Your friendly neighborhood spider

He's back
(or one of his kids):I call him Cthulhu.

I don't know why I feel fondness for this creepy guy. (Not creepy "little" guy, because he's about an inch long.) I have to say I'm impressed; this web is bigger than a stop sign, and its anchor lines go six to ten feet outwards. Spiders must have pretty damn good vision to pull that off.

Change happens at intersections

About a month ago, Susie Sharp posted something from the Cool Twitter Conference: 'Change happens at intersections. On Twitter, don't just follow the same people all your other friends follow.' It's a tidy nugget of wisdom.

That same day I had posted a video on Facebook that someone on The WELL dug up. It was an instrumental Japanese math rock band called Nisennenmondai. Things I learn on The WELL are part of the value I bring to my other friends. The converse happens too - like my journeyman's attempts to drive traffic to the WELL discussion of Scott Rosenberg's book.

A lot of people don't understand my marriage - how can we spend so much time apart? But if we experienced everything together, we wouldn't have anything to talk about. If you start reading books about how to improve your marriage, one of the first pieces of advice you'll hear is this: don't try to be the whole world to each other. You'll fail, and you'll lose yourself in the process. Bring something fresh to it. Don't be afraid to have passions that are only your own.

Nobody learns anything in an echo chamber. When it came time to throw a birthday party, I made a point of inviting four or five different groups of friends, many of whom hadn't met each other. I was tilling the fields for a fertile cross-pollination.

There's a more abstract point I'm trying to make, and I'm not doing a very good job. Something to the effect that we need challenge and variety. Duh, right? Maybe if I throw enough examples at you, the plural of "anecdote" will become "data". I have to try.

Is your car angry or happy?

I'd like to call your attention to the redesigned front end of the 2010 Mazda3. I drive the previous version, and I like it enough at 100,000 miles to consider buying a new one down the road. But this ...I don't know if I could handle it.

First, my car:

And now the new car, "smiley":AUUUGGH!

Why is this so strange? Like pop music(*), cars are rarely happy. When cars are anthropomorphized, they're usually made to look angry or aggressive. Consider sports cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, BMW M3, Dodge Viper, etc. Grr! Maybe people want their cars to scowl so other drivers will be warned in advance of their intentions. Driving is packed full of nonverbal communication, at least if you do it consciously. One reason people sink so much money into cars (hands down the worst investment you're making) is to keep their image consistent with the rest of their driving style.

But Mazda has done this before. The first-generation Miata had a cheeky smile. Now that I think of it, the happiest pop music in my collection is also Japanese. The genre is called Shibuya-kei, and its atmosphere reflects the optimism and energy of post-WWII growth.

Maybe the reason there are so few happy-looking cars, and so little happy music, is the myth that happy people are stupid. Walk around at work smiling and someone may hand you an extra task. Drive a seething red mask and maybe people won't cut you off. Good luck with that.

(*)Pop music: Remember grunge? Emo? Punk? Now try to think of a happy pop song. If you can (OK: the Pelican West album by Haircut 100), then try to think of a happy pop genre. BZZT, time's up.

How science works: peer review

'How science works' is a professional topic I'm in a good position to explain to the general public and am not prevented from talking about due to competitive pressures. As I see examples, I'll repost them here with notes.

Ars Technica has posted a brief article about the peer review process, more specifically, how scientists feel about it. Peer review is the process of showing a scientific paper to other scientists before allowing it to be published. The other scientists read the paper in detail and make sure that it's self-consistent and not trivial.

Peer review is managed by the editors of scientific journals - say, for example, Physical Review B, Condensed Matter and Materials Physics. Such journals embody the institutional memory of a discipline. The reviews are written by volunteers, often chosen from authors who have published in the journal before. Writing useful reviews regularly is a good way to get on an editor's good side. Because the journal only has to manage the process, and not actually do it, it's unlikely that peer review is contributing to the ongoing explosion in journal prices. That's a separate topic I might discuss, though I'm largely out of that game.

The changing voice of nonfiction

This one's for you, John.

A blogger I've just begun to read, Magic Molly, posted recently about a cookbook from 1927. I was struck by this quote:
The book is written in that kind omnipotent voice that was popular before we became self-obsessed and began to use personal pronouns like commas, around the late sixties (I think).
I suspect she's talking about a transition from passive voice to first- or third-person narrative, but I don't think often enough about the technical details of English usage to really be sure.

I enjoy trying to figure out what decade something was written by looking at the font and layout. It never occurred to me until now that perspective could change with the whim of fashion.


Now that I've finished the blogging book, I've begun reading "A Hidden Wholeness" by Parker J. Palmer. That may seem like an odd segue, like listening to Brian Eno after King Crimson, but what these two books have in common is that they are both about community.

In the first few pages, Palmer puts his finger on an important point: that we teach ethics as if it were a set of external rules, not something to be internalized. We have employee handbooks, and we have the real behaviors that people engage in. Of the many words he could have chosen to describe this disconnect, he uses "compartmentalization". People sometimes put their actions in one compartment and their principles in another.

I've only begun the book, but this makes me wonder how to reach past that barrier, across compartments, to reach a student's soul. (We are students as long as we choose to be.) I remember September 11th, and stock market crashes, the deaths of loved ones, and venerable American institutions disappearing, and I think of the sickening thud I feel when something that felt permanent goes away. When the status quo changes, a window opens, and there is an opportunity to reach the soul. And, of course, when we choose to open that window ourselves, when we choose to be students.


Casting about for a bookmark, I grabbed a very old one from Borders in Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the back I had written this quote:
Does tolerance necessarily require a relativism that goes to the depths of men's and women's souls, depriving them of their natural right to prefer and to learn about the beautiful?
From "Love and Friendship", by Allan Bloom. Perhaps a quote from the controversial The Closing of the American Mind would have been more appropriate here.

Scott Rosenberg, "Say Everything": speak to the author

As I posted previously, Scott Rosenberg, co-founder and former tech columnist for Salon, has written a book about blogging. There is a discussion with the author going on at The WELL.

The conversation's started. Here's a link to the discussion itself. If that doesn't work, here's a link to the front page of the Inkwell area (which normally has several discussions going in parallel).

Happily, the conversation page has an RSS feed. Down in post 8 there's an email address where you can send questions. (I won't repost it here in order to keep from straining their spamfilters.)

As I've gone through the book, it's been fascinating to watch blogging evolve and ultimately see how it fits in with the newer forms of social media. For a surprisingly long time, blogging was the best way for people to put their perspectives out there; now we've got better ways to issue short status updates, post photos or videos, etc. That leaves blogging better defined as a venue for extended-form writing.

California burns beautifully

It's a raw week for theparsley, a landscape architect in California blogging about how the fires threaten landscapes. The beauty of the dirty sunsets clashes with the knowledge that people are dying. Nerves are exposed here too.
I’ve got to stop tagging every post with “love and loss.” [....] in every post, I will discuss how each thing we gain has inside of it the seed of its loss. and a few people will read it, and they will get depressed. but that’s not my intention.

Clever-land, Cleave-land

A coworker at one of my company's Asian offices made a highly complimentary mistake in their English: Cleveland became Cleverland. What would Moses Cleaveland think?

To cleave:
  1. to adhere closely; stick; cling (usually fol. by to).
  2. to remain faithful (usually fol. by to): to cleave to one's principles in spite of persecution.
  3. to split or divide by or as if by a cutting blow, esp. along a natural line of division, as the grain of wood.
  4. to make by or as if by cutting: to cleave a path through the wilderness.
  5. to penetrate or pass through (air, water, etc.): The bow of the boat cleaved the water cleanly.
  6. to cut off; sever: to cleave a branch from a tree.
  1. mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able.
  2. superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile: It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value.
  3. showing inventiveness or originality; ingenious: His clever device was the first to solve the problem.
  4. adroit with the hands or body; dexterous or nimble.
Either is fine, actually.