It's been six months since my last blog entry, and about two years since I decided to stop doing daily entries. Time to give it a whack again. I'm going reverse my previous decision and try to once again to do daily entries for a while. A few reasons for this.
I stopped blogging daily because it took up a surprising amount of time and mental energy that I wanted to devote to other projects. I have not put that energy to completing those projects--they still linger in perpetual in-progress abeyance--and I can no longer justifiably blame the blog for that.
I stopped blogging daily because it began to alter my consciousness, causing me to filter every experience, every idea I had every day by thinking how I might write about it later. That made for a slightly surreal sense of being outside looking in at my own life, and I wanted to get away from that. Now, however, I feel I could benefit again from some of that verbal introspection.
Finally, I stopped blogging daily because, plain and simple, I had gotten tired of my own voice. I felt like I'd beaten every thought in my head to death from over-examination and needed to regroup and get some new thoughts. I think I have some now, or at least the old ones don't seem so blanched and could use a little airing out.
So, I'm back. Let's see how it goes this time around.
Why I'm Back
January 2, 2009
So why am I back, writing daily blog entries after some two years of not? Well, to add to the points enumerated above, which focus more on why I stopped, here's a few reasons...
Google ranking. Its slipped for me over the past years. I used to be consistently the #1 result for "matt mchugh" -- quite respectable, given how common my name is -- and now I'm typically second or lower. A real estate agent from Washington D.C. is #1 most of the time. The main reason, far as I can tell, is that his site has a consistent infusion of new content in the form of property descriptions from the Multiple Listing Service. Google seems to favor existing sites that have a steady stream of fresh text to index, so I need to start generating some again.
Writer's block. I've felt kind of stimied lately, unable to focus and work through any literary projects. Lots of ideas, as always, just lost some of the discipline to scribe things out. Writing is one of those endeavors where the more you do it, the easier it comes. I'm hoping this will help get me rolling again, the verbal equivalent of a creaky aging athlete going for a stretch and jog to loosen up in hopes of resuming training.
I need to learn to like my voice again -- or at least find a variation I can work with. As I mentioned yesterday, regarding the blog in particular, I'd grown a little tired of my own voice. That applies to more creative writing as well. I found myself coming up with the same phrasings and tonalities over and over. Felt stale. I've got to figure out a way to change it up. This is a good place to experiment, with the enforced rigor of potential public scrutiny, yet still a safe venue, as obscurity grants relative privacy.
So, with these goals in mind, I re-embark. This may be a little stranger, a little less coherent than in the past, but hopefully it will yield something.
Last Holiday Party
January 03, 2009
Just got back from the final holiday party of the season. The wife has a vast network of mommy friends in town, so every holiday season, there's a whole string of house parties to go to. I'm fairly anti-social by nature and, for the first few years, making the rounds at these packed, chaotic parties was absolute torture. I find I don't mind it so much anymore. Why? In keeping with the two-day trend since my blog comeback, I'll enumerate three reasons.
Among this network of friends of the wife, I've come to know many of them and their spouses over the years. I greet them by name, I know what they do for a living, and some I even have continuing topics of conversation with. Being anti-social for me is not so much about not liking the company of others, but not liking strained, superficial interactions with people I don't or barely know. As I get to know people, and superficial weather-talk pretenses fade and genuine interests and dislikes are discussed more openly, they become more interesting to me.
My kids are older. Many of these parties are teeming with kids pre-school to teen. Literally dozens. When my kids were younger, I worried incessantly about them getting into some sort of kerfuffle with other kids. Really, just my son, who is similarly anti-social (my daughter is astoundingly, effortlessly social). He would tend to annoy other kids, sometimes deliberately, and get upset when they retaliated in even the mildest of ways. At very nearly 8, he's mellower and wiser socially. Most of the time, he just finds a quiet corner to play a video game or watch TV. Sometimes, he plays and interacts, though as often as not, he seems content to gravitate to an orbit on the outskirts of the chaos. Can't say as I blame him. And my daughter... well, she just thrives on it. They both seemed to have happily found their niches at these noisy, grown-up parties, and I like knowing they're forming these memories.
Finally, and this is odd to realize, I'm firmly a part of that whole community now. Again, being as anti-social as ever, I have nonetheless become encircled in a group of townie acquaintances that take my presence as a given. More than that, our holiday party -- one held at our home, a five-year running tradition now -- is always the first of the season. Our party is also the only one that is adults only (we probably wipe out every baby sitter in town for one night each year) and has earned a place in the network's conceptualizing of these seasonal soirees. I've even added an element to the celebrations in that I have a simple outdoor firepit -- little more than a wire cage on wheels -- that allows a winter party to spill outside with the primal camaraderie of huddling around an open hearth. Other people actually borrow my firepit for their parties. Who'da thunk it. The most anti-social guy in town helped launch a new component to the festivities.
So, the 2009-9 Christmas/New Year arc came to a close tonight in a pleasantly typical fashion. To quote a line from my new favorite holiday song, courtesy of Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello: "There are much worse things."
I had an unquiet night's sleep the other night, punctuated with intricate, complex dreams. Not one long dream with a vast, snaking plotline like I have sometimes, but a series of disjointed ones with some common thematic threads. I remember a scene where I was flying above a parking lot where dinosaurs were running loose, trampling people who looked like light bulbs or bowling pins underfoot. One was capture and placed into a small glass box, the size of a shoe box, and I had to take it to the Brooklyn Museum. The glass box was filled with some dark, toxic liquid and I kept trying to wrap tape around it to seal it from leaking. I was sealed with it inside a phone booth sized glass box on the back of pickup truck. The small box with the toxic liquid was now the size of a jewelry box and it started to crack as some creature within, something like a scorpion, was pushing out of it like an egg. I had to carry it quickly onto a beach which looked like Far Rockaway, New York, before it hatched. The creature started to reach out to my fingers, so I had to quickly toss it on the sand. Back in the Brooklyn Museum, I sent up some machine that looked like rows of candles or organ pipes that I think was designed to keep the scorpion from growing to giant size. A former boss expressed admiration for my work.
While this fragmentary sequence makes less narrative sense than one of my long dreams, some of the imagery was quite vivid. The feeling of the scorpion on my had still creeps me out. However, try as I might, I can't remember chunks of it or reconstruct all the connections. It's interesting how the memory of dreams evaporates like dew at sunrise. Unless you get up and write them down in the middle of the night, they're gone the next day. I'm sure there's some scientific explanation for this that links memory to brainwave states, but for me simply makes perfect sense that sleeping and waking thoughts live in separate realms and affect each other only in vague, indirect ways.
January 5, 2009
A few weeks ago, I was watching a Monty Python show rerun, and there was a "fairy tale" animated segment with a cartoon prince, incongruously hopping on all fours like a rabbit. The voice-over narration says: "One day, the prince discovered a small, dark spot on his face. He ignored it, and three months later died of -- gangrene -- "
The single word "gangrene" was spliced in, with amateurish quality, over the original recording. The actual word, I recall from seeing the show years ago, was, of course, "cancer."
Fascinating to think that we've reached a point in history where the mere name of a common disease is considered too offensive for television. More accurately, I suppose, is that someone at BBC America just decided that a comedy show -- even one as subversive as Monty Python -- ought not to upset people and chose to nip out two syllables that might have bothered some viewers (and possibly impacted ratings... BBC America has advertising.)
My mother died of cancer, as did uncles on both sides, well before 70. Many former colleagues are gone from one form or another, and I have a close friend right now deep in the throes of serious treatment. I don't like cancer. I don't like to say it or think about it or hear about it. But that tiny bit of well-intentioned censorship, that half-second of paranoid broadcast sandbagging, was a nudge that put me over the edge. I will not ignore cancer. I will not speak of it, when called upon to do so by whatever circumstance, in hushed, superstitious tones.
I think of a George Carlin routine where he says he thinks people who get one kind of cancer should be injected with another kind of cancer because maybe the two will kill each other. The audience groans. He says:
"I know some people don't like you to mention some unpleasant topics. Some people don't like to talk about certain bad things. Some people think that simply by talking about certain things, you somehow increase the likelihood that they might actually happen."
"Some people are really fucking stupid."
Easy for you to say, George. You died of a heart attack. It was your wife that died of cancer.
I Know I'm Not, But What Are You
January 6, 2009
My son's eighth birthday is coming soon. We've decided to keep things low key and cheap this year (I'm still stinging after last year's $700 indoor pool party), so we agreed to just do something at home. Cake and ice cream, maybe a little craft, and a video. I caught Pee-Wee's Big Adventure on TV the other night. I thought the boy might like it, so I let him watch it on YouTube. The whole movie is there, in ten minute chunks. (After a knee-jerk copyright infringement conniption, I'm quite at peace with it. Anybody who thinks that kind of exposure hurts a 20-year-old movie's sales just hasn't been paying attention for the last decade.)
Anyway, he loved it -- though Large Marge did wig him out (still wigs me out). So, we decided to show Pee-Wee at his party. Great. Now, for the invitation, I took it upon myself to Photoshop my son's head onto Pee-Wee riding his bike. It looked hilarious, I thought -- but when my son saw the image, he refused to take them to school... tried to tear them up on the spot. When I finally coaxed out of him why he hated them, he said "I'm not like Pee-Wee. Pee-Wee's a nerd and jerk and an idiot. I'm cool."
I can see Pee-Wee as a nerd/jerk/idiot, (the man-child character, that is; Paul Reubens the actor is an exceptionally smart guy... lapses of theatergoing etiquette notwithstanding) -- but I was kind of surprised that my not-yet-eight boy was so preoccupied with being cool. I guess I have noticed the signs. He refuses to wear any kind of cartoon-character clothing, opting almost exclusively for black, Tony Hawk skull-emblazoned wear. And the other day, I caught him watching "Hello Kitty" and he denied it up and down. But worried that a head-swap on a goofy character would make him seem uncool at school? That shocked me. I sure don't remember being that concerned about such things at his age, but maybe I was. I've always thought one of my strengths as a parent was I had such vivid memories of being a child, but it seems my recollections of schoolyard dynamics are almost nil.
I guess I've always been hopelessly oblivious to the requirements for being cool. Lord knows I am now... I mean, I'm in my forties and got a kick out of Photoshopping a Pee-Wee Herman picture. He's probably right not to take social cues from me.
Business Week Mention
January 7, 2009
The "Scrooge & Cratchit" iPhone ebook that I had made available on iTunes in December was mentioned in an article in Business Week on December 31. The article discussed how ebooks are branching out -- often cheaper and with greater availability -- from specialized text-displaying devices such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader to omnipresent smartphones. The article notes the iPhone in several spots, and in the second to last paragraph, my name and the story are mentioned, along with a nice quote from Alex Brie, the software developer who formatted S&C for the iTunes App store.
The mention is tiny and says nothing about the quality of the story, but I'm still pleased about it -- especially when I realized how widely Business Week online articles are syndicated on the web. Go ahead and Google businessweek move over kindle and you'll get some 40,000 hits. While this does me little real good in terms of exposure, it certainly doesn't hurt.
But here's the kicker: even with all this e-saturation of an article mentioning my free ebook, I'm still desperately trying to find out if the article appears in the current print issue of Business Week. Funny, isn't it? Even me, even in this context, still has some deep sense that being mentioned in print is somehow specially valuable. Fascinating how ingrained that is.
I just realized that I consistently and naturally -- without even thinking about it -- spell "e-mail" with a hyphen and "ebook" without. It seems perfectly correct to me psychologically, if not strictly logically.
What's up with that? Why, when I look at "email" do I hear "emmail" in my head? That's why I have to hyphenate the spelling. Yet, when I see "ebook" I never hear "ebbook." Odd.
And iTunes, iPod, and iPhone... always lowercase i, cap T or P. Everytime. Damn, you're good, Unka Steve.
Two New Songs
January 9, 2009
I've been trying to figure out what to do with the iTunes Gift Cards I got for Christmas. While I am glad to have them, I can never quite decide what to get. I have an iPod Touch, so I have movies, TV shows, ebooks and applications to choose from, as well as music or audio. A feast of indecision.
Music seems like the best choice, especially using the gift money for less familiar stuff rather than just re-buying old favorites I have in other media. So, after a day or two of thinking, flipping around, listening to snippets on radio, I picked two to start:
"Feel Good, Inc." - Gorillaz
"Learn to Fly" - Foo Fighters
Why? Well, I like both songs. They were big hits that got lots of airplay, so they're not really unfamiliar, but I don't own anything by either artist. Of the two, the Gorillaz song is the more interesting, with its mish-mash of grungy alt-rap-techno. The whole idea of the "group" -- a cartoon band made up by a producer and a comic book artist, performed by assorted guest musicians -- is a fascinating idea. I've often thought if I win the lottery, one of my little side projects would be to create a band from scratch. They guys did it to the nth degree, removing humans from the equation to let them do whatever they wanted. Gotta admire that.
And the Foo's... well, I've heard it said (and I might argue either way, depending on mood) that David Grohl single-handedly saved Rock (with a capital "Rah"). That might be a bit much to put on his shoulders, but he's sure put out some classic power chord gut-thumpers that gave the creaky genre a big ol' vitamin shot. The fact that a guy with megastar credentials managed to crank out such a garage band vibe shows how much he understands the teenage rebel heart of the beast.
Anyway two good listens. Wonder what's next.
Despereaux & Buster's
January 10, 2009
For his 8th birthday, my son wanted to see The Tale of Despereaux. He's actually seen it before--they read the book in class, then took a class trip to movie just before Christmas--but he wanted to go again. It didn't occur to me at first, but I realized as we watched that he didn't so much want to see it himself, but he wanted us, his family, to see it with him. He wanted to share it. That's a sweet, special thing that I relish quite a bit. Won't last too many more years, I know.
The movie itself was OK. The plot was a bit of muddle at the end, but the themes were simple and pure enough, and it was beautiful to look at. I see all these computer-animated movies with my kids (even seen some without 'em) and they've gotten so good technically that you almost take their beauty for granted. This one has such a unique look, all washed out earth tones like a Medieval tapestry rather than the usual, eye-popping CGI spectra, that I found myself more much aware of the detailed artistry. One review compared it to a Flemish painting, and damn if that's not dead on. If Van Eyck or Vermeer painted Mousetown made of Renaissance cooking utensils, it would look pretty much like the world of Despereaux.
Oh, and we saw it at the AMC 25 in Times Square, the exit of which takes right you to the entrance to Dave & Buster's. I'd promised the kids that someday I'd take them to the great, mythical Dave & Buster's, so in we went. All I say about that experience is "promise fulfilled," and I hope never to set a toe in there again. Not that it's a bad place per se, but it's simply a migraine waiting to happen. If you've been there with kids, you know exactly what I mean.
Pee Wee & WALL-E
January 11, 2009
For his 8th birthday party next weekend, my son wants to show Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to an assortment of school friends. It's a movie worth owning, I think, so I ordered it from Amazon. The edition they're currently selling is a 2000 DVD re-release which, supposedly, has a few "errors" removed from the film, as well as full-length commentary by both Tim Burton and Paul Reubens. While I balk at the idea of directors re-tinkering with released movies, it seems the changs are very minor (according the some level-headed sounding Amazon reviews), and the idea of commentary from that pair is interesting. Odds are, I'll never actually listen to it, but I kind of like knowing that I could.
WALL-E is another of those Pixar CGI movies every family is obliged to own, and I have little complaint about that. We've got 'em all. I've probably watched The Incredibles as many times as the kids, though once was more then enough for Cars. Again following the I'll-probably-never-but-glad-I-could logic, I went ahead and ordered the 3-disc special edition with the movie and all the making-of extras. The third disc is supposed to be a "digital copy" with a special code to allow you to copy the movie to your laptop or iPod. Not exactly sure how it works in terms of format or encryption, but it's an interesting sign of the times that Jobs-owned Pixar has the clout to push content-hording Disney into permitting even tightly controlled digital duplication. Walt-the-Vault would be spinning in his cryogenic chamber if he could see that.
January 12, 2009
For my son's upcoming birthday party, it's my job to plan a "craft" for the kids to do in between watching the Pee Wee Herman movie and cake and ice cream. I hunted around online a bit and found a bunch of sites with different options. One in particular had a bunch of simple templates for paper dinosaurs you could cut out and fold to make stand-up models. Seemed kind of cute, and there is that scene in the movie shot at the Cabazon Dinosaurs, so I think I'll go with these.
However, when I printed out a few to test, they weren't drawn symmetrically enough to fold as cleanly as I wanted. So, I halved and mirrored them in Photoshop to come up with versions sized for an 8.5x11 sheet with a perfectly centered fold. So, print them out, cut them out, fold along the centerline, glue the two halves of the head together, fold in the foot tabs for stability, crease the mid-body outward to give it bulk and -- voilà -- paper dinosaurs. Click for full size.
They look like Rorshachs, don't they? Did you notice the one that resembles a giant, engorged phallus? Oh you did, did you? Hmm. Very interesting.
January 13, 2009
With my recent adventure into the free-for-all of ebooks on the iPhone, I spent a good bit of time comparing different ebook reader software applications out there. For you uninitiated, the only way you can get an application that runs on an iPhone/iPod Touch is through Apple's iTunes App Store. Unka Steve forces all iPhone App developers to submit their Apps for review (and some do get rejected) before he allows them on the store.
Therefore, all the ebooks on iTunes are self-contained applications that have been vetted by Apple and meet some basic quality standard. This has nothing to do with checking the content of the books (as obvious by the rampant typos) but rather ensuring the controls, icons, interface, etc., all fit the iPhone specs. Within that, there is ample room for variation in presentation. For example, some ebooks allow font resizing, some don't; some turn pages with a tap, others with a flick, others scroll; some have bookmarks or search functions or notes or autoscroll, or all kinds of things.
Like early websites, where there was very little consensus on how they should layout, these ebooks are all separately stumbling their way toward some common ground. Though, it's happening at lightspeed compared to early web development. Like a time lapse film of flowers sprouting, blooming, dying, and sprouting again, you can watch the reader software reinvent itself from version to decimal-pointed version in weeks. The pace of it is astounding if you consider the 18-month minimum arc of commercial software releases. It's a given in the popular consciousness that technology keeps moving faster and faster, but it's still kind of astounding when you take a moment to actually take stock of it.
Save Dublin's Natural History Museum (Facebook)
January 14, 2009
Somebody sent me an invite to join a Facebook group called "Save Dublin's Natural History Museum." According to the description, the museum has been closed since July 2007 and lack of funds for needed refurbishment puts its future in jeopardy. Never having been to the museum and knowing nothing of the state or or strains upon public or private financing in Ireland, I nonetheless jumped right in and added my two cents to the group's "Wall." Here it is:
This is, of course, less about preserving the museum as resource for natural history studies than preserving the museum as an historic item itself. In our age of 24-hour nature channels and hyper-realistic CGI animal reconstruction--both spectacular education tools--it's important to remember that skeletons and taxidermy were, not so long ago, the only way the masses could actually see exotic species.
The Dublin Museum is state-of-the-art natural science from a previous era. It should be preserved with reverence and humility, lest we forget the progress of knowledge we take for granted. Besides, it's a beautiful building. And skeletons and taxidermy are still pretty useful ways to learn about animals (how do you think all those CGI artists do it?).
January 15, 2009
I'm sitting at my desk this afternoon in my office building which overlooks the Hudson River, when someone pokes their head into my officle and says, "I assume you know about the plan crash outside?" Huh-what-who? You can imagine my moment of panic.
Ten seconds later, I'm looking out the window with a crowd of colleagues at a ring of ferries and tug boats, with just the tail of US Airways Flight 1549 visible above the water. Everyone gawked and rubbernecked and shared what tidbits they heard from various sources, then all went back to their desks to watch the live coverage on CNN. You could see the details much better there than from the window. The whole event was surreal in that it seemed so normal. In the years I've worked in that building, I've seen all kinds of things go up and down the Hudson. This was, in a sense, just one more thing in the river. Everybody walked away with some bumps and bruises and wet ankles. No big whoop.
On a more philosophical level, here's my big take away from the event: the fact that a passenger plane can crash within sight of the World Trade Center, and it leaves the entire country feeling exhilarated is nothing short of a miracle. I can only hope this is the first glimmer of the magical "Obama Effect" half the country seems a-titter about. As for that pilot, they'd better give him the Medal of Honor or the Golden Eagle or whatever is the highest bit of macaroni they can bestow on a civilian.
Steal this Facebook
January 16, 2009
I stumbled across an editorial, in Salon.com I think, touting the already-tired of-the-moment technorati wisdom that everybody should be on Facebook... it's the platform of the future... if you're not using it, personally and professionally, you're a dinosaur... yada, yada, yada. Crap like that.
Now, I don't hate Facebook. Don't love it either. It is what it is: a social network. That's it. It helps you keep in touch with friends, and expand your sphere of online acquaintances. That can be valuable personally, sure -- but professionally, I have my doubts. It's a little like business networking at Dave & Buster's. Sure, hordes of folks hang out there, but how many are of the ilk, or at least frame of mind, to help you get a better job? No. One evening at The Water Club will likely do your career more good than being a regular at Jekyll and Hyde. Thus it is with the inbuilt frivolity of Facebook.
There is another reason I can think to boycott Facebook. It's a proprietary, closed system run for profit, and opposed to an open technological standard. What's developed on Facebook stays on Facebook. The web was started and sustained through its tender years by a loose coalition of far-sighted individuals who recognized its unprecedented power and rightly reasoned that its husbandry was best handled transparently, with coding no one owned and resources anyone could use. We have web pages and e-mail because the people who invented the protocols making them possible decided not to hold them hostage for profit. Now, the future of the web is being driven by huge companies that benefit from technical secrecy and exclusion. Facebook is a monopoly trying to happen. With every word you post on someone's wall, you're helping it.
Want to keep in touch with others online? Go back to the old-school future: make a web page and send some e-mails.
Another Birthday Party Disaster
January 17, 2009
You'd think I would have learned over the years, but noooo...
My son had his 8th birthday party today. As per his wish (based on my suggestion), we invited about dozen kids over to watch Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. I had it planned out that they'd watch the first half of the movie, pause it for a craft, game and cake, then watch the second half. Seems reasonable, right?
Anyway, we set them up in the basement with snack boxes and started the movie. They loved it. For 20 minutes. After that, half just started playing with toys in the basement, and my son started screaming at them to stop and watch the movie. Had to yank him out for a few minutes. But by the time he went back, the whole place had degenerated into pandemonium. Nobody buy him wanted to watch anymore, so I had to go to Plan B. Except -- based on my previous disastrous experiences in over-planning my son's birthdays', I didn't have a Plan B. For two hours, a dozen kids ran wild over my house while my son cried because they didn't want to do what he wanted. Wretched.
Here's the kicker: toward the end, we had a pinata my son had picked out. Looked like a rocket and he was very enthused about it. However, due to the number of kids and space limitations, there was no way I was letting them hit it with a wooden stick indoors. So, I figured I'd hold it like a punching bag and they'd each punch it. Except, I realized it was far too strong for them to break, basically a solid cardboard tube. So, before letting them hit it, I cut some slits in it with a knife to weaken it. I did a fine job. The first kid busted it like a balloon the first shot. Candy went everywhere. My son ran to his room crying I ruined his pinata.
OK... I'll take the hit for the pinata. My miscalculation. But the rest of it? I'm at a loss. I guess I'm just stunned that a bunch of second graders weren't enthralled by Pee Wee. Sure, I figured one or two might not want to watch it -- and I did have some alternatives planned for that -- but every single one (except my two kids) bailing after 20 minutes? Was not expecting that. Two years ago, we had a fine party at our house showing two 22 minute cartoons, so I figured this was just an expanded version of that. Man, was I wrong.
I guess what it comes down to is that I just don't get kids, or at least not the chaotic dynamics of large groups of kids. I feel bad my son had a lousy party -- once again -- not despite of but BECAUSE of my best efforts.
Well, I have at last learned. I will plan no more birthday parties. Eight is enough.
Explaining Slavery and Obama
January 18, 2009
On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr., day, on the cusp of the Obama inauguration, the topic of race came up at the family dinner table. My kids, 8 and 5, have gotten a vague inkling of the civil rights movement from their public schooling, but very little so far on the history of racial inequality in this country. I'm kind of glad because it's a complex subject that I'd rather handle myself initially. I've made real effort to sheild my kids from blanket terms like "black" or "white" -- terms I've grown comfortable with but realize I don't wish to pass on as unhelpful, mind-coloring generalizations.
Regarding race, whenever my kids noticed obvious differences in skin tone, I've always tried to frame those as equivalent to variations in hair or eye color. Based on the part of the world your family is from, you're likely to have certain physical characteristics. Now that there are airplanes and people travel freely, you find people with different backgrounds all over the world -- especially in the United States. And I think that explanation has worked pretty well. When they describe characters in movies or cartoons as "the one with the brown skin" or "the one with skin halfway between yours" (mine... pure Irish ivory) "and mommy's" (half Slavic olive), I'm satisfied they've learned to see reality without unnecessary preconceptions.
But explaining the significance of King or Obama requires more background. Here's the gist of what I told them:
For hundreds of years, people from Europe -- with light skin, like our family -- came to live in America. However, other people from Africa with dark skin were forced to come to America. They didn't choose to come. They were packed onto ships and sent to this country where they were sold to farm owners as slaves. They had to work on the farms, they didn't get paid, they had no rights -- owners could beat or kill them and not get in trouble with the law -- and if they had children, their children were sold. It was like that for hundreds of years, in this country called the land of the free, that light-skinned people were allowed to own dark-skinned people as slaves.
Eventually, people from the North and South halves of America fought a war against each other. There were many reasons for it, but mainly the slaves worked on farms in the South, and a lot of people from the North thought there shouldn't be slavery in America any more. The North won, and the slaves were allowed to go free. But then what? These African people, who had been slaves for hundreds of years, didn't have any money, or own land, and had never gone to school. It was hard for them to make a living. Plus, a lot of the light-skinned people that used to own them were pretty mad that they didn't any more, and treated them unfairly. In fact, as recently as when your grandparents were young, there were places in America where it was still the law that dark-skinned people couldn't go to certain schools or eat in restaurants or ride on buses. It was called segregation, which means keep separate. Martin Luther King Jr. and others fought to end segregation laws. They didn't fight like a war with guns, but by speaking out against the unfairness of the laws and getting people to agree with them. That's why we have this holiday, to honor what he and others did to get those laws changed without violence.
Even after all that, even with the laws changed, there's still a lot of unfairness left from those hundreds of years of history. That's why I think it's pretty amazing that Barack Obama, whose mother is a light-skinned woman from American and his father is a dark-skinned man from Africa, was elected president. When he was growing up, he lived not just in America but in other countries around the world. Hopefully, different people can see a little bit of themselves in him, and his background can help him understand the problems different people have, and help him make good decisions as a leader.
I think that's about the right introduction to the topic at this point, though I was kind of sad to have to give it. It's a loss of innocence -- perhaps mine more than theirs -- to realize they can not simply be free from that legacy of history. Racial inequality is still something their generation must contend with, so I want them to have as accurate a view of it as possible.
Working on King Day
January 19, 2009
It's Marting Luther King, Jr. Day, my office is officially closed, and I'm working. It's not some kind of act of protest. I just find it so much more productive to work when no one else is around. I work because I have to. As a sole provider, I need the steady income and benefits a regular, full-time job provides. Beyond that, though, I work because I actually take pride in my work. Not that I love my job, but it matters to me that I do it as well as I can. Yeah, sometimes I slack, but mostly I work well beyond the minimum because I believe the quality of my output represents, in some small way, the content of my character.
But I look forward to they day when I will no longer need to labor for that semi-monthly pittance, when I will no longer feel the burden of the unending inbox, and climb the mountain to the promised land of retirement...
... which, judging by the current state of my 401k, is a long, long way off.
January 20, 2009
Watched the inauguration ceremony on CNN.com on my laptop at work, while I sort of continued to work on my desktop. I didn't feel guilty in that most of the company was downstairs in the cafeteria, watching it on big projection screens they set up for the occasion.
Can anybody remember a presidential inauguration ever generating this much interest? I can't... not that I would have paid much attention to any in my living memory. Carter. Reagan. Bush I. Clinton. Bush II. None are leaders that inspire much in me other than mistrust, though some certainly more than others. Pretty much all leaders do, frankly. However, I have to say, I do actually hold out a small bit of hope that Obama represents something different. People seem to go a little over the edge for him because he gives decent speeches. Speeches don't impress me. Once you know the tricks, it's very easy to win over a willing crowd. But I do think he's a smart, insightful, and in many ways less politically beholden individual than the office typically sees. He rose quickly on novelty star power, rather than a long process of patrician tit-for-tat ascension. Whether that ultimately avails him anything has yet to be be seen, but it unusal and gives him, in my mind, a bit of that coveted "maverick" quality politics needs from time to time. I certainly wish him well, though I fear the shit is so deep now he'll be visibly struggling by his 100 days.
Anyway, he gave a decent speech. I liked the string quartet thing, too. Aretha was a bit over the top... and where did they get that poet lady? Seriously, she was community college coffee house quality. Didn't anyone tell her you don't follow a better act?
What if a Plane Crashed Today?
January 21, 2009
The stunningly non-lethal crash of US Airways Flight 1549 last week into the Hudson River -- within sight of my daily workplace -- still amazes me. The disaster it could have been (remember, it came down a couple hundred yards from some of the most densely populated real estate on Earth) versus the confluence of skill and luck that prevailed to prevent disaster is just astounding.
For example, as cold as it was last week, the Hudson was completely free of ice. Today, Volkswagen-sized chunks of it are drifting along the center and cluttering every harbor and dock on both riversides, as is pretty common for this time of year. Imagine how that would have affected both the landing and rescue. Would have been a complete debacle. (FYI... "debacle" is derived from the French "débâcler" which means to release or unbar as in a river surging forward from the breakup of surface ice.)
FYI... You can find lots of footage on YouTube if you search for the flight number. From compiled news reports and simulation animations, to actual Coast Guard surveillance camera footage of the touchdown. Fascinating stuff. YouTube Search "Flight 1549"
Saying Debacle Right
January 22, 2009
Debacle is a word I've long pronounced like so: de-BAK-ul (my own phonetic transliteration). However, I've recently heard some people say DEB-a-cul. One of my pet peeves is people who mispronounce words for years because they've only read them somewhere, yet feel qualified to repeat them without bothering to check that they actually understood them. That's just lazy, and worse, presumptuous.
You should have to earn the right to use a word by putting in a little effort. Find out what it means in different contexts, where it came from, its common variants, and how it's properly pronounced (in as much as such a subjective thing can be nailed down). And how do you do all that? Look it up. That's all. If you encounter a new word and want to use it, look it up in a dictionary first to be sure you're using and saying it right. That word could be hundreds of years old and traveled halfway around the world. Show it some freakin' respect, bub.
Anyway, I had this flash of panic I might have been guilty of such a verbal sin in regards to the pronunciation of debacle. So I looked it up. Online, yes, (onelook.com, great site) but that counts nowadays.
Came across this on YouTube. A bat in a wind tunnel:
Pretty cool, if you ask me.
Why a Bat in a Wind Tunnel?
January 24, 2009
How did I manage to come across that YouTube clip showing a bat in a wind tunnel? Funny you should ask.
I was watching old Looney Tunes cartoons on YouTube with my 5-year-old daughter one evening, and I came across "The Brave Little Bat" with Sniffles the Mouse and Batty, the little bat who lives in an old windmill and wears wooden Dutch shoes. You know the one. ("Yourname'sreallySniffles? Gee,that'safunnyname. How'dyougetanamelikeSniffles. Myname'sBatty'causeI'mabatandbat'scanflyawfulgoodandI'mthebestdarnflyeranywhere. DidyousayyournamewasreallySniffles? Reeeeally?"
Anyway, my daughter observed that Batty looked like a mouse and not a bat and did bats really look like that and what about their wings 'cause Batty just has wings under his arms you can't even see if his arms are down and do bats really have wings like that?
So, I went in search of some bat-wing footage to show her and found that gem. What I've always found particularly fascinating about bats' wings is that they are clearly recognizable as modified arms with webbed fingers. Look close and you see shoulders and elbows and thumbs (the single claw sticking up from the middle of the wing) and the wing surface is just four elongated, splayed fingers with skin stretched between. Bats have hands. Very cool.
Bat Wing Hands from God
January 25, 2009
Yep. Bats have hands, or rather, their wings are hands. Pretty undeniable if you look at the bone structure.
Trot that out next time you bump into creationist chowderheads who reject the idea of common ancestry for all living things. These warm-blooded, fur-bearing, milk-producing creatures posses a ubiquitous mammalian forelimb structure uniquely adapted for the purpose of ornithopting flight, a superb survival advantage. Evolution at work.
God thought up evolution. If that's incomprehensible to you, that's because it's an awe-inspiring stroke of design genius no human could have imagined on their own. Some clever ones spotted the pattern a hundred or so years ago, but its been the Almighty's life-shaping tool of choice for eons. If you can only picture a god who makes things out of clay, then you go right ahead and believe in that, Cletus. But a God who works with molecules over billions of years to achieve the variety I see every day... well, that's a Supreme Being that impresses the hell out of me.
My Apologies to Cletuses Everywhere
January 26, 2009
I just realized I may have unfairly offended people named "Cletus" by associating the name with small-minded, evolution-denying creationists. I wish to clarify that the name was used merely for comic effect, an intended reference to the "Slack-Jawed Yokel" character from The Simpsons, and even that is a rather derogatory caricature of a rural bumpkin, potentially offensive in its own right.
For the record, I state that I have never known anyone with the familiar or surname "Cletus" and had no desire to defame that moniker. If your name is Cletus, that in itself is not a reflection of your intelligence, and I heartily apologize if have contributed to any prejudiced views leveled against your mental acuity. Being named Cletus does not make you dumb.
Creationists, though? They're none too bright. That, I stand by.
More Creationist Bashing
January 27, 2009
I'm not quite done ripping on creationists. Yeah, I know I go on about it like a broken record, but it's one of my big bugbears. Screw you, anyway. Get your own damn blog.
What burns me most about the whole creationist approach is that they promote for their own social, political and monetary gain (yes... monetary: e.g., my in-laws live Deepinahearta Texas, where a strip-mall megachurch pastor who shouts "The Bible says my grandpa wasn't a monkey!" gets a standing ovation and collection plate of $20's) a fundamental fallacy: that science and religion are at odds. Wrong, Reverend Right-Wing. Science and religion are mutually exclusive. One has no -- NONE... ZERO... ZIPPO... ZILCH -- relation to the other. Science deals with observable phenomena. Religion with matter beyond human perception. One can never threaten the other.
Drop a ball. Why does it fall? Science says gravity. Religion says because God wills it. Creationists can't tell the difference between those two answers. They think gravity encroaches on the domain of God. They think the mere act of investigating gravity denies the existence of God. Creationists don't believe in gravity. They think it's a hoax perpetrated on the world by atheists seeking to pollute their children's minds against God. That's what creationists think of gravity.
No, they don't, you say. Well, they used to. Just like they used to think the sun went around the earth and sickness was caused by witches. And if the media-savvy ones have yielded some philosophical ground on gravitation, heliocentrism, and infectious disease (not all... still some flat-earth witch burners out there), they're holding fast on evolution. And it's equally ridiculous. Why is there a world of vastly diverse biology, every microbe of which derives its uniqueness from nothing but different arrangements of the same four nucleotide chemicals? Because God willed it. Yes. I believe that. Doesn't -- and shouldn't -- have any impact on how you investigate the observable world. Take it as a given, then get to the work of asking how.
Not creationists though. Gravity is a lie. The hand of God holds us all to the earth. These poor people must just be pathologically terrified they're going to fall into the sky.
C is for Colleagues, That's Good Enough for Me
January 28, 2009
My 5-year-old daughter has to sell Girl Scout Cookies for her Daisy Troop -- so, this means I have to sell them at work. I pretty much refuse to actively do this -- no walking around with the form, hitting up people at trapped at their desks -- so my compromise is to post a sign on my officle door letting people know I'm selling them. It's their choice to come a-knocking or not.
I get surprisingly good results. I'm in a primo spot near the main elevators and, well, everybody loves Girl Scout Cookies. I seem to have lucked out in particular this year because all the other parents on my floor have kids too old or too young to be selling, so I'm in this sweet between-zone. Also, I've been at that place for ages and everbody knows me. Finally, in extreme cases, I use professional extortion. If somebody wants me to help them on some oddball little project nobody else will touch (I get a lot of those), I've been known to barter my time by the box. Seriously. You want me to fix your freaking animated GIF, that'll cost you two boxes of Do-Si-Dos®.
Works like a charm. My daughter's got the patch locked up, and may even qualify for the Personal FM Radio -- which looks to be about the quality of something you'd get from a gumball machine in Bangkok, but it's the spirit of acheivement it will give her that counts.
Girl Scout Cronies
January 29, 2009
Very fresh, and everyone seems to like them, though nobody's sure what they'll actually taste like after a year or two.
With flavor-enhancing plugs combed-over the top. So good, you'll almost immediately forget they exist.
Even if they're not your first choice, it's OK because they'll take whatever they can get.
Seriously, aren't you just sick of looking at these? If you ever have to swallow another, move to Canada.
Gnarled and twisted on the surface, with a dark underside, and a hole in the center where a heart should be.
Rich chocolate outside, pure white inside, and taste however their boss wants them to taste.
Giving Up on the Boy
January 30, 2009
I had to take my 8-year-old son to wrestling practice tonight. That's usually the wife's job, but she had some Daisy thing to take my daughter to. I can feel the mulit-directional kid-split I see other parents living through happening to me. I really hope I can get by at least another year without buying a second car.
Anyway, my son -- who is an academically gifted, emotionally sweet, astoundingly creative and imaginative child -- is completely hopeless athletically. We've forced him through sport after sport for years on the tender hope he might develope the barest minimum competence in applying some focus to controlling his body. Nothing. Can't throw, catch, kick, run, swing, jump, or tumble to save his life. In his defence, he's a full head taller than most kids his age and is just a tangle of knees and elbows most of the time, but the main problem is really psychological. He has no interest in applying himself to any sport (that doesn't involve a Wii controller, that is). He likes to figure stuff out on his own, work at his own pace, and couldn't care about less rules imposed by authority figures (a genetic burden, I'm forced to admit).
Still, learning to set aside your individuality and work toward a common goal with a team is a good skill to have sometimes. Besides, he's an American male. American males relate to each other by tossing a ball back and forth, and when they get to old to do that, they relate to each other by talking about watching others a toss back and forth. Physically, intellectually, and socially, sports have something to teach a growing boy.
But tonight, watching my kid hopelessly, indifferently foundering around on the mat, as I've seen him do for weeks now, I've come to the conclusion that the lessons are just not going to stick right now. I'm going to advocate that we capitulate to his oft-stated wishes and let him discontinue sports. I wish I could say it ain't so, but I can't take the frustration of it any longer. Damn kid won't listen to a single word of advice I have to give him (that applies to sports only, by the way... in most other matters, practical or academic, he pays real attention to me) and whines like a chihuahua if try to compel him toward anything that resembles practicing. I've had enough... he's had enough. Enough.
I hope this isn't lost forever to him. I think of myself, and I had no interest in sports until my teens. Perhaps he'll go that way as well -- though I'm just worried things are so much more competitive now than when I was a kid that he'll be too far behind to ever enjoy any structured sports with peers. There are worse things, to be sure, but... well... I can't help wishing that instead of just being a smart, funny, good-looking, creative kid who reads three grades about his age, he was also a jock. (Alas, I, too, am an American male, after all.)
An Evening with the Boy
January 31, 2009
The wife took my 5-year-old daughter on a Girl Scout outing to sleepover in a museum, leaving just me and my 8-year-old son home alone for the evening. I've been feeling kind of disappointed with him lately. His willful indifference to sports and any of the lessons I have to give about them annoys me and makes me less patient with his pretty normal kid behavior, like homework dawdling or whining when asked to do things. Anyway, the evening was a bit of a strain, with lots of battles over small things, his defiance and my irritability escalating everything.
I've definitely gone through periods with my son where I find him kind of unpleasant to be around. Of course, those always coincide with periods when I myself am having a hard time with one thing or another. If I'm angry or frustrated with anything, I've definitely noticed myself taking it out my kids. It's a very human thing to do -- you need to yell at someone, so you pick on subordinates who are obliged to take it -- but it's bad thing to indulge.
Anyway, at one point I just caught myself in mid-rant and had to apologize to him. He seemed to understand that and things were a bit easier from that point. Yielding a little ground can often coax reasonability from an opposing party. Doesn't always work, but works more predictably than sheer obstinance. Hopefully, he'll learn that lesson and I'll forget it less.