Sunday, March 22, 2009

Happy Days and Sad Partings

I like to think that if we are what we eat, then we dream what we read. Our word diets contain the same food groups of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in the corresponding mental mush of work emails, Facebook status updates, and (if we are lucky) the occasional well written article. The past few weeks some of the better writers I mentally chew on pronounced their joy of the Kindle. Amazon recently extended their offering to the iPhone. Since I am sort of making my living from that device I thought I would give it a try.

It changes everything.

There is a tendency to inflate the importance of new technology (especially from marketers since hype leads to sales), and often in the aftermath you realize for instance that a new online pet store isn’t going to be revolutionary. But occasionally things do live up to their promise. When I look at the combination of the tech that has come out the last few years - the iPhone and the Kindle - people are going to laugh about how connected we thought we were in the aught ‘s in the same way that we perhaps should have not been so impressed with our dial up speed in 1999, a 30 meg hard drive in 1989, or the Fonz in 1979. Our future selves will look back and laugh at the time when we didn’t carry our entire library around with us. Soon we will.

My stack of books that I really mean to read is being replaced with free downloaded first chapters that I really intend to read. My apartment has enough clutter of hardcover cairns, that the decorating effect alone is worth the price. But what is more impressive is that having Kindle on the iPhone has returned a joy of reading to me. Okay the joy has always been there, but what it adds is the convenience of reading while waiting for a bus or for a table. Reading alone in a restaurant looks quite sad to an outside observer, but if I flip through my cell phone, it could look to that person that I must be really important with tons of messages. I might be as cool as the Fonz (I do share his first name).

Not that there won’t be casualties of my literary shift, and last week I went to see some of the carnage. Stacey’s, the wonderful downtown book store, is closing. It was a technical book lover’s dream. Some of my happiest afternoons when I was fresh out of undergraduate was to go to its other branch in Silicon Valley with a college buddy and pour over new masterworks like Tog on Interface, Inside Mac Volume 1, and Numerical Recipes in C . We would eat cookie dough and drink Mountain Dew beforehand. The sugary jitters perhaps enhanced our eagerness, but the place was a heaven for nerds to like to read.

It closed a while back, but I kept going to the one in San Francisco. I used it as a career barometer; I treated the number of books as votes as to which technologies to explore. Java started with a bang. HTML seeped in. Design Patterns soon got its own case. During the tech boom, the computer section covered almost 2/3rds of the top floor, and while the venture funds provided the cash fuel for these companies, the roadmap/travelogue of where to go and how to build was being sold in places like Stacey’s.

The last few years the size of the computer section shrank. It wasn’t just that people were using less tech (though a good portion of people who actually need to know how to build things started being hired abroad instead of the Bay Area), but the rise of the technical wiki made the information that was published in a book obsolete by the time it hit the bookshelves. Knowledge became more democratic; a great technical writer (like Fred Brooks, Jon Bently, Daiman Conway, and Brian Kernighan) could not keep up with the communities that formed and edited themselves. The writing isn’t nearly as good, but the information is far more vast.

The store was almost empty of books when I visited, and the remaining ones weren’t as tone deaf like for instance Dow 36,000 as random like Good Places to Scuba Dive in Mexico. The bookshelves were for sale as well, and seeing the sturdy wooden cases made me tearful knowing that Stacey’s was elegant all the way down to its bones. Still I didn’t buy any of the shelves. I realized that I don’t have as much of a need for them I used to as anything other than kindling. It is a sad lament but comes with an awareness that I do need to keep up with a changing world even if that means I can't go to my favorite store to figure out how.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


February is a dreary month, and I decided to enact my own cultural stimulus package by purchasing a platinum membership to the Cartoon Art Museum which included a ticket to the Watchmen premier and by taking a new class at BATS called Improvisation for Dating. I wish instead they had a class called Dating for Improvisers.

Granted I wasn’t expecting any dating opportunities from going to the Watchmen premier. My motivation for that was pleasing the 18 year old version of myself by seeing the favorite thing I read at the time. There was a thematic parallel of the novel which is about heroes in their late thirties/early forties who are nostalgic for their youth but are coping in a world that is cratering and my own, even if I am not radioactive and rarely encounter psychic giant squids. One of the leads in the Watchmen has a potbelly and in the middle of the book awkwardly tries to make out with another superhero on the couch in his messy apartment. It was a moment that felt true, because while the first time with anyone has the delight of discovery, there usually is also the difficulty of trying to figure out the mutual mechanics. The good news for all is that they eventually did while at the same time accidentally set off the flamethrower in the owl hovercraft.

In Improvisation for Dating, we didn’t get as far as doing our own love with a flamethrower scenes. Mostly the class was about learning to listen to each other, respond positively, and practice to fail gracefully. I like to think we were our own band of super heroes weighed down by our personal kryptonite whether it be an icy disposition, small stature, or a weakness for investment bankers/actors - folks who use entirely too much hair product. It is not that we will ever get around our flaws, but we can learn to forgive ourselves and try to appreciate the best in others.

We talked about status and how in dating that you wanted to at least match your partner. Low status, with its slouches and self deprecating humor, at times is quite funny, but people are looking to date heroes not sidekicks. We talked about the perfection of Cary Grant, the ideal of being both high status and generous. One should carry themselves as positively as they can while at the same time being kind. There is a fabric of relationships in the world that dating necessarily tugs at. Be responsible.

The flaw in the translation of the Watchmen to the screen is that in trying to get the movie under three hours they had to leave large parts of this fabric out. In both the book and the movie one of the characters meets with a psychologist to go over some rather vast issues. The difference between the two is that in the book we see the psychologist take that burden home to an unsympathetic wife. Their marriage deteriorates which is a scene I have never seen in a comic. Not that the action isn’t good in the Watchmen, but it is the psychic weight of watching how the ripples of dread can affect makes it a masterpiece. The movie was reduced to an unrelenting id while ignoring its better ego and super ego.

Not that there is anything wrong with an unrelenting id. After all part of the motivation of taking Improvisation for Dating. was to find someone to practice mutual mechanics (with the other part being to find someone to share a laugh on a sunday morning). As I wander through this new month I do realize it will take the deep superpowers of listening attentively, responding positively, and failing gracefully. Who knows - with a little bit of luck then perhaps I will get to the that moment of finding you are meant for somebody without needing a flamethrower or a hovercraft.