Thursday, December 13, 2007

Waiting for Godsnow

Just came if from the second round of shoveling. I was out there for a while. In the middle of clearing the driveway, I saw the city plow making its rounds on our neighboring streets, and it didn't make sense to me to go inside just to come out again to clear the bottom of the driveway once the plow got to our street.

So I finished the driveway. And waited. And noticed that the snow was falling heavily enough that there was snow enough -- if only barely -- to clear the driveway again while I waited for the plow. So I did. In the middle of the second pass, the plow came down our street, and cleared the opposite side. This left the bottom of our drive open. So I cleared again. And again.

Somewhere during the third or fourth pass, the whole thing started to feel like something out of a Samuel Beckett play. Waiting for the promised arrival of something that promised both liberation -- once the plow came, I would be free to stop shoveling, at least for a while -- and subjugation -- before I could lay down my burden, I had to tackle the most arduous task. I knew the plow was imminent, but it traveled according to its own schedule, caring little for my needs and desires.

Vladimir: Let's go.

Estragon: We can't.

Vladimir: Why not?

Estragon: We're waiting for DaPlow.

Personally, though, I've always preferred Stoppard's existentialism to Beckett's. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I could while away the time playing Questions:

Rosentom: Where is it?

Guildenbernard: Where is what?

Rosentom: What have we been talking about all this time?

Guildenbernard: You mean the plow?

Rosentom: Do you imagine I meant something else?

Guildenbernard: Do you have any other current obsessions I should know about?

And so on.

Jean Paul Sartre (Snow Exit) would say Hell is clearing other people's snow from the foot of one's driveway.

With regard to the American dramatic canon, I don't have a son, so I can't imagine how Arthur Miller would deal with matters. Tennessee Williams couldn't pull off a story set in the Northeast. Clifford Odets would have a field day with my situation, but he would have construed the plow as a surrogate for the mechanism of capitalism itself, which is somewhat beside the point.

Ultimately, though, David Mamet would render his dramatic opinion in the most succinct and accurate manner, one I certainly share:

@#$%in' snow.

Monday, December 10, 2007

If at first you don't succeed...

...try and try until you don't succeed again, and again, and again.

I don't recall where I heard that line. I know it was in a some cartoon I saw years ago. Something like Animaniacs or Pinky and the Brain or Freakazoid! or something of that sarcastic and self-referential sort. Wherever it originated, the hopeful fatalism of the line resonated with me. I still think of it when faced with a new challenge. It's a reminder about the benefit of process independent of outcome, and of the journey being as valuable as the destination.

Over the past week or so, echoes of that message have popped up in a variety of places.

First, The Lovely Wife suggested I read and article in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind:

Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.

The article is worth a read, but it boils down to the idea with which I began: fostering an "if at first you don't succeed" orientation not only helps people overcome challenges, but develops their enthusiasm for challenge itself.

No sooner had I digested this article than The Kid and I rented Meet the Robinsons (2007). It's standard Disney animated fare, leavened with a variation on that eerily persistent challenge-positive message. The central theme of the story is Keep Moving Forward. Embrace failure. Learn from your mistakes, and use what you learn to keep making bigger and better mistakes, until you finally succeed.

[Fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will recognize this as the "burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp" principle.]

Then, on the heels of watching the movie, I discovered Launchball. This addictive little online game presents a series of engineering simulations masquerading as puzzles. I blasted through the first two levels quickly, and most of the third level was hit or miss.

The object of the game is simple: use the limited supply of materials you are provided to guide a ball from the launch point to a goal. The materials and the layout of the environment vary from level to level, and include things like conveyor belts, steam turbines, fans and wind turbines, lights, mirrors and solar cells, elastic blocks and inclines. Where you place your tools affects the system (e.g., heating a network of copper blocks melts ice that powers water turbines that open gates between the ball and the goal), making it possible to complete the level.

One of the things I like about the game is that the activation button for each level is marked TEST. It's not a win-lose proposition like so many other games*. It's not even about success or failure. It's about workable and unworkable solutions. It's about testing hypotheses, and adjusting the parameters of the experiment when the hypothesis fails to achieve the desired outcome of reaching the goal. Because everything is a test, the margin between an unworkable and a workable solution is simply a matter of altering some variables, and of working with the resources available.

Right now, I am (maddeningly) stuck on the third to last level of the game, which involves placing a series of four mirrors within a grid containing a number of obstacles in order to bounce a beam of light off a series of mirrors to trigger a solar cell to power a fan to push the ball to the goal. I know it's all a matter of angles and placement, but so far, I haven't determined the proper configuration. I'm sure the solution is just a few more tests away. Logically, given the size of the grid, there are only so many possibly configurations.

[Fans of jokes about manure shoveling will recognize this as the "there has to be a pony in here somewhere" principle.]

Why does any of this matter? It doesn't. Why does any of this matter to me? I figure there are worse things a parent can teach their child.

*Don't get me wrong; I like competitive games just fine. I like competition and challenge, and there are plenty of games that provide that. I also like solving puzzles, of wrestling with the conviction that the solution is within my reach, and knowing that reaching it is only a matter of time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Five marginally more connected than my usual "Five unconnected points" points

Today's magic word is "consumption."
  • On a recent trip to the supermarket, I paid attention to juice section of the dairy aisle. For one national brand, I counted no fewer than eight different styles of orange juice, available in seven different sizes. And that's just the fresh-picked juice. Then there are the various sizes and varieties of juice from concentrate, the certified organic stuff, and the plethora of other flavors and blends. Now multiply that by the four or five other national or regional brands, and the store's own proprietary label, and seemingly simple matter of "buying some juice" becomes an exercise in decision paralysis.
  • Don't even get me started on all the different types of hummus there are to choose from.
  • Maybe I'm just paying more attention this year, but I'm noticing more "X gifts under $X" guides than I've been consciously aware of in years past.
  • The week's New York magazine featured a full page advertisement for engraveable bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue label scotch. To me, this crosses the line from generosity to overkill. I can't imagine appreciating a bottle of Johnnie Blue any more just because it happened to have my name on it. (Note that anyone wishing to test the limits of my gratitude at this festive time of year should feel welcome to attempt to prove me wrong.)
  • I'm at the tail end of a bothersome cold. Feeling much better now, thanks. The only problem is that laughter sends me into slight coughing fits.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Pizza, Pop Culture, and Politics

Watch out, this one jumps around a little.

The other night, we ordered a pizza from Hot Tomatoes in Williamstown, our favorite non-homemade pizza option. It was a chilly evening, which made the hot pizza box a welcome hand warmer on the short walk from the shop to my car.

Cool night, hot pizza, tantalizing aroma. There is something special about going out to pick up a pizza. I remember doing it as a kid, going into the pizzeria with one of my parents, waiting for our order to be ready, carrying the pizza out to our car, and then sitting with it on my lap during the ride home, tempted by the smell, and thinking our short car ride would never end.* A reminder -- as if one were really necessary -- that, done right, pizza is the food of the gods. For pizza, like grace, often comes to us only after a time of testing.

The conflation of pizza with the numinous was burned into my geek brain years ago when I read The Amazing Spider-Man #252.

While the comic book is about more than pizza, there is a sequence during the story when Peter Parker goes out to his local pizzeria to pick up a pie for dinner. Granted, this is hardly the sort of action packed sequence on which Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made their bones (in which case, the whole story would have been set in a pizza place, Stan would have teased the story by writing something like "Excelsior, Effendi! Get Set for a Magnificent Meal in the Mighty Marvel Manner!" Spidey would have ended up fighting Electro, of Sandman, or The Lizard or someone, and the pizza place would have gotten trashed in the process, for which Spider-Man would once again be branded a public menace, and poor, luckless Peter Parker would have gone home without supper, which he would, of course, already have paid for.**) but this digression into the minutia of normal life does have a particular purpose in the context of this story, aside from the revealing that Peter Parker likes green peppers on his pizza. The pizza represents a welcome, er, slice of home for a hero who just got back from an adventure in outer space. Beyond that, the real historical value of this issue is that it represents the first appearance of Spider-Man's black costume.

At the end of the previous issue of The Amazing Spider-Man , Spidey disappeared from New York's Central Park while investigating a strange alien artifact that materialized in Sheep Meadow. This sequence was repeated across a number of Marvel comics -- including The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Thor, and The Uncanny X-Man -- during the month The Amazing Spider-Man #251 hit the stands.

The reason for this mass disappearance would be explained in Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars***, a 12-issue mini-series that premiered on the heels of the heroes' departure. While Secret Wars ran for a year, the heroes all returned from the adventure chronicled in that story with their following issue. So, when Spider-Man "returned" (after having been gone for about a week), he came back wearing a new costume.

Readers learned that he obtained the costume during his adventure on another planet in another galaxy. The origin of the costume, and the danger it posed for Spider-Man, played out over the course of several months of stories, culminating in Spidey returning to his iconic red and blue uniform****.

I suspect this is all of limited interest beyond the sphere of my own pathetic obsessiveness. So let me get to the point I'm trying to make. To wit:


Look at it, right there on the cover.


This comic book game out 23 years ago. At the time, North Adams was hardly a mecca of alternative culture. Rumors? What rumors? I was still buying my comics on the newsstand. I didn't know from Amazing Heroes, or Comics Buyers Guide or APAs. In 1984, I was six years away from my first email account, and wholly and untutored in the ways of Usenet. If there were rumors, they hadn't penetrated the Berkshire Hills to the level of my awareness.

But the thing is, forget the overwrought Stan Lee hype I mentioned above. THE RUMORS ARE TRUE. That meant that someone, somewhere, was starting, and disseminating, and sharing these rumors. Someone, somewhere, was in on this. THE RUMORS ARE TRUE. Say it again. THE RUMORS ARE TRUE. What does it mean? YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You may be thirteen years old, and kinda introverted, but THE RUMORS ARE TRUE. YOU ARE PART OF A COMMUNITY.

Looking back, I think these four words, more than anything else, were responsible for my first great adolescent comic book awakening. Sure, Byrne's Fantastic Four was a blast, and Claremont was cooking on X-Men, and I always enjoyed checking in on Simonson's Thor, and don't get me started on what Frank Miller did with the "Born Again" storyline in Daredevil. But without those four words, and the promise I found in them, I might not have jumped headlong into comics the way I did.

THE RUMORS ARE TRUE. And, ultimately, wholly unnecessary. Those words brought me in, and once I was in, I found a small network of fellow obsessives who shared my interest and validated my geekery. Even without that network, or similar subsequent networks, fun stories kept me around for a good long while.

Which brings me to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Specifically, the episode "Best of Both Worlds, Part 1." This was the finale of the show's third season, which aired in the late spring of 1990. Trek watching was a social ritual among my college friends, a weekly (and, yes, geekly) collective experience that was the foundation for deeper relationships, many of which remain among the closest friendships of my life.

By the time this episode aired, however, the semester had ended, and our group had scattered to the four winds for another summer. Again, this was at the very beginning of my online existence, so divorced from my usual community, I had not yet made the leap to substituting participation in a virtual community. So when I watched it back at home, sitting in my parents' basement no less -- I know, how @#$%ing cliche can you get? -- I didn't know what to expect.

All I knew was that the episode had reached the final act, and there was still a lot left to resolve. As the minutes ticked down, I became increasingly uneasy that the story could reach a satisfactory conclusion -- or indeed, any conclusion -- in the time remaining. Yet, somehow, the possibility of a cliffhanger didn't factor into my considerations.

And then...

And then, we cut back to the bridge of the Enterprise:

And then, "Mr. Worf, fire." Dramatic music. Fade to black.




*blink* Ho-ly @#$%!

I can only think of two other season/series finales that had that same visceral impact on me. "Anasazi," the second season finale of The X-Files, and this year's "Made in America," the last installment of The Sopranos. As with "The Best of Both Worlds," these stories wrapped in a way that left the status quo in serious doubt. Granted, the resolutions to the Star Trek and X-Files cliffhangers largely reaffirmed the respective stati quo, but the breaking point in the stories generated tremendous excitement.

It's increasingly difficult for shows to make that sort of impact and generate that level of excitement. Detailed information about plot, casting, cliffhangers and all the rest is readily available with minimal effort. Spoilers serve as a form of online currency. Indeed, today I find it more difficult to avoid spoilers than to access them.

This can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, spoilers and capsule summaries make it easier for me to stay relatively current about TV, movies, comics, and other popular culture excreta. I don't have to invest money and time in reading Superman comics; if I really want to know what's going on in Metropolis these days, the information is just a Wikipedia search away. If I lack the willpower to wait for Lost or Heroes to come out on DVD, there are sites where I can read synopses of episodes the morning after they air. It's not even that great a loss in many cases. Spoilers are great at telling the What, but less effective at communicating the How. If the story is solid, knowing what happens is subordinate to seeing the story unfold, even if I do lose that frisson of cliffhanger surprise. If not, then a summary is all the story merits of my attention.

And this is fine when it comes to disposable culture. I care less for it in the public realm.

The political sphere is increasingly filled with spoilers. Politicians give speeches, and pre-released text is exhaustively analyzed before the speaker gets within hours of the podium. The House leadership schedules a vote, and the nose count is released -- and exhaustively analyzed, with a high degree of accuracy -- days, even weeks in advance. The actual business of governance is relegated to theater, to playing out expected roles, and conforming to pre-established narratives.

I realize it's not a new phenomenon. I'm certainly not advocating smoke filled rooms where politicians do the people's business out of sight of the people. Information is important. Knowing where one's legislators stand on issues is one half of everyone citizen's civic obligation. The other half is to advocate -- respectfully and strenuously -- in favor of or opposition to those stands. Action may rarely lead to change, but inaction always invites failure.

Understand; my earlier references to comics notwithstanding, I'm not being Truth, Justice, and the American Way-ly naive here. Politics can be good television. Knowing the What doesn't always spoil the How. At the same time, politics can be dramatic without being treated as scripted drama.


In the world of Spider-Man, rumor may be all we need. In our world, we must look beyond rumors to understand the facts.


*A ride during which I sat in the front passenger seat, this being the reckless 1970s.

**You know, sort of like Do The Right Thing, only with super-powers.

***What this story is about, and why it is significant, is a much larger story.

****Spider-Man's black costume spurred similar fashion changes among other Marvel heroes during this period. Who can forget Captain America's black uniform, Thor's beard, Iron Man's scarlet and silver armor (for my money, the single greatest design variation in the character's history) the Thing's thong [all right, lying about this one], Magneto's magenta phase [I only wish I were lying about this one] or Wonder Man's truly hellacious red and green retro unitard?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Five unconnected points

  • A while back, Eric wrote a post about perfect albums. In the comment thread for that post, I suggested that Barenaked Ladies's sophomore effort Maybe You Should Drive was superior to Gordon, their debut album. I listened to Gordon in the car yesterday. I withdraw my previous suggestion.

  • The folks with whom I play card and/or geeky games on a semi-regular basis crossed a nerd threshold this week. We played a game that involved...character sheets. No word yet on whether this will cause The Lovely Wife to reevaluate our relationship.

  • I'm watching the television adaptations of John LeCarre's [I know there should be an accent there, but I can't remember the proper keystroke at the moment] Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People on DVD. They are among the best-acted pieces of television I have ever seen. The opening sequence of Tinker, Tailor... has no dialogue until the final few seconds, but in the run up to those seconds, the actors convey volumes about their characters and their relationships to each other. Better still is a scene between George Smiley (Alec Guinness) and the Russian spy Karla (Patrick Stewart). Karla has no dialogue in the scene, but he is a full participant in the conversation. It's impressive to watch.

  • While there are times when anticipation is worth it, waiting for a snow storm to begin is not one of those times. Knowing the snow is coming -- and knowing it brings with it shoveling, and sloppy roads, and the possibility of school cancellation for The Kid -- tries my patience. I just want the snow to come and go and be done with it already. I mean, I've got new boots to field test, you know?

  • This is either one of life's imponderable mysteries, or something that just happens to me: For some reason, I find I wear out the toes of brown dress socks (regardless of brand) much faster than black, or blue, or grey socks. Perhaps it's something to do with the dye, but otherwise I can think of no reason this should be so.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

An open letter to the Sunday, October 21, 2007, New York Times Magazine

I concede. You win.

I am unable to solve the October 21, 2007, New York Times Magazine crossword puzzle. You beat me. Are you happy?

And I'd been doing so well of late. The past month and a half or so, I've just been cruising through the puzzle. And now this. I'm not certain this puzzle was any harder than puzzles I've solved with relative ease, but for whatever reason, I just couldn't wrap my brain around this one.

All right; I'll admit that recent successes have made me cocky, perhaps even a little bit arrogant. And yes, imitating the Lovely Wife's habit of placing a check mark on every puzzle she completes by scrawling AWW YEAH!!! WHO DA MAN!??! across the face of last week's puzzle upon completion was an act of untrammelled hubris, the sort that begs for comeuppance. And this week, you delivered, my old nemesis.

Kudos to you, Brendan Emmett Quigley, and, as always, to you Mister Shortz, you magnificent bastard. I'm duly chastened, and I look forward to approaching next week's puzzle with energy and humility. You won this round, but I have not given up the fight.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Toward the end of my brief and undistinguished career in banking, I reported at various times -- individually and concurrently -- to two managers. One had a degree in philosophy. The other had a military background. The Philosopher was a strategist, focused on the big picture. The Soldier was a tactician, charged with defining and implementing plans to achieve strategic goals.

As someone with a better head for strategy than tactics, my natural tendency was to gravitate toward the Philosopher, if for no other reason than we generally spoke the same language. Working with the soldier was more of a challenge (for both of us, I'm certain) because we tended to approach tasks and address challenges from different starting points.

Still, I learned much working with both of them, and I'm grateful for the time and effort they put into working with me. They inherited me when my previous made a deal one of their peers, and transferred me into the department where the Philosopher and the Soldier worked. The cynical way of looking at it was my manager was looking to jettison an asset they no longer required. The more charitable interpretation is that my manager realized at the completion of a project I had been working on that I had grown beyond my position, and called in a favor to give me a shot at a more challenging assignment. Either way, the Soldier and the Philosopher were given charge of me.

It's a strange thing; as much as we can learn from those to we have much in common, it is often the case that working for those who challenge us teaches us even more in the long run. There were two teachers in high school who truly pushed me to excel. One of them was my favorite teacher. We had similar outlooks (and similar senses of humor), but he never let any student get away with simply toeing the party line. He forced us to look beyond stock answers and pat assumptions, and to consider these things from more than one point of view. To this day, I joke that this teacher ruined me for knee-jerk dogmatic liberalism. I'm a lousy partisan, because I always try to see the other side.

On the other end of the spectrum was a teacher who absolutely kicked my butt up one side and down the other. Looking back, I recognize that part of the reason I got my butt kicked so often in her class was because I did try to get away with the easy answer and the half-hearted analysis. I tried to remain standing on the tip of the iceberg, and she forced me to acknowledge the large and complicated mass below the surface. I resented it at the time, and struggled bitterly against the way of that expectation. It took me a good ten years to realize what a profound debt I owe that teacher.

I wouldn't have thought much about any of this except for the fact that I recently had a chance to reconnect briefly with the Philosopher. Talking with him, and hearing him talk about the time in my career when I worked with him and learned from him, made me realize how much of that experience I carry with me. My path has been anything but straight and direct, but there is a consistency, or at least a necessity, to the way all the pieces fit together to bring me to the place I am today.

Life is serial, not merely episodic. More than that, life is an ensemble production rather than a star vehicle. Playing our respective parts works best when we work hard to make our fellow cast members look good, and when we realize how good our castmates make us look.

I'd wager one of the first lessons most of us learn is to always say "Please" and "Thank you." Both are important, but when I think of my own life, and the acts of kindness large and small so many people have shown me, I recognize that no matter how many times I say "Thank you," I leave many acts of kindness unacknowledged. It's probably inevitable, with the only remedy being to remember those acts and do likewise whenever I can.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Five unconnected points to ponder on a Friday afternoon (Tuesday morning edition)

  • What are the ethical implications of a bologna having both a first and a last name?

  • I'm working my way through Heroes on DVD. Having the character played by George Takei driven around in a car with a license plate that reads NCC 1701 is the worst kind of geek pandering. I approve.

  • Note for the liturgically-minded: "acclimation" is the process of getting used to something; "acclamation" is the act of making a joyful noise unto the Almighty.

  • Go to YouTube. Find The Muppet Show version of "Danny Boy." Laugh.

  • I admit nothing.

Friday, August 31, 2007

"Five unconnected points to ponder on a Friday afternoon" Rides Again

  • Words to live by: as Tom Waits reminds us, "The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away."

  • "Bacony" is an adjective that should enjoy wider use and greater acceptance by officaldom.

  • The Lovely Wife and I have been watching Freaks and Geeks through the magic of NetFlix. I was no fan of the show when it first aired, and I was baffled at the esteem in which the critical establishment and friends whose opinions I trust held it. Still, we decided to give it a second chance. While I still believe it to be slightly overrated, I'll admit I wrote it off too quickly.

  • John Mitchell recently waxed rhapsodic about Mego superhero homunculi of the 1970s. Like John, I had a number of these articulated action toys when I was a kid. I wonder what ever happened to my Green Arrow -- all right, I'll say it -- doll?

  • And if you happen to like superheroes, might I recommend Austin Grossman's novel Soon I will be Invincible?