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February 28, 2005

Overtaken by admiration

I didn't watch the Oscars last night - since I don't go see movies much, I have no clue who those people are and why they might get an award. And I have no patience with Hollywood anyway. But! Matt at Overtaken by Events blogged the whole thing, in little snippets that long-winded Oscar winners can only dream of. If you want the inside scoop without the bloviation, check it out. Bonus: No Chris Rock!!

And while you're there, wish Matt a happy third blogiversary! Yes, that's right, he's one day younger than me. Well, his blog is one day younger than my blog. I suspect Matt the person is wayyyyyy younger than me the person.

Posted by susanna at 07:57 AM | TrackBack

February 26, 2005

A bit much

A high school senior in Florida posed for her senior picture wearing the tuxedo getup for the guys rather than the drape and pearls for girls. The school board has blocked her photo from appearing in the school yearbook with the other senior photos because they say she "broke the rules". Although the girl is a "self-proclaimed lesbian", she says the choice of attire was about not wanting to show her chest rather than intent to cause trouble.

I think the whole thing is silly. While offering the tuxedo and drape options is a good idea - it will be the only professional photo some kids ever have taken - I think making it mandatory is just inappropriate. The reason is, I'm sure, that it looks nice in the yearbook and in any collection of senior photos to have them all look similar. But the photos shouldn't be about the school or the yearbook; they should be about the students. I think the drapes and tuxes should be offered, but not mandatory. I would be against the school board on this.

I suspect, however, that in this case the girl's decision was affected by her sexual preferences. The drape can be moved up high enough not to offend. I know, because I wore one in my senior photo and it was an issue for me. I think she wanted to appear more masculine, or at least make a statement of some sort. However, the school board has picked the wrong hill to die on here. I would say, fine, you made that choice, we'll live with it, but we'll also make it known that you were the one who caused the change. And there would never again be uniform senior photos.

It's funny to me too, though, because I was on the yearbook staff my senior year. I may even have been editor; I forget. It's been a while. As yearbook staff members, we assisted the photographer with the sessions for seniors, held in the library. Just goofing around, all of us girls on the staff put on tuxes and all the guys put on drapes (not happily, but we girls were persuasive). And we took a group photo of us. It may have made the yearbook (I really need to dig that out and look - it's probably been 15 years or more since I looked at it). We discussed wearing the tuxes in our photos, but none of us did. That was more garden-variety giggly teen rebellion, though.

I much prefer for a student to be able to choose his or her own senior photo attire. It should be reflective of you, not of your school administration. I suspect the school administration in this case is going to regret their choice, even though I think - legally - they aren't in any trouble.

Posted by susanna at 10:36 AM | TrackBack

Sounds about right

Your Brain is 66.67% Female, 33.33% Male

Your brain leans female

You think with your heart, not your head

Sweet and considerate, you are a giver

But you're tough enough not to let anyone take advantage of you!

What Gender Is Your Brain?

[Link from Cerberus, whose score sounds about right too, as best I can tell from his blog.]

Posted by susanna at 10:19 AM | TrackBack

February 24, 2005

Happy blogiversary to me!

Three years ago today I posted my first entry on cut on the bias; it was less than riveting. But two days later I posted on Michael Bellesiles - remember him? - and Doris Kearns Goodwin, a post that garnered my very first Instalanche and sent me on my way.

I've never been a "big" blog - topping out at about 900-1000 hits per weekday before I went on hiatus a couple of times, due to New Jersey Disease (i.e. morose lack of interest in anything) and then moving. But I've always had fun, and I've always had great readers. More than a few have become friends. That's a blessing.

In blogyears, I'm an old hand. And I can definitely say that the experience has been life changing for me, in several ways, none of which I can discuss right now or I'd have to kill you. Well, okay, not all of them are Sensitive Topics. I'm really just being lazy.

I will say this: My blog reflects my personality probably more than I wish it did. Anyone who has followed it over the years has discovered that I'm cyclical in my approach to pretty much everything, including the blog. I do something intensely for a time, and then my interest shifts so I'm off doing something else intensely. I do generally get back to whatever it was that I was doing intensely in the first place, whereupon I do it intensely again. Yes, I know you find that exhausting and frustrating; just think about how tired and irritable it makes me! And no, Ritalin doesn't help. Yes, I did take it. For one day. Imagine yourself after having washed down a dozen NoDoz with a pot of espresso. I think you get the picture.

Right now I'm on a bit of a down cycle with the blog, for three reasons. First, my mental energy is focused on my dissertation and my job, to the extent that if I'm not working on them I can't justify working on anything else much either. It's a management issue, but no one has offered to be my CEO so I'm trundling along as best I can. Second, I'm continuing to develop my Alternative Website Idea, which will include a blog, and so a lot of my attention goes there. Third, it feels as if a lot of the things I meant to do on my blog - covering media bias, etc. - are being done much better by people with more time, resources and energy than I have to devote to it now. It's an all or nothing proposition, basically, in that if you can't run with the big dogs you best stay under the porch. I've dug a nice cool spot here under the pine planks, thank you very much, and I'm building up my energy to run down that great idea I can see growing and maturing just out of reach. I plan to be the only dog on that chase when I race out from under my porch, thankyouverymuch, and also the biggest one in perpetuity.

Big words for a cold Alabama afternoon. Keep them in mind and we'll discuss it on my fourth anniversary.

And as always, thanks to Dodd, who continues to host this fine establishment with neither complaint nor recompense, and has since June 2002. Bless you, Dodd.

[And thanks to E.L. Core, who as always is more on top of things than me, and reminded me that it was my blogiversary by sending me a happy blogiversary email. Thanks, Lane!]

Posted by susanna at 03:10 PM | TrackBack

February 22, 2005

Enhancing experience: Right, wrong, or not my business?

CodeBlueBlog, written by a doctor, has an interesting take on the question of using performance enhancers to heighten whatever talent you have. He points out a lot of famous people who took some highly assisted paths to greatness, including pointing out that Stephen King was actually into cocaine at one time. He concludes by saying that if he knew he could have better attention and alertness for minimal cost, he'd go there.

It's a good thing to think about for all of us. My immediate objection to using enhancers, be they alcohol or cocaine or steroids or marijuana or anything else, is that they're illegal. As a Christian, I have an obligation to stay inside the law. However, I'm fully aware that law is a human thing, evolved through social negotiation and subject to change. Among those substances, alcohol at least is not illegal in many places, and there are a lot of people who say none of those things should be illegal. Excessive use where it impinges on the rights of others should be questionnable, but not the mere fact of use. If they became legal, my initial objection would be moot.

So then we fall on the secondary objection, which is really my line in the sand, the place I choose as the limitation on my own behavior. That is, I have an obligation as a Christian (and some would say as a human in general, extending the argument outside religion) to be in control of my decisionmaking at all times to the extent I am capable of maintaining control. If I knowingly use a substance that will alter my perceptions and decision-making, making it more likely that I will choose behaviors or attitudes contrary to God's will, then I am as responsible before God for those behaviors as if I did them without "enhancement". Sin is sin is sin, and "the alcohol made me do it" is no excuse. The Bible - especially in Proverbs - speaks very critically of mind-altering substances, specifically wine, and the things that caused problems then will now too. My first obligation is obedience to God's law. Anything that lessens my ability to be obedient is something I had ought to stay away from.

But that argument doesn't carry much water with a lot of people, and probably wouldn't overwhelm the US Supreme Court either. So we fall to the third objection - the damage the enhancers do to the people who take them, to the people around them, and to society in general.

It's true that a lot of very creative people have used enhancers of various sorts to fan the flames of their genius. Do we have a right to tell them not to do it? Morally, I think yes, we can say it is a bad decision. Should we tell them legally they cannot? That's a more difficult one. But law is not some immutable set of expectations that appear organically in every society, thus having a "rightness" that transcends the society. The only laws that do that are God's laws, and many don't accept them. And accepting them is not a requirement for having a society (although all societies would be better off if we did). So we're left with the messy business of negotiating what are and are not legitimate limitations on behavior on a larger social plane. In that context, we have for the most part decided that the damage to self and society wreaked by enhancements is too great a cost to allow unfettered in our society. You have only to go to the county where I grew up, where large parts of the population are rendered nearly useless by drug use, to see the unvarnished effects of it.* Any cop who's worked any urban or high-drug use environment will have a lot of graphic tales about the debased condition of consistent drug users.

That brings us to CodeBlueBlog's doctor-blogger thought: That while "unfettered" use may not be wise (my preamble), having a clearly detailed cost-benefit analysis for every possible drug may lead to new laws allowing people to decide (up to a point) whether the benefits are, for them, worth the cost (his premise). That is, a Barry Bonds may decide an uncertain and more aggressive temperament may be worth the benefit of pushing his huge talent to new levels. A Jack Kerouc may decide the frenzy of bennies are a small price to pay for fully unleasing his literary promise. And a long-haul truck driver may decide the few thousand more dollars he'll make every year by driving 20 hours of every 24 are worth the wildness of being strung out on speed.

It's an attractive theory, and very libertarian. But it's also utopian, in the sense that the cost is narrowly defined for the purpose of making the benefit always more than the cost. On a personal level, we pay a high price and one that we can't even fully measure without more research. As I mentioned yesterday, Stephen King discusses his drug use in his book, On Writing, which I highly recommend. He recommends sobriety as the preferred state. He notes that he doesn't even remember writing some of his work, because he was in such a fog, and he regrets not remembering. He also admits the damage it did to his family. It's not a small price. I personally think that someone who chooses drugs/alcohol/other enhancements as a means to personal fulfillment should at the same time eschew all personal relationships as one of the costs.

We don't live in isolation, and decisions we make about our own lives inevitably affect others - personally and on a larger scale. If Barry Bonds decides to use drugs (and I'm not saying he does), and that gives him an edge, then it will become necessary for every other athlete who wishes to compete with him to do the same. It will cease to become a choice, which was what was touted as its value initially. If the long-haul trucker takes speed to stay in the game, it's the little Nissan Sentra with me in it that he's too wired to see when he's strung out in his 20th+ hour without sleep that will pay his penalty. It's the son who comes home to find his Dad's brain matter splashed over the refrigerator (HST), or the people who find their loved one face down in a ditch (EAP), who will pay. On a larger scale, it's a sober person working his butt off to feed his family and pay his taxes who will pick up the slack for the druggies who burden society with increasing law enforcement, prison and rehab costs without putting a single red cent back into the till.

So a libertarian approach to drug use, and its glamorous corollary "the enhanced creative genius", create a cost that way beyond the nominal individual issues they choose to acknowledge. I say, if you want to drink or drug yourself into a stupor for whatever purported benefits, fine, just sign a paper first that says I have no responsibility to turn you over and save your life when you fall face down in your own vomit.

[Thanks to reader Janna for sending me the link to CodeBlueBlog's post.]

* As I've mentioned before, I don't drink and I don't use illegal drugs or legal drugs illegally, so some may say I don't have much grounds for discussion. However, I've seen its effects in many situations, sometimes among people I know. And whenever I think maybe it doesn't debase people as much as I tend to believe, I remember the prostitutes in Jersey City.

At least two of them lived in the garden-level basement of an abandoned house in a row in Jersey City. The houses shared exterior walls, and most were quite well kept. This one was an eyesore. The prostitutes were crack addicts. They would go out, snag johns, often bring them back to the house next door to theirs, where they would have sex with the johns under the front porch of their law-abiding, hard working neighbors - who were afraid to chase them away. They would take their sex-money and go buy crack, then go to their basement home, stepping over the rotting corpse of a cat at the bottom of the stairs - too far gone to even push the body out of their way. They probably sometimes stepped on it. When I saw it, the cat was about halfway through putrefaction. When the prostitutes got home, they would fire up a candle on a dresser in their secret room and smoke their drug. The house was wooden frame. The wax from their candles literally ran in rivulets down all sides of the dresser and pooled in the floor beside discarded clothing and rumpled bedclothes. How many times did they almost set fire to the house they squatted in? How much anguish did they cause for their neighbors? And how close did they come to burning down the whole block of houses?

That's the real face of drug use.

Posted by susanna at 04:17 PM | TrackBack

February 21, 2005

Journalistic hijinks

The HST commentary has me thinking about voice and falling down the elevator shaft into your own pool of mermaids. You have to let go. I think that's why the best writers are unusual people, nonconformists in whatever way they have to be to get to their own place. It's not that a lot of people aren't talented; many are, to varying degrees. But you also have to be able to slice through convention, and fewer of us are willing to do that. Even HST (who described his "invention" of gonzo journalism with the above mermaid metaphor) thought he was going to be fired when he submitted the notes that were published as "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved". He didn't follow his voice to this new place and damn the torpedoes. He was drunk and angry and disgruntled and freaked out, and he had a deadline. Unfortunately it seems all too often to take that kind of frenzied out-of-self state to break that conventional lock.

It's why, I think, we hear so often of artists descending into excess. It's not the source of their talent, it's the mechanism to break the grip of convention. But artists don't often see it that way. It's hard to analyze your own angst and its larger purpose. Stephen King was at one time seriously into alcohol and, following his accident, prescription drugs. He has said that when he realized he had to clean up or die, he feared he was making a choice between his writing and his life. I'm grateful - as a big fan of his writing - that he discovered the truth of the matter: His talent was and always will be his, and doesn't need the extra boost.

Not all good writers have to go that path, but I've rarely heard of one who hasn't had to make some break somewhere. The truth is, you aren't going to please everyone, and once your brain is sliced open and exposed to the masses, they're going to poke and prod and analyze and criticize and laud and cannibalize. The more famous and more "different" your work, the more people will do it. You have to find that place where you don't care what people think while at the same time caring very much that you are striking chords. I personally haven't gotten there, and may never.

I think of that while reading the HST tributes: That his style was disdained in some circles, and still is, even among those who send out reporters to emulate it in carefully contained packets. That in the end he became a prisoner of expectations, his own and others, to be the circus pony who performed the same tricks until they became self-parody. That to stay fresh as a writer you have to constantly break out of the conventions that reappear like kudzu in the spring, no matter how many times you burn them back.

By conventions, I don't mean "middle class" values. I mean any set of expectations that form a frame of what is acceptable, and those can be the "drinking and going nuts" HST style too. I always remember a quote from Picasso, who was asked after he began his cubist work why he had done such "conventional" and realistic painting early in his career. He said, and I paraphrase, that he had to learn the rules of his calling before he would know how to break them to advantage. Writing is the same. It has some conventions that must remain intact, and others that can (but don't have to) constrain. Thompson in his later work found himself constrained by conventions of style while letting go the conventions of writing that made his early work compelling.

Life is the same too. The sad part is that too often we cut loose the conventions that give coherence to our lives, and embrace those that keep us on edge and never satisfied with where we are or where we're going. It matters that we're loyal and attached to our families, and that we strive to do the best work we can. It doesn't matter whether the neighbors think we're a bit around the bend because we [fill in the blank with whatever it is you want to do that isn't illegal or immoral].

I'm sorry HST in the final analysis couldn't break free of his own self-imposed conventions, and became a banality: a tortured artist who takes his own life in a final burst of selfishness.

Posted by susanna at 12:17 PM | TrackBack

February 20, 2005

Goodbye, Hunter.

When I was a fledgling reporter, my journalism professor required us to read a book called "The New Journalism" with selections from Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, among others. I vividly remember a section of one article where a teenage boy stuffs a sock and puts it behind the zipper of his pants to impress his high school classmates. I felt sorry for him. I can't remember the others, although there was a lot of good writing. I hadn't loosened up enough to do work like that, maybe still haven't, maybe don't have the talent anyway. But the three big writers I remember.

The Wolfe piece was "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby", and I just couldn't get into it. I tried to read several of Wolfe's pieces, and they all felt like an acrobat doing virtuoso flips just to show he could. I couldn't get to the story for the posturing. Since then, I haven't tried to read anything by Wolfe, although I probably should. I cringe, almost literally, at the thought.

Didion was a different story. An elegant, spare writer, she was present in her writing but in a narrative, interesting way. You were aware you saw things through her eyes, but she made you feel privileged to do so. I've read other things by Didion over the years, although at times her writing feels emotionally arid and hopeless. I don't go back often.

Thompson, a Kentucky boy, was the one I connected to the most, although even his work I found difficult to fully embrace - it's a bit of a struggle to enter into his world when it contrasts so completely with mine. In the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was forging new pathways of creative journalism, he plunged into the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll culture - only his was drugs, drugs and alcohol. I couldn't find it in myself to be amused, intrigued or engaged by a story about driving across country with a trunk full of drugs. But in an industry where personal neutrality and distance are the gods worshipped (yet seldom obeyed), Thompson was gleefully in the center of his own reported world. His work in the scientific community would be called "participant observation", and it was very good. I may not have found his work sympathetic, but I did find it compelling. And of course my personal favorite was The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved".

Didion I don't hear from anymore (maybe it's the company she keeps). Wolfe continues to climb heights, writing a controversial and much lauded novel as he embarks on old age. And Thompson gets in the news now and then, on one venture or another. I suppose Wolfe and Thompson were my Woodward and Bernstein.

Tonight I learned that Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide today in his home in Aspen, CO. I am very sorry to hear it. For all his excesses, he was a man who lived large and bore under a major talent. He will be missed.

UPDATE: I told my brother that it wouldn't be long before piles of people would begin writing about HST's death and life in a style they think emulates his. It's a distressing thought, because copies always show themselves as fakes, and a writing style like HST's isn't amenable to emulation. For confirmation, just read this piece from 1996 (if you can stand it). I haven't seen any obits in that style yet, but then I'm carefully avoiding anywhere they might pop up.

I don't understand why would-be writers don't realize that the great writers harness their own genuis with the tools and formats of writing that feel most comfortable and profitable to them. The tools and formats are available to everyone; the genuis is not. The writer's brain is the raw material for the work, not the style he chooses to use. If you haven't the brain, mastering the style will do you no good. It will make you a figure of fun and mockery, or at least, it should. You have only to compare Thompson and Didion to realize that; they both did personal, participatory sort-of journalism that gave facts and truth although not always at the same time. But their work is very different, in feel and content. Of course it is - their minds and personalities are very different. What they did was that most elusive yet essential part of good great writing: They found their voice. And anyone else trying to write with HST's voice will always seem like Rich Little doing Nixon.

One thing you could say about Wolfe and Thompson - their kind of journalism, of writing, descends into parody only if they mean it to. And I consider that a high compliment. If you need an example of the other kind of writer, you need only look at this one from England (what he says tells you all you need to know about his writing):

The art of conversation is dead but the artistry of chatter is thriving, with Britons overwhelmingly admitting they rarely talk about anything more serious than traffic and television.

According to a survey of more than 2,000 adults, almost two-thirds of us admit to indulging in shallow chit-chat at the expense of weighty dialogue - even though we secretly long for more meaningful exchanges...

Lemn Sissay, named as one of the 50 key black British writers, fetes small talk: 'Talking about traffic and patio doors is the Western Buddhist mantra,' he said. It's a way we can find inner peace in today's society. Small talk can give away so much more about people, and be much more fascinating than big talk. I truly respect those who can sit around and discuss patio doors for half an hour and get something out of it.'

That would never have emerged from the mouth of Wolfe OR Thompson, even on their most booze-and-drug-saturated days. To think someone said it stone-cold sober is to fear for the future of our world.

(I confess that I could easily discuss patio doors for 30 minutes and find it quite interesting and productive. But I promise you it would not be an existential experience.)

Posted by susanna at 11:09 PM | TrackBack

February 19, 2005

The Trotts

Here's an article about the developers of Moveable Type, Ben and Mena Trott.

She sounds like a piece of work. But she's a rich piece of work!

Posted by susanna at 04:17 PM | TrackBack

February 15, 2005

Gotta love the Post Office

When I moved from New Jersey to Alabama, I didn't have an apartment yet so I forwarded my mail to my brother's home. I also got a post office box in the town where he lives, so I could give that as my new address and not inundate him with Susannamail. I didn't forward anything when I moved to my current address, just continuing to pick things up at his house. When my rented mailbox expired, the local postmaster started giving my brother that mail too and telling him to tell me to come give a forwarding address.

Two weeks ago I did just that - I went to the post office there and turned in two cards, one for mail from my brother's house and one for the PO box.

A few days later, I got forwarded mail to my new address. Excellent! I thought. But then I got forwarded mail for my sister in law. Some was for my brother. They also continued getting mail at their own home, so it wasn't a blanket thing. I called the post office, at the central number given on my forwarded mail confirmation. I explained everything to the nice lady, who said she'd fix it. For the past two days, I've gotten their forwarded mail.

And that's not all.

My mother lives in Kentucky, and has been in the same house for nearly 40 years. The address did change a few years ago when the 911 system went in, but it's never been other than Hertown, Kentucky. Late last week, my sister in law got a piece of mail addressed to my mother - including her middle initial - at my brother's address in Alabama. It was an advertising mailing from MediCare. Today, another advertising piece addressed to her arrived at my house - forwarded from my brother's address.

There are only a few choices here:

1) Everyone associated with forwarding at the post office is an idiot.
2) Everyone associated with forwarding at the post office drinks too much.
3) Everyone associated with forwarding at the post office spends too much time researching people online and likes practical jokes.
3) Everyone associated with forwarding at the post office is an idiot who drinks too much, spends too much time on the computer researching people online and likes practical jokes.

What other choices are there?

I'm almost afraid to call them again. I don't want my grandmother to start getting my uncle's mail.

Posted by susanna at 10:43 PM | TrackBack

Don't be gutted! I found the answer.

Several have asked me, "What does gutted mean in Jolly Old England?" I asked the experts - the people who thought I was funny for not knowing - and here is what they say.

First, my email from Pete Bevington of The Shetland News:

[A]pologies for publishing your letter without your consent. When one receives a general comment about such matters it only seemed right to pass it on. Indeed it was a fine letter and raised an interesting point about the English language and how it changes from continent to continent. I spent two years in Australia and took a while to figure out what people were talking about. Gutted is an English tabloid term used for maximum impact in as few letters as possible to express powerful emotions. It was handy to use for a website headline where space is limited...

That's a newsman's short answer. Leslie Lowes, who was responsible for my learning about the email being posted, took me on a (very much enjoyed) linguistic tour of Shetland vernacular to set the stage. Here's the short version about the word itself:

Fast-forward now, to "gutted."

This is an English vernacular expression of total shock, as experienced by a living victim of evisceration. It was found almost exclusively in what we refer to as "Estuary English" - the speech found in the London area and around the Thames Estuary. Through broadcasting of TV soaps like Eastenders (a thrice-weekly soap set in East London) and The Bill (A TV cop show set in London -cockney rhyming slang (Bill and Ben = Police Men- ) , Estuary English vocabulary and speech constructs are invading parts of Britain where they were previously unknown.

Eastenders on TV soap appear to feel "gutted" at every occasion from mild surprise to total shock.

It's not even a Shetlander word! It's something they learned from the telly. But it does serve the need, I suppose. The alternate here in the US would be "devastated", I think.

Now you know. Thanks to Leslie and Pete.

Posted by susanna at 07:40 PM | TrackBack

February 14, 2005

Color me (slightly) embarrassed

Remember my previous post where I discussed the headline in the Shetland (UK) News newspaper that mentioned shopowners were "gutted", but no one was actually hurt?

What didn't occur to me was that it could be one of those differences in language like "lift" instead of "elevator" or "lorry" instead of "truck". But apparently that's the case. I sent an email to the writer of the article pondering why they used the word, and I did not hear back from him or anyone at the newspaper. But they posted in on their website! You can scroll down to Feb. 11 to see it, but here it is for your information:

Lurid and inaccurate

I DON’T know if you're responsible for the online headline on your story, but it seems both lurid and inaccurate.

"Lerwick shop owners gutted". I expected it to be a tragic story about a robbery gone bad with tortured bodies littering up the place. Instead, no one was hurt except financially, and even the store wasn't precisely “gutted”. I'm intrigued as to why that headline was chosen.

I've been enjoying your newspaper for several weeks now. I started reading it because I'm planning to vacation in Orkney and Shetland sometime soon. As a former journalist who worked at small newspapers, I have found your newspaper quite interesting and (as much as I can tell) a good chronicler of local events. That's why the lurid headline stood out to me as anomalous (and funny, once I realized that no one was really hurt).

Looking forward to future headline adventures,

Columbiana, AL, USA

“One of the commonest forms of madness is the desire to be noticed, the pleasure derived from being noticed. Perhaps it is not merely common, but universal.” Mark Twain, "The Memorable Assassination"

They even used my tagline. How bizarre! And it's a bit disconcerting to have it published without being informed it would be. It wasn't my intention. However, I'm sure it provided some amusement around breakfast tables all over the Shetland Islands, so who am I to deny them their pleasure? Maybe they'll remember me when I go over there.

I learned about the publication of my email when I was copied on another email sent to the Shetland News about my email:

The comment from Susanna in Alaska about the use of the word "gutted" in connection with a recent spate of damage at the Staneyhill Shop illustrates perfectly the disadvantage of having two major English-speaking peoples divided by their common language.

The use of vernacular in headlines loses out when travelling across the pond, at least going west it seems to. The vernacular coming the other way is more easily understood through our exposure to American culture through music lyrics and movies. If Americans got more exposure to British culture, they would certainly be able to increase their vocabulary!

My regrets to Mr McBurnie and his partner over the damage to their shop, they have every reason to feel gutted and Susanna, enjoy your forthcoming visit and enjoy also your forthcoming new vocabulary......

Best wishes,

Leslie Lowes

That'll teach me to assume "gutted" means "eviscerated"! Maybe I should check "eviscerated" in the British dictionary...

At any rate, thanks to Leslie for coming to my defense. Leslie (are you male or female?) I owe you lunch when I get to the Shetland Islands.

(And no, I won't make a big deal out of my new friend Leslie mistaking AL for Alaska, not Alabama. Nothing to feel gutted about!)

Posted by susanna at 07:04 PM | TrackBack

February 13, 2005

Derivative imagery and art

I'm not a graphic artist, and I've known that for a while. By "artist", I mean someone who can visualize completely new things, draw them and put them together in a wonderful new way. I can't draw - small children laugh hysterically at my stick figures. I struggle with coming up with something new. It makes my head hurt. A lot.

What I can do well is derivative art. I can take pieces that other people have designed, and put them together in new ways. I can see a design itself and use it as a basis for my own. The things I produce in that way are in my judgment quite lovely, and I'm not putting myself down by saying my art is heavily derivative. It's just an acknowledgement of my limitations. And in some ways I have artistic skills beyond the average - my color sense, for example. My ability to write.

I have to admit, though, that I've discovered my writing is very derivative as well - at least in that I need a structure to form a story on. Some people can form a story out of whole cloth - a Huckleberry Finn, or Lord of the Rings. I realize they draw on stories and real life events to spark ideas, but they create something new that didn't exist before in putting those pieces together. I need a structure. When I try to write without it, my mind - and the page - stay blank. But when I contemplate writing, say, a mystery novel - which has of a necessity to involve a death and an investigation - suddenly many of the elements for the story are determined and all I have to do is arrange them and make them matter. That's not easy to do well, and I know that. Still, it's also like starting with half the work of creation already done. I accept, again, that this is a limitation of mine - at least at this point in my creative development.

This week I finally got the Return of the King extended DVD, and watched it the last two days. I watched all of the additional footage on the previous DVDs, and will do so on this as well - the work that went into to designing and bringing to life all the monsters and special effects. Of particular interest is the visualization of the horrible creatures - Orcs and others - that fight for the Dark Power. How do you come up with those? Do you just think of the most awful and disgusting configurations of the human visage and go with that? It's an interesting question to me.

Also this week, I got a textbook I've been wanting a long time - one of several I want, in fact, but the first I've actually gotten. It's on crime scene investigation, and I want it both for my teaching and my fiction writing (that structure thing, you understand). Unsurprisingly, the textbook includes quite a few very graphic photographs of actual bodies rendered dead in a variety of ways. Very gruesome. One in particular caught my attention (and made me slightly ill). It is of a person who had drowned, and was not taken from the water for several days. The face was moist, swollen in bizarre lumps and folds, the eyes deflated, the features twisted. Absolutely nightmarish.

I looked through, and read some of, that textbook on Thursday. Friday I began watching the LOTR-ROTK DVD. But it wasn't until last night, during the Battle at Minas Tirith, that I realized the leader of the Orcs looked awfully familiar.

He looked like a dried out, bristly version of the drowning victim.

So that raises a question: Did the artists who designed the nightmare creatures in LOTK use as models photographs of people injured in horrific ways, including drowning victims? Some of the other creatures looked remarkably like better-sewn zombies from earlier movies. I don't know if there's a way to tell, short of asking the artists. It seems logical.

So perhaps, in a way, most art is derivative. There are just levels of skill at visualizing and implementing the vision your mind has created from all the information it collects over time.

Posted by susanna at 08:50 AM | TrackBack

The cost of law enforcement

Mark Hacking of Utah confessed last summer to killing his wife Lori after she found out he'd been living a lie for a long time. But he first reported her as a missing jogger, and Salt Lake City police spent many hours looking for her. His confession included the news that he'd dumped her body in the dumpster, which meant her body was in a local landfill. That 15-day search used up a lot more police hours - hundreds total were spent in the investigation.

I just found this article from last November that covers the cost of the investigation - over $300,000. That's an amazing number, huge in any budget. Recently an expert from the Birmingham forensics lab spoke to my class, and he pointed out that while they have access to all the bells and whistles you see on CSI or other crime shows, they don't own all of them. And they also don't have the staff or lab room to conduct all the analyses that police departments could potentially request.
In fact, a DNA analysis turned in today from a crime would not be analyzed for a year, just because their backlog is that long. Getting it moved up the line would require political pressure - not because the scientists aren't working as fast as they can, but because it's first-come, first-serve. The Hacking case serves as an example of the budget implications of crime scene evidence collection and DNA analysis too:

Maj. Stu Smith of the state crime lab called the Hacking investigation "a budget-buster" in which the lab spent about $28,000 for DNA tests and the time forensic scientists spent at crime scenes. Usually, the lab spends a total of $30,000 on such activities for a whole year.

We as laypeople don't see the realities of this kind of cost calculation when we think of local law enforcement investigating crime. But it's a very real issue, and one that forms an obstacle to investigations all the time. Essentially, the police have to decide how much time to spend on a case and how much money to spend - and that is often based on an assessment of how hard it will be to get the information. The police want to solve the crime, and I'm not saying the cost-benefit analysis is used as a dodge. But if a homicide happened in, say, Childersburg, AL, where I work, and the suspect had fled to California or Canada or Mexico, I can promise you that the homicide detective investigating the case won't be on the next plane to wherever. He may eventually go, but he'll first try to arrange some investigation on the case through the department where the suspect is supposed to be now. That's all well and good too, but the other department has its own pile of cases, budget limitations and overtime issues, and spending those resources on someone else's case is low priority.

What's the point of this? There's not one, really, it's just something I've been thinking about and wanted to post on. But there's one more point from the Hacking case that I wanted to note. I said some time back (and I don't have time to dig out the link right now) that when Lori Hacking was found, it wouldn't be much of her - she'd been in a dumpster, which meant she'd been compacted in the back of it, then further compacted when her body was dumped in the landfill. They roll big machinery over the garbage to mash it down, so more can go in a smaller space. I didn't think much of her would be found, and what was found wouldn't be recognizable as human. That appears to be the case:

The officers who participated in this search say they were spurred on by the desire to provide Lori Hacking's family some closure - and they succeeded. "Even though we were only able to bury 15 pounds of the 115 pounds that she weighed, every ounce was sacred to us," said Hacking's mother, Thelma Soares. "Words cannot adequately express how grateful we are that these people didn't give up. They are my heroes."

Only able to bury 15 pounds of the 115 pounds that she weighed. Doesn't that break your heart?

Posted by susanna at 08:26 AM | TrackBack

February 12, 2005

CNN article on "Easongate" another whitewash

When I heard that CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan had resigned as a result of the furor over what he said at Davos, I started watching CNN to see what they would post about it. Here it is.

You'll notice that the people who objected to what he said are described thus:

Several participants at the event said Jordan told the audience U.S. forces had deliberately targeted journalists -- a charge he denied...

The controversy over Jordan's remarks gained steam last week, with bloggers posting their accounts of what transpired at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland...

Several participants said he told the audience that U.S. forces had deliberately targeted some journalists...

It's never discussed that among those "several participants" were US Rep. Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd, both Democrats. It doesn't give the credentials of any of the "bloggers", several of whom have excellent track records in reporting and analyzing media missteps. And it provides Jordan the cover of the conference being "off the record" without even mentioning the fact that Davos organizers had very clear rules about what was and was not - and the session where Jordan made his questionable remarks appears from their own rules to have been on the record - from a post by attendee Rebecca MacKinnon:

However many of us at Davos believed the session was on the record because it was conducted in a room called Sanada 1&2. Here are the official guidelines issued to media and potential bloggers before Davos began:
...All sessions that are broadcast or webcast are ‘on the record’ (for 2005 that means all sessions in the Congress Hall or Sanada 1 and 2)

She notes some ambiguities in the rules, and posts a response from a Davos staff member who says it was not on the record.

One of the questions I've had all along is, How would the media cover this if it was a political person instead of a media mogul? If President George W. Bush said at, say, a UN Security Council conference, off the record, that he thought Bill Clinton had sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, do you think the media would have run with it if they found it out? If a couple of prominent politicians confirmed it and decried it, would CNN have quoted them in their articles about it? Absolutely, yes and yes. Because if the President said that (and he didn't, let me hasten to point out) even in a private setting, something that is egregiously false and damaging both to the country and to Clinton himself, then he should be held accountable. "Off the record" is not some magic talismanic phrase. Breaking that confidence is definitely to be discouraged, but it's not sacrosanct. And at any rate, the media didn't say "Okay, EJ, it's off the record, we won't cover it!" Others at the conference broke the silence, if in fact it was covered by the "off the record" edict, and reporting secrets revealed by people who shouldn't be talking is the bread and butter of journalism.

All that to reiterate that CNN again showed its biased nature in its coverage of Jordan's downfall, just like CBS did in Rathergate. It's just pathetic.

For a roundup of it all, see Michelle Malkin. And here are the final thoughts from Rony Abovitz, the one who put Eason Jordan on the hot seat by questioning his remarks at Davos. And here are Rebecca MacKinnon's final thoughts.

UPDATE: Also see MacKinnon's criticism of the coverage of Easongate, including a slamming of Fox News by a liberal filmmaker who appeared to talk about journalists being targeted. While I'm sure his liberal views created a filter that made him more likely to perceive the exchanges as "CNN bashing", I do agree with him that the core question of whether journalists have been targeted needs to be discussed. I don't think it happened that way, but it's not something that should be left with a snort and a "of course not". Just because Jordan said it doesn't mean there isn't a core of truth somewhere - like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It was heavily over-reported in the media as evidence of the evil of our troops, and that was just wicked and wrong (not to mention irresponsible journalism). But it did happen, and it was handled appropriately by the military (i.e. the trials, etc). An investigation into the deaths of assorted journalists wouldn't be amiss, I think. No matter the findings, some on both sides will cry foul. But I think such an investigation would remove any question in the minds of the middle of the road people.

Posted by susanna at 10:49 AM | TrackBack

February 11, 2005

"Lerwick shop owners gutted"

Now, did that headline make you sit up and take notice?

You'll be happy to learn that the shop owners in question are in fact still quite healthy. Their new shop, however, has been attacked and vandalized twice in the week since they opened it. A close reading of the article gives no insight into why the headline says what it says. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be lurid so much as meant to fit in a small space on the print version. But it's Leno-worthy, isn't it?

Lerwick, btw, is in The Shetlands, the northern-most region of Scotland. I don't know that location is any excuse, though.

Posted by susanna at 10:32 AM | TrackBack

Welcome home to me!

Earlier this week I dumped all the cookies and offline files in my computer, doing my usual cleanup. That was followed by the just as usual scramble to remember how to get into all those sites where the password was in a cookie and I'd forgotten it. As you may have ascertained by now, my MT password was among those. I did go through the password recovery process, but for whatever reason the first new password they sent wouldn't work either. And I was too busy with 30 other things (also "just as usual") to spend the time to figure out what was wrong.

So this morning I did the password recovery thing again, and it worked this time.

Message to Jim: I did not accidentally have caps lock on with a case-sensitive login/password. :P As per usual, I copied and pasted the password from the email into my password thingy. The first failure was not my fault. (I have to say that when I can because "just as usual" most of the time it is my fault. I have a shocking rate of user error. I mark it down to the creative distractions common to a brilliant mind. Ha.)

So I'm back, much good that it will do you.

Posted by susanna at 09:27 AM | TrackBack

February 07, 2005

Columbia Journalism Review - biased neutral! observer

Instapundit today links a great piece on the Columbia Journalism Review in The Washington Examiner. It's one of the best things I've read on blogs and the media, and why blogs create problems for the media - but only media that have operated in a liberal monopoly vacuum for years. I highly recommend it.

It highlights what I think the most important roles of blogs in regards to the MSM can be: fact-checking and reporting the parts of the truth left out. And it is in the aggregate that blogs have impact. Certainly big blogs like Instapundit and Powerline carry a great deal of weight, but they're where they are because hundreds of smaller blogs (in both influence and traffic) link them and discuss them and hold them up to scrutiny. They live every day with the scrutiny the MSM has avoided for generations. The very transparency of blogs is frightening to the MSM, who try to use that transparency against them by making inferences about blog biases from what is revealed. Meanwhile, the MSM hides its own affiliations that are more pernicious for the very fact that they're hidden. Laura Vanderkam makes that point clearly.

I actually don't have a problem with the majority of MSM folk being liberal. I read some unabashedly liberal publications - like The Village Voice - because I want to see the other perspective, and I think some of those writers are very good (Nat Hentoff, for example). I know a lot of liberal people who try to be meticulous in their honesty and fairness, and that's all you can expect of anyone. Revealing their political biases, or other biases, isn't necessarily saying, "Don't believe anything I say!" It could be saying, instead, "I've tried to be honest and fair here, but I do have biases, so I'll tell you about them so you can be aware of where my blind spots may be." That's what I try to do when I report things on this blog. When I have a strong bias, I expect that my readers will check other sources to make sure I've got whatever it is correct. The MSM isn't accustomed to readers having that willingness or the resources to fulfill it.

Posted by susanna at 09:43 AM | TrackBack

A survey for bloggers

An undergraduate student from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore is sending around a link to a survey about blogging. I took it this morning, and while it's a bit long, I think it's valuable to support their efforts. Since the student sending it around did it as a bulk mail, it landed in my junk mail inbox. And for some reason he uses all caps in his name section, so it looks like this: #KOH WOON KHAI,ANDY#. As I mentioned to him in a return email, it looks remarkably like a Nigerian spam/scam email name. I suspect a lot of people may delete it for that reason without reading it.

So I'm posting the link here, and encourage you - if you blog - to take it. It's only for bloggers, not blog readers, and it's on blogger ethics. Yes, yes, I know, but give it a shot.

Here's the link to the survey. And here's the link to the organization that's sponsoring it, the Singapore Internet Research Centre. That site is worthy of a visit too.

Posted by susanna at 08:12 AM | TrackBack

February 02, 2005

Speaking for SOA

I apologize for being absent these past couple of days. Friends of mine from Kentucky came into town on Sunday and I spent Monday and half of Tuesday running around Birmingham with them. It was a lot of fun, but hectic and didn't leave much time for blogging.

Last night, I gave a talk at a local Kiwanis club about Spirit of America, asking them to donate to help purchase a core library for Iraqi children. I was a little nervous, but it went over well. They won't discuss the possible donation until their next meeting, but I'll let you know how it goes. Preparing for the talk and actually giving it took up the remainder of time I had for posting.

I actually didn't intend to mention my talk because my goal is not to get attention online, but to help SOA spread the word among those who may be willing to help but aren't likely to find out about it online. However, I decided to tell you about it as a means of encouraging any of you to do the same. Michele Redmond, SOA's Manager of Media Relations, was a great help and encouragement, and sent me brochures and newspaper articles to pass out. I had to copy the articles, but that was fine, not a great expense. I also wrote a speech, fairly short, that I would be happy to share with any of you who might consider doing this in your own area. You can contact Michele at

It's a good thing to do. A little scary at first, but the audience is welcoming and formed of people just like you. Last night there were about 35 people there, many of them military veterans, and many of them came up afterward to thank me for the talk. There are Kiwanis Clubs and Rotary Clubs and many other groups like that in virtually every town. Why don't you consider taking a couple of evenings to prepare and give a talk about SOA yourself? It's something you can do to help Iraq and to help our military come home sooner, even if you can't put on a military uniform yourself.

Now I'm off to teach, and church is tonight. So I probably won't see you again until tomorrow. Have a great day!

Posted by susanna at 01:01 PM | TrackBack