Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Wisdom of Clouds

"At last! My arm! It is complete... again!"
-- Sweeny Todd

A week ago last Sunday, my home computer, uh... well... the most accurate term is, "Shit the bed." More technically, the motherboard shit the bed. [Insert standard 15 minute rant about how losing a computer sucks; how Time Warner sucks because they don't support Vista; how Vista sucks; how technicians suck; how it sucks that it takes so long to restore everything (or anything) onto a new machine; etc.] Actually, compared to other new builds I've done, this one wasn't too bad. Only 9 trips to the computer stores to get all the pieces-parts a'working.

The good news is, the new rig kicks righteous ass. I loaded on some games that ran, on my old box, at the lowest levels and, even then pitifully. On the new machine... mmmm.... meaty. And I finally, 10 minutes ago, got Adobe CS2  and my Wacom drawing tablet running. Thus, the quote from Sweeny Todd.

So... what's up with the post title? Well, cloud computing is all about doing stuff at the network level. You know... keeping things on the Web instead of on your local box. I'd recently switched to Gmail, Google Reader and Google Bookmarks, and the death of my old machine made me very glad that I had. All my email, contacts, bookmarks, RSS feeds and even a bunch of documents that I had in Google Docs were untouched by my troubles with hardware. I could still get to the stuff from my wife's machine, my work machine and even (in many cases) my mobile phone/pc thing.

When I did finally get the new computer up and running, about a half of the software (by number of installs, not volume) was stuff that I could download for free (open source) or re-download (purchased) from the Web. Many new drivers came to me from the friendly Intertubes, too.

So... much of my home computing experience now relies on "The Clouds." I suspect this will continue. I'm OK with that.

When I talked to a friend about switching my email to Gmail, he wondered aloud to me if I was wise to trust Google with my data more than myself.

"Yes," I replied. "Oh, yes. The odds of Google knocking over the 'thing' that holds my data while rummaging under the desk for Legos are small. The odds of Google frying their mother boards are small. The chances that a powersurge will take out all their backups are small.

"I, on the other hand, am an idiot."

It's not that I trust Google a whole heckuva lot. It's just that I know how clumsy I am.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Crayon Physics Deluxe

This looks awesome.


Friday, December 14, 2007

A different BORING gift

Tired of giving gifts where there's nothing left but the gift after the ripping and tearing and surprise are done? Well, give somebody a gift this year that says, "Hey! You're a creative person! You finish this up."

BORED limited edition sketchbooks are the brainchild of the enormously creative and pleasantly bizarre Gabe Schulz, whom I've known since we were Sopwith Camel pilots together in the Great War.*

These are very cool sketchbooks and will generate inspiration in the recipient on the order of a 6-week, no-expense-paid trip to Belize. Drawing or writing in them is like being in a jungle of creativity, surrounded by vines of... er... musing goodness and geckos of... well... helpful things.

Apparently someone should give me one this year, as my "odd metaphor gland" seems to be dry.

Go! Now! Buy a whole set! Two!!! One for you, one for the person you know whose great opus has yet to be birthed.

- - - - -

*By "Sopwith Camel pilots," I mean, of course "lazy, TV-watching, X-Box playing yayhoos," and by "Great War" I mean, of course, the mid 1990's.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

My Team, Your Team variant: Mr. Snowman

Another variation on "My Team, Your Team" has been pointed out by a reader; a game where teams of creations alternately attack and defend a snowman with their various powers. Neat, neat, neat idea! Thanks for sharing, Kirk.

It makes me start to wonder (casually at this point... should give it some rigorous wondering later) what other variations might be possible/fun.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Atheist porn

A friend of mine (Hi, Bill!) sent me a link to a story at The New Republic called, "Atheism's Wrong Turn." It's a decent article, and I recommend reading the whole thing. The basic point is that the crop of current, media-ready atheists -- Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens -- aren't liberal atheists who push for a system that respects beliefs, but illiberal, evangelical atheists who want to eradicate God from public discourse.

The author, Damon Linker, sees this as a problem for liberal humanists, as the tendency for deists might be to paint liberal churchgoers with some of the paint spatterings of illiberal atheists, since there is some overlap between "separation of church and state," and "separation of church and reality."

I agree, to an extent. I think most of my Christian friends can pretty easily separate out the religious views of angry atheists from the political views of liberal believers, such as myself. The fact that I am not a fundamentalist and Christopher Hitchens is not a fundamentalist shouldn't really confuse any but the most cross-eyed of conservative believers.

What is more interesting to me is the phenomenal sales records of the atheist, anti-God tomes that these four have authored (see below). The percentage of people who say they do not believe in God in this country is quite small. According to a Wikipedia article that quotes the 2001 "American Religious Identification Survey," about 15% of Americans identified themselves in 2001 as "agnostic/atheist/no religion," s up from 8.4% in 1991.

What motivates someone to buy a book that argues, quite strongly, against a belief in God? Not against a particular religious belief, or for a type of practice... but argues that God just doesn't exist? If you are already an atheist, it is, I would think, a waste of time. If you aren't an atheist, as I assume many of their readers are not, why buy such a book?

I think it's a kind of spiritual/religious porn. That's what I think.

Not porn in the sense that it's bad/wrong/nasty to argue against a belief in God. As a liberal Christian, I'm all for a society where your disbelief in God is as respected as my belief. So there's nothing *wrong* with these books, per se. I've read some of Christopher Hitchen's work and he's quite brilliant at times as well as entertaining.

No... I mean that, I think, the impetus for many believers who read these books is one of religious prurience. It feels naughty to buy and read a nicely bound, well authored book that argues vehemently against the very existence of a being to whom you are bound as a servant and worshiper. It's shocking. It's (maybe) a little creepy. It's exciting. And you're pretty sure you shouldn't be doing it. You know... porn.

I think it's a great idea for believers -- of any faith -- to be familiar with these works, or at least the major arguments from them. And you should do so as if seeing a naked body in a medical film, as opposed to watching hard-core scrunt. It may be interesting and compelling in some similar ways, but it has education at its heart, rather than titillation.

If you can't read well-reasoned arguments against your faith and come up with good rebuttals, you need to question your faith. I don't mean "question" in the sense of "doubt," but you need to ask questions, and get answers, to help you understand the issues at stake.

A good friend of mine and I (same guy, "Hi, again, Bill!") once came to the conclusion, during a long religious discussion, that core religious beliefs must not require high levels of brain power or rigorous intellectual scrutiny. Why? Because then God would be prejudiced in favor of the smart. I believe one statement to come out of that discussion was, "God would not require that we reason our way into Heaven."

Many (if not most or all) arguments for atheism boil down to a belief (yes, atheism is a belief) that (some) intellectual arguments are more valid than (supposedly) emotional arguments for faith. And while reason can certainly be applied to aspects of faith, in the end... the word "faith" itself is the qualifier. If it made complete, abject, logical sense... it would be science, wouldn't it.

So have a go at one of the atheist manifestos, if you like. Take a peek behind the curtain at some rigorous, impassioned arguing. It may feel like porn, but it's more like a trip to the doctor; it's good to shine a light into some dark places in order to understand what that pain is.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Comments come alive vids (NSFW)

If you've never been active on a bulletin board (especially one related to games), you will find these to be random, silly, obnoxious, foul and pointless. If you have been active on a board, you will find them random, silly, obnoxious, foul, hysterical and on-the-money.

Many, many kudos for the first (that I'm aware of) anthropomorphizing of a captcha.

Internet Commenter Business Meeting

The sequel

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Random cow video

This makes me glad.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christmas Spirit 2.0 -- 50 UnGrinchy Holiday Ideas for 2007

Last year I wrote a post called The UnGrinch 25; a list of ideas on how to keep the fun, spirit and joy in your holiday season. In order to challenge myself, I'm upping the ante this year. So let's see if I can come up with 50 ways to beat the Holiday Humbugs. I will be incorporating last year's list, but adding new stuff (duh) and grouping things in five categories, 10 ideas each for (jump links ahead): crafts, entertaining, cards, gifts/shopping and meaningfulness. So... away we go.

10 Craft Ideas

1. Make a family calendar. Pick a theme or use pics of your family. Fill it with all the important family dates; birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Include a weird or interesting events from Chase's Annual Events. You can make monthly calendars using MS Publisher, or the ever-free and wonderful Open Office. Good to have, good to give.

2. Create your own ornaments. My favorite, as a kid, was to take a styrofoam shape (bell, star, even a simple ball), and stick a bajillion sequins to it with pins. Pretty. Shiny. And it keeps kids busy for hours while you do other holiday nonsense. Another ornament idea (bonus!) is to take beads (I like the shiny, little, star-flowery shaped ones) and string them along a piece of craft wire. When you're done, you end up with an ornament that's also a bendy toy.

3. Lego nativity scene. 'Nuff said.

4. Toys from tots. There are many organizations that gather up toys for kids who don't have them. And that's fantastic. But kids also love to make and give stuff around the holiday season, and may not have the resources. Organize an effort to provide a crafty sort of event where all the necessary parts and instructions for making a neat holiday gift are available to a group of kids who otherwise wouldn't have access. My bet is that if you or your organization provided the stuff and the supervision, your local, public library could help you find a place to do it.

5. Make a truly edible gingerbread house. Every gob-smacked gingerbread house I've ever seen has been "hands off" (and more importantly, "teeth off"). Feh! Where's the fun? I mean... C'mon! I don't care if you stick six graham crackers together with peanut butter and put one gum-drop on top for a chimney. Do it, and then let the kids get all Godzilla on it. Or chomp it down yerself. You know you want to...

6. Decorate somebody else's space. Carefully. Tastefully. Always within the bounds of office rules/etiquette and the law/fire-code. But how nice would it be to enter your office (cube...) and find a wee, unexpected holiday trinket? Totally anonymous. Or to come home and have a strange, lovely wreath hanging on your lamp-post? Put a small, stuffed penguin with a Santa hat on someone's dashboard today.

7. Group shoebox calendar. Warning: takes planning. Everybody in your gang (family, office, church-group, etc.) brings in enough shoeboxes to make 25. Everybody puts something in them to help decorate the common space. Wrap them (and keep the innards secret), then randomly assign numbers 1-25 to them. Or more or less if you're doing a non-religious thing. Do 31 and make it a "New Year's Calendar." Whatever. Then, on each day, get together as a group, open the appropriate box (take turns, now) and use it to brighten the day and make the place niftier.

8. Bad Mojo Wreath Voodo. OK... this one will probably not go down well for many church youth groups... but it's meant with a sense of humor, so chill out. Have everyone in your gang (family, group) write something that bugs them on a  piece of colored paper that matches (or not) the cheapest, driest, most flamable wreath you can find. Decorate the wreath with the slips of nastiness. On the day of celebration, burn (or otherwise destroy in a more work-friendly manner) the Wreath of Spite. Celebrate the destruction and release of the things that bug you.

9. Holiday bird-feeder. I like bird-feeders. So do my squirrels. Oh, well... But mostly they either look like weird plastic contraptions or little A-frame tenements. Help a bird out. Decorate a special bird-house/feeder for the holidays.

10. Odd snow sculpture. We all make the snowmen. Yes, yes. Lovely snowmen. Do it up different this year. Make a snow carving of your company's logo. Never mind. Don't do that. How about a UF-SNOW? Unidentified Freezing Snowcraft? Or a guy climbing up your front tree? Or a giant hand? Don't be overly critical of your work... just get some friends together and get stupid with the snow.

10 Entertaining Ideas.

1. Rewrite "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Let's face it, hollering, "Fiiiiive gooolden riiings!" is way fun. Way, way fun. You can not resist, so don't hold back. But what's even more fun, is hollering your own family version that only you and the clan know. Because, really... doesn't singing about how your true love gave to you... "eight maids a milking" make you a bit... uncomfortable? I mean... dude gives people for Christmas? That ain't right. Bob and Doug McKenzie not withstanding, your own version will be more fun. My son, just this morning, was singing, "Fiiiiive gooolden delicious!" Hilarious.

2. Indoor snow-ball fights. We spent two years of my childhood in California, after having lived in Boston, and with parents who grew up in New York. Snow ball fights are a required element of winter joy. Indoor? Substitute  aluminum foil balls, rolled-up socks, styrofoam (messy), newspaper wads, etc. instead of snow. The point is to throw things. Banzai!

3. Mall caroling. It's hard to find places to carol. Outside can get very cold. And, with kids in tow... well, it's tough. Check with a couple local malls and arrange for a time to invite anyone who'd like to participate to meet, get song books, and walk around the mall singing. See if you can arrange for an accordion player. Seriously. It adds to the cheer. If you want to charge a couple bucks to participate and also collect donations from listeners and then give the money to a local toys-for-tots charity, that makes the whole deal more righteous, and more palatable to certain civic types.

4. Grown-up PJ party. Notice I did not say "adult." This is not a chance to play spin-the-bottle. This is about getting back to childishness. Come in PJs, bathrobes, bunny-slippers, blankets, etc. Bring your favorite (hopefully holiday related) bed-time story to read aloud to the group. Drink cocoa w/ tiny marshmallows (yes, and some brandy or JD) and have candy canes and graham crackers for snacks. Sit on the floor around the fireplace. Watch all the old
Rankin-Bass claymation holiday specials on VHS. Sing a few carols. Play...

5. Insane White Elephant. Last year, John Moore from Brand Autopsy set up an excellent White Elephant Blog. It ain't up this year. Oh, well. The basic principles of a White Elephant gift exchange apply, but anyone who has their gift taken can keep stealing from anyone who hasn't yet had their gift stolen that turn. The more people playing, the more fun. No "deceased" gifts in this version, either. Until you've had a gift stolen on any given turn, it's in play.

6. Make-a-wreath party. OK... this is a combo craft/entertainment idea. So sue me. We used to do this at the church I grew up going to. You show up with the basics of an advent wreath (styrofoam torus and a bunch of evergreen branches), and the host provides all kinds of add-ons; candles and holders, bells, ribbon, holly, berries, etc. Good times, and a wreath to take home, too.

7. Semi-formal holiday martini party. In the old days (the 1950's), people dressed up to go to holiday parties. And while this may still hold true for some work-sponsored events, more and more often, work holiday parties are tired, dull affairs. Most of the ones I've been to are, anyways. So, on your own, get some friends together and dress all high-class, and drink funky, fun martinis. No reason grown-ups can't have grown-up fun around the holidays, too.

8. Remembrance time. Around the table, have family members or friends recount their best (or most interesting) holiday memories. Yes, it's corny. But corny is good during this time of the year. Embrace the corn.

9. Tell your faith's holiday story with sock puppets. You never real own a story until you tell it. I know this, because I played King Nebuchannezzar in a 4th grade production of, "Cool in the Furnace." I now own The Firey Furnace. Be that as it may... You can hear the Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice, etc. stories again and again. But until you write out a script, make your own sock puppets for the players, fashion a stage from a major appliance crate and put on a show for the grown-ups... do you really grok the holiday's true meaning? I think not.

10. Mix-up the classics. Get the book versions of classic holiday tales like Rudolph, Santa, Frosty, Night Before Christmas, A Christmas Carol, etc. Get some index cards. Write character names, major attributes ("nose glows," "miser," "made of snow," "elf,") and plot points ("comes down the chimney," "ridiculed by reindeer," "just settled down for a long winter's nape") on them and keep the categories separate. Now go back and read one of the originals, but when someone (usually a child or me) yells "stop!," insert a random card from the appropriate face-down pile. So you end up with something like:

"Rudolph didn't like all the other reindeer calling him names, so he..."
"... gave Bob Cratchit money to help with Tiny Tim's legs."

You can keep going with the original story, substituting other zaniness, or switch over to the one from the card. Whichever seems like more fun to you. And, yes, this is kind of a holiday version of TaleWeaver.

10 Card Ideas

1. Make your own envelopes. A dear friend of mine (Hi, Susan!) once sent me letters every few months in hand-made envelopes. Hers were made from interesting magazine ads. How cool is that? If you want to get fancy, do a search on the Internet for "make envelopes" and such. But the easiest way is to get the envelopes that go with whatever cards you're mailing, carefully bust 'em apart, trace them on funky paper (magazine pictures, wallpaper, wrapping paper...) and then cut, fold and glue (or double-sticky clear tape) them together. People may expect hand-made cards. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Or hand-made envelopes. Festivisimus!

2. Photoshop your kid(s) into other (classic) pics. I first saw this done to Raphael's "The Sistine Madonna, Detail of the Angles" painting (as shown). Although a much better job than the one I've done here, which is of my niece and nephew (Hi, Nate! Hi, Sophie!) Click on it to see a much larger image. The point is to have fun and take a picture folks will recognize and include people they will recognize. It doesn't have to be a serious pic, either. I would think that your kid climbing the Empire State Building to put a star on top would be hysterical. Use this instead of a regular picture-of-your-kids card because... well... because it's goofy. Combine with #9, below, for best effect.

3. Gift cards for chores, favors, hugs, etc. These were a big item when I was growing up. Don't know if other people did them. The idea was to make gift-certificates or gift cards that "entitled the bearer to (1) one doing of the dishes upon presentation of this card." You can make these intimate for your honey (I won't get into those variations here, thank you), or appropriate for work. For example, I once gave my boss ten "Andy will now pipe down" certificates. Upon presentation, I was obligated to shut my pie hole. She only ever handed me two. I believe she traded the rest in for some magic beans. Or they may be floating around on eBay... Hmmm....

4. "Puzzle Party" cards. Take, buy or make a nice picture and turn it into a jigsaw, either yourself or at Kinkos. Mail one piece to each person you're inviting to the party. When they come, they add their piece. Depending on how corn-ball you are, you can hold forth on how we're all a part of the holiday panorama of joy, etc. etc. It also serves to increase the guilt factor that motivates people to come to your party, since if they don't... their piece will be missing. Ha!

5. "Family News" cards from the future. I love this one. Lots of families I know write a very nice update about what's been going on over the last year. It's nice to hear, but... mostly it ends up being, "Dad's still working and maybe going a bit more stir crazy. Same for mom. The kids are in school and are a year older." Yawn... I like the idea of fast-forwarding a bit and writing your "Holiday Family News from 2025." Keep it just as straight-faced and boring, but mention which dimension Mary got lost in on the way to work this time. Talk about how the Martian embassy lost your passport on your 2nd honeymoon cruise, etc. etc. Much more fun. Cloning humor goes over big in this one, too.

6. Mystery cards. Send a really nice holiday card, maybe include a gift certificate, but with no indication of whom it's from; no names, no return address, etc. Why? To bug the crap out of somebody you love. And isn't that what the holiday season is all about?

7. Return-reply cards. Send people a card with a self-addressed, stamped envelope or postcard inside to send back to you. Put questions on it you'd like answered, like... what do you want for Christmas next year? How the heck are ya? Which holiday movies did you see and like or hate? People love to be interactive. Give the gift that gives something back to you.

8. Custom mouse pad card. They will throw away the picture of your kids. But if you put that picture on a custom mouse pad... it's a keepsake.

9. Nice, custom cards. While we're visiting ... You can go to the drug store and have any photo turned into a card. And they sure look like you did just that. But if you take a few more minutes, you can actually have custom cards printed out for you. Ones that look like cards. Which is nicer, you must admit. Combine this with #2, above.

10. Origami cards. Do your regular card, but include a piece (or more, if necessary) of origami paper and instructions for making an ornament, decoration, etc. Your local library has holiday origami books, I bet. Again... the point is to do something different... with a little extra un-Grincy flavor.

10 Gift/Shopping Ideas

1. Surrogate shopping party. So many of us have someone or several someones on our lists that are impossible to shop for or that we just have a mental block on. Fine. Get together for dinner and share an equal number of those folks with each other, along with a few details and a dollar ceiling per gift. Then release yourselves into a mall with a time limit. Then get back together and share the swag. I guar-ohn-tee that your friends will find stuff for your hard-to-getters that you'd never have thought of. If it ain't right? Well, 'tis the season to return stuff.

2. Thought gifts. They say, "It's the thought that counts." OK. So, this year, only give thoughts for the holidays. Make this the year that you and yours agree to take whatever your budget for gifts was and either give it to a charity or stick it in a savings vehicle; your call, I'm not preaching here. But for yourselves... take the time to actually say the things you haven't said. Give "the thought" behind the gift. If you're a spiritual person, pray or meditate on the subject for a bit. Do it in a card if you like, or via email. Don't make the logistics as much of a pain as shopping/wrapping/etc. That's not the point. But all the major religions that are celebrating this time of year have gift-giving as a central notion not as a potlatch per se, but as a metaphor for love, friendship, community, etc.

3 Archie McPhee. This idea is a straight-up pimp for the Jumbo Mystery Box from Archie McPhee. I get one of these every year (although this year I have been strongly advised that the ladies want something non-McPhee in their stockings... geez), and use the contents for stockings, Secret Santa, random giftings, prizes for students, etc. You never know, around holiday time, when a bunch of Hindu god finger puppets, glowing eyeballs or rampaging Hun toy soldiers will come in handy.

4. Gifts for the future of the group. Have everybody get everybody something that will only really "work" when you get back together. Pick a group-y activity like a picnic or game night, and have everyone get/give gifts that will be brought together again each time you do that thing.

5. Recommendations or reviews. I get lots of gift certificates. And that's cool. But it still means I need to figure out what I want to get with the thing. If you give someone a gift certificate (especially to a book or music store/site), provide a list of 5 or 10 ideas that you think they'd like. Write little mini-reviews of books you've read, movies you've seen, etc. that made you think of the person. Make the list fun, funny or serious... but it will add personality and thought to what can seem like a somewhat generic offering.

6. Make part of the gift yourself. Homemade gifts are special, when they come from adults as well as kids. I recently received a CD from a friend, and it was wrapped in a handkerchief that he'd tie-dyed himself. How cool is that?! If you give someone a coffee machine, create a custom mug for them, too.

7. Food with gifts inside. I don't know why this is fun, but it is. Make sure you warn people, and make the gifts obvious (small gems can be a choking or tooth-breaking hazard). Seal stuff in zip-lock bags to preserve the food and the toys. Put something in the Jello (action figures?) that will make digging out the prize as much fun as playing with it.

8. Gifts with a story. Write a fictional story about how the gift you're giving came into your hands. Make it funny, sweet, odd, implausible... whatever. It will make the present more memorable.

9. Don't overthink. We spend so much time (well, I don't, but "we" do) trying to figure out the "perfect gift" for people. Unless you're sweetie is waiting for a ring, or your 8-year-old will DIE without a particular Lego set... there ain't no such thing. Part of the fun of gifts is getting something you wouldn't ever have bought for yourself. If it wasn't, we'd just give each other money. Bleh. So give something odd and unexpected. I mentioned Archie McPhee before. Another great site full of fun and different ideas is the Quincy Shop. Very unique stuff, in a wide range of prices and styles. Really fun. This year, somebody better get me a Buddha Board Zen Art thing, or I'm a-gonna cry. I got most of last year's stocking stuffers from their "Unique Gifts Under $10" section. Their selection and service gets the Andy Havens' Seal of Wow! That's Neat!

10. Share kids. Childhood is a big part of the holidays; both our own and our kids'. If you don't have kids and are friends with someone who does, offer to babysit so that they can go out and shop, and then do one of the craft things above. If you do have kids, and know folks that don't, invite them over for an event where the kids will play a part. Holidays go better with runts.

10 Meaningful Ideas

Hopefully, all the above ideas can be meaningful. This last set, though, is meant to supply you with specific, holiday depth and feelings of joy, brotherhood, jolly...tude? Jolliness? That sounds better.

The holidays can be meaningful? Go figger.

1. Start a bizarre, personal holiday tradition. I heard somewhere (can't find it online, sorry... it may be apocryphal) that Amy Grant's family explodes their Christmas tree after New Year's Day with fireworks. I'm neither hot nor cold on Ms. Grant, but... that's flippin' awesome!!! So many of our holiday traditions are either copped from cultures that really aren't our own anymore, or have been entirely kidnapped by the media/mercantile world. Why not invent a new ritual that's just for you and your family? Stuff a sock with toys by the fireplace? Why? I sure as heck don't know. How about, instead, everybody in your family writes one line of a nativity poem. Or fight some gingerbread man wars. Or make advent candles from last year's used crayons. At my house, we've now been playing street hockey the day after Christmas for several years with all the in-laws. Why? Bob wanted to one year. After three years... It's a tradition!

2. Overtip, ridiculously, at least once. Food service is tough work. And around the holidays, it's even worse. People are out-and-about, running like mad, full o' holiday spirit, and, often, not very nice to the wait staff. And because we're spending more than we should on various baubles, bangles and beads... we're often a bit penurious when it comes to the everyday stuff. Which hurts the folks whose livelihood depends on our largess. So. At least once, between Thanksgiving and New Year, when you get good service and a nice smile with your meal... leave a $20 tip on a $13 lunch meal. Or, what the heck... leave $50 to cover a $22 dinner. Or $100 for a cup o' joe. Seriously. Don't make a big deal out of it. Do it, as the scriptures say, "In the dark." But do it. You'll make somebody's whole season.

3. Start a yearly journal. Very few people keep a journal. I'm a professional writer, and I don't. I'm supposed to, but I write at work, and I blog, and I write poetry and fiction and, and, and... So I've never had a daily journal. But what I do have is a notebook that I take out about once a year. Often around the holidays. And, in my case, I write in it the names of people -- everyone I can remember -- that I've met during the last year or so. And, of course, I go back and read the earlier entries and reflect on how lucky I've been to have known so many wonderful people. The names are my "touchstones" to the past. The names are bookmarks in my memory, because people anchor the most important events in my life, I think. Anyway... that's what's in my "annual journal" for the most part. Yours, of course, can be anything you want.

4. Share a resolution. We don't keep our New Year's resolutions, for the most part, because we are not really accountable to ourselves. We cheat and look the other way. So share a resolution with a friend or family member; let them hold you accountable, and vice versa.

5. Share a resolution. No, this is not a repeat. In this case, I mean make a resolution that includes another person. For example, resolve to have a game-night once a week with your family, or to go for a walk 3 days a week with your spouse. Resolve to send an email back-and-forth at least twice a month with a friend you don't see much anymore. Resolve to cook healthy for me, and I'll cook healthy for you twice a week. Resolve to help your boss with his annoying habit of not taking minutes/notes at meetings, and he can help you with your attempts at better process management. So many things that we want to accomplish are impossible alone. Resolve to be better together.

6. Visit someone else's ceremony. When I was in confirmation class as a young Methodist swain, our pastor took us to a Passover Seder service at one of the nearby Jewish temples. It was a great way to learn about the similarities and differences between my faith and that of my Jewish friends, and to drink wine as a 15-year-old. That specific holiday won't work around December... but you get the point. Find out what and how others are celebrating around this time of the year. You'll end up experiencing your own traditions more deeply, I guarantee.

7. Take someone to a performance of Handel's "Messiah" who's never been. There's a church in your area putting it on, I guarantee. If not (some guarantee, eh?), rent a version from the library. It's truly one of the most beautiful, moving pieces of holiday music you can experience. Sharing it is a great gift.

8. Random (nice) blog comments. If you read lots of blogs, take the time to do something that only 1-in-100 readers generally does; leave a comment. We bloggers write for lots of reasons. But nothing makes our day like a comment from a reader we haven't heard from before. If you've enjoyed the work of a blogger in the past, visit their space and let them know. It takes just a few minutes, and really is a lovely treat for us. Please note, I am not fishing for comments on this blog. I'm projecting.  ;->

9. Give to a charity you don't normally connect with. Stretch a bit. If you mostly give at church, find a secular charity that does something you agree with. If you tend towards issues of hunger, try education. I'm not saying don't do the stuff you usually do... but find out about a new one. When our giving becomes rote, we lose something of the original reason we were moved to give. Get out of your comfort zone and find a new way to share.

10. Forgiveness. One of the worst barriers to experiencing spiritual, holiday joy is the sense that we are not worthy. Whether directly or indirectly, too much gift giving is often a substitute for the resolution of actual issues. And one of the issues that really can weigh us down this time of the year is a grudge. Whether you're holding one against someone else, or they're mad at you about something... take care of it. If it's so far in the past that the person is dead, moved on, out-of-touch,etc., then talk to a friend, therapist or confessor of some kind. Get rid of it. I don't care what your religion is or if you have none. The burden of unforgiveness is a strain on the holidays for us all. Lose that, and all the other holiday stuff will be much, much brighter.

Well, that's it for this year. Hopefully you found something in here that will help your holiday be more fun, festive and... fruitful? Well, bad alliteration aside, have a joyful season and a Happy New Year.

More My Team, Your Team

A forum version of "My Team, Your Team" has been started by Tom Conger at the Brakenwood Forum.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Beowulf: The Uncanny Valley, now in 3D

[click on the graphic above for a full-screen version, if you like]

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I went with my brother to see "Beowulf," the new motion-captured, animated feature starting some guy, Angeline Jolie, and Anthony Hopkins. John Malkovich also does some obvious voice work, and Crispin Glover is the appropriately annoying voice of the annoyingly grotesque Grendel, though we couldn't figure that out during or right after the show, because the voice of Grendel was so over-the-top annoying and grotesque. But, having looked it up on IMDB, now knowing that Glover did the voice of the monster, I am pleased with having the universe-as-I-acknowledge-it reaffirmed by an annoying actor doing the annoying voice work.

Brief review: The movie sucks. Don't see it. I'd give it a charitable C- for some fun 3D pyrotechnics.

Longer review: The movie sucks because they go deep down into the Uncanny Valley again. The motion-capture animation in this induces "WTF-ism" even worse than it did in "The Polar Express." Although, to be fair, Beowulf is supposed to be creepy on some level, whereas the visual disemboweling of a Van Alsberg children's classic is just horrific on all levels. If I had to sit through either one of them again in Purgatory, I'd choose Beowulf, if only to experience a gleaming, gold, mostly nude Angelina again, and to avoid Tom Hanks' singing.

If you're not familiar with the term, "Uncanny Valley," go check out the Wikipedia page or this article on Damn Interesting, which delves into the CGI realm as well.

The short version of the Uncanny Valley is that we tend to feel more emotionally connected to things with human attributes up to a point -- peaking at being most connected with actual, healthy humans -- but with a deep valley of disconnection (eg, ickiness) when things look too much like a person, but not quite. You get the "wax figure" effect. The, "Something ain't quite right with them Geats, Mildred," effect.

Beowulf is deep, deep in the valley. The characters provoke an emotional connection somewhere between Anne Coulter and a corpse. Note to zombie/corpse/Coulter fans: this is not a good thing. It's fine for people to freak out over your monster and feel like it's inhuman and creepy. But for the whole cast to give off a fug of head-shaking gleep is less than pleasant.

As my bro pointed out, there was no reason for this film to be done in motion capture animation. None. Peter Jackson has proved (with the LoTR trilogy) that you can make realistic CGI critters that both engage and repel. I really can't figure out what the production company was trying to do here, beyond put another nail in the coffin of this style of animation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazon Kindle demo video

Amazon has posted a video demo for its new eReader, the Kindle.

This has real potential. First of all, the device itself doesn't look like hell. The early shots of the prototype looked... clunky. The one in the video, and in the Amazon store, though, seems OK. Some of the buttons and the keyboard still look a bit odd compared to standard UI stuff... but maybe (benefit of the doubt alert) its related to power savings, hardiness of the unit, whatever. It looks a bit geeky, but, then again, it is.

Features that make me wish it was cheaper than  $400:

  • Free wireless hook-up. Yup. Amazon is eating the cost of cellular-network delivery (not Wi-Fi). So you just turn the thing on, connect to the Kindle store (and various other Web related destinations), browse for books, magazines, newspapers, etc. and buy 'em.
  • Automatic updating of subscriptions (magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc.)
  • Email personal docs to the reader (MS Word, etc.)... for 10-cents per doc (I think).
  • Click-through to definitions, Wikipedia entries and other reference sources
  • Note-taking, book-marking, high-lighting, text/section clipping features
  • Listen to MP3s and eAudiobooks (have to be uploaded via USB)
  • Can hold 200-ish books

I already wrote about how I've been reading eBooks on my Palm/PocketPC for years. And so, for me, it will probably be awhile until I get one of these things (ie, until it costs waaaay less than a mobile computer that I need anyway for work, wireless phone, wireless web, etc.). So, for now, this falls under "really cool luxury." 

My guess is that (like Apple with the iPhone), in time, when more publishers are on board, the Kindle will come down in price, subsidized by Amazonian subsidies based on usage. It is, however, the first dedicated eBook reader I'd put on my Christmas list.

Buy it here

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Poetry Lesson 2: Meaning to mean

All communication intends to exchange meaning. "I'd like a cheeseburger with fries and a Coke." That conveys meaning from a hungry customer to a waitress or fry cook. And if the communication between customer and cook was reduced, let's say, to the pushing of buttons with pictures of meal choices -- as in a vending machine -- we'd have communication that is almost perfectly mundane. By which I mean there is very little chance for interpretive meaning, only the exchange of explicit communicative chunks. "Almost perfect" because there's a person on the other end of the process taking the mechanical order and doing the cooking. If a customer were to come in and push the "large fry" button 75 or 200 or 809 times in a row in quick succession, the cook might step out from the kitchen and make sure that there wasn't a problem. Even in this simple example, there is room for interpretation at the edges.

And the edges are what poetry is all about.

If you want to make simple, declarative statements about feelings or beliefs... stick to prose. There's no harm. Most of what I write is prose, and a good essay, rant, story or post is a joy forever.  But if you're the type who is now thinking, "Yeah... I wonder how many times I'd need to mash the 'fries' button to get the cook to come out?" then you might be a poet.

Language is, of a necessity, symbolic. When I say, "It is cold," it doesn't make it cold. It might not even be cold, by any reasonable assessment. When I change the words to, "I am cold," it can mean a couple of things, eh? Clearly, it can mean, "There is less heat in my environment than I am comfortable with." But we also use the term "cold" to mean emotionally distant, unloving, uncaring, etc.

The fact that one word, phrase, description or entire piece of writing can mean multiple things is what makes good poetry so beautiful. As humans, we like to see/make connections. We like solving puzzles. We make connections even where none are intended; how often have you looked at a cloud and thought, "That looks like a [whatever]." Our brains are programmed to seek meaning on multiple levels.

How is this useful in poetry? Well, let's consider the "cold" thing again. If I simply say, "I am cold," without context, you can think either that I'd like to warm up, or that I'm emotionally distant. As soon as I provide some surroundings for this statement, though, you have more edges; more interpretive options:

I am cold
here in your bedroom.

Whoops! Hey... what?  OK. That's weird, isn't it? When "bedroom" is referenced in poetry (and much art) it is usually a place of warmth and connection. The poet is saying he's cold (either lacking heat or feeling distant) in a place where both of those things are odd. It makes the interpretative process different and more interesting; there are more ways to put the pieces together, to make sense of the edges where meanings can cross. Let's add another line:

I am cold
here in your bedroom.
Someone left the window open.

What's going on now? Well... "window open" implies that the "cold" is possibly (more likely?) one related to temperature. We get cold when windows are open. But let's check out that word, "Someone." Hmmm... Someone? Not "you" or "I." The two people we'd expect to be involved in a bedroom poem aren't to blame. Let's keep going.

I am cold
here in your bedroom.
Someone left the window open.
And the summer sun won't touch me
on the dry, dark, hard wood floor.

Now it's maybe getting contradictory and, possibly, a bit creepy. On the absolute surface level -- no poetry intended -- a reader could take this at face value and say, "OK. So a dude is sitting on the floor of his girlfriend's room, and he's out of the sun, so he's cold. Big deal."

Right. But it's not hard to see the edges in this one, is it? Why would the writer choose (and good poetry is all about word choices) to make the narrator cold in the summer? That's a contrast, and contrast immediately shows of the edges between possible interpretations and makes us look for patterns and meaning. There's even sun, which implies it's day and not night, and probably not "cold" in an absolute sense. That is, at least, a strong implication.

So what else might be going on here? Always make the assumption that a poet is choosing his/her words with great care. You'll do that when you write good poetry, so make the assumption. So... just like we asked questions last time about Shakespeare's sonnet, let's ask some questions:

  • Who left the window open?
  • Why is the narrator alone (apparently, at this point) in "your" bedroom?
  • Why is the poem addressed to "you" and not "her" or "him?"
  • Why is the narrator on the floor?
  • Why use the word "touch" related to what the sun can/can't do?
  • Why use the word "won't" for the sun's touch -- which implies intention on the part of the sun or avoidance on the part of the narrator -- rather than "can't?"
  • Why use the words "dry," and "dark" to describe the floor, other than that "dark" emphasizes the lack of sun?
  • Is it important that the floor is "hard wood?"

I'm intrigued. Are you intrigued? Whenever you read poetry, do so like a detective. Think about the words as if they are all clues to places where the poet has been and wants you to follow.

Most poets, myself included, *hate* explaining their work. The whole point is to let the reader pull out meaning and depth based on their interpretation. Explaining your own poetry is like starting a joke with the punchline or saying, "I'm going to tell you a neat, provocative mystery in which the main character's sister is the killer." Blech. But today, because we are doing lessons, there will be some explication of the aforementioned questions: 

  • Who left the window open? Can't be "me" (the narrator) or "you" (the object of the poem). Must be someone else. Not normally a comfortable implication in a poem. Probably a cause for stress or drama between "me" and "you."
  • Why is the narrator alone (apparently, at this point) in "your" bedroom? Maybe "you" left. Maybe "you" are still there, but are very quiet (also a disturbing possibility). Maybe "you" didn't expect me. Maybe "you" are out with whomever opened the window.
  • Why is the poem addressed to "you" and not "her" or "him?" Using the 2nd person implies familiarity. It also makes the reader feel more like an outsider, as the use of the 3rd person ("I am cold / here in her bedroom") would imply that the narrator expects the piece to be read/seen by the reader. In the 2nd person, there is a feeling of overhearing a conversation between two others, rather than reading something explicitly public. The "you" is the intended recpient, the object of the communication. This is subtle, sure... but important.
  • Why is the narrator on the floor? "Bedroom" implies, pretty strongly, one piece of furniture: a bed. The implication is that he's not using the one thing that makes a bedroom a bedroom. This is a strong clue that something is wrong or not comfortable. Why would the narrator avoid a bed in a bedroom? Especially if he is cold, and beds are used to keep warm.
  • Why use the word "touch" related to what the sun can/can't do? The sun doesn't really "touch" us. The light/heat do. But "touch" is a verb that implies personal, often emotional or intimate contact. So the lack of touch is another clue that there is some kind of personal, intimate lack here.
  • Why use the word "won't" for the sun's touch? The sun doesn't make choices in reality. The sun doesn't withhold its "touch" based on some kind of consciousness. So we're left to make one or two assumptions. Either the narrator is anthropomorphizing the sun and it's affect on him (cold) -- which is a sign of psychological distress -- or the narrator is avoiding the sun's touch on purpose. "It won't touch me," implies a choice made, rather than "It can't touch me," which implies an unavoidable situation.
  • Why use the words "dry," and "dark" to describe the floor? Sure, dark reinforces the lack of sun's touch. But we've already made the assumption that the narrator has chosen to be on the floor, and has possibly, deliberately picked his spot. If the floor is, itself, dry and dark, what is that in contrast to? Why even describe the floor? Well, because it's not the bed. The light, we assume, is touching the bed. And, while dryness is not necessarily associated with warmth, those romantic things that happen in beds are often moist; kissing, sweat, sex, etc.
  • Is it important that the floor is "hard wood?" Well... if you're looking for sexual references (and in a bedroom, that's a good bet), "hard" has implications, as does "wood."

So, above and beyond the surface, narrative meaning... we now have someone addressing someone in a more personal way (2nd person object), alone in a place that would normally have another there, on the floor instead of the logical bed, avoiding touch purposefully, in a dry/dark place, with (let's push this a bit, students) an errection.

Now... some of you are no doubt saying, "C'mon! That's reading a lot into those word choices." Yep. And an argument I have time and time again with new readers of poetry is on the subject of reading more into a piece than was intended by the poet. First of all, assume that the poet intends the maximum number/levels of interpretation. It's a good bet that he/she thought more about the writing of the piece than you are about the reading. Second, even if you do read something into the poem that wasn't intentional... that's ok. Part of the fun/joy or poetry is finding a picture of a dragon in a cloud that was painted to look like a bunny. I don't know a poet out there who will complain if you find some extra, bonus meaning in their piece.

I'll finish this poem next time, when we'll cover tension and release (or the lack thereof) as poetic devices, and why you should aim for "frisson" as a poet. Until then, your assignment is to take a very simple, declarative phrase and embelish it with at least three phrases that put its surface meaning into question, or provide alternate contexts. Don't worry about being "poetic." Just start with a phrase like:

The car is going fast.

And then think of three phrases that, in juxtaposition with the first, might cause a reader to ask some questions. Like:

  • It's making me sleepy
  • Although it's out of gas
  • My mom's a crazy driver
All of those phrases are somewhat unexpected when coupled with "the car is going fast." Go be unexpected on purpose.



My Team Your Team in... Russian? Polish?

I don't know. Moldavian? I can tell it's not Spanish or French. But I don't know enough about languages to tell which is being used at: Kdo bo koga zradiral.

Whatever the written language, the visual one is the universal tongue of my dude beating the carp out of your dude. Bueno. 

[Update per comment below: Slovene!] 

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another creativity game: Metaphor Mix-Up

My Team, Your Team has been getting a lot of link-love over the past few weeks. Which is super cool; it's a fun game, and everyone in the world should play it and be in love and have puppies.

But the writers in the house need their fun, too. So here's one we played back in the day (along with Alternate Lyrics Kung Fu):

Metaphor Mix-Up.

Best with at least 3 people, or in an email chain. 

  1. Write down a decent metaphor/simile. Take a sentence or two if you need it, or even put it into a short poem. Something like:

    "Morning walks with Chump, the hound, left me feeling like a train that had been pulled off its tracks by a mad, furry, whuffling, slobbery locomotive."

  2. Pass the metaphor on to the next person (and you get one from someone else in the chain)

  3. Change one part of the metaphor, but leave the other untouched. The two parts of a metaphor are the tenor -- the thing being described (in the example above, the walk with Chump) -- and the vehicle -- the thing used to make the description (the train). Example:

    "Morning walks with Chump, the hound, left me feeling like the harem slave to a short, hairy nabob."  or...

    "Conversations with my Unlce Frank left me feeling like a train that had been pulled off its tracks by a mad, furry, whuffling, slobery locomotive."

  4. Pass it around again, until everyone in the game has touched everyone else's metaphor. Make sure you keep the changes with the original (in email, that's easy), so that the originator can see the progression of his/her metaphor.
That's it. Sounds easy, but it's not always. And it's fun to do it with a time-limit if you're in real life.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Poetry Lesson: 1 -- What poetry is not... and is

Disclaimer: Go back and read the introduction to this series. The part about "there is no bad poetry." These lessons aren't for people who want mindless stroking for their work, or who are content with their current output... it's for folks who want to improve. If I say something in here that offends your artistic sensibilities... so be it. This series is for writers who want to improve their craft, and so when I say "poetry" in this context, I mean serious writing intended to impact readers. And away we go...

  • Poetry is not prose with funky line-breaks.
  • Poetry is not writing that rhymes
  • Poetry is not writing that adheres to a specific meter
  • Poetry is not writing that is purposefully vague or confusing
  • Poetry is not purple prose in a different box
  • Poetry is not archaic for the sake of sounding "poetic"

Now... poetry can have one or more of the above attributes. But just because something rhymes, doesn't make it a poem. And just because it doesn't, doesn't make it not. Er.... yeah. You know what I mean.

My definition of poetry: writing that purposefully communicates on levels of meaning beyond those of simple, definitional comprehension.

OK... I wrote that... and then I checked Wikipedia. Their definition is similar to mine, but better: a form of art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its ostensible meaning.

Those are pretty close. The main point being that the poet intentionally uses language in ways that aren't, let's say, ordinary. Rhyming, for example, is not something you do when simply trying to convey meaning in normal, conversation:

Give me a meal, the type that is happy,
With nuggets and fries, and please make it snappy

That would be obnoxious. It's also a good example of a type of non-poetry called "doggerel." Good poetry is almost as much about what to avoid as what to do; avoid doggerel.

The best first step to writing better poetry is to look at what is (generally) considered good poetry and try to understand why it is not prose; i.e., the difference between simple, declarative writing (as in an essay), and a poem on the same subject.

We will start, therefore, with the first exercise: taking a classic poem and un-writing it. That will help us understand what a poem is, apart from what it is not. I will use an absolute classic that everyone should know, the sonnet, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," by William Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

What is the poet saying... if we get right down to the meat, away from all the poetry stuff? Perhaps...

You're very beautiful.

Wow. OK. That really takes out, well... everything. But think about it: why take the time to write all that other "stuff," put in the rhymes, make the meter very precise, whip out the old metaphors. If you just want to tell your girlfriend, "You're pretty," well... why all the extra labor?

"Aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to or in lieu of ostensible meaning."

So... why is this a poem, and not just writing with some poetic attributes? What makes it *good?*

Well, first we must ask, why does it rhyme and hold to a specific, particular meter? In this case, the rhyming structure and meter are those of the English sonnet. The rhymes go: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. The meter is iambic pentameter. That's an English sonnet for you. To a certain extent, Shakespeare used that form because it was popular at the time, and considered (when done well) particularly beautiful. We still appreciate the form, especially when written well and spoken well. In a later lesson, we'll get into the specifics of subtle iambic meter as opposed to drum-like, irritatingly simple iambs.

And we're not going to do a complete analysis of this piece today, either. What I will do, though, is point out some "poetic stuff" that adds all kinds of meaning. Socratic as I am, let's pose the following questions:

  • Why is the main metaphor one of time? That is, comparison to a season as opposed to physical objects?
  • Why does the poet go into detail about the ways that summer doesn't hold up so well in this comparison?
  • Why is very little detail about the subject (thou... presumably, on one level, the beloved) actually given?
  • Is the subject actually, let's say, the poet's lover? What else could be the subject? Why would we even consider this?
  • What is the signifigance of the words, "temperate," "lease," "gold," "posession," "grow'st," "breathe (and) see?"

Great poets (and Bill is among the greatest) don't just throw in words or rhymes willy-nilly. There is almost always a reason (or many reasons) why one word is chosen over others. That's one of the signals, for example, of writing that rhymes -- it tells the reader, "I have picked these words carefully, not just for their simple meaning."

Next time we'll spend some effort on how the meaning of this poem may be, in fact, "in lieu of" its ostensible meaning; how it may be saying some things that are at odds with the surface meaning.

In the meantime, your assignment is to find a poem and strip away all the poetry stuff. What is the *least* that a poet may be saying?


Poetry Lessons: Introduction -- Why write poetry?

I've been meaning to do this in one form or another for some time. And Jen (Hi, Jen!) told me I should blog more about poetry, so this is a good excuse to get started.

It seems to me that:

  1. Lots of people want to and/or try to write poetry. There's lots of it on the Web, anyway. And when I was studying writing in college, lots of us were doing it even without teh intranets.
  2. There are not a lot of "how to" books, articles, blogs, etc. on how to write poetry. Plenty on how to read it. But, while reading poetry is very important for those who want to improve their writing, the skills needed are different and require different pokings.

Hmmm... Usually my lists have at least three things. Three being the magic number. But two is OK here; a need and a lack of support for the need. Perfect niche to fill.

Let's look at #1 first. If you do a search on "poetry," you'll find plenty of places where thousands of people are posting their work. The very first thing I want to make absolutely clear is that there is NO SUCH THING as bad poetry, from the point of view of poetry as a creative outlet. There are several reasons why people write poetry, and they should all be respected:

  • As an outlet for creative thoughts
  • As an outlet for emotion
  • To vent
  • To explore thoughts/ideas
  • To explore your own psychology
  • To work with language
  • To communicate using different skills
  • To communicate with contextual richness
  • To communicate with nuance
  • To build confidence, either in the craft or as a communicator in general
  • To connect with others
  • To score chicks by the busload

That last was the reason I got into poetry. Trust me... good poets drive the ladies wild.

Now... some people write for only one or two of those reasons. If you are writing poetry as an outlet for emotion or to explore your own psychology, your work falls under the "no bad poetry" rule. Spending time doing something introspective and creative will only bring you good things.

That being said... most of the other reasons above require that you consider your readers, not just your own bad, poetic self. Within the context of poetry that is meant to communicate creatively, interestingly, contextually, fully and artfully (wow... that's a lot of adverbs), there is such a thing as poetry that is much, much better.

This really can't be emphasized enough: nobody should be discouraged from writing poetry; it's too close to the heart. If you've started, don't ever stop. If you haven't ever tried it, give it a whirl. It provides great benefits.

Those beneifts, however, expand greatly when you study poetry (reading and writing it) and work to hone your craft. The more you know about the elements of poetry, and the more you practice, the more joy you will have in it. And, after a time, others may also have a joy in it. Because reading good poetry can be a wonderful, mind-expanding experience.

And just as I said there is no such thing as bad poetry... there is also not enough really good poetry.

Which brings us to #2.

I make no claims about the quality of my own work. I like some of it. I do it for all the reasons listed above, and writing poetry has improved (I know) my prose writing, my reading abilities and my overall creative oomph. It has also provided me with opportunities to make many good friends and have wonderful discussions and learning experiences.

I have spent many years writing, both prose and poetry. I spent a good chunk of time in high school and college studying poetry, writing it, discussing it with others, editing it, etc. Again... I make no claims about the overall quality of my own work (judge that for yourself), but I do know that what I'm writing now is much, much better than what I started writing in the 7th grade. God, I hope so... And what I hope to do with this series of posts is provide a framework within which others who are interested in improving their work might do so.

These lessons will be based, loosely, on practices and projects that I've been involved with. They will provide some thoughts on how to read poetry, with an eye towards incorporating those thoughts into your own work.

There is no bad reason to write poetry. And the writing of it, no matter the quality of the output, is an important activity that should always be encouraged. I've never, ever told anyone (or even thought), "Wow. Your stuff reeks. You should really just stop." Bad, bad, bad idea. But I've also never, ever told anyone, "Your poetry can't be improved," or "Don't actively work on your writing."

These lessons will be for folks who want to work on the work.

Let's get started... 

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Another "My Team, Your Team" site: Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

The robot version of MTYT.


That makes three. 

Switching to Gmail... Love over Gold

I've had a Gmail account for about... two years? Something like that. There have always been things about it I didn't like as much as MS Outlook, which I've been using (at work and home) for going on eight years. One major lack in Gmail is the "Preview" pane. I love that thing.

And I'll miss it. Because over the past few days, I've completely switched to Gmail. I've kept my POP email account (the one through Sanestorm, if you're someone who emails me), but I now access it solely through Gmail. Outgoing mail says it came from my Sanestorm account... incoming mail to that account goes right to Gmail. Since Gmail now supports the IMAP protocol, I was also able to copy/import all my old email messages from Outlook into Gmail folders, or to tag them based on the Outlook folders.

So... I've now got 8+ years (1.4 gig... about 12,500 messages) of email moved over to Gmail's web-based platform. Having only used the service sporadically, I expect it will take me some time to get used to it... but that's OK. We like learning new things, and there are already some benefits to Gmail (lightning fast search of all mail; tags instead of folders; conversation threads) that are easily apparent.

So why the post title? It refers (I hope you already know) to a Dire Strait's album. When thinking about switching from MS Outlook, there were only two things that really bugged me: 1) I've paid for Outlook, both originally and for updates; 2) Advertising on Gmail. Gold.

The proximate cause for my switch was that Outlook was that it stopped, for no reason, doing the "type-ahead" thing when I addressed emails. You know the feature... you start typing a name in the "To" field of the email, and it gives you a list of choices that closely match it. If you have 1,500 people in your contact database, losing that feature is really, really annoying. What's even more of a pain is that when type-ahead does work, it picks up email addresses from your previous mail, even if they haven't been entered into your contact database. So if I've been emailing with someone recently, but haven't added them to contacts, I can still get by with simply starting to type their email address. Until type-ahead breaks for no reason.

Then you have to find an email to/from that person and copy it. Or add them to contacts. Which still doesn't help much, because type-ahead is busted. Yes, I know where the option to turn this feature on/off is in Outlook. I turned it off and on a half dozen times. Nothing.

So, I decided to try to update Outlook again. Tried to do it using files from Microsoft's web site. We'll skip the sturm und drang, and let me simply say that it was painful, unsuccessful and almost resulted in me losing all my email from the last two years (since I last backed it up).

Which initiated a Web search (using Google, of course) for info on how completely one can switch email accounts to Gmail. I knew I could forward my POP account to any other email system... but that's just not... crunchy enough.

The switch was pretty easy. It involved these steps:

  • Exporting contacts from Outlook to a CSV file and importing that into Gmail
  • Setting up my Sanestorm email as another another account in Gmail settings
  • Making my Sanestorm account the primary one
  • Enabling POP in Gmail's settings
  • Enabling IMAP in Gmail's settings
  • Setting up an IMAP link in Outlook (which was the trickiest part, since -- I found out -- it takes awhile for the IMAP setting in Gmail to crank up)
  • Copying email folders/files in Outlook into the IMAP folders

That last step took some time, as pushing 1.4 gigs upstream is... well... time consuming. And Outook occasionally whined that I wasn't paying it enough attention, requiring a clicking of various buttons to keep the flow flowing.

But now it is done. And I've got those 12,000+ messages on a system that isn't going to get fried if my power goes ker-zooby. And I can check email from any browser, including the one on my Pocket PC/mobile phone. Call me crazy, but I trust Google's servers more than my little hard-drive. I will look into a method to back up Gmail... but in the meantime, I feel irrationally safer.

And type-ahead works in Gmail. So the ads don't bug me much.



PS: Dan and I get into the swing as guest artists at TheSuperest. 

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Juxtoobposition: Wii Bowling

New category: Juxtoobposition. Putting two YouTube videos next to each other in a blog post in order to well... er... I don't know. But these two start things off.




Make of it what you Wiil. 

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Skills 2.0

So the drawing game my son and I started with "My Team, Your Team" (MTYT), was turned into the site/blog "The Superest" by professional artists, and from there became the open MTYT blog, "Bayou Battle."

It's an interesting progression, from an activity/skills perspective. The original game was played on paper (the back of Bob Evans placemats, to start) with crayons, and so the skills involved were imagination (of course), drawing and tactics. Those same skills are used by the artists at The Superest, to which they add whatever necessary technical skills blog creation/operation require. We might include some PHP or SQL knowledge, the ability to design the site (it looks real nice, eh?), some promotional skills involved in getting folks involved, the digital art skills that you need to either create a picture for the web or get it there, etc. A whole buncha stuff.

But they still involve drawing. And, since The Superest guys are artists, pretty dang good drawing. Better than I can do, for sure. Give my boy a few years and he might catch up. But me? I'm a hack. I'm a crafty guy, but certainly no artist.

Enter Bayou Battle.

The highest compliment an egoist such as myself can pay to an idea is, "I should have thought of that." Well, when it comes to Bayou Battle... I should have thought of that. It's a mashup of MTYM and LOL cats. Rather than start pictures from scratch... start w/ a web graphic, maybe Photoshop it a bit, add a caption (or, in the case of MTYM, a description of your power), and voila! MTYM for the MySpace age.

So... looking forward. What I'd love to see is a Facebook or MyPage applet that lets you play MTYM with your friends, back-and-forth on your profile pages. So if anyone here is that kind of creative, get crackin'! Just remember to send some link love back to Tinker, eh.

All of this being another (small) chapter in the book relating to what you need to know to thrive in the networked world. If you haven't read the MacArthur white paper, "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century," do it now. I mean it. Right now. I can't stress strongly enough the importance of this piece.

According to Henry Jenkins (the primary author, blog here), the new skills required to flourish in a culture of participationare:

  • Play— the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
  • Performance— the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery 
  • Simulation— the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes 
  • Appropriation— the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content 
  • Multitasking— the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details. 
  • Distributed Cognition— the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities 
  • Collective Intelligence— the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal 
  • Judgment— the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources 
  • Transmedia Navigation— the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities 
  • Networking— the ability to search for,synthesize,and disseminate information 
  • Negotiation— the ability to travel across diverse communities,discerning and respecting multiple perspectives,and grasping and following alternative norms. 

As far as these Skills 2.0 go, the original MTYM promoted play (for sure) and (possibly) performance, in a fuzzy sense of the word. Add in the requirements for The Superest, and you've got simulation (drawing that moves from pen-to-web), distributed cognition (understanding the web/blog tools necessary to put the pics "out there"), collective intelligence (you need at least two players) and networking (duh). Bayou Battle takes that and adds appropriation (modding pics), transmedia navigation (finding pics in places other than the original blog/site), and (probably) negotiation, since it is an open blog.

I find this absolutely fascinating. And not just because me and the boy came up with the original game. That's just a good excuse for why I'm paying attention to this nanomeme. It makes me wonder what would happen if teachers took any learning activity and tried, consciously, to adapt it such that it addressed as many of the above skills as possible. If something as simple as MTYT can move so fluidly and effortlessly into 2.0-Land, what would happen if someone with real pedagogical chops took a swing at the classic curricula?

Makes me wonder what I could do with TaleWeaver to turn it all 2.0-y.  

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Now we'll see...

For a long time, there's been speculation about why video phones haven't really "caught on." Maybe it's because we like to answer the phone without brushing our hair. Maybe it's because there are not enough other people that have it. Maybe it's because the idea of a telemarketer seeing me *at all* is somewhat terrifying.

I think partly it's because there hasn't been a "killer connectivity" issue related to one-to-one video conferencing. Yes, there are web cams. And they're still largely being used by bleeding-edge types, or by businesses with an interest. Absent a desire to connect with another, specific person... as of yet, there isn't a really good reason why an individual consumer might say, "Yeah. I need that."

Until -- maybe -- now.

Arsenal Interactive has announced "HeyCosmo," an online Texas Hold'em poker plug-in for Facebook, complete w/ webcam support. So you can see the other people you're playing poker with (up to 10), join new games and watch other games.

Poker is one of the few games that's; A) wicked popular, and, B) is actually improved by face-to-face play. I'm sorry... it may be more fun to play sudoku cooperatively, but I'm pretty sure that being able to vid yer opponent's mug won't significantly affect the gameplay. Poker, though? The psychology of the game is a huge part of it... in real life. And while webcam support doesn't provide all the benefits of live play -- you won't catch your opponents' tells if they're below the neck -- it will, I suspect, add to the fun and playability for many players.

Combine that with the fact that Facebook already has a couple bjillion users who already know each other... and this might be the moment that webcam stuff takes off for the masses.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Team Your Team goes pro!

I am fantastically and wonderfully glad (and proud) to announce that the game my son and I made up one night at Bob Evans on the back of a paper menu has a site devoted to its play.

Check out:

An ongoing match of My Team, Your Team

These are actual artists, people. Which is scary. I don't know if my powers of superness will be super enough to be superest...

Truly spectacular props to the creators, Kevin Cornell and Matthew Sutter. These guys are funny, smart and Dan and I will totally kick their BUTTS if they just come to Ohio and sit down in a greasy spoon w/ us over a plate of eggs and sausage gravy.

My next thought is that a site where anybody can create an account and link to Flickr pics (or whatever) with indications of who they "beat" w/ that picture. We'll see.... Hmmm....

Anyway, my thanks to Kevin and Matthew for propogating the joy that is My Team, Your Team. And may the best toon win. 

Saturday, October 20, 2007

10 Best Web Comics [nsfww]

[nsfww = not safe for wussie work. There's no porn here, but I will be using words like "shit," "crap" and "piss." You, your boss, the camera above your desk and the NSA have been warned] 

I have lots of arguments with people about the boundaries of crap.

Crap is the stuff that you don't want to qualify as valuable or worth any effort at a particular moment. It's not necessarily an insult. I often talk about "all my great crap," or, "the kind of crap you can get from Archie McPhee," or, "the bunch of crap left over after brunch... help youself."

Crap is not shit. If something is "shit," it's worthless. As opposed to "the shit," which is roughly synonymous with my childhood, Boston slang term, "wicked pissah." In certain parts of New York (where I've spent a bunch o' time), a "pisser" is also a good thing. "That Kenny... funny guy. His party last night was a pisser." Also, a "piss-cutter" can be good thing. I guess if something is strong enough to cut piss, it must be good. Yet "not giving a shit" and "being pissed off" are bad things. So... where are we on the relative value of bodily function metaphor? I won't even start on f**k, as we all know that it now means everything and nothing.

But back to crap.

I have friends who think modern art is crap. Some think science fiction is crap, while others love it and think the term "sci-fi" is crap. Personally, I love Star Wars Episodes 4-6, and think that 1-3 are crap.

Mostly, though, the argument I hear is that "all this user created content on the Web is crap." When I point out that most of the professionally created content on the Web, on TV, in magazines, etc. is crap, too... I usually get a shrug and the reply, "Yeah. I suppose so. But there's so much more crap on the Web."

My point about the relative positive/negative metaphoric value of words like crap, piss and f**k is that there is the same relative value placed on the crap itself. What is now part of the canon may once have been, from the point of view of authority, crap. This is not news. What also is not news is our sociological inability to cope with a fantastically different medium than the ones that have come before.

We see this in telco. Phones were the devils that would interrupt family time and cause people to lose the personal, face-to-face familiarity that is the all important glue of society. Never mind that we'd been writing letters for a couple thousand years. Letters good (thoughtful, intelligent, educated prose), phones bad (conversational, immediate, pedestrian). Then cell phones were bad because they'd do the same thing in public. Then they weren't. Now people are complaining about Blackberries and other portable email readers. Give it five years, folks. The ettiquette will work itself out.

So there's lots of stuff on the Web. And much of it (like this blog) is "amateur" content; ie, nobody pays us. Much of it is also, by traditional standards of authority, crap. Of course it is. To claim that most MySpace pages, YouTube videos or eBay items are anything but crap would be nonsensical. I'm not saying that they aren't crap.

I'm saying that crap is OK. And that may be what the canonical guardians of traditional media are really afraid of finding out. That for many people, well... we like the crap. Yes, yes... required statement about the value of classics goes here. I'm a Lit Major, for the love of Proust. I read "A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu" in French. I've written 20-page essays on "The Wasteland." I've read Dickens that wasn't a course requirement. I like classical music.

But I also like web comics. Which wouldn't have existed without, well... the Web. Comics like (in no partiklar order):

There are many more. OK, two of the above (Homestar and Bunny Theater) aren't comics, per se, but cartoons; animation. So sue me. I love 'em and they're on my list.

My crap list  :)

Some will argue that a few (or all) of the above are the work of professionals. Just like reading the NYT on the Web, it's OK. It's not the medium that's crap, it's the bjillions of messages. But without the bjillions, there's no Web. And if they couldn't blog, post, comment and connect... they wouldn't have spawned the messages above.

The medium is the message. And the medium now includes everyone. And you don't get your crap without it being mixed in with everyone else's. As I've said before, there's not such thing as "user created content." Everybody is now a user. Stop worrying about it and enjoy. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Non-Apple stuff on my blog


Ye faithful readers of this blog (yes, that's you, Jen) will notice an advertising rectangle to the right, featuring links to MP3s that you can buy from I have great expectations that the revenue from this feature will help pay something on the order of 1/10th of what my Web hosting services cost me (ie, maybe about a buck a month).

Why, then, do I sully the pristine, amateur clarity of my blog with the pixels of filthy commerce? 'Cause I really don't like the way Apple handles the DRM for iTunes, and I like how Amazon is going about their new MP3 product sales.

I generally like Apple. I like the iPod. I like the iPhone. If we could go back in time, and somehow convince Steves B. and J. to license Mac tech the same way that IBM did -- giving us competitive, 3rd-party versions of the Mac computers --  I think the world would be a better place, though. And now they're doing similar crap with DRM.


I don't like DRM. It makes me feel like the company selling me something doesn't trust me. That's all. No rant, no preaching, no marketing strategy. I just don't like DRM. It's a pain in the bootox and makes me feel icky. So get yer MP3s from Amazon, or another DRM-free source.

The 500

So, for reasons related to astrology, humidity, international politics or global warming, all my blogs (I host some for some friends) have been going down for the last few days, sometimes for as much as 18 hours at a time. They all get a nice, vague "500 Error."

After only one initial, "It's Wordpress; you figure it out," email exchange, my hosting company acknowledged that the problem is on their end. Which is very nice. When 7 blogs dump all at once... that can't be me. I can screw up one thing at a time, but don't have the talent or luck to simultaneously crash 7 SQL databases. I just wouldn't know where to begin.

The picture at left is my inner Spartan, battling the forces of un-understandable technical glitches. I assume that, like all such battles, it will result in eventual glory, my own physical destruction and several hundred thousand dead Persians. 

Saturday, October 13, 2007

To play's the thing

This is one of those rambling, "I'm figuring things out while I'm typing" posts. No guarantee of clarity. But there are good links, so there's that.

If you play games, and haven't heard-of or read anything by Richard Bartle, you need to. He is one of the creators of MUD, which you also need to know about. Richard created the "Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology" that ranks gamers on four scales; achiever, explorer, socializer, killer. It's kinda like Myers-Briggs, but for gamers. I am an ESAK. From the test:

ESAK players often see the game world as a great stage, full of things to see and people to meet. They love teaming up with people to get to the hard-to-see places, and they relish unique experiences.

Breakdown: Achiever 40.00%, Explorer 80.00%, Killer 20.00%, Socializer 60.00%

This reminds me a bit of my Myers-Briggs type, ENTP (Extrovert, iNtuition, Thinking, Perception). When I took the full MB test years ago, I was right in the middle on the first three (ie, not particularly extroverted, somewhat intuitive, and inclined, a bit, to prefer thinking to feeling). But on the "Perception vs. Judging" scale, I was hugely P over J.  

So. There's been some discussion at Terra Nova about "A fifth Bartle type." Timothy Burke, the post's author, speculates:

Where the attraction to design is a part of the experience of play, and where the player's activities within the game are at least partially aimed at a kind of pure understanding of how the game or world functions (rather than an understanding which is aimed at maximizing achievement). It's always seemed to me that this approach to play was distinctive enough that it could easily be called a fifth Bartle-type to go alongside achiever, killer, explorer and socializer. Call it subcreator, or if you want to get fancy, demiurge.

It's an interesting idea; that playing the game to understand (or appreciate or accept or influence) the game itself is, for some, more fun than achieving within the game, exploring the content or beating or socializing with other players. On the one hand, if I want to stay pure-Bartle, I think that Burke's proposed category could come down under "Explorer," where the player is simply exploring the meta-game as opposed to the game. It's a role I enjoy, both as a player and as a critic. In fact, one could say that someone who plays a game in order to understand its mechanics, player motivation, changes over time, etc. is not really playing the game, but "playing at gaming" or "playing at play." Or, maybe, sometimes even "working at play."

This intersects in my head with a post at The Escapist (by way of Infocult) called "WebGame 2.0." Kyle Orland writes about how aspects of list keeping--especially numbers of friends, popularity rankings, etc.--lend game-like aspects to some social networking activities. Self-googling, of course, falls into this category of behaviors, too. I made (and make) a very specific effort to be at the top of the listings on the major search engines for "Andy Havens." Why? Because a substantial part of my life is now "lived" on the Web. And Google is the phone book for that life. Currently, I own the first two pages of results for my name, and the majority of the results for pages 3-5. At that point, you're getting into comments on blogs that have better SEO than my own blog.* On the third page, though, you get a link to my Googlegänger, who (unfortunately for me, I think) is a marketing guy, too... but who's got some Web pursuits that I find a bit... well, it's just not my style. If he (she?) were a trombone player from Australia, somebody happening onto his/her Web efforts would (probably) realize that I'm not both an Ohio, USA marketing guy and a musician from Sidney. When the Googlegänger's activities are pretty close to mine, though... well, I'll keep working on my personal SEO.

But (and here's the point related to the above), is the fact that I'm keeping score and indication that I'm playing a game? I don't think so. Although many games have scores, not all scores are related to games. My weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. are all "scores" of a type, yet I don't monitor them as an act of play, but as something related to the decidedly non-play act of trying to stay alive. Similarly, many of the things we do to measure success (in a worldly sense) are scores--salary, neighborhood, quality of stuff, size of office, number of minions--yet are quite serious, non-play-y and not games.

There are all kinds of discussions about the nature of play and what is a game, etc. I don't want to get into that, because others (including Richard) are much better at it and have done great work already. What intrigues me at this point, though, are the two ends of a continuum that seem to bracket a "play" experience:

1. Taking something that is intended for play (a game, in this case) and doing something with it that is non-play. Now, you can argue (I won't) that the Fifth Bartle Type proposed by Timothy might be engaged in play. Sure, that might be the case. The act of building new resources for a game, for example, might very well feel like "play" to the modder. But it isn't (usually) going to be within the scope of what the designers had in mind. You can make small totem poles out of baseball bats, but at that point you are not "playing baseball" in any sense of the word. You can write and perform songs about your favorite baseball team... but again, you ain't playing the game.

2. Taking something that isn't a game, and playing it. We use the phrase, "He doesn't really care about you; he's just playing games," to mean that the subject isn't engaged on the surface level, but doing something else, using the activity in a different context. That we use the term "player" to describe a philandering male really brings home the idea that "playing" and "games" are often synonymous with a lack of sincerity or seriousness of intent. Someone who is not a player would, constrastingly, "work" at a relationship, neh?

I think Thomas Malaby said it best here:

Games... are domains of contrived contingency, capable of generating emergent practices and interpretations, and are intimately connected with everyday life to a degree heretofore poorly understood... Rather than seeing gaming as a subset of play, and therefore as an activity that is inherently separable, safe, and pleasurable, I offer here a rethinking of games as social artifacts in their own right that are always in the process of becoming.

Or (in Andy-simple terms), games ain't always games, and play ain't always fun.

The final point being a question: is there a model that describes a tendency to either "game that which is not-game," or "do 'not-play things' with that which is game?" Or does it depend on the game/situation? I have no interest in many of the social "games" that people play. Feh. And I do like to delve into the hidden, meta-nut-meat (what the hell?) of games beyond the surface. What does that say about me? What would those "types" look like?

  • G vs. M = Gamer vs. Metagamer (in game spaces)
  • S vs. P = Straightforward vs. Playa (in RL)
I'd be an MS. What that means, I have no idea. Yet. Let me play around with it for awhile...