Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Good post at Lifehacker about using the "Subject" line as the entirety of an email message, and ending with <EOM> to signal "End Of Message." I do this at work when the message is, really, one sentence long or less. Examples included (all names changed to protect me and my buddies):

  • Frank is out sick today; no big deal, should be in tomorrow <EOM>

  • I can drive up to four others for lunch today <EOM>

  • Do you know what room we're meeting in at 1pm? <EOM>

  • If you know what the new printer name on the network is, please let me know <EOM>

You get the point. Works really well, and I appreciate when others don't bug me with a subject that is obfuscating, followed by a paragraph of text that is unnecessary.

Get your EOM on.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Chaos vs. Mess -- 2 movie reviews

Years and years ago, I read the excellent "Chaos: making a new science," by James Gleick. I recommend it; very interesting stuff. But the point I remember most vividly is that there is a big difference between stuff that's random -- completely without order -- and the functional, scientific definition of chaos.

It's a great book. Brings together stuff from many fields; meteorology, biology, traffic, math... fun stuff. But, again, my main take away is that there are systems that exhibit meaningful behavior, chaotic systems, that aren't particularly Euclidian in their proceedings.

That is what popped into my head after having viewed "No Country for Old Men" (on DVD) and "The Strangers" (at our local dollar-flick). "No "Country..." is about the utter impersonal nature of fate, about the uncaring of large systems, about how we change in our relationship to those systems as we age, about the penalty for underestimating the power of huge fates to grind us down. It's got a lot going on. And it's very well done. It is a great film, and a great poem. Death, in the movie, is an agent of chaos. I won't go into the plot at all, because it would require me describing the entire movie to make all my points, and I'm tired and I don't like to spoil really good movies. Trust me, though -- the chaos inherent in death. Big theme.

Now... let's compare and contrast to "The Strangers." A horror flick based, supposedly, on real events. I don't mind giving away the plot elements, because if you've seen the trailers or read the intro, you know what will happen. In fact, if you've ever seen another "weird people in clown masks are hunting/terrorizing a nice, pretty couple" movie... you know what will happen.

Nice couple in cabin. Minor background story. People in clown masks terrorize them. Running, screaming, stabbing, bleeding. Blah, blah, blah. But, at one point, the guy asks them, "Why are you doing this to us?" And the reply from Scary Girl Clown #2 is, "Because you were home."

Not withstanding the fact that this was actually a punch line in "Stir Crazy," it's just not good, scary storytelling. And it's because of the difference between "chaos" and "randomness," or "random-mess," in the case of "The Strangers."

Chaos is a dance whose steps you don't quite understand. Randomness is a spasm; a fit. Chaos is the wind blowing leaves in one direction one minute, and another the next. Randomness is a drunk 16-year-old with a leaf blower. There is some beauty, some meaning in chaos. Randomness is just, well... pointless.

Maybe the sheer randomness of some kinds of horror and death can be scary. But it makes for a much less interesting movie.

"No Country for Old Men:" A-

"The Strangers:" C-

Poetry writing exercise for Matt

Howdy, y'all. Enjoying my vacation from my folks' place in northern Tennessee. Lovely new home, new neighborhood and, for my Dad, a new office. So... now that we're all caught up.

On an earlier post, Matt commented and asked for another writing exercise. I enjoy; a) writing exercises, and, b) taking requests. So here we go.

I've often said that creativity involves breaking things up and putting them back together again. But different like. So today's exercise involves the matching of narrative elements with descriptive ones... differently.

  1. Think of an activity you could possibly write a poem about. Let's say... sailing.

  2. List narrative elements that go along with that activity; basically, verbs. In our example: getting wet, pulling on ropes, steering, navigating, ringing that bell (I'm not a sailor... maybe I should have chosen differently... oh, well. Too late).

  3. For each of those activities, write out some descriptive terms. For example, "navigating" might yield, "lost," "concerned," "confident," "ambitious," "anxious," etc. At least one descriptive term or phrase for each action, please.

  4. Now... as usual in these exercises, time to mix it up. Grab another activity. Let's try... dancing.

  5. List narrative elements for dancing: flirting, moving, shaking, jumping, gliding

  6. Now the finisher: write a poem for that second activity where you match the descriptive terms of the first activity with the narrative elements of the second.

Why do this? Two reasons. First, many young (in their poetry) writers have a hard time distancing descriptions from their most commonplace elements. Not our fault; our brains always jump to the most reasonable, usual thing. So when you say, "glide across the dance floor," you're not programmed to think about sailing, but about feet, floors, shoes, partners, pretty clothes and (in my case) a rainbow fright wig.

The whole point of poetry is to bring new meaning to a situation for the reader. To expose something unexpected. If you can break apart descriptions from actions, you can start to find out how things truly (or at least poetically-truly) are, rather than just how they seem or are mundanely described.

The second reason for doing this involves extended metaphor; also a toughie. Most people can come up with a quick metaphor to describe one action. Doing so throughout the entire course of a poem is a bit trickier. This exercise forces you to do it; every element of the dance will need to be described in sailing terms.

And, as soon as you start thinking of it that way... there are possibilities, aren't there? Does a nervous, first-date guy not "navigate" the dance floor? The sound of the band is like waves crashing around him. And he wants to bring the event home, safely. To harbor? To get a glass of punch? Or is "the safe harbor" going to be taking her to bed? Up to you.

Any way that you can force bits of assumption apart, and then bring them back together in new ways... that's a good exersize. It's what being a tinker is all about.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Public then edit

I was on vacation last week. The beach in SC. Lovely, thank you, but very windy the last couple days. Good for surfers, bad for families with kids.

I try to read one non-fiction book while on vacation (along with several pieces of brain candy). This year, it was "Here Comes Everybody" by Clay Shirky. I don't always agree with Clay, but even when I think he's wrong, he's wrong with intelligence and style.

In the case of this book, he ain't wrong. It's his best work yet, I think, and a must read for anybody who's serious about thinking seriously about the ways in which the Internet (and associated technologies) are intersecting with society. I may do a longer review post at some point, but for the time being, just go read it. Lots of good, telling examples. Lots of well thought out questions, without necessarily giving any answers. Which is a good thing. Asking the questions well is important. Pretending you know the answers is less so.

Clay talks a bit about the "publish then edit" mode that the Internet enables. In traditional media, you "edit then publish." That is, producers and directors and publishers sift through (edit) a mountain of content, and then present what they think is best. On the Web, everybody publishes everything, and then we, the public, use a number of functions -- links from friends, search engines, blog posts, etc. -- to edit down the already published stuff.

In another part of the book, Clay talks about how folks all over the world are using this functionality to impact political situations. He gives examples of how smart mobs, email campaigns and even Twitter are used to turn the usual "Big Brother" thing on its ear. This started me thinking... Publish, edit, politics, government. Role reversals.

And then I started reading William Gibson's new novel, "Spook Country". Not done with it yet, but 1/3 of the way in... it's great. There's a scene where one character is talking to another who may be doing some sneaky "anti-terrorist" stuff. He says (I'm approximating, as the book's downstairs and I don't feel like getting it), "A nation is defined by its laws more than it's circumstances at any particular time. A person whose morals change with circumstance is not moral. And a nation whose laws change based on circumstance is not true to those ideals that brought it into being."

Bong. Gong goes off in my head.

Are laws, when taken as content, the result of publishing or editing? I would argue that laws themselves are a kind of editing; they keep us from doing certain things; they proscribe. Is the tendency of the current administration to do whatever the frick it wants, and then justify it later, a kind of "publish then edit" rather than the other way around? We're supposed to come up with laws based on (among other documents), the Constitution, which (as my Republican friends point out all the time) does more to limit the power of government than describe it.

OK. If government is meant to be limited (edited), and laws are meant to be editorial tools... then doing things first, then coming up with wild-ass justifications for them, is a case of going "public then edit." Action as public publishing of events; editing as the spin, rewrites, cover ups, justification, etc. after the fact.

I'm still not sure if this makes any sense. But all these thoughts are tangled up in my head in this way, and sometimes they need to live somewhere where I can come back and look at them later.

Publish then edit gives power to the creative masses. Editing, not publishing, is the proper function of government and laws.

Are the current hijinx in the White House a kind of reaction to the new balance of power imposed, to some degree, by the Web and the Flat World? Are politicians "doing more things" outside the lines of editorial (read: Constitutional) correctness because the Great Unwashed now has access to so much more creative power.

I have no idea. But it's ringing in my head.