Oh, Google Voice, I wish I could quit you

Goodbye, Google Voice: I'm breaking up with you.

Thinking about doing this myself. GV seems to be abandonware, it’s flaky, and there’s no longer need for it now that my mobile is my only phone.

Indeed, what I really need is the opposite of what Google Voice provides: One number for friends and family, another for work, and a third for potential spammers who nonetheless have legitimate need for my phone number, like airlines.

Too many people have my Google Voice number for me to dump it, but it’s become a pain in the neck. I’d hoped for an upgrade at the I/O conference, but that didn’t happen.

Dog parks: The strange rituals—and stranger people—you find at the dog run.

Writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis is traveling the country meeting dog-obsessed Americans for a book about dogs in America. He kicked things off by spending a full day with his dog at Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village, the oldest in the city.

Dog parks are a relatively modern invention, a “kind of victory over the anonymity and transience of life,” as writer Mary Battiata put it. They’re a place of long-lasting friendships, longer-lasting feuds, and dog-park know-it-alls who disapprove of the job you’re doing with your pet. At a dog park in Boston, where I live, the park’s queen bee once asked me what I was feeding Casey.

She didn’t like my answer. “Well, you can certainly feed him that if you want to _kill_him,” she barked.

I’d come to New York City to experience the rituals and rhythms of the city’s oldest dog run. The New York Times has described Tompkins Square (also called First Run) as a lively and contentious place, one brimming with dog-park politics and the kind of class-related tension that led one woman to declare that some dogs deserved to get “roughed up because they wore sweaters.”

One dog park regular says it’s a great place to meet people, and a few of the regulars have even gotten married. Another regular, a woman, replied, “I try not to date where my dog shits.”

Dog parts engender community. Immediately after 9/11, regulars flocked to the dog park to be with people close to them.

Dog parks: The strange rituals—and stranger people—you find at the dog run..

“Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life”

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Jon Michaud in The New Yorker provides a brief history of the game Dungeons & Dragons, and his own history with it.

D&D changed the pop cultural landscape, and the way games were created and enjoyed.

Instead of pieces or figurines, there were characters—avatars—who the players inhabited; instead of a board or a terrain table, there was a fictional world that existed in the shared imaginations of those who were playing; and instead of winning and losing, there was, as in life, a sequence of events and adventures that lasted until your character died. These concepts are now commonplace in our online lives and our recreational activities, but four decades ago they were revolutionary, and a key part of D. & D.’s addictive quality. By 1981, more than three million people were playing Dungeons & Dragons. It soon joined “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” in a kind of high-nerd trinity—one that, with “The Matrix,” “Harry Potter,” and “The Hunger Games,” has long since entered the mainstream pantheon.

I am a fan of none of those things: D&D, LoTR, Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games. I liked “Star Wars” fine but it doesn’t occupy any kind of special place in my heart — it’s just a movie I enjoyed. I’m more of a “Star Trek: The Original Series” guy.

I also don’t read comics, beyond The Watchmen and a couple of others. I don’t play games. I don’t watch many sf/f movies.

I’m part of a relatively small group of people who read a lot of print sf books and not much fantasy or partake of those other things Michaud describes. I do love a couple of sf/f TV series — Doctor Who, Haven, and we’re now rewatching Stargate SG-1, for example. — but that’s about it.

My point is that even within geek culture, there are subcultures.

But this is Michaud’s story, and D&D’s, not mine.

Michaud talks about the history of D&D, and the backlash from misguided parents and authorities who thought it was some kind of cult. He references a New York Times article about how D&D influenced a generation of writers, including literary writers. Tech entrepreneur Paul Taylor says D&D prepared him for the world of business.

And Michaud also talks about how D&D saved his life:

In some regards, my childhood was nothing more than a rota of increasingly complex board games, from checkers to Stratego, Space Colony, Risk, and, finally, Diplomacy. Ours was the only house I knew where pads of hex paper (hexagon-patterned graph paper) were always within arm’s reach. Playing with my father usually meant losing; going easy on his kids was not something his competitive nature would permit. At a certain point, I gave up the war games and board games and retreated to the basement to co-habitate with the TV. A typical Saturday schedule for my twelve-year-old self looked like this: 8 to 11 A.M., cartoons; 11 A.M. to noon, Pro Bowler’s Association; noon to 3 P.M., Notre Dame football; 3 to 6 P.M., Movie of the Week; 6 to 8 P.M., Dinner, chores, family obligations, personal hygiene; 9 to 10 P.M., “The Love Boat”; 10 to 11 P.M. “Fantasy Island”; 11 P.M.: bed. It was not a glorious time in my life. I hated reading. My grades were mediocre, and my parents were worried about my prospects. I didn’t know it, but I was simply waiting for the right game to come along—a game in which there were no winners or losers. That day finally arrived in the spring of 1979. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Dungeons & Dragons saved my life.

I was introduced to the game by the three Nugent boys, who lived down the street from us. The brothers cut against the stereotype of role-playing gamers. All three were athletes. The oldest, Chris, was a runner who broke the middle-distance records at his high school. The younger brothers, Greg and Brian, were bodybuilders, baby Lou Ferrignos. For them, D. & D. was fun, but it was just one of many recreations. They could not have known how profound a change they brought to my life. In a matter of weeks, I was obsessed with the game. I spent all of my meagre earnings from a paper route on advanced D. & D. books, modules, dice, and figurines. I proselytized, converting my brothers and even my sister. (That, again, was atypical. It’s an undeniable fact that female D. & D. players are few and far between. As La Farge notes, “In one 1978 survey of fantasy role-playing gamers, only 2.3 percent of respondents were female; in another, only 0.4 percent.” Lamenting this is like lamenting the fact that there are no orange trees at the North Pole.) When my father was assigned to a post in Northern Ireland, the following year, I took my books with me, hoping to spread the gospel overseas. There was no need. In my first week of school in Belfast, I walked past a red-haired kid manipulating a set of polyhedral dice in his open palm. It was Paul Taylor, the future technology entrepreneur.

As many writers testified in the Times article, D. & D. is a textual, storytelling, world-creating experience, a great apprenticeship for a budding author. But, more fundamentally, you cannot play D. & D. without reading—a lot. Ed Park, in an essay on D. & D. (included in the anthology “Bound to Last”), celebrates the magnificent vocabulary of the game, which introduced young players to words such as “melee,” “portcullis,” “kobold,” “thaumaturge,” “paladin,” “charisma,” “halberd,” “wyvern,” “homunculus,” “scimitar,” “buckler,” “basilisk,” and “cockatrice.” Combined, the player’s manual, the Dungeon Master’s guide, and the monster manual (the core books of advanced D. & D.) add up to four hundred and sixty-eight pages of small-print, double-column text. I read them with studious devotion and headlong glee. Almost immediately, television all but disappeared from my life. When I wasn’t playing D. & D., I was reading about it or reading books set in worlds like the game’s. Crucial in this regard was “Deities and Demigods,” my favorite of all the advanced D. & D. books. Along with creatures from Norse, Sumerian, Greek, and Native-American mythologies, “Deities and Demigods” included characters from the novels of H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. Moorcock, in particular, became a favorite of mine. I tore through the many volumes of his “Eternal Champion” cycle. From Moorcock, it was a short leap to Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez, and, lo and behold, I was a reader. And then, a writer.

Dungeons & Dragons Saved My Life

Image: “D&D Game 1” by Philip Mitchellwww.dwarvenforge.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The People’s Platform: How “free culture” stifles the creative middle

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The culture of listicles and Instagram makes it harder for the creative middle — people who are neither superstars like Beyonce, or amateurs working for free — to make a living, while enriching the Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world. Tim Wu reviews The People’s Platform” by Astra Taylor for _The New York Times:

Astra Taylor is a documentary filmmaker who has described her work as the “steamed broccoli” in our cultural diet. Her last film, “Examined Life,” depicted philosophers walking around and talking about their ideas. She’s the kind of creative person who was supposed to benefit when the Internet revolution collapsed old media hierarchies. But two decades since that revolution began, she’s not impressed: “We are at risk of starving in the midst of plenty,” Taylor writes. “Free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs.” Instead of serving as the great equalizer, the web has created an abhorrent cultural feudalism. The creative masses connect, create and labor, while Google, Facebook and Amazon collect the cash.

Taylor’s thesis is simply stated. The pre-Internet cultural industry, populated mainly by exploitative conglomerates, was far from perfect, but at least the ancien régime felt some need to cultivate cultural institutions, and to pay for talent at all levels. Along came the web, which swept away hierarchies — as well as paychecks, leaving behind creators of all kinds only the chance to be fleetingly “Internet famous.” And anyhow, she says, the web never really threatened to overthrow the old media’s upper echelons, whether defined as superstars, like Beyoncé, big broadcast television shows or Hollywood studios. Instead, it was the cultural industry’s middle ­classes that have been wiped out and replaced by new cultural plantations ruled over by the West Coast aggregators.

If you win the Internet lottery and your video goes viral, and you get an interview on The Today show, then what?

It’s just back to serfdom (with exceptions, like E. L. James, author of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which began as “Twilight” fan fiction). In any event, the odds of going viral are comparable to winning the lottery, but the lottery, to its credit, actually pays out in cash. You might say virality is the promise that keeps the proletariat toiling in the cultural factories, instead of revolting and asking for something better.

Wu says Taylor overlooks hobbyists and amateurs — people posting selfies on Instagram aren’t in it for the money. And Wu also says the Internet permits creation of whole new genres, like Awkward Family Photos (which I’m not so sure is a new thing — a site like Awkward Family Photos reminds me of those little novelty books you could buy at the cash registers of shopping mall bookstores in the 70s and 80s.)

And the Internet is great for consumers — it’s never been easier to get great content from sites like Netflix and Amazon.

Taylor’s solution: “sustainable culture” along with more public support for the arts.

My $0.02: I make a better living on the Internet than I did before. And steamed broccoli is one of our favorite foods.

Content and Its Discontents

Image: NesuKurosu

“Habits are things you get for free”

“Write every day. When you write every day, it becomes a habit and you do it automatically. Habits are things you get for free.” – Cory Doctorow, in Lifehacker

Fantastic insight. I think of it often. And it applies to everything, not just writing.

I have literally spent decades of my life wishing I did creative writing every day. Now I do it. It has gotten to be a habit. I do it even when I’m insanely busy with other things, or I’m completely wiped out from work. Just 20 minutes a day, as Cory has said elsewhere. Sometimes even less. But every day. It adds up. For me, it has added up to several short stories, and three novels (one complete, two complete drafts — if you’re an agent or a publisher and want to see them, let me know: mitch@mitchwagner.com).

Same thing with exercise. I went for decades wishing I was the kind of person who exercises every day. Now I do it. I take a moderately-paced walk, every day, even when I’m insanely busy doing other things, or wiped out from work.

Same thing for eating. I used to eat a lot of junk food. Now I eat more healthy foods. I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. When I’m hungry for a snack, I reach for a piece of fruit, or nuts, or carrots, or yogurt. It no longer occurs to me to reach for potato chips. (I do enjoy my nighttime snack of chocolate cookies — but that’s OK. Treats are part of a healthy diet.)

I don’t say these things to brag. I’m just pointing out the power of habit. If you cultivate good habits, they’re automatic. You know longer have to think about them.

Habits are things you get for free.

I have plenty of bad habits too. I’m a slob. I’m sloppy about personal finance. And even my good habits fall away when I travel: I don’t do creative writing. I don’t exercise. I eat a lot of crap. I’m working on better habits.

I saw the homeless man again today

He was in the same spot, this time sitting by the fence. I asked him if he knew about St. Vincent de Paul and if he’d ever been there. He said it was too far. I offered him $5 if he’d promise to to take the Trolley to SVDP and not hang around the neighborhood anymore. He said he’d promise and took the money. Of course he may well have been lying but I can’t think of anything else to do. If I see him again tomorrow I’ll talk to him some more. I’m pretty much out of ideas.

Jeff Jarvis: No silver bullets

Silver Bullet

Jeff Jarvis: The key to a successful Internet publishing business is to: “shift to a business based on known relationships with people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass.”

He also notes that the problem with Forbes of late has been its mix of professional journalism (good), and advertorial and anyone-can-write-anything-on-our-site content. If you click a Forbes link, you never know whether you’re getting a good article or schlock.

Journalists don’t pay enough attention to business. Creative people in general don’t. If you don’t understand business, you’re not set up to succeed in the long term. I dislike hearing creative people on the Internet apologize for taking money. You don’t hear that in restaurants.

No silver bullets

The State of the American Dog

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When a cocker spaniel bites, it does so as a member of its species; it is never anything but a dog. When a pit bull bites, it does so as a member of its breed. A pit bull is never anything but a pit bull.

Powerful, moving, and at times hard-to-read article by Tom Junod in Esquire about pit bulls, and how they parallel the state of America.

Pit bulls are a mainstream American dog. You see a lot of them, the bullet-shaped face where you used to see long, German-shepherd-like noses. Despite their popularity, they’re the dog most likely to be hated, feared, and banned by law from many American communities. Many people believe pit bulls are vicious and violent by nature; others believe they’re gentle, loving dogs, maligned by prejudice and ignorance.

What pit bulls are, says Junod, is dogs, each one an individual, but part of a species capable of both gentle love and aggression. Never forget your dog is a predator, or else you’re setting yourself up for tragedy.

Ironically, all this emotion is heaped on a breed of dog that has no scientific existence. A pit bull is not a breed the way a German shepherd or a collie is a breed. A pit bull is simply a kind of dog that has a number of characteristics: Shape of skull, body type, coat, and so forth. And even that is imprecise — a pit bull is basically what you point to when you’re talking about pit bulls.

Pit bulls are more likely to be owned by poor people, and ethnic minorities. Affluent whites will often cross the street to avoid them.

You learn a lot about America when you own a pit bull. You learn not just who likes your dog; you learn what kind of person likes your dog—and what kind of person fears him. You generalize. You profile. You see a well-heeled white woman walking a golden retriever and expect her to cross the street and give you a dirty look; you see the guy who’s cutting down her trees or pressure-washing her driveway and you expect him to say: “That’s a beautiful dog.” Or: “How much you want for that dog?” Or: “You fight that dog?” You learn that the argument about pit bulls takes place along the lines of class and, to a lesser extent, race. The opposition to pit bulls might not be racist; it does, however, employ racial thinking. If a pit-bull-Labrador mix bites, then the pit bull is always what has done the biting, its portion of the blood—its taint—ineradicable and finally decisive.

Pit bulls are killed by the thousands every day in America. Literally thousands every day. They’re very likely to be brought to shelters, and difficult to adopt out because of their reputation. (And that reputation should not be dismissed out of hand as mere prejudice. Discussions about pit bulls and viciousness are a confusing mix of slander, truth, and self-fulfilling prophecy.)

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

The State of the American Dog

This is such a terrific article that I’d like to study it to figure our how it’s researched and structured. I’ve done woefully little long-form multi-sourced journalism in the last decade.

Homeless encounter

When I take Minnie on our hour-long afternoon walk, I go down Colorado Ave. to where it ends in a cul-de-sac and a chainlink fence with a sewage treatment plant beyond. To my right is a little wooded area, with a footpath leading down to the commercial street, Lake Murray Blvd. The footpath follows along the chainlink fence.

I saw a homeless man lying on the ground while walking Minnie at about 5 pm yesterday. He was lying asleep on a piece of cardboard.

I called La Mesa PD from my cell phone and they said they’d send someone. I believe them, but I still saw the man there when I returned with Minnie an hour later.

This afternoon about 4 pm: Same man, same place, this time blocking the whole path. Again, I called La Mesa PD, and they said they’d send someone. When I returned with Minnie an hour later, I saw the man walking up Lake Murray Blvd. Sure enough, he turned up the footpath and he was lying on the ground, same spot, when I passed by. I told him, “Hey, buddy, you can’t sleep here,” and he said he’d go somewhere else.

Next time I go walking, I’m bringing a printout of directions to St. Vincent de Paul and I’ll give him $10 for Trolley fare. I’m sympathetic to the plight of the homeless but he can’t sleep rough here.

Sometimes in the winter I find myself walking in the park after dusk. I see couples and individuals walking into the park, dressed in layers and carrying big bundles. I assume they’re homeless. That doesn’t bother me — I mean, it bothers me that they’re homeless and have to sleep rough, but I’m not concerned that our park is where they do it. They have to sleep somewhere. But not in our neighborhood.