Sweet Dreams, Honey

What my wife just said in her sleep:

“I’m going down to the ducks.” (Points theatrically towards the ceiling of our bedroom.) “I’m going to tell them – you are a duck.”

Sweet dreams, honey.

But I’m Already Certified

Over the loudspeaker at my workplace: “Sex Offender Training will take place at 10 AM in the Executive Conference Room.”

Somebody has an interesting position description.

The Blue Picture Even Shows Them Sitting There

I used to think that handicapped parking spaces were places for handicapped people to park their wheelchairs.

I thought this until I was about 10 years old. Really.

Cool – You Have the Bendy Kind

I used to think that vampire teeth were hollow like straws, and that vampires would drink people’s blood through the teeth.

I Shop the List (and Nothing but the List)

This weekend, I went to the grocery store. As usual, my wife supplied me with a list of items to be purchased, but I was dismayed to find that it contained entries such as “frozen dinners (2-3)” and “cantaloupe.” The selection of such items requires the exercise of independent judgment, and in the context of a grocery store, this is simply beyond my powers.

It is easy to buy “15 oz bag of Herr’s Ripples potato chips (red bag).” One need only navigate to the aisle implied by the product description (in our supermarket, this would be the enticingly named “Snack Time” aisle), locate the shelves housing the appropriate family of products (i.e., potato chips), and then compare the characteristics of the products on the shelf with the characteristics of the target product until a suitable match has been found.

It is somewhat more challenging but still manageable to purchase “Pepsi.” When you aim to purchase “Pepsi,” the only thing up for grabs is the packaging. Whether you select a 2 liter, a 12-pack of cans, or a 6-pack of bottles, it’s all the same stuff inside. This is not to pooh-pooh the significant consequences that attend different packaging configurations (e.g., economics, portability, convenience, and prestige), but it is usually within my abilities to sort such matters out and make an appropriate selection.

What am I supposed to do when confronted with “cantaloupe”? The naive consumer might try to draw an analogy to the earlier packaging example, but there is much more at play here. While the size / shape of the cantaloupe corresponds roughly to its “packaging,” the internals of different cantaloupes matter greatly and gravely. There are issues of ripeness, firmness, fragrance, juiciness, and bruising to be considered here. Moreover, the opacity of the cantaloupe’s skin makes it decidedly difficult to discern the nature of what lies beneath. It is widely reported that some people possess the ability to shake, sniff and fondle cantaloupes in order to assess their merits. This is mysterious augury, and perhaps fodder for witch trials, but it exceeds my meager talents. In the past, I have tried to play at similar behaviors by gouging the fruits of the earth with my thumbs and nodding knowingly as their innards squirted into the air, but I was merely a pretender – a serial melon mangler in shopper’s clothing. Even if I knew what was underneath the skin, I would still be at a loss to say whether a given cantaloupe was suitably ripe, unsuitably stinky, appropriately juicy, or actually a grapefruit that had fallen errantly into the cantaloupe bin.

These difficulties are only compounded with the entrance of “frozen dinners (2-3)” onto the scene. You can imagine my chagrin. A dizzying array of products gathers beneath this heading, and yet the boundaries of the class remain ill-defined. Does a loaf of frozen garlic bread count as a frozen dinner? What about a bag of frozen peas? I would say yes on both counts, but my wife subscribes to different taxonomies, and hers constitute the bounds of reality for the purposes of this exercise. Even if we were to assume agreement on the class membership issue, I would still be at a loss as to which set of frozen dinners to select. Are these for me? If so, no problem — grab the first three Hungry Man boxes off the top of the pile and head for the checkout counter. If these are for my wife, however, I must take into account such issues as quality, taste, variety, and the present contents of our freezer. As someone who prefers the TV dinner versions of most entrees to their restaurant counterparts, eats the same soup for lunch every day, and scorns the refrigerator for the convenience of whatever happens to be sitting on the counter already (mmmmm . . . onion salt), I am ill-prepared to make such determinations.

I spend the better part of my days working in a software development organization, and I can tell you that computers are excellent, highly productive workers, assuming that they have been given maddeningly detailed instructions. They will execute such instructions with great speed and fidelity, but they get into a lot of trouble when they are asked to act in the absence of precise, unambiguous specifications. So it is with husbands in the grocery store, or at least this husband. I shop the list — the unadorned, unadulterated, unmitigated, and unambiguous list. When I pass through those automatic sliding doors, I lose all capacity for inspiration and interpretation. Do not ask me to buy “frozen dinners (2-3)” – neither of us will be satisfied with my selections. When I am in hunter-gatherer mode, “something tasty for when the Andersons come over” is no more instructive to me than “a tall building with lots of windows” is to a construction company. To get anything done, I need blueprints that leave nothing to the imagination. When I shop, I shop the list, the whole list, and nothing but the list. So help me God. All items on the list must be described down to their finest details. I recognize that some products, such as the dreaded cantaloupe, do not admit of such descriptions, and submit that a cantaloupe (or any equivalent piece of produce) will never be so direly needed that it can’t wait until someone else goes shopping.

Hey Meteorologists – Nobody Cares!

When I want to know the weather, just the basics will suffice. I usually want to hear about temperature and precipitation, and, depending on my plans, sometimes it’s nice to be aware of humidity and wind as well. My ideal weather report sounds something like “High of 82,” with the terseness implying no rain, no freaky gales, and no toads falling from the sky.

Over the past several years, I have noticed an irksome shift in the way weather is reported on my local news. Weather broadcasters in my area are recently apt to provide way too much information. A thunderstorm is no longer just a thunderstorm – it comes with a lengthy “Behind the Music” back-story about cold air masses from Canada running into warm air masses heated by the Gulf Stream. My binary “bring a jacket?” decisions are prolonged by discussions of negative advection, squall lines, and geostrophic winds. When I am trying to head out the door, I have to wait longer than necessary so that a man in an overcoat can soliloquize about the various influences of El Nino. Simple, relevant information about my environment is continually wrapped in baggage that is not useful to me.

When I go to the dry cleaner, he doesn’t regale me with tales of how he chose to get the spots out of my tie with DF-2000 instead of perchloroethylene. He just gives me what I want – clean clothes. In fact, one of the main reasons we go to service providers is so that we don’t have to know about or think about how they do their work. All we really want is the end product, and rarely do we care to receive an education in how the product is achieved, except insofar as we can make process choices that result in meaningful consequences to us (e.g., if I microwave your fries, you’ll get them fast and soggy, whereas if I put them in the oven, they’ll be deliciously crispy in about twenty minutes).

I generally don’t care why it rained, got cold, got warm, got whatever on a particular occasion. The etiology of a certain snowstorm is of little interest to me. I appreciate it when weather people explain patterns and principles in a way that allows me to make educated guesses about the likelihood of interesting phenomena (e.g., I like to know that a warm front coming into a snow-covered area has a decent chance of producing fog), but I don’t need to hear about the specific pressure differential that stalled some front and thereby prolonged a heat wave. I just want to know how hot things will get and how long they’ll be that way.

I suspect that these pedantic on-air discussions of the rites of weathercraft are a symptom of the meteorologist vs weatherman (ahem, weatherperson) distinction. At some point, one broadcast team in my area decided that it would be a real coup to point out that their folks were all bona fide meteorologists (cue heavenly anthem) instead of just a bunch of screen readers with good hair. Other stations quickly followed suit, and people who had been doing a fine job for fifteen years suddenly discovered that they were mere weatherpeople who had to go back to school for a meteorology degree toot sweet. Yet, since academic meteorological expertise is barely relevant to what is required by a weather segment on the news (i.e., stand there smiling and tell people what the weather is going to be like), stations felt compelled to justify the benefits of their “Improved! Now with Meteorology!” marketing campaigns by having their broadcasters stand in front of a map and explain the weather like college professors. You might as well have the anchors explain how the newsroom crew identified and produced the stories being covered that evening.

Average people tune in to the weather because it affects them, but only certain facts about the weather are really relevant to their lives. They want to know how to dress their kids and how to plan their week. They care about general claims with predictive value (e.g., this will probably be a busy hurricane season), but don’t care about explanations and descriptions of weather phenomena that don’t increase their ability to cope with the world. Weather people have confused their content with the rest of the broadcast, since the situation is very different with other news segments. People care about the who / what / where / when / why of news stories because people are innately interested in the dramas experienced by others. Beyond the bare fact of a sporting victory, people want to hear about the blood, sweat, tears, laughs, luck, and struggle that went into the victory, because every sporting contest is ultimately a human drama. People want to know why a crime was committed because it helps them to gauge their environment and understand the people with whom they share the world, but people don’t care why a particular thunderstorm came about, because thunderstorms are long on flash and spectacle and short on charisma.

So, I humbly ask meteorologists the world over, or at least those in my media market, to skip the details of how Hurricane Such-and-such was abused in the Carribean, and just give me what I need from the news – temperature, precipitation, and whatever else might significantly affect my day. Other details can be interesting, but I’ll seek those out when I am good and ready. Usually, I’m just trying to get out the door.

How to Name Your Blog

Since I just joined the teeming masses who think that their personal musings are somehow worthy of being recorded for all the world to see, I thought it would be an opportune time to go all “meta” and tell you, in blog form, of how I came to name this blog.

Of course, I don’t think anyone really cares about the history of the name of this particular blog (such an interest would qualify a person as a ninth-level etymology weirdo), but in the process of naming my blog I had the chance to study a number of other blogs, and surveying the names of those blogs led me to discern a few principles that seem to be followed by lots of bloggers.

Please bear in mind that the principles I describe below are intended to apply to personal blogs of the “I’m Joe Schmoe and I have something to say” variety. Such blogs, much like this blog, have their author as their unifying theme, and are usually a collection of anecdotes, observations, rants and the like. When a blog has a consistent them or topic (e.g., “The Life and Times of the Patagonian Cavy”), it generally moves outside of the realm of the personal blog and into the realm of information resource in blog form.

Be Clever / Memorable

I have maintained elsewhere that your blog is not for you. If we accept this principle, it follows closely that you want your blog to be appealing to others, and there’s no better start to an appealing blog than a clever, memorable name. You want your name to show that you have imagination, depth, wit, pizzazz, humanity, and just a dash of flash, as this will clue potential visitors into the lurking avalanche of prescient content tucked beneath the title. (Too late – the name “imagizzazaniwitty” is already taken. Bummer.)

A unique, memorable name establishes street cred for a budding blogger no less than it does for a DJ or wrestler. (Yes, you will be in elite company.) Do you find “Joe’s Blog” tantalizing? (Umm, maybe I should edit that.) Probably not. Unless you boast some pretty serious name recognition (or a really, really cool name like “Spider”), a blog name based mostly on your name will be the start of an uphill battle. On the other hand, it’s tough to come across The Chronicles of Yarnia and not get a hankering for the clickety-click of knitting needles.

So, try to come up with a name that is both unusual and memorable. (Mister Mxyzptlk has an unusual name, but his name is so difficult to spell that it’s tough to find info about him even if you’re looking for him – I think he’s from eastern Europe somewhere.) Bonus points accrue if the name is somehow evocative of the content to be found in your blog, but for a personal blog this can be a tall order. The best bet is probably to focus on whatever is unique and unusual about you, and if you’re just a humdrum, run-of-the-mill schmuck like me, just make up some crazy crap like “Psychedelic Staplers” and go from there.

Project a Humble Nonchalance

It is of utmost importance not to come across as uppity, snobby, self-important, or anything else that would rankle the hoi polloi – er, valued guests – who will visit your blog. Your blog ain’t Shakespeare, and people don’t want to have to dress up to go there, forsooth. So, your blog name shouldn’t come across as too grave or weighty. For example, “The Mind of God as Relayed by Me” wouldn’t set the right tone. Keep it light – perhaps self-effacing or even slightly apologetic – making it clear that you don’t take yourself too seriously, and that you’re just dabbling in this blog stuff for fun. This will make your work seem friendly and approachable, and will also amp up the sweet irony when your incomparable wordcraft ultimately saves the world. (You knew it all along, you cagey dog, but you had to show us, for even had we been told we would not have understood.)

A good way to achieve a humble, endearingly scattered image is to affect a mild form of schizophrenia, and make it seem as though your blog is a just a happenstance collection of things that your mind threw up after eating a bad banana. Names like “Random Thoughts” achieve the right tone, as do amalgams that incorporate words like “Cacophony” and “Miscellanea.” The key here is to portray your blog as largely incoherent and unintentional, something that comes from you in pieces but isn’t quite your doing when considered as a whole – kind of like a mental sneezing fit.

Be Unique

Once you come up with an impossibly clever, spiffy name that perfectly crystallizes the essence of your blog and also offers rare insight into the very nature of blogging, humanity, and the universe, you will promptly find that numerous other people have thought of it first. Furthermore, at least one of these people will be so commonplace and/or disturbing as to make you reel in disbelief that both of you should have settled upon “Sledding with Sisyphus” as the heading under which to pour out your innermost thoughts. (You: “What does a Chechen cricket breeder know about Sisyphus?!!!”)

This isn’t good. Name collision invites confusion, and it would be disastrous to share your blog name with somebody else. To stand out and survive, you need a name that requires no qualification. Classical music aficionados know that an overmatched Mozart was repeatedly defeated in maestro battles by the ethereally gifted “Fred,” but only one of the combatant’s names has continued to be recognized throughout the centuries.

When I was trying to name this blog, I walked a similar path. As I labored to come up with names that seemed clever, memorable, and not too self-absorbed, I met with a number of failures on the uniqueness test. My frustrations are chronicled below.

Attempt 1: COSI – Cacophony of Self-Indulgence
Good idea: Demonstrates my recognition of the vanity and narcissism associated with blogging, while also incorporating a humble portrayal of my thoughts as discordant, and tying all of this up in a neat little acronym.

Bad idea: This name wasn’t taken, but I ultimately realized that it was a stupid, formulaic name with no soul. ‘Nuff said.

Attempt 2: MillionMonkeys
Good idea: You know – a reference most people would recognize, along with implications of random writing.

Bad idea: I quickly discovered that the world is positively lousy with blogs having similar names.

Atttempt 3: CleverName
Good idea: Here I go for an abstract approach – if you’re looking for a clever name and can’t come up with one, why not just be ultra-clever and name your blog “CleverName”? This would be all nice and multi-layered, kind of like a play within a play.

Bad idea: Alas, this parking space had already been taken many times over.

Attempt 4: Something with “Desultory” in the Title
Good idea: This could work – it would project the right kind of meandering aura, and I think people might unwittingly perceive it as sexy based on its phonetic resemblance to “sultry.”

Bad idea: This approach also turned out to be less original than any part of Joan Rivers’ façade.

Attempt 5: Stray Text
Good idea: References writing, and suggests a random disconnectedness that provides top-cover for freedom and exploratory whimsy. Also, arguably clever and not obviously used as a blog name before. Google reveals a few previous uses of the combination, but these aren’t really suggestive of any serious branding. The matching domain name is also available (which surprises me a little), and said domain name would also be appropriate for some future projects that I am planning. Okay, that’s the one.

Just Pick One, Already

Ultimately, I just went with Stray Text because it seemed to be good enough and I was tired of hunting around trying to out-clever myself. While your blog name is important, it isn’t everything, and ultimately people will judge your blog by its content. A good name can help you off to a good start, and a bad name could get you out of the blocks slowly, but in either case a good blog is a distance race, and your performance will be most influenced by what you put into it over time.

Your Blog is Not for You

I would like to dispense with a persistent pretension / fiction that circulates in blogworld – the “my blog is for me” myth. Believers of this myth will typically say something like the following:

My blog is for me – a space to explore my feelings, to work through my life and make sense of it. It is an exercise in self-discovery. I write what I want to write about, and if other people read it and get something from it, that’s great, but that’s not why I’m doing it.

Your blog isn’t mainly for you. The act of writing may be for you, and may bring you perspective / clarity / catharsis / whatever, but when you take your words and heave them up onto the Internet instead of keeping them in a private journal or scrawling them on your cell wall, you are doing that because your blog itself is a social device by which you hope to affect or interact with others. People’s motivations for blogging vary, but whatever their reasons, it’s not as though bloggers just happen to be keeping a collection of personal writings and couldn’t care one way or another if anybody else stumbles across those writings. They are leaving their writings out so that somebody else has a chance to pass by, leaf through them, and possibly develop an interest in them. Much like the neighbors who leave their shades up at night, bloggers want people to notice them.

People maintain the “my blog is for me” stance because they don’t want to deal with the pressure that would come from acknowledging to themselves and to others that they are in fact publishing for an audience when they push content into a globally accessible forum. If you believe that your blog is mainly for you and that you are largely indifferent to how it is received by others, this is probably because you want some emotional cushion in case people seem to dislike what you write, or worse yet, don’t notice it at all. If recognition and affect aren’t part of your recognized goals, then you’ll have no reason to feel badly if these aren’t achieved. If these do happen to come your way, you can nonchalantly say that you’re glad if somebody else likes your work, and then quietly savor your real feelings, both for the sake of decorum and as a hedge against the dreaded day when people might stop finding you interesting.

I’m starting this blog because I want to be interesting, and I will judge its success by the kind of interest it generates. (I’ll save the self-analysis of why I want to be interesting for another time.) I don’t really expect to be interesting, because there are lots of people out there doing this kind of thing and many of them seem more interesting than me, but I want to give it a shot, and I am prepared to fail if that’s in the cards. If I do fail to be interesting, then at least I’ll get a little practice writing, which is something I haven’t been able to do for a while.

Let’s see how it goes . . .