Empathy and Risk


The existence of that Seth speaks link down there on the right side of this page has been questioned more than once during the past year. Usually, the puzzlement is framed in terms of Mr. Godin's focus on Marketing, and why that might be particularly interesting—or pertinent—in the context of my decidedly non-commercial blog. One answer, I suppose, is that I simply like his ideas and the way they're presented. Another is that they're so often applicable in my world. As it happens, the proof of that lies within the last ten days or so of his blog entries.

For example, the July 23 post is very much about writing, and more specifically, about commonly held beliefs concerning who wants to read what. As the title suggests, empathy can't be overlooked.

The things that fascinate you about your life are almost always banal to strangers. Strangers want to read about their lives, not yours.

To me, the point isn't that people are literally interested in reading some sort of regurgitated version of their own daily realities. The point I take is that the reader has to be able to put himself in the story, but has to first want to put himself there. This is true even if it's pure science fiction. Who wants to go on a deep-space mission that consists of induced hibernation for all humans aboard the ship, while the narrator is a navigation/life-support computer with nothing much to say? It's tough to empathize with that.

At first glance, the July 21 post is about CDs at a garage sale, but that isn't where it winds up. Again, there's an applicable component; there's food for thought in the context of writing, among other things.

Musicians, bloggers, writers--if you're toiling in the long tail, getting stuck at zero is now a real possibility. Being just like the other guys but trying harder is less of an effective strategy than ever before.

It's tempting, sometimes, to be just like everyone else. It seems safer somehow—the outcome is easier to predict—to use proven methods and simply try harder than the other guy. But although it's been known to work out for a lot of folks, it can't work out forever. Someone has to be willing to put the new ideas into practice, and that involves risk.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and all that. But really, the proven methods of today were once on that bleeding edge, too.


Ghost Stories

Friendly ghosts are bestDimmed bloglights or not, I thought this one was too good to pass up.

A couple years ago, I had just finished moving into my current place and decided to take a break in my favorite rocking recliner. I closed my eyes, and just before drifting off had the odd sensation that the chair was rocking gently, almost imperceptibly, as though by an unseen hand. This happened a few more times during the following weeks, and only occasionally after that. It's a rare occurrence now.

At the time, I decided I had a ghost. An old lady, I thought, who had taken it upon herself to rock me to sleep, like a baby. I never actually saw or heard anything; this was just what my mind put together for reasons of its own. But it's a very old house in a neighborhood that's been around for well over 100 years, so ghosts certainly aren't out of the question.

Last Saturday, I happened to meet a woman who lived here years ago, and we spent some time comparing notes on the many idiosyncrasies of this old house. Then, suddenly, she asked the question that answered the question I hadn't even thought to ask.

"So, have you met the lady yet?"

Yes, actually. I believe I have.


Dimming the Bloglights

The not-darkness of a moonlit nightAs I'm sure you've noticed, the old blog just hasn't been itself lately. In fact, a lot of things changed on May 13, which was Mother's Day, and also the day my grandmother passed away. By itself, such an event is understandably difficult for all involved, but sometimes there are other effects—residual effects—that linger long after the sadness and sense of loss have faded into the background of daily life. In this case, her passing created a vacuum for at least one of the family members she left behind, and not everything that subsequently rushed in to fill that vacuum has been positive. It's no secret that senior citizens represent a particularly vulnerable segment of our society, but the sudden void that so often results from the death of a lifelong partner can be devastating in unexpected ways. Impossible ways, even, or at least they seem so until they become reality.

Unfortunately, this can of worms—or more accurately, this rat's nest—has affected me, too. I've pretty much lost my sense of humor over it, and although I've done a lot of writing lately, it's been for reasons that have nothing to do with the Web space you're currently visiting. It hasn't exactly been humorous material. My hope is this situation will be resolved as quickly and painlessly as possible, but in the meantime, I'm not sure how much time and energy—not to mention humor—will be left over for this blog, or related endeavors.

In other words, the blog isn't going dark, but it's likely to be a bit dim in here for a while. Sorry about that.


Freedom's Silent Ring

A phone for LudditesNot everyone is dancing following Tuesday's announcement of the latest BlackBerry smartphone. Sure, the new Wi-Fi capability spells greater opportunity for staying in touch with the collective, but it's also one more way to bring the workplace along. Some see this as a good thing, while others feel their blood pressure rising at the idea of more work in an already overworked day.

But there's also a third category, which is made up of people who couldn't care less. Some dismiss them as modern-day Luddites who just don't seem to grasp the importance of technology, but I happen to know a few folks who fit into that group, and their reasons for avoiding conveniences of this sort have nothing to do with tech-ignorance. In fact, some have spent considerable portions of their lives immersed in technology; they've been scientists and engineers, or perhaps used technology to its full extent in the pursuit of business interests. They understand it, they see the value in it, and they don't want anything to do with it.

Are they insane? Possibly, but I can see where they're coming from. In the early days of computing, technology held the promise of increased productivity, among other things. Some of us thought the new computer-driven technologies would allow us to work better, faster, and smarter, and for some of us at least, it worked out exactly that way. But there were other results, too. One of those computer-driven technologies would eventually become the now-ubiquitous device known as the cell phone, and leaving aside the increasing level of convergence between phones and wireless data terminals, it's nearly impossible to get away from the infernal gadgets now. It's one thing to tell your boss—or your clients—you'll be unavailable this evening, this weekend, or next week while you're on vacation, but quite another to actually go through with it.

Besides, who's going to believe you? Everyone knows how long it takes to start shaking and crying after you power down your wireless device(s), and it isn't very long. That's called addiction, and when addiction is used against us by those who sign our paychecks, it's known as slavery.

Don't get me wrong. As I've mentioned before, I love anything that enables and furthers communication, which devices like the BlackBerry do very handily. They represent freedom, but they have a dark side. Maybe that third category of people—those who don't seem to care about tech stuff one way or another—have been to the other side, and lived to tell about it. They might be Luddites, but then again, they might not.



Souls passing in the labyrinthStopped at a traffic light at dusk, I glanced at the vehicle next to me. The passenger was a young boy, maybe nine or ten, who seemed to be studying his surroundings with a thoughtfulness and intensity usually reserved for persons considerably older. He reminded me of one of those kids who spend a great deal of time indoors, immersed in books—wiser than his years, but pale from the lack of sunlight. His expression was one of concerned interest; he wasn't entirely pleased with his observations.

As the light turned green I glanced over again, but this time his focus was on me. I hoped he wasn't peering into my soul, because his face still reflected a troubled curiosity. But then he smiled, and I smiled too, and I knew everything was going to be alright.



LinksThings I've noticed during the past week:

1) Wishful thinking and memory loss often produce similar results.

2) Dead brain cells aren't particularly useful for storing history lessons.

3) Past events may illuminate the means to escape current quandaries.

4) Learning from the mistakes of others generally requires that you don't repeat theirs.

5) If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it might be disguised as a duck.

6) Those who live in glass houses sometimes forget where they are.

7) Salvation often comes at zero hour, which may be too late.

8) Desperate people sometimes see heroes where there are none.

9) If you're drunk, don't play with the phone.

10) Bravado is just that.

11) Sometimes fixing one thing breaks another.

12) The agony of irreversibility outlives the circumstances that created it.

13) When it comes to the truth, there is no statute of limitations.

14) Sometimes bad situations get a lot worse.

15) Blood isn't always thicker than water.

16) Gullibility isn't a sin, but sometimes its effects are.

17) Things don't always turn out alright in the end.

18) Sometimes people become addicted to odd circumstances.

19) There are far worse things than being alone.

20) Ignore gut feelings at your peril.

21) When the foundation contains subterfuge, there's no use examining the rest of the house for termites.

22) The truth doesn't always set you free.


Decoding Omega

More mystery than it deserves.The question has come up from time to time: Why Omegaword? It came up again this week, so this is probably as good a time as any to throw out a few examples.

Most people are familiar with the finality aspect of the last letter of the Greek alphabet, most notably in connection with the biblical book of Revelation. More recently, the subject of Omega-3 fatty acids in the context of human health has elevated the omega term in the popular consciousness, but I had neither of those connections in mind when Omegaword was incubated.

For me, both the upper and lowercase version of the letter have special significance, because both are used in electrical theory, which is one of my favorite subjects. The more familiar uppercase form is used as the symbol for resistance to electrical current, while the lowercase represents angular velocity, which, in turn, is used for calculating things like reactance, which is the imaginary part of impedance, which is a complex quantity, which is where things become irrational, which is why I'm fond of it. Like the square root of a negative number, it speaks to my inner geek, but in a nonlinear way that also gets the attention of my inner philosopher. Everyone is happy.

So there's the electrical/mathematical angle. Of course, the letter is used as a symbol in a variety of disciplines—not just electrical theory—but I happen to be most familiar with its use in that realm.

One of my favorite applications of the Omega Word concept comes via Steve Whealton, who, it seems, is very interested in patterns.

Something that my musical and my visual work have in common is maintaining a proper balance between sameness and randomness. I am forever looking for new, interesting, and different ways to create patterns, to alter patterns, to merge patterns, and to render and manifest patterns in ways audible and visible.

Although his use of the term has nothing to do with writing—blogs or otherwise—I've always been more than a little intrigued by patterns, too.

A given set of rules are applied over and over so as to produce, in theory at least, a string that can go on forever! This "infinite" string goes by the provocative name, the "Omega Word."

Provocative it is. And also very cool, as only infinity can be.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. Although it's certainly possible to assign all manner of meaning to it, I like omega for its own sake. I suppose I could go out on a limb and suggest that any words I've left on the Omegaword blog are likely to outlive me, barring some catastrophic, Web-destroying event, that is. Web servers are generally robust, but all bets are off if, say, our sun decides to go supernova in the near future. In that case, the concept of last words—final words—may indeed require a very literal interpretation.


The Rockets' Red Glare

A barrage of formidible projectiles.I know some things seem better in hindsight than they really were at the time. Still, I wish I could just go down to the local fireworks stand and buy a gross of pop-bottle rockets, the way we used to do when the world was young. I haven't seen a bottle rocket in many years, but of all the fireworks we used to play with on the fourth, those were my favorites.

I guess we did put a few in bottles, at first, but that was before we realized their true value as weapons of war. It's a waste of a perfectly good bottle rocket when it just goes up in the air and explodes, because your enemy doesn't care about stuff like that. What your enemy cares about is a carefully aimed barrage of rockets, especially when that barrage prevents him from firing his rockets at his own enemy, which in this case would be you.

Although there are many ways to launch a bottle rocket, my favorite was a section of pipe with a hole drilled approximately two thirds of the way from the end. The hole, of course, allowed the fuse to protrude from the bottom of the pipe so it could be lit by the Loader-Igniter Dude, while the Targeting Dude held the pipe on his shoulder like a bazooka. With the right LID, a competent TD could keep the enemy from becoming too comfortable in any one position on the battlefield.

Another strategy employed the same pipe-with-a-hole scheme, but expanded on the idea by using many pipes at once. How many depended on the war budget, but as I recall, one particularly good year resulted in the procurement of several bottle-rocket batteries consisting of a dozen pipes each. Needless to say, the enemy was completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of rockets launched that night.

Sadly, those days are gone. On the other hand, I don't miss scrambling up cactus-infested slopes in the dark because one or more stray rockets have started grass fires. I don't miss sacrificing my prized jean jacket to the flames, either, attempting to extinguish those flames to avoid intervention by the local fire department. Come to think of it, maybe bottle-rocket warfare is one of those things that seems, in hindsight, better than it really was at the time.


Tears in the Cryosphere

If you're melting and you know it clap your hands. Then slap yourself.I probably love ice and snow as much as the next guy, which is to say, not that much. There's something to be said for a warm, sunny day, which normally excludes things that are cold. Ice and snow, for example. So when I read that glaciers, ice sheets, and sea and river ice have been disappearing at the rate of 1.3% every ten years—and that rate is only expected to increase—my response was, "what's your point?" I mean, who needs all that cold, white stuff anyway?

About three weeks ago, the U.N. Environment Programme released their Global Outlook for Ice and Snow report, which is summarized in an Inter Press Service article that basically tells me planet Earth is going dark.

The white -- snow and ice -- reflect sunlight while the dark -- bare ground and open water -- absorb the heat from sunlight, increasing the pace of global warming.

Oh. Well, I guess I wasn't thinking about the reflectivity thing. I was just thinking about how ice is cold, and how I don't like cold stuff.

Two things in the report leap out. One is that there is an enormous amount of ice and snow on the planet. At the peak of the northern hemisphere winter, 15 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by snow and ice. Permanently frozen ground, or permafrost, is found in both polar and alpine areas and covers about 20 percent of Earth's land areas.

This cold region is so big and important scientists call it the cryosphere, and it is crucial to keeping the planet from overheating.

Right. The cryosphere. I knew that. I just wasn't thinking about it. I was thinking more about how ice is cold, and how I don't like cold stuff, except maybe when it's, like, 100° outside and my brain is melting.

Scientists have also learned that melting begets further melting because the melt water gets under the glaciers and lubricates and thus accelerates its ride into the sea.

Right. The cascade effect. Like dominos, sort of. I knew that. I just wasn't thinking about it.

Temperatures in the Arctic have risen faster than anywhere else, producing a clearly visible decline in sea ice of 8.9 percent per decade. Predictions for the first summer when the Arctic Ocean is ice-free have fallen from 2100 to 2050 in recent years, then 2040 and the latest as soon as 2027 . . .

Um . . . that probably isn't a good thing, right? I mean, that's a lot of water, and it has to go somewhere. Twenty years was already kind of creepy, and now you're telling me that's probably optimistic?

On second thought, maybe ice isn't such a bad thing after all, especially since I don't happen to live on a houseboat.