Ten Minutes? That’s Crazy Talk!

I tweet a lot.

Granted, I was a late-comer to Twitter, but I fell in love with it immediately. It’s simple. It’s not cluttered, it’s real-time, and it doesn’t try to be what it isn’t (which, incidentally, are all the same reasons why I hate Facebook). I think that I love Tumblr for the same reason…it’s not a maze to navigate, it’s just a simple, inspiring stream of creative synergy.

Every morning, though, I log into Google Reader and peruse the many blogs that I follow. I read the posts, and I comment as often as time permits, although I concede that I don’t comment nearly as often as I should. If I follow your blog, then I’m a loyal reader, and I’m grateful in turn to all of the loyal readers that follow me here.

I wonder at times, though, if I’m becoming outdated in my blog habits. What I mean by that is that I what I write here is more of a traditional blog…it’s not bite-sized, it takes a few moments to read. Most of the blogs that I follow are the same. Twitter, a so-called microblog, or even Tumblr, aren’t that way…they’re more easily followed in a few spare moments here and there, while the types of blogs that are plugged into my RSS feed are the types that require 5-10 minutes each to read. That doesn’t make either better or worse, they’re just different sorts of thoughts, and I read and contribute to all three.

Still, I imagine that some of you read that last paragraph and thought something to the effect of, “Ten minutes! That’s crazy talk!” And, perhaps, in a progressively mobile world, it is.

I sometimes think of an aunt and uncle who still take the local paper where they live, and I’ve commented to them several times that the newspaper is less than one generation from extinction in its print form. Still, they read it daily, and dutifully place it in recycling afterward. I wonder if, in my blog reading habits, I’m a bit like that…insisting on continuing with something that is close to extinction (ironically, I’ve written for a few newspapers in the past).

I’ve gotten involved in some discussion here before about why I think blogging is so important, why it fills a niche, why it contributes such value to the public exchange of ideas. Yet, just this week I read another consideration of how blogging could be dying as a medium, or at least evolving into something different, just as Twitter moves to condense video lengths as they have text lengths in the interest of driving further creativity.

I really hope that this wonderful medium of blogging as it has evolved continues to walk alongside microblogs, and isn’t replaced by them. There’s something great that each can do that the other can’t, and if we let either of them go, I think that we would be losing something of great value. I would really be missing something if I was unable to consider the thoughts of those I follow, both their quick, rapid-fire thoughts as well as their longer, more considered thoughts. Both are important.

It’s good, in any case, to pause and take some time with things, and I think that’s something that traditional blogs force us to do when we read them, just as a book does, but on a smaller scale.

And slowing down is always, always a good thing in an environment that is constantly speeding up.

Ten minutes really shouldn’t sound so crazy.

Factual Misperceptions

I’m not going to say what the news article in question was, because doing so would ignite some sort of political discussion in my comment chain, and I don’t do politics here. The offending thing, I’ll simply say, was provocative in it’s writing…not only the headline, but also the abstract. With very little storytelling imagination, I could picture how the actual interviews and press releases involved in composing the story were woven together in a manner that was completely untrue to the reality of the situation in order to get more shock value out of the copy. And, of course, the comments on the story exploded in vitriol.

So, this isn’t a post about politics, its a (brief and ranting) post about journalism. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve done any formal journalism, but the basic tenants haven’t changed. I long for a differentiation in our media between the specifics of “news” and “opinion.” Opinion pages are for the types of things that most of us read and write in blogs. The news is the facts, and “just the facts,” leaving us to make up our minds on the situation for ourselves after being well-informed.

Or, at least, that’s what news should be.

Instead, its a difficult arena to navigate. There are more obvious offenders than others…media outlets that at best slant the facts (by doing reporting that isn’t well-rounded) toward their political preference, or, at worst, completely fictionalize accounts and re-interpret history in order to achieve ratings.

Media outlets, though, shouldn’t have political preferences, at least not that influence their stories. Philosophically, relativism really doesn’t enter the realm of conveying empirical facts. A sequence of events either happened or they didn’t, and careful examination will reveal the manner in which they happened.

Part of the issue is the desire to beat other media outlets to the story, to be the first to report something…which leads to errors in reporting facts that cause undue problems and emotional ramifications. And, while I’ll concede that this might be a bit of a political statement, that’s why I think that for-profit journalism is not a good thing. Ratings and clicks are money, and pursuing more money while attempting to be true to the story leads to a conflict of interest.

The result of slanting the news…which I’m defining here as reporting opinion as fact…is that large numbers of people are swayed to support causes or platforms that they would likely not support were they simply receiving facts to analyze for themselves. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m not removing individual responsibility from the equation. America is certainly a nation losing its ability for critical thought.

Even the most critical of thought, though, can be swayed with a good performance. I’ve directed a lot of plays. There’s a certain power that a theatrical performance holds over an audience once that audience experiences the “willful suspension of disbelief” that is critical to appreciating the story. When journalism takes the role of a performance, it wields a power for which it is not worthy. Statements of social ills are the realm of the performer or the opinion writer. Statements of fact are the realm of the journalist.

I really wish that all sides would get those facts straight.

Dedicated to the Sofa I Left Behind

A couple of years ago, I received a package that we had ordered. I always separate out recyclables from packing supplies, and make certain that things like cardboard boxes and random papers avoid the trash bin. That particular package had arrived in a cardboard box with a web address printed on it that allowed you to track a re-used cardboard box. The idea was that you would be able to see all of the extended life it received through re-use, and thus how many new boxes did not need to be made. A fun concept, I thought.

Sometimes, I wish that I could watch items that are important to our lives as they progress through their existence. There are things, for example, that weave in and out of our lists of possessions that manage to carve out nostalgic slices of our memories, but that we don’t hold on to when we downsize for whatever reason.

My parents had this sofa and chair when I was a child. They had very likely purchased it when they were first married. Imagine everything that was the 70’s, and you would find it encompassed in this sofa and chair. I don’t know this for certain, but I sort of imagine that they were my parents’ “starter furniture.” A few years later, of course, better furniture was purchased, but the sofa and chair simply migrated to a different room…a “spare room,” as it was called, that switched identities on a regular basis. That sofa and chair, as I recall, stayed with that room through its incarnation as a study just after it had given up its role as a guest room.

I went to college…the furniture was still around. It was covered and altered in appearance, but still there. Soon, the sofa wasn’t so comfortable any longer, but I slept on it once while visiting.

When Karen and I met during grad school and announced our wedding, we began searching for an apartment. Until that point, my bachelor apartments had always been furnished. Now, for the first time, I was looking at the prospect of furnishing an apartment while we were both poor grad students. My parents graciously offered to supply a sofa and chair for our living room. Guess which ones they brought?

Last year, as we were packing our apartment for the move to New England, we were deciding what to sell instead of move. Downsizing, as I’ve said, is a very liberating experience. We, too, had acquired another sofa since we had received the gift of that starter furniture, and now, we decided, the starter furniture had to move on.

That sofa and chair had witnessed my childhood, and witnessed the early years of our marriage, but now had to move on to new adventures.

They didn’t stay together. The chair went to a grad student’s apartment because she had eclectic tastes in furniture. The sofa was a perfect fit for an admissions counselor’s office at a local college. They went their separate ways. Sort of sad, actually, but their adventures are continuing.

Sometimes, I wish that I could look in on them and see how they’re faring.

Silly, I know, and I’m not nearly that sentimentally attached to our furniture, don’t get me wrong. I just think that it would be interesting to personify various things…that small table, or decoration on the wall, or a bedside stand…something that has come through our lives on its way elsewhere…and see what adventures they see, hear what stories they could tell.

An Italian Restaurant and Recollections

Pandora is my friend.

I was late onto the bandwagon, mind you, but I’ve been an enthusiastic fan ever since. Almost all of the time I use Pandora, I’m re-visiting old favorites from my younger days (and let’s pretend that statement didn’t make me sound as old as it did). I like to think that I have good taste in music, because good music takes you somewhere. It helps you realize things about yourself on a good day. It can assist in epiphanies.

That’s exactly what happened recently as I was listening to a song that I had heard on Pandora, experienced the “I haven’t heard that song in forever!!!” (while still knowing all of the lyrics) reaction, purchased it soon after, and listened to it repeatedly on the commute over subsequent weeks. The song is Scenes From an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel, and this musical masterpiece has walked me through a huge realization about myself.

The song opens with two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a very long time, agreeing to meet at their old favorite Italian restaurant. Joel tells the different parts of his story with pointed musical changes, and the tempo picks up as the old friends begin to catch up, telling each other about their lives today. The music becomes more upbeat and begins to swing into a jazzy, New Orleans style as they begin to re-count their high school days “hanging out by the village green.” The friends reminisce about their glory days as we are moved into a musical interlude, and the tempo shifts again, this time accompanying a shift in the narrative to third person as we begin to be told the story of Brenda and Eddie.

Brenda and Eddie “were the popular steadies, and the king and the queen of the prom” in this story, whose high school relationship exemplified everything that these friends thought that they could ever want in life. This couple dated through high school, knew and loved everyone, and decided after high school to get married. We’re told in the song that they were advised against it by their friends, but married any way, because they were in love. The marriage began wonderfully, until financial stress begins to tear the relationship apart…leading us to a more tumultuous rock and roll interlude.

When we come down from Joel’s great keyboard work, we find out that Brenda and Eddie divorced and gone their separate ways as friends. A sad end to the couple that had been role models for all of their friends, and who suddenly find themselves without the life that had defined them for so long. So, they attempt to go back to their old friends and lives, only to find that those lives were no longer there and that their friends had moved on. The line that gives us this is, I think, the thesis of Joel’s thought here:

“Then the king and the queen went back to the green, but you can never go back there again.”

Brenda and Eddie had to keep moving forward.

The song shifts back to its slower roots, back to the friends meeting for dinner at the Italian restaurant, remembering great days (and I’m sometimes left to wonder, are we seeing Brenda and Eddie years later?).

As I said, this song is a masterpiece of rock n’ roll storytelling.

Now, about that epiphany.

When I graduated from high school and went to college my freshman year, I did not have a wonderful experience. In fact, it was quite terrible. I couldn’t adapt to everything…and I mean everything…changing. I had worked hard to be successful in high school, academically, socially, and artistically. Now, my friends were gone, I had no connections and no respect among my peers yet, my environment was completely foreign, and I was struggling.

I visited home often during that first year, nearly every weekend. I had had friends a grade below me when I graduated high school, and I ended up hanging out with them in my home town. I remember thinking that I had difficulty letting go of high school, that I wanted to hold on to that lifestyle longer. I think that maybe I lived vicariously until those friends a year behind me graduated. Then, I had let go and could move on, but damage had been done: I had been un-focused, I had landed myself on academic probation, and I had dropped out of school altogether. It took me a semester to get myself in order again, and then I transferred to the school that would become my alma mater, graduating dean’s list most semesters. I was successful, but it was a difficult road to get there.

When Karen and I moved to the Boston area in August, I had anticipated some difficulties, but none of them were ones of emotion or of acclimating to a new environment. We were familiar with the area, were more than ready to move on from where we had been living, and had prepared and planned the move. I would be in school again for a few months, and we were shifting back into the mode of living that goes with that.

I couldn’t have anticipated the emotional roller-coaster that ran over me when we arrived. I wanted our life from two months before back again, a sudden and irrational desire. I wanted our friends back, I wanted the city in which we had lived and with which I was familiar back, I even wanted our old jobs back. I wanted our apartment back, because I found myself¬†inexplicably¬†attached to the memory of that place. We had, after all, brought our daughter home to that apartment for the first time, and there were emotions tied to that place that I could never have predicted.

I want to tell you that I’ve moved through this, that school is successful, and that I have learned from experience. I can’t. I think that all of those things will be the case, but for the past three months (at least), I’ve been an emotional wreck on a regular basis, clinging to anything that feels remotely familiar and pining for what is behind us. I’ve been homesick, while recognizing that where we had lived is no longer home. That’s a feeling that is very out of character for me.

At least I thought that it was, until I remembered that freshman year of college from so long ago.

At the height of my angst, I was ready to make the impulsive decision to pack up everything and move back, even though I knew that would mean starting over professionally and that re-establishing ourselves in that area, even with friends, would have proven difficult to impossible. Just as in the thesis of Joel’s song, we could never go back there again. We had moved on, and so had life. The only direction to go is forward.

So I guess that I’ve had moments in which I’ve been trapped in the past, unable to move forward. It’s done harm to me both times, and it’s been very difficult to overcome. I’m not certain why, because I usually embrace change openly. I think, though, that there’s a theology of place…that where we are is not just where we are, but has a profound implication on our spirits and lives. Sometimes its a poor fit, but we find ourselves having to work through it anyway, because moving backward is never an option.

And so, I find myself in a spot where I’m struggling…a lot…to move forward, but inching in that direction. I don’t regret our decision to move when I’m thinking rationally, because I think we are, in fact, moving forward. I’ve tripped and fallen a bit along the way, but I’m pushing through now.

And, one afternoon, years from now, perhaps I’ll be sitting in an Italian restaurant with friends from the Southeast recalling those days that we hung out together.

We all have our own scenes, and the play never, ever goes backward. Here’s to the future…

Fuzzy Predictions

Science fiction has always had that annoying way of predicting this sort of thing.

To prove my point, I need go no further than directing you to this post that I read this morning talking about computer algorithms being used to predict which parolees are most likely to re-offend once they are out of prison, and thus used to direct which parolees receive extra supervision.

Scary stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an advocate of people incarcerated for violent crimes being treated with delicacy. Nor, though, am I an advocate for anyone being stripped of their basic human dignity, and that includes those behind bars. They are still human, and I find it tragic that our system doesn’t treat them as such.

I think, in fact, that that’s the core of my problem with this: the removal of the human factor. I love technology. I love what it does for us. I’ve said before, though, that there’s a line where it stops doing things for us, and starts to make us do things for it. If the tool assumes the role of the person using the tool, where does this leave the person?

I don’t think that human behavior can be reduced and quantified into mathematical formulae. We are way, way too complex for that. Our unpredictability, in fact, is part of what makes us endearingly human.

And what really concerns me about the topic at hand is that the software’s predictions are being used in place of the human parole officer’s instincts. Those people have been doing this for a while. They develop good instincts, the same as any of us do in our respective fields. Those instincts, I would argue, are far more valuable than a computer’s prediction.

To say nothing of the fact that I would rather our country’s parolees’ re-integration into society not be supervised by computer software in lieu of a person.

Talk about recidivism…