Joel Riggs teaches Aikido, plays piano, enjoys California, and reads voraciously.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

What I Learned From Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

In the spring of 1983, my freshman year at Dartmouth College, Kurt Vonnegut came to speak at my humanities class, a survey class on literature from Homer to Twain. He came at the invitation of Jim Cox, our slightly outrageous and flamboyant professor. (I seem to recall that Vonnegut may have been in town to visit his brother, but I am not sure about that.)

I had never read any of Vonnegut's books, but I am sure that I had at least heard of him and of his more famous works. In anticipation of his visit, I read one of his novels, I believe it was Slapstick; I would have to reread it to make sure. I know it was not one of his more famous titles.

At 10 in the morning the day of his visit, Vonnegut walked into our classroom drunk, his eyes red and watery, his step irregular, and his demeanor somewhat wild and unsteady. From the first row I could smell the whiskey on his breath. After a wandering half hour lecture about the writing process and the success of Slaughterhouse Five, he opened the room up for questions. I immediately raised my hand.

"In your novel [Slapstick], in the first part of the book the two main characters agree that it is impossible for two people to really love each other, but at the end they both say 'I love you' to each other. What changed? Did they learn something along the way? Or were they wrong to begin with? And do you think love is actually possible between two people?"

Vonnegut stopped and stared at me, shifted his weight from one side to the other, pressed his right hand against his forehead, squinted, and then said, "I don't know, I never read that one," and pointed to the next questioner.

My first reaction was a flash of anger at being dismissed so quickly. But after a moment I realized he had given me a deeper insight. During his lecture he had spoken of the feeling of being a channel through which the muses sing. If this is true, then he is not necessarily an authority on the intricacies of his plots and and details his characters. Instead, his novels had flowed through him, many never to be thought of again. Or, put another way, although he was the author of Slapstick, it was no longer his novel. The book has a life of its own, and he was out of the loop.

After this rough start, Kurt Vonnegut has grown on me immensely. I have watched several interviews with and read many essays by him since that day, and I have read two or three other books of his. My favorite so far is Bluebeard. I have read it over and over. I have come to deeply appreciate his humanity, his sense of humor, and his writing craft. At the same time, I have always known first hand that he was an imperfect person, and that he could share with me a deep truth about art and writing because of it.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Things That Make You Go Oooooooh!

One of my favorite web activities is StumbleUpon. It is serendipity at its finest, bringing the breadth and depth of the web to my computer screen. I love that I can discover things completely new to me, that I have never heard of, simply by clicking the little button in the corner of my browser window.

Today, I ran across this little gem:



How to Get Help From a Hacker

I love language, and especially precise and correct language. So I enjoyed a recently disovered article first published by Eric Steven Raymond in 2001 called How to Ask Questions the Smart Way:
He writes:

"In the world of hackers, the kind of answers you get to your technical questions depends as much on the way you ask the questions as on the difficulty of developing the answer."

"Grovelling is not a substitute for doing your homework"

"Describe the goal, not the step"

"Describe the problem's symptoms, not your guesses"

And my favorite:

"Prune pointless queries.

Resist the temptation to close your request for help with semantically-null questions like 'Can anyone help me?' or 'Is there an answer?' First: if you've written your problem description halfway competently, such tacked-on questions are at best superfluous. Second: because they are superfluous, hackers find them annoying — and are likely to return logically impeccable but dismissive answers like 'Yes, you can be helped' and 'No, there is no help for you.'

In general, asking yes-or-no questions is a good thing to avoid unless you want a yes-or-no answer."

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Google Maps Adds "My Maps"

After ten years of dreaming about it, I have finally put my first points on a commonly shared, dynamic maps with aerial photo layer. And I did not use a GIS package. Rather, I used the brand new MyMaps feature on Google Maps. I have been wanting to be able to do this for a long, long time.

More soon about the various applications I have in mind for this technology.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007


We got word today. The results show an X and a Y chromosome. It is a boy! Also, the good news is that everything in the genetics test looked perfectly normal.