Thursday, May 31, 2007

you talk too much

You talk too much you worry me to death,
You talk too much, you even worry my pet
You just talk, talk too much
You talk about people that you don't know,
You talk about people wherever you go
You just talk, talk too much
You talk about people that you've never seen,
You talk about people, you can make me scream
You just talk, you talk too much

Joe Jones

The other night at dinner, Michael told me that my blog posts were exhausting. It makes him tired to read them from start to finish.

He tells me this as I eavesdrop on the conversation at the other end of our table in a fancy Northern Italian restaurant in Arlington, VA, just outside of DC. The guys who ordered the expensive bottles of wine are yakking about details of air travel—the appetizers in first class, a particular airport lounge, the vicissitudes of frequent flyer programs—that sort of stuff. The kind of conversation that just wears you down, slowly, upgrade by upgrade, delay by delay.

You should get airline miles for listening to people yak like that.

More than being a virus, words are corrosive. Not just the obvious kinds of words either, like hate speech or solemn platitudes. Other stuff too. And not just the obvious boring conversational fodder like retold movie plots or punchline-free office jokes. And not just epithets, epitaphs, and Churchillian epigrams either. No, all of those’ll clearly do you in. But I’m also throwing in the gradual abrasion caused by everyday cocktail chatter. Each clause has the capacity to gently, gradually pummel you into submission.


And my new RAZR phone has 15 Quick Notes to get you started. “Will arrive 15 minutes” and “Can this wait?” In their preposition-free brevity, they have their own capacity to wear away ground, to carve a conversational Grand Canyon over the years, byte by byte.

So I can see how my blog posts would be exhausting. Perhaps not corrosive, but certainly tiring.

Michael isn’t the first one to tell me this. My own mother might’ve said almost the same thing—that to read my posts was to open up oneself to a minor barrage of words. A veritable windstorm. Like opening the moon roof while you’re cruising down Highway 280 at 90 mph. Screenful after screenful of words. A shitstorm of words. Words about egg cartons, pink Canadian caffeine pills, and Signature Gourmet Coffee Makers.

And if every picture’s worth a 1000 more of those words, then I’m in even deeper trouble.

I’m sensitive about my prolixity. After all, when I was a kid, there was a popular doll called Chatty Cathy whose sales were no doubt bolstered by the catchy alliteration in her name as well as by the handy pull string in her back. A tug on the pull string yielded one of 11 different phrases, uttered at random.

It’s like talking to me before I’ve had coffee in the morning.

11 phrases, uttered at random. Yep. That’s me.

Chatty Cathy could say things like “I have earned every cent” or “In all of my years of public life I have never obstructed justice” or “I am not a crook” Oh. No. Wait. That wasn’t Chatty Cathy. That was Richard Nixon. It’s so easy to get a period’s important historical figures mixed up. Chatty Cathy was the creepy doll with the pull string that appeared in the notorious Twilight Zone episode; Richard Nixon was the creepy guy with the stubble who appeared in the White House.


Just imagine how confused I get by Tickle Me Elmo and George W. Bush.

Maybe someone could do a Barbie Liberation Organization prank on the two of them (Elmo and GWB) and swap their voice boxes.

“See, I'm the decider, and I decide what is best.” Elmo would say. "Uh uh uh! No peeking! Hahahaha!" GWB would answer. I don’t think it would make Elmo any less appealing or GWB any less coherent; it’d be a pretty even swap.

But Chatty Cathy. I hated Chatty Cathy. I was afraid of dolls at best—especially that mute dominatrix Barbie with her tiny stiletto heels and pink strap-on—but a doll with an insulting name like Chatty Cathy hit a little too close to home when I was 6. I may’ve just told my classmates my name was Catherine rather than Cathy for awhile back then.

Maybe they were right. I do go on, don’t I?

And, as Joe Jones’ song would have it, I may even worry my pet, although really Lumpy is my equal when it comes to having a lot to say. “Meow,” he insists. “Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow.” Which variously means, “Whatever could you be thinking? I had Fancy Feast Cod Sole and Shrimp Dinner just yesterday” or “I can’t believe the condition of my cat box. It’s like a service station restroom on Interstate 10” or even “You’ve stayed up late enough. The Colbert Report is over and it’s time for bed. March!”

Yeah. He says all that and more. Over and over sometimes if he doesn’t think you’re listening. The “March!” command is often issued with a claws-out tap on bare feet.

And he likes to meow in the shower or the back hall, where it echoes. Who doesn’t?

Ah-oooo. Lumpy says. Ah-oooo. A feline banshee.

But still…

You blog too much you worry me to death
You blog too much, you even worry my pet
You blog about people eating schools of sea bream
You blog about people—say, there goes Steve McQueen
You just blog, blog, blog, you blog too much.

I’m not being paid by the word. Why do I do it? Why aren’t I more concise?

This made me wonder, just how long is the average blog post? It’s not been in the news, so I can’t ask June Thomas over at Slate; she’s the one who always records the Slate Explainer podcasts that answer the pressing questions underlying today’s news. (For example, this week’s offering addresses the puzzler: How do spelling bees work in other countries?)

I’m sure someone’s done the stats though: if there’s something that can be readily counted, someone will have done it.

There’s the study by Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, and Swartz. In their sample (which we’ll pretend for convenience is representative, and covers blogs like mine), the words per post range from 80 to 494 (with a mean of 209) and the links per post range from 0 to 6 (mean 1).

A 209 word post with one link? You’d have to be yelling FIRE or spilling the beans about an affair you had with a politician for 209 words and one link to have any pizzazz.

But this is confirmed by a more prescriptive analysis reported in a blog called Modern Life, which tells us that “it may be worthwhile considering that most popular blogs have an average of 100-250 words per article.”

There it is again: popularity. “All of the really popular blogs…” Yeah. Yeah. Right. Reminds me of the advice, “All of the really popular girls drink plenty of water… and apply makeup carefully.”

A quick analysis of the last 30 posts of my own blog reveals a factor of ten discrepancy. Yes. That’s right. Almost an entire order of magnitude. My blog posts range from a terse, emotional 550 word post about the airlines’ current ban on liquids to a whopping 4500 word analysis of the fly-over states’ appeal (what can I say? It’s a large area to cover in a single post). My mean post length is a bulky 1968 words, only a medium-length sentence short of 2K.

The link situation is even worse. On average I’m 20 times more profligate with my links than the study sample; my mean is 18 links per post, with a high of 51 in the post about the Middle West and a low of one lonely link in the short post about the new airport security regulations. You’ve got to link though—what’s the point of hypertext if you don’t link?

Okay. I admit it. Michael is right. My prolixity is worrisome.

The posts look even more daunting as hardcopy. I archive them by printing them out and stashing them in a three-ring binder. A year’s worth of posts has filled a big ol’ 3” 3-ring binder that used to hold the business plan for a failed start-up called Public Mind. I must’ve used a whole ream of paper printing all these posts out. And surely it was an obsessive effort to use my dinky 3-hole punch to put holes in them.

So, yeah, it’s exhausting to read my blog posts—and even more exhausting to print and file them—but I have to admit that it’s exhilarating to write them.

I used to just talk to myself instead, gesticulating and sometimes frothing at the mouth to get my point across. Occasionally I’d grip myself by the collar and shout in my own face. It’s a technique honed by many years of riding public transportation and observing Muni riders far more schooled in auto-conversationalism than I am.

But blog posts? Much better than talking to myself. I can link and illustrate! I can fact-check! I can make up stuff! (“I saw Thomas Pynchon at the taquería on Mission and 24th. He was wearing lime green golf pants and eating a breakfast burrito.”) I can violate copyright! (Take that, M. Mouse! Take that!) I can name-drop! And no-one watching me thinks I’m a crazy person. My wild gesticulations will never tear a Picasso.

And—best of all—my posts come up when innocent people google for meat bees, Lester Gas, the Midnight Mysogynist, pig catapult, and other terms of art.

They’re looking for information; they’re looking for re-assurance; they’re looking for an address, a phone number, or store hours. They’re looking for built-in dinettes.

And they get me instead. Chattering away.

Sometimes they don’t just leave; they add great comments. Bill Dearing, the fellow who penned the Bat Brain comic I liked so much while I was at UMass, amended one of my posts with vital context. Erich Schneider had something to say about dining out in College Station (for better or worse). Susie straightened out my misapprehensions about minty French breath. And several anonymous readers ID’d my yellow fungus; I’d have never figured out what it was.

There is, of course, a solution for my obsessive fascination with words. A time-honored solution. One that’s worked in the past.

I need an editor.

My prose’ll turn crisp and clear, like one of Hemingway’s trout streams.

But after all is said and done, I bet when Mom reads this post (which weighs in at a sleek 1800 words) she’ll say,

“Your last blog was so short. Are you not feeling well?"

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

reunion secession

Every summer thousands—maybe even billions—of high school and college reunions are staged at venues across the US. Optimistic ex-students, usually larger, older, and more garrulous versions of their former selves, show up in a variety of hotel ballrooms, country clubs, and probably even high school gymnasiums and subject themselves to different forms of nostalgia and ritual humiliation. There might even be some self-administered anesthesia to numb the pain and a deejay who can spin Truckin’ without grimacing.

Why do they do it? Why?

I’m missing one of mine, a significant college reunion, right now. There was intense speculation beforehand about who would show up and who would shirk. I was lucky. I was irretrievably and uncontroversially busy this week, so I didn’t have to think about whether it’d be a good idea or not.

I neither had to goad myself into it nor talk myself out of it.

In fact, the only reunion I’ve ever attended—willingly or otherwise—was a high school reunion marking one of those decade anniversaries. And that was quite a few years ago now.

My high school no longer exists, at least conceptually. Physically, the small complex of penitentiary-like buildings on the corner of Hawthorne and Silver Spur is still standing, is still the same ugly colorless color, and still has the capacity to evoke my high school days, both pleasant and not so pleasant. The buildings have no street-facing windows: perhaps that’s why I think of them as penitentiary-like; it’s not as if there’s actually razor wire and guard towers, although it’s easy to sketch them in to round out my recollections of the place.

The only thing that’s changed is the name. The school board renamed the school in 1991, probably in honor of the Gulf War. Rolling Hills High School became Palos Verdes Peninsula High School and the mascot changed from a generic Greek mythological figure to a generic predatory feline. I think the school colors were ditched too, which was probably for the best, since blue and gold seem awfully dated and mid-century by now.

Judging from the website, the core nature of the students may have changed too. They look to be more ambitious, more driven, more achievement-oriented. Not so apt to stroll into Biology with bare sandy feet and a lame excuse:

“Oh? Me? I went to the beach. I, like, totally forgot there was school today.”

Unlike the hard-toiling pioneers of yesterday or today's Ivy League bound scholars, my class was not afflicted with any work ethic. We had it made and we knew it.

I was bounced from school near the end of my junior year. I’m still not sure why. I blame society.

I’ll spare you the details. But for one reason or another, I did not graduate with my class. In spite of this, I have a very strong sense of which class is mine. The year I left RHHS, gracelessly, with no-one’s particular blessing, without a handshake and sans diploma, was NOT my senior year and the graduating class that year was NOT my graduating class.

Period. End of story. If I’d been in that class, I would’ve gotten a senior picture, one of those marvelous black-and-white headshots with all of the zits airbrushed off. Furthermore, I had to carve out my own fucking-off time; real seniors had a sanctioned period—from receipt of college acceptance letters to graduation—to exist in a sublime state of apathy.

I had to make my own disaffection and keep it fresh.

Yet, unlike many of my fellow geeks and perpetual misfits, I didn’t hate high school.

And because of all this, I’ve always had LESS incentive to go to my high school reunions. It seems like people go to these things because they’ve changed. They’ve lost 100 pounds. They’ve made 100 million dollars. They’ve married Heather Locklear. They’ve had 10 kids. They’ve found God. They’ve come out. They’ve survived a life-threatening illness. They’ve found their true calling, be it real estate, face reading, prostitution, ambulance chasing, or performing a sword balancing dance.

They’ve been busy, but it’s rewarding. Or so they say.

I haven’t changed a bit. Not really. I’ve done none of the above. I'm not particularly busy and it hasn't been particularly rewarding. And I’ve barely even bought new clothes or parted my hair differently.

Nothing to show. Just a few wrinkles and some keratosis. Go home folks. There’s nothing to see. Just go home.

I went to one of these dreadful affairs anyway, against my own better judgment. Robert Chess had something to do with it. “I’ll go if you go,” he told me. It was before he’d met his wife and before his wife had the triplets. He was still up for a dare.

So he went and I went too.

It’s just like your mother said: “If your friends went out and jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” It’s an important piece of wisdom about social dynamics and the nature of peer pressure.

The reunion was in a ballroom at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown LA. That was a peculiar venue for the event and most certainly should’ve been seen as a warning sign. Why would a high school reunion be held 270-odd blocks from the actual scene of the crime? Especially in LA, where none of us had probably spent any significant time downtown when we were growing up.

Robert and I arrived together, looked in at the registration desk, did a snappy about-face, and took the express elevator up to the top floor bar.

Did I mention that I crashed my high school reunion? Just for old time’s sake. I’ve always been a determined and exuberant party-crasher. It’s a symptom of my low self-esteem: It’s not going to be much of a party if somebody’s thought to invite me.

Once Robert and I had overcome our initial resistance and walked in to the hotel ballroom, I realized I knew almost no-one. Who were these people chomping the cherry tomatoes off the top of the baby spring greens on their salad plates? Party hearty, dude! Did I actually go to high school with a guy who looks like a game show host?

Oh. That’s the waiter. A hotel staffer. Oh.

He did look a little less bleary than everyone else. His face had less sun damage. And he was circulating from table to table with one of those gravy boats of vinaigrette.

Not in my class, nor the one before. A waiter. Should’ve figured that one out.

Most of my reunion-ing female classmates had the great good sense to wear generic black cocktail dresses; and most of my male classmates had the great good sense not to—not a cross-dresser visible in the bunch. The women showed a tasteful amount of décolleté. They’d applied evening make-up. In fact, they knew what evening make-up was.

Me? Still clueless after all these years.

My creased trousers and enormous David-Byrne style suit coat in last year’s color (remarkably close to the color of the high school itself) put me squarely in the small camp of Out Lesbians. Not even the fashion no-nothings wore outfits like that: they overcompensated by wearing what looked for all the world like souped-up versions of their high school prom dresses. Poufy and foufy. Acres of sherbet chiffon.

I ducked under the table when someone came around with a camera.

But it was all right. Why would I care? Besides Robert, only a couple of my old friends (Jim Swift, Sarah Susanka (nee Hills), Linda Satchwell, and Bruce Mirken) saw fit to show up. Pictures should’ve been the least of my fears.

The thing is, everyone else we hung out with in high school had figured out that you don’t go to reunions.

This is where all the guys who went to USC and majored in Business surfaced. It was a big high school and a 700-person graduating class, but you’d think I’d know more than 5 people at the reunion.

Maybe I didn’t go to high school at all. Maybe it was all a simulacra, like Las Vegas. After all, my high school years marked the period when Baudrillard and hyperreality were really taking hold.

Or maybe the reunion itself was the simulacra, a phenomenon that takes advantage of the fact that we never really recognize our classmates at these things. Instead we rely on implanted memories stirred by the bio-sheets the organizers collect beforehand. There’s really only one reunion for all of the high schools in LA and all of these middle-aged people at this one are actually strangers.

High school? What high school? Reunion? What reunion?

This is just a Twilight Zone episode, a failed Candid Camera stunt.

By the time the next reunion came around, when I asked Bruce whether he was going again, he said, “Part of me is tempted, but the more sane part of me says I have better things to do.”

So he didn’t go and neither did I.

But you might argue, this time you’re skipping your *college* reunion and college reunions are nothing like high school reunions. Nothing at all.

Of course, I know nothing of the ways in which college reunions differ from high school reunions; I’ve never been to one. In my imagination, these reunions are venues for intense networking with past and future Nobel Prize winners and captains of industry. You clink glasses with Ed, who sat in front of you in sophomore physics recitation. Back then, you fixated on the large pustulant boil on the back of his neck, along a 30 degree arc offset from his right earlobe. Now you are listening with fascination as he details his results on identifying the Higgs Boson.

Or you sit opposite from Bill, who has launched five ridiculously successful technology ventures and now sits on the board of Fortune 100 companies when he’s not racing in America’s Cup. You note that he’s no easier to converse with now than he was at Frosh Camp. Not a bit easier. That doesn’t mean that he’s silent. Oh no. Anything but. He holds forth. You’ll get your turn to hold forth too—just hang on. The airspace between you will open up for your own monologue in another five minutes.

See? My imagination has done a swell job of dissuading me.

That and the Seminar Day booklet which promises me technical and scientific talks offered up by other alums and current faculty. One demystifying snowflake formation. Another about the hindgut microbial communities of termites. A third about stress accumulation at tectonic plate boundaries.

You get the picture: talks aimed at the people who remember the math and science they learned during four grueling undergraduate years (or twelve grueling undergraduate years, depending).

Me? I travel light. I’ve likely forgotten everything I learned in four years of a powerful science education that left me reeling and listing 84.5 degrees off the horizontal toward the humanities, a cognitive Tower of Pisa. I’m better off with the Discovery Channel. Really I am. Seminar Day is a waste on me, an absolute waste.

I’m not much of a networker either; I liked the people I knew while I was a student at Caltech, but—like high school—those aren’t the people who’ll go. You go to network with the people you didn’t meet in college because they were in their rooms, busy studying, achieving, striving, fulfilling their academic ambitions.

The people who don’t continue to be a source of disappointment to their advisors well into their advisors’ emeritus years.

The people who’ve schlepped down to Pasadena for this thing are the same people who were attacking those problem sets that I was trying desperately to avoid. The students, in fact, who were attacking them with relish, since I know that even my favorite source of completed problem sets, Jeff (not his real name) Klein, isn’t going. And they can probably still do second order partial differential equations or Fourier Transforms. They remember more than the right hand rule for sorting out the direction for the magnetic field and force.

Damn them!

Yep. They were off trolling, while Gesine, Big Doug, and I were in the Dabney House lounge pretending we were a Sixties cover band.

And that’s the thing: the reunion I’m missing isn’t just a Caltech reunion, but a Dabney House reunion.

Unless you went to Caltech, there’s no reason you’d know the significance of the student house reunions. The idea of student houses isn’t all that unique—lots of universities have these residential arrangements that are more frat-like than dorm-like—but, as the Alumni Association has sussed out, the student houses are at the root of alum allegiance and thus alum fundraising.

Yet I have the feeling that the reunion effect will still hold true; you’d be going to reclaim something that isn’t really there anymore. The fact that wine and cheese are the refreshments they’re serving at the reception says a world about then and now. And you can bet it’s not Night Train Express and Cheez-Whiz.

Although… if I went, at least I could get away with not wearing my little black cocktail dress.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

commuting my sentence

I’ve joined the rest of you commuters.

Just in the nick of time, the April 16th issue of The New Yorker featured an Annals of Transport article titled There and Back Again. Nick Paumgarten started his piece by reporting that the Midas Muffler Company gave their award for America’s longest commute to an engineer at Cisco who drives 372 miles each day to San Jose and back home.

Do you know the way to San Jose? Bert Bacharach apparently believed that you drove there once and stayed.

Got that? You only need to know the way to San Jose. And that's that.

I don’t drive nearly 186 miles to get to Mountain View (which is not far from San Jose). It’s only 35 or so miles from my house to my office down scenic California Highway 101.

Not far at all by the standards of the people described in the New Yorker article. And unlike them, I’m not “pumped up, ready to go” when I get to work. No, nothing of the sort. I’m by no means invigorated, nor am I ready to evangelize the commute. I’m stiff and groggy when I get to Mountain View. I’m not tempted to understate the length of time I spend in the car.

And I’m thinking, I could have been blogging. Napping. Walking. Working.

I could’ve been brushing and flossing my teeth in preparation for some kind of dental hygiene award. I could’ve been exfoliating until my skin was as smooth as a baby’s behind. I could’ve read several chapters of a Richard Ford novel—stopping to ponder over the semantics of larky-farkying—or written this post.

I could’ve investigated what happened to the bees. Both mine and everyone else's.

Instead I’ve read cryptic billboards about Ask’s algorithms, envied the pampered youngsters who work at Google (tap-tapping away on their laptops while the Bauer’s Limo service delivers them door-to-door), yelled “Get off the fucking phone and drive, assmunch!” to my fellow commuters, screamed in fear as an inattentive DeSoto cab driver changes lanes to occupy the same space as my little white Honda, and gasped as a Yahama 600cc sport bike splits lanes 3 inches from my right door (and a half inch from my right mirror).

I’m not a commuting lightweight either. I came of age—motor vehicle-wise—driving on the 405 in LA. It’s no accident that after I’d spent a few years wrapped up in one of these cross-city commutes, Pasadena to Santa Monica, I decided to look for my first job out of graduate school close to home. Close enough to bicycle. In fact, close enough to bicycle in the rain. I didn’t care what I did or whom I worked for; I just wanted to be able to bike to work.

I didn’t violate this principle until recently.

Highway 101, the spine of Silicon Valley, is a pistol, a real pistol. “Race track rules,” Mark tells me.

The primal urge is to react with anger, to yell “Fuck you, motherfucker! Fuck you!” each time an Audi or Beemer cuts you off, parallel parking between you and the white panel van ahead of you. Parallel parking at 80 mph. The white panel van has a Wild 94.9 bumpersticker. The Audi is fresh from the dealer and doesn’t have license plates yet. The Beemer has a $5000 crunch on his left rear fender.

You can get carpal tunnel syndrome giving that many people the finger. Really you can.

Just calm down.

I’d like to be more like David Byrne. Remember the beginning of True Stories? Where David Byrne—as the Narrator—said in a dreamy voice:

Well, I suppose these freeways made this town… and many others… possible. They’re the cathedrals of our time. There are names for the various kinds of freeway drivers. The “slingshotter”… the “adventurer”… the “marshmallow”… the “nomad”… the “weaver.” It’s fancy driving… Things that never had names before now are easily described. It makes conversation easy…

It’s hard to feel that calm, that surreal, that absorbed. It’s hard to resist giving someone the finger.

True Stories is a movie. David Byrne is a narrator. This is life. I’m a salaryman.

Wild 94.9 brings me back to reality. Is that Steven Seaweed playing AC/DC on 107.7 The Bone? AOR. REO. Time has stood still on decency-loving Clear Channel stations. Dark Side of the Moon is still number one. Didn’t I have not one, but three, Dark Side of the Moon posters on my dorm room wall when I was a freshman? I feel myself ossifying even though I’ve just listened briefly. It’s dangerous to tune in too long; someone might see you singing along with “Walk This Way.”

Some people, people who are otherwise reasonable and pleasant, would suggest that I listen to KQED, 88.5, National Public Radio and drive on Highway 280, which advertises itself as the “World’s Most Beautiful Freeway.”

Yeah. Yeah. Both have their moments.

I remember listening to Terry Gross interview a writer who’d written a book about suicide bombers. The writer was talking about the changes of heart that unsuccessful bombers sometimes experienced. “What about the successful bombers?” Terry asked him. “Do they ever have similar changes of heart?” I remember the writer as being very polite. Possibly more polite than I was, there in my white Honda.

“Think about it, Terry,” I said back to my radio. “Think about it very carefully. For godssake!”

And of course Highway 280 has honest-to-god sights, not just the carpet of California poppies in the spring.

Junipero Serra, monkish symbol of repression of California’s indigenous people, points the way along the curvy part of the freeway just north of the Highway 92 junction.

The Flintstone house, that famous blobby 1970s architectural experiment. Tasteless? Yes. Likeable? Even more so. Look: it could’ve been avocado green or carpeted with shag on the outside. Instead its only crime is formlessness.

Compare and contrast these concrete loofahs on the peninsula’s burnished hills with Berkeley’s scruffy Whale House. It’s no contest.

But these two high points, the Flintstone House and Terry Gross’s disarming interviewing techniques, are only recognizable as such because the rest is so darned boring.

KQED and Highway 280 just aren’t for me. No controversy. No billboards. No bumperstickers. The Audis and Beemers weave through the slower traffic with balletic precision, but there are no white panel vans, no Camrys with outsized JC Whitney spoilers. Just rich people, wide lanes, and German engineering.

KQED and Highway 280: boring, boring, boring.

You know I’m going to eat my words, don’t you?

There’s but so long the billboards and signage can keep you entertained. For awhile, sponsored a horrible advertising campaign that even mystified geeks whizzing along high tech commute routes like 101. Stuff like “THE ALGORITHM IS FROM JERSEY” and “THE ALGORITHM KILLED JEEVES” and “THE UNABOMBER HATES THE ALGORITHM.” Huh? Talk about in-jokes.

Then there’s the IKEA sign that’s just a little too high tech for its own good: it regularly promotes the Internet Explorer error “The page cannot be displayed.” Certainly not an appropriate message for an IKEA sign.

Perhaps it should say instead, “Do not despair. There are often parts left over. Your Flarb will still stand sturdily.” or “Leftover parts present a choking hazard to children and small dogs. Dispose of carefully.” or even “Here are five project ideas that involve hex wrenches and broken pieces of particle board.”

So, yes, I did get tired of reading the signs. I’ve never felt tempted to Thrive at the behest of my HMO or use Blinkx or go to the thoroughbred races at Bay Meadows.

But you don’t really get bored on 101 when you get tired of the signs and the radio; you get angry. No-one, the reasoning goes, knows how to drive anymore. Either there are geriatrics (everyone older than oneself) clogging up the fast lane with their moralistic 65 mph pace-setting, or there are testosterone fueled Type A drivers (everyone crazier than oneself) buzzing and zipping imprudently close.

I would go crazy if I didn’t find something to do besides attending to how everyone else drives.

Some people talk on their phones. Other people talk to themselves. I’ve discovered the wonders of podcasts.

This is not to say that all podcasts are wonderful. It seems to be all too easy for terminal bores to adopt the medium. You can include as many pointless details as you desire in a podcast: an hour talking about a first date where you feel the need to account for subway stops, coffee shops, and poker games.

I was lucky. The first podcast I found was Gem’s Misadventures in Taiwan. Gem is an art student studying animation at the Tainan National University of the Arts. And she’s got stories to tell about the night market, about tiny crabs, about the sights and sounds of the Taiwanese countryside. She talks very fast and she’s very funny. I burned through her podcasts during the first couple weeks of my commute.

And here’s where I eat my words. I’d listened to This American Life before, but not regularly. It’s on at some time I never listen to the radio. Sunday at noon or something like that. So I’d only caught snippets.

I’m hooked.


Sure: at times it’s maudlin. But no-one sees you weeping in the car. It’s more discreet than picking your nose.

Like heroin, the first This American Life is free for the downloading. It’s only $.95/dose thereafter, which would be a fine price. Except they’re not MP3s. They’re instead M4Ps, Apple’s DRM-protected iTunes format. Dyslexic people refer to them as MP4s.

Curse you, Apple!

I’m certainly willing to buy This American Life. And I promise not to distribute it. But I want to play it on a device that doesn’t run the iTunes codec.

Curse you, Apple! May hackers eat your lunch! And steal your lunch money too. You and your smarmy hipster corporate branding army. If you were *really* hip, I’d be able to listen to This American Life on my non-standard non-iPod device. Apparently the only solution is to burn and re-rip it. Or trust one of those DRM removal tools.

But I’ve been mollified by Slate’s numerous podcasts. June Thomas with her subtle accent (is that a hint of Glasgow? According to the web site, June hails from Manchester) is the foreign correspondent who records the Explainers, questions from the day’s news. Those are fun. Emily Bazelon, who’s part of the political gabfest, has a reassuringly girlish voice. Not the voice of a radio announcer. She’s my new best friend in the car. I can picture these podcasters crammed into their tiny, dingy conference room, eating potato chips left over from box lunches consumed during an earlier meeting.

Podcasting doesn’t require many resources.

I’ve picked and chosen among recordings of my favorite writers. There’s not enough David Sedaris nor Amy Sedaris: to the microphones, my favorite functional/dysfunctional family members! To the microphones! Richard Ford reads Raymond Carver. Jeremy Irons reads Nabokov. But, in general, writers don’t seem to read much and often it isn’t even their own stuff. You’ve got to fight with the DRM of books on CD.

It’s a long drive from San Francisco to Mountain View.

A penny for your thoughts.

Especially if you podcast them for me.