Well I guess you must have had a change of heart
You don't treat me like you used to at the start

Those are lyrics from the first song on the album I just bought, Up Front & Down Low by Teddy Thompson. This is the first album I’ve bought through traditional channels for about ten years. That’s when I pretty much stopped buying music. I've bought a few dozen songs directly from independent musicians, but nothing from the recording industry.

Ten years ago the recording industry wasn’t yet extorting money from music fans, but it was already on the wrong side of things. Specifically, it was still pushing the physical distribution model for music (e.g. CDs) even though digital music was clearly the way forward. So I stopped buying CDs and started waiting for the opportunity to buy digital files instead. And amazingly enough, that opportunity took ten full years to arrive.

“What about iTunes?” you ask. Well, until very recently, you couldn’t buy digital files via iTunes. Because of what is known as "digital rights management" or DRM, iTunes really only sells a temporary license to listen to music under very specific circumstances. I’ve always found that unacceptable.

Before digital music arrived, I could take a CD I bought and give it to my friend to listen to. I can likewise take a car I bought and give it to my friend to drive, or — to use a metaphor you’ve likely heard before a movie — take a candy bar I bought and let my friend taste it. I can generally use my purchases wherever I want and however I want, because they’re mine. In this light, music files with DRM are not mine at all. How I use them is heavily regulated by whoever sold them. So I’ve never “bought” them.

Before I stopped buying music I bought probably an average of two CDs a month. So over ten years, that’s about 240 albums I haven’t bought. That may not be enough for the music industry to miss me, but it’s enough that I’ve missed the music industry. So I’m glad we’re having this reunion.

What reunion? The Amazon MP3 Store reunion. Now that I can finally buy music files and own them, I’m buying music again. I’m sure the music industry looks at this as regaining me as a consumer, but I look at it as regaining them as a vendor. I’ve been sitting around online waiting for them to sell me music for ten years and they just finally showed up with something to sell. So welcome back, music.

 

An amusing scene I witnessed earlier today: Two adults walk past on the sidewalk, single file. Possibly a mother and father. Or maybe two single parents. Two children walk behind, side by side. A girl and a boy.

Mother: “Elliott, Sarah, let’s walk single file so people can get by.“

Elliott: “We were.”

Mother: “That’s not really— ”

Elliott: “Well I was.”

Mother: [Pauses to reflect on conversation.] “Do you know what single file means?”

 

For those of you following along with the experiment at home, initial tests suggest adding beer to a web geek meeting does indeed make it more interesting. Or maybe having it on a weekend does that. Or maybe a smaller group. Or pizza. In any case, I had fun yesterday, learned a lot, and I would no longer say “Denver’s web community is boring me.”

Here’s something I learned before lunch even started (aside from the restaurant not opening until noon — oops): I had always assumed punch card computers worked by circuits connecting through the holes in cards. But it turns out they were entirely mechanical, with air bursting through the holes and flipping switches on the other side. Neat.

And of course there were web-specific topics too. But you’ll have to come next time to experience all the excitement. Maybe we’ll swap out pizza for ice cream or something, continue experimenting. In the distance, I still have my eye on BarCampDenver. Things are looking up.

 

Since moving to Denver, I’ve made a concerted effort to familiarize myself with the Denver web geek community. I’ve signed up for every email list I could find and attended every meeting loosely related to what I find interesting on the interwebs. But frankly, Denver’s web community is boring me. I haven’t found a single person playing with iPhone web interfaces nor the Wii JavaScript API nor microformats nor OpenID nor anyone who went to BarCampDenver last year. And few even know what these things are.

The lack of interest in any of those specific trends is not itself a problem. They may all turn out to be just passing fads. But I think these are symptoms of a larger problem: Denver web geekery is not a creative industry; it's a manufacturing industry. There’s an important difference between a web manufacturer, someone who churns out sites on an assembly line schedule using the exact same tools over and over again, and a web artisan, someone who takes the time to investigate, compare, and understand those tools, could maybe fix them when they break.

I want to be in the latter camp, not least because the former camp is being gradually replaced by increasingly automated tools. The manufacturing industry is not a sustainable career path; robots can manufacture. The plethora of web-related jobs and scarcity of candidates (I’m seeking a new coworker, by the way) in Denver is, I think, another symptom of this problem. The jobs are open because they’re unappealing. They’re boring, low-paying, and bound for obsolescence. Just as monoculture is bad for biological communities, it’s bad for this industry.

That’s my theory anyway. So what should I do about it? I’m still trying to figure that out, but when I suggested to the Denver web design MeetUp that once a month meetings wasn’t enough, some good ideas came up. Specifically: 1) go outside, and 2) drink beer. So as a test of these ideas, I’ve proposed an event, and a few people have signed on already.

What: Web Geek Lunch
When: August 18th, 2007 12pm - 2pm

So if you or anyone you know is near Denver and interested in beer, pizza, free WiFi, and web geekery, please spread the word. Hopefully we’ll be doing this more in the future.

 

Nelson’s knife-fork, © National Maritime Museum, London

Have you ever thought a knife-fork was a good idea? I’ll admit, I have. I don’t remember whether it was before or after I first encountered a spork that the idea to combine a fork and a knife first struck me. But I do know that after that moment, I looked on simple forks and knives with some disdain. Why was humanity wasting its time with two utensils when it could use just one? Isn’t the increased efficiency and simplicity of knife-forks obvious to all who eat?

Apparently not obvious enough. Decades later, knife-forks remain relatively rare. The problem with a knife-fork, it seems, is that it can easily cut your mouth. I expect this is why most cultures consider it rude to put a knife in one’s mouth.

Of course we could all be more conscious of our food as it enters our mouth, and indeed we should be for reasons beyond knife-forks, but we’re not. We eat with little regard to the food we’re consuming, much less the utensils we’re using to transport that food from plate to mouth. However, the mouth-cutting problem is apparently not insurmountable for knife-forks. When Horatio Nelson lost an arm in 1797, for example, paying more attention to avoid cutting his mouth must have seemed a small price to pay to avoid continuously swapping knife for fork, fork for knife, while eating a meal. So he used knife-forks.

Still, most two-armed eaters have proven unwilling to adapt eating behavior to accommodate the superior knife-fork. Alas, another brilliant idea brought down by an unreceptive society. I’ve since had many more such ideas. Men and women can share unisex bathrooms. Gender inequity: solved! Plumbing waste: solved! Rich people should give money to poor people. Poverty: solved! Abuse of power: solved! Everyone should vote for their favorite candidate. Democracy: solved! And so on.

Yes, I’ve had many knife-forks, solutions that work great as long as everyone is willing to change their behavior accordingly. But of course, these aren’t really solutions at all. Knife-forks are abstract ideas, fantasies that make us feel better about a hypothetical world in which they’re adopted, but don’t actually improve the real world in which they’re not.

Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, but where I once became excited by knife-forks, they now completely fail to excite me, and sometimes even annoy me. Some people are actually working, inventing chopsticks or something, to improve the real world, not some hypothetical world in which everyone pays more attention to their eating. And distracting them with your knife-forks hampers such progress.

Also, it’s a bit arrogant. Sure, the world would be a better place if everyone were, like me of course, willing to pay enough attention to their eating to use a knife-fork. But why should they? When presented with a world that refuses to eat with knife-forks, the humble knife-fork enthusiast asks why and starts working on a better utensil that addresses knife-fork problems. The more common arrogant knife-forker dismisses the world as inadequate to appreciate the brilliance of knife-forks.

American politicians are especially fond of knife-forks. Dennis Kucinich adamantly opposed the latest war in a Congress full of war-supporters. Now he can run for President on an "I was right" platform, even though he accomplished nothing. George Bush supported spreading democracy in a country unprepared to accept his generous gift. Now he can righteously claim democracy would have flourished if only the world had better supported his brilliant idea.

Technologists are pretty good at knife-forking as well. Every day there’s a new website that would eliminate world hunger, if only it had a million or so visitors. And the intersection of technology and politics is even better: sign my petition to demand people with real power start paying attention to internet petitions!

So now when I have great ideas (I could organize music events better than MySpace!), I try to ask myself: is this really a knife-fork? Does my great idea require people to fundamentally adjust their lives? Because if the answer is yes, it doesn’t really matter if I’ve just come up with a cure for cancer (I’ve got one too: avoid all known carcinogens). If the world doesn’t accept a great idea, it’s not a great idea. It’s just a knife-fork. Put it in the drawer, and get back to work making something the world will appreciate. Have you considered knife-chopsticks?

 

In the interest of starting my ever-hypothetical band, I’ve been following the musician ads on Craigslist since I arrived in Denver. And though I’ve only responded to one ad so far, and my band remains entirely hypothetical, I have noticed something interesting. At least once a day, two ads will appear one after the other, apparently seeking each other. I started taking screen shots a few days ago.

Bassist:

Bassist available/sought

Drummer:

Drummer available and sought

Drum and Bass:

Drum and Bass available and sought

Lead guitarist:

Guitarist available and sought

Vocalist:

Vocalist available and sought

When I see these, I’m really tempted to respond to both ads, just to point them to one another. But maybe they find each other without my help. In any case, I now have a new strategy for forming a band. First, I will compose a compelling Craigslist ad titled "Singer-songwriter seeks cellist and drummer." Then, just before posting the ad, I will instead respond to the inevitable just-posted ad titled "Cellist and drummer seek singer-songwriter."

 

Intimate Cartographies, by L.A. Alexander, is a book I would not recommend. After finishing The Omnivore’s Dilemna, I had a few plane trips and a few days of vacation ahead of me, so I picked up another book at an English-language book store in Peru. I didn’t see anything I really wanted to read. It was mostly a lot of popular fiction, e.g. Stephen King, and I’m pretty picky about what fiction I want to spend my time reading. Reality is interesting enough.

So I made the mistake of choosing Intimate Cartographies, mostly because I vaguely recalled listening to a radio interview with the author. I knew it had something to do with a cartographer who lost a child, but I wrongly remembered that it was nonfiction. The book store had most of the books shrinkwrapped, so I couldn’t flip through to confirm my memory. It was cheap, so I bought it. And I had nothing else to read, so I read it. And it was tedious.

To be fair, I think it was intentionally tedious. It was tedious because it gave the reader (me) a glimpse into the grieving process of someone who lost a child. And, as we might expect, that process takes a long time and involves a lot of replaying the same events over and over again. So if you want to get a hint of the experience of losing a child, this is probably a good book. But who wants to experience that? Certainly not me.

I’d like to read about it, but I’d like to do so from a distance. Such a distance would allow me to enjoy the interesting discussions of maps without dreading the impending return to the lost child story, which isn’t really much of a story. The child was lost; end of story. Or would that it were anyway. Instead, the book is three hundred pages repeating the same story over and over again in different words. Not enjoyable reading, unless perhaps you’re one of the unfortunate parents who has actually lost a child. Then you’d probably appreciate Intimate Cartographies. But I am not, and I did not.

 

I’m often confused when I do some simple math on poll data. According to this poll, for example, Only 32 percent said they were satisfied with how Bush is handling his job and only 21 percent said they believe things in the U.S. are heading in the right direction. So 32 minus 21 … Does that mean 11 percent are satisfied with heading in the wrong direction? Is there an alternate reading of these numbers I’m missing? If not, what is wrong with those eleven percent?

 

I finally finished The Omnivore’s Dilemna while in Peru. I read the first half in about four months, and the last half in about four days. It’s a lengthy book, but I found it well worth it. It did, however, ultimately fall a bit short of my expectations. The book is an excellent collection of ideas around a specific philosophy of eating, but it is not, as the title suggests, a general-purpose thesis on eating well.

The book starts with, and claims to be an answer to the question What should we have for dinner? But by the end it becomes clear the entire book is rooted in the unstated assumption that industrialization was a grave mistake. So the book is more specifically an answer to the question What is the best pre-industrial meal available in our post-industrial world? The answer, unsurprisingly, turns out to be pretty much exactly what it would have been before industrialization.

It is this certainty in industrialization as the root cause of most modern dietary problems that makes the book so compelling to continue reading. It wasn’t until nearly the end that I realized that such obvious food issues as health, economic class, geography, and aesthetics would not be addressed in any more depth than their relation to industrialization. By then I had already invested too much under the assumption other topics would be covered to stop reading. And I wouldn’t have stopped reading anyway, as Michael Pollan is a captivating story-teller, even when the moral of his story is entirely disagreeable.

It is because the book was written so well that I was so disappointed that the topic turned out to be deceptively narrow in scope. I think this paradox is most clearly demonstrated in the section on vegetarianism, the only in the book that significantly strayed from the central theme of industrialization, presumably because it would be absurd to write a book around thoughtful eating and not cover vegetarianism in much depth. This was the most interesting section for me, not only because I am vegetarian. I have been vegetarian for over ten years and this section presented arguments both for and against vegetarianism that I had never considered.

Which made it all the more disappointing that it ended with a conclusion suggesting that vegetarianism only makes sense as a means of avoiding the industrial food supply. This was where it became clear to me that industrialization was not simply the context in which Pollan chose to consider food, but rather food was the context in which he chose to consider industrialization. One can imagine him pitching his publisher a book on industrialization, and the publisher responding with “why don’t you write about food instead?” The child of those two is The Omnivore’s Dilemna, which while enjoyable, left me wishing to read either of the hypothetical books.

To beat a dead horse (an act Pollan apparently deems palatable so long as it happens outside an industrial economy), I’d like to note where the anti-industrialization bias creeps outside the context of food. In the section on mushroom hunting, he makes a very convincing argument that mushrooms can’t be reliably described over email or even over the phone. The argument in favor face-to-face communication is so good that it’s difficult to see why it should be restricted to mushrooms. Surely I can also understand driving a car infinitely better by talking to someone familiar with it than by reading about it in a driver’s education manual. After all, if someone doesn’t really know how to drive a car, he should be as dead as someone who doesn’t really know how to identify a poisonous mushroom.

So industrialization has diminished food and communication, or so says this book published, distributed, and sold in the industrial economy. And it has also diminished government (the USDA is subservient to industry), medicine (modern science is so untrustworthy regarding diet that Pollan doesn’t even bother telling the reader how the health care establishment would answer the question of what we should eat), and, well, everything really. It’s not even that I find many of these anti-industrialization ideas particularly disagreeable. I personally distrust modern medicine, for example, apparently with good reason. So I would be very interested to read about an alternative world view. But none is offered here. The book details problems of an industrialized food supply, but no real solutions.

Pollan admits that we live in an industrialized world, so his ideal non-industrialized diet is at best only feasible for a small minority of omnivores. But he stops there. If you’re in that small minority, The Omnivore’s Dilemna gives you a pretty good idea of what you should have for dinner. If you’re not, you only get a pretty good idea of what would be good for dinner if you were. The book ends with a chapter titled The Perfect Meal, which (no surprise) is one most removed from industrializations, one hunted and gathered by the eater himself:

This is not the way I want to eat every day. 
 But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. 
 we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

If you’d enjoy a book to help you imagine this, as I did, The Omnivore’s Dilemna is well worth reading. But before doing so, know that if you’d rather, you know, eat a good dinner than imagine it (as I would), you may find the book falls a bit short of expectations.

 

I’m back from Peru now, and getting settled in Denver before I start the new job this Friday. Right now I’m living in a mostly empty apartment with no furniture and no internet access. Surprisingly, it’s not that bad. I don’t really find it uncomfortable sitting and sleeping on the floor, with the exception of eating, when it would be nice to have my food closer to my mouth without holding a plate with one hand.

For internet access, there are enough free wireless networks nearby that I’m considering not getting home internet access at all. I called Qwest today and found that I will need to be at home a whole weekday to get service started, because they won’t schedule at a specific time. That, on top of leaving my old Qwest modem in Illinois, means I’ll be waiting at least until Jessica gets here before signing up for internet access. If I don’t find those two weeks too unbearable, I expect I’ll not sign up at all.

Just imagine: a professional web developer without internet access at home. Crazy, huh?

 

I don't know how anyone uses the internet in Spanish. The keyboards make it very difficult. The @ symbol, for example, requires three keystrokes to produce. My apostrophes here are all non-curly because I can't figure out how to type the pound symbol. Surely there's an easier way we haven't yet discovered.

Anyway, all is well in Peru (for me anyway, the Incas apparently got screwed royally). The city we're currently in is thick with tourists, which has it's benefits (e.g. it's relatively safe to go anywhere as a tourist) and it's drawbacks (e.g. it's pretty much impossible to go anywhere without someone offering to sell us postcards).

Everything is pretty cheap, and we don't have much of a schedule prior to heading to Machu Picchu, so we're doing a lot of sitting around in various restaurants, eating new things, and watching new people. I'm making good headway on my book, catching up on sleep, using the internet sparingly, and generally relaxing. Vacation is going well.

 

Monday will be my last day at work in Des Moines, which is weird. I knew it was coming a long time ago, but it still snuck up on me. I worked from home for a few months, so it won’t be so odd to no longer be in the office. What will be more strange is returning my laptop and my phone. I won’t get a new laptop nor a new phone until I start my new job in June. Meanwhile I’ll be incommunicado, as they say in Peru (or maybe they don’t — I don’t really know). No phone calls, no emails, no instant messages, no feeds, no weblog posts, no comments. For most of that time, I won’t even have a mailing address. Try not to break anything while I’m out, okay?

I expect this will be a good reminder that the world can go on fine without me. It will be the longest I’ve gone without internet access for at least five years, and the longest I’ve gone without my own phone number since receiving my first phone call. It should also be interesting to see how well I can get along without any connection the world I know. Goodbye cruel world! See you in June.

 

This picture is a picture of my whole life, in 8 1/2 x 11.

Ezra Kilty, Gizmos and Love

I completely forgot about quotes of the day.

 

I’m a little late in mentioning here that Jessica and I are moving to Denver after we return from Peru. The possibility first came up a few months ago, but we just signed a lease this weekend, so it’s fairly certain now. I also signed a contract this weekend, to become a web developer at the Integer Group. Astute readers will notice I am already a web developer at the Integer Group. I’m just moving from the Des Moines branch to the Denver branch.

I’m also moving from working remotely back to an actual office. For much of my life, my dream job was to work from home online. When Jessica found work in Illinois after searching for teaching work in Des Moines, I actually had the opportunity to work from home online. I was surprised to discover it wasn’t all I had hoped. It was certainly a luxury to be able to fold laundry while thinking about issues at work, but it was also somewhat of a burden to be thinking about issues at work while folding laundry.

And living in a small rural town didn’t help much either. I wasn’t especially excited about Denver itself until our visit this weekend, but now I am. There’s a lot more going on near our new place in the middle of Denver than our old place twenty minutes outside of Carbondale. I wasn’t really happy with working from Carbondale, and Jessica wasn’t really happy with working from Des Moines, so hopefully we can both be happy working from Denver.

My work transition is actually a bit more than just moving between two branches of the same company; my job will actually be changing slightly. For example, I’m currently one of three full time web developers in Des Moines, but I will be the only full time developer in Denver. The company is twice as large in Denver, so I’ll have a bit more responsibility. But I also won’t be doing any work for client websites as I do now, only making internal tools for the people at Integer.

So I still have two more weeks in Des Moines, helping to train my replacement, Dan. Then we have a week and a half in Peru for vacation (scheduled before Denver came up). Then I head out to Denver, with Jessica to follow shortly after. Hopefully I’ll be done moving and travelling for a while after that. It’s exhausting to be in a different city almost every week. But Denver was certainly worth the visit this weekend, and I have high hopes it will prove worth the move later this month.

 

As I was attempting to buy gas last week, I was somewhat startled to read this error message:

Invalid Loyalty

You may recall a few years back, the Defense Department had a Total Information Awareness plan to data-mine credit cards for suspicious activity. And the FBI had its own Carnivore program to survey online activity. Put these two programs together, and the government could shut off my credit card after discovering I didn’t support the war. INVALID LOYALTY.

Thankfully we’re not there quite yet. I was using a gas station affiliated with the local grocery store, and apaprently I pressed the wrong button to indicate I wanted to use my discount card to get a discount on gas (in exchange, apparently, for my loyalty). So when prompted to scan my card, I scanned my credit card. And the result was this, I think, funny error message: INVALID LOYALTY.

I was in a bit of a hurry on my way out of town, but I thought it was worth repeating the process to get a picture of the gas machine apparently questioning my patriotism.

 

A few weeks ago, I helped conduct two interviews for open web developer positions at my employer. I’ve written in the past about the unfortunate lack of diversity in my industry, so it’s a little embarrassing to admit that not only were both candidates white, male, and relatively the same age, they also had the same name, Dan. Oh, and they're both from the same city too. I don’t think we could have found more superficially similar candidates if we’d tried. I wasn’t really involved in the early hiring process, so I’m not sure if anything could have been done to cast a wider net in the search. Maybe there are just a lot of similar people looking for web developer jobs in central Iowa. Nonetheless, the irony is not lost on me.

But beyond the irony are some, I think, interesting and unique Dans. It’s true, they both added The Airbag Blog Advisory System to their blogs yesterday, but they did get different advisories. Interview number one was Dan Conner, whose advisory is currently "elevated", and who just this morning wrote about his interview process:

Ian and Scott remain in the conference room atop the Butler Mansion, watch on another MacBook connected via Remote Desktop (or whatever that is on a Mac) to the one I have, and break out some microwave popcorn for the show. it feels awkward at first. I giggle a bit with an uncomfortable but accepting feeling, and the awkwardness starts to recede.

For the record, I recall no microwave popcorn. But it was awkward (maybe popcorn would have helped), and I’m glad Dan was able to get past that and have some fun. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to accept the job offer, so I won’t be working with him. The second interview was Dan Hellerich, whose advisory is currently "asshat" (though I don’t see any rough language at all), and who posted yesterday about his move. His technical interview was equally awkward, but hopefully it was also somewhat fun. He accepted the job in any case, so I’ll be in Des Moines for the next month helping him become familiar with our projects before my trip to Peru.

I hope we can reduce the awkwardness factor in future interviews without reducing the fun. But overall, the interviews turned out well. We only ended up with one of the Dans we wanted, but that may turn out to be for the best. At least now we don’t need to come up with nicknames to differentiate. There’s still another opening for a web developer at my employer, if you know anyone who might be interested. The name Dan is entirely optional.

 

Playing Here is a website I’ve been working on in my spare time for a few months now. It’s still a little rough around the edges but I discovered earlier today that Yahoo is returning the site in search results (despite no links on the web yet), so I guess the cat’s out of the bag. The focus of the site is local music listings, and the core functionality for that is available in four delicious flavors: HTML, email, JavaScript include, and feeds. Here’s an example of a JavaScript include:

I have a long list of planned improvements, but I’d love to get some feedback on the site so far.

 

Recently I’ve read two apparently independent analogies between bite-size internet media and junk food. The first was Aaron Swartz, who founded and sold Reddit, a website offering bite-size internet media, for millions. Aaron self-critically wrote:

The same goes for reading stories on Reddit or your friends' pointless twits about their life. Looking at photos of sunsets or reading one-liners takes no cognitive effort. It's the mental equivalent of snack food. You start eating one and before you know it you've gone through two cans of Pringles and become a world expert on Evan Williams' travel habits.

The second analogist was Dave Rogers, who ironically likes to post photos of sunsets between repetitions of a one-liner Technology changes how we do things, it does not change what we do. Dave wrote:

But these online interactions are mostly shallow, almost two-dimensional projections of real interactions. That third, "physical" dimension includes some important features that we've evolved to help us get along with one another. But since the two-dimensional interactions can provide most of the same rewards, (With greater immediacy and convenience! Just like "fast food.") as "real" interactions, we invest too much time in this simulated reality of the network, consuming far too many "empty calories," and growing socially "flabby" and unhealthy.

As it happens, between my steady diet of junk-food short articles such as Aaron’s and Dave’s, I’m slowly (four months!) reading a book about the actual food half of this analogy, The Omnivore’s Dilemna. So I like this analogy, probably because it’s convenient for me. But I don’t care much for the conclusions Aaron and Dave draw from the analogy.

Specifically, Dave suggests we should all go outside more, and Aaron suggests we should read more books. These are both good things to do, but I don’t think the suggestions really help much more than saying “go vegetarian” helps improve our standard diet. All of these suggestions presume a consciousness to our decision-making that doesn’t often exist. One might argue that we need to live more consciously, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I still don’t think that would be especially helpful advice for a world awash in junk food.

Recognizing that most of our decisions are made out of habit, and also that it’s very difficult to change our habits in ways that conflict with the norms of society, I think a better solution is to change the norms of society such that our habits lead to better results. This is the solution I see working to solve the actual junk food problem.

Following this analogy, let’s assume we eat too much meat (we do) and we want to convince everyone to eat less meat. One strategy, notably that of PETA, is to change the way we all think about meat. Meat is murder, PETA says. This doesn’t really work, though, because we can consciously recognize that yes, animals probably suffer to some extent in the production of a hamburger, while still craving that hamburger. This problem with PETA’s strategy is humorously captured in the following image.

MEAT IS MURDER. Tasty, tasty murder.

Photo source unknown

The other, I think better, solution is veggie burgers. Veggie burgers work because they allow us to eat more healthy food without fundamentally changing the way we think about eating. I know this works because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to eat a vegetarian diet, as modern vegetarian food is almost indiscernable from actual meat. But the result is the same whether or not we are conscious of the change: lower meat consumption is a healthier diet.

Taking this back to the metaphorical junk food of a web-based snack-size media diet, I think we can best increase the depth of our media consumption subtly. If we can make ideas of more depth look and feel like the quicker stream of information to which we’ve become accustomed, we can benefit without needing to fundamentally alter our habits. Newspapers, for example, do this by breaking up a longer article into multiple pages. By the time you get to the bottom of a four paragraph article and realize it’s actually longer than four paragraphs, you’ve invested enough in the article that you continue to the next page. And the longer you read, the more you’re willing to continue. This way, a twelve page article can slowly suck in a reader who would avoid the same article simply out of habit if the length were immediately obvious.

So I agree with Aarom and Dave that we eat junk food and consume a media diet analogous to junk food because it’s easy. And we could fight against doing what’s easy, but we could also make it easier to do better. I think it’s tempting for those who are doing better to expect everyone else to follow suit. I think eating less meat is better, for example, but it wasn’t long after becoming vegetarian that I stopped expecting everyone else to eat less meat because it’s the right thing to do. I now expect everyone else to eat less meat because I’m making it easier.

I recognize the irony in suggesting that the best way to make people more thoughtful is to decrease the thought required to change. And I’m also not sure what the media equivalent of veggie burgers is. But I thought it worth mentioning nonetheless.

 

At dinner tonight, I thought my waitress was hitting on me. Or maybe not hitting on me, but trying to get me to hit on her. She was about my age, and nicer than one would normally be to a stranger, but of course that’s just part of the job. What gave me the impression she was hitting on me were the long pauses she left after everything I said.

She would say “Are you ready to order?” And I would reply “Yes, I’ll have the Tortelini Portabella.” This is how normal waitress-diner exchanges go in my experience. But then she would just stand there and look at me. What was she waiting for? It was like a scene in a romantic comedy, where one person is afraid to say anything about the obvious chemistry, and instead just waits for the other to bring it up.

Except there was no chemistry. Not on my end, anyway. Not only am I married, but even if I weren’t, she was more creeping me out than attracting me. I was eating at the restaurant attached to the hotel I’m staying in, and charging my meal to my room. So I had given her my room number. In one of those romantic comedies, she would maybe show up at my door later. But in a horror movie, I would wake up in the bathtub missing a kidney. And I was seeing myself more in the horror movie plot. Even if she wasn’t a serial organ-thief (and really, it would be kind of dumb doing that so close to where she works), did she make a habit of picking up guests in the adjacent hotel? Guests wearing wedding rings? Isn’t that a little odd?

Yes, it is, I concluded. I tried to watch as she spoke to other tables. Did she do the same thing with them? The nearest occupied table was too far away to tell. I looked at her co-workers as they walked by. Did any of their faces reveal a secret fear that my waitress was a nutjob? They offered no clues.

But then, toward the end of my meal, my waitress herself revealed the truth. If I weren’t already suspicious, I may not have even noticed. “Is everything alright?“ she asked. “Yes, thanks,” I said. Normally I would expect a waitress to leave my table at this point, but by then I expected this waitress to awkwardly stand there for a moment in silence. She did neither. Instead she did something I didn’t expect at all. She said “Are you done with your sal- *hiccup* salad?” I answered “Yes, thanks,” as I had long ago finished my salad.

Now I’m a little disappointed. My dinner was neither the would-be romantic comedy nor the horror movie I had imagined. It was just a waitress with the hiccups, trying not to hiccup in the middle of talking to me. That’s not very interesting at all. But still, I locked the door.

 

This May I will visit Machu Picchu with Jessica, my wife, and Libby, our friend from Des Moines. I’m currently in Des Moines, attending interviews of some would-be new web developers at my company, which is putting me up in a hotel for a few days. It’s an odd experience, both because I’m living like a tourist in a city that still feels like home, and also because I’m living like a businessperson, which I don’t feel like at all.

For example, this afternoon I was sitting in the hotel room, which my company paid for, eating leftovers from last night’s dinner, which my company will also pay for. I feel like I should instead be going out for lunch, since my company is paying for meals anyway, maybe take out some other businessperson and explain to them the synergy of our new product or something. But I was happy eating my cold Pad Thai and watching the end of a show on the History channel about Machu Picchu.

In that show I learned something that you might have learned if you followed the previous link to Wikipedia’s article on Machu Picchu: that Peru is suing Yale University over some bones taken from Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham. In 1911, Bingham rediscovered the Incan city of Macchu Picchu, which had been abandoned since the 1500s, when the Spanish conquered the Incan empire, after first dividing it. The Incan government did not have clear lines of succession, and the Spanish took advantage of this by promoting a competition of authority within the government, which ended up destroying the empire. History repeats itself.

So then everyone left Machu Picchu, and it was empty when Hiram Bingham started digging up bones. He brought the bones back to Yale, where they remain today. Then he went on to become Governor of Connecticut, then US Senator. Interesting footnote: he was only governor for one day before he became Senator. In 1929, Bingham was censured by the Senate on corruption charges involving lobbyists. History repeats itself.

Hiram Bingham was a Republican, and was pushed from office in 1932 when Democrats won in a nationwide landslide following the Great Depression. Bingham’s father and namesake was a missionary to Hawaii, as was his grandfather. Interesting footnote: his grandfather was also pastor of an African American church in Connecticut. One of his sons was a Democratic congressman, while his namesake son helped Jews escape the Holocaust in France to the US, despite official US policies intended to limit such immigration. US Secretary of State Colin Powell later praised Hiram Bingham, the 4th, for his “constructive dissent.” History repeats itself.

Getting back to Machu Picchu, I found one line from the BBC’s report on the lawsuit from Peru particularly interesting: But Yale says it followed standard collecting practices at the time, and that it has made a reasonable offer to return some of the artefacts. That phrase, a reasonable offer, was recently used by the White House to explain why members of the American government will not be testifying under oath about their actions. History repeats itself.

President Bush, you may recall, is a graduate of Yale, so perhaps that’s where he developed the impression that an offer in clear violation of established rules is "a reasonable offer." Unlike the Incans, there is little ambiguity about authorites in the American government. And there is apparently little ambiguity over who owns the Machu Picchu bones at Yale. Hiram Bingham the third, the one who took the bones, wrote Now they [the bones] do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in eighteen months. That was ninety five years ago.

I suspect riding up the Hiram Bingham Highway to Machu Picchu will be just as odd an experience as this week in Des Moines, or most of my travels for that matter. Another place I don’t really belong, playing another role I don’t really understand. I guess that’s what makes this life interesting.

 

We start with Cory Doctorow. Cory is most famous among geeks for writing on Boing Boing, one of the most popular blogs. If you don't read Boing Boing, and have no idea what a "blog" is, that’s okay. I’m su’ll find your opportunity to jump on the geek-mobile later. From Cory we connect to Mark Frauenfelder, who also writes on Boing Boing, and is editor of MAKE magazine. In relation to MAKE, Mark was recently on The Colbert Report, so from there we connect to Stephen Colbert. Stephen was previously on The Daily Show, of course. (Are you a geek yet?) Also on The Daily Show: super-geek John Hodgman. You may also know John from his role as "PC" in Apple's recent ads, or maybe from his recent geeky book, Areas of My Expertise. In the audio version of the book, Jonathan Coulton appears. Jonathan writes geeky songs. Yesterday, Jonathan appeared on Ze Frank’s The Show. Ze Frank has a geeky video show.

Thus completes our six degrees of geek: Cory-Mark-Stephen-John-Jonathan-Ze. This is the geek train I ride on. Seeing Jonathan with Ze Frank today was the geek-fest that prompted me to write this. But now that I look at the list, I note that these are six white men of roughly the same age and economic background. And we can easily branch out in other directions of geekiness (e.g. Stephen Colbert vs. The Decemberists) and find more of the same. It’s hard to dismiss as coincidence that I am a geek, and also a white male of roughly the same age and economic background. I’d never heard of any of these people as I was becoming a geek, so how did that happen?

 

I’ve been living in Southern Illinois for about two months now, and I haven’t really made any friends yet outside Jessica’s friends. I left a note at the local Co-op grocery store expressing interest in volunteering, but no one ever called me. I sent an email to the Big Muddy Independent Media Center volunteering my web development skills to improve their website, but no one responded. I posted on the local Craig’s List about starting a band, but no one responded. One might conclude that this town doesn’t like me, but I suspect it just has different means of communication.

Southern Illinois isn’t big on web-based communication, and I can’t often bring myself to drive the twenty minutes into town, from our place out in Murphysboro, for what often seems like a waste of time and gas. So I stay at home a lot, which I think is a bad thing. We’ve been looking at moving, but our lease here goes through August, so we’ll need to find a pretty nice place to make it worth moving before then. Meanwhile, I’m writing a lot more email and talking on the phone a lot more than I ever have before. But that’s not really making me any friends.

There are a few people in the area who actively communicate via the internet. There’s a group of bloggers at Carbondale Bytelife who seem to share my inclination towards online communication. They were searching for additional contributors when I first moved to the area, and I tried volunteering for that too, but the email bounced and I didn’t follow up, so no friends there yet.

But I believe I am making some enemies there, so I guess that’s a start. Part of the reason I didn’t follow up on my bounced email was that Carbondale Bytelife is full of discussion of Carbondale, and being new to the area, I don’t really know much about Cardbondale, so I have few opportunities to jump in. I do know a bit about electoral politics though, having participated in a few campaigns, served as electoral judge, and managed a voter registration drive. So the Carbondale mayoral election seemed like a good place to add my voice to the mix.

There’s an old saying about the three things you should never talk about in polite conversation: sex, religion, and politics. I regularly discuss all three, so I guess I’m a slow learner. Or maybe just impolite. I believe my first comment to a Carbondale blog was to question why Bob Pauls listed the age of each mayoral candidate in a post about candidate websites. It struck me as a way to caricature candidates and vote on those caricatures rather than actual issues (e.g. Obama is "the black candidate," nevermind what his positions are). But apparenly Bob is just concerned about the "digital divide" and thinks age is a big part of it. I’m not so sure age is a big part of it, but I thought better of pursuing the issue and establishing myself through disagreement.

But I guess my better judgement lapsed when I read a post by someone I only know as "dave" on the mayoral primary, which seemed to be subtly skewed in favor of the incumbent, Mayor Cole. Truth be told, I didn’t realize as I was pointing out the bias I saw that I was commenting on dave’s personal blog and not Carbondale Bytelife, which I believe was formerly known by the name of dave’s blog Carbondaley Dispatch. But that probably wouldn’t have changed what I wrote much. I don’t know much about the candidates, but I’ve had an anti-incumbent bias every since I learned that incumbent candidates have a ridiculously high re-election rate. That just can’t be healthy for democracy.

So I’d been reading a lot of pro-Cole discussion in the local blogs, and had the general impression that he was a widely liked Mayor and would probably win by a landslide. But then he lost in the primary (came in second to the only other candidate who will be in the final election), and that made me wonder if the people I’d been reading weren’t confusing their hopes for reality. So with that suspicion, I read dave’s post, which makes an analogy between Cole losing the primary and a famous boxing match between Ali and Foreman. I don’t know a lot about boxing, but I know Ali won that fight, and Cole was analogous to Ali in the post, so it immediately struck me as a sort of cheerleading for Cole.

So I said as much. I suggested dave was letting his own bias slip into his writing in subtle ways throughout the post, and he should state his bias upfront so readers could interpret his words with a grain of salt. At this point, I had no reason to think dave was anything other than a voter who somewhat favored Cole, but was trying not to show bias. I know there’s a widespread myth that people shouldn’t have bias, and I think that’s harmful to public discussion, so in my comment suggesting dave should be more open about his bias, I said It's okay to have a political bias, in the hopes that he wouldn’t feel the need to act unbiased.

I think everyone is biased, and pretending otherwise is just silly. Later in the comments, someone wrote I believe you should tell them you're on Brad's payroll, Dave. I first thought this was sarcasm, suggesting that my perceptions of bias were inaccurate, that I was seeing bias where none existed. But then dave wrote How many times must I say that I maintain Cole's web site? That’s when I realized that the earlier comment was not actually sarcastic. This really changed the whole discussion. So dave’s writing about a mayoral election, and he maintains the website for one of the candidates. I tried to move past my initial reaction of "are you serious?" and actually answer dave’s question, saying I think it's standard practice for writers to include such a disclaimer every single time a conflict of interest comes up.

I do this myself, as you may have noticed. When I wrote about ethanol, for example, I mentioned in the second sentence that my employer has clients in the ethanol industry. I’ve had very little interaction with those clients, and the largest of them had just recently cancelled their contract with my employer somewhat abruptly, so I could make a reasonable case that this doesn’t bias my opinion of ethanol at all. But that would be ridiculous. Everything biases my opinions. Everything I read, everyone I work for, even everything I eat. I likely have a bias towards brown things because I like chocolate. I don’t really recognize this bias, but it makes sense that I would have it, because everyone is biased. Everyone.

Everyone except dave apparently, who wrote a new post today titled Biased my *sterisk, explaining his belief that he is not biased regarding the mayoral election, despite being employed by one of the candidates. He wrote: So what am I supposed to do? Quit? Not comment on the race?

To answer the rhetorical question: no, dave is not supposed to do any of those things. That would be ridiculous. Because bias is so pervasive, we shouldn’t let it disrupt our ability to discuss interesting topics. And we don’t need to go out of our way to try to compensate for it, as dave did by listing a bunch of things he doesn’t like about his employer, Cole. All we need to do is simply state obvious conflicts of interest when they come up. I don’t think that’s a huge burden, and it makes it easier for everyone to understand our perspective.

One might argue that our employers are not actually our primary conflicts of interest, that focusing on them creates a distorted image of our perspective. And I think that would be an interesting argument. But dave doesn’t appear to be saying that. He’s just claiming he has no bias, which I maintain is just silly. Because everyone is biased.

 

I made this, inspired by the geeky HTML jokes pool on Flickr.

 

My friend JJ is in a band called Theodore, which I wrote about back when they visited Iowa. They have a show in St. Louis next Friday at 7pm (MySpace doesn’t tell you the time for some reason), and I was thinking I might go to it now that I am living relatively near St. Louis. But this morning JJ called and asked if I wanted to play at this show, and of course I said yes. So now I have a show in St. Louis next Friday at 7pm. It’s at Cummel’s Cafe, 1627 Washington St. in St. Louis, MO, if you want to come hear me. There’s a $5 door fee, but Theodore alone is well worth that, and I’m sure I add at least $1 in value, so you’re really getting quite a deal.

This will be my first show in a city as large as St. Louis, and also my first show with a door fee, so both should be interesting new experiences. Between working too much, I have been redesigning the music portion of this site to make it less a jumble of MP3s and more an organized jumble of MP3s. Hopefully I’ll have that finished soon, and then I’ll record a few songs I’ve been postponing until I’m done with the site revamp. Until then, you can probably hear most of my new songs at the show on Friday.

 

One of my university professors told me a secret about how he would decide how much homework to give his students. The secret was: it doesn’t matter. Students will complain that any amount of homework is too much, and then they’ll find time to do it. A student with only one class and very little homework will somehow fill her schedule such that the very little homework seems to be taking too much time, but is still possible to complete. And a student with five classes all with extensive homework will somehow clear her schedule such that the homework seems to be taking too much time, but is still possible to complete. Time is magically elastic for university students.

When I worked in an office, I would go to work in the morning, then back home for lunch, then back to work in the afternoon, then back home at night. During those trips, I occasionally imagined how much more time I would have to do things I should be doing more often (e.g cooking, reading, exercising). Four trips a day at ten minutes per trip, plus time packing up and unpacking on each end, must be at least an hour of every day I spent in transition.

Now that I’ve been working from home for a while, I have almost no time lost in transition. Yet I notice the extra time hasn’t materialized. I can now work in the kitchen, and somehow I still feel like I don’t have time to cook a good meal for lunch. My time appears to be just as elastic as it was when I was a university student.

Where does time go when it stretches? For a full time student, I think the time goes primarily to socializing. When your friend invites you to go somewhere and you don’t have pressing homework, it would seem rather unlike a student to decline the invitation. And a university is full of friends inviting each other to go places. Socializing is a black hole, endlessly sucking in all student time not otherwise attracted to a mass of homework.

For me, the black hole is web work. I try to restrict myself to close to forty hours a week for my full time employer, and though I almost never reach that goal, that’s not really the problem. My time sink is largely freelance work. When someone offers me money to work on an interesting project, it just seems odd to decline. What would I even say? “No thanks. That sounds interesting, and I like money, but I’d rather read books and cook better meals.“ Maybe I should say that, but I don’t.

Your black hole is what you won’t regret. When your university friends come back from the bar, and you’ve just spent a few hours making sure you understand the subject really well instead of just okay, you’re going to regret the missed opportunities at the bar. But they won’t regret the missed studying. And when that really neat website launches after I turned down the opportunity to work on it so that I could learn to make Pad Thai instead of Mac and Cheese, I’ll be regretting the missed opportunity on the web, but I don’t yet regret the Mac and Cheese.

So it turns out time is elastic for everyone, not just students. And we all just choose a different black hole to suck it up. Some day I hope to be the kind of person whose black hole is the simpler things in life: good food, good books, health, a sunny day. But right now my black hole is interesting web work. I don’t need more time, and most likely you don’t either. What’s your black hole, sucking up all your free time? TV? Books? A sunny day?

 

In 1866, the US government made it legal to employ weights and measurements of the metric system (e.g. kilometers, liters, grams) in addition to standard US measurements (e.g. miles, gallons, pounds). A hundred years later, the system wasn’t really catching on in America as quickly as it had throughout most of the world, so in 1975, the US government adopted the metric system for all government weights and measures. Ten years later, the metric system became the preferred system for trade and commerce. After another decade had passed, the metric system became not just preferred, but mandatory on all consumer commodities, though US standard measurements were, and are, still allowed.

Another decade has passed since, but the metric system still hasn’t really caught on in America. If you look closely at nutritional labels, you can see how many grams of fat your food contains, and you can even see how many liters are in your gallon of milk. But you’re unlikely to get a ticket for driving too many kilometers per hour. And you certainly won’t get a ticket for driving too many kilometers per kilosecond. (The decimalisation of time hasn’t really begun to catch on anywhere outside of Swatch.)

But as with universal health care, America is far behind the curve on the decimalization of weights and measurements. Liberia and Myanmar are the only other two countries in the world not using the metric system for nearly everything. And those two have just been distracted from the task of metrication, both going through civil wars while the rest of the world was converting speeding tickets to be easily divisible by ten.

America, on the other hand, has had plenty of time to do the metrication, but has steadfastly resisted the idea. The state of Kentucky even went so far as to reverse the national government’s mandate to use the metric system within government agencies. The process of converting the nation to the metric system has generally stalled in the past ten years and shows no signs of restarting any time soon.

While decimalisation has almost spanned the globe in weights and measurements, and hasn’t really begun in time, decimalisation has actually been completed in every country of the world in one area: currency. Decimalised currency is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a country that had non-decimal currency.

But prior to 1710, no currency was decimalised. In that year, Russia was the first country to decimalise currency. Peter ("the Great") I is most well-known for the westernization of Russia, including oddities such as changing from the Russian calendar to the Julian calendar just as Europe was changing from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and taxing men who wore beards. And at the time, currency decimalisation probably seemed odd as well.

I didn’t find any record of the relative value between rubels and kopeks prior to 1710, but assuming it was something other than 100, Peter’s declaration that it was to be 100 henceforth probably sounded as crazy as someone declaring that a gallon of milk will always cost $5. After all, money back then had actual value based in scarcity, not just the agreed upon value money has today.

It wasn’t until eighty years later that America, under the progressive leadership of Thomas Jefferson (who would have carried out full metrication at the time were it up to him) became the second country with decimalised currency. The Coinage Act of 1792 defined the dollar as being worth the still-standard 10 dimes and 100 cents, but it also defined an "eagle" as being worth 10 dollars, in the form of a gold coin that was minted until 1933. The Coinage Act also took the seemingly ridiculous step of declaring the relative value between gold and silver, with gold worth fifteen times the equivalent weight in silver. Currently, gold is worth about sixty times silver, so that obviously didn’t stick.

Currency decimalisation did stick, however, and has since been adopted by every country in the world. There are two countries that still formally have non-decimal currency, but not in practice. In Mauritania, one ouguiya has the same value as five khoums, but that value is so low that no one uses khoums at all. The same is true of Madagascar’s currency, where one ariary has the value of five iraimbilanjas.

Neither of these currencies would be difficult to use today if they were in circulation (except perhaps pronouncing "iraimbilanja"). Because ten is easily divisible by five, we can use decimal math to make calculations on these currencies. If I had thirteen khoums, and I wanted to deposit them in a bank that recorded money in ouguiya, they could divide thirteen by five and record that I had deposited 2.6 ouguiyas. Similarly, it’s easy for us to exchange any number of quarters for the equivalent amount of dollars. When doing the math, we don’t actually consider four quarters to a dollar; we consider one quarter to 0.25 dollars.

Where non-decimal currency becomes a problem is with relative values that don’t work cleanly in decimal math. For example, one thaler in Hamburg was once worth three marks. If I took four marks into a Hamburg bank that recorded money in thalers, they would need to record that I deposited 1.333333333... thalers, with the three extending forever. Non-decimal currency works fine under a similarly non-decimal number system. But the prevalence of decimal math in the world has encouraged a gradual decimalisation of the world.

This raises the question of when and how decimal math conquered all other number systems throughout the world. The common assumption is that ten-digit math came from ten-digit appendages, i.e. the ten fingers on our hands. But this certainly wasn’t the only option. Several languages still indicate base numbers of twenty, a vigesimal number system, presumably based on the number of fingers plus toes. The Danish word for sixty, for example, is literally "three times twenty," though it is now written in the conventional "60" or "six times ten."

The twelve months on our calendars, twelve hours on our clocks, and twelve inches to a foot all suggest a duodecimal (base twelve) number system, possibly derived from the twelve knuckles on the fingers of one hand (not counting the thumb). Duodecimal math is actually simpler than decimal math because twelve has more factors than ten. Those four marks I took to the hypothetical Hamburg bank, for example, could be easily recorded as 1.4 thalers in duodecimal notation.

In 1935, F. Emerson Andrews wrote a book titled New Numbers: How Acceptance of a Duodecimal Base Would Simplify Mathematics. And if you’re interested, there are still people promoting duodecimal numbers today. The Dozenal Society of America is next meeting on October 6, 2007 at 10am, location to be announced. But as they declare Today is day 24; of month 1; of year 11#3, I would double-check that date and time (and, of course, get a location) before you head to the meeting.

Dozenal societies and Kentucky notwithstanding, the decimalisation of all things numeric appears to be slowly crawling forward. It will be interesting to see which American politician will next join the ranks of Peter the Great and Thomas Jefferson, declaring America decimalised, and if we’ll be doing so before or after Liberia takes the plunge.

 

One of the last books I read as a university student was Outlaw Culture by bell hooks. I don’t remember if this was explicitly stated or just something I noticed while reading it, but bell hooks often leaves out the common article “the” when referring to movements. Rather than “the feminist movement,” she’ll talk about “feminist movement” and “the gay rights movment” becomes just “gay rights movement.” Such a subtle change has a surprisingly large effect on the meaning of such phrases.

I was reminded of this at the unitarian church this morning during a service around the topic of Martin Luther King, whose national holiday will be observed tomorrow. One woman spoke of attending the march on Washington during which King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. “The was the beginning of the civil rights movment,” she said. Of course it wasn’t. The minister went on to talk at length about Vernon Johns and Bayard Rustin, who both did extensive work for civil rights before King ever arrived in Alabama.

Clearly King’s speech wasn’t the beginning of the civil rights movement for these two men, nor for Rosa Parks, who sparked the bus boycott that first made King famous. It was, however, the beginning for the woman who called it “the beginning.” Or more precisely, it was the beginning of her civil rights movement — the moment at which her ideas about civil rights began to move.

And that’s all movements are really. Before reading bell hooks, I had imagined movements as groups of people physically moving. But while marching is powerful iconography for movements, it is not really the point. The important thing to move is not people’s bodies, but their ideas. And it’s clear this doesn’t happen in some collective reconsideration deserving a title like “the movement.” It’s a more liquid process that can’t really be quantified. Just as a collection of “water” is still “water,” the collection of each individual’s movement on any given issue is just “movement.”

Where this becomes important is not so much in determing the beginning of movements, but in determining the end. “The civil rights movement” is clearly over, as most of the people involved are either dead or retired. But “civil rights movement” goes on, as people’s ideas about civil rights continue to move.

This movement is a rather abstract concept, not something we can easily quantify (though perhaps votes for Obama for president will come close), but one way to keep people thinking about movement as an ongoing process is to leave off “the.” It’s a rare opportunity to improve public consciousness by doing less. So next time you find yourself talking about a movement, try saying one fewer word. It may just move the way someone thinks.

 

Last month I assembled all of my earthly possessions in Des Moines, IA, gave some of them away, put most of them in a truck, and left a few in kitchen cabinets as an accidental gift for my former landlord. I drove the truck to Bloomington, IL and slept for a night. The next morning, my brother-in-law loaded a roll-top desk (that two of me couldn't lift) onto the truck all by himself. I was impressed.

Then I drove the truck to Carbondale, IL, and through Carbondale to Murphysboro, IL, where I now live in a duplex between a dirt road and a forest. I don’t really want to live in a large city, but I also don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere, which unfortunately means I’ll likely be moving again within the next year. Hopefully I’ll manage to lose more stuff before then.

Boxes were left unpacked as Jessica and I drove back to Bloomington, where we spent Christmas. On the day after Christmas, we celebrated “fake New Year’s Eve” (as they call it) with Jessica’s high school friends. One of those friends works for NBC news, and informed us of Gerald Ford’s death hours before you knew about it. I forgot about it almost immediately, only to be reminded of it hours after you knew about it. I remember reading something about how there’s no point in watching the news because you’ll be told about anything newsworthy anyway whether or not you’re interested. I think that’s mostly true.

From Bloomington we went to Peoria to spend “fake Christmas” (as only I call it) with some of my family. We talked briefly about Gerald Ford dying and played some Scrabble. We also watched Charlotte’s Web, which was pretty good for a children’s movie. No wait — we went to Peoria first between Christmas and “fake New Year’s Eve,” then back to Bloomington, then back to Peoria. On the first trip to Peoria, my friend JJ gave me some music by his friend Mitch Ure after we shot BB guns at empty cans.

After the second trip to Peoria, we went back to Bloomington again, where I saw some of Cars while falling asleep. Then we went to Iowa City, IA, where we celebrated actual New Year’s Eve, among my college friends, who — when together — refer to it as “New Yars” due to our shared interest in piracy. In Iowa City I watched most of Wine for the Confused with John Cleese (of Monty Python fame). It was more informative and less funny than I expected. I also watched a few episodes of Firefly, and I expect I’ll watch it all eventually.

From Iowa City, we went to St. Louis, MO where I sang in a recording for a song by Mitch Ure along with a girl whose name I’ve forgotten, but whose picture can be found in the January issue of Guitar Player magazine in the section on MySpace musicians. Also in St. Louis, I watched Factotum, a movie based on books by Charles Bukowski, who I only know of due to a song by Modest Mouse. It was okay. We stayed (and watched the movie) with JJ. Jessica’s grandma called and talked at length about Gerald Ford. She wanted to make sure we saw his funeral procession on TV. We didn’t.

From St. Louis, we got on a plane to Reno, with a layover in Denver. No movies nor discussion of Gerald Ford in Denver. At the boarding gate, we sat near two Japanese girls who spoke to each other in Japanese. My Japanese is very rusty, but I did catch one of them saying she doesn’t like Americans. In Reno, I watched both Children of Men and 28 Days Later, both violent distopian stories set in a future Britian. I preferred 28 Days Later, not least because it involved zombies. We stayed with my brother and sister-in-law, who played a lot of Scrabble with us, took us to visit my cousin in Sacremento, CA, took us skiing in Tahoe, and discussed Gerald Ford with us.

I spent a lot of time in Casinos and eventually succumbed to gambling $1 in a penny slot machine while we waited to be seated for breakfast. At one point I was up to $1.07, but I lost it all in the end. Then we flew back to St. Louis, and attempted to drive back to Murphysboro. Unfortunately, all access to Interstate 55 was closed, so we had to take what ended up to be about a two hour detour through St. Louis to find another bridge over the river. But we eventually got back to a house in the middle of nowhere full of unopened boxes.

I’m working from home now — right now, in fact. So far it’s not as different as I was expecting. I’ve opened a bank account and established new health insurance, but I haven’t watched any movies in Murphysboro yet and the one person I’ve talked to — the cable guy who spent an hour here beforing telling me he couldn’t get the cable modem working on the jack in my office — did not mention Gerald Ford. I have a three day weekend, so odds are pretty good that I’ll experience a movie, Scrabble game, and/or discussion of Gerald Ford. I’ll keep you posted.