Thursday, August 31, 2006

Between the purple covers

Somebody asked me what's in the journals I keep. This is my answer.

You might as well ask what I don't write in my journal. The list would be shorter.

I'm down to the final pages of a notebook that has been my constant companion since last summer. It contains a cross section of my mind and my journeys of the past year, whatever caught my fancy at the moment. I mailed some of its pages to a dear friend on another continent, a letter and a collection of stories for him to read on the plane to come meet me. Some shopping and to-do lists landed there, some notes from a business meeting, some doodles I may one day make into computer artwork. I have poems in both of the languages I know well enough to write a poem. I have the confirmation number for a flight last month. (It saved the day when I lost my itinerary 3000 miles from home!) I have sketches of inventions, floorplans, phone numbers, names of books and music to explore, quotations that resonated, potential blog topics, and an entire page of just fiddling with purple ink on a homemade brush.

Mostly, though, I write. I write to get things off my chest, to unload burdensome or difficult thoughts where they needn't trouble others. I write to think through quandaries and uncertainties, personal and professional. I write to tease the tangled thoughts in my mind into some sort of order, to tinker with ideas that aren't yet complete. In my last year's journal are the drafts for my wedding; the plans for two presentations I gave at a conference; notes and essays that may someday become a book, or two, or three; love letters; rants; ideas; words; confusion; research; stories; meanderings.

My journal is a more inviting place for having no rules or boundaries save perhaps this one: I write to catch each fledgling idea so that the next one can emerge more freely.

Drawing the line

Am I the only person on earth who really uses a pen to write anymore? For all that I spend time in front of the computer, I do still do some of my writing in physical, paper notebooks. They're easy to carry around, quiet, unobtrusive, and comfortable somehow. What's not comfortable is the pen.

First, forget everything at the office. The company purchases whatever is the absolute cheapest they can get their hands on, I think, and who can blame them? Pens wander off, anyway. But these things are dreadful, assuming that you're using them for writing words and not just chewing the caps off of, or standing on end on your desk in moments of boredom. The last office, despite being a little less conscious of their budget, didn't do much better, and I must conclude that it's the pen offerings, not the offices.

In a huge office supply store with a whole aisle of pens, can't we do any better? Perhaps, but there's almost no way of knowing. I will say, I have yet to meet a gel pen that impresses me much. Ball-points, though, should be an established enough technology that somebody out there can do them right.

A good pen should write a clean line. It should write at a variety of natural angles (I hold mine unusually high, if I have a pen that allows it) and without scratching or dragging along the page. It should write a clean, bold line without skipping, smearing, blotching, or bubbling. It should not rattle when moved, either. It should have a comfortable grip, too, though on this count, we're not doing too badly these days.

So why can't I find a pen of this description? I'm willing to spend a few dollars on a decent pen, now that I can usually keep track of them, but there is almost no way to know, in the store. All pens these days come sealed between plastic and cardboard, so there's no way to hold them or try writing.

The closest I've come lately on the low end is the PaperMate Clearpoint. It also comes in an impenetrable package, but a friend let me try the one she had. It's hard to find, even now that I know what I'm looking for. Lately, I have also assembled my own with excellent results.

I will have to make an excursion this weekend to try to find ink to refuel my fountain pens. I have a couple that I like, but nobody seems to sell bottled ink anymore. I already came up empty-handed in one large office store (also devoid of conventional stationery, except for laser printers and a minute selection of thank-you cards and wedding invitations) and in an art-supply place next door (they had ink, but only in a package with 15 colors, or another with a quill pen included). I'll try a couple nearby college bookstores and high-end stationers next.

Why all the fuss? Because when I'm writing I want to think about the words, not the pen, and because having a good, comfortable pen can entice me into writing.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


The translation of yesterday's poem, for those who don't read Spanish.

Here walking with me is a scent
Leaves of oaks in the heat of summer.
Here in the coastal mountains live the oaks, ancient and sage.
Here in the mountains live the redwoods, tall and strong, proud and red.
They live together, the redwoods from the high mountains and the oaks of the hills and valleys.
They live together, recalling an age almost past.
Before the cities, the cars and their strident sounds.
The trees are of the earth and the earth is of their roots.
The cliffs carry the trees and the trees keep the earth
Hoping that there will be one more age yet to live.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Aquí andando conmigo hay un olor
Hojas de robles en el calor de verano.
Aquí en las montañas de la costa viven los robles, antiguos y sabios.
Aquí en las montañas viven las secoyas altas y duras, orgullosas y rojas.
Viven juntos, las secoyas de las montañas altas y los robles de las colinas y valles.
Viven juntos, recordando una edad casi pasada
Antes de las ciudades, los automóviles y sus estridentes sonidos
Los árboles son de la tierra y la tierra es de sus raíces.
Los acantilados tienen a los árboles y los árboles mantienen la tierra,
Esperando que aún haya una era más por vivir.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

At what price safety?

Last Tuesday I flew from Boston to California, stopping to change planes in Dallas. I had with me a number of personal belongings, including my mp3 player, some books to keep busy on the flight, a small pillow, a pair of earplugs that allowed me to spend some much-needed time sleeping, a container of orange juice (some of which I spilled in my lap), a laptop, and a digital camera that I didn't particularly want to entrust to the vagaries of checked baggage.

Overnight, the world changed, and the same assortment of belongings that traveled safely with me Tuesday was verboten by Thursday. Orange juice is no longer a threat only to personal non-stickiness, but apparently also to international security. What changed all this was the discovery of a handful of people with the not-so-bright idea to smuggle the makings of an explosive onto an airplane disguised as beverages and portable electronics. They were, thankfully, caught before they killed anybody or brought down any airplanes, but in a very real sense, they were nonetheless successful in creating chaos.

Needless to say, I am not in favor of blowing up airplanes, and I don't particularly relish the notion of sealing myself in a metal cylinder six miles above the ground with a couple hundred random strangers. Neither does anybody else, and so we tolerate some indignities as part of the ritual of boarding. We open our luggage to inspection, walk our bodies through metal detectors and, lately, shed our shoes. We are thereby reassured that our fellow travelers have at the least encountered some barrier to bringing knives, bombs and guns on board.

Suddenly, overnight, we must now prohibit liquids and electronics of all description (yes, this rule has been relaxed since I wrote this last Friday). A system that worked almost without incident until yesterday now raises grave fears for tomorrow, and the folks in charge revamp the ritual in hopes of warding off the evil spirits.

They claim that these measures are temporary, but only time will tell how long we must endure them or to what extent they will remain. Should we envision a future of traveling naked, or in airport-issued, one-size-fits-nobody paper gowns?

The antidote, if there is one, will be twofold. First, terrorism needs to be prevented at its source, not its final, explosive symptom. Second, the world is going to have to come to grips with the idea that risk can only be mitigated to a point, and can't be screened, legislated, or administrated out.

At what point is airport security screening better than a ritual show of good faith? Somebody determined to flout security will find a way regardless of measures taken. Somebody who is honest can carry a pocket knife at all times and the only harm will come to fruits, vegetables, and packing tape.

Terrorism operates by breeding fear, and to let that fear manifest in encroachments to personal freedom and privacy, to allow the gradual strangulation of our transportation system, is to relinquish control to terrorists.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Recommended reading

I ran across this talk by Douglas Adams today. Whether or not you agree with his notions, I think it's worth reading. What do you think?

Monday, August 14, 2006

A big name in SUVs

Yesterday evening, one of these unduly large SUVs pulled out in front of us, briefly. It was a Nissan Armada. Hey, why settle for driving a boat when you can drive the whole fleet?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Up in the air

Scott's brother is an aircraft mechanic. A year or so ago, he graduated from maintaining and flying airplanes to maintaining and flying helicopters. Today he arranged to take us up in one.

The helicopter is a Vietnam-era Bell UH-1B Super Huey. Our pilot, Tim, took us up and hovered over the ranches and farms around the small airstrip near where they were working today, before he flew home, as a short "maintenance flight". Tim is accustomed to flying utility and long-line work, including tasks like setting one skid on top of a utility pole so that workers can disembark and precisely controlling the location of a large bucket of concrete hanging hundreds of feet below the craft on a cable. He is a very talented and experienced pilot.

Flying in a helicopter is quite unlike flying in an airplane. There is no need to pick up speed before takeoff. Once strapped into seat of canvas and tubing, with headset on (for communications and noise surpression), the pilot puts more power to the main rotor, increases the speed of the tail rotor to correct the spin, and there you are, hovering. The power with which the rotor beats through the air is palpable from the cabin, and the craft may be motionless, except for a little bobbing and wobbling.

We flew out over a grassy hillside and Tim, who is also an experienced flight instructor, handed over the controls to Scott, one at a time. The cyclic, a stick in the center, controls the attitude of the main rotor, left, right, front, and back, joystick-style. The pedals control the tail rotor to adjust the craft's heading and counter the torque from the main rotor (which varies with speed and thrust). The collective, a lever alongside the seat, changes the main rotor blade pitch, basically increasing or decreasing the thrust.

Once he handed over the controls entirely, Tim asked Scott to hover the craft, describing it as being "like standing on a basketball". The cyclic is a very sensitive control. Scott also got to fly forward a while and ascend and descend. Both Tim and Scott's brother agreed that Scott did an excellent job of hovering, for his first time, and it felt pretty smooth from the back seat. Scott credits his success in part to a long history of learning to control video games, though he has not attempted helicopter simulations before.

Then Tim took over again and showed off for us a little, banking abruptly and descending so sharply at one point so that we were all looking straight down at the ground in front of us. We weren't very far up! For all that, probably the scariest part was merging back into the general traffic pattern at the small airstrip, an uncontrolled series of ultralights and other small planes that Tim regarded with some disdain. I suppose such a reaction to hobbiest airplane pilots is reasonable from a professional helicopter pilot with credentials like his.

About 20 minutes later, we were back on the ground, where we shook hands, disembarked. After a couple more photos from the ground, Scott now has the bragging rights to having flown a helicopter.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Reflections on Wikimania

Wikimania was, among other things, a remarkable gathering of bright, like-minded people, people who believe in knowledge and its free availability. Those who gravitate towards spending their free time compiling and grooming information on all subjects tend naturally to be kind, intelligent folks with firm (if often unconventional) beliefs. Many are quiet, bookish types.

I have no doubt after attending the conference that the attendees, both in person and at home, left with a fresh sense of purpose. It is quite likely that ideas changed hands (and changed minds) last weekend that will come to steer the wikis and perhaps even change the world in the coming years. Wikipedia is already making waves, and anybody who does not understand how or believe that it can work has not looked closely enough, yet. (To be sure, we have much work yet to do, throughout Wikidom.)

In the midst of talks about making information accessible to all and making it more accurate, and finding new opportunities for this technology, something more fundamental happened. It happened so simply, so naturally, that even the minds gathered there may not have taken note: minds gathered there!

Five hundred or so bright, like-minded people met each other. They bickered, perhaps, about the details of how this mess should work (yes, we're all still figuring things out as we go) or about who should be in charge (we're all leaders, just for taking up the keyboard and conquering the blank page). But they met. They made contacts and forged friendships that will reverberate for years to come. Multiple parts of the same world-changing idea may have coalesced in this weekend.

Or, perhaps a few quiet world-watchers simply have some new friends. I certainly put faces with several of the names I have worked with online over the past year and more. I looked friends in the eye, shook their hands, and hugged them for the first time. I built new levels of trust and respect with them. We became real to each other.

One friendship, in particular, launched on this trip. Before I stepped off the plane Wednesday night and met him face-to-face, I had never even seen a photo, but we had exchanged abundant text and occasional voice chats, and we had already begun to know each others' minds.

I had no idea how strong this relationship would grow in the few days that followed.

We talked for hours, many of which should rightfully have been spent sleeping, instead. We explored a huge range of subjects. We're both dabblers, generalists, or at least serial specialists, and between us, we've done, read, and considered a lot.

What distinguishes this friendship from others I have tried (it's very new and hard to characterize at this stage) is that we seem somehow, just naturally, not just to give one another the space to speak truly, freely, but to generate spontaneously more space for exploration than we realized there could be. Volleying ideas between us, they resonate, grow, transform, and the exhiliration feeds the cycle. Out come notions we didn't know we had. Perhaps, in fact, we didn't have them, individually.

I hope that with this foundation, this extraordinary start, we can nurture this friendship at a distance. It is unlike anything I have experienced before, and I think it could lead to something great.

An administrative note

It is a predicament of journaling that having a great deal to write about means having little time to write. It looks like I will have a reprieve from the major events that have characterized my life for the past month, and I will try to catch up on a few of them here as time and interest allow.