Monthly Archives: July 2010

Making Things

I have a desire to make things. I have all sorts of ideas. I’m not going to describe them here in detail because I feel like that will siphon some energy from the act of actual creation. For now, I think my first project will be some type of cool chat thing in Ruby. Whoo. (Basically a clone of something some of you have seen before.)

I also want to send e-mails to some of my students.

Who I’d Like to Write Like

Hm, I guess it’s a toss up between George Orwell and your mom. Orwell writes with a lot of conviction, but can be wordy. Your mom was really concise last night. And she was energetic. Orwell can be rather energetic in his political convictions.

As for what style exercises are for, I can’t say it any better than Stevie did, so I’m republishing it here:

I often hear people say things like, “I’m not good at writing.” Quite simply, the point of style exercises is to remind yourself that that is ridiculous.

When you say something like that, you are often comparing yourself to this writer or that writer whose style is mysteriously able to move your or inform you or make you laugh. A style exercise takes the mystery out of good writing. Well, it takes the mystery out of any writing. You learn through imitating different writing styles, first ridiculous and then more subtle, that you can choose to use longer sentences to make your writing sound more grandiose or choose simple words to make it playful. You can also choose not to do these things. When you see patterns in other people’s word choice, sentence structure punctuation, and point of view, you get to know very well what makes a piece sound epic or silly or biting or intense. You also get to know that all writing has rhythm.

It’s all about control. Once you can play dress-up in someone else’s style, you can learn to control your own. Then, you decide what kind of a writer you want to be and how you want to make your readers feel.

Obama and Patience

From Emily:

Okay so this subject has been bothering me for a while now. I’ve been hearing so many people talk about how Obama hasn’t been doing anything and he’s all talk. Uhm, hello? Bush came in for 8 years and created all this crap and everyone expects Obama to fix it in less than 2 years? It doesn’t make any sense. I’m not saying that Obama is the answer to all our problems or that he’s going to fix everything during his term but I’m just saying that people need to give him a chance. I mean really, does everyone expect him to fix the economy, the war, and this country in less than half a term? So, please if you’re one of those people who are saying, “Obama is all talk” or “Obama doesn’t do shit”, I seriously need you to think about what I’m saying. OBAMA CAN’T FIX EVERYTHING IN 1 1/2 YEARS! I just needed to get this off my mind, that I tried to do something about this problem, and if you don’t disagree with me, I don’t mind, but you should really think about how long it takes to fix 8 years worth of damage.

This is a good reminder — one I even need myself — for our hyper-fast times.

Extra Credit

3 steps:
1) Read something by David Foster Wallace that has footnotes
2) Write a paragraph of your own thoughts on this thing that you read
3) Write a paragraph about how DFW uses footnotes

Have fun with your essays! I’m going rafting!

So much junk

This is what I meant when I said capitalism was very efficient at producing massive amounts of shit that we don’t need:

It’s a well known industry secret that Nokia was not at all happy that their 6310 model lasted for years and years. People loved that phone. Hung on to it for ages. Nokia fired the man who made it. Their average handset is engineered to last for two years. Based on my own experience, the iPhone is not much better.
Now, 1.2 billion phones were sold last year. If I’m to believe what I see in the grey market in Africa, that number is even higher. About half of those went to first-time buyers. The other half, replacements.
I want you to take a few seconds and picture the heap of junk that 600 million mobile phones are going to create.
Landfill, anyone?

The curse of the innovation age

(via Umair Haque on twitter)

(Note: Nothing I say is original; it’s mostly me summarizing/synthesizing what I’ve lately been obsessively reading.)

On Machiavelli

Dear Jenna,

I wasn’t able to justify my love of Machiavelli properly last night. Allow me to do so here. I love The Prince because it is as subversive as The Art of War.

The Art of War is a Taoist book. This feels contradictory because Taoism is all about peace. Yet the book, despite talking about war, is actually anti-war. The best victories are those that come without fighting. Protracted war is the worst. Moreover, it defends this anti-war position by using the language of the belligerent. It is a smart, subversive book.

The Prince is also a subversive book. It’s written to a jerk and couched in amoral language. However, he warns princes not to isolate themselves from the people. It’s in their best interests (amorally) to be supported by the people. One can’t get this from merely reading the Prince, although if one reads it with the right frame of mind, one can feel its subversive nature. Those who have ever read The Prince and laughed aloud know what I’m talking about. The evidence comes from The Discourses, where he makes clear his love for Republican government. The next evidence comes from his life. Machiavelli despised mercenaries and tried to build a citizen army. He spent his latter years in exile, spending most of his time reading the ancients. Through his reading, he conversed with men such as Cicero, no doubt. These people were obsessed with virtue and freedom. Machiavelli was also a fun person, constantly playing practical jokes. This leads me to believe that he’d have the necessary mindset to write a subversive text. He did not take himself too seriously, so I wonder why the rest of us do.

I think people also make the same mistake with Plato and Ben Franklin. There is an intellectual tradition of not taking one’s self too seriously, and I believe Machiavelli is a part of it.

Sure, an asshole businessman can read The Art of War, and maybe get something out of it, but he won’t understand the message behind the book. The same applies to The Prince.

Perhaps one day, I’ll back this up with all the necessary textual evidence. For now, I thought it important to defend my thoughts, no matter how poor that defense was.

As always,

Agh, Capitalism

I was almost asleep, but now my mind is aflame with reasons why I hate capitalism. I just sent a bunch of texts to Evernote. I will synthesize this when I have more time.

For now, snark: Capitalism is very efficient… at raping the planet. Capitalism is very efficient… at producing massive amounts of shit we don’t need.

Living on Less

I’ve been obsessing over the concept that if I live with less, I don’t have to make as much money. I’ve been looking at how much it would cost to rent a place and then slashing expenses for everything else.

TV: I always thought I couldn’t live without TV, but I’ve done a pretty good job ever since I got two jobs. This, combined with a lack of good summer programming, means I have hardly watched any TV at all. I can purchase what I want on the internet or on DVD. If I want to watch a sports event, such as football, I can go to a bar or restaurant and enjoy it with other people. I’ve always wanted to do this anyway, so it’d be worth it to trade ESPN for the chance to watch sports with a crowd. Maybe I’ll meet some new people. I might get a cheap TV on Craigslist, but this would pretty much only be more social events.

Food: After hearing that someone actually pulled off living on a dollar a day for food, and after hearing that Stevie’s friend Jenny lived on one dollar per meal, I’m inspired to think that with some smart shopping, I could live on less too!

Car: I don’t want a car. Sure, I’ll have to walk, but then I don’t have to go to the gym. I also get time alone for thinking. Win.

Air conditioning: I already live in a house without air conditioning!

Clothes: Okay, I need nice clothes. Not changing that.

So my super secret plan is to eventually stop working a real job. I’d do contract work, but the amount I need to live isn’t really that much. It’s so doable. I don’t need to be rich to get time; I just have to be willing to live with less.

I want more time to wander, more time to think, more time to create, more time to walk. And more time for civic engagement.

The System

I’m not sure what “the system” is, but I don’t like it. I think, for me, it stands for the usual way of doing things, or the way we’re supposed to be doing things. It’s buy a car, buy a house, be in debt, keep buying more, work 40 hours a week, etc. It’s the American consumerist lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that demands that the economy grows while the planet burns.

Sometimes, I feel trapped. Like, I have to get a car so that I can get a job, and I need this job to buy all sorts of things that I don’t need. As long as I do all these things, how do I stop destroying the planet and exploiting people? Our way of life is so entrenched. How could I possibly destroy the system?

I have another idea. Opt-out. Don’t destroy the system, just don’t buy into it. Literally.

The “economy” wants to grow, but it needs us to feed it. Government and corporations work together to keep getting money, but they need consumers to prop the system up. That’s why Bush told us to go shopping after 9/11. Let’s not go shopping.

Let’s not keep the “economy” buoyant. Because the economy is what’s fucking up the planet. Instead, let’s opt-out of the system and build something new. Let’s build something together that keeps us all afloat. Forget about the economy. Focus on community.

So what is one way that I could opt-out? I think I should make the decision to not buy a car. One small, radical choice. Right now it sounds crazy, but I know if I commit myself to it, then I’ll make it work. I still want to move out, but if I do this without a car, I have enough of a buffer to support myself for several months, even if I lose my job tomorrow.

I’ll opt-out of the fossil fuel extraction that has devastated the Gulf. I’ll opt-out of the carbon pollution that’s heating up the planet. I’ll opt-out of the financial system that encourages people to be in debt. Well, I won’t opt out of these completely, but it’ll be a good step in not making the planet worse.

I think maybe a good project would be to find all these people who opt-out in some tiny (or big) way and then write about them. After seeing these examples, maybe others would opt-out too.

Random Pondering

Item 1…

I am exhausted and cranky today. I’m working two jobs, so my side projects are suffering and I don’t get enough time to spend with all my friends!

If you work 2 jobs, and still manage to raise a family, you are a GOD. Seriously, I don’t know how you do it. You are amazing.

Item 2…

My student from Writing for College, Nina, asks:

I have a question for you guys. Not important enough to e-mail, but worthy enough to be asked on a blog. What is hard about grading? What is your grading process? Is it something that you procrastinate Is it easier than actually writing the assignment? Faster?

I will answer these questions out of order.


I always procrastinate. So yes.


I measure papers against an ideal and against each other. I hate curves because I know how to game them. You put in just enough effort to be better than a large number of your classmates, and no more. It doesn’t encourage learning or leading. It often discourages cooperation! Still, I grade papers against each other because there needs to be some amount of consistency in grading. The ideal prevents me from assigning the best paper an automatic A+. (FYI: I rarely award an A+; this is a result of my academic background.) The ideal varies from paper to paper, but mostly, I’m looking for a paper that can make me say, “Yes! You understand the concept!”

Notice the word “understand.” This is probably my most important criterion when grading. And let me give you a hint for school-work: Effort and time put in are not equivalent to understanding. There’s a difference between mindless practice and deliberate practice. Mindless practice is reading pages over and over. Deliberate practice is prioritizing what you do understand and what you don’t understand and focusing on what you don’t understand; it’s also about figuring out what information is important and what information isn’t important. Playing an instrument or sport provides one of the best analogies. Since I play piano, I’ll use that. Mindless practice is playing the piece over and over, glossing over the hard parts, and making the same mistakes over and over. Deliberate practice is zeroing in on the part that gives you trouble and playing that over and over until you get it right. Deliberate practice is also about focusing on what’s important and working on things in the proper order. Let’s say a passage gives you trouble and it contains a trill. You can’t get any of it right. First, you practice without the trill. It doesn’t make sense to practice with the trill if you can’t even get the rhythm right. Then, you add the trill back in. It’s up to you to determine what’s important, but you can get help if you need it.

So, what does this have to do with grading papers? I focus on understanding. If you try to put a trill in, and even play the trill beautifully, but don’t get the rhythm right, that’s worse than ignoring the trill and playing the part correctly. If your essay contains flashes of brilliance, but is an incoherent mess, you’ll get a worse grade than someone whose essay is more boring but is better focused and organized. Similarly, with the style exercises, if you occasional put some good lines in, but were inconsistent, that’s worse than having a lot of mediocre lines, but a more consistent tone. The latter indicates a better understanding of the material. To be even more specific, if you inserted a line in the Official Letter addressing someone, but then your narrator drifts in and out of the story, that tells me you don’t understand what you’re doing because the story doesn’t make sense. If you didn’t insert a greeting or even have a strong narrator, but the tone is consistently official and the diction is consistently complex, that actually indicates a better understanding. It tells me you can imitate a style. The former tells me you can copy isolated pieces, but you can’t tell a coherent story in a coherent style. Thus, as a student, you can’t say, “I did this! I should get a better grade than the person who didn’t do this!” There’s a holistic element to grading.

I’ve used the word “boring,” which I don’t want to do. I don’t want to give the impression that one shouldn’t take risks. This is writing, though! You take risks and then you edit the damn thing! And if you don’t get it, then you ask someone else to read your work and help you.

There are lots of rules that you get for writing, but are actually okay to break. For example, you aren’t supposed to use fragment. But they’re okay. The thing is that you have to use them intentionally. You have to know what a fragment is and why it could be bad before you can go breaking the rules. With poetry, learn rhythm and rhyme before writing free-verse. Otherwise, you’ll use unpoetic language.


Consistency. I have so many pet peeves that it’s hard to stay objective.


I can’t really compare them to each other. It’s like asking if it’s harder to learn Rondo alla Turca on piano, or to design a website. Different things completely.

Item 3…

I am loving Poderosa. I saw a coworker using it, and so I decided to download it and try it out. With one blow, I’ve replaced Console, PuTTy, and HyperTerminal. SSH worked with no help; no more PuTTy. I added the Cygwin bin to my path, and then cygwin worked. There went Console. Then, I got a plugin for serial port support, and so HyperTerminal is no more. Sometimes, the more powerful, feature-laden option is the most minimalist option. The only thing that would make my life perfect was if I could get it to replace the Windows command line too.

My Watcher at the Gates

I don’t have one Watcher; I have many. My Watchers are a pantheon of demons that tell me different things. I’m not sure what all of them look like, or what their names are. I haven’t studied them all that closely. Although I could list the things they say, I’m not sure which ones say what. There is one that I am familiar with enough to write about.

He sits in a hard, wooden chair just in front of the gates. The gates are black, iron, ornate. There is no accompanying fence; there is only the gate surrounded by white void. Up, down, left, right — the void continues in all directions.

This Watcher looks very much like me. He wears a pristine suit, but no hat. He is “perfect.” He is always calm. He never struggles and never has inner turmoil. He is emotionless and governed by pure reason. When he speaks, he speaks fluidly, at a measured pace, never stutters, never makes a mistake, and pauses only slightly. He always knows what to say and says it with devastating flair.

He sits in his chair and criticizes me.

I don’t think he has a name, but I will nickname him Napoleon. This is not because he is some sort of war hero. (Far from it! Since he has no emotions, he is no coward, but he also does not know courage. However, he is a strategic genius, and he can beat me in any game.) I call him this because Napoleon is one of Hegel’s World-historical individuals. He is always thinking that I should alter the course of history. (Arrogant, huh?)

Whenever I write something, he is constantly concerned with whether it has proper weight. “Is this thing that you are writing important, or is it frivolous?” he asks. He is also greatly concerned with the quality of my work. He tells me, “What will people 100 years from now think of this? Will they be impressed? How about people who would read this now? Will this work hit them with enough force?” He is very displeased when ideas are not perfectly-formed. He disapproves of works-in-progress. He demands that every assertion must be true and backed up with well-researched data.

Sometimes, he’s not there at the gates, so I don’t have to deal with him. However, his chair is always there, in the same place. In fact, his chair is empty right now. I will leave him a note.

Dear “Napoleon,”

You have no idea what it means to be an artist. I have opened these gates while you are gone and let imperfection run rampant. It was rather satisfying.

As always,

Dead Time

I invented the term “white collar ditch digger” to describe my internship at Lam as a tech writer. My work was pure drudgery, mostly involving formatting documents. Dull.

I suppose I didn’t learn my lesson because here I am again doing dull work. (To be fair, it didn’t start out dull, but then my job description changed a bit.) I consider this dead time because it doesn’t propel me forward in life or make me a better person.

The idea of “killing time” should be taken more seriously. One only has a limited amount of time on this Earth, and wasting this time should deserve more violent imagery to go along with this dead metaphor. The wasted time is murdered time. It applies to idle internet surfing, and it should also apply to drudgery. Yes, I get paid, but that time is going toward cash, not being directly invested in me.

So, I’m working a project to reclaim this dead time. I won’t reveal it for now, but I wanted to note here, in this space, that it is being done.


I’ve noticed that people who conduct experiments on themselves tend to be interesting people. They also get book deals. (Okay, this isn’t true of everyone like that.) What prompted this was my mother talking about an author on The Colbert Report who tried to become a farmer and often failed miserably. I thought, If I ever want to write a book, I should think up an experiment. Other authors I know have gone this route. Gretchen Rubin spent a year trying everything out on happiness; she has a blog and book. Tim Ferris experiments in what he calls “lifestyle design,” and he does lots of interesting things. I also remember reading Rock, Paper, Scissors by Len Fisher and being amused at all the little experiments in his life. I thought: I should try this stuff out. Of course, thinking about trying to incorporate more experimentation into my life is far different from actually doing it. I find the idea of experimentation cool not just because of it being a good way to have a writing topic, but it being a good way to live life. Experiments aren’t as heavy as decisions. That is to say, saying, “I’m going to cut out meat from my life,” is a much heavier statement than, “I’m going to try being a vegetarian for a month.” The former has more emotional consequences, especially when you fail. The latter is an experiment, so it’s okay if you fail, and if you fail, you can try again. The latter is a different approach to life, and it’s one that I think I prefer. I don’t like taking myself too seriously. I also think it would make me a more interesting person.

On a side note: It is really difficult to write when you keep getting interrupted. I intended on writing more, but the interruptions destroyed my state of mind. I need my own place by the end of the year.

And a reminder:

“This is one of the most important things I’ve learned from my happiness project: I need to take responsibility for the kind of life I lead. If I wish Fourth of July were more festive, I need to figure out how to make it more festive. If I want sparklers, I need to buy them. As Kafka wrote,’You are the problem. No scholar to be found far and wide.'” — Gretchen Rubin