Friday, November 03, 2006

Listen to Elvis and Bach. Unless

For the past few days I’ve been listening to The Writer’s Almanac — a five-minute, daily broadcast hosted by Garrison Keillor featuring a short bit of literary history and a poem. Because I often have trouble concentrating, I often read along as I listen. And lately, I have noticed some really beautiful lessons pulled from the difference between poetry that is read and poetry that is heard.

For instance, today’s poem is “How to Live” by Charles Harper Webb:

How to Live

“I don’t know how to live.”
–Sharon Olds

Eat lots of steak and salmon and Thai curry and mu shu
pork and fresh green beans and baked potatoes
and fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream.
Kick-box three days a week. Stay strong and lean.
Go fly-fishing every chance you get, with friends

who’ll teach you secrets of the stream. Play guitar
in a rock band. Read Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Kafka,
Shakespeare, Twain. Collect Uncle Scrooge comics.
See Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and everything Monty Python made.
Love freely. Treat ex-partners as kindly

as you can. Wish them as well as you’re able.
Snorkel with moray eels and yellow tangs. Watch
spinner dolphins earn their name as your panga slam-
bams over glittering seas. Try not to lie; it sours
the soul. But being a patsy sours it too. If you cause

a car wreck, and aren’t hurt, but someone is, apologize
silently. Learn from your mistake. Walk gratefully
away. Let your insurance handle it. Never drive drunk.
Don’t be a drunk, or any kind of “aholic.” It’s bad
English, and bad news. Don’t berate yourself. If you lose

a game or prize you’ve earned, remember the winners
history forgets. Remember them if you do win. Enjoy
success. Have kids if you want and can afford them,
but don’t make them your reason-to-be. Spare them that
misery. Take them to the beach. Mail order sea

monkeys once in your life. Give someone the full-on
ass-kicking he (or she) has earned. Keep a box turtle
in good heath for twenty years. If you get sick, don’t thrive
on suffering. There’s nothing noble about pain. Die
if you need to, the best way you can. (You define best.)

Go to church if it helps you. Grow tomatoes to put store-
bought in perspective. Listen to Elvis and Bach. Unless
you’re tone deaf, own Perlman’s “Meditation from Thais.”
Don’t look for hidden meanings in a cardinal’s song.
Don’t think TV characters talk to you; that’s crazy.

Don’t be too sane. Work hard. Loaf easily. Have good
friends, and be good to them. Be immoderate
in moderation. Spend little time anesthetized. Dive
the Great Barrier Reef. Don’t touch the coral. Watch
for sea snakes. Smile for the camera. Don’t say “Cheese.”

This poem is very authoritative, but avoids being patronizing through charm and wisdom. Hear it without reading it, though, and you miss a harsh written line like that one is the sixth stanza — “on suffering. There’s nothing noble about pain. Die.” — which is actually part of three separate sentences, but reads on the page like one of the aphorisms that make up the poem.

Read alone, that line would be curt and cruel (you can imagine a colon after, “on suffering” and the word “already” stuck at the end), but reintegrated back into poem, the line is a plea for appropriateness: suffering is a symptom, not a reason for living. And that is what the poem is about, anyway, a measured life where one extreme is tempered with the other: Elvis with Bach, eating vanilla ice cream with staying strong and lean. Work hard. Loaf easily.

Or this one, from October 16:

“Before I Was Born” by Linda S. Buckmaster

Before I Was Born

She waits
on the corner of Broad Street and
Oregon Ave., Benny Goodman’s clarinet
slipping out of the radio at Tony’s
each time a customer opens
the door. They go in
and out again, and still
he hasn’t come. Twenty past
seven and now they’ll never
make the show.
Streetlights blink on.
She bends to straighten
the seam of her stocking.
She doesn’t know that this
will be her life.

Line six — “the door. They go in” — reads like stage directions, but also an imagining (when “he” arrives, “they” will go into the show). Line twelve — “She bends to straighten” — uses opposites to mock the action; bending to straighten equals dressing up for no one.

And then the master, William Carlos Williams:


As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty

A poem that would be almost meaningless without line-breaks.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Top of the Heap

Someone is sketching me right now, while I work. He’s either sketching me, or the band behind me. Normally, it would be wise to assume that he’s sketching the band; they are far more interesting. However, two or three times I looked up and he was staring at me, and each time, he flashed a devilish grin and quickly looked away.

And now that I can see a bit of his sketch pad, I can tell I’m right: he finished the top of my forehead and it has my characteristic scowl I get while working, a muscular twitch often confused with deep thinking. Many have called it “the dead stare.”

No creative person wants to be the subject; that means someone else has a broader perspective. That’s why I’m writing about him while he’s drawing me. (I’m hoping that one of the dozens of people around with laptops has not noticed this silly game and one-upped the both of us).

Newspapers are like this, too. When a publication effectively and convincingly writes about media, it somehow transcends the muddle in the middle, and comes off as a journal of great authority.

Joan Didion, in The White Album, writes about this perspective while visiting Nancy Reagan at the California Governor’s Mansion. Several television crews keeps rearranging the former First Lady, asking her to fake nipping a bud for a better shot. Didion considers taking one step back, and writing about the whole process, rather than just Nancy Reagan and her flower bed.

In 1999, Frank Rich wrote a long, lead story for The New York Times Magazine — American Pseudo — going behind-the-scenes of The Talented Mr. Ripley for an article about identity. A few years later, The New Yorker published a long piece on a Hollywood power agent, and casually mentioned how the Rich piece came to be, as well as the terms of the agreement.

(Woe that my books are all in boxes, or surely I would have included fascinating quotations from all these essays).

(While I tried to get these sentences readable, the guy stopped sketching and left).

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Overheard at the JCC II

“You didn’t take a steam today.”
(Long pause)
“I know you didn’t go to the steam room today.”
“You’re a detective, now?”
“You left your gym bag out after your shower. That’s how I know.”
“I have a meeting to get to.”
“What kind of meeting would you have?”

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Overheard at the JCC

“Richard! How are you?”
“Good. Good.”
“Listen, Richard, how did those tests go?”
“They went well.”
“You don’t sound enthused.”
“Well, my doctor said I need to increase my caloric intake. I lost 25 pounds, you know.”
“That’s great. Let’s get lunch.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Most Baller Bleep Ever

There is this commercial for Amp’d Mobile where a young man defends his choice of cell phone by saying, “It just has cooler ‘bleep.’” I use the bleep not out of modesty. That’s how it played, and it was surprising. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen on a prime time commercial before. Then, a few days later, I heard it again on a radio commercial, where a girl says, “Oh ‘bleep,’ that’s my jam.”

The bleep started as a genuine response to possible swearing on television and radio, but quickly became something of its own. First, it became a euphemism for other swear words (like the recent movie “What The Bleep Do We Know?”). That is how some people who don’t swear make their point — it ends up sounding wrong, like when sitcoms use “butt” when “ass” is clearly more appropriate.

The Amp’d effect works, though, because it allows the commercial to have it both ways; they can have the character look hip and authentic by swearing, but not actually swear and get the company in trouble. Now, like the Parental Advisory sticker on CDs, or the blank word in pop songs — see Gwen Stefani “It’s my shh.” — the bleep has street cred. It’s self-censoring without having to say “butt” when you mean “ass.”

When South Park started using the bleep, the effect started to lose its value. For a narrative, fictional series — animated no less — to choose a bleep over a script change highlights the word as much as it covers it up. South Park made their intentions even more clear in the episode “It Hits the Fan,” where they lampooned Chicago Hope or NYPD Blue’s use of “shit” in one episode (and the resulting media storm) by using the word 162 times. They also bleep straight characters that say “fag,” but not gay characters. Chappelle’s Show does it too. VHS and DVD sales have allowed South Park to bleep the words on TV and keep them in home sales; which has a result similar to the Amp’d Mobile commercial.

This reminds me of a technique in jazz that also emphasizes through absence. Instead of playing a given note in the melody, the musician will play notes around the note, in the same scale as the note or near that note, but not the actual note.

There is a Bob Dylan song called “Mississippi”” with the line “I was thinking ‘bout the things that Rosie said/ I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie’s bed.” I always thought the line was “I was thinkin’ about the things that roses had.” I like my lyrics better — no offense meant — and whenever I hear the song now, I think about petals and thorns (although they never appear in the song).

Jacques Lacan, a French pschyoanalyst, described this as the objet petit a, or “The Little Object,” which is the unattainable object of desire. The trick is that pleasure comes from that objet petit a rather than the actual experience. For instance, he argues, seeing someone in their underwear is more pleasurable than seeing them naked, or the hints of a movie monster are scarier than actually seeing it. Not hearing the “right” note or seeing the “right” word creates a desire for what was never there. Hearing a bleep makes you think about swear words.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Weight of God

60 Minutes re-ran a feature last night on musical savants. It explored the connection between blindness, mental disability and musical genius.

The main subject, a young boy named Rex, could not button his shirt or walk through his house, but he could listen to any song and play it instantly on the piano. He’s not alone, either. CBS interviewed two other savants with similar conditions.

Immediately, I thought of an Emily Dickinson poem called “The Brain is Wider than the Sky,” which has the last verse:

The brain is just the weight of God
For heft them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

The initial connection was the spiritual one in the first line. Whenever Rex finished playing a piece, he would start shaking his hands violently and craning his neck. It reminded me of the violence of people who claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Often, extremely talented people are burdened by their gifts, just as the prophets were often described as being burdened by prophecy. Rex and the others seemed to actually have gifts in the standard definition. It was as if music was given to them as a reprieve. When they played, the “weight” of God was lifted, and only the presence of God remained.

Later, though, I thought about the audible connection in the last line. This was a feature on people who have supreme difficulty with syllables, but extreme comfort making sounds. The poem sites no difference between the two.

I’m not the first person to think of this connection. A Google search of the first line of the poem — “The brain is wider than the sky” — yields a surprising number of sites relating to neurobiology — at least as many science-oriented sites and literature-oriented, maybe more. Most use the poem to summarize the prospects of the brain’s capabilities.

In the 60 Minutes piece, David Pinto, a piano teacher for Rex and other children like him, said, “As a composer I’ve had dreams where I went though a complete concerto that was impeccable, and it just rolled off, as a dream. Obviously, that means that it’s inside of us. Well, these kids can do that dream. There’s just nothing in between it.”

This reminded me of a study on memory I once read, possibly in "The Holographic Universe." When researchers electrically stimulated parts of a patient’s brain, the patient would start to instantly recall very specific and relatively unmemorable parts of their lives, from scenery down to dialogue. These researchers could keep hitting the exact same part of the brain and access the same memory. There were two points. One: The brain naturally stores information, even if most people don’t understand how to access that archived information. Two: “The whole contains every part.” Our brains store information so that it can be found from any starting place.

Maybe these savants can access the music because they cannot access other information, or maybe they cannot access other information because they can access the music.

The opposite of that is a recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how space artists have been challenged by actual NASA images. When Hubble, Voyager and the like starting sending pictures down to Earth, they were more bizarre that space art.

Rex is an example of the strangeness we know but cannot touch. Space Art is an example of the strangeness beyond how strange we assume the universe should be.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Doobee, Dewbee, Dewberries

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On the turntables, drinking a Dr. Pepper...

The dynamic ribbon is what Coke calls the band that crosses their logo, and the contour bottle is what they call their famous ergonomic glass container. The Contour Bottle and the Dynamic Ribbon are both trademarked.

That would also make for the name of a great hip-hop duo.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Suspicious Minds

Reading “Calvin and Hobbes” was the premier activity of my youth, and I was very upset the first I time I saw Calvin as a vulgar truck decal. In the most popular version, he stands looking over one shoulder with an arc of pee hitting a Ford or Chevy logo, depending on whether the truck was a Chevy or a Ford. The problem with these decals was how they changed the character. Calvin became sort of evil, and regular readers of the strip know that his rebellion was countered with sweetness. That’s why it works.

Creations take on new lives, though, even bootlegs. Several months ago, I saw a truck decal where Calvin humbly knelt before a tall cross. He was repenting for peeing on that Ford logo, I suppose. Yesterday, I saw Calvin as the logo for an electrical company. After finding Jesus, he went straight and got a job.

In “The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book,” creator Bill Waterson writes that the bootlegging began after he won a battle with his syndicate against licensing: “[W]hen I didn’t license, Calvin and Hobbes merchandise sprung up to feed the demand. Mall stores openly sold T-shirts with drawings illegally lifted from my books, and obscene or drug-related shirts were rife on college campuses. Only thieves and vandals have made money on Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.”

In “Dead Elvis,” Greil Marcus writes about the explosion of Elvis bootlegs and images and recreations that appeared after his death, when legalities become more lenient. At first it was Elvis products, followed by hundreds of tiny tributaries: Elvis/ Jesus hybrids and then Elvis/ Hitler hybrids, for instance.

Marcus writes about the “myth” of Elivs: country boy makes good, but loses himself in the process.

“Such mythologizing predated Elvis’s death, but it’s gathered irresistible force since. A dead person is vulnerable in ways a living person is not, and it’s not simply that you can’t libel the dead. When the subject of a book is living, he or she can always make that book into a lie by acting in a new way. A dead person can be summed up and dismissed.”

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Dreamer

Talking narrative, Joseph is the most fleshed out character in Genesis and, excluding Moses, maybe the whole Torah.

In the past few weeks I’ve had three different interactions with Joseph.

1) My father is a graphic designer, and sees Joseph as a businessman and as an outsider relating to the world. As a freelancer, my father’s work places him both deep within companies and at their margins. He supplies ideas, consultations and overhauled images, but he is always an independent contractor. The power of Joseph for him is the power of being second in command, a returning concept in Jewish history from Maimonides, to Albert Einstein, to Joseph Lieberman.

Read this way, the Joseph story is a very conservative one — that through smarts and personality, anyone can get themselves from the pit to the tower. There is a flip side, though. The consultant is always accepted and treated with skepticism at the same time. Ultimately, Joseph’s success in Egypt creates the foundation for the Jews to become enslaved under a new Pharaoh. In other words, the consultant can often make greater changes than those in power, but the ground is always less stable and the future is harder to see (even with prophetic dreams).

2) Dr. Owen Cosgrove is a minister at the Northside Church of Christ in Waxahachie, and in interviews with him over the past few weeks, he cited Joseph as a favorite character in the Old Testament. He mentioned how Joseph embraced forgiveness and eschewed envy and lust. In expanding his thoughts — my words, not his — I think Cosgrove sees Joseph as a New Testament figure, specifically in avoiding the seven deadly sins: 1) Lust, by turning down Potiphar’s wife, 2) Gluttony, by setting up the storehouses, 3) Avarice, by remaining second in command, 4) Sloth, by getting out of the prison and his work ethic once free, 5) Wrath, by refusing to take revenge on his brothers, 6) Envy, in opposition to his brothers, who envy him, and 7) Pride, well, this one is tough. Joseph shows pride throughout his life. Actually, it’s the first trait we find in him. But before he reveals his identity to his brothers, he weeps so loudly the Egyptians can hear him. Perhaps that moment is so cathartic because he has sloughed the last of his vices: that’s when he credits God with pulling the family apart and darwing them back together.

3) J.J. Keki is a politician and coffee farmer in Uganda, and is also a Jew. He is part of the
Abayudaya, a community of Jews in Eastern Uganda that began in 1918, when a British missionary decided the New Testament did not add truth to the Old Testament. He ripped those pages from his Bible and circumcised his community. At their height, the group numbered 3,000. But Idi Amin gave them the traditional Jewish choice — convert or die — and by the time he was ousted from power in 1979, there were only 300 left. Keki was one. Only 19 at the time, he set out to rebuild the community, which is now 800 strong, and has a school and a synagogue. Over the years, outside Jews learned of the Abayudaya and brought books, Torahs and other Jewish accouterments.

Keki was in Dallas last weekend for an art auction to raise money for a health clinic in Uganda. Speaking with him was enlightening for many reasons, and I hope to return to them in this forum, but the one thing that struck me was Keki’s relationship with Joseph.

One of the largest issues facing the community is how they relate to the world. They have been embraced by some sects within Judaism, and held in skepticism by others — particularly the Israeli government. In 1948, listening to radio broadcasts about the founding of Israel, they went out in the field to wait for airplanes, figuring all Jews would be taken back to the land.

Today, They are making decisions about how to grow into their new knowledge of the Judaism of the West while maintaining their own traditions. For instance, because they had never heard the traditional tunes, their songs are common Jewish lyrics set to African melodies. Do they keep those tunes now, or abandon them?

Keki sees Joseph as a family man in exile. He has written that when other Jews come to Uganda to visit and work, the community feels like Joseph did when his brothers come to Egypt — that moment of weeping for Keki isn’t about sloughing pride, but about finally belonging, about ending isolation. They are outsiders geographically and historically, but insiders in faith. Home is where their people are — be it Dallas or Uganda. Their reuniting isn’t complete — they are still separated from the masses and from the land — but it is completing — because they finally experience belonging. The Abayudaya are the younger brother, just like Joseph. They have to teach themselves about their family, and to learn about their chosen religion in bits and chunks over decades while they create a new version for themselves.

Keki is the first and only Jewish politician in the nation’s history. He works to foster relationships between the Muslims, Christians and Jews in Uganda. Just like Joseph, he is the outsider trying to enact change from much larger groups. Like my father, he understands his role as the consultant, and like Dr. Cosgrove, his righteousness has fueled his success.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Blind To Their Actions

The Dallas Morning News ran an article today about a father and son sparring over political differences. The father is a strong supporter of the Republican Party. His son is seventeen, and has recently become interested in the Democratic Party. In protest, the father decided he would cut off his son’s college tuition unless the boy switches affiliation. In counter-protest, the son created a Web site called, where — similar to others — people can buy ads at the rate of one dollar per pixel. He will use that money to pay for school.

The amazing thing about this, and something the writer did not point out, is how the father and son are flipping ideologies. Originally agreeing to pay the tuition was a fiscally liberal thing to do. On a microcosm, the father essentially created a small welfare state. And the son, faced with an empty bank account and the desire to go to college, is turning a Web page gimmick into a business, thus harnessing the free-market to “pull himself up.”

The Democratic and Republican Party spokesmen quoted don’t seem to understand this at all, perhaps because the argument for them is about Democratic and Republican but the actions are about liberal and conservative — and those two group-sets are becoming less and less aligned.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Strange Effects II

I previewed the planning and zoning meeting again this week, the only difference being I put a byline on it. Previously, I thought of the preview simply as a way to publish the agenda, and so I figured it should run without a byline. I realized, though, that once I start putting the agenda into sentences I am interpreting the document, and that interpretation demands a byline for accountability.

At the meeting, two people spoke at the public hearing, neither in the 200 foot range the city is required to notify. Last time I wrote about this, my concern was alerting people who had information that might change the outcome of the vote. This time, the residents were concerned about what exactly this development would be.

That means I didn’t adequately describe or research the development in advance. The questions those residents asked the commission were questions I should have asked several days ago and printed. I have previously discussed the virtues of a wider radius. My wider radius worked better this time than last, but ultimately failed. That I reach more people than the city is irrelevant in the face of content concerns. Or: telling a lot of people not enough information doesn’t help any of them.

This reinforces a growing belief I’m acquiring. Investigative reporting is held as the highest example of how a newspaper can change a community. And while I do think it is important to be keep pressure on those in power, to have them know someone is watching, there is another side of the operation that gets ignored. And that is reporting about the processes of powerful entities: government, business, law, science and technology. These entities have become so complicated that regular people cannot access them without outside help.

One great investigative piece can initiate a cycle of great change, but 100 smaller articles explaining how a municipality works creates an educational foundation for people to stop being tricked in the first place. Or: explanatory writing can open up area of knowledge that can become closed to laymen and help break down the world where experts can only talk to experts.

Monday, March 06, 2006

How to Plant a Money Tree

In my wallet there is a gift certificate from Border’s Bookstore given to me last December from my grandfather, and despite frequent use, I can never seem to spend the last remaining amount.

The reason is interesting.

At $100 it was a sizable gift. I couldn’t spend it all at once, and so every weekend I head over to the store and buy one or two items. When you buy a product at Border’s, your receipt becomes a coupon for the following weekend. The idea, obviously, is to lure customers back.

However, because I have a large gift card, I have to return anyway. By splitting up my purchases over several weekends, my buying power increases. Instead of $100, it has ended up being closer to $125. Border’s is banking on customers both spending and saving more. I am only saving more.

In addition, through various promotions and sales, the cost of my purchases have been reduced. So instead of $125, it’s more like $200.

On the road to California in January, I had a thought about deceleration. If I was driving 75 mph and I was exactly 75 miles from my destination, then it would take one hour to get home. But what if at every mile marker I instantly decelerated exactly one mph, so that at 74 miles away I dropped to 74 mph, and so on? How long would it take me to get home?

A long time.

Calculating in reverse, the last mile alone — where I would be traveling one mph — would take one hour to finish. Getting from mile marker two to mile marker one would take 30 minutes, because I would be drive one mile at two mph. Getting from mile marker three to mile marker two would take twenty minutes, or one-third of a hour. Each preceding mile back to the starting point would be a fraction of a hour. The first mile — going from mile marker 75 to mile marker 74 — would take 1/75 of an hour or 48 seconds.

Fine. I think this is what the “N” does on a fancy calculator.

Then I had another thought. Instead of decelerating only at each mile maker, what would happen if I decelerated constantly, so that I decelerated one mph over the course of each mile?

I would never arrive. At one inch away, I’m moving at one inch per hour. At 1/10,000th of an inch away, I would be moving at 1/10,000th of an inch per hour.

This is the same as the story about a frog crossing a pond. With each hop he covers half the distance remaining. Because space can be infinitely divided, that poor frog never arrives. He just hops less and less until he dies with his long tongue stretched toward the sandy shoreline.

This is similar to Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles.

The tortoise — who is obviously getting big headed after his race with the hare — challenges Achilles to a race. The tortoise gets a 100 foot head start as a handicap. Whenever Achilles has moved 100 feet, the tortoise has also moved forward a little bit. When Achilles covers that distance, the tortoise has moved again. If space is infinite, then we always have to cover half the remaining distance. The paradox, therefore, states “You can’t catch up.”

Aristotle apparently solved this paradox, which sucks. Otherwise I could spend on my gift card forever.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I Gotta Mind Like A Sieve

Lucky numbers, in the math world, are a set of numbers created through a specific weeding process. First, start with an infinite list of numbers starting with 1, and remove all of the even numbers. The lowest number remaining greater than 1 is 3. Therefore, remove every third number. the next lowest number that remains is 7, so remove every seventh number. Continue on like that.

The resulting numbers should go: 1, 3, 7, 9, 13, 15, 21, 25 and so on.

The process of creating a pattern to eliminate numbers in math is called sieving. The most well-known sieve is for prime numbers. Because prime numbers are only divisible by 1 and themselves, the sieve is a process of going through each number and removing all future multiples.

Looking up information about sieves lead me to a page about colanders.

Apparently, there is an urban legend about cops who would place a colander on the head of a suspect and wire it to a photo copier. The photo copier had a piece of paper on it that said “Lying.” Every time the police would ask a question, they would press the copy button. When the suspect finally confessed, the cops would switch the paper in the machine.

According to the story, this always got thrown out of court.

There is also a story, that I read in a Robertson Davies book, about a culture that tested the virginity of their young women by having them carry water in a sieve. Only virgins, apparently, could do it. The trick was to grease your sieve, and the oil would keep the water from going through the holes.


Pirke Avot is a Jewish ethics guide from the fourth century, and the last chapter is a collection of aphorisms. Number 18 is:

“There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. 

‘The sponge,’ who soaks up everything. ‘The funnel,’ who takes in at this end and lets out at the other. ‘The strainer,’ who lets out the wine and retains the dregs. ‘The sieve,’ who removes the coarse meal and collects the fine flour.”

Which doesn’t bode well for this site.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Strange Effects

When a city is planning a public hearing about the status of a property, Texas requires notification for every property owner within 200 feet. A city can add to that measure, if so desired. Waxahachie, for instance, also notifies the family living in the house as well as the property owner, but does not extend the distance. Often, 200 feet incorporates all the interested parties, and often it does not.

Before a zoning meeting this week, I wrote a very short preview outlining the scheduled public hearings. During one, a slightly larger amount of fairly loquacious citizens chose to speak for a rather long time. What they had in common was living in the neighborhood, but outside the 200 feet. Silently bemoaning their chattering, I realized I had done this to myself. Writing the preview informed a new subset of the population and increased the odds that someone — or several people — would have a problem with the project.

No one brought any issue the commissioned hadn’t already considered, and so our only investment was time. Had one of these protesters brought important information to the table, though, it could have theoretically swayed the vote. This time, though, it did not.

Without going door to door and explaining the zoning request to every homeowner, it is impossible to find the one with that information. The state deems 200 feet as an appropriate radius to find that person. Waxahachie adds a layer with their homeowner clause. We add a layer with the newspaper. Each layer increased the traffic, but not necessarily the effectiveness, in this case.

But newspapers are more about the space between stories than the actual stories, and so our cumulative coverage is more important than single article. Still, my fairly momentary decision directly added about a hour to my work day. And I kept about fifteen people from getting home on time.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ten Pins and the Truth

Susie Minshew is a bowling coach, and she uses bowling to teach life. Part of that teaching is direct: she has gotten her students to lose weight or gain self-confidence through bowling. Part of that is more abstract. When we had our mini-lesson, the first thing she asked me was what I hoped to gain from the practice. She will take whatever answer you give, from “I want to average 250,” to “I want to have a good time.” Then the lesson proceeds from there. Ultimately, you are supposed to lose the obsession toward pins without losing competitiveness. I asked to have a good time, and I did, I also got a few strikes. She is considered one of the greatest coaches in bowling.

Minshew also knows a great deal about the mechanics, physics, biology and philosophy behind bowling, and she writes, which makes her perfect for the Funnel Method. If that sentence seems ridiculous, that’s partly bowling’s own fault. Minshew believes that bowling and golf were equally honorable fifty years ago, but that while golf chose to be elite and expensive, bowling chose to be universal and cheap. Bowling provided house shoes, house balls and bumper lanes. As a result, bowling is often thought of as the working-class semi-sport, and golf brings in billions of dollars in television, advertising and in useless office knick-knacks.

Professional bowlers use different balls the same way golfers use different clubs. There is a plastic spare ball that does not hook on the lane. It offers a more direct shot, whereas the regular ball can be spun to curve in on that front pin. This is only one of many examples. Bowling shoes are fairly complicated as well, and come with removable friction pads. Professional bowlers play seven game sets, throwing 15 pound balls. The point is that bowling could have a very different reputation, and there are now 100 million bowlers worldwide.

The point is also that most of us are largely ignorant of many interesting aspects of bowling. The lane is very expensive and complicated. It is made of two different kinds of wood: hard maple up front where the ball hits, and softer pine in the middle where the ball rolls. The grains in the pine can actually be placed to favor right or left handed bowlers.

The lane is oiled more heavily in the middle than near the pins, because bowlers don’t want the same slide near the end. We are talking about very small measurements. No dent in the floor can be more than, if I remember the number, 1/4000th of an inch off the surface plane. The oil is a thin application, maybe three units of oil. It is often applied more heavily in the middle of the lane to create a hump that the ball will glide around, but there are regulations about the ratio between the middle and the edge of a lane.

By looking at a lane up close, Minshew can tell you the thought process that went into creating the lane. Learning how to make practical decisions based on understanding the environment makes good bowlers, it makes people good at anything, and it is very important to the Funnel Method.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Closer, do wa do, let me emit clicking sounds in your ear

For Valentine’s Day, I received a chocolate bar that combines two of my passions: conservation and candy.

The Endangered Species Chocolate Company donates 10 percent of the profits from each bar of chocolate to help save a different endangered species. This was a dolphin bar, which came with delicious bits of cherry — not dolphin — and was sweetened with “unbleached water-filtered beet sugar.”

There is a little essay about the marvelous dolphin inside the wrapper. Dolphins use a sense called echolocation to identify their surroundings. The dolphin sends out clicking sounds that bounce off fish, rocks and Jacques Cousteau, and return to the dolphin’s jaw and ear bones. Through triangulation, the dolphin can pick up the general size, location and density of the object. Bats and whales also use echolocation.

And so do humans. We are able to tell where a sound is coming by calculating the distance between the near ear and the far ear. The ridges inside our ears help translate the sound waves into information the brain can understand. Apparently, if you place small bits of clay inside your ear — not in the canal, please — to change the shape, it will take a few hours for your brain to relearn the code. During that time you will not be able to accurately judge where sounds are coming from.

Some blind people have become so trained in human echolocation that they can ride a bike using echoes. After becoming attuned enough to the process of translating echoes, every footstep can yield information about the environment.

This reminds me of that moment in “The Matrix” where Joe Pantoliano is reading lines of code and “notices” an attractive woman. The difference is that Joey Pants had just become fully adapted to a process, which is more like fully learning a language, and echolocation involves becoming fully integrated with the environment, which is a beautiful idea if you think about it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Old Country

Yesterday I interviewed two sisters in their seventies whose house burned down. They had lived there since 1944. I learned about them through a retired real estate agent/ used car salesman, who drove me from the First State Bank to their aunt’s house, where they are staying during rebuilding efforts. On the drive, he said, “These girls are from another time.”

The property was gone and cleaned up — so I’ve never seen even a picture of what it looked like — but still yielded plenty of secrets. In a pile of burned out metal scrap, I found parts of a victrola. They apparently had a large collection of 78s. I asked about potential artists, and they couldn’t remember.

“A lot of old country,” they said.

“Like Jimmie Rodgers?”

“Yeah, and him.”

So that dates it to before 1933. It’s a real shame that a collection like that is gone. I can only imagine what was in there. They also had a violin from the 1500's that burned up.

Also in the dirt I found several square nails. I put one in my pocket. Immediately, it reminded me off the nails that went up online after “The Passion of The Christ” came out. I started thinking about a report I read saying that severing a certain nerve in the muscle between the thumb and forefinger is considered one of the most intense experiences of pain possible.

This nail is pretty amazing. There are apparently three ways of making nails: hand-made, cut nails, and wire nails. Wire nails are what we used today. This, I think, is a cut nail, meaning it was machine cut from a piece of steel. That probably dates the house before 1900. The nail is exactly four inches long (size 20d in nail terms), and the shaft is slightly v-shaped instead of straight. I don’t know how that wouldn’t split the wood.

The man who cleaned through the pile of scrap also found their class rings from high school, and one was a valedictorian.

On the side of the property was an outhouse. They had never installed indoor plumbing. The closest they allowed pipes was to the front porch, but not inside the house. Next to the outhouse was a chicken coop, and they used to raise chickens for meat and eggs until the wolves and snakes started getting bad.

They lived on 75 acres of cotton and corn growing land, which was unharmed due to wind direction. Every year they rent it out to an 80-year-old farmer who harvests the crop and pays them in money and corn. They have never signed a contract.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

All Kethcup Has Is Lycopene

From our always enterprising creative conservation reporter:

Driving through the Sonoma wine country, one might notice fields of yellow mustard plants growing with the short vines. Mustard is grown near grapes because it has a symbiotic effect on the soil, restoring nitrogen for the grapes to grow.

Mustard is apparently a super food as well.

For eating, the seed provides a wide range of health benefits from omega-3 to properties that help combat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.

Mustard seed is also at the forefront of bio-diesel technology. The Department of Energy has set out to find the most likely candidate for making bio-diesel, and created a 14-point test based on where and how the crop grows, and how broad geographically, cost-effectively and efficiently it can be grown. Mustard cuts the mustard on all fourteen.

Plus, after the oil is ground from the seed, the remaining meal can then be used as a pesticide.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Small Things

Fractal geometry is a branch of mathematics that deals with finding recurring patterns on large and small scales. Fractals are based on formulae repeated many times to create patterns. One example of a fractal in nature is a mountain. From far away, the mountain has a jagged appearance. Up close, the pieces of the mountain resemble the general rocky appearance — each rock looks like a small mountain — but also have different qualities.

Fractals make incredible designs that yield discoveries with every magnification.

Richard P. Taylor is an associate professor at the University of Oregon. He teaches what is an apparently very popular course called Physics of Light and Color. He also uses fractal geometry to study the work of Jackson Pollack — examining the paint splatters in high magnification — and has questioned the authenticity of some newly discovered Pollack paintings. He located very precise patterns in 14 genuine Pollacks that did not appear in these new works. That doesn’t make them fakes, it just puts a question mark on the table.

This reminded me criminal tremors, which are method of spotting a forged signature by looking for vibrations at the start of a letter caused by a split second of doubt. Patricia Highsmith wrote a book called “The Tremor of Forgery” (the main character of the book also wrote a book by the same title, I think).

This idea is also similar to micro-expressions — small facial ticks we make while lying. This appeared in “Blink” and also in a New York Times Magazine article last week.

Charles and Ray Eames touched on this with “Powers of Ten.” Nature doesn’t provide a steady stream of content. There are always periods of high activity surrounded or followed by periods of high inactivity. All the fractal drawings have large empty middles and intricate borders, and that pattern is always related regardless of the magnification.

This plays out everywhere from city planning, to the construction of atoms, and from outer space to personal workload.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

On living and working

Neil Young was on Fresh Air today talking about his recent aneurysm and subsequent treatment. In diagnosing the problem, the doctor told Young, “You’ve got nothing to worry about, you’ve probably had this for 100 years. But I’ve got a big problem. It’s very dangerous, and I’ve got to get it out right away.”

That exchange — the patient being fine but the doctor having a problem — reminded me of that line in the last few chapters of “The World According to Garp,” where Garp defines a writer as a doctor that only deals with terminal cases. A patient is a human and guaranteed nothing, and therefore has nothing to worry about. But a doctor is a worker and responsible for another life, and therefore needs to be very careful.

Kinda Sorta Shame On Me

Unfortunately, the link died on my previous post about Vicki Bier, the professor using game theory to reinforce homeland security. There are other articles, but that one was the most in depth.

It turns out Bier’s research has been published and will continue to be published. This is a classic example of where The Funnel Method would become useful. Her ideas seem very important, but they can really only be found in a $100 textbook written for “Graduate students and academics in probability & statistics, reliability, and survival analysis, industrial & software engineering, operations and applied mathematics research.”

The Funnel Method would pair this study with a dedicated writer to create a version for the masses. Inevitably it would lose a lot of the depth that comes from technical and expertise writing, but it would also dig deeper than the original newspaper article can appropriately dig. A worthwhile compromise, I think.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Game Theory and Homeland Security

This story has a lot to say and doesn’t get to say a lot, which is the frustrating thing about trying to learn about national security tactics. It’s a bit like describing sea creatures by examining ripples on the surface of a lake.

The Civil War Would Depress Me Too

Much has been discussed recently concerning Abraham Lincoln’s depression, slightly more interesting than the “was he gay” discussion. I think this interests people because it legitimizes depression, a disease that has struggled not to be considered a trend or a stop on hypochondriacs railway. Because depression is so wide spread, and because the symptoms and triggers are so abstract, it is easy to write depression off as nothing more than a medical excuse for self-pity.

Depression has to be a unique disorder because it is so attached to personality and therefore entirely individualized. A good example is the contradictions in the story above — “Clinical depression is characterized by persistent sadness; sleeping too much or too little; reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain.” As a result, the treatments vary from very natural to very synthetic. A great example is two prominent treatment possibilities: mindfulness — solving it through thought patterns — and the vagus nerve stimulator — an implant that shocks nerve ending. Then there are the triggers: If depression is related to a chemical imbalance, then how can an emotional trauma set it off?

But if Lincoln had it... If Lincoln had it in 1860, and had it from emotional triggers, then maybe it’s the real thing. But like homosexuality, depression has always been around. Only the words we use for the discussion are recent.

I’ve heard depression described as a computer glitch already inside the computer. The glitch may never be discovered during the entire life of the computer, but try and run a certain program or open a certain Web site and everything crashes. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone is susceptible, but the severity of stimuli it takes to set it off ranges from person to person. The reason we hear about it more now is A) people know about it, B) people will talk about it, C) we are processing larger amounts of information than ever before. A friend told me once she thought depression was a tool of nature meant to slow people down. I would add speed people up, because inactivity triggers as much depression as over activity.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Don't throw that away

Also from our creative conservation department.

I wrote a story in college about the confiscation room in the campus police station. I asked them what they did with the drugs. They told me they put it in a pile and burned it, which was the same answer the open mic poetry club told me when I asked what they did with their drugs. Hmm.

SuitSat Coughs, Rolls Over

SuitSat had a rough weekend. NASA declared it dead two hours after the International Space Station astronauts set it free. Now, radio enthusiasts are reporting faint signals and the hint of a voice, but it is, apparently, difficult to make out the content of the message. One problem is that SuitSat is spinning, which creates a pulsing signal in and out of reception.

This project excited me for several reasons. Even when I cannot rationalize the spending in the face of domestic (read: Earth) problems, I am drawn to space activity. I’m excited that New Horizons got off in time to slingshot around Jupiter. Anything coming from the International Space Station also has a nice feeling of unity to it.

This project, though, had some special elements on top of that, the first being creative conservation. NASA has been good about reusing items effectively. I’m reminded of that moment in the Apollo 13 affair when the engineers figure out how to fit the rectangular filters into cylindrical slots (by the way, why did they bring the wrong kind on board in the first place?). Making satellites from unusable space suits that will inevitably burn in the atmosphere has to be cheaper than another Sputnik.

Then there was all the attention given to citizen involvement. That I could use the police scanner from work to pick up messages from outer space was exciting. Finding ways to include non-astronauts in the space process will likely be what saves and propels NASA in/to the future. Sending down messages to ham radio enthusiasts is much cheaper and more democratic than sending Lance Bass to the Moon. The site dedicated to tracking the project has already received more than two million hits. There might never be another space event like Apollo 11 to capture the broad imagination, but NASA’s reputation gets better whenever it shows that it cares what regular people think.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A brief explanation before game time

A funnel accepts a large amount of information and organizes it through a small pipe. A bullhorn takes a small amount of information and amplifies it. Most writing on Internet journals tends to act as a bullhorn, where one person shouts for everyone to hear. In that way, this is a very democratic medium and allows a forum to speak for people who were never heard before.

This journal hopes to achieve the opposite: instead of expelling information, it hopes to accept information. It is the world funneled through the mind of one man. It hopes to draw on resources that tend to be logical and concrete — like math, the sciences, engineering and government (left brain) — and pair them with resources that are more freewheeling — like art, culture, people and daily life (right brain). I have trouble grasping the former categories, but they fascinate me, and so I am trying to engage the latter as a tool for understanding.

Sometimes it seems to me the world has become incredibly large and unnecessarily complicated. Every field consists of experts talking to other experts about their expertise, and any novice with only an interest is brushed aside. Try to read through a Terms of Agreement, a scientific survey or a new bill before Congress. They are very frustrating. We’re told these are important, and yet they appear unapproachable. There is not time to shuffle through it all, and so we rely on other people who are paid to go through it for us and present their findings. Often those people end up being writers: journalists who go through the bills, authors who condense the big concepts, critics who think about art and culture and take a position. The trade off is that ideas are changed with every mind they enter, and so while I get to see the wide mouth of the funnel, you only get to see the narrow bottom. Plus, one person got the idea before me and another will get it after you. This subjectivity used to upset me, and it still does, but as I learn to accept it as inevitable, I’ve found the world opening slightly.

This journal will try to explain difficult concepts — difficult for me, at least [For instance, creating a journal. All of these technical terms mean little to me as of yet. I wanted this to be a straight up Web site, and I own One day I will learn how to make it work]. If you read this journal, you are watching me grapple with ideas both abstract and concrete. If you have been wondering about those ideas, or if watching me wonder makes you wonder too, this will hopefully become an enjoyable read. If not, I will likely bore you once and not hear from you again.

I’m aiming for the former, but I need time. Funneling is a lot slower and more deliberate than a bullhorn; it takes a while for all the information to get through that tiny pipe. Ultimately, this journal is working toward something much larger: 1) becoming a way to connect very disparate ideas to hopefully prove that all branches of thought are somehow related, 2) becoming a voice for people who have exciting and important ideas, but not the skills to verbalize those ideas for a mass audience, 3) promoting a new and different writing curriculum in elementary school education to create a more literate youth, and 4) eventually becoming a global writing system and brand available to people of all viewpoints to promote understanding, compassion and moderation in an entertaining forum through all forms of writing (even poetry).

If that sounds high-falutin’ and all over the place, it’s because I’m suffering from the disease I just described: I’m having trouble putting words on what I’m trying to say. This journal is the very start of a plan, though, not the end. In it I hope to define these concepts, and meet people who agree with the structure I’m creating, even if they disagree with the viewpoints I espouse. This won’t be daily to start, but I wasn’t going to launch The Weekly Funnel and then change it if this thing works. Please don’t hesitate to contact me, and please be patient.