Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Beatles, Dancing, and Elegance

Beginners in the martial arts often have kung-fu movies as their ideal. They expect lots of jumping and leaping and spinning; wide kicks; large, flashy attacks and blocks. In many styles, especially at the beginning, students learn a lot of that kind of thing. But eventually they start watching the experts at work. And they notice that the true masters don't really do any of that in practice. In fact, students fairly quickly start to notice that the better the practitioner, the smaller and more subtle the movements. The very best work in such subtle ways that outsiders don't really even see what they're doing. But it's much more effective than the spinning kicks of the beginner, and knowledgeable observers can easily recognize the elegance and simplicity of a master. The leaping and jumping look great from a distance, but they're not effective for actual combat. In the fighting arts, ornamentation is generally regarded as impractical and a sign of inexperience.

Ornamentation tends to be clumsy, the work of amateurs. It's true in almost any field of endeavor. In writing it's called "purple prose", and is generally regarded as the province of hacks and beginners. In music it's called "overproduction", and is considered the work of producers who don't know exactly what they're looking for -- or who think that a hundred tracks of drum-machine effects and electronica will balance out bad singing and poor songwriting. In software design, ornamentation gives you Clippy. Ornamentation is also relatively easy to do. I notice this every time I bake cookies with my nephew and niece, ages five and three. My sister Cindy and I make the dough and form the cookies, and Alex and Amelia do the decorating. The sprinkles and sugar on top are easy to do -- and also easy to overdo. We, the grown-ups, have figured out that a tiny sprinkling of sugar improves the cookie, but that a pile of sugar is worse than none at all. The kids, amateurs at everything, haven't figured this out yet and pile on the jimmies.

Elegant simplicity demands a lot more art. Go to a nice restaurant and see how your expensive meal is presented. The chef arranges your food in a pleasing way, and also (usually) a simple way. It would require no artistry to throw your food on a plate and heap it with garnishes; twisted lemons and parsley and carrot shavings mounded on your food would seem awkwardly done compared to the work of an expert chef. And it would also distract from the meal.

I was thinking about elegance versus ornamentation after watching Dance Kaleidoscope's Beatles show last night. I would love to write a comprehensive review of the show, but I really can't. Imagine that I were to show you a video of a car wreck. Then I turn off the video and ask you to describe the people waiting at the bus stop in the background. You probably couldn't; the crash would likely be all you would remember from the video. That's what the Dance Kaleidoscope show was last night, and the costumes were the car wreck. Most of the show was essentially a costume parade, with the dancers taking a back seat to the garish, wildly-ornamented clothing they wore. There might have been some gorgeous choreography, some graceful and powerful movement, but for the most part I really couldn't tell; the costumes were often bulky and overdecorated to the extent that you couldn't get a clear sense of the movement going on under them. Costuming is supposed to be part of the music/movement/choreography/lighting/costume synergy that makes a show greater than its parts. Last night's show had no synergy -- the show was exactly as bad as the sum of the costumes, which overwhelmed everything else on stage.

I think Laura did a good job lighting the show; she did some interesting things with her moving lights, and if there were an awards category for Best Use Of Templates, she'd win it easily. And I also quite enjoyed the last half of the second act. The costumes were much simpler and prettier and actually allowed the audience to see the dancing, and the music went well with the movement and the lighting. It was a bit of a thematic break from the rest of the show, in terms of choreography as well as costuming and lighting, and it gave the dancers a chance to be elegant and beautiful. It lacked the drug-induced trippiness of the first half of act two, which is a good thing. And, not surprisingly, these were the costumes donated by a sponsor, not made by the costume designer.

The show had a number of low moments. Maybe the worst was the hideous white dress at the end of act one. After the show Laura told me which dancer was in it; I wouldn't have known otherwise. I also spent a chunk of the first act hoping certain dancers wouldn't trip on some of the billowy/dangly bits on their costumes. It made me wonder if the choreography had to change so the dancers wouldn't be actively endangered by their costumes. And I was trying to picture the design aesthetic that would let someone look at a costume and say, "Do you know what this really needs? A hundred fifty feet of fluorescent-colored feather boas!" The end result didn't look good.

It also didn't help that I don't appreciate most of the music. I consider the Beatles to be perhaps the most overrated band in history. Not bad, necessarily, just overrated. They were a mountain of hype and fame and personality with some music sprinkled in, and it let them get away with a lot. Hell, Yoko Ono managed to sell millions of records largely because of her Beatles cachet -- and it's generally accepted that her music is pretty bad.

And I think that the aspect of the show that's most irritating is that I'm sure the costumes will get an inordinate amount of positive attention. They're garish and overdecorated and all about the ornamentation, and I'm sure people will love them. They're probably the same people who bury their cookies under a mound of chocolate sprinkles.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Cats and Entropy

I've noticed a definite progression. Or, actually, two alternate progressions. They are:
Small things=>cat toys=>basement corners
and
Small things=>cat toys=>air return ducts
This observation is incontrovertible. It's even supported by physics, in that cats are an acknowledged entropic energy transfer system. They move things around, but it's almost always from a state of higher energy (like, say, "upstairs" or "on the countertop") to a state of lower energy ("the basement" or "the floor"). Occasionally a cat may move something (like, say, "my wife") from a state of lower energy ("sleeping") to a state of higher energy ("bounding awake with a screech"), but this is thankfully a rarity.

Our cat Emmett has been chasing things downstairs since she came inside; any time we can't find something small and round (a roll of surgical tape, a 1/4" stereo plug, plumbing parts, or whatever), we look on the floor in the basement. The most recent iteration of this has been the 3-D tic-tac-toe game I got for Christmas three years ago. The playing pieces consist of smallish wooden X shapes and similarly-sized wooden balls, drilled with holes to fit over the pegs on the game board. Emmett has figured out how to flip the pieces off of the pegs; the Xs stay on the floor, but she has much fun chasing the O's around. They eventually work their way to the stairs, which she chases them down. And from there they end up in the air-return duct in the entryway or even all the way down the steps into the basement. All the game pieces disappear over the course of two weeks or so, at which time I round them up from their hiding places and play a few rounds of the game. So far I've only lost one piece; I can't tell if it disappeared into the furnace or if it's in some cranny in the basement. I'm sure it'll turn up in our next intensive round of housecleaning, sometime in 2009.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What's professional?

Laura has been experiencing trauma for the last few weeks at the hands of the costume designer for the most recent Dance Kaleidoscope show. The company hired a designer to design and build the costumes for their Beatles show, and he's been much trouble. The biggest problem is that he's late; they open tonight, and the costumes aren't expected to be ready until... wait for it... Tomorrow! And, apparently they knew before they hired him that he's got a reputation for extreme lateness. Laura had to have her light plot to the theater's master electrician by last Monday, and they hung and focused this Monday. When the swatch board for the costumes showed up at the theater on Tuesday, it was officially too late for her to make any changes. And, it was only the swatch board for one act of the two-act show. She usually writes the cues for the show the week before, but you really can't do lighting until you've seen the costumes -- which, coupled with the fact that she's only got three hours on stage with dancers before they have an audience, is pushing her stress level over the top. I've never seen her this stressed over a show before.

And he's radically over budget -- which is impressive, given that two sets of costumes were apparently donated at no cost to the company. Best, his costumes have a reputation for being hard to dance in; I heard one former DK dancer describe the problems they had with the last show he designed for him, and it wasn't pretty. And, my favorite: when the choreographer/artistic director saw that one of the costumes was pretty undanceable and requested that the costumer remove the dangly bits (I should mention that directors are allowed and expected to ask for changes; it's in their job description), the costumer threw a half-hour hissy fit including a rant about how unprofessional it was, and a phrase that sounded a lot like: "This is what I get for working in Indiana, where they don't appreciate my art!" Let's see: he's late, over budget, prone to tirades, and his costumes are hard to dance in. He might be the last person who can legitimately call anyone else unprofessional.

And, personally, I hope he never decides to work in Indiana again. Or, at least not with DK; I don't want to watch Laura go though all the stress and trauma he's put her through. I actually like the guy, personally. But I think that the world would be a better place if nobody ever hired twitchy, unprofessional, temperamental designers. Let them learn the same set of professional skills as everyone else is expected to have. I'm tired of Art being used as an excuse for all kinds of unprofessional bullshit. It's a little embarrassing to be in an industry in which standards of professionalism are lower than they are for Taco Bell managers, any of whom would be fired for consistent tardiness, financial mismanagement, or whining tirades against the guy who hired him.

The thing I don't understand is that Laura doesn't seem to realize the source of all of her stress. I've been hearing her talk about the progress of the show for weeks now, and I've managed to synthesize the fact that the costume designer is responsible for all of her problems. Whenever I mention this blazingly obvious fact to her, she doesn't believe it. She defends him: he does beautiful work, he's an Artist and can't be expected to conform to silly societal norms like timeliness or budgets, his costumes are gorgeous and exciting, maybe it's her, et cetera. She has completely rationalized away the source of her problems because she likes his work so much.

I'm going to see the show tomorrow, so I'll see (hopefully) the finished costumes. All I can say is, they had better be fucking gorgeous. I'll let you know.

In the zone / in a trance

I've noticed for a while that when someone watches television, they're in an altered state of mind. It's almost a trance; the viewer has a sort of slackness to them, a glazed look. People are also in an altered state when they read, but it's not the television trance -- it's a state of concentration. They look intent and focused, instead of slack and unfocused. I've been paying attention for a while, and I've also noticed that people surfing the 'net have the glazed look of passive entertainment, rather than the focused look of active entertainment. And, I've also noticed that gamers have the focused look. I would accept as an axiom that reading is better for your brain than watching television; I wonder if gaming is better for you than surfing. It definitely requires more focus.

I haven't watched enough to discern different kinds of surfing -- I would guess that reading text online is pretty closely related to reading text in a book, but Farking or surfing your friends' MySpace pages is more akin to watching television.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Postman dreaming

I had a scary dream last night. Not really a nightmare, more of a horror-oriented action/adventure dream. Chthonic creatures, macabre settings, the works. But I noticed that in the dream, whenever something scary was about to happen, I'd hear "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes playing on a tinny radio in the background. The phenomenon of an oldies song presaging something horrific appears in movies often enough that it's a clich├ę, and a number of films make use of songs inherently creepier than "Mr. Postman". I'm specifically thinking of Final Destination 3, in which The Lettermen's "Turn Around, Look At Me" ("there is someone, walking behind you...") plays when creepy things are about to happen.

What I'm unsure about is this: which came first? Did this happen in my dream because I've seen too many movies, or does this happen in movies because our brains are hardwired to associate music with emotions? That is, did they start using music to presage danger in movies because we already do this in our dreams?

Any thoughts?

My wife, all famous!

Laura's in the Indianapolis Star this morning! They have an entire article about her. Read it! NOW!

I should mention that in the last seven or eight years, she's been the subject of THREE feature articles in the paper. Is she cool or what?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Like a Twit.

So, I signed up for Twitter. I have no idea how often I'll update. Possibly more often than I update here, but given my recent record that won't be difficult. I like the idea. I just posted two entries. The first said, "I just signed up for Twitter." The second, a minute later, says, "Now I have to do actual work. Yeeha."

I was bored, yeah.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Electronic drums

We had a decent jazz band today at the Artsgarden. My only little quibble: the percussionist showed up with an electronic drum kit. Not a drum machine, thankfully, but an electronic drum kit -- little rubberized pads and mechanized foot pedals instead of actual cymbals and drums. Seeing one of these monstrosities is usually a bad omen; as a rule, professionals don't play electronic drum kits. And, as a rule, serious experts are usually pretty snarky about people who do play electronic drums. My worries were mostly unfounded; this drummer was pretty good. And, as a sound guy who works in a big glass room, there's a certain satisfaction in being able to say, "Hey, turn the drums down a little."

But you can definitely tell from the sound that they're electronic drums. Any sound guy (or, I suspect, any musician) can listen to a few seconds of a recording and recognize electronic drums. They just sound wrong. The more I thought about it, though, I can't think of a reason why. They've got electronic drum heads that can tell where and how hard you're hitting; it knows a rim shot from a rim tap, and some can even tell if you're using brushes or sticks. The sample collection in the controller is impressive, the software is fast and responsive with close to zero latency, and the processing is all digital. There's no reason why electronic drums shouldn't sound identical to real drums; why don't they?

One of my favorite drummers in town absolutely despises electronic drums. He considers them an affront to nature, and is happy to expound at length on his reasons. Then again, he also gets huffy if you use the term, "kick drum". He'll correct you: "There's no such thing as a 'kick drum'. This is a bass drum. You don't kick it." The first time he said this, I accepted it as a minor musician quirk. But after I had done a few shows with the guy and he still felt the need to correct me, I responded: "Okay, let me explain the concept of metaphorical language." He took it well and thought it was funny, which is good. I meant it to be funny. I also meant it to have overtones of, "You pedantic prick, get over yourself." He missed those, which is good; he's actually a pretty nice guy. and an excellent drummer.

And, on a totally unrelated note, here's some of the best comic use of language I've seen in a while. Discussing the XBox 360 "elite" model, Tycho at Penny arcade said: "They chose not to incorporate the wi-fi adapter they currently sell as an add-on for a hundred bucks, and the reason for that is revealed earlier in this very sentence." That's clever. And, knowing M$oft, probably quite true.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bane of my existence (more specifically, the garden part of my existence)

It's officially Spring! Yee-ha! Warmer days, cooler evenings, flowers blooming, and the thousand little wonderful changes that always accompany this time of year. Unfortunately, it's also the time when a great evil begins to creep over the land, covering and corrupting all in its path. Strong men flee in terror, for none shall stand before the onslaught of: the Rose Of Sharon. Gaaah!

I infer from the fact that you can buy Evil Rose of Sharon at garden stores that some people actually consider them desirable plants. I can't fathom this -- it's like going shopping for poison ivy, or dandelions, or kudzu. And I can't imagine why anyone would need to buy one anyway; they grow like weeds and are impossible to get rid of. I especially can't understand why someone would buy more than one. Despite this, both of our neighbors have ERoS's growing along the fences that border our back yard. I'm assuming that they planted them in a flush of gardening hysteria years ago. They're otherwise nice people and good neighbors, and I can't imagine such decent people planting them in a lucid moment.

I started pulling out the ERoS's yesterday after work, and I spent half an hour at it. I spent another fifteen or twenty minutes today, and so far I've managed to fill a 50-gallon trash can with the pernicious plants. They grow fast, and they grow roots as fast as they grow above the ground. Depending on the soil and the roots, they're essentially impossible to pull once they're about three feet tall, and they become strenuous at a height of about 18". I'm planning on keeping up with them this year, getting them while they're small, so I don't have to strain myself ripping them out of the ground. Then again, I was also planning on keeping up with them last year -- and that didn't work out so well.

Our backyard ERoS collection is a living example of natural selection. When I first started pulling them up, shortly after we started our garden, they all had long, slender taproots. Very rarely, we'd find one with more branching roots. The taproots tend to pull neatly out of the ground, but the branching, fibrous roots grab the earth better. These plants break off above the root when you try to pull them out, and a new stem grows out of the same root. Over time, the number of plants with fibrous roots has increased; currently, about half of our ERoS seedlings have fibrous roots, up from less than one percent five years ago. The environment changed (i.e., I showed up and started weeding), and the plants better adapted to the new environment thrived.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Reading the book first

Think about this for a second -- have you ever read a book without reading the back cover first? It's something everyone does, like test-driving a car before you buy it. Even if it's a book I know I'm going to read (the latest book in a series I enjoy, maybe), I always read the cover blurb first. The book cover is the literary equivalent of a movie trailer; it lets you know the type of book you're about to read (in terms of genre and setting), it establishes who the main characters are, and it gives you the central thrust of the plot.

It also gives you a whole pile of preconceived notions about the book, some of which might not be accurate or might interfere with the storytelling. As an example, many mystery novels begin with a murder. And you generally know it; you know who your main character is because you read the back of the book, so when you see someone thrown overboard from a cruise ship on the first page, you're assuming you're seeing the crime that starts the story. Wouldn't it be fun and surprising to discover a few pages in that the "victim" didn't die, and is actually the main character? This is the premise of Carl Hiaasen's recent novel Skinny Dip. It was a good read, but it might have been more fun if I didn't know from the back cover that the murder on the first page was only an attempted murder.

I'm thinking about book covers because I'm trying to make a point of not reading them. I've recently read some good books in e-book format. They arrive in my inbox as text, complete with no cover information of any kind -- no plot summary, no artist's conception of the main character, just a recommendation from a friend. It's a different experience, diving into a book about which I know nothing. I get to discover everything as I read, and it's been a lot of fun. The e-book I just finished (third in a series) introduces an important secondary character. We don't find out whether he's a good guy or a bad guy until probably two-thirds of the way through the book -- and you're not really 100% certain whose side he's on until the end. After I finished the e-book I picked up a hard copy at Borders. I was a little disappointed to see the character described on the back cover as the "new sidekick"; I'm glad I skipped the cover text until I finished the book.

One of the books I'm reading now* is Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a work from the Speculative Fiction ├╝bergenre. I picked up the book because I've read her blog and enjoyed it; I'm curious how she writes fiction, since she blogs well and interestingly (answer: she writes very well, so far!). The story revolves around a mystery. I'm just over halfway through, and I've been picking up bits of the mystery for the entire novel so far. I have no idea what's going to happen, though, because I went out of my way to not read the back cover. When I finish the book, I'll have to read the blurbage to see how much it gives away. I suspect a lot; all it would take is one well-crafted back-cover sentence to damage the suspense of the first hundred pages. I know back-cover verbiage is important to sell books, just like movie trailers are important to sell movies. But I wish there were some way to get around the system. Other than just not reading the covers, that is.

If I ever invent a time-travel system, the first sign will be when a future version of me drops in with a pile of movies on unlabeled DVDs and books with the back covers removed and says, "you'll enjoy these, trust me." This would be the perfect system, not counting the potential for paradox.

*I'm generally in the middle of several books at once: usually, at the bare minimum I'm reading a work of fiction in print, a work of non-fiction in print, something inspirational (for wildly divergent values of "inspirational"), and an e-book.

Update, 6pm

I finished Four and Twenty Blackbirds. The blurbage wasn't awful, but sure enough, something referenced on the back cover doesn't even happen until two-thirds of the way through the book. Better, something mentioned on the back cover doesn't actually happen in the book at all....

And, I enjoyed the book. The writing is excellent, and Cherie Priest can turn a beautiful phrase. I like the main character, and I'm highly curious to read the next in the trilogy. I just placed it on hold at the library.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Legislators: occasionally funny.

Minnesota is in the process of approving the position of Poet Laurate for the state. Indiana has one, a lot of other states do as well, and I'm glad to see another state officially announce support for poetry. And, since somebody in the lege apparently has a sense of humor, the bill was written in rhyming verse. In part, it reads:
The poet will be free to write rhyming lines,
With removal only for cause,
But we trust that the bard will promptly resign
If the verse reads as badly as laws.
At first, I didn't believe this was legitimate. But, since I found it on the Minnesota House's own webpage, I believe it.

The milk scared me

I just opened a carton of milk and noticed that the expiration date is April 15 -- TAX DAY. Gaaah! It's sneaking up on me! Apparently, pretty much everyone else in the universe doesn't mind tax day, despite ten thousand snarky jokes about it. I have noticed that most people fill their taxes out early so they can get their refund. This would not be us. We generally owe a pile of cash to various state, federal, and local revenue-collecting agencies. The biggest reason is that Laura and I both work a lot of jobs that don't take taxes out. We owe income tax, and we also owe around 15% of our not-yet-taxed income in social security tax.

Another reason we owe a huge chunk of cash is that tax withholding, at least in practice, seems to be oriented around the assumption that you only work one job. Your employer withholds a certain amount of your pay and sends it to the government to pay your taxes. But they base the amount of the withholding on an amount slightly less than you earn (or on a slightly lower tax rate than you'll pay; I don't know which). There's nothing wrong with this; it's all done in accordance with IRS guidelines. This keeps the employer from overpaying too much, and the IRS from owing you too large of a return; they assume, correctly, that you'll get a standard or itemized deduction. But if you work lots of jobs, this works against you; all of your employers do this, and you end up having taxes withheld on an amount significantly less than you actually earned.

Tax time tends to hit us pretty hard. We make okay money, but we're bad about saving it for taxes. That is, if we have some extra cash we're more likely to use it to pay off a high-interest credit card than to save it. Our saving grace is that Laura tends to make pretty good money around tax time. But the trade-off is that she's working a lot; her next day off isn't until April, and when it comes she'll be able to say that it's her third day off in nine weeks. Ouch.

I should mention that Laura does our taxes every year. The general arrangement is that she handles our finances, and I handle the housework (vacuuming, dishes, laundry, kitty boxes, home repairs, etc). I suspect she's better at it than I would be. And I'm a lot more Type A about laundry than she is. It's a good arrangement.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A new way to spend my time

MIT is now offering their entire course catalog online, through an OpenCourseWare system. You can now download all the material for all of their courses, or at least everything that's available online for their students. I'm highly impressed; MIT was my (unfortunately too expensive) first choice for college, and I'm looking forward to auditing some of their classes online. It might help counteract the pervasive sense that my brain is shrinking from disuse as I get older. I'm already looking at some highly nerdy courses.

On the other hand, I don't know how spectacular MIT's courses actually are. The thing that most impressed me when I was hunting colleges was their student body. I was reasonably sure I'd get a good education at Purdue (where I was offered not only education, but also good scholarships), but I was really interested in my potential peer group at MIT. And the academic cousework in my original majors (a triple, Chem, Math, Physics; once you're getting a dual degree in Chem and Physics, it's only a few more classes to add a math major) is second to none at MIT. Of course, I eventually graduated from IuPuI with an English degree. Meh.

The other cool thing about MIT was the reputation, the panache of being an MIT student. In addition to the enormous amount of coolness points you receive for being an MIT student, I suspect an MIT degree simplifies your job search, or at least moreso than a Purdue degree. It's been my practical experience that having a college degree was nice for a lot of the jobs I've held, in that it made me look good on paper. But I've never actually had a job that directly required anything I learned in college. Then again, I'm a theater techie with a liberal arts degree. If I were an engineer with an engineering degree it'd be a different story.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Electric Kitty

One of the few things I miss about winter is Kitty Electricity. Three of our four indoor cats have lots of hair. And if you pet them in the dark, you can actually see the crackle of static electricity in their fur. Most fun is Emmett, whose fur is mostly white; it shows the tiny blue sparks better than our black cat or our random-earth-tones cat. I spent a few minutes in the early morning hours petting Emmett, enjoying the light show and the purring kitty, and was faintly disappointed when the weather report on the radio said we might have had our last cold day of the season.

So, bottom line: I'm easily entertained. But we knew that.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

il Troubadore -- They rock (in a 16th-Century way)

Today at the Artsgarden we've got a performance by il Troubadore (Indy's Best 16th-Century Rock Band). Robert Bruce Scott plays mandolin, John Silpayamanant plays cello, and they both sing. And they're really good. Eclectic and a little strange, but definitely fun to listen to and watch. And, most importantly for me, they're good to work with, professional and easygoing. Their repertoire is exceedingly eclectic: Celtic folk songs, original music, traditional Turkish, Italian, and French tunes, and a few modern songs. The modern songs include "Mr. Roboto", "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown", "Crazy Train", "Free Bird", "Mystify" (INXS), "Ring of Fire", and "Wildfire". Did I mention all of the eclectic? And their original music is great. Check out their MySpace page, and listen to a few of their songs. I'd highly recommend catching them live if you ever get a chance.

The quote of the day, from Robert Bruce Scott: "Most traditional Scottish songs follow the theme of, 'they did us wrong, let's kill them all!'. I went looking for a traditional Scottish love song, and I found a note that said, 'See Ireland'."

And, an observation: I never guessed that Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" would sound so good on a mandolin and cello!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

(Molotov) cocktail party?

This week at the Artsgarden, we had a visit from the Department of Homeland Security and the fire marshal. I wasn't there, but the maintenance guys who always tag along with the fire marshal told me all about it. The DHS guy wanted us to make a change. Ready for this? Here goes.

We have big, heavy metal benches around the Artsgarden, including some near the tops of the balcony stairs. The Homeland Security guy said we had to remove those benches; he said that someone could move them to barricade the stairs, then stand on the balcony throwing Molotov cocktails into the crowd below. This wasn't a suggestion, it's a requirement.

A few things to note about this. First, the fire marshal is maybe the only person in government service with no oversight. There is literally no process I'm aware of to challenge his judgment. Homeland Security is another matter; if he wants to require that you do something, that involves paperwork and can (at least theoretically) be challenged in court. But if he makes a "recommendation", and the fire marshal is the one to tell you about it, it's absolute. Sneaky, ethically borderline, and probably completely legal.

Second, is this really the kind of thing that the DHS is concerned with? I can't believe that they're devoting effort to this kind of recommendations. Aren't there ports they could be securing or airline passengers they can be pissing off? More importantly, it's a pretty dumb recommendation. It works under the incredibly flawed assumption that they can protect us from lunatics who want to kill a few people in a very specific place. It might be a scary thought for some people, but there is no systemic way to protect people from random shootings or other acts of unfocused violence. Moving benches and wrapping good sniping locations in barbed wire won't make any difference.

I can think of two explanations for Homeland Security concerning themselves with such things, and neither is very reassuring. The first is that they actually believe they can prevent intentional violence by bottling up every possible avenue of attack. I would hope that people higher up the chain of command would know better -- but with this administration, I'm making no assumptions. The second possibility is that they know what they're doing won't make any difference, but they're doing it anyway. Either they're playing the political game of looking busy, or they're going through the motions just to give people a false sense of security. Neither of these two options helps me sleep any better.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Me? Organized?

I'm noticing that some of the advice in Getting Things Done isn't really of much help to me, in terms of getting my physical space organized. He has some great ideas for reducing the mountain of paper, putting it in its proper and practical place. And I'm sure it works for most management-oriented people. That's because David Allen is assuming that most clutter is paper-based. That's not really true for me (or for most techies, I would imagine). Here's a picture of Problem Area #1:


As you can see, most of the clutter isn't paper-based. I've got tools, things to fix, things to listen to, more tools, cases of parts, spools of cable, and rock climbing gear (don't ask). And, true, some paper scattered in the middle. (Notice my new iMac -- cool!) It's this mountain of stuff that I'm having trouble coping with. The paper is just a matter of getting around to sorting and dealing with it; time-consuming, but not difficult. But all the pieces/parts and tools are more of a problem.

On the other hand, I'm enjoying a lot of the advice in GTD. I think it's actually helping me to organize my time (if not my workspace) better, and I like his ideas about processing projects in terms of next actions instead of the often-intimidating gestalt. It's less a book of specific advice on solving specific problems (though it does a fair amount of that), and more a philosophy, a way to approach time management, personal organization, and project management. And I do think it might help me get a better grip on what I'm doing and what I should be doing.

Am I fooling anyone?

Here I am, reading my new Scalzi book. Just remember:


You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop to a Coffee Shop.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

We Don't Spin.

Laura and I knit, and we have a lot of fun with it (even though I still haven't technically finished making my 2006 Christmas gifts, ahem). Some people who are particularly die-hard knitters also spin and dye their own yarn. Hand-knitted gift: cool. Hand-knitted gift made of homemade yarn: even cooler. We don't do this. Partially it's a matter of energy; we barely find time for knitting, and having to make yarn first wouldn't help. And mostly it's because we have cats. I spend a lot of time picking up cat hair, and I just know that if I had a spinning wheel at hand I'd be tempted to spin yarn out of the kitty fur I collect. There's a running joke about some of our cats shedding enough to make a whole new cat. If we had a spinning wheel, I would actually get to find out if this is true. So we're not going there.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Much Going On.

I'm on the hunt for an organizational system. I'd like to manage my time better; I've been noticing recently that I've spent a lot of time doing stuff, but not actually getting stuff accomplished. I don't know where my time has gone. It seems like I'm generally busy, and almost always doing something, but in retrospect I can't figure out what I've spent time on. I've barely played video games ( my typical time-killer) recently -- maybe an hour of Ghost Recon (the old Ghost Recon) in the past three or four weeks, and that's all. I haven't posted much here, I haven't done much writing, I'm behind with the laundry, and I haven't gotten as much reading done as I'd like. I really can't figure out where my time has gone. And it's irritating me.

With that in mind, I'm reading David Allen's Getting Things Done this week. I'm liking the book; he spends a lot of time talking in manager-speak, but that's his target market. He's got a better system than most I've seen. It looks like a little trouble to implement, but the theory is that it's time well-spent. He proposes that a lot of stress is generated by the constant mental barrage of things that need doing, and that by having a trusted system to get planning and scheduling out of your head (where it's mostly noise) and onto paper (where you can actually do something about them), you eliminate a lot of your stress. He talks intelligently about how to go about this organization, and how to plan projects for maximum effectiveness.

He's got a few things going for him. One is a huge online geek following. Another is that, unlike a lot of organization systems, he doesn't have a product he's selling you -- that is, the book and system isn't just a way to get you to buy a $300 day planner. It speaks well for the system that a lot of its proponents aren't managers -- they're techies. And something about a system whose chief tenet is "Write Everything Down" appeals to the writer in me. And I really like some of the toys people have thought up to go with the system. If I were slightly less attached to my Axim, the Hipster PDA (that's Parietal Disgorgement Aid) would be perfect for me; really, a stack of index cards is easier to use and more practical (and less prone to data crashes) than a traditional electronics-based PDA. On the down side I can't read books or play music on the Hipster, which is mostly what I use my handheld for anyway. And it's not actually true that you can't sync a stack of index cards with your computer; you just have to do it via typing, instead of cables or wireless.

This is less of an impediment than it sounds like, because at least you don't have the idea seated in your head that you should be able to just push a button and have your index cards sync. A lot of my computer-related frustration with the Mac Switch at work has been all about getting different things to talk to each other. Microsoft Entourage (the Mac Office version of Outlook) doesn't sync notes and task items with the Microsoft Exchange server; this is Dumb As Rocks, but true. My Windows Mobile-based handheld doesn't sync with Mac at all, unless I buy some software. And I can't get my handheld to sync with Google Calendar or any other convenient online manager; nor will these highly-efficient, anywhere-accessible online tools sync with Entourage or Outlook. So if I want my various electronica to talk to each other, the only way to really do it is via much complicated cutting and pasting of text. Just typing in a bunch of index cards is less trouble, and a lot less stress, than this.

Over the years I've read a few books from the Time Management section at the bookstore. I generally don't go in looking for a life-changing complete system to adopt; I usually look for a few points of philosophy or practical organization that lend themselves to my lifestyle and personal philosophy. I don't suspect that GTD will be any different, but it's a good read. And maybe it'll give me a few ideas about how to get a better handle on my time. But I have to admit that I'm somewhat tempted to just throw myself wholesale into this system and see what happens. The book itself isn't bad, but the enormous online community is pretty inspiring.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Blogging oddity

I just figured out that, between my intermittent blog posts at Laura's and my website and my more regular posts here, I've written over 400 blog entries in the past four years. And I've enjoyed all of it. It's a good way to get thoughts on paper, and it's also a good way to keep in touch with friends out of town. More importantly, it gives me something to do that feels like writing when I'm having trouble with actual writing.

I've noticed another advantage to writing things down here. They say that writing your thoughts down helps you clarify them, and this is definitely true. I'd go a step further and say that writing your thoughts down where other people can read them adds another level of clarity. Writing things down helps you organize your thoughts. Writing things down in public helps ensure that your organized thoughts are also coherent and logical. Or, failing that, embarrassing.

One odd side effect of blogging regularly is that your friends tend to have a pretty good idea of what's going on in your life. I've had the experience a few times recently of catching up with someone I haven't seen in a while, and finding that they knew all about what's been going on in my life -- it's all here. So they're stuck listening to me re-tell stories they already know. I don't like repeating the same stories over and over again. Actually, that's not true; I really enjoy repeating the same stories over and over again. I think I inherited the tendency from my grandpa. I dislike boring people to tears by repeating the same stories over and over again, though. And, repeating stories is in the nature of the world; I've only got so many good, funny personal moments. If I don't repeat, I'll end up telling long-winded stories about shopping for lumber or washing dishes. And nobody wants that.