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, July 22, 2006

A Timely Perspective on Life and Death

I just finished Something Rotten, the fourth book in Jasper Fforde's series of novels featuring Thursday Next, a British literary detective in an odd alternative universe. I recommend the stories . . . the flavor and style is rather like Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and though not quite as funny as Douglas Adams, it's a great deal more clever when it comes to mixing cultural commentary with a mystery story.

The thing that makes these stories hard to talk about is that Fforde piles on enough weird premises for three or four of your usual fantasy/sci-fi/mystery novels. It might be enough he posits a world in which high literature is so wildly popular that a special section of the police is devoted to rooting out counterfeits . . . or that the Crimean War dragged on for hundreds of years . . . or that a special Chrono-Guard division of time-travelers bop about trying to fix anomolies in history . . . or that it's possible for people to enter into the world of fictional books and interact with the characters and even change the course of the classics. But that's all part of the basic premises of Fforde's stories . . . and remarkably, he squeezes all that in and still has time to make interesting characters and plots with dozens of interweaving threads.

(Warning: vague spoilers follow.)

The time-travel thing should not be too far out bounds for your usual sci-fi book . . . but Fforde did some interesting thing with it that I didn't expect. Of course you've got to have a few paradoxes, people meeting themselves and that sort of thing. But one thing that I didn't expect, and had never seen before, was that some of the characters in the series actually get to witness their own deaths. And even that in itself would not be too startling, except that they go on with their lives . . . because when you're jumping around time, death does not necessarily mean the end of life. Just because you saw someone die doesn't necessarily mean you won't see them again. It's never actually said, but the mood it evokes is a sort of afterlife without the afterlife . . . a way of looking upon death without fear or finality. And I have the vaguest intuition that God actually sees things that way. Death is real, but death is not the end . . . because all things, past, present, and future, are held for ever in eternity.

Home Alone

Janet's mom was not doing well, and so Janet picked up the kids and went to Winston rather unexpectedly. I had an evening appointment in Henderson, upgrading a system in the off hours, so I had the completely unprecedented experience of coming home to an empty house in the middle of the night.

The first thing that strikes me is how very little relationship I have to the house itself. I can't lay my eyes on anything without thinking about what my family would be doing there . . . how Aidan jumps over that arm of the sofa, or how Malcolm peeks out the window as I come home.

The place seems a lot bigger when I'm the only one here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Perils of Programming

I have spent the better part of the day trying to calculate how many kids in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools won the Presidential Fitness Award. It turns out that the SQL code necessary to figure out whether someone of a certain age and gender passed all the test is convoluted . . . not to mention that the data is dirty, ambiguous, and incomplete.

I like to program. It's something that I can groove on that often requires no conscious effort on my part. I sit down, and the programming happens. I am blessed to have such a valuable skill that I enjoy so much.

The problem is, I don't necessarily like the person I become when I program. Once I sink into a programming problem, it's hard for me to pay attention to anything else. My wife talks to me, and it seems to be coming from very far away . . . I suddenly realize that I missed the first half of what she was saying. I walk around the house, but I don't feel like I'm really seeing. Any capacity that outside stimuli have to invoke thought has been crowded out by the seething intellect, still stuck in a compulsive struggle to solve a problem. I didn't shower today . . . just couldn't seem to get around to it. I get a little bit zombified . . . or maybe I should say "anti-zombified" since zombies move through the world but have no mental life, while I am filled with mental life and practically catatonic to the world.

Thank God I don't have to do this all the time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Open Air

I drove to Charlotte the other day with my boss Harry in his red Mini Cooper convertible. I've never been a car person . . . my interest in cars seems to be significantly less than even the average person, which makes me something of an anti-maven when it comes to vehicles. Just like my relative indifference to food and physical environment, I try to see this as an advantage and a virtue. Just think of all the money I save driving same car for ten years. But I know that, in some weird way, it's just a deficit in my ability to appreciate. Like sports . . . I can go a very long time feeling smug about the fact that I don't give a damn about practically any kind of sport, and thinking that I'm just a superior being to be impervious to such stuff. But then I'll read someone really smart, like Malcolm Gladwell, going on and on about sports, and I'll get that sinking feeling that I'm not superior at all, merely lacking the brain receptor to appreciate such things.

So . . . despite my stoic reserve, a sporty little convertible can still be fun for me. When we got back home, my son Aidan saw the car and said, "Can I ride in it?" And Harry said, "Sure!" and took him for a spin up and down our mountain road. And ask I watched him go wizzing up the road, his hair blowing in the wind and his face alive, I wondered whether something was happening in that moment that will stay with him his whole life.

After Harry drove off, Aidan said, "When am I going to get to ride in a convertible again?" I don't know, Boo-boo, but I have a feeling you'll find a way, someday.

In defense of software

Janet recently ran across a blog from one of her old colleagues at Red Hat from long ago, Paul McNamara. He posted an article about the "software complexity racket," in which he makes the case that software is routinely buggy and hard to use because software companies, keen to keep users beholden to them in maintenance contracts, have no incentive to actually make it simple and straightforward.

As one of those evil software industry people who perpetuate the cycle of complexity, I have to jump in and say a few words.

Certainly Paul is correct in asserting that software can be simple and elegant. He cites Google as the model of perfect simplicity, in both its software design and its business model. Fair enough. But the question is, should all software meet this same standard? And my immediate response is, absolutely not. Maybe if you're writing for a consumer-level, shrink-wrapped market, you should strive for the highest level of usability and bullet-proof behavior. But really . . . what proportion of all the software written is written for the consumer-level mass market? It must be less than 1%. No, most of the software complexity that companies deal with is self-inflicted . . . it's code they write for their own business systems. And the overwhelming complexity that you find in the shrink-wrapped software sold to businesses (Microsoft, Oracle, PeopleSoft, etc.) is strictly in response to the demands for complexity that come straight out of the business needs. Most people who use Excel, the industry-standard spreadsheet, only use a tiny percentage of its functionality . . . but you don't get to be the industry standard spreadsheet without having every inch of that complexity.

Unlike Paul, I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing. Of course, my bias is obvious -- I'm one of those Highly Paid Consultants who have a stake in the software complexity racket. But the simple fact is, software gets complex because people ask it to do complex things. It isn't that hard to get a business-oriented software package like Microsoft Office or GoldMine installed. All the fun begins when you start trying to make it conform to your real business processes.

Unfortunately, the legitimate call for better and simpler software sometimes masks another sin: corporate hubris. A few years ago Larry Ellison once up at an Oracle conference and told the world that, rather than spend all that money and time trying to force Oracle to conform to their business models, companies should just change all their business processes to conform with the way Oracle does things. Because, after all, Oracle knows best. And all the things you know about your own business? All the things you spent the last twenty years learning about your market and your customers, and learning how to serve them best? You know . . . the core of your competitive advantage, what makes you different from every other guy in the business? That's just evil software complexity. Such individuality cannot be tolerated.

There are some economics involved, as well . . . making something elegant and bullet-proof requires an awful lot of underlying complexity. Writing a utility to perform a specific job is one thing, but making it idiot-proof and total self-sufficient, with every possible exception and bug fully anticipated . . . that increases the complexity of the code by an order of magnitude. And most people aren't willing to pay for that level of quality. Sure, they say they want that level of quality, but when I tell them I can make something that will do the job for $1,000, or make something elegant and bulletproof for $10,000, they vote with their wallets. "Just make it do the job for now, and we'll call you if we need more."

The whole model of buying software once and then paying continually for improvements, fixes, support and enhancements . . . this didn't just spring out of Bill Gate's imagination. It is a model that evolved in response to the reality how software works and what people expect it to do, and how much they are willing to pay for it. And all the Googles in the world can't change that.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Local politics gets . . . nice

So, just to finish my home-owner's association story . . . it turned out to be a remarkably tame affair. I had been led to believe that this could be an explosive knock-down-drag-out struggle between the build and don't-build factions . . . and absolutely none of it came to pass. As it turned out, everyone was in nearly complete agreement. Once all the details had come out about why the exceptions were needed (for a disabled child to have full access to the house) nobody had any objections at all to the proposed construction. The supposed cabal of long-time residents on the architectural review committee turned out to be three people who had only considered two proposals in the last seven years, and who had absolutely no stake in keeping the job. The supposedly fractious neighbor turned out to be the most supportive of mantaining unity and unaniminity in the neighborhood.

So what happened?

My first thought is that the fellow who brought all this up completely misread the whole situation. He thought he was about to get stuffed by some heartless assholes, and so he got lawyered up and started lobbying his position. All the carefully worded responses from the review committee were (mis)interpreted as cagey attempts to kill the proposal in committee and thus thwart justice.

My next thought was: my God, how can we ever hope for peace in the world, when less than a dozen families in one neighborhood can't even get their signals straight, and see war where there is only peace?

The one redeeming revelation is that everyone, by and large, does value peace and wants, above all, to get along with each other. This is one of the great virtues of "village morality" -- when you have to live with the same people for next twenty years, you find a way to get along.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Who needs dialog?

I saw a couple things recently that got me thinking about dialog in story-telling. One was Eight Below, a Disney feel-good piece about a guy who goes to extraordinary lengths to save his sled dogs who he was forced to abandon in the Antarctic. The other was a piece from the episode "Battleground" of the "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" productions of Stephen King stories, in which a hit man does battle with a box of toy soldiers that come to life in his apartment.

I said, "dialog in story-telling," but I should have said lack of dialog in story-telling. Normally, dialog is what distinguishes a story, and separates the men from the boys in writing. Authentic-sounding dialog is really hard, and really rewarding when its done well, so it's surprising to find works that forego it entirely. In both works, there are looooong stretches of the story that are told completely without words being spoken. (I didn't see the entire episode, but I think the "Battleground" story had zero dialog.) Eight Below had to tell the story of the dogs in the Antarctic, and (surprising for a Disney movie) the dogs can't talk. So, in both pieces the story has to be told (and told dramatically) with no words. (Warning: spoilers follow.)

This is not exactly new . . . Joss Whedon broke ground with his episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Hush," in which no spoken dialog occurred. But what struck me with these pieces is how much more powerful the stories were for the lack of dialog. Rather than just being a literary stunt (like Gadsby, Ernest Vincent Wright's novel written entirely without the letter "e") these stories felt better without dialog. In fact, the more I thought about it, I couldn't think of any dialog that could be included that would not seem inane and take away from the dramatic impact of the story. The dogs couldn't say anything more interesting than "watch out for that leopard seal!" or "gee, I'm hungry" . . . and those things are actually I lot more interesting to watch than to hear spoken. In fact, the show-don't-tell principle works extraordinarily well here, because the lack of dialog forces us closer to the experience of what's actually happening. Somehow a dog licking the face of his fallen companion is more compelling than any grave-side speech (sorry, Hamlet). (Kudos also to Disney for actually daring to have some of the dogs die. I got a lot more interested in the story once I saw there were real stakes in the story-telling.)

"Battleground" was also more dramatic for the lack of dialog. Similarly, it's the sort of thing that works well in action, but sounds inane when narrated or commented upon ("gee, where did those soldiers go?" or "Holy crap, they've got a cannon!") I think the lack of dialog aided in the suspension of disbelief necessary for the premise, too . . . the more talking that goes on, the more the rational mind is engaged, interfering with the immediacy of the fantastic events taking place.

I'm not sure how I can use this perspective on non-dialog . . . it just feels important to know that it's available. Wordless transmission, indeed.