Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Blog mechanics: becoming a part of it all

I could have called this post "Be My Shill," but that would have been ... unsubtle.

I only started to blog, regularly and under my own aegis, in mid-February. After a couple of posts I started asking friends and colleagues and reading group members to please add me to their RSS readers, to "follow" my blog, to comment, to cross-link, and to otherwise help me make it look like somebody cared, at least until someone actually does. It takes a while to get a blog going.

Alas, I was met by a lot of blank stares. Some of the blank stares were virtual, some were face-to-face. People asked, "What the heck's an RSS-reader? What is this 'follow' thing you speak of?"

This blog post, in the guise of a helpful orientation to the blog-o-verse -- with a bit of emphasis toward Blogger, the service that hosts One Finger Typing -- is an attempt to make it easier for you, gentle reader, to become a better shill. For me. Thank you very much in advance. (To those of you already following or commenting on my posts: thank you for being a One Finger Typing pioneer. I only wish I had a stash of secret decoder rings to offer.)

This Post in Sound Bytes

This is the 'tell them what you're going to tell them' section. Skip this if you already know you want to read the full post.

  1. Interested in seeing posts from multiple sources in one convenient place, using a 'feed aggregator'? Check out Tracking Posts You Kinda Sorta Care About Without Going Nuts
  2. Want to get in on the conversation, which is what makes blogging interesting? Check out Commenting on Blog Posts
  3. Prefer to keep your conversation out of the public eye? Check out Commenting on a link to a Blog Post on Facebook (et al.)
  4. Are you ready to declare your interest in a blogger publicly, boosting her/his cred by sharing yours? Check out Becoming part of a blogger's community

Okay, here we go:

Tracking Posts You Kinda Sorta Care About Without Going Nuts

Quoting Wikipedia, which purports to know everything,
"In computing, a feed aggregator, also known as a feed reader, news reader, rss reader or simply aggregator, is client software or a Web application which aggregates syndicated web content such as news headlines, blogs, podcasts, and vlogs in a single location for easy viewing" [emphasis added].

That says it all. If you like to keep convenient track of who's posting what, an aggregator is for you.

You can set it up an aggregator to show only a teaser -- generally the title and source/author of posts to blogs (etc.) you are watching. You don't have to dive into the post itself unless it looks interesting. Not unless you're in the mood.

I use Google Reader myself, and I display it as a "gadget" on my iGoogle page. I use iGoogle as my web browser's home page, so I don't have to go out of my way to keep an eye on the stories and posts I'm likely to care about as they come over the wire. That makes it easy to keep track of a bunch of blogs without bouncing around a bazillion websites. I read the ones I choose. I've included a screenshot of what the Google Reader gadget looks like so you can get the idea.

If you're interested in the Google Reader there's an easy way to learn about it: just check out the Google Reader Getting Started Guide, which is a pretty straightforward introduction with plenty of screenshots.

There are lots of other aggregator/reader choices. A mind boggling list of them can be found on Wikipedia's Comparison of feed aggregators page. I'd love to see recommendations from readers of this blog -- just leave a comment, below.

By the way, the easiest way to subscribe to One Finger Typing if you already have a commonly-used aggregator is to go to my blog (you're probably here already, unless you're already using an aggregator...), then click the "Posts" button on the left side of your browser's screen. This allows you to choose from Google, Bloglines, NetVibes, NewsGator, or MyYahoo readers, as well as Atom feeds (Atom is another syndication format, a relative of RSS).

Aggregators will generally let you subscribe to a feed by supplying the feed URL. If you were using Google Reader, you'd simply click on the "Add new subscription" button in the upper left corner of the browser page, and type or copy-paste the URL, e.g., ... simple as that.

Commenting on Blog Posts

Unless the author of a blog doesn't want to hear from readers, you'll find a simple web form at the end of each post that permits people to talk back to the blogger (you might need to click the post's Comments link to see it). Talking back is a lot of what makes blogs worth reading. It keeps a blogger honest. It gives readers alternate points of view or more information about a topic they care about. It tells the blog author that what s/he's blogging about is interesting. To somebody, at any rate.

It's neighborly to comment on blog posts. Don't be shy!

Some blogs require that you be logged in to leave a comment. Some allow anonymous comments. Some allow you to declare who you are without logging in, which allows you to be as anonymous as you want to be.

That is, I could comment as "Steve M" or "T. Rex" without giving any other identifying information; and then others could rant and rave about what I said, calling me out by pseudonym; but I -- by my real name -- am not held accountable for what I wrote. Cowardly? Well, you could put it that way. But sometimes it's a choice good people want to make. It's a matter of debate whether anonymous comments are a good or bad thing in general ... in fact, a recent article in the NY Times described ongoing consideration of the question with respect to news sites.

If people put something seriously unsavory in a comment on my blog, whether anonymously (because my blog currently allows that) or signed, I can always delete it. So fire away! I'll worry about requiring logins if and when I become such an attractive target for trolls that it's a pain to clean up after them. For now that's a problem I'd be happy to have.

If you're signed in with your Google ID (etc.), a Subscribe by email link shows up in the comment posting area. This lets you sign up to receive email notices when other people comment on the same blog post (perhaps in response to your comment). A dialog is born...

Commenting on a link to a Blog Post on Facebook (et al.)

I have a Facebook account. This is no secret, it's linked from my website's home page. I don't accept "Friend" requests from people I don't actually know, though, so please don't bother to ask. Unless I know you, of course.

On Facebook, I notify my friends that I've published a blog post by linking to it in the great Facebook stream-of-trivia that captivates so many for so many hours of so many days (if you have no idea what I mean, you really should have watched the episode of South Park described by Brenna Ehrlich of

Why do I notify folks via Facebook? Because it gives those of my friends who don't use a feed aggregator, or don't include my blog in the aggregator they do use, a chance to decide, "hey, that might be a good read, I'll check it out."

Some people respond to my blog posts by commenting on the links I publish on Facebook. That's cool. I get to see it, and so do my Facebook friends. But the rest of the world is left out, and that's sad. Well, maybe the people who respond only in Facebook-space don't want their response to be visible to the rest of the world. Maybe they're shy. That's cool too. (Note that this same general principle applies in other socially networked communities that permit only a restricted group to see what's posted.)

What could be better?

Well, I think it'd be better if they responded directly on my blog. That way the conversation would be More Open, Bigger, and Better. If the responder is shy, s/he can respond anonymously (because my blog allows that), or by just typing some initials or an alias ("Phantom of the Opera" or "Sauron" or something like that), because my blog allows that too.

It's neighborly to comment on blog posts.

Becoming part of a blogger's community

Some sites/tools allow you to become an explicit part of a community that forms around a blog. The blog site I use is called Blogger (catchy, eh?), which is part of Google's burgeoning empire. If you have a Google ID (which lets you use stuff like Gmail, Google Docs, etc.) or a number of other online identities (Yahoo, AOL, OpenID, etc.) you can become a part of my blog's community by clicking the Follow button that appears alongside all my blog posts. I'd love to have you be one of my Followers. It's not like going steady or anything, you won't get cooties, and it doesn't mean you agree with a single thing I write. But it's a great way to shill for me. C'mon, won't you please be my follower?

Followers can display a picture or not, and can show just a first name or nickname if they like. Or a follower can be completely out there about who s/he is, providing a way for others to find one's own online presence through interest in another's. If you're into that sort of thing.

(This follower business is fueled by something called Google Friend Connect. Bloggers who use Wordpress can take advantage of this same Google-provided feature if they want to, using Google Friend Connect integration. No need to worry about that unless you're a Wordpress blogger who doesn't know about this already.)

Your turn

Okay, now it's your turn. What the heck, take a chance ... leave your comment below. And don't forget to click the "Follow" and subscribe buttons too!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Are you a lyrics person?

Once upon a time I imagined everybody paid attention to song lyrics. I remember when the truth dawned on me as if it were yesterday: not everyone finds the words at least as important to the success and significance of a song as the melody, rhythm, vocals, and instrumentation.

I was reminded of awakening to this fact when ushering the World Premiere of Girlfriend at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre this weekend. The song through which I discovered the seamy truth about this variety of human experience was playing on the sound system in the lobby, and I said something about its lyrics to a fellow usher. As Kurt Cobain's recorded voice spun out the lyrics to "All Apologies" my friend turned to me with a puzzled look.


I was driving with another friend, whom I've known for more decades than either of us care to admit, up into the Sierras. This was some years back. We were talking about the few positive references to gay people and culture in popular music -- fewer and further between even than one finds nowadays. I mentioned Nirvana's "All Apologies." My old friend took his eyes off the road to look at me like I was a lunatic. "What are you talking about?" he wanted to know. I dug my heels in, certain the song contains the lines, "What else should I say? / Everyone is gay." My friend is deeply into popular music, and he'd listened to more than his share of Nirvana. Moreover, he isn't a person who can be credibly accused of wearing homophobic screening filters: he's gay himself, comfortable about it, out, a resident of San Francisco. Yet he flat out refused to believe I'd heard the lyrics right. "There is no chance," he insisted, "that Nirvana sings 'Everyone is gay' on pop radio." We were staying near Lake Tahoe in a cabin that had a CD player and a decent collection of discs, so when we arrived we were able to settle the matter. We played a recording of the song, and ... lo and behold.

Some people hear the lyrics to a song. Some people don't. Kind of like Almond Joy and Mounds, right? Except it doesn't seem to be a thing you feel like or not, it's just built-in.

Here's another angle on the question.

Early in our relationship, my partner began dragging me along to opera performances. I'd never been interested in opera before we started going out, and it was a pretty painful introduction. Why? Because I'm a lyrics person, and most opera librettos are ridiculous. This was no fault of our local opera company, which ranks among the finest. San Francisco Opera stages terrific productions, its orchestra shines, the company recruits brilliant singers and top conductors to nearly every production. But I had a really hard time seeing and hearing all that. Why? Because my attention was glued to the supertitles projected onto screens mounted to the sides of the stage, the ones that translated the libretto being sung in German, Italian, French, or Russian.

The fact that opera libretti -- as drama -- are by-and-large ridiculous is widely, if not unanimously, accepted. There's a reason this is known and forgiven, of course, and that reason is that in the operatic arts libretti aren't the point. The music is the point. The drama in an opera is revealed by the score and by the dramatic interpretation given by the vocalists. The libretto, if you'll allow me to exaggerate a bit, is merely something to sing. A series of signposts. Of stage directions to the singers, conductor, and director. Well, I didn't get it, not for the longest time. I'm a lifelong fiction reader. I listen to song lyrics. So when I went to the opera I paid close attention to which words the singers were singing.

What finally opened my ears was a production of Bellini's La Sonnambula. We'd just arrived in Vienna on the train, and were staying in a small hotel near the Wiener Staatsoper. There were standing room tickets to that evening's performance available, in which Juan Diego Flores and Natalie Dessay would sing (in the event, Dessay canceled). We bought tickets, got a bite of dinner, and showed up in time to take our places. The production was modern and a bit silly, but the tenor was incandescent. And from where we stood there were no supertitles to be seen. In Vienna's opera house, screens are built into the seat backs, like in newer airplanes. You choose a language for the translation if you've got a screen, but where the standing audience was squeezed in, at the back of the hall's main floor, that wasn't an option. My Italian is pretty primitive so I could only watch the performers and listen, senza capire (i.e., without understanding).

That's when I got it. I've paid a lot less attention to libretti ever since, and enjoyed opera a lot more.

But. My transformative experience in Vienna didn't change the existential facts of my life. I'm still a lyrics person.

What about you? Do you think a song's words matter?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Books everyone should read

Blogger Amy Riley, a.k.a. My Friend Amy (whom I can't actually claim as a friend) posted a survey on 18 April, asking her readers to say what one book they think everyone should read, and why. Interesting idea.


One book? Just one? I hate that question!

Still, interesting idea.

I huffed and I puffed but I managed to answer the survey, and I'm curious to see what Amy does with the results. Hopefully this won't be one of those silly surveys that tries to tell me which publisher I am based on the books I think everybody should read.

My pick: Back on the Fire, a book of essays by Pulitzer-prizewinning poet and essayist Gary Snyder. It's the best $15 you'll ever spend on bound tree flakes. To the question "why?" I responded to Amy's survey: These essays distill a deep thinker's lifelong meditation on how human culture fits (and doesn't) the deep streams of life on our planet, and opens vast new worlds of perspective and perception for anyone who hopes to see beyond the immediate. Snyder is an essential read for writers, teachers, activists, parents, and citizens. His anecdotes are sharply drawn, beautifully written, funny, and wise. (Thanks to Oso for his photo of Snyder reading from Back on the Fire at Diesel Books in Oakland, California. You can't see me in this photo, but I'm somewhere further back in the crowd and to the poet's left, standing. If memory serves, the full head of grey hair directly in front of Snyder is Michael McClure's.)

Okay, I shouldn't have repeated "deep" twice in the same sentence up there in the italics, but hey, it was a survey, I wasn't being careful. Seminal. These essays distill a seminal thinker's lifelong meditation..., etc., etc. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

I also gave a few answers to the optional questions about which book in particular categories people should read. I suggested Foundation by Issac Asimov in the Science Fiction category; and Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald in the Literary Fiction category. The first is a classic (seminal, even) sci fi trilogy about a galactic empire on the brink of falling into a centuries-long period of barbarous decay; and the second is about a man seeking his origins after suddenly recalling his evacuation as a young child from the chaos of Prague during the second world war.

Hmmmm... What pattern is suggested by these picks? I suppose the assertion in my Retreat to happiness post, that I'm not so keen on happy books, is confirmed. It also seems to suggest that I am drawn to books that examine the intersection of individuals and the trajectories of history (past, present, and speculative).

Do you have an opinion about books everyone should read? Leave a comment here, and if Amy's survey is still open you might consider adding to her (undoubtedly larger) store of opinions too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Retreat to happiness

The Epoch Times is a free newspaper distributed from racks in the grocery store down the street. It's available locally in Chinese and English but online there are links to editions in French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovakian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Swedish. The paper has print editions in some of these languages as well.

The publishers don't admit to association with any organization, but in addition to consumerist boosterism and China-bashing on nearly every page there're a lot of articles about Falun Gong and the PRC's persecution of its practitioners; and every issue carries a column encouraging benighted members to quit China's communist party. It's the sort of propaganda one might imagine the CIA would fund, if the CIA did that sort of thing. I don't know, I'm just saying.

Last week's edition carried a story titled "Hunting Happier Stories - in the Teen Section." The article started off this way:
Today's mainstream adult fiction revolves around cancer, war, murder and aging parents; at least five recent bestsellers had the word "dead" in the title. Some readers are fleeing back in time.

The gist is a claim that adults are seeking out Young Adult (YA) fiction because it's less complicated, not so depressing, happier. Like many arguments advanced in this paper, the thesis of the article is supported by anecdote:
In an age when adult novels deal with sobering subjects — cancer, murder, aging parents, war — at least five 2009 bestsellers had the word "dead" in the title — Sydney Stadler, a Texan mother of two, thinks adults are yearning for less emotionally-draining books. [...] Lighter subject matter also attracts Summer Barnett, a fifth-grade teacher from Plano, Texas. "Life’s depressing enough," said Barnett, 33. "I don’t want to read about politics or religion, and I like the kind [of book] that can take you away from the world you’re actually in."

Is this a Texas thing? (No, the article cites readers from New Jersey and Connecticut as well.)

It is true that adult fiction often orbits sober subjects. Kind of like life. But consider this:

At the San Francisco Writer's Conference this year I pitched my current novel manuscript to a number of agents. No, I'm not going to blog my pitch, but I will say that it's about a collective of political activists, and that things don't turn out well for the protagonist. I'll wager Summer Barnett won't buy my book.

One of the agents victimized by my sixty or so breathless seconds of pitch -- a successful professional who shall remain nameless here -- gave me a dour look across the table between us and said, "That doesn't sound very happy." I was taken aback. No, I replied, it's not. The agent invited me to e-mail a query nonetheless, which I did about a week later. A reply came the same day: "Not for me, thanks anyway..."

I myself am not very interested in happy books. To me they don't seem true to life, and if I wanted escape I'd watch TV. You know, unreality shows. But maybe I have oddball taste.

What do you think? Is Sydney Stadler right when she says that adults are yearning for less emotionally-draining books? What kind of books are you yearning for?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Theories of history

A little over a year ago I attended a session of UC Berkeley's weekly Information Access Seminar featuring a presentation by Paul Duguid, a professor in the university's School of Information. The session's title was "The World According to grep: What Have We Been Searching For?" [1] At the heart of Prof. Duguid's talk was consideration of how periods of "openness" or "closedness" of information -- whether information is held closely or shared freely in social and political contexts -- affects the ways people navigate through or around it.

(For those who aren't Unix geeks, "grep" is an in-joke, a Unix search utility that nicely twists the name of the protagonist in a well known John Irving novel, later made into a movie. The I-School faculty are like that; this is a good thing.)

Prof. Duguid's ideas were wide-ranging and deeply informed, but the thing that stuck with me was a part of the discussion that followed his formal presentation. This is often the most interesting thing about the Friday Afternoon Seminars, as the sessions are colloquially known. One of those present asked whether the speaker subscribed to a theory of history -- whether history is linear, cyclical, or something else -- and how he thought historical patterns related to trends of "closedness" or "openness" of information he'd been describing. Duguid demurred, claiming uncertainty regarding the shape of such changes. In his tentative view, trends in information management are not quite recurring, but not quite progressing in a linear fashion either.

This exchange got me thinking about the question of patterns in history, whether it makes sense to characterize them as "linear" or "cyclical" -- or something else entirely. It's hard to draw a mental map of behaviors as complex as a world, made up of webs of culture and nations, each comprised of scores to hundreds of millions of humans; not to mention the stew of physical environments that nourish and constrain us. I tried nonetheless. Without any formal education in the topic, my hunch is that "linear" and "cyclical" are trajectories that are too simply drawn to meaningfully describe human history, even in the many variants of such theories.

What, then?

My thoughts coalesced first around ideas in the vein of high school chemistry. In a follow-up e-mail to Prof. Duguid, I suggested that the human and social chaos out of which coordinated behavior and organized historical narratives emerge might be conceived as solutions to which a reagent or catalyst is added that causes precipitation of a salt of some kind. That is, from time to time a reagent or catalyst may enter the solution [of fluid humanity] and change some part of it to something more stable and less fluid -- a solid precipitate. Over time, conditions may become chaotic again, and what was precipitated is redissolved. At this point the cycle may occur again, with a different reagent or catalyst causing a different sort of precipitation to occur. The ingredients [people suspended in place, time, and culture] are more or less the same over time, yet shifts in conditions or slight shifts in the nature of ingredients cause different outcomes (precipitates).

In a similar vein, I suggested that organizing agents in vast, loosely-coupled groups of humans might be analogized as small impurities in gemstones that cause different samples of a mineral to appear quite differently. The examples that come to mind are rubies and sapphires, both corundum (aluminum oxide). Rubies contain chromium; while sapphires contain iron, titanium, or chromium. Again, the same metaphoric concept: the chaotic human milieu is more-or-less the same as history unspools (as a corundum crystal is more-or-less uniformly made of aluminum oxide), yet some (relatively) small change in its constitution, such as a religious docterine or a new technology, may cause it to behave differently on a macro scale.

In Turbulent Mirror, John Briggs and F. David Peat describe how the laws of chaos govern most of what occurs in the physical world, and may constitute a means of describing how "everything in the universe is interconnected" (that's from book's back cover). "Self-similarity" -- a set of ideas developed by Benoit Mandelbrot that many are aware of under the rubric of "fractal geometry" -- is an interesting way to think of this interconnection. From the Briggs & Peat book, where the quotation is of Mandelbrot himself:
"I became very aware that self-similarity, far from being a mild and uninteresting property, was a very powerful way of generating shape." By 'self-similarity' Mandelbrot means a repetition of detail at descending scales [...] it is now clear that fractals embrace not only the realms of chaos and noise but a wide variety of natural forms which the geometry that has been studied for the last two and a half thousand years has been powerless to describe -- forms such as coastlines, trees, mountains, galaxies, clouds, polymers, rivers, weather patterns, brains, lungs, and blood supplies [...] Take, for example, [...] a mountain. Seen from forty miles away the mountain's outline is quite recognizable, yet at the same time it's iregular. The closer we drive, the more detail is present and even when we begin to climb the mountain we notice the same pattern of irregularity and detail in the individual rocks. The complex systems of nature seem to preserve the look of their detail at finer and finer scales. [...] Images from vastly different scales evoke a feeling of similarity and recognition.

Might historical patterns also be fractal? Do we replicate in our large scale social structures the relations between individuals, families, and villages? Do we behave collectively in ways that echo our interactions within small groups? (History as fractal is an attractive and powerful trope for novelists, who aim to tell larger and deeper stories by bringing a few characters to vivid life.)

Robert B. Laughlin, the Nobel prize-winning physicist from Stanford University, makes a strong case against reductionism in favor of an emergent view of how the physical world is realized in his 2006 volume, A Different Universe. Leading into his own description of mountain range fractals, Laughlin writes that:
"it makes no sense" to call any given shape "complex." Only the selection of one shape out of many, a physical process, can be complex. When we say a shape is complex we really mean that the physical process by which it formed is unstable and with a slight nudge could have generated one of many different shapes. Similarly, we say a shape is simple if it is guaranteed to be formed by a physical process the same way every time, even when nudged fairly violently.

Applied to historical patterns, this idea is not so different from the gemstone analogy I suggested to Prof. Duguid. An impurity in the crystal that makes corundum into a ruby or a saphire is Laughlin's "nudge."

Members of an on-line writer's group I recently joined exchanged some ideas last month about character arc (like narrative arc, only concerning characters rather than plot). One of our number, Steven Long, wrote:
"I believe we mythologize our lives all the time, story-tell to ourselves. That story-telling we do to ourselves is about understanding our lives, and it takes a certain form, which parallels fiction. Fiction is not life, any more than the stories we tell ourselves or way we see our own lives is actually life. What we perceive to be our lives is a representation, sifted through many filters. The form fiction takes is of a similar filter, one that we understand, written in a way that we can comprehend, that resonates with us because we recognize both ourselves, and the structure of our own memories in it."

Nicely put. In a later exchange Steven agreed that his ideas apply not only to fiction, but also to the way we tell stories about collective lives, that is, to history.

What do you think? By what patterns does history unfold?

[1] The material from which Paul Duguid's presentation was drawn has since been published as "Search before grep: A Progress from Open to Closed?" in Konrad Becker & Felix Stalder, eds., Deep Search Vienna: Studienverlag, 2009, available in manuscript as a PDF from Professor Duguid's website.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

If you don't play you can't win

Publishing folklore is passed along from writer to writer, from blog to e-mail. Often its transmission is meant to buck up those who are despondent over the torrent of rejection slips writers tend to receive from literary magazine editors, agents, publishers, and other Guardians of Literary Culture.

Rejection notices arrive in response even to work that has been written, rewritten, rewritten again, submitted for critique to friend- and family-readers, rewritten, submitted for sharper critique to readers who are writers, and rewritten again -- work, in other words, that is probably at the bleeding edge of as good as a writer can produce.

A writer's path forward might be to let a project go and begin a new one. Or it might be to radically reconceptualize and rewrite one more time. It could even be as simple as continuing to look for the right agent or editor for work that's on the mark but hasn't found its home yet. To a writer who has put her all into a piece, it's easy for any of these options to look like a towering, unscalable cliff.

So publishing folklore is often recounted by friends and peers as encouragement, meant to lighten the load of serial rejection and keep a writer's shoulder to the proverbial wheel. And yet, from a certain disadvantage-point, it can have the opposite effect: to cause a writer to see just how tough it is to get even the best written work to an audience.

Here are a few bits of folklore I've heard or read over the years, and could be taken as encouragement or discouragement, depending. These are not meant to be revelations -- whether or not you're a writer, these ephemera may have crossed your radar before.

John Grisham was rejected by 50 agents (the way I heard it first) or a couple dozen agents and editors (the way Sammy McDavis told it in a 1989 Mississipi State Alum magazine article) before three agents responded positively to A Time to Kill. That novel went to Wynwood Press for a $15,000 advance, and didn't sell so well. The editor at Wynwood -- Bill Thompson, the very same editor who discovered Stephen King -- couldn't talk his publisher into buying Grisham's next try, a little romp called The Firm, for the low, low price of $50K. And that was after Tom Cruise had already optioned the film rights! Wynwood was burned once, and twice shy. Grisham sold The Firm elsewhere for a six-figure advance, and the rest is history.

Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award in 1969 for his second novel, Steps. In 1975, a fellow named Chuck Ross did a little experiment: he typed up 21 pages of Steps and submitted it to several New York publishers as the work of "Erik Demos." The submissions were rejected unanimously, even by Random House, the original publisher of Kosinski's prizewinning work. After publicizing the results of his hoax, Ross tried again a couple of years later, this time with the full mss. of Kosinski's Steps. Once again: unanimous rejection from editors and agents alike. You can read all about it in a 1979 article in Time magazine.

Agatha Christie endured 20 rejections of her first mystery novel, according to Debbie Ridpath Ohi, author of The Writer's Online Marketplace. Christie's estate claims that with four billion books sold she's the best selling writer ever, with the minor exceptions of the bible and some fellow named Will Shakespeare. Four billion. The mind reels. Ohi maintains a blogged museum of rejection stories to further amuse or outrage you.

John Kennedy Toole wrote Confederacy of Dunces and saw his work roundly and widely rejected. He committed suicide at age 32. With relentless determination and the help of Walker Percy, Toole's mother found a publisher for her son's novel 11 years after his death. Confederacy of Dunces won its author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Appropriately enough, the title of Toole's novel is taken from Jonathan Swift's essay Thoughts on Various Subjects, wherein the satirist wrote: "When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."

If you're a writer, do stories like these inspire you to keep scribbling against the tidal flood of rejections? Or do they convince you that the book industry is constitutionally incapable of recognizing value, and that you'll die in abject, unpublished poverty?

Whether or not you're a writer, what's your favorite bit of publishing folklore?

Friday, April 9, 2010


I was walking on the sidewalk in downtown Berkeley the other weekend, along Shattuck Avenue, and as I crossed an intersection saw that two bicyclists and a motorized wheelchair were approaching me. Two of the three wheeled vehicles were operated by people talking on cell phones. One of them was the woman in the wheelchair, the other was a sixteen-or-so-year-old kid on one of the bikes.

This is old news when the driver in question is behind the wheel of a car. There are laws and task forces, concerned citizens, National Highway Transportation Agency studies and scary articles in newspapers about that all the time. "Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content," but the facts seem to leave drivers cold if my experience is any measure. I get almost-hit at least once a week by some moron talking or texting instead of paying attention to where they're aiming their ton-o-steel.

Bicyclists on the sidewalk -- yeah, it happens, I've done it myself. Until some years ago such a violation of Safe Sidewalk Practice in my town could get you nailed for a $278 ticket, a misdemeanor. In 2006 the city bumped the violation down to an infraction, at a cost-to-perp of $75. The reasoning is explained at length in this edifying memo to our distinguished mayor & city council. Bicyclists talking on cell phones while they ride? California assemblyman Joe Simitian is shepherding a bill through the state legislature to require bicyclists to conform to "hands-free" practice just like cars -- the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week.

But I digress.

The point is that there's folks piloting wheeled vehicles on crowded sidewalks who think nothing of being distracted by their electronica while they endanger we poor pedestrians.

But the sad truth is, wheeled people aren't the only ones. Not all pedestrians are innocents.

More than once I've almost run down a pedestrian when legally and safely driving a car or riding a bike. I'm sure this happens elsewhere, but people in Berkeley seem to operate under some kind of moralistic fantasy that stepping into a crosswalk instantly activates an inviolable Greener-Than-Thou Zone of Safety around a pedestrian, even at night when said pedestrian is wearing dark clothing. This belief is held so strongly that there's no reason, apparently, in the minds of these smug bipeds, to stop talking on a Crackberry for long enough to pay attention to onrushing traffic.

For example: a tale in which cultures collide, almost.

A cousin's daughter is a sophomore at Cal. Early in her first year at our fair university, my cousin was driving his daughter, me, and my partner south along that selfsame Shattuck Avenue. He was driving fast. I figured he was driving fast (and ignoring my backseat begging that he please slow down) because he lives in Orange County. In OC, any road that's not fully ensconced inside a walled tract of residential homes qualifies as a junior freeway. People drive 45 miles an hour on those junior freeways, and that's when they're feeling pokey. They expect pedestrians -- pedestrians? are there pedestrians in Orange County? -- to stay the hell out of the way.

So my cousin presumably didn't have a lot of experience with what it might mean that the car in the right lane had stopped in front of a crosswalk. There was no stop sign. There was no stoplight. Therefore, what reason could there be to stop?

Fortunately, he's got quick reflexes. He didn't kill the young woman, about his daughter's age, walking obliviously (if legally, within the crosswalk's bounds) across the four-lane road. Naturally, she was -- wait for it -- talking on her cell phone.

But again I'm taking a long time to make a simple point: you don't have to be riding or driving anything to be guilty of public obliviousness.

Now you're thinking: Okay, Steve. This is your cell phone thing, isn't it? It is true that I confessed in my recent "Silly Surveys" post that I qualify as a cell phone refusenik. One of the few, one of the proud, a Luddite with a job in information technology. But, no. This is not just my cell phone thing. You can tell because I'm about to tell a story from another point of view...

On the way home from San Francisco on the BART the other day -- BART is the Bay Area's commuter train system -- a woman with a Caribbean accent was jabbering loudly across the aisle into her iRazr (or whatever it was) about some port on some small island, where four ships had docked that weekend. Apparently somebody she knew, and the person on the other end of the call knew, works in some obscure part of the unnamed island's tourist-handling infrastructure. Maybe she's a maid, or a taxi driver, or the person who puts little paper umbrellas in drinks made from rum and fruit juice. Well. Four ships. One weekend. That's a lot of tourists to handle, or at least that's the gist of what this woman across the aisle felt compelled to say over and over and over and again about this scintillating topic.

Those of us held captive to this conversation in the BART car didn't get a lot more detail than that. Four ships is a lot of tourists to handle. You know? Can you imagine it? So many! Four ships!

Meanwhile, the woman in the seat ahead of me was reading a copy of The New Yorker. I was reading a copy of The New Yorker too, probably an earlier issue because I'm invariably behind. As it happens, I was reading an article by Malcom Gladwell that I blogged about soon afterward. But that's neither here nor there, and I wasn't feeling nearly as aggravated as the woman in front of me about being unable to concentrate over the relentless babble about four ships, some small island, that's a lot of tourists to handle. Four ships!

Eventually the woman in the seat ahead of me turned and snapped at the woman with the Caribbean accent, "Could you please just tone it down a little?!" The woman across the aisle pretended she didn't hear, but soon got off the phone. Then she stared ahead silently, hugely aggrieved. The woman ahead of me went back to her magazine. I got off the train at the next stop.

My point here?

It's not just people on wheeled vehicles who are checked out from their environment. It's not just pedestrians either. And it's not just people talking on cell phones. It's people reading magazines, on metro systems and in other public spaces.

Yeah, sure, we who read The New Yorker on public transit can pat ourselves on the back because we're reading a fancypants high class magazine, not talking on cellphones about dealing with four ships docking in a Caribbean port and disgorging a lot of tourists. But so what? On the evening in question, I was just as checked out from the BART train as that kid on the bike was checked out from that sidewalk full of pedestrians, who happened to include yours truly. And that woman ahead of me? She was checked out too, and indignant as hell that the cell-phone babbler had a different mode than hers of managing to be both on and off the train. And had there been someone in our car reading People, or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or a Louis L'Amour western, or listening to Bjork MP3s -- same difference.

Now this could all end up as the insufferably long back story for some sniveling morality tale -- of the 'Well, at least I wasn't going to run anybody over sitting on my arse in the third car on BART' variety -- but that would be ... uninteresting.

What I really want to say is: Michael Stipe. Or, more exactly, R.E.M.

See, it's a short leap from being both on & off the train to being on or off the bus, and that leads more or less directly to Michael Stipe singing "Stand" ... from the album Green, remember?

Now I know as well as you do that Michael Stipe is on record, on MTV no less, disavowing all meaning in that song, claiming "Stand" is made up of "the most inane lyrics I could possibly write." (You knew that, right?) So call me a fool. I thought when this single played on the radio at the tail end of the 80s that those lyrics were profound.

I still think so, which may, you're thinking, mean that I'm soft in the head, just another unbathed, Buddha-worshiping vegan growing dope in my redwood-shingled greenhouse here on the left coast.

Well, you're wrong. On every single count, except maybe soft in the head.

My point is: what ever happened to being where you are?

Yeah, sure there are times and places where there's really not a lot of incentive to check in. Maybe one of those places is the third car back from the front of a BART train, at night when you can't see anything out the window even when the train's running above-ground. Maybe another is waiting for your dryers to finish at the laundromat. Etc. But none of that is my point. My point is that you walk down the street these days and sooooooooooooooo many people are standing or walking or driving or drooling in a place where they're not, because where they are is tethered to a cell phone, or immersed in whatever music is enclosing them in their own private sound track, or lost in a hand held video game, or fingering their iPud. Pad. Whatever.

You've got to wonder. What's so much more interesting about a cell phone conversation -- "I'm in front of the Snacky Cake Shack, where are you? In front of the Cheesy Poof Palace? I don't see you. Wave, dude. No, I still don't see you..." -- that justifies tuning out the environment you're actually navigating, the people actually surrounding you, the stuff that's actually happening off-screen, where you actually are?

I mean, if you like the world, be in it! If you hate the world, change it! If you and your friend out front of the Cheesy Poof Palace can't find each other when you're thirty yards apart, get a new friend! Or a life! Mein gott, people...

Sorry. Maybe that is the refusenik talking. And Buddha knows I read books and magazines, or scribble, often enough in public spaces. It's not like I've got moral high ground to stand on.

But there's something worrying about how very very far the world has drifted since Michael Stipe sang his cautionary lyrics, let alone since the Merry Pranksters did their Furthur thing. (Don't believe that Stipe interview on MTV, by the way. Those lyrics are certainly not nonsensical. He's playing a classic troubador trick -- cf. Bob Dylan, right?)

Go on, turn it off.

Close the Razr, shut the book, blend the iPad, roll up the magazine and stick it in your way-too-cool Timbuk2 messenger bag.

Take a look around.

You have nothing to lose but your leash.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Counterfactual thinking

Publication of a paper on "counterfactual thinking -- considering a ”turning point” moment in the past and alternate universes had it not occurred" was announced a couple months ago in a news article on the website of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Such thinking, the article explains, "heightens one’s perception of the moment as significant, and even fated."

From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning is the paper itself, describing research conducted by Laura Kray, an Associate Professor on the Haas faculty, and co-authors at Berkeley, Northwestern, Brigham Young University, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (January 2010, Vol. 98 No. 1, 106-118)].

The Haas article quotes Kray on the psychological function of this form of speculation:
"Although you might think that counterfactually thinking is just going to lead me down a path of regret, it is actually very functional in terms of helping people establish relationships and make sense of cause and effect. Counterfactual reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people to weave a coherent life story."

She goes on to explain that
"The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life’s path was meant to be, which ultimately imbues one’s life with significance."

Kray and her co-authors conclude that thinking through alternate ways that life and history might have turned out tend to convince the thinker that life is other than a product of chance, and that choice influences outcomes -- both positive effects when engagement in political or organizational culture is a goal.

Prior work has shown that people who think counterfactually tend to be more analytical than those who do not. Co-author Philip Tetlock, Kray's colleague in the UC Berkeley business school, has found that
"How we react to counterfactuals is a great test of how open or closed-minded we are on a topic. Some people are so confident they know how history would have unfolded, they try to shut the conversation down fast. Others are willing to mull over imaginative possibilities at great length."

Tetlock goes on to observe that
"In my work on 'expert political judgment,' I find that the more imaginative experts think about possible pasts, the better calibrated they are in attaching realistic probabilities to possible futures."

I don't know about you, but the term "counterfactual" tends to raise my blood pressure these days, and not just when university professors misuse the adjective as a noun.

Kray, et al., address reflective thinking -- mulling over how a set of outcomes that actually occurred might have developed differently if a prior, pivotal event or decision had gone differently. But the "counterfactual thinking" that has dominated U.S. news these past months has been of a different sort. We've recently seen a rash of counterfactual flak hurled by the right wing (from bona fide nut jobs to elected legislators and executives) aimed at blocking the current administration's political initiatives without regard to historical truth or reasoned conjecture about the future. For those who prefer hanging out under rocks to tracking news, consider these examples:

  • Wingnut conspiracy theorists stoked by elected congressmen and professional journalists invented a so-called "Birther" movement that aimed to invalidate the election of President Obama by repeatedly asserting falsehoods in the face of solid evidence disproving their lies.
  • Former governer and failed VP candidate Sarah Palin invented the "lie of the year" (according to fact-checkers at and reported on a Wall Street Journal blog) when she asserted in August 2009 that health care reform would empower government to rule on who should live or die via "death panels," an invention absent from any actual reform initiative in play then, before, or since.
  • Anti-tax apocalyptics congealed as an incoherent but highly energetic "Tea Party Movement" that constitutes what a February editorial in The Nation pegged as "a fantasy vision of a Ron Paul- meets-Ayn Rand twenty-first-century insurrection based on principles fuzzy enough to resonate with much of the populace."
  • "People who know better," Jane Mayer explains in The Trial (New Yorker, 15 Feb 2010), are deliberately distorting deep, long-standing, bipartisan commitment to U.S. legal and historical precedent -- contradicting their own prior, public, principled positions -- in the matter of bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial. As Attorney General Eric Holder, the subject of Mayer's article, put it, "There’s a desire to ignore the facts to try to score political points."

To be fair, counterfactual flak is an ongoing trend, to which the world was subjected by and during the prior U.S. administration as well. Remember the coalition of the duped? Dozens of nations, led by the United States and the United Kingdom were whipped into a frenzy over attacking Iraq by false, deliberately skewed intelligence regarding a mythical hoard of WMDs controlled by Saddam Hussein. Legislators in both the U.S. and U.K., and mainstream journalists of all stripes, failed to perform due diligence in challenging the assertions of known warmongers who propagated these myths. Casualties continue. Hundreds of thousands have died, and millions have been maimed or made to flee as refugees. Was a better outcome possible? Was deposing a sadistic brute and replacing him with ... however one would properly categorize today's Iraqi government ... worth the human cost of this war? It would take a massive application of counterfactual analysis to speculate responsibly, and none of the dead or wounded would benefit from the exercise.

At the risk of succumbing to a conspiracy hatched by New Yorker editor David Remnick to control subscribers' thoughts, let's skip ahead a couple of articles from Jane Mayer's piece in the issue cited above, to Malcom Gladwell's Drinking Games. Two-thirds through an exploration of one of humanity's most popular self-limiting habits, Gladwell explains researchers' findings that alcohol's "principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision. [...] Drunkenness is myopia."

Perhaps that explains the state of the union.

If clearheaded analyzers and accurate predictors of political futures are enabled by their ability to discern, consider, and run what-if scenarios on past events that led to the present; and if fuzzy-thinkers can't see far enough to tell truths from lies amid the counterfactual fantasies spun to buttress partisan political interests ... might the beverages at all those Tea Parties have been spiked?

Back to that Haas article on the Kray study:
"Kray and Tetlock were first intrigued by counterfactual thinking’s relationship with fate following the 2000 presidential election. Kray recalls conservative commentators talking about how it was evident George W. Bush was destined to be president, and there appeared to be no perception that the race could have just as easily gone the other way."

There you have it. The right wing wackos have been thick-as-a-brick drunk for a decade. Maybe even ... longer?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Silly Surveys

The Pew Research Center has released a survey that they say measures how likely a person is to be in a "Millenial age group" (which currently means 18-29 years old). For some perverse reason I took the survey, and it found that -- surprise! -- I'm not a Millenial.

This got me thinking about silly surveys in general, like the ones on Facebook that purport to determine which famous writer or movie star or musician or political figure you "are." Why, I asked myself, did I need a survey to tell me I'm twice as old as your average millenial? And could I even begin to imagine why a survey of several questions that tells me I'm Ashton Kutcher or Judi Dench would tickle my vanity, when I am clearly, permanently, and thankfully (especially in the former case) neither of these individuals? I'm me, for better or worse, richer or poorer, all that.

Having taken the Millenial survey I also took the time to game it. I'll break that down a bit.

By "game" I mean that I took the survey twice and gave different answers, to see what would happen. I didn't change my answers to questions that ask about a social, religious, or political positions because then the answers really wouldn't be about me; and I didn't pretend to have a tattoo because that sort of dodges the whole indelible point of tattoos. I did change my answers to the first five questions in the 14-question survey, which struck me as the most trivial, geared to eliciting facts about superficial aspects or adornments of 21st century techno-kulture.

Here are the questions, with my true answers:

  1. In the past 24 hours, did you watch more than an hour of television programming, or not? Answer: No
  2. In the past 24 hours, did you read a daily newspaper, or not? Answer: Yes
  3. In the past 24 hours, did you play video games, or not? Answer: No
  4. Thinking about your telephone use, do you have (a) Only a landline phone in your home; (b) Only a cell phone; (c) Both a landline and cell phone? Answer: (a) Only a landline
  5. In the past 24 hours, about how many text messages, if any, did you send or receive on your cell phone? (a) none; (b) 1-9; (c) 10-49; (d) >=50? Answer: none

These answers are true for me in just about any 24-hour period.

In my faked answers, I flipped the first three binary answers; answered that I have both a cell and a landline in response to #4;and claimed 1-9 text messages for #5.

In the first case, the Pew survey software chewed up my answers and suggested there's a better than 50% chance I'm a member of Generation X. I guess I survey young for a fellow born toward the end of the Baby Boom.

When I changed up my responses, I scored in a range that matched the middle 50% of Millenials.

Both my true and gamed answers to the survey put me outside the middle-50% of respondents of my actual generation, but to be fair I was born in the last quarter of the Boomer years.

The accuracy of the survey is less interesting to me than what different results due to a few fudged answers suggests about this survey's relationship to any reasonably "real" world. I'm thinking that in any given generation there are people who watch TV and who don't. There are people who read newspapers and don't. There are people who play video games, and people who shun them. (On the other hand, the New York Times reported in October that as a cell phone refusenik I'm in a cohort of only 15% of the U.S. adult population. Some of my best friends call me a Luddite, but at least none of them can text their taunts my way.)

But let's get to the heart of the matter.

Can these limited bits of trivial information -- engagement with TV, newspapers, video games, phones & text messages -- really characterize individuals in a meaningful way? In any way that justifies the time it takes to answer 14 questions? (Let's leave aside questions about the time it takes to write a blog post. People do the strangest things...)

And is the whole setup -- all these on-line surveys that flippantly tell us who we are -- a vast centrist conspiracy to induce people to strive for the boring middle?

I'm thinking it makes just about zero sense to use this sort of survey to illuminate my sense of self. And what's more, I insist that no matter what a Facebook survey tells me, I'm not James Joyce or Nora Roberts. Let alone Mick Jagger or Joni Mitchell. And there's something kind of seamy about using vehicles like this -- "instruments" in the jargon of survey-wielding social scientists -- to pretend otherwise. Onanistic, even, not that I'd recommend anybody be struck dead for answering a few dumb questions.

What do you think? Are surveys like these silly, corrosive, or just a harmless pastime?