I decided to run a not-entirely-necessary errand in the city yesterday. I could have put it off until next week but I wanted an excuse to see the lights and the city tree — or at least a tree in the city of Boston — before Christmas.

This here is my kind of Christmas tree. It’s just a little bit lopsided, and the lights were hung with care, but not with obsessive precision. It’s charming and human and analog and friendly and 100% in keeping with the spirit of the season.

Sometimes, I look at holiday decorations and I can only imagine the sorts of arguments that broke out at every step of the process. It’s definitely the result of two or three highly-fussy people butting heads all day, with each one repeatedly insisting that the others were “doing it wrong” and sighing that “it’s up to me, alone, as always, isn’t it?”

Result: a very pretty house. And a catalogue of petty resentments that have almost, but not really, blown over when it’s time to decorate again next year.

(“Mom? It’s almost time to open gifts. Is Uncle Dave coming to Grampa and Gramma’s Christmas party?” “Shut up. But tell me: doesn’t Grampa’s inflatable Santa totally make much more sense there in the front yard, next to the mailbox? You’re not opening any presents until you agree that putting it close to the house, by the walk, would have been completely insane.“)


This was a Three-Tree Holiday Season for me. I seemed to be campaigning my way up the Eastern seaboard and checking off big city trees as I went. I saw the National Christmas Tree in DC. It was a perfect cone with such a precisely-laid grid of LEDs that I was a little disappointed that it didn’t blink over into a conical video ad for LG 4K HDTVs every six minutes. The Rockefeller Center tree is somewhere on the “amazing” spectrum, for sure. But it’s huge, and up on something that looks uncannily like an altar, and it seems to demand that you bow down before it. The fact that the approach is preceded by trumpeting angels and terminated by a huge golden man grasping fire adds to this off-putting “LAY THE BODY OF YOUR FIRSTBORN BEFORE ME AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE CAROLS” vibe.

The tree in Boston Common hits it right on the nose. Tall and proud, bright and beautiful, well worth the trip, and at no point is any reasonable person inspired to wonder how many additional teachers’ salaries could have been paid with the budget for that thing.

It was colder last night than I imagined it would be, and the steady drizzle made me regret using my daypack’s umbrella pouch to hold a camera monopod instead of the item the good people at Osprey Bags intended. I walked from Copley Square to South Station, spending time at the library, the Public Garden, the Common, and the shop windows at Downtown Crossing.

I found myself in a rather prayerful mood as I strolled through the evening mist, my hands clasped behind me. I was aided by the weather, I suppose. But I gave thanks for the people in my life, and I thought pleasant, comforting thoughts and enjoyed many fine memories of those people I’ve lost.

Plus, I arrived at South Station early enough to get a burrito at Chipotle before my train. All in all, it was a very good day.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Grace Notes


Sometimes, you see a work of art and you break out into spontaneous applause. Here we see two examples.

Augustus Saint-Gauden’s “Diana” there in the background is well-known. It was originally designed to adorn the top of Madison Square Garden (the cool, original one) and was fitted out as a weathervane, of all things. It proved so successful that Saint-Gaudens refined the original over the next few years and produced it in different scales.

It’s deceptively simple, isn’t it? Diana is perched on one toe, leaning slightly forward towards her target, captured in the moment before she releases the arrow. There’s nothing complicated about the pose but executing it with consummate grace must have been a nightmare. The human body is composed of hunks of irregularly-distributed meat suspended on stems connected by dozens of joints. We can intuit when an artist or sculptor has articulated a figure correctly and when it’s even slightly “off” we can spot it instantly and intuitively, even if we can’t figure out exactly <em>why</em> we’re reacting so negatively.

The same puritanical groups that drove MacMonnies’ “Bacchante And Infant Faun” out of Boston attacked “Diana,” too. What a bunch of dopes.

I imagine, and hope, tat Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s “The Vine” gave the all of the members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union heart attacks. I’d never seen or heard of it before my first visit to Gallery 700. Via the Met, I read that she often posed dancers for figures and the edition of bronzes she cast of this one in tabletop size was so successful and well-received that she decided to re-do it, with a new model, in this monumental scale.

I keep learning about figure sculpture and my mind continues to boggle. To conceive of this figure; to execute it flawlessly; <em>and</em> to solve what must be some serious engineering problems to keep this dynamic pose stable as it’s built up in clay and then fixed in bronze; all in all, this is the calling card of consummate skill.

It also pleases me that Frishmuth has taken a very real ballet dancer by the name of Desha Delteil and made her immortal, as MacMonnies immortalized Eugenie Pasque. Dancing is a hard legacy to preserve because it all about motion and time, and photography is about freezing motion and stopping time. Desha Deltell was well-photographed and even filmed during the 1920s. But no photo or movie could have created such a lasting monument to Delteil’s form and movement as the series of sculptures she posed for in Frishmith’s studio.

I read that Deltell lived into her Eighties. I like to imagine her stopping by the Met every now and again to say hello to Twentysomething Desha. If I looked as good as that at any brief period of my life, I’d be pretty happy that it got captured for posterity.

None of that distracts from the dramatic impact that “The Vine” has on you. It’s like a Maxfield Parrish painting in three dimensions.

I keep coming back to the sculpture gallery in the American Wing because I keep failing to get a photo of “Bacchante” that I’m totally happy with. And I keep reading about “Bacchante” because every new detail I learn about the work, its sculptor, its subject, and that era of sculpture draws me in deeper.

The nice side effect of all of this is that although I’ve become so distracted by “Bacchante” that I’ve barely spent any time in the rest of the Met, I’m growing to know all of the figures in this one gallery in greater detail. I know the stories of many of the artists and many of the models, even. I can see Audrey Munson’s face in two sculptures that surround “Bacchante,” and I think about the two very different fates of those two models. I see “Diana” in the background of “Bacchante,” and I think about what a valuable teacher and mentor Saint-Gaudens was for MacMonnies, and I also think about MacMonnies’ own “Diana” and how heavily influenced it was by another of his teachers. During my previous visit, I realized that the gallery had two works by this other sculptor I’ve been reading about, a guy who was born about twenty years too soon to take advantage of this vibrant revolution that came in the late 1800s and whose work seemed to me just so leaden and obligated to 100 years of tradition.

Et cetera. Though I’d certainly admired “The Vine” during my previous visits, I didn’t learn anything about its sculpture. And now, after 45 minutes of image searches, I want to get to know this Harriet Whitney Frishmuth a lot better.

My pal Mark Evanier has been to every San Diego Comic-Con and offers great advice to first-time attendees. It’s so big that you can’t possibly see it all. So focus on just one <em>kind</em> of Comic-Con you want to attend. Meeting artists and writers? Attending panels? Shopping for cool stuff? Pick one and you’ll have a great time.

This wisdom occurred to me during my visit yesterday. Big museums are baffling. Maybe the best way to enjoy it is to think of it as seven different museums sharing the same space, and then go deep-dive on your favorite one. I suspect I’ll have years to go before I’m done with this sculpture gallery.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 1: “Golden Ticket”/”Pure Imagination”

Willy Wonka iPod

“Pure Imagination”/”Golden Ticket”

We kick off the season with a double-header, sensation-seekers. We have the pig-bastard greed of the record industry to thank for this: the movie soundtrack to “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory” is only purchasable as a whole album, not as individual tracks.

I ought to approve of this, in principle. Ugh. Seriously? You know I want “Pure Imagination” so much that I’ll probably buy a dozen instrumental tracks I’ll never listen to in order to get it. Jerks.

But I’m becoming increasingly worried that we, as consumers, have been steadily and cheerily grinding away at our favorite musicians’ ability to make a living from their creative talents. Step One: we refuse to buy the whole album just to get the two or three songs we want. Step Two: we don’t want to buy anything at all; we’ll just give the artists a few pennies for the ability to stream their stuff. Step Three: well, why even bother with Spotify? Almost every album in every back catalogue is on YouTube.

The whole system is staring to give off the vague whiff of ammonia that eventually made me stop buying anything via Groupon. The sooner the creative community moves on to a system where I can just put some money in a box and send it straight to the artist, the better.

Fortunately, the “Willy Wonka” soundtrack is just five damn dollars. I’d pay two bucks for “Pure Imagination,” maybe a dime less for “Golden Ticket,” and the whole rest of the soundtrack is three times a bargain at just a buck and a couple of nickels.

Gene Wilder’s performance of “Pure Imagination” is iconic. For years, this soundtrack wasn’t available digitally and my futile searches turned up two different cover versions that tried their damnest to duplicate the song. A Gene Wilder soundalike backed by as much of an orchestra as the producers could afford, with an orchestration as close to the original as they could get away with without having to pay the original arrangement.

This is one of those few songs that had a real influence on me as a kid. It still does, particularly this one line: “If you want to view Paradise, simply look around and view it.” The lesson, as I saw it, was that stop dreaming. You’re here. You’ve been given Paradise; some assembly is required and maintenance is going to be your responsibility.”

There’s also an amazing and subtle message about the power of individuality and cultivating your own mission on this world. Willy Wonka, as portrayed by Gene Wilder, isn’t a freak, an eccentric, or a borderline mental case. He’s a serious man with a specific vision of the world he wishes to live in and rather than change to fit in or complain about things…well, he just went ahead and built his candy factory and created the situation where he could live life as he wants, making incredible things, doing no harm to anybody (small nasty children excepted) and articulating his artistic vision in a way that’s readily digestible (literally) by the outside world. He makes joy, and understands the responsibilities that come with all of that.

I wonder how all of this went over to audiences in 1971. “The Graduate” (1967) and “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972) were, and generally still are, thought of as “important” comedies. Funny, yes, but the humor was powered by the frustrations of a certain generation at a specific point in time. What role has American society laid out for me? How pissed off will it be if I decide to go my own way?

I feel as if Willy Wonka is the guy who shrugged those questions off as irrelevant. Instead, he thought hard, planned well, and got to work making the world he wanted to live in. Ben just floated around in his pool, and Lenny took great pride in the fact that though he had no idea of what the hell he was doing, Society wouldn’t approve.

(Signature scene from “Heartbreak Kid”: Eddie Albert, as the WASPish Old Person™, tries to prevent Lenny from marrying his daughter by buying him off. Lenny’s smug smile gets wider and tighter as the figures keep getting higher and Albert’s voice keeps getting louder. I imagine that in 1972, there were people in the audience who were cheering Lenny on. I was salivating in anticipation of the moment where Albert would snatch the huge bronze eagle off of his desk and then beat Lenny to death with it. Alas, this moment never came.)

Pure Imagination” is also one of those songs that explains the difference between a movie with songs in it and a true musical. The audience is still getting to know this guy. This song efficiently lets us orient him on the game board. No matter what happens after this point — and yes, some freaky stuff is assuredly going to happen — the kids (and we) are in good hands. This is definitely not a movie where the “quirky chocolatier” turns out to be Jigsaw in Edwardian finery. The movie needs to establish that fact early on, or else it sits at that nauseous tipping point between fantasy and horror. One lovely little song, sung and presented well, and that’s off the To-Do list.

Fiona Apple recorded a cover of “Pure Imagination” to serve as the music for a super-downer message-mercial for Chipotle. The track is exceptional in the sense that I thought it wasn’t possible to knock this piece of music to the ground and beat all of the hope and joy out of it. Well, some people see a distant peak and see only a challenge. I’m not linking to the whole ad because Jesus Christ.

But if you accidentally heard the song, no worries, there’s an antidote. “I’ve Got A Golden Ticket” is a pure, non-ironic expression of delight. It’s hard not to skip a little while you listen to it, and if you have enough self-control not to lift your arms up in the air while you listen and skip, you’re a stronger person than I.

So: five bucks for the whole album. But well worth it, I think. I see that Amazon has this one on its “autorip” list, which means that if you buy the CD, you immediately get all of the MP3s and then receive the CD itself a few days later. And now we’re back to my opening thoughts. I sure hope this is another one of those cases where Amazon loses money but builds customer loyalty. I don’t particularly care that I drove an old car that gets half the gas mileage of a modern hybrid but I don’t want to participate in a transaction that works out great for me but which helps drive a talented musician out of the recording studio and into the real estate business.

Check out “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory: Music From The Original Soundtrack Of The Paramount Picture” at Amazon.  These links are embedded with my Amazon Associates ID and I’ll get store credits based on anything you buy after landing in the store offa my link. I promise to spend said credits on silly things and not blow them on, say, water and electricity.


It’s All Run By A Big Eastern Syndicate

My annual Musical Advent Calendar always begins with the best of intentions (“Recommend one music track every day between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Day”) and then ends about a week short of the original goal. “It’s Christmas,” the reader is inclined to shrug, when a blogger’s series of posts about favorite music tracks inexplicably ends on December the 17 instead of December the 25. “Peace on Earth, good will towards peoplekind and all that.”

Speaking of which, I extend my hearty thanks to everybody who clicks on my various Amazon affiliate links and then buys whatever stuff they were going to buy anyway. My first Amazon Advent Calendar inspired me to sign up for the program because I thought “Well, a nickel of store credit from every 99 cent track that people buy from my links might slightly offset the fifty to a hundred bucks I spend auditioning new music for this series.” I didn’t realize that the percentage is based on all purchases that people make immediately after walking through Amazon’s doors. Not until the first month’s credits arrived, I picked myself off the floor, and realized that I was able to substantially accelerate my schedule for replacing the old Trinitron in the living room with something that has more pixels. Or, anything that might be termed “Pixels,” for that matter.

I usually spend those credits on two kinds of things. Sometimes I’m writing a column and I think, for instance, “But what would it even be like to use a little phone like a desktop computer?” I discover that to conduct that experiment I’ll need a special kind of Bluetooth mouse that’s Android-compatible. I might balk at blowing the cost of five burritos (for the love of God) on a flyer like this, but then I think of the pool of credits I have in my Amazon account — practically free money, don’t you know — and I prepare my One-Click button.

And then there’s the larger category of “fun stuff I might not ordinarily buy for myself.” Have you been enjoying the photos I’ve been posting from this year’s New York Comic-Con? I can thank you folks for them, in part. I bought an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in February, thanks largely to how many people clicked my Amazon links during the week after Thanksgiving. The Panasonic GX-1 that I bought a few years ago was a stopgap diversion from the Bigass Consumer SLRs I’ve been favoring and this Olympus is a glorious return to form, a modern camera by every conceivable definition, a “pro” camera by almost every definition as well. The difference between “competent consumer camera” and “something built for use in rough weather and in tricky situations” has never been more apparent to me than it has in the past seven months. For the first time in my life, I have a camera for which the only real excuse for a bad photo is incompetence on my part.

(Which might not seem like such a great advantage.)

I have rules for these affiliate links, o’course. I never ever ever create affiliate links to anything that’s tech-related. When I recommend a good deal on a USB microphone that I own and like, I’m a tech journalist and I post a plain link to the sale page. When I recommend a song from the 80s that I like chiefly because it’s in my vocal range and it’s kind of intentionally written so that the sillier you sing it, the better it sounds, I’m just a guy with a blog and a Twitter account. A journalist must scrupulously avoid conflicts of interest. A Guy With A Blog And A Twitter Account can think “Hey! Free Amazon credits! Cool!”

If all of this sounds exploitative and crass to you, I can only say…



Okay, I don’t know what to say. I have indeed thought about this sort of thing a lot and if I believed it was even remotely exploitative, I wouldn’t come near it. “Crass,” I suppose, is a subjective opinion. I think it’s important for people to know that I do derive a personal benefit from these non-tech-related Amazon links, and that I’m linking specifically to Amazon tracks instead of iTunes or Spotify tracks for totally selfish reasons. Along the way, I try to use a bit of humor. If the humor makes it seem like I have a careless attitude and that I’m trying to fleece Loyal And Decent Readers, well, who gives a **** so long as I get my credits?

See! I did it again! Whee!

Buuuut seriously. I like these affiliate links because all you have to do is something you were going to do anyway. Such as buy, like, ten or twenty original oil paintings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. Your friends get some wonderful stocking-fillers (assuming large, square stockings), and I get to buzz over to the comic book store in this awesome dune buggy that I totally don’t need but when else am I going to be able to buy a dune buggy for zero cash!

Please do feel free to create your own Spotify playlists or links to any other music store based on my picks, if you think it’ll benefit other people.

This year, I decided to tighten up the Advent Calendar a little bit. The source of my picks is a playlist entitled “Advent Calendar Candidates” that I’ve been curating over the past two or three months, mostly populated with songs I’ve bought since the last Advent Calendar. Every year, there are a dozen that I can’t wait to write about, a half dozen to ten that I like a whole lot, and enough left over to make sincere recommendations to fill out any gaps that remain.

(Or, as is more likely: “quickies that I can slap into service when I look at the clock and realize that I’ve written 1800 words about a Specials bootleg track and I’m still no closer to the finish than when I started two hours ago and holy crap dental appointment jesus well what song can I start and finish writing about in the next ten minutes why do I always DO this?!“)

So! Be warned: the 2014 Andy Ihnatko Holiday Musical Advent Calendar starts tomorrow. For the aforementioned wholly selfish reasons, they’ll all contain links to Amazon tracks. If I were a more perfect person, I’d paste in a bank of links to every streaming service and online music store on the planet. Alas, I am an imperfect vessel for the perfection of the universe AND I seriously have my eyes on a super-awesome f2.8 sports zoom that Olympus released just a month or two ago.

Adventures In Nitpicking

I was up early (fine: “early for me”) to see the Orion launch. NASA livestreams are totally exciting. Jargon jargon jargon (my ears perk up at every third or fourth line, when I recognize an acronym; I feel very clever) change of camera angles Three!…Two!…One!…Lif




Yeah, at the critical moment, when I should have been watching a massive piece of engineering urge itself into the sky amidst blossoming clouds of fire, I was looking at a spinning Buffering circle.

But Orion launched successfully (hooray!) and I got a Funny Little Tweet out of it.

So I guess you can say that both NASA and I spent our morning productively and have ample cause for pride.

It was less a complaint about the livestream than it was about how things tend to go wrong at the worst times. But it did get me thinking about how easily our tendency towards smirk can dampen a brilliant moment.

Orion is amazing. Every time we launch something into space, the meatbags are gloriously flipping the bird at the selfish mudball. Screw YOU, planet! YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF US!!!

Orion excites me in a way that the shuttle didn’t. As impressive as that spacecraft was, it was clearly a ferry. Orion feels like a true multipurpose vehicle, suited to tasks that make complete sense today (get people and cargo to the ISS) and to missions that are so far-fetched that it’s possible none of us will live to see them. Orion, if it meets its potential, can be the line of continuity that connects multiple eras and venues of exploration.

As for the video, well, livestream buffering is annoying, but this technology is still a huge improvement over getting live video by mail, in printed form.

While waiting for the launch, I read the reviews of last night’s live production of “Peter Pan” on NBC. Many of the complaints seemed preordained: “You could see the wires holding the performers up”; “Christopher Walken looks weird”; “The pirates weren’t exactly butch”; “the Lost Boys were way too old.” I didn’t see the show but I get the impression from the AV Club review that the producers (wisely) decided to let a stage show be a stage show.

Many of these complaints are simply that this was a stage musical produced for a live broadcast and not a $280,000,000 Peter Pan Cinematic Universe production complete with digital wire removal, lens flares, and a post-credits sequence that links “Pan” to “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.” I suspect that the show was perfectly fine, if not perfect.

(Aside: I wonder why NBC doesn’t stage these things before a live audience and go all the way. As-is, this kind of broadcast is a weird hybrid in which there’s all of the risk of live performance without the primary benefit: the reactions from the audience that feed energy to the performers.)

And then there’s Mariah Carey’s “vocal FAIL” during the live telecast of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting. Audio of her raw mic feed is all over the Internet and I love this chance to hear a pro sing without any help from engineers. Was it at the same technical level as a studio recording? Hell no, but isn’t it time to acknowledge that “Photoshopping the vocals” can disrespect the natural human voice in the way that massive photo editing disrespects the natural human figure?

Singing is really, really hard. Raw audio proves it. You can hear the strain and stress on Mariah’s voice and you can see the effort she’s making to control the notes. And tell the truth: if a woman at your bus stop were singing along to her iPhone with that voice, you’d be in awe, wouldn’t you? All in all, this is way more compelling than any Dick Clark-produced special with lip-synced pre-roll.

We’re entitled to not like things. I’m just reminded that Orion was much bigger than a streaming issue, that if the best thing an audience can say about a live stage musical is “You couldn’t see the flying wires at all!” then it couldn’t have been worth watching, and that a high-end singing voice, like a high-end sports car, is meant to be driven at the edge of its limits.

The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa, not just the weird eyebrows.


The time I spent fixing my eyeglasses last night allowed me to fixate on one of my weaknesses this morning.

No, not my eyesight. My vision is actually very good. I don’t require glasses to drive…I’m just a bit nearsighted. I have a set of prescription sunglasses as well and when it came time to attack tiny screws with tiny, shallow grooves last night, I could see my work much better with my unaided eye than with vision that was slightly sharper, but also darker.

The weakness in question is my general approach to problem-solving. I’m prejudiced towards creating a process that solves the problem efficiently, as opposed to solving the problem itself the quickest way possible.

Case in point: one of the earpieces on my glasses broke off so I had to remove and replace it with a not-broken-earpiece taken from an identical pair of vintage frames I bought on eBay. When I tried them on, I realized that I needed to replace the “good” one as well, because after several years of wear, it was bent at a different angle and made the glasses sit all lopsided on my face.

The first earpiece went on quickly. The second was giving me lots of trouble. Two sets of holes need to line up properly, it’s hard to keep control of this tiny screw without sending it flying off, and even when you’ve got everything right, once you try to apply some torque and downward pressure to get the threads to engage, the screw wants to pop out entirely as if it has its own agenda.

After ten minutes of failure, I leaned back and tried to think of a better process. Like, what if I:

  1. Insert a needle through the hole to hold the earpiece in position and keep the holes lined up;
  2. Tear a little strip of gaffer’s tape, spindle it on the pin, wrap it around the works;
  3. Pull out the pin, leaving the earpiece held in place with the tape;
  4. Insert screw into the perfectly-aligned hole and turn until the threads engage;
  5. Carefully peel away the tape;
  6. Fully tighten the screw.


I needed to accept, however, that the current process wasn’t wrong…it was just inefficient. It relied on trial and error; the missing ingredient that guaranteed a successful outcome was simply Patience. Once I reflected on this, and accepted that fixing my glasses was going to be a Meditative Act, it seemed to come together with much more quickly. I let go of the frustration of Something Not Working and focused instead on the understanding that this process Will Definitely Work Eventually If I Stick To It.

And! I didn’t let myself get sidetracked by a whole new project: “Develop an efficient method for putting a screw in a pair of eyeglasses.” This Wonderful New Process might have allowed me to get that screw into place much more quickly…but how much time would I have wasted getting the process right?

I shall continue to reflect on this. Once again I’m reminded of the importance of understanding the actual goal of any endeavor. What did I hope to get out of this? Well, I guess I just wanted to have a pair of eyeglasses that weren’t being held together by tape. Given that I didn’t intend to fix eyeglasses for a living — hell, I didn’t even have to do the other side of these frames — there was no added benefit to developing a foolproof and efficient process.

“What do you want?” It’s a powerful a question. Not knowing the answer — or, worse, forgetting what it was — is a major cause of pain.

This kind of mistake prevented me from having these things fixed a week ago, in fact. When my glasses broke, and the replacement frames came in the mail, my original plan was to pop the lenses out of the old ones and pop them into the new ones. But wow: the shop that made the old ones have heated and stretched the rims a little to get ’em in. I damn-near broke my thumbs trying to apply enough pressure to get the final corner of these plastic lenses to snap into place.

Great, fine, awesome! Now I need to take these back to the original shop and have a pro do it for me!

Then I discovered that they were closed (for renovations or for good; I couldn’t tell). Now I had a NEW problem to solve: finding a new eyeglass shop, and hope they’d be willing to just snap in a set of lenses. Would they make me have an in-house eye exam and have new lenses made? Crap. SO many variables to navigate…and without any real promise of success, either.

Then I realized that I’d lost sight of the goal, which was simply “have a pair of eyeglasses whose earpieces aren’t broken.” The hinges on the old frames were just fine. Once I saw the obvious solution to the real problem, I had what I wanted in less than a half an hour.

This sort of thing is often on my mind as I evaluate hardware and software. Is a maker so entranced by a manufacturing process or a style of interface that they aren’t paying enough attention to the kind of experience they’re delivering to the user?

Results are always more important than the processes that got you there (unless your chosen Process attracts the attention of law enforcement and/or a war crimes tribunal).

The Troubles With New Memorials

This monument to Edgar Allan Poe was erected in October. It honors Poe’s roots in Boston and shows him returning to the former home, just down Charles Street. He stands in “Poe Square.” It was named after on Euriabam Daniel Pograham, a mid-1800s grocer and chorister known as “Poe” to his friends. He had a shop in that area.

(Ho, ho.)

I’ve been taking an interest in public sculpture and I’m very pleased to see some more of it placed in the city. It’s quite appropriate that this figure be located where it is (above and beyond the historical connection, that is). He’s walking away from Boston Common and the Public Garden, where a couple of dozen gorgeous monuments exist…so this one only adds to the value of a good walk around these two blocks.

Second bit of pleasure: they went with a representational approach. I’m often disappointed by modernist public sculpture. I’ll see a monument that looks like nothing so much as a fish being crushed by an acorn, the plaque says “In Honor Of French-Hungarian Immigrants, 1872-1905.” I blink and I re-read the plaque and then I think there’s at least a 70% chance that the artist had this thing cluttering up his garage for twenty years, unsold, before he heard about a competition for this memorial. The greatest effort he put into it was to explain how these shapes related to the subject.

Okay, and I’ll tread softly into a sensitive issue: the 9/11 memorial in the Public Garden. The Public Garden is filled with remarkable sculptures and monuments, most of them placed no later than the 1920s. Placing a new memorial there was an interesting challenge, no doubt, and given that two of the four hijacked planes departed from Boston, bearing so many New England passengers, the connection to the city is quite a painful one.

The memorial isn’t supposed to be a sculpture; it’s meant to be a contemplative garden. Benches are arrayed around a stone crescent engraved with the names of those murdered during the 9/11 attacks who had connections to Boston.

I walk through the Public Garden and I sometimes wonder if this was the most fitting tribute possible. How will visitors to the Public Garden relate to this monument in fifty years’ time? Will it draw people in? Will it cause people to stop, and sit, and reflect?

Or will they simply see another stone shape with names carved on it, and not look or think twice?

I think about the George Robert White memorial, also in the Public Garden. Also known as “Bread Upon The Waters,” it was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, one of the three dominant American sculptors of the age. It’s objectively a thing of beauty. You want to come closer and examine it. And this winged figure, casting seeds from a basket, is a fitting tribute to a philanthropist who contributed so much towards the beauty of the city’s public spaces and to area hospitals.

I learned about him and his work because the monument intrigued me. Me, someone born seven decades after White died.

Ditto for the Robert Gould Shaw memorial on Boston Common. It engages people’s minds and spirit in a way that a basic marble plinth engraved with the names of the members of the 54th Regiment never could.

Back to Ed. I’m surprised he isn’t little bit further up towards the Common, though. If he were nearer to the corner, he’d be easier for people to spot. As-is, anybody headed up Boylston Street — a major thoroughfare, particularly for pedestrians and tourists — is likely not to spot him.

Curious, I looked up the story behind the statue. Ah. Poe hated Boston and mocked certain Boston writers as “Frogpondians.” He’s walking purposefully away from the Frog Pond in Boston Common, and towards his former home. Cool.

Spoke too soon-ish!

Well, now that’s odd. I switched from the WordPress iOS client back to Safari just to see how that blog post looked in the metal, as it were. The last page I was on was the WordPress web client.

And now I find that there’s a toolbar here that certainly wasn’t there before. A mobile-ified version of the usual WP menu, with a drop-down for creating a new post. And unlike the other button that claimed to do that function, this one seems to actually work.

Or does it?! Only one way to find out!

(Drat and blast. I tried to insert a photo using this web client. It gamely invites me to upload a media, even exposes the camera roll so I can make a selection…then fails with an error.)

Push the button, Frank…

First Post from THE FUTURE!

This is a boring post that will do nothing to enhance your understanding of the world or the amount of joy you experience in it. So, a typical tee shot from your correspondent.

It’s a little bit remarkable from this end, however. I’m writing and posting this with the iPhone 6 Plus. Hey! Cool! New iPhone! Yes, that would almost be enough. But I’ve also got a vintage ThinkOutside Stowaway folding Bluetooth keyboard hooked up to it.

Ever since learning that — wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles! — Apple was making a real, Android-style BIG phone, I’ve been itching to see if it could fill the role of “that writing tool that I always carry with me.” Typically, I throw at least an iPad into a bag every time I leave the house for any real amount of time. Because sometimes, you just gotta write, you know?

Also, sometimes you Just Gotta Go To A Meeting and then dash off a column about what you learned and file it with your editor before you go home. This is another scenario in which I wish I had something I could pull out of my pocket that could give me the full Ford Prefect Field Researcher And Reporter experience.

The screen’s certainly big enough to handle the job. But what about the keyboard? No way. I can’t type at length on a sheet of glass and dictating into speech-to-text is socially awkward, particularly if I’m trying to sneak in a little work during time I’d otherwise be wasting during a relative’s wedding service.

Therefore I’ve been taking a look at pocketable mechanical keyboards. I bought an iWerkz folding keyboard from Amazon last week. It works nice, and it’s no larger than the iPhone 6 Plus itself when folded. The keys are a little short, though, and there’s a gap in the middle of the key bed to accommodate the hinge.

“Oh, if only the ThinkOutside Stowaway bluetooth keyboard were still for sale!” moaned I. Fortunately, I moaned this on a podcast and a listener happened to have one of these decade-old accessory kicking around a closet, begging for a new home.

It is the bees’ knees on sliced bread, wearing the cat’s pajamas.

Expect a full accounting in video and text form in the near future. Right now, I just wanted to see if I could write at length with this setup.

It’s a delicate balance, trying to find a screen and a keyboard that enable creativity. I’m pleased to discover that the iPhone 6 Plus screen is big enough that I quickly stop being impressed that I’m writing on a phone, and the Stowaway is pretty much a standard laptop keyboard. It has its quirks, but like the size of this screen, my brain quickly decides to move past them and just turn on the taps of genius.

The only disappointment thus far is in WordPress. I tried logging in through the web client, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to make a new post. I see a button for it, eventually, but tapping it does nothing.

So I downloaded WordPress’ own house-labeled iOS client. It seems to be working. But! I’m forced to rotate the iPhone 6 Plus into portrait mode and early on, it refused to scroll. Hmph.

An earlier experiment with Google Docs went without a hitch. Hooray!

But iOS, at one point, refused to make the onscreen keyboard go away. Boo. But I seem to have figured out how to make it go away (by tapping the new — ugh — emoji button to reveal extended keyboard options, tapping the onscreen “delete” key, then replacing what I typed with the Bluetooth keyboard. Apparently this gave iOS the required kick in the pants. I’m still looking for a manual “hide the keyboard” command that ought to be in iOS.

Anyway! So this post was like me, working in my garage, with the garage door open, and you get to see me sanding the old paint off of a flea-market dresser and occasionally cursing.

And this is the moment when the dog you were walking pulls at the leash and reminds you that you were meant to be letting him discover things with interesting smells in the neighborhood.

Now let’s see if posting this works. Push the button, Frank…


“Amanda Palmer and The Littlest Dalek”

This is a cute video of Amanda Palmer, shot by Neil Gaiman.

It also defines a children’s book that demands to be made.

It begins with a similar opening to “Edward Scissorhands.” The Scientist is creating a brand-new, very special kind of Dalek with a brand-new, very special kind of encasement that is completely, totally, and utterly unbelievably impregnable. But the encasement isn’t ready yet — it’ll just take another few days for him to finish the extra-scary paint job — so as a temporary measure, the Scientist’s nana (who makes tea cozies as a hobby) knits the Dalek an encasement out of wool to keep it warm.

But the Scientist dies before he can finish. He’s killed, probably. It has something to do with the new Doctor, who doesn’t wear fezzes and doesn’t seem quite so friendly as the most recent batch. I’m just saying that of all the people standing at the train platform, this new Doctor isn’t the one you’d approach and ask “Is this the 8:15 to Attleboro, or is it the 8:08 to Franklin/Forge Park?”

So this new Dalek has to make his way in the world on his own. He is encased in warm snuggly wool instead of impregnable metal. Which has two effects:

First, unlike the other Daleks, he’s very very VERY very very aware of how vulnerable he is. So he tends to avoid conflict if he can. He’s a talker. His first instinct is to try to understand the nature of the conflict, and see if there’s an alternative solution in which the needs and concerns of each individual can all somehow be addressed or at least acknowledged.

As such, rather than screeching “EX-TER-MI-NATE!” he rolls up to people, stops, waits for a natural opening in the conversation, and then introduces himself as “Alfie.”

(He has calculated that this is the least-threatening-sounding name, what with its lack of hard consonants.)

Secondly. Because he’s made of warm, fuzzy wool, children like to come up to him in the park and hug him. Kitties like to climb to the top and sleep on him. The parents of the children and the owners of the kitties look to see where their little ones have gone off to, and see them enjoying a peaceful and contented interlude with this Dalek. And then, if they have picnic hampers, they ask the Dalek if he would like to join them for lunch.

So he comes to enjoy company, and the taste of potato salad. He realizes that he would get no potato salad and no company if he were encased in completely, totally, and utterly unbelievably impregnable metal instead of wool.

It’s still a real drag when he gets caught in the rain. He also has to remember a lot of names and phone numbers. This is not a problem shared by the other Daleks, who kill people before they can collect any contact info, and would never be invited to call this weekend and make dinner plans, anyway. But overall, he reckons that he made out okay.

Oh, and: stairs are not a problem. He just tumbles down them WHEEEEEEE and rights himself when he gets to the bottom. And! The homeowner is pleased that all of the dust and cobwebs along the banisters have been so nicely dusted clean in the process. He or she offers the Alfie The Wooly Dalek a bowl of ice cream as a thank-you.

Bonus: this story presents a natural opportunity for a “Shawn The Sheep” crossover.

I’ve seen exactly three episodes of “Doctor Who” but I’m pretty sure this can all be canon and it’ll be fine.

Upon reflection, I suppose we can’t establish this as a “Doctor Who” tale unless we somehow acknowledge the presence of death-dealing cyborg pepperpots prosecuting an unknowable but surely wide-angled agenda just outside the boundaries of the story. No need to overthink this problem: I reckon all we really need to do is find a spot in the story for a shot of baffled policemen examining a skeleton that’s been charred into a twisted vulgarity of its living form.

(…In the background of one scene, I stress: this is a children’s story, after all. Can we do this one page of the book as a pop-up? I think that would be a lot of fun and the kids would get a big kick out of it. Pull the tab and one of the policemen bends forward and vomits into his helmet, that sort of thing.)

Why I’m Flying To Chicago In A Few Weeks

Mostly: To attend the Motorola press event. They’re likely to launch their sequels to the Moto X and Moto G phones, as well as the Moto 360 Android Wear watch.

Partly: To say hello to my Sun-Times editors and a couple of other Chicago friends.

At least 20%: To go to the Art Institute of Chicago and get photos of the Holsteins with “American Gothic,” “Nighthawks,” and “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”

The AIoC also has a 34-inch “Bacchante And Infant Faun.” I’ve never seen one of the smaller castings. If it’s out in the open (and against a wall or wedged into a corner) it’ll be neat to see this from new angles.

Just one God? No. There’s me, and I know I’ve met others…

Ha, ha! It’s always fun to kick off a blog post with a little blasphemy, eh, sensation-seekers?

I was going to tweet out a comment about this Salon article (partner-posted from her AlterNet blog), but yeah, I needed more than 140 characters. I say, with the utmost respect for the author, that Greta Christina’s “The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat” falls into a common trap. She seems to assume that there’s only one acceptable concept of “God.” And, as luck would have it, it happens to be a definition that suits the point that the article wants to make.

I might have misread what is an obviously well-written and well-presented opinion. My difficulty comes right at the top:


You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable…


I urge you to read the entire piece. It’s good stuff. I just don’t think it adequately defends the argument that belief in God and belief in evolution aren’t compatible. It’s a good argument against the specific kinds of belief that she singles out, but it falls far short of making the larger point.


“Maybe there’s a God who had a hand in all of this” versus Intelligent Design™

Can I respect a belief that the universe was created by God? Sure, given the broad definitions of “God” and “created.” The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

But Intelligent Design™ is a separate thing. In its specific, pseudoscientific form, is vulgar and offensively fraudulent. Its proponents desire the credibility of a scientific argument…specifically, a free pass to teach the Bible in public schools. But they don’t want to have to pay for that, in the hard currency of science: they need to present an argument that’s backed up by factual evidence, and that argument needs to be so strong that it repeatedly stands up to unbiased scientific scrutiny.

Here’s a less-controversial example. I have a belief that a certain popular figure model of the early 20th century posed for a certain public sculpture here in Boston. The resemblance is uncanny and she worked with this sculptor many times at the height of her posing career (in fact, she posed for one of his most famous works). But the timing is iffy. She would have posed for it near the very end of her career. It was worth looking into.

The other night, I finally found a biography of the model that included some dates. Dagnabbit: the sculptor started work on this piece a year or two after she contracted the serious illness that almost certainly ended her career as an artists’ model. It’s extremely unlikely that she could have posed for this sculpture.

Well, that’s the gamble of presenting a factual argument. You bet your beliefs against the house. If you lose, you’re intellectually-obligated to either abandon your belief or adjust it to suit the new facts that disproved your theory. I have to accept that I was wrong. But when the sculptor was creating this statue, her face was still in his studio, in the form of past works that she’d posed for. I know this because the studio is preserved as a museum just as he left it, and look! There she is. I now wonder if she posed for it indirectly.

Until I find something in his letters that confirms this, though, that’s just something I choose to believe. It’s not fact.

If you’re not willing to adjust or abandon your beliefs in the face of contrary objective evidence, then you’re just using the veneer of scientific argument to lay claim to a kind of credibility you haven’t earned.

That’s Intelligent Design™. It’s appropriate that I first encountered this slimy phrase in an episode of “Touched By An Angel,” back when I thought watching TV shows I hated was a worthy use of my time.

The story was pretty ghastly stuff. Adorable Christian Girl is confronted with Darwin’s theory by an Evil Atheist (not the character’s name, but on this show, the first word is implied by the second). Adorable Christian Girl brings these questions to her science teacher after class. Science Teacher urges her to do a Science Fair project on “Intelligent Design,” a tidy ziploc baggie full of bunkum that points out God’s fingerprints over everything. “See? Spiral in a seashell, spiral in the pattern of buds in a flower, spiral in DNA. Case closed: it’s all the work of the same dude. Print those photos out, glue them on posterboard, and consider the matter closed.”

[well]Aside: The teacher is, of course, one of God’s angels in human guise. An Angel of Death, in fact, which I suppose explains his lack of accreditation as a science teacher.

I never understood how the story editor of this series made this idea of a moonlighting angel of death work. He collects the souls of the recently-departed, and also has time for light housekeeping? Is he teaching science in his spare time? Or is he like a city employee who (according to an explosive Action News 6 At Eleven Investigation) was helping his brother-in-law build a backyard deck during hours when he was supposed to be anywhere else, inspecting a bridge?

“Touched By An Angel” promoted some weird-ass kind of theology, even given that it was already a show about super-secret-agent angels who tool around in a vintage convertible. Every story had the same basic arc: person is experiencing a crisis; angels arrive, undercover as humans; at the peak of crisis, one or more of said Angels reveal themselves to the cris-ee, reminding them that God loves them and that they should have faith that He will see them through. Ah. But why would these people still need faith? They’ve just been presented with conclusive proof of the existence of a classic, theist god who benevolently directs their daily existence!

I only got one positive thing from this show: the entertainment value of country-music guest stars who were performing as actors for the first time, and who were both unprepared for and tragically under-intimidated by the work that lay ahead of them. I think the director came up to them at the start of shooting and said “Acting is all about pretending to cry. And the more you’re crying, the more you’re acting. You should act as much as you possibly can. Put it this way: if we don’t have to change your shirt after every take, you’re probably not acting hard enough. They won’t give you an Emmy unless it’s obvious how darn hard you were acting…”[/well]


How To Hold Tea And No Tea Simultaneously

So let’s all have a good laugh at Intelligent Design™ in this, its classic and dangerous form: as an attack against evolution.

But! This doesn’t mean that belief in God and belief in evolution (or, more broadly, science in general) are incompatible. Christina seems to be trying to make this point, making the assumption that everyone who believes has bought and brought home a “Touched By An Angel”-model God: “God built the world as He wanted it to be; everything happens according to God’s plans and intentions; God cares about me, personally, and is standing by to intervene if my ten-year-old boy is diagnosed with that kind of cancer that keeps him looking healthy and adorable until the very end and he thinks he won’t get into Heaven unless I write and perform a country/gospel song for him at his bedside.”

That’s definitely the “iPhone” of gods, here in America. But it’s by no means the whole range of Gods available. Even a Christian sect can’t keep its understanding of God in production for more than a hundred years before somebody forks the distro.


The Greatest Unknowable Is The Thinking Of Other People

I’m an agnostic. If you absolutely must pin me down, I suppose I’m an agnostic deist because I suspect that something we might call “God” is out there. But if there is, I believe that he, she, they or it is fundamentally unknowable and certainly doesn’t conform to the “Touched By An Angel” model.

Aside: I often marvel that if every act attributable to God were traced categorically to a specific street address, it still wouldn’t settle anything. The nonbelievers would say “See? There is no God. It was Doug, all along.” The believers would say “What more proof of the existence of God can we possibly give you? We’ve given you His name and address!”

But I absolutely insist that there’s an analog spectrum of belief. It’s more accurate just to say that I find the questions more interesting than the answers. As a nontheist, I (like Christina) don’t know how to justify a belief in an omnipowerful God for whom worldwide genocide is explained by a “You don’t have to be crazy to work here…but it helps!” poster in the Almighty’s breakroom.

If that concept made sense to me, though, I’d be a theist…actually, I’d be one specific kind of theist. I feel uncomfortable claiming to have spotted objective fallacies in something I fundamentally don’t understand. Something can seem wrong because it’s objectively wrong. But sometimes, it seems wrong because you can’t make the idea work within your limited understanding of the concept.

This is how certain theists come to believe that atheists don’t have a moral center. Atheists can be plenty moral. These theists just don’t understand how morality can exist without a spiritual connection to God. No god = no morality. Similarly, it seems like Christina can’t understand a belief in a kind of God that isn’t “all knowing, all powerful, all meddling.” If that’s true, it would make sense for her to conclude that a believer thinks every step in the evolutionary process specifically reflects the will of God or a master plan. And that’s not how evolution works, so she’s “proven” that believers don’t really believe in evolution.

The reality, of course, is that a believer is free to think of evolution as a divine form of a “one-click install” for life: God set it in motion (citation needed), or simply created the circumstances under which evolution set itself in motion. Then he/she/it/they walked away. Hence, belief in both God and the scientific definition of evolution.


Weighing The Duck

It seems like sometimes, a member of Group A isn’t satisfied with a simple difference of opinion with someone from Group B, or even with flat-out saying that they think this other person is wrong. They need to create an argument that proves it. They often wind up creating a “Monty Python And The Holy Grail”-style chain of logic which has the cadence and the shape of rational argument, but is based on a whole series of questionable assumptions and is designed to trap their opponent in a corner.

Take this video from Penn Jillette as an example:

In the video, he talks about his definitions of agnosticism and atheism and theism. He introduces a hypothetical situation in which a supposed theist is asked by God to kill their child. In choosing “no” or “yes,” they can only prove themselves to be a closet Atheist or a dangerous nutjob. According to the rules he established, there’s no way for a believer to escape with their credibility intact.

I don’t imagine that Penn intended this as anything other than an illustration of the difference between “I believe” and “I know.” Nonetheless, it’s an example of the sort of argument that I find problematic. The theist has so many other responses available to them, such as: telling God to go stick it, or deciding that the fact that “God” is making this demand proves that it’s not actually God, or saying to Penn “God, as I envision Him, isn’t something that could communicate to me in that way. So your question is irrelevant to begin with.”

And that’s my reaction to Christina’s piece. I kept wanting to interrupt and ask “But what if God isn’t like that at all? Can’t witches float for some other reason than ‘they’re made out of wood’? Isn’t it possible to have an idea of God that’s completely compatible about everything that’s provable about the physical world?”

She has an eminently-worthy target in the Intelligent Design™ crew, but she broadens her aim beyond what that narrow argument can credibly hit. She seems to base her argument on the idea that there’s one kind of belief in one kind of God, and only one view of what the phrase “created the Universe” means. When I turn around, I see a sea of hands raised to ask “But what about…”

Her article fails to make me understand why belief in God and support of evolution are incompatible.


Christ Almighty (or Just An Influential Rabbi With A Sensible Message Of Peace And Love), This Has Gone On Longer Than I’d Intended

Again, I’ve nothing but respect for Greta Christina…for her, personally, and for her beliefs. She writes and thinks well, and her piece clearly is directed against certain kinds of ideas, not certain kinds of people. I’m presenting this blog post in the form of the conversation after a dinner party, when the guests move to the living room with two bottles of a good, hearty red and and have a great conversation for a couple of hours.

I just believe that this article would have been more powerful if she’d framed it as an essay about why her opposition to Intelligent Design™ extends to all forms of creationism (if indeed that’s what she thinks), instead of writing it as a factual argument that demonstrates that belief in God isn’t compatible with a support of evolution. “She makes some fair points,” I would have thought, instead of launching into 2000 words about God and agnosticism and who might have modeled for what in 1923, and an awful, awful TV show.

So in summary:

  • As a formal theory, Intelligent Design™ (as opposed to creationism in general) is clearly bunk.
  • I can respect creationism in its broadest definition, at least. Mostly by citing the data point “an ant is barely aware that it’s walking on a leaf, let alone spinning on a planet that’s spinning around a star that’s spinning in a galaxy that’s shooting through a universe at about a thousand kilometers a second.” There’s nothing wrong with believing that God created everything and there’s no evidence disproving it, either (again, in a broad sense).
  • “Touched By An Angel” is weird-ass theology. But when inexperienced actors are handed melodramatic, emotionally-manipulative scripts, the results can be quite amusing.
  • It’s possible to believe in God (as you choose to define God) and science at the same time. It’ll all work out fine, so long as you believe in science as science defines science. If so, you shouldn’t worry about what other people think about you.
  • Catch Penn & Teller’s show if the three of you are ever in the same city, because it’s worth the ticket price.


Writing strong female characters

I was reading some fiction this morning and recognized another reliable tipoff that an author doesn’t know how to write a strong female character: the book’s female lead only exists to prevent the male lead from looking insane every time he delivers exposition.

For instance:


Carson drifted into the empty living room. He settled into its second-most-comfortable chair and fussed with a loose seam on the armrest.

Darla entered, drawn by the palpable aroma of Sulk that had been wending its way through the air conditioning system ever since she heard the front door close. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“I’m worried about Omega,” Carson said.

“Oh, no.”

“Yes: Mark’s back. And he promises, absolutely insists, that he’s either going to terminate the whole project or die trying to get credit for it.”

“Can’t you just, you know…have him killed? It’s not as though anyone at the office would ask too many questions. Particularly if it happened on a Friday morning and gave everyone an excuse to start the weekend early.”

“I can’t kill Mark.”

“Well, then, just exploit his tendencies towards idiocy. Water flows downhill. Mark sees a Reddit video of someone almost jumping over a speeding car and thinks ‘I bet that didn’t hurt nearly as much as he’s pretending it did’.”

Carson stopped fussing with the upholstery and snort-smiled. “I’m not going to kill Mark, nor indirectly get him injured.”

“Ah,” Darla said, pretending to be disappointed. She shooed the pile of unread magazines and supermarket circulars off the sofa as though it were an indifferent and entitled cat, and took a seat.

“Is the project really that important? How do you know this isn’t just another dead end?”

Carson rose and crossed to a table. “One, two, three, four binders,” he said, picking up each one and theatrically dropping it to the floor. “Each one represents four hundred pages of dead ends. But it’s not like we wasted our time. Three years of proving what won’t work has absolutely, categorically proven to us what will work.”


“Omega. We have a completely linear path ahead of us for the first time since we launched the company.”

“You make it sound as if all you need to do is follow the dotted line and dig at the ‘X’. You’re that certain?”

“Arrrr, matey!” Carson said, hopping around on one foot.

“A real pirate would just tell Mark ‘Don’t fuss with the #3 cannon; it’s got a faulty fuse’ and then hand the problem over to Darwin.”

“A real pirate wouldn’t have any problems finding financing.” He looked at the floor, listlessly.

“True. So, really, honey…what are you going to do?”

“Ha,” Carson said. Not laughed…said.

“Thank you. I stole that line from a Mitch Hedberg video. What?”

Carson transitioned to a satisfied little chuckle as he picked one of the binders up off the floor and turned to face the chair. He patted its spine and held it with the same air of pride and promise as a new father holds his first child.

He kissed one of its corners, theatrically.

“Mark is an idiot. He’s an even worse enemy to himself than he is to any of the rest of us, if such a thing is even possible. And Lord knows he has no idea what we’ve been working on for the past four years: note the word ‘work’ in that phrase.”

He worked a finger underneath the binder’s spine and removed its label card. It read EPSILON – PHASE IV – *** FAIL ***.

He tore the card into four pieces.

“I think I’m about to mislabel my project files. I think I’m going to leave my desk unlocked tomorrow. And I think the day after that, Mark will ask to make a special presentation to the board of directors. Each of whom remembers our past failures only too well.”

Darla laughed and rose to leave. “I think that’s brilliant,” she said, making for the doorway. “And I think there’s no reason for us not to keep our 6:30 dinner reservations. And I think you’re not leaving the house in those muddy trousers. I can throw them in the load of laundry I was about to run,” she said, leaving to fetch the basket.

“And if your plan doesn’t work?” she called, from the hall.

“If it doesn’t work,” Carson said, dropping his pants, “then we use the cannon.”


If the woman is there just for a male protagonist to bounce exposition off of…that’s not a great character.

Love and Hate and a CD

Due to a clerical oversight (related to the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations; just a guess), there are some albums that can only be purchased on CD. This is the brief tale of one such CD, and the two opposing emotions that it inspired.


“I love technology and all it stands for.”

My music library is managed by a specific Mac in my house: a 15″ MacBook that fulfills the roles of Desktop Machine and Hub Of The Whole Works. Because this Mac is gracious and accommodating (and because I’ve configured it to work this way), any music that I add to its iTunes library becomes available to me everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Everywhere in the house, because this library is linked to wireless speakers, Rokus, Apple TVs, home media servers, and Plex servers. And! Everywhere in the world, because I’ve got iTunes Match and Google Music set up on this Mac. My iPad, my iPhone, my Android phone, or any machine with a working web browser can get access to damn-near the whole works whenever I want, right from the cloud.

(This is why I buy my music from the Amazon MP3 store. The track’s a 99 cent, high-bitrate unlocked file no matter where you buy it…so buying it from Amazon puts it into three cloud music libraries with the same single mouse click. One copy in Amazon Cloud Player, one copy via iTunes Match, one copy uploaded to Google Music. All thanks to the helper app that automatically downloads my purchases and puts them in my iTunes library.)

It’s a swell system and I’m regularly reminded how cool it is to be living in 2014. I was tidying the living room and came across my “Unsung Sondheim” CD. I almost forgot I had this! I wanted to listen to it right away. But it wasn’t in my library; for some reason, I’d never ripped it.

I could have spun the disc on my DVD player, but this wouldn’t have solved my “Sondheim CD is not in my iTunes library” problem. I could have ripped it on the 13″ MacBook that I was using in the living room, but then I’d need to move the files into the other library eventually. I could have moved into the office and done my work there…but then it wouldn’t have felt like Sunday, would it?

But the system works great. I took the CD into the office, started the rip, and then went back to my lazy (but hopefully still productive) Sunday in the living room. In roughly the time it’s taken me to write these few paragraphs, the files appeared — everywhere — and I started listening to it through my wireless speakers.

I did take a moment today to reflect on how cool all of that was. I hadn’t been able to listen to this album because it was physically locked onto this one physical object, which I’d obviously misplaced shortly after it arrived in the mail. Ripping a disc hasn’t really changed much since 1998. Modern music management makes you realize that music files tied down to one music library isn’t that much of an improvement over their being tied down to a disc.

Today? Ripping it into this one library makes it available to me anywhere and everywhere, without any further action. This is exactly the way I want things to happen and it’s magically simple.

love technology.


“I hate technology and all it stands for.”

But I only have two external USB CD/DVD drives in the house and I knew that neither of them were attached to the office MacBook. I fetched one of them and went into my office.

Bloody drive wouldn’t mount the CD, for some reason. I could hear the motors struggling to pull the disc in, and it sounded like the device wasn’t getting enough power. Damn.

Try another USB port? Damn.

Well. My brain was set to “listen to Sondheim” mode, not “troubleshoot a problem” mode. Switching modes requires a soft reboot, so instead of trying to make this drive work I muttered a Level 2 curse (of the five intensities available) and prepared to get up and grab the other drive.

Then I remembered that this is a 2011 MacBook Pro.

It has an internal optical drive.

Goddamn Apple. It has beaten my spirit and forced me to accept their bizarre reality that people shouldn’t ever expect to find an optical drive in a laptop, because that would be insane who would ever want a laptop with an optical drive aren’t you embarrassed I know I’m embarrassed for you honey let’s just forget you said that.

I slid in the CD. My MacBook made a mechanical internal sound that I dearly miss from every other Mac I own. Remember when computers reassured you that it was working by making soothing, reassuring mechanical noises? My first computer was an Apple II. Every day I’d start it up and the CHUGGACHUGGACHUGGA swisshhh…swissshhhh…thip-thip-swisshhh told me that magic was about to happen. iTunes started crunching the music without any fuss.

I had forgotten how much I enjoy that sort of thing. Electrons only make noise when they’re very, very upset with you.

I know I’m not mad at Apple. I’m mad at myself for allowing Apple to brainwash me.

At least there’s hope: I did catch myself before I left the office to get the other drive. Still: goddamn it. I hate technology sometimes.


“I hate technology and all it stands for.” (postscript)

…And for some damn reason, WordPress stripped all of the paragraph breaks from this post after I made a quick edit and clicked “Update.” You wouldn’t think that restoring them by hand would be a chore, but yeah. When your attitude towards formal structure is as lighthearted as mine, however, you can become your own worst editor.

(“I did the best I could. Could you check this copy and make sure it still makes sense? To you, I mean?”)

It could have been worse. Remember the days before autosave? It’s rare when something you’ve written just flat-out disappears to the land of ghosts and winds. Still, it happens sometimes.

I marvel at how upset I get when a glitchy piece of software eats something I’ve written. It’s usually something short and eminently disposable, like an extended comment on someone’s blog post. But the fact remains that it’s three or five hundred words that I thought about, wrote, and edited, and when I got to the very end and clicked “Send,” some goddamn app said “Ha ha! No you didn’t write anything! What? Oh, really? Well, its your word against mine now, jerkface!!!”

The thing I wrote is still fresh in my mind. I could re-type it in a fraction of the time it took to write it originally (and truth be told, it’ll probably be stronger than the first version). But it’s so hard to make myself do it all over again. It feels like something was stolen from me. Words? Time? I don’t know, but that’s the mindset.

Also, I somehow bristle at the very thought that I need to put that time in all over again. It’s like walking up to the takeout counter at a sandwich shop, paying $8 for a sub, and then when they finish making it they say “That’ll be $8.” No. Go to hell! I already paid for this once and if I pay for it again, it’s like I’m telling you it’s okay for you to behave this way!

I don’t have kids and I can only imagine the level of eye-rolling that would ensue if I said “If I lost a child, would I just shrug and make another one? This is something special I took pride in and cared about. I don’t just cynically crank these things out because it’s part of a business plan or something!”

I’m a pro, so I’d probably try to take the edge off by ending it with “Who do you think I am…Kris Jenner?” Even so, I know that people without children shouldn’t compare anything in their lives to having children.

Instead, I’ll say that having to redo something I’ve written due to a software glitch is maddening and upsetting in a way that few other simple problems can madden and upset me. The closest I ever came to actually throwing a computer against a wall and jumping up and down on whatever remained was when Word ate an entire 12,000 word book chapter that I’d written in a long, joyous and grateful single day of totally-in-the-zone productivity.

I was exactly as upset as George Brett was, when his ninth inning home run was declared an out, to end and lose the game for the Royals. And for the same reasons.



But I didn’t throw anything against anything. I remembered this Mister Rogers song, or at least the message. You’re entitled to your anger sometimes, and sometimes you can’t even choose to not be angry. But you can choose what to do with your anger.



I chose to yell a whole hell of a lot and wave my arms around until my throat and my arms were a little sore, just to open up a relief valve (note that I was alone in my house). Then, I chose to take the next day off.

When I reviewed Microsoft’s first music player, my leadoff paragraph stated that using the Zune was about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face. The line was so widely-quoted that it became a question on “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.”

I’m not saying that this was my revenge for what Microsoft Word had done to my book chapter. I take my work too seriously to let that happen. But the book author from a few years earlier (unshaven and a little smelly after a sixteen hour workday, and still wearing the same shorts and tee shirt he’d slept in the night before) pumped his fists and cheered and promised to take me out to lunch the next day.

It wasn’t much of a gesture. We had joint bank accounts. But it was nice of him, anyway.

I am now doing a “select-all” and “copy” on this blog post so that if WordPress screws up again, I can sigh and shake my head and fix things with a simple “paste.” We live, we learn.

Push the button, Frank…

Boston Comic-Con – August 8-9-10 – You Should Totally Go

For years, we comics fans here in New England dreamed of having a big, and great, annual mass-audience con within reach of commuter rail or our cars. Something like the Chicago Comicon or San Diego, except without the need to set aside a week’s pay and a bunch of vacation time. Alas, the best we could manage were little one-day shows. They were well-run and plenty of fun, but weren’t the immersive festivals we would read about on the Compuserve Comics and Animation Forum or in the weekly Comics Buyers Guide.

Well! Boston Comic-Con came along and grew tall and mighty, quickly becoming a true Northeast fan institution. This show was so worth the wait. I attended my first Boston Comic-Con back when the show was small enough to fill a bunch of function rooms and hallways in a hotel conference center. Today, it does a fine job of filling a space that once hosted Macworld Expo.

The organizers put on a fantastic show. I can’t think of a single shortcoming. In fact, it’s so well-run and delivers such a complete experience that I have no real desire to attend the San Diego con. Even New York Comicon seems disposable now; everything I want in a comicon is right here. Boston Comic-Con features A-list guests from every category of fandom; a tremendous lineup of panels; row upon row upon row of artists’ and independent creators’ tables; and a large dealer area with many vendors that sell, you know…comics. Every year, I discover lots of great self-published books and I also come home with plenty of Marvel and DC trade paperbacks priced to move.

(This is my usual way of keeping up with “event” story arcs. I’ve been burned so many times at $3.99 and $2.99 an issue that I don’t like taking risks any more. But sure, I’ll take a flutter on Hickman’s “Avengers” if it’s a deeply-discounted $8 trade.)

The show is glued together by the energy of a large and diverse crowd of fans. If you’ve never been to a convention, this is what you’re really missing out on. There’s something very satisfying about being among thousands of people who like the same sorts of things that you like, and who are just excited to be here as you are. Don’t be careless with your valuables, but it’s a great scene.

Many of these people arrive in costume and are happy to be photographed, viz:

I love the cosplay community. These folks contribute so much to a show.

I enjoy cosplayers because I appreciate the creativity and craftsmanship that went into these costumes…and I like to see people who clearly are having a great time. But what an effect they have on kids! They’re actually meeting Iron Man! They got their picture taken with Merida from “Brave”! They had a conversation with Artoo Detoo!

Their parents are often as thrilled as their kids. Their 7 year old daughter is squealing over the same things that they themselves loved at that age. I see these people beaming from behind their cameraphones and imagining just how many friends and relatives will get that photo in the next hour.

Happy kids, happy parents, happy cosplayers (hundreds of dollars and hours invested in a costume, with quite a nifty payoff in the form of the reactions they get from kids and grownups)…and happy me, watching this all unfold.

I think…yes, I do believe I will let this planet live. Or at least that’ll be what I’ll recommend in my report. It’s the money-people who make the final decisions, you understand. But! They generally trust my judgment on such things.

[well]Aside: Don’t you hate being bothered by the noise and rowdiness from that planet between here and Mars? Oh wait, no, you’re not bothered by that at all, are you? Because there isn’t a planet between this one and Mars any more. I spent three years living on Galatea and oh, Zarquon almighty did those jerks get on my very last nerve.

I would’t have even let Galatea go on that long. But a taxi driver in the capitol state tried to jack up my fare by 200 units the moment he saw that I was from out of town. I refused to pay and was forced to stick around and fight it. In the end, I had to pay far more than that in bribes to section chiefs just to make the problem go away and get my luggage back.

See what I mean? Crap like that was happening All. The. Damn. Time. Well, the Galateans are nobody’s problem now. You’re welcome and it’s all in an eon’s work. This is why I’m sent out to keep this sector of inhabited space tidy and civil.[/well]

So take this as my very strong recommendation that you check out Boston Comic-Con this weekend. I’ll likely be there on Saturday, and I’ll definitely be there on Friday. I’m moderating a panel with two of my favorite creators: Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner.

I’m muchly excited. I love their work. I admire their restless creativity and the obvious work ethic that’s taken them, both as individuals and as a team, through a wide range of comics and multiple publishers over two decades. When their names are on a new series, past experience commands me to try it.

This panel is a Q&A. I’ll be asking one or two leadoff questions before I settle back into my role as the guy who keeps an eye on the time. Even if I weren’t moderating, I’d be showing up early to ensure that I got seat in the audience.

That’s happening on Friday at 6 PM in the Amphitheater. Here’s the whole three-day schedule of events.

Boston Comic-Con. August 8-9-10, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the World Trade Center. It’ll be a great time for you and for your kids as well. Buy your tickets now to avoid at least one extra line, as well as the possibility of a sellout.

If you haven’t been back to the World Trade Center since the last Boston Macworld Expo…oh, boy, are you in for a treat! There’s shade in that part of town now! And a 7-11 and a Dunkin Donuts right on the same block! There are a couple of decent restaurants where you can meet up for dinner, and ATMs and a new MBTA line that will take you practically right there!

I remember many bleary, scorching-hot August afternoons when I had to walk a mile to get from World Trade to the nearest MBTA station, along a route without any shade and sometimes no sidewalk, either. And there was nowhere at World Trade or anywhere in between where you could buy anything to ease your thirst or cool you down.

There are a lot of ways to summarize the Late Eighties/Early Nineties World Trade Center Macworld Expo experience in a single word. If there were a bracketed competition to determine the very best one, “heatstroke” would make it to the final four and it’d be a contender for the championship.

But I’m here to tell you that the excited whispers are true: the city of Boston has finally made the World Trade Center fit for humanity. And a great comic-con is happening there in a week’s time.