Archive for January, 2007

New David Foster Wallace Story

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

“Good People.”

I have to say I wasn’t blown away, which when it comes to DFW makes it a surprising exception. It’s not a bad story, it picks up a lot of steam as it goes, it’s just played really straight-up and kind of stiff, stylistically.

They were up on a picnic table at that park by the lake, by the edge of the lake, with part of a downed tree in the shallows half hidden by the bank. Lane A. Dean, Jr., and his girlfriend, both in bluejeans and button-up shirts. They sat up on the table’s top portion and had their shoes on the bench part that people sat on to picnic or fellowship together in carefree times.

Do you think this is a good opening? I don’t, really. “the bench part that people sat on to picnic”? The voice is naive, earnest, emotional, traditional, very “in-character,” but used in the third-person it caused a weird cognitive dissonance for me, because it sounds very un-DFW. When I re-read those sentences transposed into the first person, they don’t sound as stilted or melodramatic somehow. Or at least the melodrama feels a little more plausible.

Better Living Through Technology

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

I got laser eye surgery done on Monday, my 30th birthday present from my wonderful generous mother. (Thanks Mom!)

I wasn’t nervous at all going in — they gave me an Atavan and played soothing new-age music while I waited for surgery. When the procedure began it was a whole nother story. Laying down beneath the kerotome laser, I was handed two stress balls to squeeze. A nurse recited numbers, “eight, twelve, twelve, ten, six, twelve, nine, nine, ten, eleven, ten…” I had compete faith in Dr. Lin, who’s performed thousands of procedures and is probably the most experienced laser surgeon in the world, (he participated in the very first Lasik studies in the eighties). Despite my trust in his capable hands, the physical stress of having one’s eyelids clamped back was kind of overwhelming. I exhaled sharply from my mouth, for which I was reprimanded, (water particles can get in the laser and you’ll get a shitty prescription).

The only actual operation the surgeon performs is cutting a flap in the cornea and peeling it back. Everything else is handled by the computer. The doctor feeds in a map of my retina, a target map of the desired retinal curvature is calculated, and the keratome does its thing. The only role I had in the proceeding was to stare at a green light in between two red lights. When the cornea is removed, the lights distort and pixelate in a way which reminded me of nothing so much as the final twenty psychedelic minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then everything kind of goes squoggly and dark and the laser clicks loudly and there is a sharp odor like burning hair as retinal tissue is vaporized. It takes about twenty seconds, then the cornea is folded back over, and the work begins on the other eye. “It’s over,” Dr. Lin said, “You can stop shaking now.” The stress balls did nothing.

Now I have perfect 20/20 vision and it’s utterly fucking brilliant.

You Don’t Say

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Requiem for a day off

Friday, January 19th, 2007

Official Friend of the Palace Ben made this. It’s funny and awesome!YouTube Preview Image

Write Like You Mean It

Monday, January 8th, 2007

I think I’ve mentioned before how much I like Heather Havrilesky. She’s one of those writers with such an inherently funny, relaxed voice, she could make pocket lint sound interesting. She could write about data warehousing applications and it would be like taking a shower with an angel. I’ve been reading her TV column in Salon for years, even though I don’t have a TV and hardly ever see the shows she writes about. Her blog posts fill me with envy at their casual brilliance and wit.

My job involves writing about data warehousing applications, which mostly means I have to think up a lot of synonyms for “clicking” (eg. pressing, selecting, choosing, activating, and so on.) It can be kind of deadly, so one thing I do to amuse myself is whenever I’m writing a section where I have to describe logging in or creating a user or whatever, the generic username I create is “Bob Dobbs” (or “bdobbs”), the Church of the Subgenius’ messiah of slack. It’s my little inside joke; I’ve been doing it for years. Once I noticed another technical writer using “John Zorn” (“jzorn”), so I guess I’m not the only one.

I know it’s a trick; it’s not really casual brilliance. Heather’s, I mean. No doubt she works super hard to write as well as she does, and I’ve tried to pay attention. I recently looked up a couple of her old posts about the writing process:

Use your critics for good, not evil. Some say you should kill your inner critics, but I suspect you have tens of thousands of critics in your head, many of whom are the authors of that “amazing insightful and amusing shit” of which you speak. Kill the critics and you mute your own voice. Instead, herd those critics into a bar and get them drunk. Send some of them to the grocery store and see what they have to say. Tie some up and make them eat nothing but black olives and watch nothing but movies starring Mel Gibson for an entire week. Make some of the others read your bike trip notes. What do they think about your experience? Do they think you’re a shriveled-up little poser? Their thoughts should be included in your bike trip journal, or else your voice will be far too self-censoring and blandly positive to be remotely interesting. If half of you hates you, you’d better let that half have a voice, too, or you’ll wind up with a very small, weak, fake-sounding voice in your writing, with the implied, muffled, angry voices hidden just out of sight, but not disguised enough that the reader can’t see them. Readers enjoy writers who admit to every side of themselves, who can see around things. Readers dislike feeling that a writer has blind spots and defensive stances.

This other one is what I was originally looking for. It’s quite long and mostly aimed at someone who wants to be a professional freelance writer, but it also has a lot of great general advice on what makes for interesting writing:

5. Nurture an irrational overconfidence in yourself and your ideas. OK, so you don’t want to just be a capable writer, you want to be a brilliant writer. In my opinion, writing talent is one part mimicry, one part bluster, and one part original perspective. Capable, less-talented writers only have the mimicry part mastered. They mimic – I don’t mean that they directly copy other writers, although some do. I mean that capable writers write by digesting volumes of decent writing and then attempting to form sentences similar to the sentences they’ve read. This is part of what any writer does, mind you, but it’s the only thing on board for the capable, not-incredibly-talented writer.

Now, the vast majority of writers, ranging from capable to good, have both the mimicry and the bluster down pat. In other words, most writers are just overconfident hacks who know how to mimic and know how to silence that internal voice of doubt when it comes up. They choose to believe that they’re good at what they do and that they have something to say, something to share with the world. They build their skills by writing a lot and reading a lot, and they build their confidence by telling themselves that they’re just as good at writing as anyone else in the world. Some of these writers, for example, like to talk about the fact that Dave Eggers is overrated. That’s one of their favorite subjects. Dave Eggers makes them feel very confident in themselves. They try not to compare themselves to Jonathan Franzen, on the other hand.

The thing is, Dave Eggers may or may not be overrated, but he definitely has the three elements of a brilliant writer: 1) mimicry 2) bluster, and 3) an original perspective. Maybe Eggers’ books have included lazy chapters that ramble and go nowhere, but when he’s on, like he is in the chapters of his novel/memoir that deal with his parents’ death, it’s quite clear that he has talent as a writer. He’s a capable writer, first of all, which means he’s a capable mimic. He’s also got loads of confidence, which is crucial. And finally, he has an original perspective. He’s full of weird ideas, he has an odd take on things, he’s very sensitive but very defensive – all elements that happen to add up to really solid, entertaining, original writing.

The Max Headroom Pirate Incident

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

The Max Headroom Pirating Incident occurred on Sunday November 22, 1987 and is an example of broadcast signal intrusion.

The first occurrence of the signal hijack occurred during WGN’s 9:00 News. During Bears Highlights in the Sports report the signal was interrupted by a video of swaying black and white lines and a person wearing a Max Headroom mask. There was no audio. The hijack was stopped after only 20 seconds when WGN switched transmission from the Sears Tower to the John Hancock Center. The incident left sports reporter Dan Roan flustered.

Later that night around 11:15pm during a broadcast of the Doctor Who episode Horror of Fang Rock on WTTW, the signal was hijacked by the same person. It was the same video that was broadcast during the WGN hijack, but this time there was audio. The person in the Max Headroom mask interrupted the broadcast, saying “He’s a freaky nerd” before laughing and stating “This guy’s better than Chuck Swirsky!”. The person continued to utter strange phrases including a Coke advertising slogan (Max Headroom was a Coke spokesperson at the time), humming the theme song to Clutch Cargo (pausing midway to say “I stole CBS”), before finally undressing below the waist and was spanked by an unknown woman with a flyswatter before the masked person cut off his transmission. It was over in about 90 seconds. The pirate was never caught. WTTW, which maintains its transmitter atop the Sears Tower, found that its engineers were unable to stop the hijacker because at the time there were no engineers on duty at the Sears Tower. Also, the station’s master control center was unable to contact its transmitting equipment remotely to switch the STL (Studio To Transmitter Link), unlike their counterparts at WGN-TV, who were able to thwart the intruder by switching their John Hancock Center transmitter STL remotely within seconds.

WTTW and WGN join HBO as victims of broadcast signal intrusion. There has not been an incident of this kind since. The incident was reported on CBS Evening News.

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