Let every word tell.

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

I would have thought this was the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary edition—this timeless, tidy collection of rules of the writing road seem to have lived among us since the dawn of time.

But, no, it’s just about the same age as my brother (me, I’m the same age as Helvetica.) Yes, the seminal work by William Strunk came out in 1918 (a shade younger than my father-in-law) but the “and White” part of it, the contribution, revision, and expansion by long-time New Yorker contributor and “Charlotte’s Web” author E.B.White made the oh-so-concise rules of his old Cornell professor live again for several generations of succeeding writers.

Some of White’s (and Strunk’s) advice can be ingested and then gently set aside in our new world of marvels like the quickly-burped-out weblog and the vast twitterscape: “Prefer the standard to the offbeat.” “Do not affect a breezy manner.” Heck, what fun is that?

But we can all continue our searches for “one moment of felicity” (S&W quoting Robert Louis Stevenson there.) We can all “omit needless words.” We can all slam the keys with vigor and then hone the result until a bright sheen casts out from our 24″ LCD displays.

Playing vs. working vs…?

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

byte_issue1.jpgEven on weekends, I’m sorry to report that I spend a lot of time sitting in front of the computer, and generally what I’m doing could be classified as “work.”

But what is that exactly? Sure, the stuff I do for income is unmistakably work, but what about the time spent learning new, complex workflows in order to do the things I do? What about the time spent trying to bludgeon my machine into making a computer-generated light cast the sort of shadow that I’ve seen in the real world? What about the time I take looking “under the hood” to figure out how this particular web page does what it does, micro-googling snippets of javascript to try and parse what for me is the unparsable?

Of course, even from my earliest exposures to computers and their possibilities, the experience of learning by trying something and seeing if that works…and then trying something else and seeing if that works…the iterative process is one that can seem…depending on where you’re coming from…as falling into either the “work” or the “play” categories.

I’m not at all sure that it might not be something else entirely. Sometimes it has the unmistakable characteristics of non-productivity…as in, “I’m trying this, and trying, and…uh…trying…and I’m really just spinning my tires and making no progress at all.” Look up at the clock, another hour has passed. And sometimes (maybe the minority of times) it feels like that sort of ostensible wheel-spinning actually puts the rest of my brain in a good place to do the paying stuff. But it’s easy to tell yourself that’s what your doing and then look up to discover it’s 2 am and one really ought to call it a day.

There are definite tradeoffs into how you learn, how you work, how you play, and how you make the transition from one to the other throughout your waking hours, whenever those may be.

Can you tell where I stand amidst those transitions at this very moment?

Well, gotta get back to it. Or, maybe go to Trader Joe’s and pick up some milk. Or maybe…


Friday, March 13th, 2009

Sammy says it takes a week for her to get readjusted to Daylight Savings Time and it’s been about a week, and this morning, a cool, quiet one in Atlanta, feels about right. I feel adjusted…I hope you do too. Hi from here, where this weblog journal thingie of mine has been lying somewhat fallow in 2009, a clear sign that my attentions have been elsewhere.

It sure hasn’t been that I’ve been away from my computer—no, I’ve been working fairly steadily since Christmas, on projects as far-ranging as graphics for a Youngstown group of television stations to some last-minute hacking on a sales video for United Airlines to a bunch of web design, including helping Sammy establish a new and dynamic site for the Society for Georgia Archaeology that involved all kinds of delving into the arcana wrapped around javascript, CSS, PHP, and SQL. I can honestly say that it now comes more or less naturally for me to crank out inelegant code to bend a web page to my will, although sometimes I sure end up googling for snippets that I can slice and duct-tape together to get the job done.

But I get a real hit of satisfaction from cobbling and honing a small snippet of code that, for example, adds a just-the-right-size and just-the-right look map (using something called the Google Static Maps API) to articles on the SGA site that are ‘tagged’ with a latitude and longitude, automatically, no muss nor fuss.

Kinda like this, behold:

One of the places I lived in college:

…maps are just fun.

APIs to fancy web services willing to belch maps on command are just fun too. Although if I had any substantial concerns (and some folks most surely do) about the long-term wisdom of trusting Google and…well, mostly Google…with my data and my information, maybe I wouldn’t. I mean, wow—I read my RSS through them, I have spreadsheets and photos and maps and code and of course email and now even transcribed voicemail and telephony that passes through the GoogleOmniPlexOverLordEntity, and if they really are evil, I may be screwed, as may we all be. But I don’t think they are. Flawed and human, yes…evil, no.

But if you scale “flawed and human” up to Google-sized über-global proportions, does that equal evil? Does a global economic downturn subtly turn a huge corporation’s rudder just ever so slightly toward the dark side? Um, reply hazy, ask later.

Back to work: I’ve also had projects that require me to come up with elements that look good in one of the most resource-constrained, throwback, arenas out there—the cable set-top box. There are a bunch of people out there trying to do cutting edge interactive TV by pushing code out to ‘legacy boxes’ that are a decade and a half old. Yes, that cable box parked atop or under your TV (a little computer-like thing, of course) is a dinosaur from the nineties! Why can’t it do the honorable thing and catch fire and die? Otherwise, because it has about zero ram and a microprocessor that my phone can run rings around, and because there are about a zillion of them still out there functioning, I have to take really pretty graphics and use all my cleverness to dither and smush them down into color palettes reminiscent of the old Vidifont I labored over in…the eighties. No, not pinker and teal-er colors, way fewer colors than the 16.7 million available before your eyes now. It’s kind of like having to create web pages that would look good on a Mac 128k from 1984. It’s kinda like…well, you get the idea. But it does seem like this is one more area where having lived and worked struggling through those paleodigital days pays off—understanding constrained tech can be a marketable skill.

Elswehere, it seems like there have been a steady stream of computer crises that I’ve been able to help family and friends with, if sometimes just to reassure them (those hardy few friends we have who are not Mac owners) that no, their machine has probably not been infected and their identity stolen and their bank accounts drained. No matter what kind of computer you have, the feeling of being out of control can easily seem to eminate from the whirring box on your desktop that brings you the interwebs…if you let “what my computer is doing” become this thing of mystery.

What’s it doing? Sammy and I were watching TV and something in the cabinet underneath began a quiet low grunting. RRunnnt-runt. Nggg-nrunt. What’s that!? What’s it doing!? Relax, it’s just the hard drive attached to the Mac Mini which is recording The Daily Show for our later viewing pleasure…the drive is mostly full and besides, I have it sitting on that old ice cube tray so it’s well-ventilated, but that’s just enough to give it room to vibrate when it’s doing some heavy record-to-the-platter action…thus the grunting.

There’s always an explanation, usually one too mundane and too tiny to spend too much time on. I get a huge amount of satisfaction of seeing folks I care about set up their digital worlds on machines that are largely hassle-free…and I’m always happy to help in that process, if only to offer a few well-timed “what’s it doing?” explanations.

So that’s where my easily ping-ponged attentions have been through much of The Year Thus Far. There, and, of course, distracted by bright shiny objects like the Twitter and the iPhone and the..uh…Global Economic Crisis. One of those things is not like the other.

Enjoy your Friday…thanks for your attention(s.)

It’s just some snow.

Sunday, March 1st, 2009