Monday, December 21, 2009

Celebrities, allergies and Edgar Allen Poe

[Before we get into the blog post, I gotta say that the Newsweek web site is almost unreadable. Totally bad design, UI, findability, etc. I was going to link to the story I'll be mentioning below, but after 2 minutes wandering around the site... meh.]

Last week's Newsweek's cover story was about celebrity. Specifically, the whole Tiger Woods blech. Now, I didn't know what had happened until about two days into it. I am that sports blind. This is not to make any kind of great Luddite, "I don't watch TV! I don't pay attention to gossip! I'm above the frickin' fray!" claim. If it had been Leonard Nimoy, Corey Doctorow or the Mars Rover caught in a tabloid affair, I would have known in 10 seconds. I just really, really pay no attention to sports of any kind.

The Newsweek article, though, was kinda interesting. In it the author (sorry, don't know... can't find it on the site) makes a basic claim that celebrity is a kind of narrative that we all (mostly) find interesting in and of itself. Brad and Angelina do interesting things as part of their jobs (acting, mostly), but are far more interesting as characters in a great, unscripted (mostly) drama of their own lives. The author makes the claim that celebrity is a 21st century art form.

OK. Though I disagree about the 21st century thing. We've had mass celebrity at least as long as we've had mass media (see "Charles Lindbergh). The idea that the parade of famousness is a "thing" itself doesn't really move me. Yeah. Sure. We like drama, melodrama, comedy, satire, fable, etc., whether it's served up as fiction or news.

What did get me thinking, though, was the idea that we sit up and pay much more attention when the objects of celebrity do something that gets them in trouble. Like Tiger Woods. All of a sudden, lots of people (myself included) who knew Tiger's name, but didn't really give a tinker's cuss about the guy are now sitting up straight and going, "Really? Really! He did what? With whom? And his wife had what?"

Why is "Tiger Screwed Up" so much more interesting in the celebrity drama than "Tiger Keeps Doing those Great Tiger Things that Made Him So Famous to Begin With"?

I think it's two reasons. First, allergies.

My wife is deathly allergic to honey bee stings. Seriously deathly. Like, if she gets stung and doesn't jab herself with her EpiPen in like 10 seconds, she could die. And you probably know someone (or someone's kid) who has serious peanut allergies. Eat a Peanut M&M and go into anaphalactic shock. Fun!

What's this got to do with celebrity? Well, you don't pay any attention to honey, bees or peanuts... until you or your kid is massively allergic to them. They're part of the scenery of everyday life. But dishes with honey make my wife's tongue numb, and if she eats enough of something before realizing there's honey, her throat swells up. More fun! So... between that and my various migraine triggers, we spend a lot of time reading food labels.

The point being this: celebrity screw ups are interesting because they're a kind of allergic reaction. If you're famous for being a role model of some kind (Tiger), then screwing around is going to make you swell up, get all puffy and possibly die (metaphorically speaking). If an actor or singer had experienced the same incident Tiger did, nobody would care. Musicians and actors aren't generally famous for being Good Guys. They're allergic to being ugly (Britney with no hair). And a severely allergic reaction is, frankly, kind of scary. So we react. We pay close attention. We, essentially, diagnose. What did he do? With who? Where? And did she know? We're trying to determine if this is a fatal reaction. Our relationship to celebrity is as consumers. And if the product has been killed (for each of us individually, or for everyone paying attention), we need to know. It's a kind of social-cannibalistic food safety issue, I think.

We also like it when celebrities screw up because it provides a neat frame-breaking moment. Edgar Allen Poe, inventor of the modern short story, made great use of frame-breaking in his scary tales. For example, in the "Fall of the House of Usher," he has the main character reading a book about a storm... and then hears something similar to what he's been reading about:

At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment, paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me) -- it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the story.

I've always heard this literary device called "breaking the frame." When a character experiences movement between his "real" world and an internal fictional world, we--as readers ourselves--find it easier to imagine that movement might similarly occur between our really real world and the fictional world we're enjoying. It's a kind of transitive property of fiction.

When a celebrity breaks from his/her normal mode, we experience a similar framing shift. We see them outside of the narrative that made them famous, and that gives us (probably subconsciously) a certain frisson of expectation and excitement. If it is possible for Tiger to slip, almost instantly, from "Millionaire Golf Endorsement God" to "Shabby Womanizer," then... maybe... there's a chance for us to shift from "Working Stiff" to... ??? Who knows? That's the wonder of it.

Between the fascination of watching an allergic reaction, and the dramatic tension of frame breaking, we're almost helpless to turn away from the spectacle of celebrity crashes. We want to both diagnose what went wrong, and apply the results to ourselves. If the mighty can fall, perhaps the meek can also rise.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The 2009 UnGrinchy 75

In 2006, 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 2007 I doubled down on the happy happy with 50 ideas. I can't keep up with a geometric progression like that, or by 2018, I'd have to do 512,000 ideas. So last year, you got 60. Seems right to crank it up to 75 this year. New items are in purple for those of you who have already done all 60 from last year.


15 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.

11. Tissue paper wreath. This is an easy project, dredged up from my days as a summer camp arts & crafts director. It's simple, quiet and can keep little hands busy for hours. Take a coat-hanger and bend it out so that the triangle part is round. Keep the hook the way it is, please. Now, cut colored tissue paper (or white, if you're a freak) into strips about 2" wide and 10-12" long. Fold each strip around the now-round part of the hanger, and twist the ends together like a, well... a twist tie. That makes the paper cling to the hanger, eh? Do that about a thousand more times. It looks cruddy until you start really filling it out, then it looks fun and festive. Please do not use electric lights with wreaths made from paper.

12. Crayondles. Make some candles out of old crayons. Directions here.

13. Advent destructo-calendar. Rather than pop little toys/charms out of an advent calendar every day in December before Christmas, instead build a model or print a picture of something you'd like to be done with. Kind of a pre-New-Year's-resolution game. Then divide the thing up into 25 (or 31 if you want to do the New Year gig), and on every day in December, pull that sucker down!

14. Holiday spaz origami. People get so bent out of shape (ha) about making perfect, tasteful little origami things. That's way to obsessive for holiday time. Get some colorful paper and start folding, cutting and pasting things together. Make a mess... but make it a glittery, shiny mess. Find order in the chaos. Or not. Enjoy the 2D-becomes-3D magic. Discover what shapes lurk in a crumpled up ball of tinfoil. Make little birds out of the covers of old magazines and spray paint them gold and put 'em on the tree. Don't overthink it. You'll discover more shapes and more new models if you just, well... get spazzy.

15. Lights on other stuff. People always put lights on their house. Now, I love that, and I don't want to discourage it. But one year, back when we were living with my folks in Boston, we put lights around our lamp post. Got more compliments on that. You got a mailbox? Light 'er up! Koi pond? Let it glow! Heck, why not just try a new pattern of lights. Like, just hang them all randomly out an attic window so it looks like your house is puking lights. Maybe not. Then again, what the heck.

15 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.

11. Personalize "A Christmas Carol." Rewrite (or just re-think) the Dickens' classic and perform it. Text available here for free. The characters and story really lend themselves to satire and revision, and you can do a very short version and people will still get it, because we all know it so well. Film it and put it on YouTube, please, too.

12. Christmas kids parade. If you'll have a passel (any more than 2) of kids around at some point, give them all a cheap musical instrument, or a home-made one. Put on some classic holiday music, real loud, and have the kids march around the house banging, blowing, slapping, stomping, etc. Please note that adults and dogs should be encouraged to join the band. This is a good way to blow off steam and sugar after the whelps get their second wind on Christmas morning.

13. Red and green food party. If your last name begins with A-J, bring red food. If it begins with K-T, bring green food. U-Z? Silver or gold. OK... maybe not.

14. Poetry party. Get some nice paper and pretty pens. And yellow legal pads for first drafts. Put holiday words on scraps of paper and put 'em in a hat. "Joy," "Presents," "Egg Nog," "Sledding," etc. Everybody gets a word and writes a poem, which somebody else gets to take home.

15. Host starving artists/musicians. Find a local artist (or two) or musician (or three) and invite them to your office, church, Rotary, etc. holiday party. Ask them to play or bring their art for sale, and introduce them around. Art/music are tough businesses. Artists/musicians make cool guests. Extend them a happy holiday hand, and give your friends the gift of culture.

15 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 (shown). 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.

11. Library cards. Yes, it's a pun. Things, for many of us, will be tighter this year. Do a friend a favor and get the instructions on where their nearest, local library is. Put that in a card along with 10 or so recommendations of books to read or movies to watch that you know the library has (check for help). For book/video gifts, it's often the thought or idea that really does count. Use your library's resources to give the thought without the expense. This is also a very "green" gift, so... that's good, too!

12. MadLibs card. Create a card but leave spots for verbs, nouns, place names, etc. Put the spots for them to write those in on the front, with directions not to open the card until they do, and then to read the card with the answers put in. Hilarious hijinx will ensue.

13. Mad Men card. Best. TV show. Ever. Use the "Mad Men Yourself" application to make yourself over as a 1950's advertising executive, flunky, secretary, etc. Then send that out on your cards. Fabulous.

14. Mystery card. Send someone a lovely card with a hint or clue about who you are... but not the whole enchilada. Tell them that the next clue will come in a Valentine's Day card. Or something. Then don't forget.

15. Color-it-Themselves-Cards. Get some card stock for your ink jet printer. It works fine, really. I do it all the time. Create a line drawing, or scan in a picture and then trace the edges. Whatever. What you want, when you're done, is a card with pictures that look like they're from a coloring book. Outside, inside, both... go nuts. Then mail it along with a pack of 3-5 tiny colored pencils. When it arrives, your friends/family will have a neat little activity to share with their kids.

15 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.

11. Gift from your past. Find something that was highly meaningful to you as a child, or in the past, and give it to someone along with the story. Could be a book or movie or a type of clothing. Could be the board game, "Risk," if you're a giant geek like me.

12. Name a star for someone. Paid and free options are both available.

15. Most beautiful umbrella ever.The National Cathedral in Washington, DC makes an umbrella with the pattern of its Rose Window on it. Absolutely stunning. When you use it, if you look up, it looks like you're inside a stained glass window. Makes a rainy day much nicer.

13. High-quality photo book. Plenty of places (Viovio and Lulu come to mind) will walk you through the process of taking some of your digital photos and putting them into a nice book. Coffee table book of your nephew's birthday party? Awesome.

14. Turn someone's handwriting into a font. There is software to do this, and online services, too. Might take some time up front to collect somebody's A-Z's. Also, for someone like me whose handwriting is garbage... not so great. But for somebody out there... fun stuff, having your own font, eh?

15 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.

11. Invite someone different to a holiday dinner. Single people or folks that can't leave a college campus, newly married couples just moved to a new city... there are lots of people who don't have a nice, large, rowdy chunk of kin to celebrate the holidays with. Bring 'em along for the ride. You'll be surprised at home much they enjoy many of the things about your holiday mess that tend to irritate or frustrate you. And that will give you new perspective on your own joy.

12. The 12 Days of Compliments. Start on any dang day you please, and compliment or thank one person in a way you wouldn't normally. Really try to think of something specific, honest and meaningful. On the next day, hand out two of these compliments. By day 12, it will have become almost second nature, and that's a gift for *you* to enjoy all year long.

13. Share a booth/table with strangers. At least once during the holiday season you will be seated to eat at a restaurant where there's a line behind you. People still waiting to eat. You know. And if you're two people, and you are going to be seated at a table for four, turn to the next couple in line and say, "Hey... why don't we share a table. Not the bill or anything. But we can eat together. Save you a little time, and we all get to meet somebody new." Use your own words.

14. Pay the toll for the car behind you. Between December 1 and January 1, every time you go through a toll-booth, use the lane with the guy in the booth, rather than the correct change lane. When you pull up, hand the guy enough money for two tolls and say, "I'm paying for my friend behind me. Wish him a Merry Christmas when he comes through, ok?"

15. Sing carols (or any songs, really) while doing chores: I sing while I do the dishes. It's a rule. I have to, or it's no fun for me. I've tried while doing laundry... and I'm getting there... but that's an even more unfavorite chore of mine, which makes it harder. But I'm trying. You'll find, after awhile, that you don't mind the chores as much.

Well, that's it for 2009. My gift to you, along with wishes for a happy and safe holiday season. Don't let all the bad news out there get you down. The universe is a wonderful place, and the holidays are a great time to remember and celebrate all the joys we can share. Now, get out there and ring a bell like you mean it!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Do schools kill creativity?

Wonderful TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson on creativity and education.


This works into my "hunter/gatherer" mania. Schools are industrial (gathering). Creativity requires more wide-ranging, less structured skills (hunting).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I would have preferred "Infovore" to "Informavore," but still...

An essay at called, "The Age of the Informavore." We'll get to my thoughts on the essay in a minute. My first thought was, "Wow. This guy doesn't make up new words very often." He is German, and English is his second language... so mad props to him for writing an interesting essay in another language. I can't do that, so I don't mean to be supercritical of his writing in general. But it really should be, "Infovore." Technically, in a Latin-root sense, he's correct. The Latin, "informare," means to "give form to the mind" or "teach." The root is "inform" not "info." But we use "info" in English as the short-form of the noun "information." And we tack it on to other things to come up with "infotainment" and "infolicious" and "infotastic." And by "we," I mean of course, me.

Be. That. As. It. May. (Ooh. Should that be a new ROFLMAO? BTAIM...)

The author of the essay, Frank Schirrmacher (WorldCat Identity), is a journalist, writer and publisher. often has great essays, and this one is worth reading all the way through. Some major points considered below. Schirrmacher begins with this thesis:
We are apparently now in a situation where modern technology is changing the way people behave, people talk, people react, people think, and people remember. And you encounter this not only in a theoretical way, but when you meet people, when suddenly people start forgetting things, when suddenly people depend on their gadgets, and other stuff, to remember certain things. This is the beginning, its just an experience. But if you think about it and you think about your own behavior, you suddenly realize that something fundamental is going on.

There it is in a nutshell. The tools we've been using for a couple hundred millenia to give our physical bodies leverage over our environment are now giving way to mental tools. I would agree that we depend on outside entities to manage, store and process our thoughts. But I'd argue that we've been doing so, to some degree, since language was invented. I don't process every thought I have need of; I often let others do lots of my "thinking" for me. There are people at work, for example, who are much better versed in all kinds of skills, knowledge and wisdom which I have no regular need of, but enjoy regular access to. I can walk 20 steps to the legal department and ask them questions. I can pick up my phone and ask our IT folks questions. I can follow instructions, and then promptly forget what I once "knew" for the 30 seconds it took me to interact with that information in my own sphere.

Obviously writing and printing aid that process. I don't have any idea what the capitol of Assyria was (though I do know my favorite color). If I need that information, I look it up.

Quantitatively different? Sure. But we've been doing these things for a long time.

I think what Schirrmacher is saying is different is two things. First, quantitatively, we simply have quicker access to a crapload more information. I am a firm believer that, at some point, quantitative differences can cause qualitative effects. So I'll certainly buy into the idea that being able to carry around a device the size of a deck of cards that can access most of the world's information wirelessly is a cognitive game-changer in and of itself. Second, though -- and what I think he's really getting at -- is that we are now offloading information about ourselves. He says:
Gerd Gigerenzer, to whom I talked and who I find a fascinating thinker, put it in such a way that thinking itself somehow leaves the brain and uses a platform outside of the human body. And that's the Internet and it's the cloud. And very soon we will have the brain in the cloud. And this raises the question of the importance of thoughts. For centuries, what was important for me was decided in my brain. But now, apparently, it will be decided somewhere else.

Hmmm... I'm back, a bit, to my original argument: "what is important for me" hasn't always been decided in my brain. It is often decided by my boss, my wife, my government, students, son, friends, doctor, lawyer, traffic cop, plumber, etc. Thinking is often a group activity.

He goes on to make the point, as did I, that we are now using "brain" tools as opposed to "body" tools. And just as the industrial revolution made us think of physical effort in more technical ways (so as to be measured, optimized, etc.), now the mental tools cause us to think about thinking in technical ways. He says:
The idea that thinking itself can be conceived in technical terms is quite new. Even in the thirties, of course, you had all these metaphors for the human body, even for the brain; but, for thinking itself, this was very, very late. Even in the sixties, it was very hard to say that thinking is like a computer.

I agree. And I still think that thinking is nothing like what is currently happening in computers, and won't for quite some time, Ray Kurzweil's (WC Identity) singularity notwithstanding. That's a whole other essay, though. But then Schirrmacher goes on to say:
But now, when you have a generation — in the next evolutionary stages, the child of today — which are adapted to systems such as the iTunes "Genius", which not only know which book or which music file they like, and which goes farther and farther in predictive certain things, like predicting whether the concert I am watching tonight is good or bad. Google will know it beforehand, because they know how people talk about it.

What will this mean for the question of free will? Because, in the bottom line, there are, of course, algorithms, who analyze or who calculate certain predictabilities. And I'm wondering if the comfort of free will or not free will would be a very, very tough issue of the future.

Hold on... that's not thought, per se. That's decision making and pattern recognition and cultural zeitgeist stuff which have been cognitively offloaded from individuals in many forms for millenia [note: need a word for "cognitive offloading." Will come back to that]. When I went into Tower Records in 1989, I didn't have a universe of choice and only mine own wee haid to sort things out. There was an entire ecosystem of publishers, buyers, merchandisers, store workers, marketers and friends to help me narrow down my millions of choices. Sometimes I went in for a specific album, having heard it on the radio (cognitive offload!). Sometimes a friend would want to point out some stuff they'd heard or bought recently (cognitive offload!). Sometimes I just browsed and looked at stuff on end-caps (cognitive offload!) or with cool covers (cognitive offload!) or that were being perused by cute girls (non-cognitive offload!).

Is that any different, on a "though-level" from iTunes or Amazon recommendations? Not to me. I still get to make the decision. It's just that now I get to make a decision using more (or different) decision engines. It may be "turtles all the way down" as far as the origin of the universe, but when it comes to choosing music, TV or movies... my choices are rarely going to be made solely based on what's in my head.

Why? Because those are "social thoughts." Always have been.What do I want to eat for dinner? Depends on the folks with whom I'm eating. What movie is OK to take the boy to? Depends on what my friend, Bob, says. Bob's got good taste when it comes to parsing the OK-ness of movies for young lads. How much baking soda goes into the pancakes? Betty Crocker, help a guy out. It's all external cognition.

Useful prediction. I don't see it coming any time soon (ha ha)

Does Schirrmacher have something interesting to say about the offloading of private cognition? Well... not yet, anyways. He goes on to talk about prediction:
The question of prediction will be the issue of the future and such questions will have impact on the concept of free will. We are now confronted with theories by psychologist John Bargh and others who claim there is no such thing as free will. This kind of claim is a very big issue here in Germany and it will be a much more important issue in the future than we think today. The way we predict our own life, the way we are predicted by others, through the cloud, through the way we are linked to the Internet, will be matters that impact every aspect of our lives.

Again... let's wait a second. Prediction isn't cognition either. Or it is, at best, a very specific type of cognition. And we know from quantum physics that observing a system changes it. So you can try to predict human behavior -- and I will agree that access to holycrapabytes of more and more personal data may provide some frightening attempts at prediction -- but, again, we do that now. I'm in marketing; it's kinda what we do. Predict and, to a degree, direct behavior. Until, however, we can solve traffic jams and make sure that there is always some Life Cereal on the shelf at Walmart (what the heck? it's popular! stock up, you guys!), I will be more worried about ham-handed attempts at prediction than at somebody actually knowing what's going to happen (see: Barak Obama's chances to become president back in the primaries).

Digital Darwinism, Communism, Taylorism. Not for shism, I don't think.

Then he jumps into "three issues" from the 19th century that are important for our new millennium:

    1. Darwinism: who and which thoughts survive on the net; who gets more traffic

    2. Communism: questions of free and who does work for free or offers value for free

    3. Digital Taylorism: the application of scientific, technical management principles to human behavior

      That last, I assume, means that we can't any better (or humanely) manage cognitive workflows than we can industrial or technical ones. We end up with dehumanization, etc. but on a level of thought-processing rather than work-processing.

      I'm would pretty much disagree with all of those. More on that later. But he jumps right from this to talking about multitasking... which is, again, an entirely different issue than cognitive offloading (extracognition? no...). He says:
      Now, look at the concept, for example, of multitasking, which is a real problem for the brain... you meet many people who say, well, I am not really good at it, and it's my problem, and I forget, and I am just overloaded by information...

      It's a kind of catharsis, this Twittering, and so on. But now, of course, this kind of information conflicts with many other kinds of information. And, in a way, one could argue — I know that was the case with Iran — that maybe the future will be that the Twitter information about an uproar in Iran competes with the Twitter information of Ashton Kutcher, or Paris Hilton, and so on. The question is to understand which is important. What is important, what is not important is something very linear, it's something which needs time, at least the structure of time. Now, you have simultaneity, you have everything happening in real time. And this impacts politics in a way which might be considered for the good, but also for the bad.

      Because suddenly it's gone again. And the next piece of information, and the next piece of information... And they all should be, if people want it, shared. And all the thoughts expressed in any university, at this very moment, there could be thoughts we really should know. I mean, in the nineteenth century, it was not possible. But maybe there is one student who is much better than any of the thinkers we know. So we will have an overload of all these information, and we will be dependent on systems that calculate, that make the selection of this information.

      Respectfully, I don't buy it.

      Hunting is different than gathering. But it ain't new to us.

      We're back to my whole thesis on information hunting vs. gathering. Are the systems different now? Yes. Clearly. Are they going to produce (and have already produced) enormous shifts in economies, politics, culture, education, entertainment? Yes, of course. But to say that in the 19th century you could know what thoughts you should know? Sorry, but... no. Just no. Lots less input? Sure. I buy that. Remember that in the 1800's, even through the late 1800's, something like 98% of the world's population was working on farms. To suggest that they could process all the information available and decide what was important is only true because, for the most part, there was so little information to be accessed (relative to our time). But, even then, if you wanted to "know what is best to know," you would have had to spend a lifetime reading and talking and studying. All of it in the midst of others, who would help you do so. Information has always been there. We now have more meta-information and more choices about which information to spend time on.

      He goes on to say:
      What did Shakespeare, and Kafka, and all these great writers — what actually did they do? They translated society into literature. And of course, at that stage, society was something very real, something which you could see.

      In Shakespeare's time, "society" in England -- an island the size of, well, England -- would have been about ten different societies. Most people never traveled more than 20 miles from the town of their birth. Religious and cultural activities varied greatly from region to region and the language itself was still more a collection of dialects than what we'd recognize as English. Within another 100 years, Shakespeare and the King James Bible would help provide a unifying, literate center for English on a going-forward basis. But, by then, the explosion of printed material would probably have meant that no one person could ever have read (much less fully grasped or memorized) all the works being printed. And that's just in English.

      He closes with:
      You will never really understand in detail how Google works because you don't have access to the code. They don't give you the information. But just think of George Dyson's essay, which I love, "Turing's Cathedral." This is a very good beginning. He absolutely has the point. It is today's version of the kind of cathedral we would be entering if we lived in the eleventh century. It's incredible that people are building this cathedral of the digital age. And as he points out, when he visited Google, he saw all the books they were scanning, and noted that they said they are not scanning these books for humans to read, but for the artificial intelligence to read.

      I agree about Dyson's essay. Go read that. And that final point is interesting; the Google Book project did scan the books so that, essentially, they became part of a "machine intelligence," is we want to get all SciFi and call it that. Google now "knows" that of all those billions of pages, about 1,019 have the combination of the words "poison" and "banana" on them. And being able to access those very quickly is important and different and game-changing and scary and fun and helpful and weird and different.

      But I don't think it means what Schirrmacher thinks it means. I don't believe we are offloading key cognitive processes in a way that is fundamentally different than we do with books, experts, pads of paper and fridge notes. There are just more choices.

      And there are more "meta choices." My wife and I were talking about this yesterday, and she believes there is value in memorization. Multiplication tables for kids. Poetry for anyone. Vocabulary. I agreed. Of course there is. If you have nothing memorized, you'd be, essentially, incapacitated. If you don't remember the words or grammar for, "I don't understand what you're saying," you won't be able to do much.

      But at another level, real thinking -- the kind that leads to interesting discoveries, creativity, conversation -- is less about learning the pieces, and more about what you do with those pieces. Is a certain set of [memorized intellectual] tools necessary? Of course. Will a larger range of possible tools mean more stress about which ones are most important? Sure. But we've had to make those choices for thousands of years at this point, certainly since widespread printing came about. Now we may also be making meta-information choices, deciding not just what pieces of data to memorize, but what systems to become expert in.

      I'm really not trying to downplay the importance of the Web, always-on communication and media, mobile computing, large-scale search and prognostication systems, etc. etc. They are hugely important. But when we focus on (as of yet) unproven assertions about how this change is qualitatively different... we lose the ability to deal with those changes using current (or past) thought processes.

      How does this translate to reality?

      I spend (roughly) 2 hours a day on information hunting tasks. RSS feeds, email, scanning articles, blogs, news sites, Twitter, Facebook, etc. During that time I make (I would estimate) 200-600 decisions about where information falls in a kind of hierarchy, as I read and process data:

        1. Unimportant to me: immediately forget

        2. Short-term, "immediate action required" (eg, "boss needs something now" email): interrupt information hunt, deliver action.

        3. Short-term, "that's good to know, but no action required:" set into short/medium term memory

        4. Short-term, "this is very interesting, but doesn't really require action from me:" possibly pass along to other interested folks.

        5. Short-term, "that's good to know, no action required, but further/future thought might prove fruitful:" attach metadata, breadcrumb, to-do, link, bookmark, post-it note, and file.

        6. Short-term, "need more information now:" do specific information search

        7. Medium-term, "need this for current projects, but don't need to do anything immediately:" file information appropriately

        8. Medium-term, "need this for current projects, should forward or take action:" forward or take action at appropriate time

        9. Medium-term, "this is interesting, but I don't have time now:" file for possible future reading

        10. Long-term, "this is very important, and requires action, but not immediately:" note and file for appropriate activity time.

        11. Lont-term, "this is interesting, but doesn't require any action on my part:" put in the part of my brain for interesting things that will fight, in a Darwinian sense, for long-term survival.

          This does look complicated, yes. And it seems almost like a computer program with a bunch of "If/then" loops. But -- as I've argued before -- I think we do this all the time. It's more like hunting behaviors than gathering, but it's already inside us, both individually and culturally. We just need to get better at it again.

          "Yes, but I have information overload! How does all that pointy-headed yabba yabba help me?"

          To be blunt, I think lots of people are in a place where they simply haven't thought about their thinking in awhile. We (folks my age and older, and even many younger people) have been raised in an "information gathering" society. We go to classes that are about "Subject A," and then "Subject B," then "C," etc. In Class A, students in Major A learn from Professor A about Subject A. Round pegs, round holes. Assembly line methodology. At work we have Entry Level Job A reporting to Manager A who does Job A and reports to Director A, all the way up to VP A. You often don't get an "information generalist" until you get to the CEO, and they usually have come up through a particular discipline.

          I'm not saying this is bad or wrong. It just prepares us to live as information gatherers. "Go there, to that row, in that patch of information, get the data related to your job, and bring it back and do something very specific with it."

          That's much different than, "The forest is there. It has everything you need. Figure it out."

          Schirrmacher, and many others, are -- I think -- experiencing some of the fear and uncertainty that comes with a change in environment. I don't mean to minimize it; I just think we need to concentrate on ways to become better hunters.

          To use Schirrmacher's term, we're already informavores. Have been since we started relying on tools, agriculture and group systems. We just need to make a transition from informasheep to informaraptors.

          Wednesday, October 14, 2009

          Email triage

          Rarely a day goes by when I don't hear someone talking about how many unread email messages they have (or text messages or IMs or tweets or whatever). To a certain extent, I think it's "pain bragging." The old, "When I was a boy, we walked 10 miles to school, uphill, and 20 miles uphill home."

          [Aside... best "We had it tough" sketch ever is below... "We used to DREAM of living in a corridor..."]



          So, some of the "I have 1,200 unread emails" talk is anti-bragging. Some of it is truly complaining about something that can be irritating. I do sympathize. I get a lot of email at work. Not as much as some, but more than others. Not gonna say how many, as that would be feeding this particular troll.

          What I will tell you, though, are a few of the "triage" tips I use to keep my email a bit more manageable. Some of these come from previous gigs, so if you currently work with/for me and see something here that doesn't apply, it may be from a past life.

          • If you have direct reports, ask them to not cc: you on anything. Period. If you're living in an email hell, cc:'s should go down, but never up. Things important enough to say to your boss, but for which they aren't the main recipient, should be summarized and put in a separate email. I know... more work for you. But if you make a habit of condensing 5 cc:'s a day into one short, bullet-y email for your boss' review, they will thank you. You can even call it "daily review" or something. Consider going one step farther, and not even sending emails on every subject, but putting as much as possible into that one daily missive.

          • Schedule email time in your calendar. Email is important to many of us, and it ain't going away. If you've got 100's of emails piling up, chances are at least one of them is something you care about. If you need an hour a day to push through 'em, give it an hour. When you are doing this, do not do anything that counts as "taking action" on an email item, other than replying, filing, sorting or deleting email. It's very easy to say, "Oh. That request to merge the 10 pdfs into one file. That'll only take me a few minutes." And then, 52 minutes later, you're still armpit deep in email stew.

          • Schedule non-email time in your calendar. By the same, yet reversed token, shut down your email client for several hours a day. Let your most important people know that you do this and that they can call you if something really needs immediate attention. But, odds are, 90% of your email isn't stuff that needs to be acted on within 2 hours. If you combine this and the previous tip, you'll be better at email in general. Concentrated time with and without it.

          • Master the software. I know a ton of people who don't know their email software's hotkeys, functions, features, tricks, etc. If you were having a lot of trouble with your car, you'd get it fixed. If you kept stepping on your partner's feet all the time, you'd get dance lessons. We all use email a LOT. So learn to play it like a grand piano.

          • Sort by topic when in deep doo-doo. If you have more than 100 messages piled up (something that often happens after vacation), sort by "topic" when you go to review. Chances are that there are several of those wonderful, long email strings where everybody replies-to-all to everybody a couple times, and you end up with a string of 20 messages where everyone is replying and saying, "I agree," or "That's fine" or whatever. When they're sorted by topic, just read the more recent one in the string. It'll have all the stuff you need, and you can ignore the other 19.

          • Use folders for both topics and temperature. I keep a lot of my email, because my job involves getting edits/feedback and versions of documents. Because I can sort by name, topic, etc. and search by keyword, I leave much of it in my Inbox. That would make some of my friends crazy, as they want an empty Inbox. NBD for me. BUT I also use a ton of folders for specific projects, and for emails based on "hotness" if I can't answer them immediately. Another friend of mine calls hers the "three parking lot folders." One (red) for stuff that needs action in the near future (hours or a couple days), yellow for stuff that can wait, but should be done soon (within a week), and green for stuff that may be helpful to have, but doesn't require a response.

          • Use rules for personal, listserv, obnoxious, etc. mail. I belong to listservs that pump more than 200 emails into my email every day. But I set up a rule (or Wizard or whatever it's called) to shunt them directly to folders. Then, when I have time, I go and read a bunch all at once, or delete them all if I'm feeling cheeky. But they don't clutter up my Inbox. In a previous job, I did the same thing with all email from a particular employee whose only contact with me was to pass along jokes. On the off chance she'd send me a work-related email, I had the rule send her stuff to a folder rather than delete it off-hand.

          • Power skim. This is for really deep email trouble. It's the Triple-X version of the "don't act on email while going through email" rule above. Start reading an email. If you can't get the gist of it in 10 seconds or less, mark it "unread" and go back to it later. This is like that old test-taking advice; go through the exam and answer the easy ones first, then go back to the ones you skipped. Getting bogged down in an email that takes even 1 minute to evaluate is going to seriously crimp your speed if you're trying to get through 240 emails in one hour. Read the first few lines. If that gives you all the info you need, delete it. If it requires more attention, mark "unread" and come back. This is a hard discipline, as it feels like you're ignoring work. You're not. You're prioritizing getting through all your email as opposed to answering just a few. When you're done, you'll feel more free and able to answer the ones that need time.

          That's all I can think of now. If more come to mind, I'll update the post.

          Saturday, August 15, 2009

          Introducing Mopodojo: a work-out site for poets

          I got my degree in writing from Cornell back in 1988. While I was there, I had the chance to work with some fantastic teachers and some great student writers. The official curriculum emphasized rigorous review and critique by both teachers and fellow students. The most important goal was not really the creation of great writing per se, but the creation of an environment where the tools of great writing could be learned. That's a subtle difference, I suppose, but an important one. To paraphrase, I'd say that the creation and improvement of any particular piece of writing always came second to the process of improvement. If a piece could be changed for the better... that was great. But the real goal was to practice writing and to get better at getting better at it. To hone the abilities necessary for a lifelong commitment to the craft.

          The gang I did this with the most consisted of about 8-20 poets (depending on the year, season, event and availability of alcohol) who would gather for readings and discussion. While, as always, there were some outliers, for the most part everyone stuck to the philosophy of the program. There was very little ego drama; that is, nobody got their feelings hurt if their work was strongly criticized. In fact, you tended to be more upset if you didn't get good, deep, detalied criticism.

          One of my professors once asked a class of us, all juniors in our third year of the major, "Who here accepts criticism well?" We were pretty sure we were supposed to, so we all raised our hands.

          "Bullshit," he replied. "I guarantee you do not. Not yet. Most people, when they say, 'I accept criticism well,' mean that they actually resent it, but manage to do so quietly. In reality, they judge the critic to be an ass, and take nothing from the experience but a vague disappointment that the world isn't as fond of them as they are of themselves."

          He continued: "To be a good writer, you must learn to not only accept criticism, but seek it out and cherish it for what it is -- another person's investment in your future."

          At first, this is a very hard road. It is similar to that of The Beginner's Mind. We all have egos, after all. And for those of us who write, our words often seem like an extension of ourselves; a part of our brains or souls that we've worked hard to let slip onto the page. Letting (or encouraging) someone else to comment on those creations can feel like allowing an enemy to slip into our hearts. If the process is not undertaken in mutual and heartfelt respect, it can often lead to real injury and emotional damage.

          If, however, you band with a pack of writers who support each other through years of ongoing, ever more insightful criticism... you can reach a place of sheer joy. That's what happened with me. The group of young poets I hung out with provided a smart, funny, helpful, often raucus audience and review board for my work, and for the work of the work. As time passed and we became ever more comfortable with each other, I passed into a place where, truly, any individual piece of writing was almost entirely unimportant.What mattered was the process; the sharing, the review, the honing of ability.

          It was great. And it ended. In the "real world," it is incredibly hard to find a group of people who are willing to meet regularly and beat the crap out of each other's work in a respectful and loving way. It takes a shared commitment and an appropriate environment. Those don't appear in our everyday lives; we have to seek them out. And in 1988, going to work for the first time, there just wasn't a time or place to continue the work.

          But how I missed it.

          Fast forward about 12 years. Along came the Internet. Lots of sites popped up with some kind of focus on writing. I tried quite a few of them. Some were great, some not so much. All the ones I found, however, focused on posting and commenting on writers' individual works. Which is fine; there is clearly a place for that. It was not, though, the emphasis I was looking for. And it was not something that many other poets whom I encountered had ever had a chance to experience.

          One great thing about the writing program and environment that I was in, was that once you really commited to it... it provided a set of tools and an attitude (maybe "stance" is a better word) that you could take away and replicate elsewhere. Like learning how to rid a bike, though, your first time should be with training wheels (an appropriate environment) and someone to hold you steady (others who share the commitment). I felt the lack of this kind of forum very keenly; not simply for myself, but for many of the poets I encountered who had great potential, but lacked a place to develop the skills necessary to really move their work forward.

          For the past few years I've been thinking about how to replicate my experience online. The Web provides wonderful tools for connecting and building community, and this seemed like a good idea for such a spot. I've been monkeying around with various content management systems, wikis and portal services for awhile. To be brutally honest, screwing around with the technical end of things let me put off the scary part; going live with a site and making a commitment to it.

          Well, I'm out of excuses now, and I'm willing to throw this thing out online and see if anybody else wants to play. If I only get a handful of people who are really interested in working together to improve their writing, I will consider it a success. If not? Well, the domain name cost me $9.

          The site is Mopodojo. Which might stand for "More Poetry Dojo" or something. I just liked the sound of it. The basic idea is simple. Teachers post poetry classes (exercises, basically... poetry activities), and writers respond, doing the work and commenting on each other's writing during the course of the course. The goal is not to create or post specific poetry, but to improve our writing through shared activities and criticism.

          That's basically it. I'm going to teach the first class, as soon as I can find at least five takers, and I'll keep teaching classes as long as at least that many people are interested in my doing so. If other people want to be teachers, that's great. I'd love to be a student in my dojo, as well.

          I've also created a ranking system for the site that may be fun or may suck. I came up with it partly because of my love of games, and belief that people enjoy making visible progress towards a goal... and partly out of my overweening need to add complexity to elegantly simple systems. Also it was something else I could do to put off actually launching the dang thing.

          So. It is live and I've announced it. If you know anybody who'd like to work on their poetry, send 'em on over.

          Sunday, August 2, 2009

          History of advertising class: seeking suggestions

          One night a week, I teach "History of Advertising" at CCAD, the Columbus College of Art and Design. It's a lot of fun, I enjoy it immensely, and I've been teaching the class pretty much the same way for about five years, now. I don't think there's anything wrong with the class... but anything can be improved. So I'm looking for suggestions.

          Currently, the students read, "Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes: A History of Advertising in America," which is a pretty good book. It does very well with the time period between the Civil War and around 1980. After that... it gets a bit fuzzy, and I have to rely on my own deviousness for things, especially the Web stuff. The book was written in the late 90's, and so the Internet, while in there, is, well... different than it is now.

          They read the book, we do some in-class exercizes, they take a mid-term and final w/ questions from the text and then write an essay discussing a modern ad within the context of three or more concepts we've covered. That's the basics.

          This last semester, I had a student who suggested that the class could be more interactive, and could have more to do with the world they'll face once they graduate. My initial reaction was... OK. I can think about that, but...

          1. CCAD students are often quiet, introspective and hard to get engaged. Smart? Check. Talented? Check. Inclined to participate in class discussions and activities? Not so much. Now... a good teacher with enough enthusiasm and good material can, I believe, get any class to do just about anything. So while this isn't a hard-stop barrier... it is on my mind. We only have one night a week. The time it might take to get things "interactive" might take away from ths stuff we have to learn, which brings us to....

          2. It's a history class. There are certainly concepts that we cover and discuss that are applicable to the lives/careers of modern designers. And we go into them, in some cases, in some good depth: the role of sex and sexuality in advertising; how hard-sell and soft-sell techniques differ and when they are each best used; issues of age, gender and ethnicity in advertising; the role of cultural change in what is considered "cool." All kinds of stuff. But the main gist of the class is to provide a window on the past... if it also reflect a bit of light from the future, OK. And I certainly bring (maybe too many) anecdotes of "life in the industry" to the class, too.

          Neither of these are insurmountable, as I say. Just things that are on my mind.

          With that background to guide you, O my gentle readers... any suggestions on ways to improve the interactivity and/or real-life-itude of the class? All ideas welcome.

          Wednesday, June 17, 2009

          Our (possibly) scary future: two data points

          In my RSS reader today, I came across two (seemingly) unrelated posts that ended up colliding in my mind and making me feel, well... a bit troubled about certain aspects of our glorious, technofuture.

          The first is a video, "What is a browser," (by way of where a guy from Google asks if people know what a browser is. At the end of the day, 8% did. [As an aside, I wonder what the percentage of people who know what a carburetor, the ground wire, pasteurization, the Fifth Amendment, the treble clef and oxidation are.]

          The second was a post at ArsTechnica about the re-trial a woman being charged with file sharing. I don't know much about the case. But what struck me about the defendant's testimony was that she had very poor recollection of what she did to/with her computer, when, what caused certain issues, when she was contacted by various organizations and law firms, and -- in general -- lots of stuff connected with her case.

          What struck me was not that she had uncertain and (in some cases) conflicting memories of all that stuff. What struck me -- especially in light of the browser Q&A video -- was the realization that *nobody* could ever have really adequate knowledge of what went on with their computer several years ago.

          Our computers -- and especially the Internet -- have become appliances. We use them every day for a variety of things. And we, mostly, don't understand them. 92% of us don't know what a browser is. That's OK... I'm not claiming super-genius status because I do; it's related to my job, and I'm a huge techno/computer geek. I don't really know what a carburetor is, yet I use one (I think) every day in my car. I'm not pointing blame or recommending that people "shape up" and learn about their computers. They don't need to, often don't want to, and shouldn't have to.

          But imagine somebody asking you, "What did you buy at the grocery store three years ago?" Or, even better, "What items did you launder together on June 19, 2008?"

          The defendant's testimony is confused and contradictory? Hell, my memory of what I did *last month* would be confused if you asked me a year from now, and then again a year after that. If you went back and looked at my credit card receipts or phone bill or invoices from a certain company, you'd have a *way* better picture of what I did (relative to those areas) than I do.

          We simply don't document our lives. And we're living more of them on the Web. A place that, in some cases, provides a scary level of fingerprint evidence of our behavior, much of which is beyond our understanding.

          Did you dowload XYZ on a certain day? Did your friend send you an email with an attachment? Did you back-up files from your iPod onto a hard-drive and then switch to a non-Apple MP3 player? Were you aware that the EULA didn't allow you to have files on more than one computer? Etc. Etc.

          Our tools aren't smarter than we are. But they do have better memory.

          Sunday, June 14, 2009

          The path of success is paved with failure

          Will Wright is, I think, one of the most important and visionary designers in the video game industry. Years ago, he basically invented the "Sim" genre with the creation of SimCity and, eventually, The Sims, two of the most popular franchises in history. Most recently, he's published "Spore," which, while not as successful as the others is, in some ways, equally important. Or will be, I think, when we go back and look at the history of games in another couple years.

          The NYT has a nice interview with Will. Read the whole thing, as he's an interesting and well-spoken guy. The part that I enjoyed the most was where he discussed failure:

          When I’m managing creative people, the way they relate to failure is very important. Because there are certain types of failure that you really want to celebrate. I personally learned a lot more from my failures than from my successes. And if you look at it that way, then all my failures, you know, in some sense brought me to my larger successes, because I recognized why I failed, and I learned from it. And so, at that point, you can even argue that it’s not a failure. It’s part of your learning process.

          And so, even with interns, it’s kind of interesting to see how they relate to failure. Does it motivate them, do they go a different direction, do they give up or do they learn from it and get some insight and add it as part of their tool chest? In some sense it is an award that they’ve earned.

          This parallels a very basic belief of mine that I try to model for myself, and encourage in any team I manage, and in my students. The way I put it, in short, is a simpe, zen-like statement:

          The path of success is paved with failure.

          Note: not the path "to" success. Success is a path, a journey, not a destination. And, in some senses, the definition of any path is what "paves" it. We talk about dirt roads, cobblestone streets, paved highways. What is a path except that which we utilize to differentiate it from the "stuff" on either side?

          Which begs the question... if success is paved with failure, is it possible to fail and not move towards success? I would say, "Hell, yes." A path has a direction and purpose. The act of paving it defines it. So while a particular failure may look the same when reviewed as a stone on the path or a stone in the field nearby, it is differentiated by being placed, in context, with others.

          This closely relates to the concept of "The Beginner's Mind," which states that a person who knows they know nothing, that they are a beginner, is going to learn much more than someone who thinks themselves an expert. It also describes a state of mind where one is comfortable being ignorant and making mistakes. Not because we don't care about doing well, but because we understand that to improve, it is necessary to recognize our current limitations. If you think you know something, you don't try to learn it. If you believe you've reached the end of the path, any stones you find will be litter for the roadside rather than building blocks for the future.

          The line in Wright's interview that struck me the most was that failure becomes "an award that [interns] have earned." That's exactly right. Creative people need to be given opportunities to screw up without fear that the failure will be regarded as a loss. You will never go beyond where you are now, never experience glorious, new, surprising results if you expect the work of your creative team to succeed based on your current definitions.

          Often times, in the teams I've managed, we create this situation by coming up with multiple design drafts for a particular project. Three seems to be the magic number. There's usually the "safe" design, which is what you'd do if you had to whip something out quickly that you know won't be vetoed by anyone. Then there's usually a more "high concept" version, and a more "down and dirty" version, both of which accomplish the goals, but with different and (usually) riskier design and/or copy elements. It's a good exercise.

          The best creative folks I've worked with (and that includes my current situation) never resent the time taken to come up with the "alternative design drafts." It helps us think. It helps us grow. It gives our internal customers options, and it encourages everyone to think about the process of creativity as a process, not and endpoint.

          Kudos to Will for bringing it up and supporting the idea.

          Saturday, June 13, 2009

          For a brief, shimmering moment... we're spam free

          After my recent WordPress kerfuffle, my old spam filtering plugin went away for a few days. During four days' time, I received almost 300 spam comments/trackbacks on the blog. Fun!

          I got the blog fixed (for the moment), got rid of the new spam, and went back and cleaned out about 1,200 old comment/trackback spams that had been sitting around on various pages, just waiting for me to get around to yanking them.

          In doing so, I crawled through the all the legit comments I've had over the past (almost) four years here. It was a fun hike through virtual memory lane. Some of the posts were related to timely issues, so they were nice snapshots of something linked to a particular date. Some of the comments were about posts where I tried to flesh out thoughts and ideas, and it was nice to be reminded of a state-of-mind that, in some cases, I have now changed. Polaroids of my younger brain. Neat.

          I set a goal, about a month ago, to try to blog at least once a day. That didn't happen. I did blog more... but some days, when you add "tired from work," "stuff to do at home" and "not really turned on by any random concepts," you get no postings.

          I also blame Twitter. I've been tweeting both as myself and for work (@OCLC), and something about that process feels enough like blogging to kind of scratch that itch.

          I've also been entertaining dark thoughts of dumping this blog entirely. It serves as an interesting vent for me... but I see less and less personal blogging out there these days, possibly because of said Twitterishness + Facebooking. The blogs I read tend to be more professional (BoingBoing) or comic (DinosaurComics) or related to specific topics (TechCrunch).

          Going through the comments, though, made me feel like the endeavor as a whole still has value. So I'll keep it up, even if I'm not being as profound as often as I'd like (to think).

          Tuesday, June 9, 2009

          Here is why, eventually, Microsoft is doomed

          Yesterday, I discovered the lovely new "not-a-dictionary" word site, Wordnik. Simpy delightful for a verbaphile such as myself. Now, I use the drop-down search engine thingy that comes with Firefox. You know... that little box in the upper right where you can add all kinds of search engine type sites and then choose from the drop-down to search many, many services. I have more than too many on mine. Examples include IMDB, RhymeZone, WorldCat, YouTube, Metacritic and about 10 more. I thought it would be nice to add Wordnik, so I went to the drop-down to choose the "manage search engines" option at the bottom.

          Well, lo-and-behold, "Add Wordnik" was available as an option, too! Somehow, Firefox "knew" that I was on a site that had a search engine option that would work with their wee little drop-down, and Wordnik had done whatever it needed to -- on its first day of live service -- to make that happen. I'd never seen it as an option before, and was quite pleased. It saved me from having to go to the Mozilla site and search/add the option. Not a big deal, but I was pleasantly surprised at not having to go through the bother.

          So... today I decide to try out Microsoft's new search enging, Bing. I go to the site and play around. OK... it's nice. Kinda different than Google. Not sure if better or worse. Will use a bit more then decide. So, remembering my Wordnik experience, I think, "Hey! I bet there's an auto-add option for Bing in that drop-down thing."


          Tiny little start up? Day one of operation? Pass.

          World's largest software company? Been doing this for decades? Fail.

          I now believe Microsoft is doomed. Tiny markers in the stream, my friends. Tiny markers...

          Sunday, June 7, 2009

          Once again, WordPress has borked

          In the words of Tina Fey, "What the what?!"

          The good news is I'm getting much better at completely tearing down WordPress and putting it back in again. Bad news is that "better" still means 2 hours of funnin' around. For a blog that's almost entirely something lower than "hobby" on my scale of importance, yet higher than, "whim," that's a bit much.

          I am considering porting the blog, old posts and comments and all, to Google's Blogger platform. We'll see how that shite goes.


          Friday, May 22, 2009

          Another good reason to stop drinking Cola

          I stopped drinking carbonated stuff about five years ago. I'd suffered, for the previous six years or so, from intermittent bouts of terrible stomach problems that were diagnosed as either "irritable bowel syndrome" or "colitis." Either way, waking up at 3am with cramps bad enough to keep you on the floor isn't fun. When I stopped drinking pop, the episodes lessened in both frequency and severity to the point that they really don't bother me at all anymore. Once in awhile, a little tummy-ache, as opposed to 6-12 hours of incredible pain.

          I'm pretty sure it was the pop. Maybe not as a single cause, but certainly as an exacerbating factor. I've never had such direct, fast results from one diet change. At first I only stopped drinking Cola, and kept on with stuff like Ginger Ale from time-to-time... but any of it tended to ramp up the digestive discomfort.

          Now word comes from the International Journal of Clinical Practice that Cola can cause muscle problems:

          We are consuming more soft drinks than ever before and a number of health issues have already been identified including tooth problems, bone demineralisation and the development of metabolic syndrome and diabetes” says Dr Moses Elisaf from the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Ioannina, Greece.

          “Evidence is increasing to suggest that excessive cola consumption can also lead to hypokalaemia, in which the blood potassium levels fall, causing an adverse effect on vital muscle functions.

          I like the taste of many sodas. And I like the tingly feeling. It just ain't worth the trouble, though.