Friday, March 21, 2008

Star-struck by Lydia Millet

You don't know who Lydia Millet is. No one does. Except for the tiny readership that somehow managed to discover her surreal, satirical, and very moving fiction. Meeting this utterly obscure writer turned out to be a much bigger deal for me than meeting any of the big-wigs I've encountered in my work travels.

I recently read Millet's wonderful new novel, How the Dead Dream. The story of a young businessman who begins to face the huge issues of environmental catastrophe and species extinction, it definitely hit home with me. It also served as a reminder that great novels can come out of nowhere (in this case, from a staffer at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson), and encouragement to get in gear finishing my latest manuscript.

Happily, Lydia was in town over the weekend for a night of author readings on the theme of "Catastrophe." It's hard to imagine an event more up my alley, so I swung by to pay her my respects for her terrific novel. The readings were held at Edinburgh Castle in San Francisco -- an absolute dive, it's basically the last place in SF (short of an illicit-massage joint) where you'd expect a gaggle of literary novelists to be reading on-stage. But there was actually a nice turnout of 30 or so people to hear the readings, most of which were kind of shitty...until they finally got around to Lydia.

She read a very funny selection from the book -- smart thinking, because when you're reading to a live audience, it probably pays to go with the laughs, as opposed to reading apocalyptic passages like everyone else was doing. She was clearly "the ringer" in this crop of writers, and earned an enthusiastic round of applause when she'd finished. She was standing by herself in the back of the space, so I headed over to her intending to say just a few smart phrases and then take off.

Of course, writers are the only people around whom I get totally starstruck and tongue-tied. Big famous actors, not a problem. Sports superstars, no biggie. Mega-business luminaries, ho-hum. Obscure literary novelist from Tucson? I fall completely to pieces. I said something like: "Hi Lydia I just wanted to thank you for a great book it really means a lot to me it had quite an impact I really hope you keep it up okay thanks bye."

She was very gracious and thanked me for coming out, and I made as dignified a retreat as was possible.

Then went home and wrote for five hours without a pause, because I hope someday soon to be one of those marginal novelists reading selections in a crappy dive bar in the city. Dare to dream!

Dreaming Cool Games

Last night I dreamed up an interesting idea for a videogame. I mean literally -- I had a very detailed dream about it, and woke up with a full recollection of the details. Sometimes my subconscious is juggling so much random stuff that it reassembles into something memorable. I call these "pizza nights." In any case, it can make for surprisingly fully-formed ideas.

So here's the game: It's designed for two teams of two players it's a duo facing off against another duo. The object of the game is to fight a military/political conflict against the other side, while managing the global reaction to the conflict in "the court of public opinion." Each team has a "general" and a "propagandist" -- the general is concerned with waging the combat and trying to establish military victory, while their partner the propagandist is basically a roving movie camera who tries to capture footage of the action that paints their side in the most positive/heroic light (while trying to capture enemy atrocities and paint the opposing team as devils/jackals/terrorists.) You need success on both fronts to win the game; the idea is that in the modern age, decisive military action is meaningless without a well-handled propaganda effort.

Here's the cool part: the general can improve the chances of victory by playing "rough," i.e. deploying ghastly weapons, inflicting civilian losses, and even resorting to atrocities. But the enemy's propagandist is always trying to catch these images on camera to broadcast to a horrified global TV audience. The dynamic of the game is built on this interplay -- balancing the spectrum of available military tactics with the resulting media fallout.

This would be a game that rewards "destructive" and "constructive" approaches to gameplay -- on the very same team, in fact. The general can happily concentrate on obliterating whole neighborhoods if he wants, while the propagandist can merrily play a "muckraker out to expose the horrors of war" game at the very same time. At long last, a game that warmongers and pacifists can get on board with.

I still can't think of a name for it, though. Maybe that will come to me in my next dream.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Go Speed Racer

Little-known fact: I'm a graduate of a two-day course at the Skip Barber racing school (what can I say, journalism is a career that will take you on strange detours.) There I learned the basics of race-car driving; I raced Formula 2000 cars and Dodge Vipers on a road course, and learned the basic tactics of minimizing time-around-the-track. I've never done much with the education, but when it comes to racing go-karts, you'd hope the diploma can come in handy.

Today a friend's party brought me to the track at Malibu Grand Prix -- the ultimate testing ground of human bravery. Okay, maybe not the ultimate testing ground, but the toughest testing ground available off of the Seaport exit on 101 in Redwood City. Bottom line: a serious go-kart track. I strapped into a 3/4-scale Indy-style car and took four runs at the track record.

I improved my time on each of the four runs, cutting a decent 64-second debut down to a more-respectable 60.3 seconds. The bad news: a couple of other guys had managed times in the 58-59 second range, leaving me less-than-thrilled with my results. I figured a score in the mid-50s was possible by a really skilled driver who knew the course.

Then I saw the "day's fastest lap" printout -- 42 seconds.

Then I saw the "track record" plaque -- 6.6 seconds.

And that is how much a Skip Barber primer is worth to you on a go-kart track.

In happier news, I spent some time in the arcade and cleared the first two stages of Time Crisis 2 on just one play...proof that at least my coin-up skills aren't withering.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Morrises Take Cambridge

My sister Katie has been accepted into a doctoral program at Cambridge University, making me insanely proud of her and begging the question -- isn't that in England?? Turns out the answer is yes, which means that my favorite sis is signing up for three years of horrid weather, horrid food, and the educational opportunity of a lifetime.

"Dr. Katharine Zimmerman" will require a bit of an adjustment for me, since I'm always going to think of my sister as the tot who loved to crawl all over the exterior of my dad's car in the parking lot at 7-Eleven. Now that she's an erudite, world-traveling scholar, she completely throws off the curve of Morris-sibling education level. Case in comparison: Cambridge University was founded in 1209 and is regarded as one of the world's premier seats of higher learning; whereas the junior college I attended, West Valley College ("Go...whatever our mascot is!"), was founded in 1963, and mostly produces paralegals and Vietnamese gangsters.

But we still love our egghead sister! Congratulations, Katie...and please be on the lookout for any rampaging Normans or Vikings.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ironic baseball-fan gifts

Here is a timeless lesson in Fact vs. Faith, wrapped inside a baseball debate, wrapped inside a very funny gift from my company's director of marketing:

Joe Morgan was one of the all-time great baseball players, there's no doubt about it. And as a baseball commentator on TV, he makes good observations about the minutiae of the game. This is all to his credit. But unfortunately, he also represents an irrationality and willful blindness that makes him an enemy of reason everywhere.

Because when debating the qualities that make a baseball team good or bad, Morgan soundly rejects empiricism, science, and demonstrable fact. He doesn't want to hear about statistical research; he just wants to know whether a team has "character," "chemistry," or (my favorite for its vagueness) whether it's "playing the game the right way." He's a subscriber to an age-old baseball ideology that says "find guys with the right character, and you'll find a winning baseball team." He trumpets this on every broadcast, usually taking a moment to denigrate the new trend toward Ivy League-level research into what really provides the ingredients of winning baseball.

To make a long story short, it turns out that the single best predictor of victory is the simple ability of hitters to get on base safely, by any means. The easiest and most sustainable route to getting on-base is to not swing at bad pitches and thus earn a walk. It's the No. 1 thing a team can emphasize in order to help their chances of scoring runs. This much is agreed-upon in the (admittedly nerdy and not-very-dateworthy) academic circles where baseball is studied in-depth.

Joe Morgan has a big problem with this...namely, he thinks it shows a lack of "grit" or "aggression" when a hitter is at the plate trying to earn a walk. He hates it; despises it; curses it on national TV every week of the baseball season. To him, that's not "playing the game the right way." He wants to see you swing -- and if you're not swinging at every pitch in your ZIP code, it's because you hate America. Never mind the data, he says; data is the realm of compu-dweebs, not baseball men. "Stat-head" teams are not playing to win, as far as Joe is concerned. It's like arguing evolution with a creationist.

This all makes Joe Morgan a frequent butt of my jokes, especially in work meetings where arguments are being made strictly from assumption. Co-workers usually know what's coming when I fire up my Joe Morgan speech, especially the baseball fans among them. (Cue: "This is about more than baseball, man. This affects us all, man.")

Which is what makes Shawn Roberts' recent gift so brilliant: out of the blue, he gave me a giant stack of Joe Morgan baseball cards.

That's my new collection in the photo above. (And that's not even all of it, just as many as I could fit into one frame.) I'll keep them in plain view in my office, because the old saying goes -- Know your enemy.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Paranoids @ The Bike Kitchen, SF

On the night that my band made its live debut, we played with an excellent band called the Paranoids, featuring my co-worker Elliott on the drums. The Paranoids are the real deal: a tight art-rock act out of the garage-glam genre. Of all the bands I played with during my year-and-a-half of gigs in and around San Francisco -- and there were a lot -- the Paranoids were the best by a fair margin.

Last night I headed into the Mission to catch them playing at a venue called The Bike Kitchen. Now, I'd never heard of this "venue" before, and I was definitely curious about the name, so imagine my surprise when I turn down the alley on Laskie Street and encounter a gaggle of hipsters loitering outside a bike-repair shop. Sure enough, the night's lineup of bands was being featured in a funky little co-op garage where people pay a membership fee to get access to bike-repair equipment. Talk about "underground scene."

(As an aside: I've got a certain passion for tiny little businesses that defy convention, and The Bike Kitchen is definitely one of those. What a perfect service for the city's famous army of bike couriers -- not to mention the exploding population of bicyclists taking over the Mission as it gentrifies. Elliott and I were talking on this subject before his band went on, and he told me about a friend of his who's running a profitable business organizing Double Dutch lessons for afterschool programs. I mean, are you kidding me? How awesome is that?)

The Paranoids' performance was great as usual -- there were around 30 people there for the show, crammed into every possible crevice of the place. I startled their guitarist Lennon by singing along to the one song of theirs that I know the lyrics to -- he noticed me mouthing the words and actually did a double-take while he played. It may have been the first time in the history of the Paranoids that the guy observed a total stranger singing along amongst the audience. Good laugh.

Elliott is a neat guy and was never anything but encouraging about my own modest musical effort, so he's the star of this post: that's him slamming the skins in the pic.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A note on this blog's title...

One of my favorite books of all time is Hagakure, a martial manual from the 18th century written by a samurai named Yamamoto. It has a lot of great proverbs for combat but also for life in general, and it contains one of my very favorite anecdotes.

Here it is -- and while I may be embellishing some of the details, I promise that my interpretation of the story is pretty faithful to the original:

The young samurai students ask their teacher (Yamamoto) "What is the greatest thing that can be said about a warrior? We think it's simply that he never lost in battle. Is that right?"

Yamamoto says, "No, every great warrior has lost battles."

The students are a bit flummoxed by this but press on, asking, "Well, is it that his sword was never broken?" But Yamamoto replies, "Every great warrior had his sword broken at some point or another. In fact, I'm always a bit suspicious of a samurai who claims he's never broken his sword."

Now the young guys try a third time, and ask, "Okay, we've got it -- is it that he was never knocked down off his horse? That's gotta be it." But Yamamoto shakes his head and says, "Nope. Every great warrior is knocked down a bunch of times."

Truly perplexed, the students demand of their teacher: "Then what is it? No offense, but these great warriors don't sound so great. They're always losing battles, breaking their swords, and getting knocked down off their horses. So what is the greatest thing that can be said about a warrior?"

Yamamoto smiles in his Zen way and replies, "The greatest thing that can be said about a warrior is that he was knocked down seven times, but got up eight times."

BOOM! Now that's a philosophy I can get behind. And to this day in the martial tradition of Japan, it's a revered proverb: "Seven times down, eight times up," as summarized in the four-character Kanji drawing above.

I think it's as good a motto as any, so now it makes its world debut as a blog title. (I checked.)

Welcome welcome welcome

Hello, everyone...I'm glad you could join me.

I've started this blog so that those who know me (that means you!) can have a simple, convenient means of staying up-to-the-minute with what's going on in my world. I have a lot of wonderful qualities but "staying in touch" is not one that comes easily to it laziness, call it being super-busy, or call it the inevitable consequence of life in this madcap 21st century, but I've been a plain failure at keeping friends and family posted.

Hopefully this blog will be a handy vehicle for everyone to keep tabs on me, and vice versa. (Since y'all can leave comments!) I aim to better connect -- and reconnect -- with all of you and give you a fairly decent news-ticker of what's happening on Planet Dan.

If you've made your way to this blog, it's because your name is written in Sharpie-pen and underlined in my "Cool Book." I hope to see you soon, and until then, enjoy the blog!