My creative credo

August 19th, 2010 1 comment

I wrote this this morning, because I’m tired of not being creative for various reasons. I firmly believe all of these to be true; this is me giving myself permission to live by them.

In no particular order:

  • Creative work doesn’t have to spring fully-formed from my head.
  • It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.
  • It doesn’t have to be perfect at all.
  • Learning is as important as doing.
  • What I did right is way more important than what I did wrong.
  • Mine is the only judgment that counts.
  • I can be creative in more than one way.
  • Just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean I can’t do it again.

A thought, re: Top Ten Worst lists

June 3rd, 2010 No comments

The internet is a place that loves to hate things*. Its denizens love equally to make Top Ten Worst Whatever lists, because showing disdain is much more fun than showing enthusiasm. (I don’t really mean any judgment there; I think Roger Ebert was probably right when he wrote that a negative review is more fun to read than a positive one and more fun to write.) There are sites where the authors are so relentlessly negative about things that the pages they want to recommend are merely categorized “Things That Don’t Actively Suck”.

Since I’m a gamer I tend to run across a lot of Worst Games lists. Likewise with movies and Worst Movies lists. And since the Internet is a place with a lot of information, a large desire to fit in, and a disturbingly pervasive zeitgeist, a lot of games and movies make these lists time and again. For video games, we have E.T. the Extraterrestrial (which almost singlehandedly collapsed the home video game market in the early 1980s) and Custer’s Revenge (revenge rape porn** on the Atari 2600, and no I am not making this up, and no I will not link it to you). For movies, it’s fare like Manos: the Hands of Fate (“popularized” by its feature on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and North (great actors, actually kind of an interesting premise, catastrophically bad implementation).

These entries turn up a lot. And when I say “a lot” I mean “on every list of this kind”. So here’s a thought: let’s give them a bye. Let’s all universally acknowledge that yes, these games and movies are stinkers. If someone put one on the coffee table you’d run out of the room holding your nose. We get it. The next time you make a Top Ten Worst Whatever list, look for entries that you know are on every other list out there – and remove them. Make a note at the beginning: “Yes, we know ET was absolute crap. We’ve all agreed on that. It transcends the scale. For the purpose of this list, it’s actually in negative numbers. Let’s move on.”

Because, really, I’d like to see a Top Ten Worst Games where I didn’t know with absolute certainty what was going to be #1 on the list. I think we can all agree that that would be a good thing.

* It entertains me that I have a pre-existing WP tag for “kvetching”.
** Man, the Google hits I’m going to get for that.

Categories: All About Me, Weird Tags: , ,

A quick DIY tip: repairing headphone cords

May 21st, 2010 No comments

I learned this today and it’s come in handy twice: Broken or severed headphone cables can be repaired with a utility knife, some electrical tape, and a lighter or matchbook.

  1. If the cord isn’t completely severed, use the knife to cut it at the break; then cut again about half an inch in either direction. This will leave you with clean ends on the cord.
  2. Very carefully slice around the cord about an inch away from the end. You should be cutting through the insulating sleeve around the wires, but not through the wires themselves. Once you can see the wires, use your thumbnail to pull the sleeve off and expose the wires. Do this on both severed ends.
  3. Modern headphone cords generally come with one of two kinds of wiring: either copper wire wrapped around an inner core (with more wiring inside), or a set of three or four colored wires. Which you have determines which step you should take next.

    For copper wrapped around the core:

    • Carefully unwrap the copper and pull it away from the core (without breaking the wires). Then use the knife to even more carefully slice the core casing about 1/4″ from the end of the outer sleeve. You’ll expose a very slender set of wires, probably with some white insulating fiber mixed in.
    • Separate the inner wires from the fibers and snip off the fibers as close to the “base” as you can.
    • Spread the wires so that they’re pointing in opposite directions.

    For colored wires:

    • Spread the wires apart so that they’re as far from each other as they’ll go.
    • Light the lighter or a match and hold it to one of the wires. The wires are colored because they’re coated with enamel; the enamel will melt if you apply enough heat. Repeat this step for each of the wires, being sure to blow out the flame on the wire if it gets too close to the “base”; you want to have some color remaining at the base so that you can tell which wire is which. Do this even for the copper-colored wires; many manufacturers use clear enamel on that wire too.
    • Use a very, very sharp utility knife to scrape away the remaining enamel (which will be black and lumpy). Ideally you’ll be left with gleaming copper wire. You can also use solvent to remove the burned enamel.
  4. Now that you have clean, separated wires, bring the ends together. Twist together each set of matching wires – one from each end per pair – as tightly as you can.
  5. Make sure that the exposed wires don’t touch outside of their assigned pairs. (This is the other reason for leaving enamel near the base of the colored wires; the enamel is non-conductive and won’t complete the circuit like the bare wires will.)
  6. At this point, plug your headphones in and test them. If the sound is satisfactory, continue. If not:
    • For colored wires, red is generally left channel, green is right channel, and copper is ground. If the sound is coming through both headphones, but it’s very quiet, you need to adjust the ground connection.
  7. Once you’re satisfied with the sound, cut short lengths of electrical tape (no more than 1/2″). On each twisted pair, set the wires in the middle of a length of tape, with the tip just inside the end of the tape, and fold the tape over, producing a “flag”. Do this more than once if the exposed wire is longer than the width of the flag.
  8. If you can do so without affecting sound quality, lay the flagged wires along the insulated cable and tape them down. (This provides stability and means there’s less of a chance of you accidentally banging a connection around.)
  9. And you’re done!

Categories: All About Me Tags:

On adulthood

May 7th, 2010 2 comments

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence… When I was ten, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis

A quick thought on naming; or, how to make sure your ebook gets read

May 6th, 2010 No comments

Imagine that you have a large DVD collection, all of which have been given to you by well-meaning friends. Your collection requires several shelves. Each DVD case has a unique name printed on it by the friend who gave it to you, but the names are things like “movie” and “My Movie” and, if you’re incredibly lucky, “AScorseseMovie”. Every time you want to watch a movie, you have to figure out which one it is, and you have to do that by putting them into the DVD player and seeing what title screen comes up. If you’re feeling particularly enterprising you can then write the real name on the cover with a Magic Marker, but most of the time, frankly, you just want to watch a goddamn movie and can barely be bothered to put the ones you don’t want to watch back in their cases.

I download a lot of ebooks. Right now I have 238 PDFs in my “ebooks” directory, and that’s not counting the ones that I’ve downloaded but haven’t sorted yet (which is in the double digits). I’ve read most of the ones in “ebooks” – I’d say about 60% – and none of the ones in “Downloads”. The ones that I’ve downloaded but not sorted yet often have names like – I am not making this up – “download.pdf” and “My eBook.pdf” and “blogging.pdf”. These are not helpful names. These are names that are easy and convenient for the producer but have little to no bearing on the content or the source and are therefore of little to no value to the consumer.

Why is this so common? Because it’s easy and convenient for the producer. Maybe the producer assumes you’ll be reading it right away, so the knowledge of what PDF it is will be fresh; or you’ll be reading it in a browser, so the filename won’t really matter; or that this is the only ebook you’ve ever downloaded (believe it or not, I know one producer who relies on that).

But the truth is, people Save Link As… and then forget about it. Once a week when they clean up their Downloads folder they find “mygreatpdf.pdf” and decide to delete it so they’ll have the space for more downloaded episodes of “Laverne and Shirley”. Your ebook doesn’t get read, because your target reader doesn’t remember what it is, or from whom they got it, or why they even have it in the first place.

The important part:

Make sure the name of your ebook (or audio file or worksheet or whatever) is an accurate reflection of both the source and the content of the file. Sure, the consumer could rename the file to whatever she wants. But that requires opening the file, finding the name of the content (actually not always very easy), finding the name of the author, closing the file (since Acrobat won’t let you modify an open PDF), and renaming the file (“I double-click on the name to rename it and it just opens the damn file again“). Why take the risk that she’ll just say “eh, can’t have been that important” and delete it? It is trivial effort on your part when you’re making the file – you have to give it a name, after all, and you may as well give it a useful one – and significant effort when your reader is looking at the file.

Communicatrix on “The Talent Code”

May 6th, 2010 1 comment

As a brief follow-up to my last post, I’ll give you a quote from Colleen Wainwright (@communicatrix)’s brief but excellent review of Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code:

There is a little bit of luck to greatness—at least, there is in an uninformed world where we don’t know how to make “magic” happen. In quotes because of course, it’s not magic—it’s science and awareness and commitment (a ton of commitment) and love (so much love). But that is what The Talent Code is for: to get the word out there, to spread that love.


May 2nd, 2010 9 comments

I ran across this panel in the comics page today, and couldn’t get my mind off it. I see this kind of unconscious condescension (and I do think it’s unconscious) all the time among people who are considered “creative” (and the reciprocal self-deprecation among people who aren’t). “You don’t decide to be an artist, you’re born one” and, conversely, “oh, I couldn’t draw a straight line to save my life, so I could never be an artist”. Guys, let’s stop this right now: the only thing preventing a person from becoming an artist is the lack of reinforcement for the process of becoming. In plain English: there’s not enough apparent reward to make us want to put the work in. In plainer English: if we’re not artists, it’s because we don’t want to practice.

Consider this hypothetical parallel (cribbed from Betty Edwards). Imagine that when a child arrived in preschool, she was given a book (no pictures, just words) and told to figure out what to do with it. No instruction, no examples. If, at the end of the day, she’d managed to piece together a few words, the teachers would label her “a reader” and encourage her to further develop her reading. Her parents would smile and say “oh, her uncle Dan was a reader – it runs in the family”. The other kids, the ones who hadn’t been able to make sense of the book (again, without instruction or guidance), would have mandatory, rudimentary classes throughout grade school, with assignments like “read this short story” – without any explanation as to how one was to do that – and by the time high school rolled around, reading would be an elective, taken at high levels by the “readers” and avoided by everyone else except to fill requirements.

If it’s unacceptable to think of reading that way, why do we treat art exactly as described? Show an early predisposition toward art, and you’re a “born artist”. Don’t, and you “just don’t have the talent”.

I’ll follow that with a caveat: I do believe that there are people to whom practicing a creative craft is more inherently rewarding than it is to others. At the same time, there are people to whom the practice of law is more rewarding than it is to others. I don’t think anyone would argue that law takes vast amounts of study and practice. Why would we believe that art is any different?

One of the songs I learned when I took piano lessons in my youth had the lyric “If I had even a fraction of Vladimir Horowitz’s talent, I’d practice all day”. It’s exactly the opposite: Vladimir Horowitz has his talent because he practices all day. Artists don’t draw/paint/etc. because they’re talented, they’re “talented” because they’ve spent years drawing/painting/etc.

Why do we persist in the “talent” myth? Because it’s reinforcing. Talent allows those with to believe that they’re special, that they possess a gift that separates them from the unskilled hoi polloi; and it allows those without to believe that their inability to do what they want to do is out of their control, instead of something to be worked past.

This is not to diminish the accomplishments of artists – far from it. But let’s recognize them for their hard work and real accomplishment – not for some imaginary “talent”.

Acknowledging the process

April 29th, 2010 4 comments

1. Coffee.

We have several ways of making coffee in our house. The one that gets the most use is a Gevalia coffee maker (we had a Cuisinart, but I forgot to take some old grounds out when we went out of town for a week and Bad Things Happened). It’s pretty basic: you put the water and grounds in, press a button, and ten minutes later you have a pot of coffee. If I’m really inclined, I can pre-load the grounds and the water, and program it to turn on at a certain time. (The clock is currently blinking 12:00, largely because I don’t use the programming system.)

The other major way to make coffee is an espresso machine. Where the Gevalia is set-and-forget, the espresso machine requires pretty much constant attention. To make a latte (the variety of espresso coffee that we drink), you need to

  1. Make sure the water reservoir is full.
  2. Pre-heat the steam chamber.
  3. Load espresso grounds into the filter. Pack the grounds gently.
  4. When the steam chamber is ready (a light goes from blue to green), fill the measuring cup with milk, place it under the steam nozzle, and turn the steam dial to full.
  5. Carefully monitor the steaming milk to make sure that it’s not scalding. Foam it by tilting and moving the cup.
  6. When the milk is heated and foamed, place two shot glasses under the filter, turn off the steamer, and turn on the espresso maker proper.
  7. One shot glass will fill faster than the other. When the first is full all the way, move the second glass so that it’s being filled by both streams.
  8. When the second glass is full, turn off the espresso maker.
  9. Pour the espresso in the shot glasses into the desired mug. Follow with the (hopefully not too de-foamed) milk.
  10. While the milk and the coffee mix, clean off the steam nozzle with a damp cloth, and dump out and rinse the grounds filter.
  11. On the one hand, there’s a lot to be said for being able to dump some grounds and water in, press a button, and then have coffee available whenever I want it (at least until I drain the pot).

    On the other hand, I really like lattes, and they get me going in the morning far better than standard coffee does.

    (On the gripping hand, milk is cheaper than coffee grounds, and lattes use more milk and less coffee than the Gevalia does.)

    Plus, if I make a latte, I get to be part of the process. Instead of just walking away and coming back when the coffee robot is done its job, I’m actually the one making the coffee. If it’s a great latte, it’s because I made it that way. It’s very satisfying to drink that latte, and that’s probably why it does such a good job of perking me up.

    2. Twitter.

    I just ran a quick straw poll on Twitter:

    Do you prefer to see “classic” or “new” retweets in your timeline? Which do you prefer to use? On both questions, why?

    “New” retweets are the inline ones – if you use the new retweet, you can’t edit the tweet, and it shows up in your timeline as from the original user. “Classic” retweets are the kind where you actually say “RT @etherjammer: Do you prefer to see…”; you can edit the tweet, and it shows up in your timeline as from you.

    The drawback to new RTs is that you don’t get to add your thoughts, and they don’t show up in the original user’s “Mentions” – in fact, the API doesn’t seem to provide an interface for gathering them at all. The drawback to the old RTs is that if you’re trying to retweet a long tweet, you’re going to have to truncate it to get it all in. (I know a lot of people who actually advocate keeping your tweets to 140 – (5 + the length of your username) characters, to make it easier for people to retweet you.)

    There’s something to be said for set-and-forget RTs. You don’t have to worry about whether you should add your thoughts or whether you need to truncate the tweet – you can’t, and you know that the original tweet fit the guidelines so it’ll fit in your timeline without editing. Plus, it’s a single button-click – push the button, and the system does the work. But the original RT system gives you the opportunity to interact and be part of the process, and that shows on the far side.

    By the way, the results of my straw poll? 100% in favor of “classic” retweets (except for one friend who doesn’t like retweets at all). Nobody who replied likes the new style (which, incidentally, is the style that I’ve been using for the last few months).

    • “It’s easier to tell who retweeted.”
    • “I can add a comment if I want.”
    • “I get confused by unfamiliar userpics popping up in my feed.”
    • “I want to see the retweeter as the source.”
    • “If it’s too long to RT, only then will I use the new.”

    3. Process and agency.

    My latte tastes better than my drip coffee in part because I’m the one who made it. I’m involved in the process and so I’m engaged. Even when it’s just a cup of coffee, it makes a difference.

    My classic RTs are better received by my audience because they know I’m involved in the process. My engagement engages them. That makes a difference too.

    If something as simple as a cup of coffee or a retweet can be affected directly by your engagement, what else could you improve by being part of the process instead of just letting the machine do the work?

The Persistence of Memory

April 16th, 2010 1 comment

We’re warned to take eyewitness accounts with a grain of salt. Humans are very good at pattern-matching, and we’ll often make up details to support our memory’s version of a story – or even completely reverse details: an eyewitness to a car accident might, for example, say that he saw Bob get out of the Subaru’s passenger seat to look at the damage caused by the Mazda when, in fact, Bob was a passenger in the Mazda and never came close to the Subaru. Memory and perception are funny things, and we can’t always rely on them to be accurate.

In browsing TV Tropes today (I won’t link, so as to save you from wasting the entire day), I came across the page for The Casey Effect. It’s a sports trope that dictates that fictional sports games invariably go down to the wire, with one final push, buzzer-beating shot, or last-ditch home run winning the game for the protagonists who were otherwise sure to lose. The page reminded me of a baseball game I’d watched about ten years ago: it was a Mariners game, where the opposing team had scored a large number of runs – 20 or more – in the early innings, but then the Mariners came back from behind in a massive rally that won them the game. I remember watching it at a friend’s house here in Richmond, and I remember all of us being sure that the Mariners couldn’t win the game, and getting more and more excited as they fought out a win anyway.

The trouble was, I couldn’t remember who they were playing or what date the game was on, or even what the final score was, and records of the Mariners’ seasons about that time didn’t mention a comeback like that. So I went hunting. I knew that the game had to be in 2001 – in 2000 I hadn’t met the friends I was watching the game with, and in 2002 I’d moved away before the beginning of the baseball season – so I went to the definitive baseball reference and started looking through each game of 2001, looking for a high-scoring, close-scoring game that involved the Mariners. After about half an hour, I found what must be the game in question: on August 5, 2001, the Cleveland Indians defeated the Seattle Mariners 15-14.

Wait, what?

According to my memory, the opposing team (the Indians make sense; since Cleveland is nearby, we had a reason to be watching the game) scored at least 20 runs early on, and then the Mariners came back from behind to win the game in a breathtaking rally. In reality, it was the Mariners who’d scored 12 runs in the first three innings; the Indians scored two in the fourth, but the Mariners scored 2 more in the fifth to re-establish their lead. The Indians then spent the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings tying the game – they were the home team, so they really did tie the game up in the bottom of the ninth – and then scored another run in the 11th inning to win. The majestic Mariners comeback that I’d been holding in my memory for almost a decade was actually a game where the Mariners had been the favored team – they were 18 games ahead of the Indians – and they’d lost the game.

Strange how our memories choose the wrong things to remember.

Looking for feedback – new design

April 13th, 2010 3 comments

I’m thinking about a new design for this blog. I’ve run a blog called “Lost in Translation” since 2006, and honestly it’s not really fitting anymore. I don’t do a whole lot of translation anymore (when I started LIT, I was in the middle of finishing a degree in Classical Studies, and translating Latin and Greek every day), and I think “Lost in Translation” implies something about me that I’d rather distance myself from at this point. (Also it’s the title of a popular movie.)

I’ve mocked up a new design for the blog, and I’d like your feedback on it. It keeps a few elements of the current blog, but it’s an entirely new theme and feel. Please let me know what you think! Any response is a good response, even if it’s just “I like it” or “I hate it!”. :)

Categories: Design, Programming Tags: , , ,