’s wrong with him, I thought, is probably that he has a mother who is the type of person who says “fuck” to her kids.

She handed the pizza boxes to the father of the other kids, and then grabbed the boy by the wrist. “Come with me,” she said sternly. She pulled him behind her, and pulled him up the stairs onto the concourse.

Two minutes later, they returned. “Now sit down right there, don’t move, and eat your fucking pizza.”

* * *

The next morning, Craig Calcaterra blogged about a letter from the poet Ted Hughes to his son, in which Hughes explains that our true selves are childlike and innocent, but we learn through the crush of circumstances in our lives to build a shell around that inner child, to protect it from pain. It is that armor that we adults use to interface with the world.

But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt.

As I read this, I thought about that mom from the day before. Where does her anger come from? Was she so overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt in her childhood that the only thing she knows is to make her own offspring feel overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt, too?

* * *

The boy sat. His shoulders slumped. His head bowed. His face lost all its joy.

He took a slice of his fucking pizza. With each bite, a hard shell began to form around his soul.

* * *

I was reminded of this new anti-alcohol video from Finland:

My dad had an alcohol problem when I was growing up. I was fortunate in that when my dad got drunk, he didn’t become abusive. He merely became the world’s worst standup comic. Still, as a child, you’re bewildered by it. Embarrassed. You try to ignore it, forget about it, put a shell around yourself and block it out.

Eventually, my mom had enough and divorced my dad. My dad remarried. Eventually, about the time I was a senior in high school, the drinking got to the point where he couldn’t eat if he drank. The food would just get stuck in his throat. I could see that same bewilderment, that same embarrassment in his new wife’s eyes, that I knew so well.

One day, after another one of these episodes, I found him alone in the basement. I walked up to him and said, “You’re going have to choose. Which do you love more, your bottle or your wife?” Up until that day, I had never said a word about his drinking, ever, in my life. He looked at me, speechless. I turned around and walked out.

I walked into that basement a hurt child, and walked out a man. I decided that this cycle of pain was going to end, right there, with me. Any family I had was not going to have to deal with this same kind of crap I had to deal with. That’s why I don’t drink alcohol.

Shortly after our confrontation, my dad quit drinking, cold turkey. Never drank another drop of alcohol the rest of his life. Our relationship got so much better after that. I am so grateful.

I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of socializing by not drinking. You don’t invite the guy who doesn’t drink out for beers with the guys. Fortunately, I’m an introvert, so missing out on socializing doesn’t really bother me at all. Pity the poor extrovert who has to make the same decision.

* * *

The boy now in submission, her damage done, the hurricane of a mother departed the scene as abruptly as she arrived. She was not seen again for the rest of the game.

* * *

The outs pile up, three outs here, three outs there, and eventually, the game is over. But that boy and I, we had that one moment together, didn’t we, that raw, magical, miraculous moment where Chris Carter hit that double down the right field line, where Yoenis Cespedes flew around the bases and almost caught up to Josh Reddick, and we broke through our shells and forgot our pain and fears and we marveled and cheered and threw our arms up in the air, each of us free as an uninhibited child.

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>

Spotlight on Quality: Transitions and Clowns

In between shows, I went backstage to grab some food. One of the volunteers came up to me and said, “Hey, Ken, the lighting director is looking for you.”

I wondered why. Had I screwed up? I was a rookie at operating a spotlight, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t understand something correctly during the first performance, and they wanted me to get it right for the next show. Lighting was an element of the performing arts that I had never given any thought to, until one day earlier. Now I was trying to learn on the fly: what is the meaning of quality in the field of stage lighting?

I went and found the lighting director. Fortunately, I hadn’t screwed up. “We’re adding a new transition in the second show, after the broom act, ” he explained.

* * *

“Transitions are the subtle in-between details that we as human beings actually connect with and the reasons we fall in love with something rather than simply like something.”

Brendan Dawes

Brendan Dawes has an interesting post about transitions in design on his blog. His thought is that the transitions between states of usage is the thing that makes the difference between a product that is functional and a product that is beautiful. A commenter named Robert Turrall added an excellent example of this idea in action:

“I remember having discussions with an industrial designer a few years ago about why interior lights in cars that dim gently after you’ve closed the doors go towards the perception of the car itself. BMWs had them, as did other more expensive cars, and this was one of the features that really made the car “feel” exclusive and expensive. Other cars had lights that just switched off abruptly – and they immediately felt “cheap”, almost on the basis of this alone.”

Robert Turrall

There is likely almost no difference in manufacturing cost between a light that turns off abruptly and a light that turns off slowly. But little details like that can be the difference between cheapness and luxury, between amateur and professional.

* * *

I have operated plenty of car lights in my time, but until a month ago, I had never laid hands on a spotlight. I was called on to operate one of the two spotlights at Circus for Arts in the Schools, an annual fundraising circus show put on by professional circus artists to raise money for arts education.

The show is the brainchild of my friend Jeff Raz, a veteran circus performer who, among other things, played the lead role in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo, and founded the Clown Conservatory, the only full-time clown training program in the US. Jeff is very well connected in the circus industry, so he manages to get some really amazing acts to come donate their time and skills for this cause.

Jeff recruits the acts and directs the show, while his wife and my wife co-produce it. And I…well, I do whatever I’m asked to do.

* * *

“Being a father, you’re not really the star of the show, the starting pitcher, the cleanup hitter, what have you, but you may be called upon at certain times to step off the bench and into the spotlight. You don’t have the uterus or the boobs or the 500 career home runs or the 300 wins but you still might be called upon to perform a small but necessary duty successfully. You can carry a car seat out to the car. You can change a diaper half-decently. Maybe once in a while you can get the kid to sleep. You are the pinch-hitter.”

Josh Wilker

For this year’s circus, I was asked not to step into the spotlight, but to hold onto it. The lighting director gave me a crash course in how to operate the device. (I learned that in theaters, unlike in cars, turning a spotlight on and off quickly is a signal of high quality, and doing so slowly is considered “cheating”). And then we rehearsed.

In preparations for two 75-minute shows on Sunday, we practiced for five hours on Saturday night, and then another two hours on Sunday morning. Interestingly, we did not rehearse the actual circus acts in the show. Those were simply assumed to be ready to go. For the most part, the only thing we worked on were the transitions between the acts, and between various lighting and sound cues.

* * *

A show with acrobats and clowns consists of, as Jeff Raz says, “the superhuman and the supremely human.” If you had a show with just acrobat after acrobat after acrobat, your mind would quickly become numbed by the superhuman feats of these performers. That’s where you need to bring in the clowns.

Clowns get a bum rap in today’s culture, thanks to some bad horror films and a few other choice clichés. But after being involved with this annual circus for seven years, and having seen some truly top-notch artists at work up close, I’ve really grown to appreciate the art form.

The clown’s role in a circus is not merely to make you laugh. The clown is there to serve as the transition between acts in the show. They bring equipment onto the stage, and they take it off. But perhaps most importantly, they allow your mind to continue to enjoy the superhuman nature of the acrobats by reminding you of what it is like to be a normal human, by acting “supremely human”.

* * *

The new transition was inserted following an act by Matt White, who dances with a broom reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s hat rack. As soon as the broom act was over, I needed to find the clown in the wings. The clown would then turn on a fully functioning vacuum cleaner, and I had to follow him with the spotlight as he tried to dance with the vacuum cleaner across the stage.

It’s probably the oldest clown gag in the book. The clown earnestly tries to succeed like the act before him, but focuses on the wrong element of the act to emulate. It’s not the cleaning tool that is the source of the quality in the performance.

If you or I were thrust out on a stage and told to emulate Fred Astaire, we would probably fail miserably. Not because of one huge mistake like choosing the wrong prop to dance with, but by a thousand little things that we, as amateurs, simply do not understand.

By distilling these thousand little errors into one big error, the clown points out our own human flaws: we recognize quality when we see it, but recognizing is not the same as understanding.

* * *

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world!

— Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Wanting to succeed is human. Failing to succeed because we don’t understand the elements of quality is supremely human. Persisting through those failures until we do understand — that is what redeems us.

A good circus is not just a series of good acrobats and good clowns. It’s the two working in concert to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an expression of the entire human experience, moving from the innocent curiosity of childhood to the godlike comprehension of adult mastery. The result is an uplifting feeling of possibility — that we humans can get past our lack of understanding to accomplish amazing things — that makes so many people leave the circus show with smiles on their faces.

* * *

Later that night, when we got home, my four-year-old daughter was inspired. “I’m going to put on a show!” she declared. She went into our pantry, and pulled out a mop. “Watch me! Watch me!” Then she and the mop danced in circles all around the living room.

Nice shoes

This weekend, Joe Posnanski posted a syrupy sweet story about how his daughters just love to compliment strangers.

Here were all these strangers wearing nice clothes; she was in heaven. I love your dress. Your earrings are beautiful. Your shoes are nice. Of course, everyone then returned the compliment, not realizing that this was like trying to trade jabs with Ali, and she would come back with a follow-up compliment and another — you’re pretty, you’re handsome, you have nice hair, I love your glasses, your teeth are so white, on and on, infinity.

Good for Joe. As a father of three daughters myself, I instinctively want the life stories of my girls to be filled with nice and sweet and beautiful and magical things, too.

And it’s not just dads who feel this way. Last week, I had this sugary exchange on Twitter with Amanda McCarthy, wife of Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy:

@Mrs_McCarthy32  Amanda McCarthy
I will never be too old for a pb&j with apple slices.
@kenarneson  Ken Arneson
@Mrs_McCarthy32 My four-year-old daughter would like to eat at your restaurant.
@Mrs_McCarthy32  Amanda McCarthy
@kenarneson my apples are always served with caramel! I am a kids dream!!

And isn’t that a lovely thought?

Don’t we all want a world where a child’s natural gifts are appreciated and developed to their maximum potential? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everyone can have all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they want?

* * *

But somewhere in the back of my mind is a voice telling me to be careful of such sweet desires. I guess I worry that a society that desires sweetness and purity will treat violations of purity with, well, a puritanical harshness.

The flip side of saying that if you’re good and sweet and pure and innocent, you can have all the pb&j you desire, is this: if you’re not pure, if you’re tempted to check out a dangerous hole and fall in as a result, then you’re on your own. Nobody’s going to be bringing you any ladders to get yourself out.

The line between innocence and guilt in a puritanical culture is very very thin. It becomes difficult to distinguish between genuine innocence and a fake innocence for appearances. For the genuinely pure, one minute you’re a cute, sweet, precocious kid who loves to give compliments to strangers, and the next…

* * *

This story is about one month old.

I drive to the Home Depot on the border between West Oakland and Emeryville to buy some mortar for a brick wall that I’m repairing. I get out of my car and start looking across the sea of parked cars for one of those flatbed shopping cart to put the bags of mortar on. I spy one a couple aisles over, and head for it. As I get there and grab the cart, I hear a voice behind me.

“Hey, man, I like those shoes!”

I turn around and see an African-American man, maybe about 50 years old, standing beside me. He’s a small guy, skinny, maybe 5’7″ and 150 lbs dripping wet.

“Wow, is that leather?” He bends down and touches my shoes. I’m wearing some casual loafers, nothing fancy, but they do have a strip of brown that at least looks like leather. I have no idea if the leather is real or fake, but I can’t really think about that, because, well, there’s a guy touching my feet.

“Mmm, hmm!” he says enthusiastically, as he stands back up. “Those are nice. Where can I get me some of those?”

“I got them online,” I say. “They’re called Keens. If you Google ‘Keen shoes’ you can find them.”

He is smiling at me. His smile has gaps, he is missing some teeth. At that moment, two things occur to me: (1) a guy with dental problems probably doesn’t spend a lot of time online, and (2) even though this conversation is really bizarre, I can’t help but like the guy.

I start pushing the cart towards the store entrance. He walks with me. He says, “Say, listen, man, I just got out of Santa Rita. You know what that is?”

“Yes,” I say. Santa Rita is the Alameda County prison.

“Ha!” he says. “I bet you’ve never been in there, have you?”

I chuckle. “No.”

He says, “I could use a little help. Could you spare a dollar so I could buy a taco for lunch?”

“Sure,” I say. I reach into my pocket and pull out my wallet. I look in and — crap. I don’t have a dollar bill. I don’t even have a five. So I pull out the smallest bill I have and say, “Here, here’s a ten.”

I close my wallet, put it in back my pocket. I look back up to tell him, “You have a good–“. But I don’t get the chance. He’s already gone, vanished back into the American wilderness.

A Timeline of Holes

  • Image from NASA
    13,700,000,000 years ago

    The universe explodes into existence out of one small, dense dot.

    Why isn't the universe perfectly symmetrical? Why can't we look out onto the other side of the big bang, and see our mirror image?

    The universe is uneven. Unbalanced. Unsmooth. It is full of clumps and lumps.

    We are like particles of dust, swirling through an unstoppable, expanding sinkhole, as it carves itself out of some other earth.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • Solar nebula
    4,568,000,000 years ago

    A white dwarf star in the Milky Way Galaxy explodes as a supernova. The shock wave hits a nearby nebula of gas, causing a clustering of material which condenses into our Solar System.

    Nothing happens in smoothness. In an undisturbed cloud, there is no conflict, no creativity.

    Action requires a hole. A hole creates an edge, and the edge is where things meet to become other things.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • moon formation
    4,480,000,000 years ago

    A small planet collides with a young Earth, destroying the small planet and gouging a giant hole in the earth. The leftover debris coalesces and becomes the moon.

    Every hole has a past, a life lived as something else.

    Every hole also creates a future. But that future is not for itself. A hole is nothing, but it is also an opportunity for something other than itself.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright
  • 714,000,000 years ago

    In the marshlands of the planet Unbraikea in the Pinwheel Galaxy, a mantisoid species called "Allien" becomes the first sentient life form in the universe.

    An Allien named Jaramu Briwn trips into a bed of hexreeds. His oversized snout gets caught in one of the reed flowers. His embarrassment turns to joy when he discovers a beautiful symbiosis between the two species. 600 million years of co-evolved stability and peace follow.

    image credit: Arjen Stilklik and Gustavo Durán via creative commons license
  • 100,000,000 years ago

    An Allien named Bell Jymas begins to question the behavior of his society. "We've done things this way for 600 million years. Why? If nothing ever changes, what's the point?" he asks. Jymas is mostly ignored by his fellow Alliens.

    When we feel crowded, we seek to create holes. When we feel empty, we seek fulfillment. We yearn for an easy, soothing uniformity in our lives.

    It's a rare and remarkable event when an intelligent being wants to pokes holes in a fulfilling existence.

  • 65,000,000 years ago

    Back on Earth, a 6-mile wide asteroid crashes into the Yucatan Peninsula. The resulting impact hole sends so much debris into the atmosphere that all the dinosaurs died.

    The large hole in the ecosystem left by the death of the dinosaurs creates an opportunity for some small, mammalian survivors to move in and fill it.

  • 44,000,000 years ago

    An Allien named Bellu Bayna decides to test out Jymas' theories. He leaves the safety and comfort of his grassy reed nest, and ascends Mount Nervyny. For 40 days and 40 nights, he meditates, resisting the temptation to return to his old, easy life. Following his example, Alliens enter the most dynamic and creative era in their history.

    The leader of a movement usually accomplishes little but to point out the center of a hole. It's the first follower who is key, for this is the one who brings the shovel and starts digging.

    image credit: Giorgio via creative commons license
  • 25,000,000 years ago

    Nearly every ecosystem on Earth is colonized by mammals. But one group of mammalian monkeys discovers a remaining unexploited hole in their ecosystem. They leave the safety of the trees, and begin to regularly forage for food on the ground.

    This group of monkeys, called "Hominoids" or "Apes", lose their tails, and eventually evolve into several distinct genera: gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans.

  • 22,000,000 years ago

    Kan Yrnasin, a follower of Bellu Bayna's movement, composes an artwork expanding on Bayna's ideas, entitled "On Sockets". Of the work, fellow follower Mahmyttske says, "Well, the reednet is over, this work won. Thanks for playing everybody."

    "On Sockets" becomes generally regarded as the pinnacle of Allien civilization. Allien society soon thereafter begins a long descent into disunity, selfishness and ignorance, the combination of which makes them fail to understand the gravity of their impending disaster until it was too late to stop it.

  • 21,000,000 years ago

    A white dwarf star 20 light years from Unbraikea goes supernova. The resulting shock wave blows a hole in the atmosphere of Unbraikea, and all the Alliens perish.

    When Alliens realize they are doomed, their culture descends into a violent, nihilistic, destructive rage.

    A brave few try to overcome the desperately long and unfair odds. They broadcast their consciousness out into the expanse of the universe, hoping that someday, somewhere, it will find a recipient who can make their their existence matter.

  • 17,000,000 years ago

    The Colorado River begins carving out the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona, creating the Grand Canyon.

    Is a hole an act of construction, or destruction? Does it matter whether a hole is intentional or not?

    Does it change our judgment of a thing if we know there's an artist behind it, skillfully and willfully causing it to happen?

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • 50,000 years ago

    A rock about 50m wide slams into Arizona, forming Meteor Crater.

    Two large scars in the face of an otherwise flat, dry Arizona desert. One is considered among the most beautiful, defining features of the planet Earth; the other is thought of more as an unsightly blemish.

    What is the difference between a hole that is beautiful and one that is ugly?

  • 1,978 years ago

    Roman authorities kill Jesus Christ by nailing holes into a wooden cross through his hands and feet.

    Some holes go beyond mere ugliness. Some holes make us recoil in horror or disgust.

    The idea that God, from whose breath this holey universe originated, would Himself come and willingly participate in both the joys and the suffering of human life, is a great comfort to many.

    image credit: Mattias Grünewald
  • 1,000 years ago

    In order to avoid religious persecution for his scientific work, Ibn al-Haytham, a/k/a Alhazen, a Persian scientist working in Egypt, feigns madness. He is placed under house arrest for 10 years. During this time he begins writing his influential Book of Optics.

    Many, if not most, of the technologies which involve manipulating light passing through a hole were built atop the principles spelled out in Alhazen's work. A madman may not seem to be of any consequence. But telescopes, cameras, and eyeglasses certainly do.

    image credit: Wikipedia
  • 804 years ago

    The poet Rumi is born.

    "A craftsman pulled a reed from the reedbed,
    cut holes in it, and called it a human being.

    Since then, it's been wailing a tender agony
    of parting, never mentioning the skill
    that gave it life as a flute."

  • 1911

    One century ago, H. T. Hallowell, Sr., founder of Standard Pressed Steel Company, invents the hex key.

    Hallowell suffers the usual fate of pioneers, seeing someone else get famous for his work. During World War II, the hex key becomes more commonly known as the "Allen Wrench", a trademark of the Allen Manufacturing Company, a competitor of Standard Pressed Steel.

  • 1966

    Ken Arneson is born just a short distance from where the Beatles hold their final concert.

    Meanwhile, 4,000 holes mysteriously appear in Blackburn, Lancashire.

    From this data, scientists are finally able to calculate the hole unit volume of the Albert Hall.

  • September 1, 1991

    Ken Arneson exchanges wedding rings with his wife.

    A wedding ring is a round piece of metal with a hole in it. The circular shape, without beginning or end, is meant to symbolize the eternal nature of love.

  • April 8, 1994

    Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, blows a hole in his own head. His wife, Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole, is left widowed.

    "And if you save yourself
    You will make him happy
    He'll keep you in a jar
    And you'll think you're happy

    He'll give you breathing holes
    And you'll think you're happy
    He'll cover you with grass
    And you'll think you're happy now"

    --Sappy

  • August 20, 1998

    Louis Sachar publishes a book named "Holes." It includes a poem about one animal who wants to create a hole, and another who wants to fill one.

    "If only, if only," the woodpecker sighs,
    "The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies."
    While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
    Crying to the moo-oo-oon,
    "If only, If only."

  • My house on September 11, 2001
    September 11, 2001

    Ten years and ten days after Ken Arneson wed, he wakes up to a giant hole in his living room wall. Contractors had removed a chimney as part of a small remodeling project.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, terrorists use airplanes to make holes in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

    Ken Arneson's hole is trivial, easily and quickly repaired.

    The friends and loved ones of 3,000 people who died that day suffered a hole in their lives that cannot be refilled.

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • May 10, 2003

    Oily sebum clogs a hair follicle on Ken Arneson's head. A hole exposes the sebum to the air, oxidizing the oil and turning it into an unsightly blackhead.

    Meanwhile, Michael Lewis publishes "Moneyball", a book about Billy Beane, who discovers an unexploited hole in the Major League Baseball ecosystem.

    "Billy, in a single motion, erupted from his chair, grabbed it, and hurled it right through the wall. When the chair hit the wall it didn't bang and clang, it exploded. Until they saw the hole Billy had made in it, the scouts had assumed that the wall was, like their futures, solid."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • August 27, 2007

    Ken Arneson publishes a blog entry entitled "Of Holes." Commenter Mehmattski says, "Well, the Internet is over, this post won. Thanks for playing everybody."

    "I despair: I don't want to be a robot, programmed to do what I do, oblivious to the world burning beneath my feet. I want to know what my feet are doing. I want to know where the holes in my life are, and why I keep trying to fill them, over and over. I want to accomplish great feats. I want to see and create beautiful things. I want to have amazing experiences."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • June 1, 2010

    A giant sinkhole appears in Guatemala City.

    Here is an event on a timeline.

    We usually think of a timeline as a series of events. But look again. Is a timeline not also a series of holes between events?

    Look at the holes. What is missing? What can't we see? What is being forgotten, being left unsaid?

    We cannot assign significance to the memorable events in our lives without assigning insignificance to the events in between them.

  • May 2, 2011

    US Special Forces shoot one hole in the chest and another in the head of Osama bin Laden, killing him.

    Sometimes, it is necessary to fight holes with holes.

  • August 24, 2011

    After 21 million years of travel, light from the Pinwheel Galaxy supernova reaches Earth.

    The stars come up spinning every night, bewildered in love.
    They'd grow tired with that revolving, if they weren't.
    They'd say, "How long do we have to do this!"

    God picks up the reed flute world and blows.
    Each note is a need coming through one of us,
    a passion, a longing-pain.

    Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated,
    and let your note be clear.
    Don't try to end it.
    Be your note.
    I'll show you how it's enough.

    Go up on the roof at night
    in this city of the soul.
    Let everyone climb on their roofs
    and sing their notes!

  • September 10, 2011

    Ken Arneson visits the Chabot Observatory on the roof of the Oakland Hills. He waits in line for over two hours to get a glance at the supernova in a large telescope.

    Peering in the viewhole, Ken sees a single white dot. In this context, a galactic-scale catastrophe looks to be roughly the size of a pimple on a man's face.

    Driving home in a somewhat disappointed mood, Ken hears a faint sound coming from somewhere in his car. "Flub flub flub," it whispers. "Flub flub flub."

  • September 11, 2011

    Ten years to the day after Ken Arneson woke up to a hole in his wall, he wakes up to a hole in the left rear tire of his car.

    Ken jacks up the car and removes the flat tire. Embedded into the tire, he finds an allen wrench.

    "Hissssssssssssss," the tire boos, as Ken removes the allen wrench. "Hissssssssssssss."

    Ken stops and ponders for a moment how an allen wrench, of all things, could maneuver itself into exactly the proper angle to puncture his tire. The odds against it seem desperately long.

    Ken walks over to the garbage can, lifts the lid, and tosses the allen wrench into the hole.

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • September 25, 2011

    Ken Arneson goes to see the film version of Moneyball. While watching the film, his blackhead begins to swell up, painfully infected. Later that night, it bursts open, and the pus flushes the blackhead away.

    "That's a metaphor."

    image credit: Ken Arneson
  • September 28, 2011

    Billy Beane's team plays its final game in a forgettable season. Meanwhile, two teams that copied the philosophy he pioneered, battle each other for a playoff spot on one of the most unforgettable nights on the timeline of baseball history.

    As Beane asks in the Moneyball movie, what does it matter?

    It matters, because sometimes, a supernova explodes, and briefly shines 5,000,000,000 times brighter than the sun, giving off more light than every star in an entire galaxy combined.

    And it matters, because sometimes, a single drop of water dislodges a single pebble from a riverbank.

    image credit: NASA via government work copyright

 

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.