Sunday, October 30, 2005

He asked me why

The truth about stories is that's all we are. (Thomas King, The Truth About Stories)

Some months ago, Rob at Chesterly was kind enough to ask why I blog. I responded by taking about a month's hiatus from blogging. Sorry 'bout that.

In part, it's because I thought the question was asked and answered back at the beginning. One reason I blog because the concept came up on some library listservs I'm on, and I felt I had to experiment with the technology to say anything about it.

So what have I learned? The first is an old library school lesson: first separate medium from content, then explore how they relate. On the software level, a blogging platform is nothing but a simple content management system - a very low barrier to entry way of publishing content to the Web. On the content level, like any other medium, there's good stuff and bad stuff, neither invalidates the other, there's no arguing taste, and Sturgeon's Law applies.

This makes the question, for librarians, whether that tool does what you want it to. If you have information to publish in a reverse-chronological format, then yes, your library could use a blog for that. If you think you need a blog because everybody's got one, or that you don't because they're only for crazy theories about the Men In Black, go back and reread that last paragraph. We fought this battle back in the mid '90s about whether libraries needed web pages at all; we don't have to re-fight it.

I've also learned that I outgrew Blogger pretty quickly. I've considered working on another platform, but I lack the energy to run two blogs, or move all the content from this one. Blogger needs two things to be competitive, IMO.

To encourage discussion, Blogger needs threaded comments and better identity management. LiveJournal seems to be eating everybody else's lunch in this space, and I can't for the life of me understand why. This not new; we learned it with Usenet newsreaders. You can't have strong discussions (i.e. strong communities) with a purely chronological discussion thread.

My interests are also wide-ranging enough that I really want more categorization options, a la Typepad. I should be able to separate out the multiple different areas I write about, and you should be able to easily see only the ones which interest you. If Blogger wants to shed its "cute pictures of my minivan" reputation, this would be a good way to do it.

Oh - and I need some kind of way to format my tangents differently. But that's probably a CSS trick as much as a system feature, so I could learn it mydamnself.

The other reason I started this blog was because my friend Reg asked why I wasn't writing a novel. I repeated this story to my friend CJ, thinking he'd join me in laughing off the idea. He said it was a good question.

All my life I've thought about writing. I've talked about writing. I've told stories very well, and I've had interesting discussions. But what I haven't done is written, actually put words on the page and open them up to other people. Hip Deep finally gives me a place to do that. I don't work as much with technical elements like voice and tone as I want to, to really hone the craft. But at least writing in TextEdit and posting to Blogger gives me a little time to work, and the knowledge that there are people out there, reading and responding, gives me a reason to work on the next one.

And is it working? I don't know. I'm not convinced that my writing is much better than it was when I started. The blogosphere is pretty kind about critiquing your thought instead of your technique. On the other hand, I have a pretty large portfolio of my own writing to review, and I can identify some of my aggravating habits and work on them.

The novel is definitely not coming. Characters don't seem to come to me. I suppose I could work on plots and descriptions and see if the characters appear. These editorials, however, practically write themselves. This is what I can see myself writing... a slice of life, commentary and criticism, reviews, an occasional joke.

At the end of the day, I write in order to write. We are the story-telling animal. We're the only ones who talk about who was here before us and what happens when we're gone. That is why I blog: to tell these stories. To make sure someone does. Because they're mine.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sensitive New Age Guys

There was a particular lyric which I was trying to get into the Big Overserious Book Review, below, but I couldn't quite get it to fit.

Fortunately, I had a look at Wil Wheaton's Blog In Exile this morning, and found the link to Jonathan Coulton's cover of the song.

And then I snorted coffee through my nose.

(NOTICE: that link goes straight to the MP3, which may not be safe for work if your colleagues lack a sense of humor. Or hate it when you laugh uncontrollably.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why don't people understand my intentions?

You can't exactly call The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology a "ripping yarn." You can call it "a stinging critique of the obesity science industry, hidden in the body of a review of the health sciences literature," but then people would fall asleep.

Oh, ha ha. Wake up. This is important.

Yes, it's a dense academic tome with 19 pages of footnotes. You can handle it. And you should, because there are three extremely important messages in this book.

First, the authors make a pretty good case that we know a lot less about the causal relationships in human health than we think we do. The definition is important there: medicine has been very effective at discovering what makes people sick (and how to make people not sick), but it's much harder to even establish what it means to be well.

We know a lot about correlations, but not a lot about what actually causes "health," or what definitively causes "lifestyle" illnesses (whatever those are). The authors do a good job of pointing out the methodological problems in this area: those darn Human Factors Boards won't tend to let you lock up big samples of people and mess with their diets and activity levels, so you're left with a lot of self-reporting and "best guess" research. This tells us a lot of things, but it doesn't establish causality.

What's even worse, we have a lot of people making completely unsubstantiated claims because of this lack of data. Let's take that truism that "we're less active now than we were 50 or 100 years ago." Well, we don't have particularly good data on current activity levels, and for 50 or 100 years ago, we pretty much don't have any. Lots of people believe this statement, but it's essentially speculation, not science.

This worries me, and it should worry you, because it's a bigger social phenomenon. I'm concerned that our high school and college students aren't required to learn enough logic, and we're not equipping ourselves to evaluate the arguments which we see only in a distilled pop culture form. If we don't teach ourselves to follow up on the 20-second news blurb, how can we ever make good decisions?

The second point, as I've written before, is that the intersection between body aesthetics and ideology is dangerously toxic. I'm not saying that it's wrong to admit that you like looking at some body types better than others. I'm saying you're in a bad intellectual neighborhood when you let yourself mistake appearance for personality.

Gard and Wright are pretty good about criticizing both sides of the street on this one. Most people will be familiar with the modern trope that fatness is a sign of moral decay. (And it is a modern construction.) They also do a good job of criticizing the CSPI/Fast Food Nation folks, who seem to believe that it's The Big Bad Corporation that makes us fat. Between the two groups, it seems that everyone who doesn't fit an idealized body type must be either lazy to the point of evil, or too dumb to be responsible for themselves. (Because, after all, Kate Moss is such a good role model.)

(I'm reminded of an old parody of Cliff's Notes I saw back in high school. The study questions for Julius Caesar included this: "Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look." Do you have a friend with a "lean and hungry look"? Give him a sandwich before somebody gets hurt.)

The problem is that these beliefs do leak into our science and public policy. That brings us to point number three: science is performed by humans, which means that there's an inextricable social element to it.

I said this to one of my colleagues, and he reacted as though I were a beret-wearing, Gauloise-smoking postmodernist. So don't get me wrong; I'm a big fan of the scientific method. Science, in the long term, builds on what is demonstrably true and leaves behind what is not. Still, human beings have an incredible ability to find what they're looking for. Especially when that's what the Tenure and Promotion Committee is looking for, or the grant agency is looking for, or the publisher is looking to sell, or the CEO thinks is profitable, or the current administration can use to win votes. Or just because it grinds your axe.

To pretend that's not true, as if scientists go off to some socially isolated clean room where The Truth always wins out, is a potentially deadly mistake, especially in the short run. Basic Science, after all, is in a big knowledge web with Engineering and Policy, and the only thing worse than leaving them all tangled up is to try and pull them apart. Better to acknowledge that the evidence says they are related, and try to tease out the relationships from there.

It's what a Scientist would do.

Friday, October 21, 2005

We're gonna have a good time

Fuzzy robe and fluffy slippers. Check.
Big pot of coffee and bag of donuts. Check.
Drafted PowerPoints on the definition of an information commons, residential network security, and how to use PowerPoint well, all of which need to be finished within 2 weeks. Check.

It is not either a sad way to spend my birthday. Actually, I'm rather looking forward to it.

By the way, it seems that somebody at a site called Red Nova liked my bit on compact fluorescents enough to proclaim this a "Red Hot Blog of the Day". But I don't really think they got my good side.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Secret Agent Man

I do not know who the blond woman was in the Baltimore airport. I do know she had a cell phone and a loud Texas accent. I do not know who she was talking to. I have forgotten the initials of the organization she talked about. I do, however, know:
  • That she was flying to Columbus and probably on to Houston.

  • That she talked about somebody named Tom and somebody named Bob Roberts.

  • That she's trying to convince Bob not to "announce" for something this year, but to wait a year.

  • That this seems to have to do with Tom announcing for it this year.

  • And that she, Bob, Tom, and the person on the phone are the only people who have to know about their little "secret."

Well, except for everybody in line near her.

And I told many, many people.

Moral of this story: cell phones are not for use in crowded areas where people can't not eavesdrop. And if you must use them in such places, you shouldn't talk about "secrets." Because the world is full of jackholes like me.

P.S. to the young guy behind us in line: be glad you don't have a loud grating voice, or I'd be writing about your company's purchasing issues with the DOD.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The waiter brought a tray

In honor of Harold Pinter winning the Nobel Prize, we bring you this pause.


(This joke stolen wholesale from Neil Gaiman.)


(And if you can come up with a better title for this post, I'm all ears.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Here she comes

I just ran upstairs and dragged Herself to the TV so she didn't miss an annual highlight of TV watching.

The Mrs. America Pageant Costume Competition.

It's hard for me to embellish the strange blend of tackiness and state pride that shows up on this runway, so we'll just start with the fact that Mrs. Georgia came out carrying a big cracked egg, which split open to reveal her yellow feathered bikini. Georgia, apparently, is America's leader in poultry production.

And then:

Two blond women dressed as Indians. Did you know the Native Americans invented the Bedazzler?

A skier and a "blues musician" who just weren't trying very hard.

Mrs. Missouri, dressed as a straight flush, saluting the "gambling tradition of America's heartland." Shhhh, don't tell the Moral Majority.

A Norse goddess and a Greek goddess. Seriously, don't tell Falwell.

Two college football players, also not trying hard.

A butterfly, a bee, two birds, and two angels. Red Bull gives you wings.

Mrs. Iowa, dressed as corn. Again.

Mrs. Kansas, dressed as wheat. Again.

Dressed in all white: Mrs. Montana, as clouds. Mrs. Vermont, as snow. Mrs. Wyoming, as snow. Mrs. Wisconsin, as milk.

Mrs. Pennsylvania, supposedly dressed as a coal mine, but a big black cape makes you look like Vampirella.

Mrs. Virginia seems to think there's camoflage and sequins in the Army dress uniform. Apparently we're at war with the Village People.

Mrs. Maine, in a brown bathing suit with moose antlers on her head.


I swear, I am not making this up.

So, if any of my married readers want to pursue their dream, just remember: it's about the camp factor. Don't go trotting out something you'd wear to a Halloween party that you're not really psyched for. You can go the homemade craftsy way, if you want to make yourself a decorated poncho. At least we'll know your heart's in it. Feathers good. Capes good. But if you can come up with headgear somewhere between 1/4th and 1/3rd your own hight, well, you just might make it after all.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

This is your song

I ran across this meme rather by accident, but I liked it, so I figured I'd give it some legs.

1. Pick one of your favorite blogs (not including your own; we'll get to that), and suggest a theme song for it. Explain.

2. If your blog (see, I told you) had a theme song, what would it be? Explain.

3. If your blogging career suddenly collapsed into a steaming mass of putrid refuse because of your inability to cope with its worldwide popularity, and your friends decided to try to revive your spirits by putting on a benefit concert, which musical artist(s) would you hope that they would invite? Explain.

Note that if you don't have a blog, you can still participate. Just substitute "job" for "blog" in question 2 and leave out "blogging" in question 3.

Question 1 took a while. But finally, I decided that there was a rock star who has been a teacher, and a poet, and for all I know a referee, and who has written temperate expressions of liberal ideas.

So my theme song for Various Observations in Written Form is Sting's Love is the Seventh Wave.

Question 2 is easy. I think of this blog as a place to be overeducated and intricate but still lead with my heart. So what sounds like that? Let's say U2's End of the World, or Talking Heads' Once in a Lifetime.

Unfortunately, the actual answer is probably some overeducated pompous blowhard piece of art-rock garbage by Yes.

Question 3: If?

Well, I'm going to say Sting, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, and Vinx. Because I've seen each of them more than once, and I figure they owe me. (Plus, Vinx actually deserves the PR from headlining JoeAid... one of the most electrifying performers I've ever seen.)

By the way, thanks for my 2500th (measured) hit - from someone using Verizon who linked in off of TRP's site.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

You light up my life

The Administrator of the EPA was on NPR this morning, talking about "Change A Light Day." (Which, apparently, was today. Surprise!)

The EPA would like you to know that compact fluorescent bulbs use one-third the energy of an incandescent bulb. Supposedly, if every household in America would just switch to use one compact fluorescent, we could save one million cars' worth of pollution. Change a bulb, save the planet. But that's not why I'm telling you.

If you're good at math, you probably just figured out that one-third the electricity costs one-third the money. Sure, the bulbs cost more (a fair bit more) at the store. But they say that, over the life of the bulb, they should save enough energy to pay for themselves. Change a bulb, save some dough. But that's also not why I'm telling you.

I can hear the doubters, because I used to be one. Won't they give off nasty green light like a department store? Won't they flicker? They don't. They won't. They give a warm, steady light.

OK, so I drank the Kool-Aid. We're already using a bunch of them at home. So it's true that I'm looking for people to switch so that they'll sell better and price will go down. And because we've replaced almost all the bulbs we can, so I can't change much more myself. And that's still not why I'm telling you.

I'm telling you because compact fluorescent bulbs are a way cool labor saving device which reduce one of my most annoying household tasks. See, they last forever. You know those annoying fixtures which are just a little too high, or the shades are a pain to get off? Replace the bulb with a fluorescent and forget it. They can stand up to a mid-Ohio winter in our outdoor fixtures, which are my absolute least favorite to change. Reaching over my head to mess with stupid little thumbscrews, invariably in the dark and cold... I'll buy anything that makes that job go away.

They're not perfect. Since they're on ballast, not filament, you can't use them with a dimmer switch. And since ballasts can get fire hazard hot when they burn out, you cannot use them upside down or in a ceiling can. So, of course, our new upstairs is full of ceiling cans on dimmers. They're not exactly gorgeous, so we don't use them in all these ceiling fans we've got. (OK, the Energy Star site says you can get dimmable, encloseable, and ornamental lights, but my Kroger doesn't sell them.)

They also have to warm up for about a minute. I think this is a really cool effect as the light gradually grows, but if you have need for full light as soon as you hit the switch, that might be the wrong place.

So switch to save the planet, to save some dough, and to save some labor. Switch because it's no long-term sacrifice at all. But most importantly

switch because it's cool

like me.