A Rededication

Though I like to write things like this less and less, I have to take a moment to say something about this blog itself. And it’s this: While I don’t have the time or will I once did when I was publishing nearly every day of the work week, I intend to start taking this blog seriously again. To regularly publish on it things I’m proud of, and hope will be worth taking seriously.

For now, my plan is modest. Having not written anything here (and much anywhere else) in over a year, I intend to merely publish one thing a month on the 15th (regardless of the day of the week).

And though I like some component post-types that used to make up this blog, I see many of them as methods I used more to fill space than say important things. I intend to do my best to avoid reviews of all but the most interesting or misunderstood cultural products. I intend to avoid writing direct responses to editorials and articles I see elsewhere. I intend to, at least on a once-a-month schedule, stop posting things other people said with nothing more than my statement of agreement. And finally, I intend to start citing facts and figures I mention (because damn it’s annoying when I go back and can’t tell how I came up with them).

My goal is to write with as little filler as possible things I think are interesting, largely unsaid, and worthy of saying. I doubt that I can do all those things every month, but it’s unquestionably what I’ll be striving for.

I harbor few illusions of what this thing will do for me, or what I can do with it. But I know that I like to have written things and that there are things I wish I saw talked about more. For those two reasons, I intend to revive this site. I hope you’ll join me.


I’ve Not Written in Months

Technically it’s just weeks right now, but before–when I first drafted this–it really was months. It was, and remains, that a strange confluence of inconvenient facts keep me from regularly flexing my muscle in this space.

I could go into the details, but I would rather say simply that they are far more prosaic than profound, and that to the extent I find myself different in the interim, it is having gained a certain weariness with the machinations of modern living and certain lessening of my certainty that all will turn out well.

But there remains fantastic potential in each keystroke. A never-relenting possibility that though this sentence bores me in it’s writing, and likely you in it’s reading, I may soon stumble upon something that leaves the two of us astounded.

My greatest aspiration as a writer, a thinker, a seeker, and a person, is to find myself amazed at the clarity that can be produced in a single well-structured essay. It’s a rarity, and looking back a little on all I’ve produced here, even more of a rarity than I remember.

But it’s the reason that I find myself returning this screen from time to time, looking at this empty box, and hoping hard to be able to get back to it in earnest. I never tire of the potential that from my keystrokes, someday, my world may be altered forever.

We see language as a mere tool at our peril. Being literate is not merely about having a functional ability to make sense of things recorded in a different time or place. It’s about having the ability, by merely moving your eyes, to enter another world. It’s about being able to, with mere movement of your fingers create new worlds, or new visions of this world, for others.

There’s magic in the act of writing. A magic the endless drag of 9-to-5 can easily sap from your awareness. But it is real. And it’s real, even if your skills, like mine, are rather feeble.

This is something I need to remember. To keep with me. To bring me here more.

metablogging, ruminations

Some Days

Some days I have nothing planned for this site and start to worry about it far too much. In worrying about it far too much, almost every idea I have feels forced. The ideas feels forced because (1) they are a little forced, and (2) this pointless stress tends to make me hyper-aware of any possible imperfection that can seep into what I’m doing. It’s not until a deadline finally appears to really be approaching quickly that I begin to accept anything that seems the least bit feasible.

Some days, yes today is one of those some days, I like to try odd devices that I wouldn’t usually use. Repetition is a favorite. I start consecutive paragraphs with the same word or sentence. In school, I learned that authors sometimes use this to emphasize a point. I just use it because it makes it easier to start the next paragraph.

Some days starting that next paragraph is the only thought in my head. Though the hardest “next paragraph” is usually the first one, it’s sometimes the third. You see, with the faintest spark of an idea the first paragraph is probably already written before one begins writing. There’s usually at least enough extra from the spark that launched the first paragraph to fill up a second. But by the third paragraph, if that idea really was just a faint spark, it’s likely that the idea’s dead.

Some days I push through that difficult third paragraph. If I can manage to make a third paragraph that feels alright, there’s a good chance that the next paragraphs will all come out all right and I’ll be able to sew the thing up into a nice enough package that I’m satisfied.

But some days that third paragraph doesn’t come. Some days the idea I had really was only a two-paragraph idea. In my time writing I’ve at least learned that a two-paragraph idea doesn’t get better if you try to make it look like an eight-paragraph idea. When teachers gave you back papers with a C or below, there’s a good chance it was because you tried to write your whole paper with a few-paragraph idea. Teachers have a keen eye for ideas stretched too far.

Some days I wonder what a teacher would give me for this. This short essay whose sole excuse for over-stretching an idea is that that idea is what the whole thing is built on. From the title down through every paragraph you clearly see an idea being stretched and stretched and stretched. I think that some teachers would think it’s clever, this stretched-out idea. Others would probably give it a D and a curt note about trying harder next time.

Some day I’ll win those teachers over. Perhaps with a device like I just used there. I broke the repetition. Maybe now that teacher who gave me a D would say, “Oh, he knows he’s stretched this idea very thin. A+.”

Then again, maybe not.

Dispatches, metablogging

What is Dispatches?

This is one of those things I’ve thought I probably should write for a long time but never got to actually doing. Until now.

Dispatches, for those who don’t know, is a semi-regular feature on this site. It consists, essentially, of a few sentences that laments that our (fictional) reporter hasn’t been in touch in a while and then there’s the (fictional) report that he’s filed.

I’ve naively told myself for sometime that anyone who came across it would understand that this is what it was, but looking at it as an outsider I see how it’s not terribly obvious. If someone followed along from the beginning, they probably could have guessed because, well, the first two installments were about pretty blatantly fictional fare: unicorns and the lost city of Atlantis. They were also pretty bad, but that’s another matter entirely.

The reality is that in this medium people haven’t been, and can’t be expected to have been, following along from the beginning. The internet’s great for jumping in midstream, and that has created a far bit of confusion.

The height of that came in a letter I got recently, from a (real) lawyer regarding this story (which has been changed as a result of that letter). Confusing readers who stumble along is unfortunate but tolerable, the specter (even absent an explicit threat) of legal action is another thing entirely.

So, to explain Dispatches let’s start with Steve Finch, our reporter. Mr. Finch–who does not, to my knowledge, exist–is a 30-something newspaper hack or “beat reporter.” He’s an old hand who write clean straightforward stories that tend not to venture to far from the events and opinion relevant to the story. But he does have a passion for odd and unconventional stories that no one else is covering.

His existence is essentially to make it easier for me to write something about “wouldn’t it be cool if…” or “wouldn’t it be weird if…” for this site without having to present them as so many excessive hypothetical. The idea of animal racism, for example, was something that popped into my head one day. But I wanted to present the idea without taking explicit ownership of it; Dispatches allows me to do just that.

I hope that this will clear up any present or future confusion, and wasn’t too much of a bore to those who already understood. Thanks, as always, for reading.

metablogging, ruminations


From the “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” box:

Sometimes you try to write something and come up completely empty. Having had had a number of interesting, strange, and outright unusable ideas, you’ve found nothing that could become a coherent set of sentences that seemed to say anything valuable.

So instead, readers will have to accept some half-formed semi-coherent ideas of what might have seen had it been meaningfully expanded.

  • It’s always best to shovel snow before anyone has walked on it, and especially before any car has driven over it. If you don’t, you’ll get those stubborn packed areas that your plastic shovel will be all but incapable of getting off the concrete.
  • I don’t read nearly enough books. Books are long arguments that require time and dedication to comprehend. My–and perhaps modern culture’s–style is much more little bits of argument presented hundreds of times without much coherent structure behind them.
  • That said, there’s something so nice about feeling a book in your hands. Even if you’ll never read books, it feels good to know you’ve got several dozen (or hundred) on your shelf so you can pick through them from time to time and recognize how much more intelligent you would be if you did read them.
  • Band-Aids are a metaphor for something. If I ever figure out what I’ll be sure to tell you.
  • I sure am hungry.
  • Hunger’s a metaphor for something. If I ever find a way to use such a metaphor without it feeling tired I’ll be sure to tell you.
  • It’s nice when it snows and you don’t have to do anything. That’s what made snow days so great when we were in school. Not that missing school wasn’t a bonus, but I think it was mostly that we were supposed to be doing something but managed to escape it.
  • I’ve never liked pennies. Coins in general even. But quarters, those I like.
  • What else I like: frozen peas. Canned peas usually become mushy and gross. Dried peas get mealy and gross. Frozen peas retain their flavor and shape fairly well.
  • What would it have been like to live where I do 100 years ago? Probably a lot colder. In the winter I mean. Heating would have cost more.

Here’s hoping that I won’t have to use this mess of a post. If I do use it, here’s hoping I never have to use something like it again.

metablogging, personal, ruminations

But What Is a Blog? & My Answer

Source: topgoldA Blog is a placeā€¦

Aside from having been described by Jerry Seinfeld as a terribly ugly word (which it is), “blog” is a hard concept to pin down. Of course the word’s evolution from the original meaning of “web log” would suggest that they’re necessarily linear expressions of a set of idea, thoughts, and goals. A diary almost. But I’d hope that this “blog” doesn’t feel like a diary, or have substance very similar a teenager’s secret journal.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the difference between a “writer” and a “blogger” but came to little more than my frustration with, and inability to parse, the distinction. I wrote a few months ago about the different types of blogs I see on the internet. But neither of those seemed to answer the question of “what is a blog?” and more specifically “what is a blog to me?”

I think the easiest analogy–and it’s not really a surprising one–is that like a “book” or a “magazine,” it really varies. Like both of those forms, there’s a certain idea that people usually associate with the word “blog.” Where for books they probably tend to think of a novel, or for magazines, a news weekly (about politics, “news,” celebrities, what have you), with a blog the default assumption is roughly that it is a place for a person to write irrelevant blather to make themselves feel important.

But a “book” also includes the notions of long non-fiction, short fiction with illustrations (picture books!), short story collections, or diatribes about politics, gods, or “man.” So too can a magazine be a heterodox collection of fiction, nonfiction, short bits and long blather. It can be exceptionally experimental or staid and boring. It can be exceptionally timely or exceptionally timeless.

Of those two, my description of a “magazine” is closer to my understanding of what a blog is. But neither fits exactly. The point is perhaps as simple as this: a blog, like a book or magazine, is what it’s made into.

This is no revelations, even to me, but for some reason I can and frequently do lose sight of it’s truth. Too much time online regularly convinces me that all blogs (mine included) are the same. That it’s all inane blather that does little more than serve to create circles of people patting each other on the back and never realizing that they’re producing drivel.

Nor does it help that finding blogs I like which update regularly often feels impossible. Much of what passes for political discussion in the blogosphere feels like arguments about inane topics that no one but the most nerdy cares about (see: Kos, Daily). Most of what passes for discussions about life is journaling about the events of your day (see: dooce). When what I want–as Leslie said accurately–is “a new breed of philosopher” (see: my blogroll?).

The difficulty faced in finding what I want in the “blogosphere” is enough to make me despair and desire to run away from the medium. But I’m also pretty certain that flight and despair are choices built for fools.

The type of blog I’m making here is the kind of blog I’d like to read. Even if they sometimes feel few and far between–among a vast wasteland of seething and wasteful punditry, savaging of celebrities, and “get rich from blogging” sites–I persist. If only because of my own stubborn and insolent insistence that what I’m looking for, what I’m making, is worthwhile.

Perhaps I’m a quixotic fool. The artist who dies destitute and sad. Whose brilliance–whether real or imagined–is discovered only after death. Or not at all.

Whatever the reality, I must again thank those who read this. Whatever it is or is not.

metablogging, personal

State of the Blog, December 2007

If you’ve ever come to the site before, you’ll probably notice that it looks different. To lessen the shock, here’s an introduction to what’s changed and is new. (Actually, those two sentences are no more than a thin facade to excuse me from feeling bad that this is an otherwise meaningless and self-indulgent post.)

In any case, some things have changed. You’ve probably noticed that font is both bigger and serifed (those little curvy bits). I think both changes make make the text easier and more pleasant to read. The other immediately-noticeable change is the absence of a sidebar. This was done because, perhaps selfishly, I wanted people to read what I’m writing and not be distracted by all the pretty links in the sidebar. Lest you fear that those links are gone for good, the important ones are still available at the bottom of every page.

The more substantial changes are actually the “Archives” and “About” pages. The About page is a combination of the old “About me” and “About this Blog” pages, with a new section that tells you about how Frozen Toothpaste is produced (sorry, but no toothpaste factories or dry ice are involved).

The Archives pages is very much improved. Instead of what was essentially a massive list of everything I’ve written, there’s a recommendation section, as well as a fun-to-play-with tag cloud. Both of those section will change as new content is added, and as I do a better job making sure all the old content is correctly filed and profiled.

As to new content, little will change. The schedule I described the last time I was self-indulgent enough to write a post like this is working pretty well for me. It keeps the content rather varied, and also helps me fight against the seemingly-inevitable problem of having nothing to write (though it’s FAR from eliminated).

And as feel honor-bound to do every time I write something exceptionally self-indulgent, I must finally say this: Thanks for reading.

metablogging, ruminations

‘Bloggers,’ ‘Writers,’ and Media

Spend much time online, and you’re sure to find at least a few people telling you that reading and writing on the internet is like nothing you’ve ever done. They’ll tell you that readers don’t, well, read on the internet. Instead they skim and look for lists with bullet points. Oh, and pictures. They love pictures. And they like to click links and hate to sit down and really think about something. Further your “copy”–they rarely call it content, and seem afraid of the word writing–should respond to this reality.

I find this notion both disappointing and, well, wrong. I read many long things on the internet. I usually read The Economist online–where it’s free–and the online-only magazines of Salon and Slate. Since they’ve taken down their “paywall” I regularly read articles–even really long ones–from the New York Times online. Steve Pavlina has made his name–and his money–by writing unconventionally long “articles” on his blog. And though I will readily admit that I’m not the average web surfer, I don’t think I’m truly exceptional.

Since Norman Mailer died, I’ve been mildly vexed by the question of what makes a writer. Why was that man a “writer”? Why isn’t every Tom, Dick, and Harry who puts pen to paper (or keystroke to word processor) one? And what if every Tom, Dick, and Harry have blogs?

In my brief experience, people who get paid to “write” are not necessarily better at thinking or living than anyone else. They’re not really better than people who “blog” for money, or people who “blog” for free, or for that matter “write” for free. Yet somehow we’re constantly reminded that the “blogosphere” is different from the published world and different from the “mainstream media.”

What I keep returning to is that what made Norman Mailer a writer is that someone decided to pay him for his words. Maybe that man or woman thought that they could get more money for pages with Mailer’s word on them than they could get for pages with nothing on them.

That seems to be the fundamental calculus of all books, though no one says it. Every publisher’s existential question is simply this: will we make more selling wood pulp with this author’s word on it or without? To publish a book, a publisher makes a bet that yes, they will get more. If a publisher regularly guesses correctly, they’ll become successful. If they’re regularly wrong, they’ll go out of business. It’s as simple as that.

Perhaps, then, the difference between “bloggers” and published “writers” is that bloggers are performing their own calculus, where in print the decision is made by others. This distinction is also, I suppose, why there’s such a stigma about self-published books. Bloggers and the self-published both live under the presumption–right or wrong–that they had to publish it themselves because it was so bad no one else would.

But if the massive number of political memoirs that seem to be released this and every year, prove nothing else, it’s that people who get published are hardly always good writers. Certainly they get published for their resume and not their writing ability, but were that same content online would anything change? Beyond profit-margins, the likely answer is no.

I don’t have an easy conclusion to tack onto the end of this discussion and make it feel concluded. And though a publisher would be wise to refuse to pay for such a meandering and conclusion-less “think piece,” I can get away with it. After all, I’m just a blogger.

metablogging, personal

On Being an Egomaniac

I can’t avoid the feeling that writing on this blog is an incredibly egoistic activity. I want to tell you about myself. About my opinions. About a story I dreamt up. All of it’s about me.

Now I can, and maybe should, concede that this is the nature of writing. That you can fundamentally only write something original based on your own thoughts, knowledge, opinions, and refections. I suppose there is a very real possibility that writing is itself egoistic. And unless one writes very corporate prose to mask that fact, it will always appear that way to the reader.

Even if one endeavors to write in a way that isn’t directly about about themselves, there’s no denying that any attempt at defining the external requires is defining the internal as well. All criticism, for example, is inherently based on the critic’s experiences, preferences, and understandings of culture. Academic writing, as well, is imbued with the prejudices of its authors. Few modern scholars would dare to write a defense of slavery as a social good because none of them believes such an argument to be true (with the possible exception of James Watson, but that’s another matter entirely).

Despite my intellectual understanding of this, I can’t help but bristle a little every time my fingers reach for the shift+i combination. It feels so self-important to do that repeatedly. To contend, whether intentionally or not, that I am important enough to have some say in the cultural discourses about which I comment.

I am absolutely convinced that I am not the smartest person in the world. Nor am I the most interesting or consistent in my opinions. But sometimes, as I write, I feel as if I am making that exact argument.

And it’s not that I think I’m completely uninteresting, but I don’t think I have the diverse opinions or rhetorical skills necessary to consistently be both interesting and or entertaining.

I’m not sure what all this rambling means. Perhaps it’s merely me coming to terms with the reality of the situation. Perhaps it’s me wishing to apologize for, well, writing. Perhaps it’s me giving voice to my self-doubt. Perhaps it’s me wishing that I was more people saying more things.

Maybe the point is simply this: Thanks for reading. In the past, present, and future.

metablogging, ruminations

Charting the Blogosphere

The idea of quantifying or charting writing–or any form of art for that matter–strikes most people as at best odd, probably unreasonable, and likely sterile and academic in the worst ways. To Dead Poets Society fans who remember the–literal–tearing apart of an essay that endeavored to do just this, how presumptuous such an effort can be is clear.

Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to understand, and perhaps quantify, the blogosphere. This is driven both by my presence in the blogosphere, and my desire to understand as much as I can about everything, regardless of how unimportant these things may seem to others.

So on a recent night, when all my failed thoughts about the topic made something mildly coherent, I had to write about it. In hindsight, I recognize that the idea isn’t as revolutionary as I thought, but I’d already made the decision.

So, the basic idea at which I arrived is that we can chart blogs along two axes–already eerily similar to the method chastised by Robin William’s character in Poets. This is obviously limiting, as no two considerations can ever determine conclusively if a blog is worth reading or not. The most notable factor that this two-axis system excludes is timeliness or frequency. Certainly one is less likely to consistently read a blog that is rarely or sporadically updated.

This system also ignores issues of design. Certainly the design of a blog can make it easier or harder to read. I, for one, find the current front pages of Gawker blogs difficult–everything bunches and ends up looking like clutter. That doesn’t stop me from reading them–with a feed reader, of course–but it does make me less likely to visit them. Barring these considerations, however, I think this system can work relatively well.

I should probably also make clear that I don’t claim a blog can be conclusively marked on such a system. Where I may see a deeply flawed blog full of less-than-interesting writing, others may see the greatest literature of the 21st century. Nonetheless, I think most people would, overall, agree to the basic formulation of this system.

The vertical axis in this scheme is specificity, or how relevant a blog is to the potential audience. It is rated inversely, thus, the more specific a blog is, the lower it’s “specificity” score. At one extreme of this axis, you find the extremely personal. (“I fed my dog today, a little more than usual. He’s seemed really hungry recently. I wonder if it’s because I painted the study.”) These are blogs that are essentially relevant to the writer and the ten people who know them best, after that most people just aren’t interested.

At the other extreme of this axis you find something with very wide, if not universal appeal. This is the type of thing you’re likely to find in most newspapers or magazines. It should be noted that something can be specific to say, gadget nerds, but still be rather universally read. Thus, specificity could be seen as self-centeredness. The difference is between the friend who only talks about herself, and the one that’s more interested in sharing ideas, facts, news, or cool videos–which are interesting to the audience of readers, not merely the author.

The horizontal axis of this system rates a blog’s novelty. At the very low end of this spectrum you find the very common. As just one example, it’s the posting of “This is so funny” followed by a link or the embedded video of Miss Teen South Carolina, or Chris Crocker, or Seth Green imitating Chris Crocker–video or links which, when posted, have already been seen by the entire interested audience. At the other end of this spectrum is the extremely novel, which in these internet times is usually a truly unique idea of the author, an obscure link the audience has never seen before, or well-presented insight into another perspective on the world.

Having established the criteria, we can thus plot blogs on a four quadrant system, as I’ve done below with a few of the better-known blogs I read. (Color is irrelevant, remember that specificity is inverted.)

Chart of the Blogosphere

Because it’s convenient, and a number of bloggers were math nerds in high school, I’ve cribbed the basic numbering of Descartes’s four quadrant system.

Thus, in the first quadrant (I) we have what are generally considered the best blogs–those with the largest readership and the broadest fan base. They are, because they’re both consistently novel and rarely too personal, considered the best by the widest swath of people.

As you may then expect, the third quadrant (III) are generally diarists–and the least likely to be widely read. I’ve derisively put Livejournals in this category because they’re notoriously the place where teenagers go to rant and rave about how bad their life and family are–something they now probably use MySpace for. These writings are surely interesting to a few of their closest friends, but to the wider public, it’s useless drivel. It should be noted, however, that some dairy-blogs are pretty widely read and well known. Dooce is probably the best example of this, but hardly the only.

Quadrants II and IV are generally more difficult quadrants to define. In the second quadrant, you’ll find primarily impersonal blogging that isn’t particularly unique. The classic example of this is a blog that features little more than snippets of the authors favorites news stories–something done by too many political blogs. Quadrant IV is a place for the more specific but also more novel. This is where I think most tumble blogs–or tumblelogs or tumblogs, whichever you prefer–belong, because their material is usually diverse but centered on the owner’s tastes.

For myself, I would generally like this blog to fall into the first quadrant, though I think it has a tendency for falling into the fourth. This makes an important point: blogs are not necessarily consistent. The average story at Boing Boing, for example, is close to my dot. However, every once in a while, they’ll run something extremely old or mundane. Similarly, Steve Pavlina is usually near his dot, but when he explains how he’s going to New York, I’m never very compelled. Nor when he talks about the law of attraction. But overall, where they tend to be is more important than where a blog sometimes is, and so that’s where I’ve put them.

I hardly consider the blogosphere ordered after this brief piece. There are certainly hundreds of other ways that blogs could be cataloged, charted, or trivialized. I just thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.