it’s hard to overstate my satisfaction

Bi-weekly post up on Overthinking It: Illmatic and the Crisis of Peaking Young. Have all of Nas’s later albums fallen short of his debut because he got overhyped? Because he couldn’t handle the pressure? Or maybe it’s okay that he produced the best work of his life in his first album? I answer the question – with science!

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Mini media blow:

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Wow. Damn. You know what, forget all the apologies I made for letting threads drop in the Battlestar Galactica season finale. DiMartino and crew tied every little thing together for the Sozin’s Comet finale. The White Lotus Society, Zhuko’s family tension, Mae and Tai Li, Aang and Katara – it all comes around. It was an action-packed finale that made me misty, made me cheer out loud and left me impressed at the scope of its action and spectacle. Seriously, watch this cartoon.

I could rant for hours about what I liked about Avatar, but what ultimately does it: Avatar surprises me. I find very little mainstream TV surprising. Battlestar Galactica managed to occasionally shock me, but rarely reversed expectations. Avatar has characterization, visual touches, storylines and dialogue that I would not expect from an “adult” show, to say nothing of a kids’ cartoon.

Portal: So much fun. I also started playing Half-Life 2, which came with the Orange Box, but really I bought the whole game just for Portal. And it was everything I hoped it would be and more.

a hundred dollar bills, look at you! look at you!

I think I ought to speak to a financial adviser.

“Professor,” you ask in a robust chorus. “Don’t you have a degree in economics from a prestigious university?” I do; thank you for reminding me. But that doesn’t make me qualified to invest wisely. I know I’ve used this metaphor in the past, but: asking an economist for stock tips is like asking a physicist to build a bridge. Engineers (the people who build bridges) need to know physics, but their education doesn’t end there. Similarly, I have my private theories about what the economy will look like in 2016, but that doesn’t tell me which funds to buy.

But I remain chary about just walking into the closest Ameriprise office, dumping my financial statements on the desk, and asking, “Whaddaya got?” I have little faith in the ability of advisers to build an investment plan to weather a crisis they never saw coming (or hurried along, depending on their employer). So I need someone I can trust.

The first step: knowing about myself. What do I know?


  • I have good saving habits. When I moved from my job at The Company to my job at Internet Inc., I got a pay raise of x%. Almost all of that x% goes into savings. I’m living at the same standard of living I did before – which is easy; I’m used to it – and banking whatever extra money I make.

  • I hate managing my investments. Burton Malkiel, in A Random Walk Down Wall Street, ranks categories of investments on a “sleeping scale,” in which instruments are ranked on a scale by how much sleep you’ll lose worrying over them. Bank accounts are “semicomatose,” money-market accounts are “long afternoon naps and sound night’s sleep” (though any editions published after 2008 might offer, ahem, a mild caveat), real estate is “tossing and turning, vivid dreams” and gold is “insomnia.” The farther down you go on the scale, the more you have to manage the investment.

    I have more important things to do with my time than log on to a website and track a portfolio every day, or crunch numbers on my homemade spreadsheets. I like my investments the way I like my rotisserie grills: something I can set and then walk away from.

  • I’m allergic to risk. I hate the thought of losing money. A decent rate of return would be nice, but right now I’d be happy with a vehicle that simply kept its value year over year. I wouldn’t invest at all, except the knowledge that my savings accounts and money-market accounts will lose value due to inflation spurs me on. Real losses have finally started to scare me more than nominal losses.

  • I have a 401(k) through my current job, a 401(k) from my old job, some stock in my old company, an IRA that I started when I was a teenager but have not touched since college, an online stock portfolio, a savings account and a checking account. I have zero debt and zero real assets (unless you count a car that needs minor bodywork and a new CV joint).

  • Goals: get to that mythical “three months of expenses” savings mark. Save up for various trips outside the country. Saving for retirement’s less of a priority – I’m not of the mindset that puts off the fun parts of life until age 65, and I spend a lot of my spare time pursuing a job that I can still do in my golden years. But I’m not going to stop saving for retirement.

Having examined my financial life, let’s see if it’s worth living.

used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do so the little got more and more

Muse and the Marketplace isn’t all I did this weekend, though.

On Saturday, I saw Flat Earth Theatre put up 12 Angry Jurors at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. Afterward, Rachel V., Orit, Rachel’s MOSAIC co-star Josh and I had appetizers and beers at Donohue’s.

Orit: I’m trying to think of a way to work a jury trial into my [3rd and 4th grade] class now.
Professor: Just wait until one of your kids does something wrong – which has already happened – and voila!
Josh: Or you could just accuse one of doing something. They’ll know what they did.
Rachel: Ooh, ooh. You could torture one of them until they confess. Because that always works.

Donohue’s keeps one big-screen set tuned to IAmTV at all times. IAmTV shows an award-winning lineup of wakeboarders, BASE jumpers and girls in bikinis around the clock. Finally, television for audiences that find Two and a Half Men too hard to follow.

On Sunday, after writing, eating dinner and recording an Overthinking It podcast, I stopped by ImprovBoston for some beers and pizza. Harry G., Ryan the Intern, Kevin H. and I spent several minutes idling in the hallway, shooting nonsense at each other.

Harry: Anyone want to buy some heroin? I’ve got six bags of it.
Ryan: Yes, please.
Professor: Yeah, because heroin’s sold by the bag. A giant trash bag of heroin, just sloshing around.
Kevin: That’s our new improv troupe name: ‘Sloshing Bags of Heroin.’
Harry: Our first show’s nothing but West Roxbury junkies and undercover cops.
Professor: (Boston accent, into collar mic) Yeah, 10-22, guys, it’s just a feckin’ improv troupe.

I don’t see Harry as often as I should. Somebody fix that.

in a way he’s the one who devised the plan

I spent most of this weekend indoors at Grub Street’s annual Muse and the Marketplace conference. Writers take over two floors of the Park Plaza Hotel, networking, taking seminars from some of the best writers out there, and getting manuscript feedback from agents and editors.

My take:


  • I attended the conference primarily for the Manuscript Mart – a chance to sit down privately with an agent or an editor, have them read an excerpt of your work, and hear their thoughts. Most attendees use this to pitch, but I had no illusions about by manuscript (the novel I finished last year) being saleable. I wanted to hear what the pros thought.

    (Agent) Michelle Brower, Wendy Sherman Associates: I need to work on pacing. I have a good sense of character, description and dialogue, but for a murder thriller, there’s very little tension in the first 20 pages. She recommended that I scoop up a bushel of thriller writers – King, Cornwall, Patterson, etc – and read them for craft. “Also, I think your protagonist needs a name.”

    (Editor) Rakesh Satyal, HarperCollins: Spend more time on the primary characters in the first 20 pages. If I need to front-load all that tension, I need to introduce the main characters efficiently and thoroughly. Give a clearer description of the setting, particularly the family’s new neighborhood. He also called me out on several unnecessary adverbs that I thought I’d scooped up in the first revision. “It’ll help the audience identify with your protagonist if he has a name.”

  • Tess Gerritsen gave a gem of a talk on taking a strong premise and pushing it into a genuine plot. She writes very different from me: starting with a good idea and letting rip rather than outlining. We both agree that a character evolves through the writing process, though, not a character sketch. We as humans never learn a person’s whole life story when we meet them: we meet a person as they are at that moment. So should it be in your novel.

    What hooks a reader in, she observed, are premises and scenes with strong emotional content. Keep an eye out for what makes you feel something, even during the research stages. “When you’re doing research,” she told us, “if you find something that makes you say, ‘Wow’ – put that in the book.” Her example: the one-in-fifty failure rate of NASA shuttles, which came up while researching Gravity.

  • Sure were a lot of women my mom’s age pitching their memoirs! Or maybe I just picked the right string of seminars. The male/female ratio was about 40:60, and I fell several years below the median age.

  • Chuck Sambuchino: think Mark Wahlberg, literary agent. He has the same high, urban accent (not Bostonian, though), the same aggressive upper body language, and the smart attitude Wahlberg would likely have in dealing with a roomful of unpublished writers.

    “There’s a lot of debate about self-publishing …” began one question.
    “There is?” Chuck laughed.

    I attended two of his – one on query letters, one on non-fiction book proposals. A query letter (he says) needs to sell your strengths in a way that gets the agent excited. Work on your pitch until it’s streamlined and effective. And the non-fiction book proposal seminar not only gave me information, but ideas for things I might write myself. Chuck handled himself like a pro in a tight room with a limited clock and a lot of questions. “Not all of this applies to memoirs,” he said, watching half a dozen hands slowly go down.

  • I expected cold sandwiches and chips, but they lay out quite a spread! Caesar salad and chicken breast with capers for Saturday lunch, with key lime pie for dessert. On Sunday: baby spinach salad, chicken asiago and Boston Cream pie. I wouldn’t mind cheaper fare if it meant a cheaper conference, but Park Plaza caterers might not have down-market options.

  • Amy MacKinnon taught a seminar on using sparing, salient details to enhance description. The handout had more examples than concrete principles, but it gave me a wealth of new authors to consider: Stewart O’Nan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Paul Yoon and this Hemingway guy.

  • Free wireless!

  • Ann Patchett gave the keynote speech during lunch on Sunday. She chose, ironically enough, “the Muse and the Marketplace” as the topics of her speech. “The Muse,” she began, “is bullshit.”

    Writing is a job, she stressed, and writers have to treat it with the same respect as a job. If you sit around waiting for creativity to inspire you, or you confine yourself to peculiar rituals and superstitions before you can write anything, you will never produce the volume that you must to succeed. The more time you spend sitting in front of your computer, trying to write, the more you will write and the better you will write.

    We put such a high premium on creativity, she said, when it should really be the top level of the pyramid – and therefore the last applied. Absolute commitment should come first – the vaunted ten thousand hours – then technical proficiency. Only once you’ve assembled all the tools should you get creative.

    Patchett talked about the immense technical quality you see in most short stories today. She had a hard time narrowing down the twenty Best American Short Stories when she edited the collection in 2006; she said she’d have a hard time finding twenty such novels. The reason, she said, is because writers throw short stories away. Nobody expects to sell their first short story, but everybody wants to sell their first novel. Writers invest so much time and pain into novels that they have a hard time letting go.

    (N.B.: Patchett wasn’t saying to write more short stories – though that couldn’t hurt – but to view novel manuscripts more objectively)

  • As for the Marketplace? Opinions vary. Some speakers encouraged new writers – publishers are clearing out their mid-lists in the slow economy and are willing to buy a debut novel cheaply in the hopes of finding a breakout. Others acknowledged the changing market – Barnes & Noble’s head buyer will not be the most important person in the print world by the end of 2009. But the moral remained constant: keep networking, keep honing the craft and keep writing. Luck strikes anyone who stays at the table long enough.

’cause everyone knows that’s how you get famous

First off, I take part in this week’s Overthinking It Think Tank, along with Matthew Wrather, David Schechner, Jordan Stokes and Ryan Sheely. Our topic: Best Logo. Vote for your favorite! (Meaning, mine)

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While we’re talking OTI, last week’s podcast – which I couldn’t attend – spent a lot of time debating What Art Is. When you hang out with literate, creative people long enough, this subject inevitably surfaces. We all know enough about the 19th and 20th Centuries to know that a lot of stuff that wasn’t considered Art at the time – Impressionism, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Chaplin’s films – now fits snugly within canon. We’re also snobbish enough that we don’t want to open the doors to every Jeezy-come-lately. Somewhere, a line must be drawn.

I have a question, though: why do we have to draw a line between Art and non-Art? What does it profit us to draw a distinction before the fact, rather than after the fact?

Suppose that Art has an objective existence, outside of “what people call Art.” There are some books, movies and songs which are Art and some which are Not Art. What if we accidentally let “Oops! …I Did It Again” into the club and it turns out that it’s not actually Art? What’s the downside?

Are future generations going to be confused if the definition of Art is too broad and lose (what little) interest they might otherwise have? Will the National Endowment for the Arts get swamped by bogus requests? Will a B.A. in Art History become even more worthless?

I ask partly tongue-in-cheek, but primarily because I think it’ll steer the debate in a more fruitful direction. I’m not saying that we can’t define What Art Is. But I firmly believe that, if we settle beforehand why it’s so important to have a clear, workable definition, the final definition we settle on will be a lot more solid.

So: that’s your challenge for today. Not a definition of What Art Is (though please, pitch in to that debate too), but an explanation of why it’s so important to have a clear definition of What Art Is. I’m curious.

wet bus stop; she’s waiting; his car is warm and dry

Those of you who don’t follow sensational crime stories, or who live outside of New England, might not have heard that a Boston University medical student was arrested for robbing and killing prostitutes found on Craigslist earlier this week.

I don’t intend to speculate on the suspect’s guilt or innocence in this post. The man certainly doesn’t look like the prostitute-robbing type. And when you read as much Radley Balko as I do, you grow suspect of District Attorneys who leap to the airwaves after making an arrest to trumpet a suspect’s guilt. However, I suppose there’s not a phenotype of “prostitute robber / murderer,” and vainglorious DAs are hardly new.

As I said, that’s incidental. What intrigues me most is a highly public arrest in the Age of the Panopticon*.

Within hours of the arrest being announced, webloggers had found the suspect’s Facebook page. Within a day, they’d found his wedding website with his fiancee. Amateur psychoanalysts have already picked apart his choice of wedding hotel reservations (“registering at Bloomingdale’s before thinking better of it and switching to Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s”). And a slew of anonymous commentators have already told this stranger their opinion of him (and his fiancee) on TheKnot.com.

Here’s a fun exercise: if you were accused of something unthinkable, what clues could people unearth – in hindsight – from your public Internet presence? Google your own name and see what comes up – your weblog, your Facebook page, your LinkedIn profile, etc. Take as objective a look as you can at each of those windows into your life. Now imagine what the dumbest, loudest people on the Internet would say about those clues if they already thought you were guilty.

Leave a lot of cutesy comments for a significant other? “Clearly shows signs of being obsessive. Probably even a little possessive or jealous; I’ll bet they snap when they don’t get their way.”

Complain a lot about how your job’s stressing you out? “Some people repress a lot of tension from work. They let it build and build until it snaps something.”

List any past job experience as a finance professional, lawyer, bartender, musician, or sales executive? “Oh, well, you know how those people are.”

My generation still hasn’t adapted fully to the Panopticon – the all-surveilling-all nature of the Internet, where each of us is equally vulnerable and powerful in turn. We see nothing wrong with bitching about work in our Facebook status, or posting pictures of ourselves on dating sites, or complaining about exes in our weblogs. Yet this clearly doesn’t mesh with our other behaviors. We don’t act like drunken emotional buffoons all the time, but we leave evidence of that behavior lying around for anyone to find.

Given a long enough timeline and enough monkeys at the typewriter, someone will discover something embarrassing about us. And if some brush with glory – or some brutal crime – catapults us to the spotlight, everyone is going to find all of it.

So one of two changes has to occur.

Either the next generation – children born in the 21st Century – will have stricter notions of privacy than we ever did. They’ll make every network private, handing out access cautiously and withdrawing it as a statement of defiance. People will craft multiple masks online: one for family, one for acquaintances, one for potential romantic partners, one for close friends, one for work, etc. Already we see some of this in Facebook privacy settings, but it’s not as broad as it could be.

(If that’s the route they go, I’d see it as a tremendous loss of the Internet’s communicative potential. But, recluse that I am, I can’t fault someone for wanting to keep their drunken pics off their boss’s computer)

Or, the next generation will adapt its behavior, acquiescing to the changes in technology. So the Internet makes everything public? Fine – we’ll abandon all attempts at privacy. We’ll back-sass our parents, speak frankly to friends and strangers, and tell our supervisors what we really think. They could find out who I’m dating or where I went last weekend with enough effort on Google, so why hide it?

(This might also be an unpleasant result, as it means our kids will spit more trash and give less respect than we did. But I imagine we’d think that of them in any case; the old always do think that this generation of kids are the worst ever)

Regardless of which way it changes, the next generation has to make that change eventually. And when they do, our generation will have to catch up. Because technology has once again outstripped our mores, and we need to stop acting surprised.

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* I’m not strictly happy with Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the death of privacy. The Panopticon doesn’t expose everyone to surveillance – it exposes all the prisoners. The Panopticon also contains a warden who cannot be seen. As Foucault points out, the perpetual tension of being watched without knowing when you’re being watched enforces discipline better than any number of guards.

Since I compare Facebook to the Panopticon in order to say that “we’re all watching each other,” not “we’re all victims of a monolithic power,” I could probably find a stronger metaphor. But I can’t think of one yet. The next best analogy is to the Belcerebon species from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, an alien race cursed with immutable telepathy. Each Belcerebon constantly broadcasts its thoughts to every other thinking creature nearby. And while this is pretty close to the way Twitter works, I get a lot more literati cred referencing Jeremy Bentham than Douglas Adams.

invisible airwaves crackle with life

This week’s media blow can download over either the 3G or standard wireless networks.

House of Sand and Fog: Brutal and moving and impressive. Kathy, a recovering addict whose husband has just abandoned her, gets evicted from her Pacific Coast bungalow for failure to pay a small business tax that she does not owe. In the ensuing time that she’s absent, her house is bought up by Massoud Behrani, former colonel in the Iranian Air Force and current convenience store clerk. Neither Kathy nor Behrani seem willing to give up the house, and they both have perfectly valid claims to it.

The premise itself is amazing enough – two families whose lives are ruined by the brute ignorance of large institutions – but Dubus’s ability to put the reader inside each character’s head is what makes this genius. Both Kathy and the Colonel are equally pitiable and sympathetic. Sure, Kathy could have probably stayed in the house by organizing her correspondence with the state a little neater, but she clearly doesn’t deserve to be evicted for that failing. And, yes, Behrani may have served the Shah of Iran, but he’s merely trying to provide a home and an income for his family. Both sides to this struggle have equally valid points of view, and it takes Dubus’ genius to depict them.

In the broadest scope, House of Sand and Fog is about how hard a time we have adapting to change. Kathy is given the opportunity to sue the county for wrongfully evicting her, but she doesn’t want a lawsuit. She wants to be back in the house her father built; she wants to not be the fuck-up addict daughter her family thinks she is, who lost their dead father’s last treasure. Similarly, Behrani has the chance to sell the house back to the county at the price he paid, but he’s already had it appraised at four times its auction value. He wants to restore his family to the life of prosperity they knew in Tehran. Both sides want to cling to a prettier past life, and the steps they’ll take to get it turn this story into tragedy.

State of Play: Saw this with the family this past weekend. A fun little government conspiracy thriller, but it’s not going to win any awards or light anyone’s ass on fire any time soon. Russell Crowe is That Sloppy Journalist who believes in following hunches; Rachel McAdams is That Spunky, Fresh-Faced Cub Reporter who’s still getting her balance; Helen Mirren is That Hard-nosed Editor who wants the hot story but is getting pressure from the publishers to go to press now; Ben Affleck is That Young, Impassioned Congressman who gets in trouble. You’ve seen this story before; what makes it interesting is the caliber of actors telling it.

Also, according to Dad, it’s nowhere near that easy to get into Crystal City at night, to say nothing of the Capitol Building.

Accelerando: Singularity sci-fi on hyperdrive. Stross buffets the reader with concepts from page one, barely wasting a second on exposition. Don’t worry if most of the jargon, like “gravity well” and “nanoassembly conformation” and “surplus neurotransmitter molecules,” run over your head. Stross takes frequent breaks to recap, recontextualize and give a tired reader a break.

Although, in a way, the breathless rush of unimaginable concepts sets a good tone for the story – an explosion of technology that transforms What It Means To Be Human, pushing the species along so fast that the next generation looks alien.

The first (of several) protagonists, Manfred Macz, is a hyperactive information junkie who gives away lucrative business propositions for free in an effort to liberate the human race from the constraints of classical economics. As an econ nerd, I find the notion of freeing human beings from Supply and Demand about as plausible as freeing human beings from evolution – but then, a significant portion of the novel is given over to uploading our neurons into massive computers, so why not? I have no particular bias toward marginal utility, downward sloping demand curves and time preference! They’re cruel beasts. It’s just that right now they’re the only game in town.

Also: I wonder how Stross avoided getting tagged with the “asshole” brush that so many people labeled Rand with. Both Accelerando and Atlas Shrugged are about the same thing: Nietszchean super-geniuses who never make mistakes, doing end-runs around giant government agencies and incompetent corporations, bringing the benefits of high technology to their like-minded friends and family while the rest of the human race gets eaten alive. But I’ve never seen Stross get the same griefing that Rand does.

(This may be partly because Rand spends a lot more time dwelling on how pathetic and miserable her ideological enemies are, and partly because Stross is a genuinely better author)