Getting a Fresh Perspective on Your Work

October 6, 2006

Before I sent an article to my editor yesterday, I took one final look-see for polishing purposes. But before that, I changed the font and type size. I always, always do this. Changing the type reliably reveals bad word choices, clumsy constructions, pacing problems, even misspellings.

When you change the type size, you alter the line breaks; that redistributes the words on the page, allowing you to read with (relatively) fresh eyes. But it’s even better to change the font—the shapes of the letters themselves. Different fonts have different
personalities, and reading your piece in a different font is like
hearing a poem read in a different voice. You notice things that you’ve previously overlooked.

The single best way get fresh perspective on your work is to show it to someone else, of course. But sometimes, there’s no one available—or maybe the work’s not ready for critique. That’s when you need a trick like changing the font. My mother, who used to paint a lot, had a neat method for getting a fresh take on her art: she’d look at it through a mirror. When you look at a painting in reverse, it suddenly appears strange and unfamiliar; anything clumsy, out-of-proportion or poorly balanced leaps out in the most horrifying, obvious way.

I’m still looking for a way to get a fresh take on my songwriting.
Sure, you can listen through headphones, put it on the stereo, mess with the EQ, etc. But that doesn’t really accomplish the task of giving you a fresh perspective—it simply lets you listen through a different filter. It’s like the looking at your painting through
colored lenses: interesting, perhaps, but not particularly revealing.

I’ve been thinking about how this applies to self-examination and
appraisal. In a way, it’s pretty easy to get a fresh look at yourself.
Everyone’s had the shocking experience of hearing himself on a
recording, or seeing herself on video. For those who can’t get enough of this sort of thing, there’s even a one-day class at the Learning Annex—an adult ed operation best known for its courses in speed-reading and making a million dollars. For $30 or so, you can attend a session in which your fellow students tell you what assumptions they made about you based on their first impression.

You have to wonder, though, why anyone would pay for feedback from the kind of person who would enroll in such a class. And even a workshop like that can’t give you a fresh perspective on
what really matters—your character and conduct. So I’m still wondering, are there any “technical” shortcuts that can aid in honest self-appraisal, along the lines of changing the font?


My Dumb Summer Reading (a review)

September 6, 2006

The notion of “summer reading” is based on the ridiculous premise that from June through August, we’re all just lolling around under a tree, sampling from a stack of paperback delights. Whatever. I did get a few things read this summer, however, and the list is not only semi-retarded, it is unsatisfying haphazard, like a meal thrown together out of someone else’s leftovers:

A Benjamin Franklin Reader Edited and Annotated by Walter Isaacson
Ben Franklin is a prick–the first in a long line of tiresome American “humorists” to adopt disingenuously simple personas in an effort to make me ill. I am trying to give this book away but no one wants it.

French Woman Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Giuliano
I read big chunks of this lifestyle guide aloud to my little sister using my best Scolding Headmistress voice. I think that is the best way to enjoy it. The author is clearly insane, but she’s hit on something that works for her, and she writes with the convincing authority of someone who relies entirely on personal experience. That’s alright. Her long discourse convinced me to start cooking real meals again, and to experiment with new flavors. I may not be eating less, but I’m absolutely enjoying my food more.

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
This was a loaner from a good friend who agrees with my assessment: the story is massively annoying and also impossible to put down. The author must have been trying to set some kind of record—her narrator, a gay Vietnamese cook working in the Parisian kitchen of Gertrude Stein, wrestles with gender issues, sexuality issues, class issues, ethnic identity issues, child abuse issues and cultural issues. But Truong is a good writer, and somehow she manages to keep this goofy overload from weighing down her story. Along the way you get plenty of random recipes, flash forwards, flash backs, and an ocean voyage. You know the drill.

Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes and The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin
I dug both these books out of the neighbor’s trash. They are sort of the same thing: a peek into the absurd world of the spoiled, pampered and self absorbed Upper East Side. Except the first was written by a good natured, self-aware insider and the second by a whiney, resentful outsider. Guess which was more fun?

The Variety of Religious Experience by William James
William James is really the man. This book, one of the first attempts to fully describe faith and spirituality as experienced by the individual, is easy to read, entertaining, and offers insight into the motivations of folks whose religious life may otherwise strike you as utterly alien and ridiculous. James is a wonderful writer, and his fond appreciation for the weirdness of his fellow man is contagious, but the best parts are the vivid first person accounts by everyone from Saint Theresa (the lady who loved Jesustoo much) to a self-hating monk who goes way beyond the usual hair shirt schtick. I got this book new at Barnes and Noble for just $7. Best deal I got all year.

Why the Ad-Revenue Model is Doomed

August 31, 2006

My head is spinning. So yesterday, Per wrote about Universal Music’s decision to allow free downloads to folks who agree to watch ads. It’s kind of a radical move for a giant music conglomerate, but plenty of other industries are already on the bandwagon. You can read an ad-free version of if you pony up for the annual fee. You can pay extra for TiVO to watch ad-free TV. Ryanair, the nutso European airline, announced recently that someday, flights will be free—if you agree to watch lots of ads on the seatback screens.

It’s becoming obvious that soon, we will be divided into a society of those who watch ads and those who can afford not to. The poor and lower middle class will live rent-free in their ad-plastered homes, get free clothing plastered with insignias, and eat free burgers and cheese sticks tattooed with brand logos. The rich will live an ad-free lifestyle; an absence of ads in one’s surroundings will become a mark of prestige.

But HAHA! How will companies sell anything with their ads if the ads all target folks who never have to buy anything because they get it all free by watching the ads? Maybe it’s too early in the morning for me to be blogging, but really. I think corporate America needs to do a little re-thinking on this one.

Goldfish Syndrome: the Real Reason Americans Are Fat

August 29, 2006

Want to know the real reason Americans are gaining weight? Never mind all the theories about inactivity, portion size, corn syrup consumption and growth hormones; it’s all about living space. Just as goldfish grow when transferred to a larger bowl, Americans are expanding to fit their homes.

Consider these numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the 1960s and 70s, we gained weight relatively slowly. But from the 1980s on, the average weight rose dramatically:

Average of US Males, in Pounds
1960: 166 (average height 68 inches)
1970: 172
1980: 173
1990: 182
Now: 191 (average height 69.5 inches)

You can see a similar pattern in US Census housing data:

Average New Home Size, in Square Feet
1960 1200
1970 1525
1980 1595
1990 1905
Now: 2225

Not convinced? Consider the folks who live in relatively small spaces: prison camp inmates, soldiers, New Yorkers. They are relatively slim.

There is one anomaly that threatens to disprove my theory: the poor. Goldfish Syndrome would predict fashionably slim folks inhabiting trailer parks, and 300-pound multi-millionaires rolling about in 20,000 square foot McMansions. Instead, we get the opposite. Perhaps this is a function of kitchen proximity. When you are so rich that the kitchen is located in another zip code, a larger home actually becomes a weight loss advantage.

Six Bad Things About the RAZR

August 21, 2006

I was going to post a long, thoughtful essay on the art of living an intuition-based life but instead I am going to post a whiBAD!ney review of my new Motorla RAZR VC3 phone.

-HAND FEEL: BAD! Yes is it thin, but it is also very wide and very flat. Talking on a RAZR is like trying to talk on a credit card. You have to balance its skinnny edges on the tips of your fingers and hope for smooth sailing. Forget about walking the Rottweiler while you chat with your sweetheart.

-RINGER: BAD! The ringer isn’t loud enough, and the vibrate buzz function is weak. I only hear the phone when I’m in church, and I don’t go to church.

-MENU LABELING: BAD! It bugs me that to turn off the vibrate function and turn on the ringer, you have to select “master volume.” Hello–it’s a cell phone, not a studio recording mixer.

-EXTERNAL LCD: BAD! It’s so dim you pretty much have to duck into a cave to check the time.

-TIMING: BAD! Polite people pretend it’s cool I have a RAZR, but I know what they’re really thinking: It would be cool if this was still 2004.

-MISC: BAD! It takes pictures when I mean to take videos, and takes videos when I mean to take pictures. I can’t find the smiley face menu for purposes of annoying the recipients of my text messages. And on what planet do dark red and light blue make a pleasing screen color combo?

Grade: BAD!


Q: What kind of phone do pirates use?


Mid-month Update

August 16, 2006

I don’t know what sort of feedback Per has been getting on his posts, but here in Cobble Hill, I’ve been getting bricks through the window, phone calls, paper airplanes up the nose–all with hastily scrawled messages demanding to know what happened. So here’s the skinny:

-The percolator is still active, and is still very much a percolator, not an Italian Moka Monster, or whatever it is that the comment bulllies kept insisting on. And yes, the perc coffee is deliciously strong: I reorganized the closets and the medicine cabinet.

-It seems as though library has dropped it efforts to ruin me. They deleted my account and cancelled the collection proceedings. This is disapointing; it was lots of fun complaining about the Kafka-inian bureaucracy. But at least I’ll be able to qualify for a mortgage once I save up the half-million I’ll need for a down payment on a home around here.

-No reply yet from the weasels trying to sneak through three watermelons in a row in their fruit alphabet. Could this horrifying state of affairs push a certain *cough* someone to launch her own fruit alphabet page? Stay tuned.


High Definition Living

August 14, 2006

My Brooklyn neighborhood, Cobble Hill, is about three blocks wide and ten blocks long. The adjoining neighborhoods, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill, are larger, but not by much. Then, about a mile away, there’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood which is roughly the size of, I dunno, Rhode Island, and probably has more people.

Why has my corner of Brooklyn been geographically divided to the point where almost every block gets its own name, while Bed-Stuy remains a massive monolith, an undivided mass sprawling over the center of the borough? It’s not that my area particularly lends itself to slicing and dicing. Cobble Hill, with its brownstones and trees and mom-pop shops, looks and feels pretty much like Boerum Hill, which looks and feels like Carroll Gardens. In fact, before the area gentrified, folks referred to the entire lump as “South Brooklyn” and didn’t bother making distinctions beyond that.

So it’s obvious: my corner of Brooklyn has been carved up and categorized with surgical precision because it’s gotten relatively wealthy. Manhattan is even sillier. You get neighborhoods like NoLiTa (north of Little Italy) which, as far as I can tell, consists entirely of a handful of upscale dress shops. And when you’re really rich, something as granular as your street becomes a neighborhood of its own: Park Avenue. You could probably come up with an equation: (average income) x (n) / (population density) = size of the neighborhood in city blocks.

Is this just a real estate thing? It seems one of the priviliges of wealth and prestige is the ability to more sharply define oneself relative to ones peers. Detailed categorization is a form of attention, which is a form of flattery. We carve up high-prestige professions like doctor and lawyer into hundreds of specialties, but a janitor is a janitor is a janitor. We can identify a dozen varieties of hipster, but we’re lost when asked to dice a train car full of 20-something Jerseyites into sociological subcategories. If you can afford Starbucks, you’re no longer just a coffee person, you can be a skinny-iced-latte-two-sugars kind of person. You’re special!

I’m wondering if there’s money to be made here. Instead of selling someone a product that aids in self definition, whether it be real estate, or designer dog food, could I get paid to simply tell people who they are and where they fit in? I could charge $50 for a one paragraph description, $1000 for a full-blown study with scatter graphs. If someone did this for me, I could save a bundle on the rent.

Public Library Goon Squad

August 1, 2006

It’s been a long time since I got an overdue notice from the library. That’s because it’s years since I’ve been to a public library. The folks at Barnes and Noble are much nicer, and the bathrooms are cleaner too. So imagine my surprise when a letter arrived from the Queens Borough Public Library announcing they had referred my $57 overdue debt to a collections agency!

It was a pretty scary note: “Notice of non-payment may be made available to credit grantors including car dealers, finance companies, banks, department stores and others … This adverse information can stay on your record for up to seven years! Why allow this to happen?”

Why indeed? I rolled my eyes at the strong-arm tactics, but a debt is a debt, even if its ten years old. The next day I gave the library a ring. That’s when things got weird. According to the nice lady at the circulation desk, I checked out the book in April, 2006. “But I haven’t been to your library in a decade,” I told her. “I don’t even live in Queens anymore!” I asked her the title. It turned out to be a children’s book, written in Spanish: El Hombre Que Aprendio a Ladrar Y Otros Cuentos. I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m guessing that translates as The Man Who Got Screwed Over by the Library.

A few more phones calls lead me to Hong, in the community relations department. When I explained my situation, she went on the attack: “You have to tell us when you move, so we can delete your account!” Oops. With all the fuss over renting a new place and hiring movers and packing my belongings ten years ago, I apparently forgot the most important part of any move: calling the library. Hong went on to suggest that it was up to me to clear my name. “You need proof. Show us documents,” she said.

Next I tried the collections agency, Unique Management Services. This fine Jefferson, Indiana company works exclusively with public libraries, it turns out, breaking the kneecaps of past-due scofflaws on behalf of more than 300 lending operations across the country. According to this article in USAToday, it collected more than $7 million for the Queens Library in 2004.

I got a pretty good idea why the revenue is flowing in after explaining my situation to Karen, the Unique manager on my account: “I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said sweetly. “But we are only doing what the library asks.” I faxed over my drivers license to prove I don’t even live in Queens, but didn’t hear back. It’s a pretty good racket: contact the library patrons, tell them you’ll ruin their credit if they don’t pay up, and assume they’re guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

My only consolation is that both the library and the collection agency might be full of it. When I called credit scoring company Fair Isaac to find out if the library could really ruin my credit, the rep burst out laughing and chided me for falling prey to what he referred to as the library Nazis. “That’s a crazy ridiculous thing,” he said. “I have yet to a derogatory mark from any credit union pertaining to the library.”

Hope he’s right!

Fruit Alphabet Update

July 27, 2006

Recently, I wrote about the wonders of the sleep inducing fruit alphabet (is it grotesque to reference your own blog?) and included this link to a charmingly illlustrated A-Z fruit guide with all the fruits from advocado-bannana-chimuera to xigua-yellow watermelon-zucchini.

A few days later, Mom wrote with an objection: the fruit guide, she noted, says Y is for Yellow Watermelon, but had already used watermelon for W. “That’s cheating!” mom said.

I secretly agreed, but I wasn’t going to make a fuss. After all, it’s hard to come up with fruits that start with the letter Y (mom suggested yucca but who wants to eat that).

But then a second email arrived, from my friend Jeff who insists on living in China until he gets rich off a third world laser eye surgery scheme. Jeff wrote: “X is only for Xigua in Chinese. In fact they cheated. W, X and Y are all the same fruit, unless you think ‘yellow watermelon’ counts as something besides watermelon.”

Yep, according to Jeff, Xigua is simply Chinese for “watermelon.” All this time i’ve been fantasizing about what a Xigua tastes like when I’ve had one right in my refrigerator next to the peanut butter. Do you know what this boils down to? The whole back end of the fruit alphabet is a sham. Come to think of it, I don’t really care for Z-Zucchini, either. I mean, zucchini is technically a fruit, but really.

Anyway, I wrote an angry note to the person (company?) behind the web page in question. I will not sleep til I get a response.

1984 vs. the Blog: Orwell’s Big Blooper

July 24, 2006

Twenty-two years after the big year came and went, folks are still remarking how spot-on George Orwell was in 1984: you know, the all-seeing cameras, the data bases, the bad architecture… But there’s one big thing Orwell got wrong: in 1984 the government was able to rewrite history to suit its purposes, dictate the reportage of current events, even insist that 2+2=5. In short, the government had nearly total control of the truth. That was the essence of totalitarianism–by exercising total control over information, the government was able to exert total control over the population. What we wound up with, thankfully, is 180 degrees from Orwell’s vision.

No doubt, governments around the world still make desperate and clueless efforts to control the truth. Sometimes they even succeed, at least in the short-run. But since Orwelll wrote his book, it’s become almost impossible to exert Hilter- or Stalin-style control over a large population. What Orwell didn’t forsee is that the communication network he described in 1984 would work both ways: not only would it give Big Brother a window into our private lives, it would also give private citizens a chance to report on and share information on Big Brother’s doings. Exhibit A: the Bush Adminstration. For every clumsy effort it made to spin everything from the war in Iraq to, well, its Big Brother efforts to tap our phone conversations, there were a jillion citizen reporters waving their digital hands and saying, ‘Nuh-uh, that’s not what happened!’

Looking back, it almost seems like the totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union were the fruit of a never-to-be-repeated phase in the evolution of communications technology. For a brief, horrific period, governments had total control over powerful tools—television and radio—that they could use to communicate with their citizens. The internet, by design, makes such centralized control impossible.

But does that make us safe from groups of super evil mean crazy people? It’s been widely observed that new technologies—from gunpowder to nuclear fusion—have historically been harnessed to serve malevolent ends. Why should communications technology be any different? While mass communication technology helped enable the rise of totalitarian regimes that laid down the law, the internet is pretty good at empowering destructive entitities that work outside the law—terrorists, for one. Just as the new technology has given us a billion little blogs and news sites and tv channels and video streams, it’s also giving us thousands of new, super organized hate-based groups to worry about.