Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I know it's been sparse lately...

...but I've got big news coming soon.

Or I won't. I can't tell at the moment. Which is why I haven't said anything about it yet. But if I don't have big news soon, then I'll have more time to blog, more likely, so things won't be so sparse. So it'll be one or the other.

I confess, I'm certainly hoping for the big news.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


So there's a fantastic Eulogy for Kurt Vonnegut at the Onion AV Club, in which they countdown the 15 things he said that no one else could say as well. And there's definitley some killers in there, and it was nice to sit back and remember why I adored Vonnegut's writing so much, and really feel the sting at the passing of one of the finest literary minds to walk the earth this century.

Strangely, though, in reading through the comments, I came across a response to the article that moved me almost as much as the article itself.

I've been going through such a rough time now, and Vonnegut's passing has made me turn back to books of his I haven't read since I was a teenager... and there's some great solace in knowing that I'm not crazy. Most people are cruel, and arbitrary, and selfish, and fate even more so. But that's no excuse to join in making it worse. All we can do is try and make the world a little kinder, and enjoy those few moments we're given when being human gives us the opportunity to enjoy something beautiful.

Okay, maybe it's not quite as tight as Vonnegut himself would have put it. But the man's spirit is in those words, and that's the most important thing.

All any of us can ever really hope to do, in the effort to achieve some form of immortality, is leave others around us changed -- hopefully for the better -- by our presence here on this earth. It is through those who we have changed that we have a legacy after we are gone.

In the words of that comment, one thing is clear: Vonnegut has achieved his immortality, and has left those of us who are familiar with his words better for it.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner

The massacre at Virginia Tech has been haunting me this week, for reasons obvious to anyone who knows me -- I have a weird sort of obsession with school shootings. I'm not entirely sure why. On some level, it's because I see it as a sort of epidemic that is unique to our current place in history, and find myself wondering just what that epidemic says about our society -- put another way, if school violence is the symptom, what is the disease?

I think, on some level, I obsess about these things because most of these school killers were fucked up loners, people who didn't quite fit into any particular social group, they didn't get along with the other kids, they were weird, they looked funny, whatever. And that's something I can relate to. Who knows -- in a different world, with a different set of circumstances, maybe I could have been one of the kids behind the gun, not really evil, just angry and confused and alone.

So I've been reading whatever I could on the killings at Virginia Tech. And one of the articles I came across cited Charles Whitman as the man who ushered in the era of mass killings to the United States. And I realized that this was probably true.

Charles Whitman, for those unfamiliar, is better known as the guy who climbed to the top of University of Texas clock tower in 1966 with a handful of rifles, and shot and killed 15 of his fellow students.

Whitman's been named a lot in the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacer as, up until Virginia Tech, Whitman's 1966 spree of violence was the worst school shooting in American history. And if there's one thing that the American media likes to do, it's draw comparisons.

So Virginia Tech led to read about Charles Whitman -- again, as I'd looked him up on the 'Net before -- and he remains fascinating. 40 years after he dragged a rifle to the top of the University of Texas clock tower, there's been plenty of time to rip his life open, to rip his head open, to try to understand the only question that matters when someone murders more than a dozen people: Why?

And there are plenty of answers.

He had a brain tumour. He had a history of drug problems. He had psychological troubles. He was under tremendous stress.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, knowing what *might* have motivated to do something horrible, doesn't actually open any door into their lives. It doesn't give you the answers that you're seeking. In fact, by creating so many possible answers to the question, it simply makes the question itself that much more difficult to answer.

In reading about Whitman, I came across an almost-amazing piece on his spree of violence a the University of Texas. As I read this piece, I became convined that Whitman's story could -- and should -- be examined in an art form of some kind, because his story, and the story of 15 innocent people dead becausew of him, resonates just as powerfully today as it did 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, I have to say "almost-amazing" because the piece didn't quite go where I was expecting. And as much as the writer's message is noble and pure, I disagree with his ultimate condemnation of Whitman's actions, not because I think the slaughter of 15 people is perfectly fine, but because it's far too easy to simply condemn with making the effort to understand.

And that's what disappoited me about the article. In everything that led up the final few paragraphs, it looked like the writer was going to do something that is done far, far too infrequently these days -- actually try to understand the man behind the horror.

He cites the french phrase, "Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner" in the article, and it's now one I want to memorize, because it resonates so powerfully with me.

Translated into English it means, “To understand all is to forgive all,” and it is a beautiful, true, and ultimately dangerous idea.

Beautiful, because forgiveness is always a thing of beauty.

True, because to completely understand what motivated someone to do the sorts of things that happened at the University of Texas or Virginia Tech or Columbine, is also to have no choice but to forgive. Because if you completely understand every single motivating factor, you would realize that they had no choice but to do the things that they did.

And dangerous, because of this truth, and because no one wants to accept that these sorts of events are unavoidable.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

I suppose it can't come as a great surprise, given that he was 84 years old and smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, but it sent a shock through my system when I read the news just a few minutes ago that Kurt Vonnegut died tonight.

And no, it wasn't the unfiltered Pall Malls that did him in. It was, apparently, the result of brain injuries sustained after a fall a few weeks ago.

There's only been a handful of writers who have managed to captivate me so quickly in so little time. Douglas Coupland is one, Chuck Palahniuk is another. And yes, Kurt Vonnegut is on that list as well.

I'd known the name for years, but didn't become acquainted with his material until just a few short years ago when I picked up a copy of "Timequake" at a second hand bookstore.

To say I fell in love with the way he used words would be an understatement.

In 2005 I read a stage adaption of four of his short stories called, "Welcome to the Monkey House" -- named after Vonnegut's short story collection that had contained the original stories.

I went on to direct a production of that show in 2006, all the while looking for other Vonnegut material I could get my hands on. I tracked down a copy of the "Monkey House" collection, as well as what is probably his best known book, "Slaughterhouse Five," which I devoured in a couple of evenings. I fell madly, desperately, psychotically in love with "Breakfast of Champions" which might very well be the largest, broadest, most successful satire I've ever set my eyes on, being nothing more than a great big, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" letter to America. Penned in the 1970s, "Champions" remains incredibly relevent today.

But then, that's the way of it with Vonnegut's material. The material I worked with in the "Monkey House" production was originally written in the 1950s and the 1960s, and except for a certain flavour to the language and setting that kept it locked in the era in which it was created, the contant was just as relevent to the 21st century as it was halfway through the last one.

It's something that plenty of writers can, and should, be jealous of -- the ability to write something that can live on beyond the time in which it was created. Something so universal that it can speak to the hearts of those who weren't even born when it first appeared in bookstores.

I have hard time thinking of anyone more deserving of that sort of success than Mr. Vonnegut. If there was one thing that shone through in his work, it was a fantastic love of mankind. Sure, he poked his finger at our faults, but it wasn't to make us feel bad or guilty, it was because he knew we could be better than we are. And should always strive to be.

About this he was always very clear.

In his later years, he would tell a story -- and, in fact, that story would find its way into "Timequake" -- about the answer his son gave him when he asked the ultimate of philsophical questions: "Why are we here?"

What his son said -- a son who clearly had the same love for mankind that defined his father -- was this: "We are here to help each get through this thing, whatever it is."

I can think of no better life philosphy than that one.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. You will be missed.

Monday, April 09, 2007

After the twitters have twittered

So I've been thinking the last few days, wondering what sort of impact this silly little Twitter thing might have on my blogging, or if it will have any impact at all.

Looking around here lately, one might get the impression that making frequent, short, mini-blog sort of posts at Twitter has distracted me from the longer form of blogging. But I'm not so sure that's true. More than likely, it's simply that I've been busier than normal lately, and the blog has been taking the necessary back-seat within that context. Any somewhat regular reader of this space knows that my blogging kind of goes in waves -- sometimes there's a massive output, and sometimes...well, not so much.

Having said that, I think it'd be wrong to ignore Twitter's impact entirely. I'm sure there have been at least a handful of things that I've dumped onto twitter, with 140 characters or less, that I would have blown up into a full-size blog post if not for something like Twitter. And I can only think of that as a good thing.

Twitter, besides being a way to obsessively chronicle the minutia of your day-to-day life, is also a fantastic outlet for the little annoyances that would, very likely, turn into long and not-so-terribly interesting blog posts.

So while it's possible that Twitter is stealing some material from this space over here, if it is in fact happening, then trust me on this: It's not stealing anything you'd want to read anyway.

It's all about finding the appropriate container for the idea.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

More on twitting.

It's not happening quickly by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm slowly wrapping my head around the usefulness of something like Twitter, because it really does work in ways that extend beyond what is obvious.

At first glance, it looks like a mini-blog. "What are you doing?" is the question you're meant to answer with a Twitter post. Most of the time, most of us aren't doing anything of any particular interest, myself included. So the first time I looked at Twitter, my first reaction was, "Okay, that's dumb."

But thankfully I actually decided to give it a try. And I'm beginning to see that it's actually quite a bit bigger than just a repository for the boring details of your boring life. It's also a collective of the boring details of the lives of a bunch of boring people.

Which, okay, maybe doesn't sound that much better. But stick with me for a second here.

I got my first friend on Twitter yesterday, and discovered that while I'm using Google Chat to update my own Twitter status, Google Chat also reports back to me on any of the status updates made by my friends. Which allows me to keep track of what they're up to and what they're doing.

It's sort of like a social RSS feed for the people you want to keep track of.

For example, if someone on my friend's list decides at 5:30 to post, "Fuck this, I'm ditching work and going for a beer," I'll get the notification. Maybe I wouldn't have known that any other way. So maybe I call him up and say, "Hey, I saw you were going for a beer -- want some company?" Or maybe I just hit the bar and crash his table. Or maybe I let him have a beer and I just go home, whatever, it doesn't matter. It's a way of keeping abreast of the ins and outs of the lives of the people around you, without having to phone them constantly. It's like a short-form of the holiday letter you send to your friends and family, telling them how your life has been for the last twelve months, except you can update it every hour instead of every year. And everyone who's following your updates online gets to see it.

And the more I use it, the more I have this strange, instinctive gut feeling that there's still more that can be done with it. I think Twitter in its current incarnation could very well be just the tip of a massive and exciting iceberg. The potential is potentially fantastic.

As a quick example, just a few minutes ago I found that CNN had a breaking news Twitter page. Now, if I added CNN's breaking new coverage to my friends list, I'd have an automatic news update in my google chat anytime an important story broke. Sure, that seems nothing more than a non-traditional way of distributing traditional media, but there's a convenience factor too.

In fact, I *would* have signed up as a friend to breaking news, but it doesn't look like it's getting much use from CNN. They may still be trying the product out. Or maybe it's just a bored intern.

Either way, there is some fantastic potential in this thing. I'll be sticking with it, I suspect, to see how that potential works out over the months and the years. And it's not like I'm the only person on Twitter sharing the boring details of their boring life. That's pretty much everyone.

Monday, April 02, 2007

New toys, new techniques

One of the most interesting things about changes in technology is how those changes inspire us to change the very ways that we use technology. This is obviously the case with big, sweeping changes in technology. No one can argue that things like the telephone (in its day) and the Internet (during the last decade) had a massive impact on the way we communicate with each other.

But smaller changes in technology can also change the way approach our day-to-day lives.

When I first got my blackberry a couple of years ago, it was nothing but a cell phone with a bunch of kind-of interesting features attached to it. But after playing with it for a few months, I started to wrap my head around those other features, and I began to modify -- in small ways -- the way in which I used technology. I started scheduling things instead of actually depending on my memory. I stopped checking my email on my computer, and started to get it on the blackberry. More and more of my life began to find its way into that little device.

Mind you, this level of dependence has caused more than a little panic on the one or two occasions that I was convinced that I had lost the damn thing somewhere, but that's not really the point I'm trying to make.

The point is that in order to really progress in the 21st century, you can't pigeonhole new technology into the old ways of doing things. You have to invent new ways to capitalize on what new technology offers you.

In the last week, I've started to play around a bit with Google's "Docs and Spreadsheets" and "Notes" -- both web-based applications, and both incredibly cool, if you are able to look at them in new ways.

There's a new project currently under development at the newspaper I'm working at, and I'm currently trying to find ways that these online tools can be used to make this project more efficient. The ability to open both your word processing documents and your notes to collaborators means that processes like story editing and project planning can be more easily performed by multiple people.

I'm sure I have yet to maximize the possibilities provided by these two Google services, and I may never get around to doing that. But already their existence is inspiring me to rethink the way I do some of the most integral parts of my job. And, assuming those changes lead to improvements, that can only be a good thing.