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, January 20, 2007

Pirate Movie

I was thinking that the spoof factory that created the Scary Movie series of films could take a stab at Pirate Movie, now that Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man's Chest has had such blockbuster success (literally, a b...b...b...billion dollars at the world box office) that Hollywood executives will bless us with a campy Jack Sparrow story every summer from now til doomsday. (My wife went to her mother's this weekend, so it was good chance for me to do the catch-up-on-movies-the-other-one-has-seen thing.)

(Warning: spoilers follow. That is, if there is anyone alive on the planet who hasn't yet seen this flick.)

I enjoyed it, really, I did . . . it never promised more than light-hearted diversion, and it delivered that in spades. But there were a few points when the non-stop physical hijinks began to get ... dare I say it . . . boring. Like the Matrix sequels, the movie suffers from combat fatigue, to the point where a highly choreographed three-way duel on an unmoored rolling water-wheel is kinda ho-hum. The Matrix Reloaded taught me that action divorced from story becomes extremely tedious, because, in a CGI-saturated world, no mere physical feat can truly amaze us anymore. We need to care about the outcome, and that caring can only come from the story and our connection to the characters. And we couldn't care that much about the characters in a light-hearted campy summer movie, could we? When, at the end of the movie, the main characters are all mourning the loss of Cap'n Jack and contemplating recovering him from the jaws of death, I could barely feel a thing.

And yet . . . that's where the movie surprised me, because it did deliver on the story, in ways I didn't expect. The whole Davey Jones mythology was actually quite powerful, more interesting even than the cursed undead pirates of the Black Pearl. When Davey Jones asks some captive sailors, "Do ye fear death? Black oblivion . . . ?" for a moment I did fear death, and put myself in that position, wondering how I would greet the prospect of my own inevitable end. The fact that these men willingly chose their diminishment into increasing fishiness, to postpone the inevitability of final judgement, had a certain archetypal ring to it. The story takes its time to show how different men -- Will Turner, his father, Jack Sparrow -- engage this devil's deal, and that's where things get interesting.

There were other mythic elements, too: the compass that points to what you truly desire. That was philosophically interesting, because it echoes the truth -- you can't go after what you truly desire if you're desires are changing all the time. Only steadfastness of purpose (good or evil) can guide you to extraordinary ends.

And Jack Sparrow's end . . . well, that was quite something. For all its visual thrills, I got a greatest frisson watching the once-mincing, once-terrified Captain Jack charge down the gullet of the Kraken with sword drawn. That is the image of courage in the face of death, more stark and powerful than you'd ever expect out of light summer fare. Huh.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Steal this Lecture

The News and Observer reported that an NCSU professor has been asked to stop selling his lectures as online downloads. Interestingly, the university was not contesting whether the professor owned the rights to his lectures -- they affirmed that he did own the copyright to his own material. They were worried that he might have a conflict of interest, if he is making money on material that students expected to have already been covered by tuition costs. At least, that's what they are saying . . .
I am fascinated by this development because for the last five years I have been predicting the coming of the "rock-star professor," an educational free agent who will generate syndicated multi-media interactive content (what in ancient days was called a "class") used by many more institutions or individuals than a single teacher could previously reach in the traditional classroom fashion. Such an evolution in higher education would create a competitive market for good teaching, something often shockingly lacking in colleges and universities. An engineering grad student once told me: "This is probably the only professional job one can get with absolutely no training. I have zero preparation to teach." Nor does anyone have an economic interest in teaching him: the pay is comparable to unskilled labor.
In the case of Dr. Schrag, it looks like the university is trying to side-step the legal question of ownership, but still frames up the question in the status-quo assumption that the university is the seller of the education, not the professor. He is being told he can't sell it to his students because they already bought it . . . in the form of tuition to the school. Given the ever-mounting costs of college tuition, I can see why students might object to being nickeled and dimed . . . but it's hardly without precedent. When I was in school, professors routinely created course packs, photocopied materials of articles, reprints, and original material made specifically for the course. They were printed at Kinkos, and sold to students. It was just another textbook to buy, that's all. And at the price of $2.50 per lecture, his entire course could be had for $80, which is not uncommon for a textbook. (Ahhh, textbooks . . . that's another racket I would love to see undermined by a truly free market.)
When the university officials say "we just need a little time to look at the issue closely and sort everything out," what I hear them saying is: "look, you're going to create a lot of confusion in the marketplace. You're opening the door to people buying from you instead of us. Our whole branding message as a university will be shot if you start offering a la carte lectures. More importantly, that's our action. Hands off."
But the day is coming, mark my words. When a better-quality product can be had online for a fraction of the cost the universities charge, the market will there. The universities will get into the education syndication business, lending their branding to such efforts . . . or they will get run over by it.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Globally Positioned

My boss Harry gave me a GPS navigation system for Christmas -- a Garmin StreetPilot 340. He had floated the idea of giving one to all our consultants, and I had deferred for myself. "I was sometimes tempted to buy one, but I never thought I would use it enough to justify the price tag." I mean, how often am I driving to a new place? Once a month? And, between MapQuest and good directions, I always managed to find my way. So it seemed like an over-geeked thrill, a luxury purchased and never used, like an expensive exercise machine that gathers dust.

At least, that was my expectation. How wrong I was.

The killer feature that I did not anticipate was "Arrival Time." The device not only tells you where to go, it continually predicts your arrival time to the destination. So, all the stress of wondering whether you're going to be late or not is completely removed -- from the beginning of the trip, you know. No more wondering if you have time for a quick side-trip; that, too, can be calculated. That knowledge can be extremely powerful when you're trying to squeeze in errands. And if you call the customer to tell him you're going to be late, you can make a really accurate prediction of how late. The end result: much reduced stress. A two-hour drive to Charlotte, when time was tight, could be two hours of "hurry-hurry-hurry" tension . . . and now that's gone.

Another side-benefit is street education. Even when you think you're familiar with an area, you don't always know the best way to get from A to B. Several times the Garmin has saved me five or ten minutes by showing a better route.

And that's all on top of the original concept: telling you how to get someplace new. Even Janet, technophobe slow-adopter that she is, had to admit: "That thing saved my butt last night." When you're going to a new book-club location in the dark, in heavy traffic, the strain of watching and wondering, "Am I there yet? Did I miss my turn? Is this my turn?" can wear you down.

There are limitations, of course. There are some addresses and locations the device doesn't know about, and the usually easy process of programming it because maddenly frustrating. Sometimes it can't find it's satellites right away and you have to wait. But these are exceptions that prove the rule -- once you have the luxury of that information, you don't want to be without it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Say it again

Every semester, we go through the same process at the Self Knowledge Symposium -- we ask ourselves, "How do we tell people what we are?" The answer keeps changing. Not because our values or mission are changing, necessarily . . . although some of that is happening, too. It's also because the people we're talking to are changing; the culture is changing. The language that inspired me when I was in college is not necessarily what will reach students today. And, come to think of it, even the language we used before wasn't all that great.

I wrote some copy for an email blast, and some of the students flunked it. "Don't make it sound like SKS is for broken people. People don't go to college to find the meaning of their lives -- that's not how they think about it. People go to clubs because they want to make friends and find out what they're interested in. Make sure they understand that we're not trying to tell them what to think."

So I took another whack at it. Here's the result:

Subject: SKS starts this MONDAY @ 7:30 pm -- NEWCOMERS WELCOME

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

meeting Mondays, 7:30 pm
220 Saunders starting next week, January 22.

Refreshments provided. Newcomers welcome!

The Self Knowledge Symposium is a student group dedicated to talking about things that matter.

So...what matters?

Only you can answer that for sure...but we have some pretty good ideas:
Finding the truth matters.
Being true to yourself matters.
Doing the right thing matters.
Finding out what life has to offer you, matters.
Finding out what you can offer to the world, matters.

For lack of a better word, we call it spiritual seeking: finding the truth about yourself and the world, and living in accordance with your highest ideas. We don'thave the answers, but we DO think we're asking theright questions.

In the meetings, our conversation is both philosophical and deeply personal. You'll do more than talk about ideas and issues; you'll get to know people beyond the superficial.You'll make some of the most important friendships of your life.

Outside the meetings, you'll get to put your ideals into action. The SKS encourages and supports people to"run experiments" with their life, to test their ideasin the real world.
Questions? Email us at xyz@email.unc.edu, or checkout our website at http://www.selfknowledge.org/
See you next week.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Wal-Mart Effect, noch einmal

I finally finished reading Charles Fishman's The Wal-Mart Effect, about three months after starting. I would definitely recommend it to most anyone, though its thoroughness might encourage some to go for an abridgement.

Occasionally I've seen reviewers refer to this book as a "Wal-Mart expose," which feels a little too tilted to the anti-Wal-Mart side to be fair. The book does take an awfully critical view of some of Wal-Mart's practices, sometimes scathingly so. But it doesn't delve into those issues until it's spent at least the first half of the book trying to understand where Wal-Mart came from and how it really operates. The book is absolutely fair in extolling the virtues of Wal-Mart's culture and its stated mission of thrift: "Always low prices." If anything, Wal-Mart has become such a behemoth precisely because it has been scrupulously true to its mission, never losing focus on cutting costs. Wal-Mart is not a hugely profitable business; every efficiency it wrings out of the supply chain is dutifully passed on to the consumer in the form of lower prices. In that sense, Wal-Mart comes across less as an icon of corporate greed than as a symbol of misplaced values.

Nor was Fishman extreme in his prescriptions of what ought to be done about Wal-Mart. He did not propose restricting what Wal-Mart could do. He did not propose stopping Wal-Mart from setting up new stores, or pricing as aggressively as it does. What he does call for is more information. He points out how many key economic indicators related to consumer spending and inflation now need an asterisk: "Not including Wal-Mart sales." When a single company's activity can push the entire economy fifteen points up or down, don't you think we deserve to know a little more about them? Fishman is ruthless in pointing out how the culture of secrecy at Wal-Mart keeps people from properly understanding the effects Wal-Mart has, and how downright duplicitous the company was in trying to thwart economic studies, and then totally misconstruing them when they were finally published. (I suspect that Fishman was venting his own journalistic frustrations at the lack of data and, even more so, the lack of people brave enough to go on the record about Wal-Mart.)

So, just for the record, what are those effects?:
  • Wal-Mart absolutely and categorically lowers prices, not just in its own stores but in the entire economy.
  • Wal-Mart also lowers quality, as constant price pressures force manufacturers to design quality and features out of their products in order to arrive at a lower price
  • Wal-Mart does not destroy the total number of jobs, though it does certainly steal lots of retailing jobs from other local vendors
  • Wal-Mart does send manufacturing jobs overseas, and not just through indirect market forces. The book is rife with tales of Wal-Mart explicitly telling vendors they must move their manufacturing overseas or lose Wal-Mart's business.
  • Wal-Mart does force other companies out of business. (Whether that is necessarily bad is open to argument. Competition does force bad companies out of the game, and forces others to get busy.)
  • Wal-Mart does not always win in every market. Some companies, whose core differentiator is quality rather than price, decide that "always low prices" is anathama to their business models, and do quite well without Wal-Mart. Fishman cites Snapper and Starbucks as examples.
  • Wal-Mart has no soul. It seems like a curious thing to say, but Fishman has a telling comparison of Wal-Mart to Southwest Airlines, another category-killer of a company with low prices and no-frills experience. Southwest has a sense of humor; Wal-Mart has none.

What I found most appealing about Fishman's study was his faith in the power of the consumers. He recognizes the fundamental truth: Wal-Mart gets its power from us, the people who shop there. We are responsible for the economic, social, and environmental consequences of everyday low prices. And Fishman's prescription of more information from Wal-Mart is geared toward trying to persuade the consumer that its a bad deal. "I don't think people would dress their kids in $5 shirts if they knew how the people who made them were treated," he says. He also generously holds out the hope that Wal-Mart could be a power for great good, if it used its buying power to establish better environmental and labor practices in the third world. But it's a slim hope. He recognizes how terribly difficult it is to change a culture -- Wal-Mart's, or our own. His final thesis: people shop at Wal-Mart because thrift is a distinctly American virtue . . . and they will only stop shopping at Wal-Mart when they begin to perceive it as a vice.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Blue Goo Stew

Aidan pulled me away from my newspaper, a big grin on his face. "Daddy, come see! We're making Blue Goo Stew!"

Next to the couch in the living room Aidan and Malcolm had corralled all the dining room chairs into a circular clump. "So, so, so, here's how you play. You run around in the circle, until someone ... TAGS you. And then . . . we tie the jumprope around you, and we throw you into the Blue GOO!" And he collapsed into giggling. "BLUE GOO!" echoed Malcolm enthusiastically.

"Here, we'll show you," said Aidan, suddenly business-like. And he and Malcolm danced around on top of the chairs in a mock chase until Aidan tags Malcolm. Aidan tied the red jumprope around Malcolm's middle, and Mal, like the youngest bungee jumper alive, hurled himself onto a pile of pillows on the couch.

"Ok, I'll play," I said.
"And YOU," said Aidan, "You sit right . . . right . . . HERE," indicating a tiny kid chair next to the sofa, "And you . . . mix up Malcolm . . . into the Blue Goo! And that's how you make . . . Blue Goo Stew! And then, and then, and then, and then . . . you EAT! the BLUE GOO STEW!" And he dissolved into laughter again.

So we played Blue Goo Stew, with Aidan and Malcolm alternately hurling themselves into the pillows, and me stirring the pillows around with a long buckwheat pillow, and me scooping up a child in a ticklish embrace and pretending to eat them, chanting "Stew MEAT! Stew MEAT!"

We had a lot of fun.

* * *

So where did THAT come from? I have no idea. But that's exactly why I loved it so much. It was the result of unstructured play. They started with a bit of spontaneous young-boy wordplay and gross-out humor, and expanded it bit by spontaneous bit, putting rules together like so many tinker toys. They were peacefully, enthusiastically collaborating (which is challenging for a six-year-old and a three-year-old), all without any input from me at all.

I can't begin to describe how important unstructured play is. When you see it happening, you realize that this is it, this is what kids that age are supposed to be doing. They are clearly firing on all cylinders; physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects are fully engaged, and they are enjoying it more than anything else they could be doing.

I recently heard a lead-in on a story on NPR about how unstructured play was gradually being displaced by TV, video games, and structured activities like music lessons, dance lessons, and sports. Having witnessed the beauty and wonder of my own kids in unstructured play, I can fully conceive of the loss. I have explicitly given over part of my Schedule to unstructured play time with the kids, because I want to be a part of that world.

It also influenced me to declutter my own schedule. How much room do I have in my own life for unstructured play? How much creativity, enthusiasm, and development is lost because I'm so busy all the time? The comparison doesn't completely hold up; adults are not children, and their need for re-creation is not the same. But I have noticed that, when I structure time away from work, to be with my family or work around the house or write, that I am noticing more. I am doing things better; fixing things spontaneously; making tiny improvements. Little things, mind you; making a bed that otherwise would not have been made, or tightening the screws on a doorknob. Because I have given myself over to the moment, because I have lavished time on these things, they are becoming more alive for me.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Ending of Howard's End

Janet and I had been going for a record on Netflix inactivity. We had had the same DVD -- Howard's End -- sitting on top of the TV cabinet for nearly a month. It was long enough that we could never quite bring ourselves to watch it . . . until now. But we certainly wanted to; Howard's End is a movie that seems to always be invoked in other movie reviews whenever any of its actors are mentioned (e.g. "Oh, this is another rich-patriarch role, a la Howard's End, for Anthony Hopkins") and looked like the sort of movie we could get into, i.e. a period drama in which nothing gets blown up.

(Warning: spoilers follow. If, of course, it's possible to have a spoiler for something released fifteen years ago.)

About halfway through I remarked to Janet, "This story would be rather plodding, almost boring, if it weren't for such great acting." Vanessa Redgrave as Ruth Wilcox was the most convincing dying woman we had ever seen stage or screen, including stories like Wit that are all about a dying woman. She had that aura of luminescent diminishment, like someone already halfway to the other side. And all the other characters were perfectly cast and played as well. Anthony Hopkins is the final word in complex rich patriarchs, although he never quite rounded the bend into likeable on this one. Emma Thompson is sort of a female equivalent of Tom Hanks, someone infinitely likeable and empathetic, even when she does things we can't quite agree with, and she anchors this movie with that quality. Helena Bonham Carter has the capacity to go from almost as likeable as Emma Thompson to a fey, oh-my-god-that-girl-is-nuts intensity, and both those capacities get a workout in this film.

As for the story of Howard's End . . . well, you can tell that it's an adapted novel and not a Hollywood script. It has a quirky, meandering, rather non-linear way of unfolding that feels just like some novels. (Usually, the novels in which the author doesn't himself know what's going to happen next, which I find to be frustratingly arbitrary in their plots.) Such novel-y plots require great acting and cinematography to convey the sense of character development and mood that are the whole point of such novels. I suppose Howard's End the movie pulls that off; I did sit through all two hours and twenty minutes being completely engaged.

I guess what bothered me the most was that the premise of the story -- a good woman cheated of her inherited house eventually gets it back anyway -- prepares you for a story of poetic justice. Margaret Schlegel does eventually get the house that Ruth Wilcox willed to her -- but that outcome feels almost paltry and anti-climactic after all that preceeds it. The justice that ultimately comes down on all the characters is out of proportion. Margaret Schlegel, who does try awfully hard to be consistently good throughout the story, winds up disaffected from her husband. Helen Schlegel, who is the most passionate about doing the right thing, winds up pregnant out of wedlock and expelled from society. Her lover, Leonard Bost, who was an extremely decent stand-up chap except for his one indiscretion, never gets any consolation for his goodness; he gets trapped in a not-exactly-loveless marriage to a lushy woman, struggles to make a living while his poetic soul languishes, loses his job because of bad information, descends into utter poverty, and ultimately is killed in an accident, crushed under the books he loves. Oy. The Wilcoxes certainly deserved to lose their ancestral home, but they didn't really much want it anyway to begin with, and the son Charles takes a heavy manslaughter rap while his father Henry seems to miss any direct consequences entirely, other than returning to the loneliness of an aging widower.

What are we to conclude from such a sequence of events? That rich people are assholes? That poor people get the shaft? That the good people in between get bashed about by trying to associate with both rich and poor? These all may hold some truth, but it wasn't really the truth we expected.