How It Feels to Be Sometimes Inanimate


They say there’s nothing bad that can happen to a writer — that anything “bad” is really just “more material.” But there is something — besides the fact that obscene, horrific things do happen and being a writer doesn’t somehow make those things “not bad” when they happen to you — there’s something that can happen to a writer that precludes even the shitty catharsis of writing about it afterwards. It hasn’t happened to me — yet (I’m here writing about it aren’t I?) — but I’m convinced in could happen.

One can become convinced of the pointlessness of words themselves. Of their inadequacy, their futility. A sudden apprehension of how, under the guise of persuasion and understanding, they make things less (not more) real, push us into dissimilar currents, always further apart than when we started. Maybe if you’re smart you can imagine such a futility… and continued imagining is identical with believing. In fact I’m no longer sure that such thorough convincing of such thorough futility would be a catastrophe, which might tell you how close to the edge I’ve been swimming just now.

If we all turned into trees would it be a catastrophe?

What, for example, is “success”? What does it look like? Needs secured, all ambitions achieved, one supposes. But by that definition success looks very nearly the same as failure, doesn’t it? For failure is the end of ambition also. In both cases there is nothing left to achieve. So let’s redefine it then. “Success is a journey, not a destination: success is continuing to work in the cause of what you value.” But again, when we come across some process that seems bad or unfortunate to which this exact description would apply, then we call this same phenomenon “failure.” Success or failure, then, is just shorthand for what we think is “good” or “bad”, by which we really mean “fortunate” or “unfortunate”, all of which is just a guess unless you happen to be omniscient.

There is no failure or success. People do not succeed or fail, they only change. Success and failure are conditions which do not exist in the world; they are cartoons we project on people who are not us, including our past and future selves. Once you see one of these cartoons you start seeing them everywhere.

God is omniscient, although (as just about everyone realizes sooner or later) however Really Real God Is, we have no way of interacting with God save through the imagination. None whatsoever. If we take every word of the Bible as literally true then God The Personality is still absent except in the imagination. If we take Jesus to be a historical figure who really did rise from the dead, this living Jesus is still present only to an engaged imagination.

Of course we can (and always do, all the time) “imagine together”. We share images of some abstract thing with each other and even unconsciously try to visualize what other people are imagining about it. When you give someone else “write permissions” to your imagination, the effect is almost — or maybe even actually — supernatural.

When next you hear “god”, try substituting “our collective imagination”. It can be quite a revealing exercise, because very often that’s exactly what’s being referred to. But does this mean God is not real? Preposterous. I’ve just described God to you. Everyone has experienced God. Is the green I see the same as the green you see?1 Hard to say, but my guess is no.

Not “believing in” God is a lot like not believing in music — not meaning to say anything unkind about either belief or unbelief, actually. Music is real, of course, but what is it? A thing which affects us inside our own heads for a little while, like a Pavlov tone: while it plays we might seem to see the curtain of the universe pulled back, and to see the purposes and motives behind everything that happens — the success or failure towards which everything is tending — or to forget it all and abandon our nerves and our muscles to the electrochemical response — or maybe some mix of both. Music is real, and it is also nothing but the flutter of a gas and the complicated echo of that flutter in our heads. The music reveals nothing — it masks nothing.

So, some days, I find I don’t believe in success or failure, or in God or in music, but music is a really hard habit to shake. And for that matter I’m finding it very hard to believe in words any more, because words are essentially a very fussy genre of music, with lots and lots of rules and only seldom any pleasure. But if I had not the present luxury of living in a state of complete failure-success I would be a big believer in words, because words are how you arrange matter and bend the actions of people and bend your own actions to those of others. Words are how we succeed or fail; words are how we collectively imagine.

The truest words is, maybe, the noise of whatever is going on around you. This is the score or soundtrack of your short life, a little bit of noise and talking. Wherever you are, look up from this page and forget it.

  1. This is actually the only theological question of any importance. 

Note from Rundy — Re: Future-Proofing

I have thought this about my own writing as well, but I would add that a less ego-centric take I have also considered on this idea is future proofing what I read. The vast majority of what I read on the internet is not worth reading again (and plenty was not worth reading the first time), but a small percentage is really good—even worth reading again in ten years, or sharing with my children. I find some deep sadness, or irritation, in knowing that what I have read and valued is lost in the day I read it, slipping away in the water torrent of the internet never to be read by me and considered again.

I entertain the idea of copying out the very best of what I read on the internet, with proper attribution, and collecting it in volumes of reading in a nice book. It is a wonderful thing that we can so easily collect our own writing in book form, but isn’t it an even greater thing that we can so easily create books of awesome writing that we have found to share with others in our lives?


The above is a note added to an earlier post…


· · 5 Notes

Thing that’s been on my mind lately: if you want your blog posts or your photographs to be around fifty years from now, you need to print them out. And the best format for that printout is a bound book. And if you care about your stuff being around after you die, you’ll print lots of copies and distribute them to anyone who might be persuaded to take one of them.

Sixty years ago, Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchmen and lost track of it, and this year the original manuscript was apparently found by someone rummaging through a box of old papers. Suppose she had written it on a computer, where is it now? Sitting on a punch tape or a giant magnetic platter, that’s where. Who cares if it is saved in plain text or WordStar 3.0 format; at that point it’s almost undiscoverable, and as good as gone. And sixty years from now our SSDs, USB drives, and even our M-Discs are going to be as difficult to use (and as busted) as that fridge-sized IBM Model 350 is now.

Keeping electronic files and photos around is like trying to keep a brain alive with tubes, wires and chemicals. You have to keep checking in on them, making sure they’re backed up, and migrating them to some stable combination of hardware and filesystem. Every few years. Maybe you have the patience to keep doing that for a decade, to keep writing the checks and putting in the Saturday afternoons. But someone has to keep up the effort or the day comes when you lose track of it, and at that point it’s basically kaput.

This is why I started my project of making a book-making machine. The goal of the project is to be able to take a snapshot of whatever I write or photograph, and magically turn that into a bound book. So that, should I someday no longer have the wherewithal to fiddle with computers and web servers, I can still have all those words and pictures on a shelf somewhere.

I could just print my stuff out on my laser printer, staple it together and call it a day. But a bound book is more compact, more durable and more useable than a sheaf of papers. We happen to live in a time when printing books is easy, fast and cheap. You can send a PDF to CreateSpace, order a single book for a few clams plus shipping, and it will show up on your doorstep a week later.1

So that’s what I’m working on, for fun, in my spare time. I’ll probably make a book of The Local Yarn, and a second one of transcripts of the Howell Creek Radio podcast. When I’m done, I’ll make the books available for anyone to purchase. I expect to sell perhaps three copies and end up with a couple of dimes in my pocket. The point isn’t to make money; it’s to ensure that whoever might want a permanent, offline copy of this stuff can get one — and that, if my house gets hit by a tornado, I can beg or buy a copy back from somebody.

  1. I just can’t get over the fact that this service exists. The ability to print a single bound book for the price of a hot dog is, as much as the internet itself, an economic result that is unique in the history of the world. I keep thinking that, as a society, we could be taking much better advantage of this capability than we do. Who knows how long it will last. 

Continue reading…

Assistance and Desert


A friend of mine, responding to a Planet Money story on proposed free college tuition in the US, tweeted his disapproval:

As one who worked for every cent of a college degree — $0 aid, $0 parents — this new proposal for free tuition makes me livid. Are American students ALREADY getting enough help from their government? 90% of my classmates were not paying their own way. and that 10% who were there on their own dime….Top of the class.

These comments helped crystallize some thoughts I’ve been processing for a long time, so I thought I’d bang them out here. This isn’t a personal debate at this point; my intent isn’t to “call out” any one person, but rather to use his comment to illustrate a perspective I used to hold, and why I don’t hold it anymore.

Part of this perspective (call it “earn your keep” for short) is the idea that if someone pays they will perform. And the more they pay towards their own personal improvement, the better they will perform. Maybe more importantly, the less they have to pay due to any type of assistance, the worse they will tend to perform.1 After all, they’re not invested; they have no skin in the game.

There can be (and often are) good intentions behind “earn your keep” thinking. Many people say it comes from mean or self-serving motives, but when I held to this line I genuinely don’t think I did so out of spite or selfishness. I’m very sure that’s not what motivates my friend either. None of us wants policies that would tend to undermine people’s ability to reach their true potential.

Still, under scrutiny it falls apart in several ways.

  1. Its predicted outcomes don’t match actual results. For example, countries exist where college tuition is 100% government-subsidized. Under the above “earn your keep” thinking, we would predict that students produced by colleges in those countries would be outperformed by U.S. students; in fact the opposite is true2. As another example, no one in America pays for their own high school education. Yet among American high school students, whether public, private, or homeschooled, you find students who excel, and those who fail — even though none of them are paying out of pocket.3

  2. It’s an argument that obtains against any measure that might lower the bar to opportunity, including private charity or cost-cutting. Suppose my friend’s alma mater found a way to cut tuition costs by 50% without subsidies. The felt effect on the paying student would be indistinguishable from a government-subsidized cut. Applied consistently, “earn your keep” thinking would lead us to oppose all cost-cutting measures on the grounds that they would hurt student performance relative to those in earlier years who had to pay more. “Earn your keep” is also an argument in favor of making all high school students pay for classes out of their own earnings.

  3. Finally, there’s the issue of one’s frame of reference being too small and oversimplified. My friend’s baseline reference for “reasonable” college tuition costs is “the hours I worked and the dollars I paid” — a price which was almost certainly subsidized by some combination of tax dollars and private donations. Further, suppose someone who had worked harder and paid much more for college came along and sneered at him. What logical grounds could he have for refusing the justness of this sneer? Why is his price the “correct” one? And again, there’s the issue of high school: the universally accepted baseline “reasonable” student cost for high school, even among conservatives, is $0. Why is this?

Whether people receive something for free or have to work for it, they tend to believe that the particular method by which they got it was the “correct” one. If they had to pay a steep price (such as for a house or their first car), then they earned it in a way that made them value it “properly”. If it came to them for little or no cost (such as firefighters showing up at their burning house, or the food they ate for the first fifteen years of their life) then that was simply what they were owed from others’ civic or moral duty. These distinctions are completely arbitrary, and we would do well to avoid including them in our policy decisions.

There’s a second aspect to the thinking we’re discussing: the sentiment that if you can’t or don’t pay, then you don’t deserve. You haven’t worked hard enough. You haven’t sacrificed enough. My friend is “livid” that many people might get for “free” something that he had to work hard for. Part of it might have to do with relative personal comparisons as discussed above. But the other part surely has to do with concerns about expending money on undeserving people who will probably waste it.

When we talk about “to whom should we give X” (as opposed to “who will be most effectively helped by X”), we’re talking about moral frameworks and value systems. Who deserves what kind of assistance? Should desert even be a factor when giving assistance? Should need be a factor?

Jesus did not have anything too encouraging to say to the “deserving”4. He gave the best perspective on the question of how we ought to include or exclude this or that person for assistance. What he says is: your heavenly father makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good — and you had really better imitate his example. God, we may say, materially assists everyone, even knowing many will abuse those gifts.

As a society, America already does this in a lot of ways (though very poorly in many cases), for which I am thankful. We provide public defenders for all accused, knowing that many of the accused will be guilty. We provide education for all children, knowing that many will slack off in class. The (somewhat counter-intuitive) result is a better society. But on the whole, a Christian should feel obligated to support these kinds of measures even if that were not always the case — because God does.

  1. There’s a bit more nuance to it for conservatives. When pressed, they will say that not all assistance is bad, but that assistance provided through the civil authority is somehow different from all other kinds of assistance and is uniquely counter-productive. Whether this is a real distinction is a separate discussion, something I may talk about in a further note or a separate post. But I would start by asking, what are all the different types of assistance a government may provide, and how does one decide which of those are good and which are bad? 

  2. In studies of education outcomes among OECD countries — whether in college graduation rates or literacy scores among college graduates — the USA consistently rates at or below the OECD average, and behind many other countries where college is free to students. The US falls behind these countries in mathematics as well (1, 2) though these results concern high school students — which, again, pay $0 for their education no matter which country they are in. 

  3. The common counter to this is that student performance in public schools is inferior to that of private schools. Even if we concede this point, though, it’s irrelevant. We’re talking about the motivational effect of costs on students (not parents), and the cost to the high school student is still pretty much $0 no matter what type of school they attend. Furthermore, US student performance in private schools is still worse than student performance in countries that only have public education. 

  4. “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”Matthew ch. 20 

Re: Text Cursors

If your display device happens to be “hundreds of people opening and closing umbrellas, viewed from high altitude” (low resolution + greater need to reuse screen space by overwriting previous characters) then of course blinking block cursors offer the best clarity.

Still from the end of the *I Won't Let You Down* music video by OK Go
Still from the end of the I Won't Let You Down music video by OK Go

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Text Cursors

· · 3 Notes

The cursor in a text entry field is something that usually hides in plain sight. There it is, cuing you as to where your next keystroke is going to appear on the screen; the classiest of servants, it never draws attention to itself. You stare at it all the time and probably never notice it.

These days, no matter what computing platform you’re on, your text cursor is likely to be a thin line, almost hairline-width. But years ago they were chunky blocks of pixels, taking up a full character width Blinking block cursor

Commodore 64 screen with blinking block cursor
Typing 'Well Here We Are' on a monochrome computer terminal

Why were cursors originally drawn this way? One assumes that the machine code for drawing a block was simpler on text terminals, since you could treat the cursor as just another character. It may have been a design decision too, since a block would be more visible on a monochrome, low-resolution screen.

I’m just as curious about why cursors thinned with the emergence of graphical interfaces. Interface design is like clothing design, it consists of fashions and styles that emerge and replicate across the whole field before you can even tell where they began; but someone had to have thought about it to begin with, and I wonder who that person was and how they ended up starting that trend.

There’s something understated and elegant about a thin cursor — again, the servant metaphor I mentioned explains it best: a white-gloved butler always there when you need him, doing his job with economy of style and invisible at all other times.

I miss the block cursor, though. I would like to see it reappear in more places, to have the option for it. A block cursor is less like a butler and more like an opinionated pal who comes to hang out in your studio.

Old computer terminal: 'OR IS IT REAL?'

Further notes to this article will collect pictures of block cursors from various platforms, quotes from sources knowledgeable on the history of text cursor design, instances of block cursors being incorporated on new platforms, and anything else relevant to the topic.

Continue reading…

Re: Twin

Twin never was officially adopted by Minneapolis or St. Paul, and the site demonstrating its unique features has been offline for some time now.

There was some discussion on Twitter recently over whether Twin was “a failed attempt” as alleged by a poorly-written article (which has since, it seems, been retro-edited down to one paragraph). As an artistic concept, of course, it is absurd to talk of it as having “failed”; but as long as it remains impossible for anyone to actually use (or even view!) the typeface and the features that made it unique, there will remain an unavoidable sense of sadness and abandonment around it.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Re: The Live Sparrow: Poetry and Translation

This translation of a Greek poem, from a tweet by Charles McNamara, is a beautiful little example of Fitzgerald’s “live sparrow”:

For comparison, a more literal translation would have run something like “The moon has set and the Pleiades / It is the middle of the night / Time passes by / And I sleep alone.”

Many translators have offered their own treatments of this poem, some more literal and some more poetic.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Re: Art Fare for the Common Man

Ten years after posting this, my views on poetry had changed. In the Sep 2013 episode of Howell Creek Radio, I had this to say about the original article:

For example, there’s this short essay on my website from 2003 called Art Fare For the Common Man, in which 22-year old me basically argues (not very well, I now see) that “modern” poetry — meaning pretty much anything after the 1800s that doesn’t rhyme — is all of poor quality because modern poets don’t put enough effort into their poems to make them appeal to normal people on first reading. 22-year old me believes this pretty strongly; 32-year old me finds all kinds of problems with that essay.

I tried to explain the substance of my new position in a chapter of Noise of Creation (‘0019. Non-Imitation’):

You asked me once about “modern poetry,” and whether I had any favourite modern poets, and by some delightful mental process each of us understood modern to mean both “doesn’t rhyme” and “written during my lifetime.”

Because of course “rhyming” is a traditional form, and one meaning of “modern” has to do with departing from tradition.

I didn’t know how to explain modern poetry to you except to explain that novelty is the essence of true communication… Whenever someone says something and you truly get it — when you hear it in your head exactly the way they do — it is always unprecedented. It’s like seeing a new color, or tasting a flavour you’ve never encountered. Tradition is the opposite of communication. Any tradition becomes a coating in your mouth; and poets, being into real communication, have a positive need for invention. At some point it becomes less a question of particular forms and structures, and more a hunt for the taste of that chemical reaction on your tongue.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…