Related notes on life and death

I’m looking forward to seeing “No country for old men“. Tried to see it last night, but there was a fire alarm at the theatre and they made everyone leave, which, as you can imagine, was very frustrating. As someone who loves both the novel “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy and most films by the Coen brothers, I am looking forward to seeing this adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s book by the same name. Friday evening I read an interview with McCarthy where he threw down a few nuggets:

  1. “McCarthy’s style owes much to Faulkner’s — in its recondite vocabulary, punctuation, portentous rhetoric, use of dialect and concrete sense of the world — a debt McCarthy doesn’t dispute. “The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” he says. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” His list of those whom he calls the “good writers” — Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner — precludes anyone who doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.” Proust and Henry James don’t make the cut. “I don’t understand them,” he says. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.”
  2. “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
  3. “Having saved enough money to leave El Paso, McCarthy may take off again soon, probably for several years in Spain. His son, with whom he has lately re-established a strong bond, is to be married there this year. “Three moves is as good as a fire,” he says in praise of homelessness.”

Now I get it. I think.

I was startled when my 18 year old cousin told me to “email” him on MySpace. I asked, “No, what is your email address? So, I can actually send you an email.” Email = MySpace? Since I’m not a user of MySpace’s closed garden, basic old-fashioned open-protocol email is how I get in touch with people. He had a Hotmail account, but couldn’t remember it. I was really surprised that he contacts his friends solely via MySpace and the cellphone. But, my guess is a lot of other people his age are the same way. After all, on MySpace only your friends can message you, right?

It just seems like a strange way to do things. I have a feeling a lot of kids these days are comfortable using the Internet, but that maybe they find aspects of it a little complicated so MySpace and Facebook have a natural appeal. It’s easy. No need to manage multiple accounts for blogging, photos, messaging, etc. Just sign up for whichever social network is hot and go crazy.

I take it for granted that not everyone enjoys the challenges that come with some stuff on the Internet. So, I get it now. I think. Social networks make the Internet easy by keeping everything all in one place. It’s like AOL, but not old-skool AOL, which is for old people. Is that it?

Webcam plus wacom plus wackadoo

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve barely touched my Wacom tablet since it arrived a few weeks ago. Despite the best of intentions, I have yet to start drawing like a tornado. I’m still getting the hang of all the buttons and settings, which are fairly complicated. Also, as I intimated previously, being creative is more a meditative and experimental state of mind more than what tools you have. This meditative state of mind is difficult to achieve and requires setting aside time to slow down, which is hard for me. When I was a bored kid, I used whatever cheap pencils and paper were at my disposal. (Note to self: post a few childhood drawings to website.) One tendency I have as an adult is to make everything overly complicated. As you know, most of life is deceptively simple.

Anyway, here’s something I doodled in a few minutes. Drawing on photos is fun in that you get an interaction between the fantasy of the drawing and the realism of the photo. I think the Disney biography I’ve been reading is having a positive effect on me. It has really gotten my juices flowing. Even my dreams have been better. For someone who aspires to be both creative and successful, Walt Disney’s story is a real inspiration. At their best, most biographies have this effect. Almost as if they are whispering to you, “Come on! Follow my example. You can do something big, too, if you just want it bad enough.” The question is, do you want it bad enough?

webcam weirdo

Wacom Intuos3 Review

wacom doodlingMore than a decade ago, I used to reach out to the world through little home-made publications we called zines. Apparently, it was a movement, although in retrospect it seems fairly minute as movements go.

For the younger people: Making zines was a way to self-publish and share your thoughts and creativity with other people like you. You basically produced a compilation of drawings, comics, writing, etc. and bundled it together with a cover. Then you xeroxed the whole thing to make a few tens or hundreds of copies you could sell to cover the costs or give away. It was very limited and the community was pretty insular, but that is what made it fun.

This was before the Internet incorporated all culture. With the Internet, you no longer have to work to find like-minded people. I’m not complaining. Just sayin’. That was the whole point of zines, after all. For me anyway.

I enjoyed drawing comics and making the zine. I even enjoyed motivating my friends to participate and trying to manage the whole production side of it, so we could push out a new issue every so often. In some ways, it was a precursor to what I do now in web design and development. Funny how that works.

Anyway, the point is, as most of my hobbies have migrated to involving the computer, I’ve found it difficult to pick up a pen and paper. No more drawing, no more hand-written letters, no more mix tapes, no more zines. As special as it was, it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s like asking people to ride horses to get from place to place.

But, I miss drawing. I miss seeing pictures emerge from my brain that don’t look like I leaned on a computer to get them. It was always a surprise to see something good come out, almost as if something was working through you not as a result of anything you did. When you sat back and looked down at the page it was very satisfying. It felt creative in the sense of CREATING something.

Normally when I get the jones to draw, I go drop some money on fresh art supplies, which I mess with then ultimately abandon. This time I thought I would stop trying to fight the tide and buy something I could use on the computer. So, I broke down and bought a Wacom Intuos3 6×8 graphics tablet. Here’s my review in a nut shell: it’s harder to use than I expected. If you’re drawing every day, it might be a good tool to get familiar with. For me, I’ve used it 2-3 times in the two weeks I’ve had it. I plan on giving it more attention, but it wasn’t the computer drawing revelation I expected. For illustration, it might work better as a good way to color your work. The effect is definitely more fluid than controlled, in my experience. That being said, you have a lot more control than you do with the mouse.

Above is something I drew with the tablet. I’m going to keep at it.

Tell me when to go

Human beings are amazing creatures. How do I know this? Hours and hours spent glued to YouTube. Seriously.

The more I browse YouTube, the more I marvel at the creativity of my fellow humans. On YouTube you get to see the people who would never waste their time doing something as boring and egotistical (Not that there is no narcissism on YouTube. Au contraire.) as blogging. Thanks to YouTube they don’t have to tell you anything. They just show you.

Here are a few choice cuts I have come across:

You’re dead to me

I’ve always enjoyed going to used book stores. Back in San Antonio where I grew up there was a Half Price Books on Broadway that was built into an old two-story house. With every wall covered in shelves, the hallways and rooms were a tight fit to go in and out of. It was the perfect shopping experience for a teenage reader: row upon row of musty paperbacks piled to the ceiling; creaking floorboards and hidden treasure for pennies.

Fast forward fifteen years. I still love books, but the world has changed. These days, professional eBayers pounce on rare treasures they can sell at auction to the world, which removes some of the treasure hunting aspect, and many specialty book sellers have closed shop and now sell almost exclusively online.

None of these reasons are why I stopped shopping at my once beloved used bookstores. I had to be pushed, kicking and screaming, into buying books online for one reason: I could never find what I was looking for. I didn’t know if what I wanted was in the store somewhere or not and I found this completely frustrating. Just tell me if you have it or not. Please.

Any book published in the last thirty years has either an ISBN number, a UPC barcode, or both. If used bookstores tracked their inventory it wouldn’t just please their customers (me). They could also then start offering books online, track what’s selling well, see which stores have the worst theft, and use this data to discover all sorts of other interesting information.

I shop on Amazon, for now. But, if I can search my local used book store for a book I want, I will gladly return to your musty stacks.

Wake up like Bill Murray

groundhogday.jpgThe Blackberry makes a pretty good alarm clock. It has a weekend off setting, so you can leave the alarm set all the time. And, it’s portable and battery-powered so you can hide it on a shelf or behind something, so you have to get up and turn it off. It also makes an awesome travel alarm. Just stretch out, set the alarm and you’re good to go. Another good feature is the ability to set the alarm to play any sound file based on how you like to wake up. The other day I had the idea to create a ringtone from Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” to use as my alarm sound a la Phil Connors in the Harold Ramis classic, Groundhog Day. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is jaded weatherman, Phil Connors. Trapped in time, he wakes each morning to a clock radio playing “I Got You Babe” to relive the same day over and over.

When every day can feel like a repeat of the day before, it makes the perfect song to wake up to. Download it to your Blackberry or cellphone.

Plano, Texas Library Lookup via Amazon

A while back I recommended a cool Greasemonkey script to check the library for the books you are browsing at It has saved me a ton of money (sorry Amazon) and has turned me into a regular library patron. Now when I click a link to Amazon, the script checks to see if my libraries have the book. Then I can click through and put the book on hold and grab it when I get to the library.

I was talking to this guy I work with about good books and I told him about this script and found out which library he goes to. Then I just edited the script to support his library. So, if you get your books at the Plano library, you can now use this script. (Remember to install Greasemonkey for Firefox first.)

While we’re at it, if you have a library and can’t find a similar script on, let me know what library you go to and I can whip one up for you.

For more on Greasemonkey, you can read Mark Pilgrim’s Greasemonkey Hacks in its entirety online.

Are you human?

birds_in_tree.jpgRight now juvenile birds all over the northern hemisphere are fledging, growing their flight feathers and learning to fly. You may have noticed some birds looking particularly clumsy, patchy, loud, and awkward. These are likely fledglings, the bird equivalent of a human teenager. Just like teenagers, they are testing their wings, preparing to leave their parents for the world beyond. Also like teenagers, they are obnoxiously dependent, ungainly, and even ugly in a half-baked sort of way.

You will often see fledglings chasing their parents around begging for food. Most young birds make distinct “feed me” calls their parents find impossible to ignore. In a study involving the cagey wild turkey (I can’t remember where I read about this), scientists created a decoy polecat with a tape recorder inside that would play the cheep-cheep call of the wild turkey chicks. As the polecat is one of the turkey’s mortal enemies, the turkey would predictably attack the polecat decoy on sight unless the decoy played the cheep-cheep call. In this case the turkey would hover protectively over the polecat as if it were part of its brood rather than a potential predator. The fact that this behavior is automatic and triggered solely by the cheep-cheep call shows how nature uses instinct as an effective mental shortcut to produce good parenting behavior. From the parent bird’s perspective, they probably don’t realize that their need to feed their offspring is triggered by a particular sound and behavior. In their tiny bird brain, they are probably thinking something like, “Gotta find food now and give it to the baby.” Repeat.

It makes you wonder how much of our own behavior and thoughts are dictated by instincts undetectable to our conscious minds. Why do we really feel and think the things that we do? Do we overestimate the power and control of our own consciousness? What behaviors and feelings do we indulge because of some hidden, instinctual motive? I think about this on the highway where it seems like everyone is talking on a cellphone as they return to their homes. Many people feel this strong desire to stay in constant contact. There has to be some reason we feel the need to socialize in this way.

Maybe depression and anxiety are caused, in large part, by behaving against instinct. Maybe happiness itself is the emotional payoff from acting in accord with Nature. If that is the case, are there any cases where nature/happiness is suspect? In other words, are there times when we should act against Nature to achieve a better long-term dividend of happiness? I think this conflict between what we want and what we think we want is ever present and is responsible for many problems like crime, poverty, violence, and addiction.

It is possible that to achieve larger ends we must act against instinct even to the point of suffering.

From a scene in Frank Hebert’s Dune:

“What’s in the box?”
He felt increased tingling in his hand, pressed his lips tightly together.
How could this be a test? he wondered. The tingling became an itch.
The old woman said; “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a
trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure
the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to
his kind.”
The itch became the faintest burning. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.
“To determine if you’re human. Be silent.”

LBJ: The Path to Power

Lyndon JohnsonI have been reading the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of President Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power, and it is fascinating. I don’t normally read biographies, but I had heard good things about this one. It hasn’t disappointed.

Caro takes his time and paints a complex portrait of LBJ, the man and political genius, rooted in the Texas hill country, but always straining against his own limitations and the limits of his circumstances for more. At times one wonders whether Caro holds a grudge against Johnson since his narrative seems to focus on Johnson’s cynical ambitions for power and prestige, however, by dispensing with sympathy, Caro has created a sense of drama and mystery around the man.

From the story of Lyndon Johnson, you learn a lot about the power of will and the power of dreams and goals. From an early age, LBJ possessed an ambition to be important. While many children have wanted to grow up to be president, how many approached their goals with a single-minded determination? How many have done everything they could to achieve what they wanted out of life? In LBJ, you see a man of extraordinary political genius who, while deeply flawed, worked tirelessly to achieve what he wanted. In that energy and will, there is a compelling example: you can accomplish great things through work and desire.