I've been active online for 9 years now. With one exception, nothing I've done online has brought me closer to making 25-year friends. Life online rewards breadth, not depth. As gratifying as it may be to have 1 million "visitors" read at least one word of my latest online book, chances are none of those visitors will turn into people who turn into friends who turn into 25-year friends.
How many 25-year friends can you hope to make in one lifetime? 25 years is a long time. That's half of a short life, a third of a normal life, or a quarter of an extraordinary life. Depending on when you start counting, 25 years might include some or all of growing up, graduating from multiple schools, getting married (or remarried), having (and raising) kids, changing jobs, or changing careers.
But a 25-year friend is not just "a friend for 25 years." It's not the passage of time that matters as much as the "of course"-ness of it all. Of course I want to hear about your breakup. Of course you can come over anytime. Of course I'll help you move. Of course you'll be my best man, and I yours. Of course we'll be each other's godfathers. Of course you'll "lend" me some money when I hit hard times. 25 years of "of course."
And in the end, and I mean the very end, of course you'll come visit me when I'm all but paralyzed. Of course you'll go outside to throw a ball around with my son while the paramedics take me off to the hospital, again. After I can't so much as lift my legs, of course you'll sit with me in the hospital and help me get comfortable every five minutes. After I can't feed myself, of course you'll ignore the doctor's orders and sneak in some cheese bisque and feed me one spoonful at a time. And after I can't change myself, of course you'll call the nurse to say there's shit running down my leg, and of course you'll stick around to help the nurse roll me over so she can wipe me down, then roll me back so she can change my sheets.
A good friend will help you move. A great friend will help you move a body. A 25-year friend will help you move your own body, if that's all that's left to do.
And when the nurse asks, "Family? Friend?" of course you'll say, "25-year friend." And she'll say, "25-year friend. What a thing. What a thing to be."
In the end, how many 25-year friends can you hope to make in one lifetime? How many do you really need? I would have said "only one," but it turns out what I meant was "one who will outlive me."
The appendices of the CSS specification are in alphabetical order was one of those posts that gets stuck, trapped in your head for several days. Ideas bubble, but nothing will form shapes of words or sentences proper. But that phrase seemed to be rhythmically, well, soothing. Words make rhythm and music. More accurately, syllables have rhythm; words and sentences, music. Great writers can take liberties with them all, mixing silence in with the banter. (Parentheses and) emphasis like Word. Caps. are tricks for unspoken words.
This sentence was the first that I wrote (I added links to Hofstadter later):
The appendices of the CSS 2.1 specification are in alphabetical order.
Head-scratchingly, it felt like it was... off. Why? The number syllables wrecked it.
The appendices of the CSS
2.1specification are in alphabetical order.
Then, suddenly, it was clear to me why this version had familiar rhythm. Here: Einstein on the Beach, which is a song sung for kooks and lunatic madmen. (No, seriously, listening to just one of the acts is plenty to start with.) Scene one in the third is like a chant -- mixing, blending, jumbling parts of
Bank robbery is punishable by twenty years in federal prison.
First, count in your head where the words, stresses, breaks, and "notes" are occurring.
BANK · ROB · ber · y · is · PUN · ish · a · ble · BY · TWEN · ty · YEARS · in · FED · er · al · PRIS · on
Now listen to the emphasis in my phrasing, matching syllables loosely.
THE · ap · PEN · di · ces · of · the · BANK · · ROB · ber · y · is · C · s · s · SPEC · i · fi · PUN · ish · a · ble · BY · CA · tion · are · in · AL · pha · TWEN · ty · · YEARS · in · BET · i · cal · OR · der FED · er · al · PRIS · on
Stacked vertically, phrases become chords, measures marking time like a foot tap.
Bank robbery is punishable by twenty alphabetical orders.
The appendices of the CSS spec, twenty years in federal prison.
Bank robbery was sleeping on the couch, twenty years of unspoken words.
I just recently was sleeping on the couch, music playing. Could I have dreamt it?
Bank robbery is punishable by twenty years of lunatic madmen.
The appendices of the CSS specification are carried everywhere with me.
Bank robbery is punished
But but but doubtlessly, that's where it's from: twenty years of familiar rhythm.
Or, is there a simpler cause? Twenty years of hearing that piece, now my brain is rewired to hear music, carried everywhere with me.
Bank robbery is punishable by stresses, breaks, and federal prison.
But, doubtlessly, that's where it's from: Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach."
Bank robbery is punishable by mixing, blending, jumbling parts of
Great writers can be punished by twenty years of
Bank bank bank robbery is punishable by twenty years of specification.
Hey Mr. Bojangles,
Hey Mr. Bojangles.
The other day, as I was skimming Reddit for my daily fix of mental junk food, I stumbled across an old lecture by Douglas R. Hofstadter, Analogy as the Core of Cognition. A bit of URL-hacking then led me to this introduction of the man himself, which briefly describes his major works, including GÃ¶del, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which I first read in a delightful Logical Systems class in college, and which will be the only book in my backpack when I get to step 7 in my pursuit of happiness, though by then we need to be able to buy unencumbered PDFs of such things, because damn -- and I mean this quite literally -- that book is heavy. Seriously, Amazon pegs it at 832 pages and 2.4 pounds. That's almost enough reason to buy a Kindle. Almost.
Hofstadter also wrote a book called Metamagical Themas, which before that was the title of a column he wrote for Scientific American in the early 80s. His column was the successor to Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games column, which later served as the inspiration for several of my early Free Software games. "Metamagical Themas" is, of course, an anagram of "Mathematical Games," a fact which I somehow missed until it was pointed out to me by a now-ex-girlfriend for whom Hofstadter was also a literary hero.
Eventually, the introduction led me to this page of "Hofstadteriana", which includes Autoportrait with Constraint (written without the letter E -- a feat I have also attempted), a selection of ambigrams (like optical illusions, but with words), and this potpourri of other random excerpts. This essay about what GEB:EGB is really all about is interesting, too.
(Good writing, bad writing, great writing, and the differences between them, is something I've discussed here before. But the letter to the editor described in For Meta, For Verse just makes me want to throw away everything I've ever written and go live in a wooden hut. Let me put it another way. On a good day, Techcrunch is bad writing. On a bad day, I strive for at least good writing. But what Douglas does is... something else altogether. That poem is proof.)
After reading about ¾ of the introduction page, I noticed that the first word of every paragraph was bolded, and furthermore that the last letter of every paragraph was italicized. Aha! The game is afoot! My suspicions were confirmed shortly thereafter. The initial bolded letters of each paragraph spell out "D-O-U-G-L-A-S-R-H-O-F-S-T-A-D-T-E-R," which spells "Douglas R. Hofstadter." But the final italicized letters of each paragraph seemed to spell out nothing at all: "l-a-s-i-p-a-n-y-e-h-t-r-o-w-n-e-l-g." But of course! If the first letters spell something forwards, the final letters should spell something backwards. And so they do: they spell "Glen Worthey napisal." Checking the page footer confirmed that the entire text was indeed written by one Glen Worthey, and as best as I can tell, "napisal" is a Polish word meaning "author" or "authored." Glen Worthey wrote this. Aha!
Meanwhile, a bit closer to home, I recently learned that the appendices of the CSS 2.1 specification are in alphabetical order. I'm going to repeat that because it's doubly awesome: the appendices of the CSS specification are in alphabetical order. "Appendix A. Aural style sheets," "Appendix B. Bibliography," "Appendix C. Changes." Hmm, could be a coincidence. "Appendix D. Default style sheet for HTML 4." Suspicious, but plausible. "Appendix E. Elaborate description of Stacking Contexts." OK, now you're just fucking with me. And so on, up until "Appendix I. Index." (But, even more interestingly, not including Appendix H (!), which is absent from both the “mini-TOC” and the full table of contents, but which is present within the text of the specification itself, for example by going to Appendix I and clicking “previous.”)
Early on, I had tried to do something similar while writing Dive Into Python 3. Unfortunately for fans of constrained writing everywhere (both of you), the constant rearranging, merging, adding, and removing chapters led me to abandon that effort. But learning about the easter egg in the CSS spec prompted me to try again, and now if you skim through the online edition, you'll see that the initial drop caps in each chapter are in alphabetical order from A to U. Maybe it's not Hofstadterian, but I'll be damned if I'm going to be outdone by the appendices of the CSS specification. Still, if the pen is mightier than the sword, I feel like I'm still learning how to unsheath the damn thing and wave it around. And Douglas R. Hofstadter is a level 60 samurai.
As part of my pursuit of happiness, I have been steadily shedding attachments, getting rid of things I don't use, thinking about ways of keeping the things I do use longer, and just generally being a pain in the ass. This, for instance, is an actual conversation I had with my wife last fall:
Herself: What do you want for your birthday?
Her: You're impossible to shop for.
Me: Actually, I want less than that. I want you to let me sell my car and replace it with nothing.
Her: Be realistic. We live in the suburbs.
Me: I have a bike.
Her: But what if my van breaks down?
Me: We have AAA.
Her: It would still put a huge burden on me if we only had one vehicle.
Me: That's why it's called a "gift."
Her: You're getting restaurant gift cards. And socks.
Me: I don't need socks.
Apropos of nothing, I would just like to point out that the title of this post is a snowclone, which itself is a word that I learned in the process of researching the exact wording of the original phrase of which it is a snowclone ("Math is hard. Let's go shopping!" from Teen Talk Barbie circa 1992). Not knowing whether I should write "simplicity is hard" or "simplicity is tough," I searched Google for "let's go shopping" math barbie, and the first result was a Language Log article called Tracking snowclones is hard. Let's go shopping! which is both self-referential in the obvious sense, and also wonderfully meta-referential in that Language Log was instrumental in coining the word "snowclone" in the first place, but now can not possibly keep track of the snowclones, as seen by the lengthy update to that very post "added for those who find this via the Wikipedia entry for 'snowclone'," which would be... me. And damn it, now I've spent the last two hours on a wiki walk. (And now I've (re)introduced you to TvTropes, so, you know, there goes your evening and most of your night. Try to come up for air before dawn.)
My point, such that I have one, is that simplicity is easy to describe but difficult to achieve. Especially (though not exclusively) when there are other people in your life. While I applaud millionaires who decide to give away all their money (I say "their" money instead of "his" money, since even if he made the bulk of it, I can't imagine him being able to give it away without his wife's consent), the reality at home is more droll. Take, for instance, the television in our bedroom. It is small, as televisions go, costing no more than $100. It was once hooked up to a DVD player, which itself cost less than $50. Our children used to congregate in our bedroom after bath and before bed and watch 10 or 15 minutes worth of a movie or Sesame Street or some similar passive entertainment. I say "used to," because in truth they stopped doing that about a year ago. No particular reason, just changing patterns. I pointed out to my wife that this would be a perfect opportunity to simplify by getting rid of the television and replacing it with nothing. That conversation went something like this:
Myself: Can we get rid of this television?
Me: But we never use it anymore.
Her: I'm sure that's not true.
So I did what any self-respecting scientist would do when faced with an untested hypothesis: I devised a test. Which is to say, I unplugged it. The television. The power cord winds its way to a wall socket behind a dresser, which itself has to be moved in order to get at the socket, so my trickery was both non-obvious and difficult to counteract even if one should notice it. Which, of course, no one did. So there it sat, unused and unplugged, for over six months. Until one day, or rather one night, when we found ourselves in an old familiar situation -- kids in pajamas, jumping on the bed, and so on -- and my wife actually tried to pop in a DVD.
Herself: The TV doesn't work.
Myself: I unplugged it.
Me: About six months ago.
Her: Why would you do that?
Me: To prove we never use it.
Her: I'm trying to use it right now.
Me: What are you hoping to accomplish?
Her: I need to calm the boys down.
Me: And this need has not arisen in the past six months?
Her: We usually read books.
Me: Why can't we do that now?
Me: Can we get rid of the television now?
Her: No, we might need it.
Me: OK, but I'm not plugging it back in.
Her: I hate you.
About five and a half months after that, which is to say about two weeks ago, I had bought some new art and set about rearranging the walls to make everything fit. "Aha, an opportunity presents itself!" I thought to myself. You see, the (unplugged) television had always blocked a critical piece of real estate in our bedroom, above the dresser, in direct line of sight while lying in bed. The next morning, shortly after she had left the house to go to work, I disassembled the whole contraption, television and DVD player and all. I cleaned up an impressive amount of Assorted Random Crap that had accumulated around, behind, and beneath the television, I said goodbye to the final pile of physical discs in our house, and I hung one of my wife's favorite pieces on the newly reclaimed wall in its place. When she came home, I gave her the grand tour of our newly rearranged walls, of course working up to the bedroom as the finale.
Herself: Yes! You finally got rid of that stupid television!
Myself: You know I unplugged it a year ago.
Her: Really? Why would you do that?
Me: It's not important.
In the wake of the much-publicized hacking of a webmail account, I thought I'd share my own anecdote about security questions. Sometime last year, I decided to consolidate my finances and roll over all my past employer 401(k) accounts to a new firm. Some companies make this easier than others, since, you know, they'd really like to continue holding your money for you. Most of them require you to call them up and get them to mail you some forms. And all of them have multiple layers of security.
In the process of convincing one of these firms to send me the requisite paperwork, a customer service rep challenged me to answer a custom security question that I had set up when I opened the account (close to 10 years ago now). This is a good thing, in theory. Most of the "canned" security questions (birthplace, mother's maiden name) are easily answered with a quick web search these days, and even 10 years ago I was vaguely aware of this possibility. Thus, I had opted for a custom security question, in which I got to define both the question and the answer.
Like most people, I dated other people before meeting the woman who is now my wife. Like most people, I did not know when I met her that she would eventually become my wife. I had other relationships, some good, some bad, some that never quite got off the ground. One of those "never quite got off the ground" girls was a co-worker of mine who had come to work with me a few months after I had started dating my future wife. We became fast friends with a shared passion for electronic music (although she was way more into the "scene" than I was), but we never got around to dating because things were going so well with my future wife.
You see where this is going.
Nigh on ten years later, I find myself on the phone with a bored customer service rep who says, "All right, Mr. Pilgrim, I'd be happy to send you this rollover form as soon as you can answer the security question you set up with us: 'Who is the queen of trance?'"
There was -- literally -- 45 seconds of dead air before I could come up with the name of the girl I didn't marry.