Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Were-Rabbit In-Jokes

I just saw "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." I haven't laughed that much in a long time.

There were a few subtle gags that I have write out, just to get it out of my system.

-- When Gromit is sitting in car as the foreshadowing builds before the first appearance of the Beast, he switches on the radio. It plays "Bright Eyes" by Art Garfunkle, which just happens to be the theme song to "Watership Down", the last full-length animated film to feature rabbits.

-- While Gromit is tucking in his prize zucchini at night, the album he puts on is labelled "The Plant Suite." The music playing is, in fact, "The Planet Suite" by Gustav Holst.

-- When Wallace covers his naked self with a cardboard box, the box says, "May Contain Nuts".


Friday, March 03, 2006

The Open Document

Scott McNealy had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today about the value of having an open document standard in software. The most amazing thing about the whole piece is that he manages to write close to a thousand words on the topic without saying "Microsoft Office".

What's even more amazing is, he doesn't have to. Anybody who has used a computer in school or business in the last ten years knows that Microsoft owns the word processing and spreadsheet markets, and that when one of its direct competitors is griping about the document format not being open, it's because they can't compete with the overpowering dominance Microsoft has in this area.

McNealy bases his argument entirely on "barriers to exit" -- that is, if someone wanted to use a different word processing program, they would not be able to take their documents with them, because the other program wouldn't support their data format. That's the monopolistic view of Microsoft -- "darn them, I'm held captive." What he doesn't talk about is the power of the standard -- that is, everyone is using Microsoft because everyone else is using Microsoft, and it's so much easier to train people and share information when a common standard prevails.

What's more interesting about this article is that he is calling for software vendors to adopt the OpenDocument format -- which Sun's StarOffice supports. What he doesn't say is that Microsoft's next version of Office will save all documents in XML -- which is the most open standard you could possibly have for a document. If the only value in Microsoft Office was in the monopoly and the standard, they would not part with the proprietary standard. What Microsoft bashers consistently and blatently ignore is Microsoft makes the absolute best productivity software in the whole freaking world. Anybody who has ever attempted to use any other product, proprietary or open source, will know that Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel are simply the best packages on the market. Many will argue the same for Outlook, though I think there is room for argument there. For years, the dirty little secret at Red Hat software was that executives were sneaking around Windows laptops because they couldn't stand to use what passed for office productivity software in the Linux world. (The techies there wouldn't be caught dead with a Microsoft product, but executives brought in from the outside, who had not drunk Linux Kool-Aid, and who had no patience for learning new software, were still using what they knew and liked.)

Nice try, Scott, but no dice. Microsoft will open their document standard and still eat your lunch.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Christian Left

I heard that Talk of the Nation or some such show was going to be talking about the Christian Left as a force in American culture and politics. It was quite a coincidence, since I just spent the day working with a young woman who fit the bill. She was raised as a Quaker, and had recently returned to her childhood church. In the course of one day, I saw her aquiring video equipment for some production at the church, doing layout for a G.I. "Rights Hotline," planning a "Pasta for Peace" dinner, and networking with some guy from a "Drinking Liberally" club. And all that on top of a stressful IT job.

I had to admire her energy, and was more than a little jealous of her zeal. Unlike so many people working as activists (on the left or the right) she did not have the preachy smug self-righteousness that usually marrs one's purity of intention. Her bias to action, her willingness to do things for others, made her feel more like a kindred spirit to me in spite of the political divide. How wonderful to be reminded that good people have all kinds of politics.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Old Guy

OK, I stayed out too late at an SKS meeting, and now I'm too fried to write much, especially this close to midnight.

I noticed something tonight. I was in a wine bar in Chapel Hill, and I was looking around at the band, the wait staff, the guy behind the bar, the people I was hanging out with, and was thinking that this looked like a fun, energetic place, and then it dawned on me: I was the oldest person in the whole place. Maybe this shouldn't surprise me: a bar in a college town, duh, of course it's full of young people. But always before there was always some grey-haired biker or balding drunk at the bar to make me feel middle of the road in age. No longer. Now I'm the old one. And I'm only thirty-six.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Walter Mossberg, eat my shorts

The Wall Street Journal reported today that worms that affect the MacOS have been discovered, and serious security flaws in the Safari web browser have also been uncovered.

So . . . I ever so humbly, and with deep respect for his work, tell Walter Mossberg: HA!

I like Walter's column, I value his opinions, and generally I think he deserves his technical review guru status. But it always drove me nuts when he went on and on about how wonderful Macs are, and how everyone could avoid all these worms and viruses if they just used a Mac. I have nothing against Macs; when I was a scientist I used them all the time, and was dragged kicking and screaming into the Windows world. But it's kinda like vegetarians; it's perfectly all right to be one, but not OK to be obnoxiously smug and self-righteous about being one.

And, I found Walter's recommendation to be downright silly. A lack of viruses and malware was hardly something to brag about . . . it just means the rest of the world doesn't think you're worth hacking. Wasn't it obvious it was merely due to lack of exposure? Can you brag about being immune to avian flu when you live in North America and have never been exposed to it? Surely Walter is smarter than that . . . but perhaps, like many Mac fans, his passionate support also translated into an inability to see or even understand the shortcomings.

Monday, February 27, 2006

When all else fails, lower your standards

I have to write about something in the news today, or this will turn into another "what's going on with my kids" blog.

The Wall Street Journal reported today that the educational testing standards that most states have been using are much lower than the federal testing standard set over 30 years ago. Of course, everyone argues that their standard is better; the feds say the states are "dumbing down" the standards, and the states contend the federal standards are "unrealistic." Unrealistic or no, the federal standards are set at a level they believe necessary in order to compete with the rest of the world, which seems to be doing a much better job at educating their kids. And people wonder why the rest of the world is eating our economic lunch?

Education and free trade are the two issues that most bring out my conservatism, and here they both are together. I can't for the life of me understand how people can carp about unrealistic school standards and then turn around and complain about jobs going to India. I may be, by world standards, exceedingly rich, but at least I don't believe I have a right to be rich just because I live in this country. This feels like the beginning of true decadence for our culture -- when society has completely forgotten how we became this rich and powerful to begin with, you can know such prosperity will not last long.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Meditations Upon Boredom

I remember Augie talking about meditation before, and how meditation was ultimately the contemplation of boredom. The mind, denied of its usual content for rumination, inevitably grows bored and restless. And then the koan becomes: "Why am I bored? What am I missing in the present moment, that makes me wish I was anywhere but here, anywhere but now?"

I'm not sure I really got that until I hung out with my kids.

Now, I'm sure it's one of the most taboo things in the world to say nowadays, though I'm sure every parent feels it at some time, and perhaps quite often: it can get boring playing with the kids. We love our kids, of course, which is the only thing that could motivate us to continue . . . and it can spark all kinds of enthusiasm in us to see the delight in their eyes at simple things. But that magic isn't always there . . . and sometimes we are left standing in the woods while the boys dig holes and fill them in and squabble over the shovel, and thinking, "Jesus, this is dull."

What makes this boredom more interesting than most is that you can't really afford to stop paying attention: if you're mind wanders, pretty soon something or somebody is broken, hurt, upset, ruined, etc. And so you get to watch the boredom grow, bloom . . . oddly enough, I sometimes feel closer to the present moment in those times than in any other. It's not a sense of transcendant joy, or tingly supersensitivity to the beauty of the world. It's just . . . this. It's the heart of the mid-life crisis, and (it turns out) the heart of life itself. "This is it," you say to yourself. "Just this."