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 25, 2006

Britannica vs. Wikipedia

The Wall Street Journal had a little A-frame article on a recent spat between the makers of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the publishers of Nature, a major science journal. Nature published a study comparing Britannica to Wikipedia, with a panel of independent scholars evaluating articles in each and pointing out errors, inaccuracies, or other issues with the articles. They found that the two were quite close in their quality, especially on scientific topics. They still gave Britannica a slight edge, but it was clear that Wikipedia was probably good enough for most mortals, with the obvious benefits that: a) it's free; b) if you find something wrong, you can always fix it.

In full discloser, I'm a big Wikipedia fan. Or I should say, my son is a huge Wikipedia fan, and I became an avid user in the process. I give them money, I think their so amazing. The most impressive thing is that the Wikipedia didn't even exist five years ago, and now it's going toe-to-toe with a company that's been in the business for over two hundred years. With volunteer labor, to boot.

Part of my appreciation for it stems from the fact that it's such a feel-good story. It's about people freely sharing their knowledge and efforts with the world to create something stunningly beautiful and powerful. I seriously think the Wikipedia should be considered one of the Wonders of the World, because I can't think of a better tribute to human creativity and collective effort. It also gives me hope that an uncredentialed private scholar like myself can actually get a venue that's read, without going back to school or playing the games of academia.

But what I found most interesting about this story was how Britannica took it. They were seething. They mailed letters to librarians. They took out full-page ads in big newspapers to denounce the Nature study. They demanded that Nature retract the article and publish an apology. I'm sure somebody at Britannica said, "This is it. If we take this lying down, we're dead. No one will buy another encyclopedia again." And yet, it was exactly the wrong thing to do. They look so freaking weak.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Corpse Bride

I just saw Tim Burton's Corpse Bride -- our maiden voyage with NetFlix. A few thoughts come to mind:

I was impressed by how he managed to put a new spin on the whole "dead walk the earth" thing. According to zombie movie convention, everyone freaks out when the dead come to town: "Arg! Dead people! Foul spirits!" And then, the twist: "Grandpa!" Suddenly everyone realizes that these people are their dead, their own fathers and mothers and husbands, and suddenly we're a cross between heavenly reunification and The Day of the Dead. It gets you to thinking . . . what was so scary about dead people, anyway? I remember thinking the same thing when I saw The Sixth Sense -- dead people aren't so scary when you remember that they're still people.

None of the press for the movie prepared me for the fact that it's a musical. Maybe because it's only got, like, four songs, which is not quite enough to push a soundtrack CD. (Even Joss Whedon's Once More With Feeling got twice that many songs into a single hour-long show.) In fact, there's a lot about the movie that feels slightly rushed . . . most of the time you're wishing movies were a little shorter, but this one felt like it could have taken its time a little more.

I noticed that there was a voice credit for Deep Roy -- who made his big break doing the Ooompa Loompas in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It's really nice to see an actor who just happens to be a midget, instead of midget actor.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Pfennig" for 94 points

The problem with having an obscure and nerdy pasttime is that there is absolutely no one who will appreciate your triumphs. I imagine that there are philatalists who marvel at some rare Belgian stamp, in spite of their kids' vigorous disinterest, who feel exactly the way I do when I open a Scrabble game with the name of an obscure German coin. The only thing to tarnish the thrill is the realization that absolutely nobody cares, and to try to explain it would only make it more embarrassing.

Oddly enough, this does not diminish the enjoyment of the feat. I tell myself that the accomplishment is no more or less arbitrary than sinking a 30-foot putt. Both are equally useless, valued only by those who happen to enjoy doing such things. Why such arbitrary feats should seize the imagination is beyond explanation. I think Augie might say that they are valuable precisely because they are arbitrary -- "I do this, not out of necessity or utility, but merely because I will it." It becomes the expression of the individual will, manifested solely from the self, independant of circumstance, as useless and glorious as art. Reason not the need!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Free Money

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting op-ed today, proposing that we could scrap the whole welfare state entirely if we just cut everyone a check for $10,000 a year, and gave them nothing else.

It's an intriguing approach, mostly because it immediately highlights the problematic aspects of the welfare state. The absolute inefficiency of the government is, of course, immediately obvious, when we think that a cash grant would, in the end, be easier and more efficient than a maze of social programs. But this approach also makes it nakedly obvious that the welfare state is ultimately about redistribution of wealth -- take money from the rich, and give it to people with less. It also completely takes out the notion of social engineering; the government is no longer trying to promote some behaviors and prevent others.

Would it work? Sadly, no, though I like the boldness and simplicity of it. Our system of government is so fiendishly clever at finding new ways to favor some at the expense of others that I can't imagine it could swear off all entitlement programs. And, while I resent the paternalism of government when applied to me, I can't help but see that many people who need the money the most are also the one's least well equipped to make good decisions about it's use. When the abject poor blow their government paycheck on booze and lottery tickets, will I be able to wash my hands of them? Or of their children?


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A full day's supply of . . . oh hell

The Wall Street Journal reported today that vitamins might be bad for you.
I am just aquiver with schadenfreude.
How often have I been regaled by people with their favorite regimen of pills? How often have we allowed ourselves the fantasy that popping a few pills will overcome our less-than-ideal diets and ward off the inevitable? And yet our culture has bought into it for so long that 70% of households buy some kind of vitamin; and now it's finally coming out that none of the research is holding up, that none of the expected benefits have manifested and many unexpected ills have arisen from massive doses our bodies never expected.

What will Joe and Terry say?

(cricket, cricket)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Oedipus wrecks

Just lately, when both of us are at our worst, my five-year-old son threatens me with a violent death. "Someday I'm going to get rid of you for good . . . when I'm big enough, I'll push you down the stairs and you'll be dead." And so on . . . (Fortunately, my own murderous thoughts go unexpressed.)

In retrospect it seems funny, but this sort of thing happens when he's tired and therefore exhasperating, and when the parents have already worn out all patience and run out of creative strategies for resolving conflict. Both of us can see that things are not going in a very good direction and struggling to pull it back on track, and yet we seem unable to get it together.

And yet, somehow we still manage to get in jammies, climb into bed, and read a few pages of Farmer Boy before dropping off to sleep. All I can say is, thank goodness for close attachment, because without it we would certainly have killed each other by now.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Death and . . .

I started in earnest on my taxes today. Tax time is always a period of enforced reflection for me. I have to review every trip I made in the previous year in order to claim the mileage tax write-off, so it becomes a walk down memory lane as I wade through my database, marvelling at how much has changed, and also marvelling at how little has changed. Projects come and go. Clients come and go. The work, overall, stays pretty much the same. Another year gone . . . even New Year's doesn't leave me so depressed. At least New Year's has the promise of renewal and starting over. Taxes is just about regret and dread.

I am also forced to make equally telling glances into the future: wondering, once again, how long I will be a slave to my current occupation.

Slave may be a trifle exaggerated; I am hardly miserable in my current job. I like what I do, and I'm good at it, and still getting better. But it's not quite as much fun as it used to be, either. I am starting to wonder if I can keep this up for another ten years . . . which, as current calculations run, is the soonest I might be able to escape. Even when you're doing really, really well, and you marvel at how smoothly everything is going, ten years still seems like a long, slow haul. I never had a ten-year plan for anything, before. Feels like life is running out . . . which also is appropriate for the tax season: a time to contemplate all things inevitable.