I met you, Anna, through the eyes of a man who had my trust and respect from the first time we shared a Guinness. That night on King Street, when Luke and I cemented our acquaintance, we laughed at the things in life that deserved ridicule and made serious the things which deserved respect. I drank with Luke, but I seemingly sat beside you both. You were at a distance, then, but not apart--separated by space but affixed in spirit. He spoke not of "some girl" but of "Anna," not of hair color and height or of beauty and appeal but of purpose. Yours, his, both together. Purpose and commitment--abstract and unclear, not perfectly thought out, but spoken with desperate accord. I knew then that this wasn't the love of men of my age--perhaps of any particular age--since there are loves so profoundly distinct that they seem destined, sacred, inexorable. I didn't know it that night, and perhaps neither did you, but there are ways that men speak about the women they will marry--and in retrospect Luke's words betrayed his intentions.

It wasn't a matter of learning the kind of woman you would be. I knew by how Luke spoke that night and on every occasion thereafter that you were the kind of woman who would attract this kind of man--a man who doesn't settle, a man of discerning sensibilities and staggering conviction and honor.

But then I actually met you, Anna, in a Baltimore harbor with the man at your side who I had come to depend on like a chosen brother. That afternoon in Maryland, when we cemented our friendship, we laughed, also, at the things in life that deserved ridicule and then we laughed quite a bit more. And in many ways, in the five years I've had the deep satisfaction of knowing you as individuals and together, we've never stopped laughing. Later today, after you've made concrete the vows writ with zealous ink across your smiles and time, I want us to clink glasses again among family and friends--with the sonorous laughter of happiness deserved--to your immeasurable spirit and to your dedication.


Resolutions 2014

For posterity and the like.

1. Get back to "the walk."

I love walking. Cities have so much to discover with no better way to do so than by walking the streets methodically and systematically. My walking declined in Los Angeles, a city made more for helicopters than feet, but Austin has many neighborhoods calling my Nikes. Ultimate goal: Fit by 30 and avoidance of digital screens.

2. Eat delicious food.

You wore me down, friends. That and I've run out of legitimate criticism. (Because science.) I'm eating low carb this year. I tried it for 30 days in 2013 with mixed results, but 2014 will be the year of grainless meals. I worry about meal planning for the first few months and about missing beer and about missing candy and about missing Faiza's cooking. Ultimate goal: Fit by 30.

3. Write the stuff in my head.

"The Better Rhetor" is progressing nicely, but it needs more attention. It shouldn't be difficult to produce 1,000 words a month on the topic of rhetoric. Ultimate goal: By 2015 have enough content to publish a short book.

4. Work more / work less.

Become the master of my own schedule. Figure out a way to fit more productive work into a single hour and find time to do everything else I want to do. Ultimate goal: Allocate productive time toward #3 & #5.

5. Talk.

I've often thought of myself as a "writer"--someone who communicates primarily through writing--if not a writer--a professional. But more and more I've become a comfortable "talker," if not a talker. FrackNation giving me the opportunity to handle radio and TV interviews forced me to recognize that I could be a genuinely good speaker and that I should put effort into the skill. Ultimate goal: Give a talk at OCON and start/host a podcast.



Your home was sanctuary, warm from an oven baking bread and sweets, to a child seeking retreat from the task of identity--tastes of rich moral morsels, like your dumplings on stew, and gorging on both I grew wit and waist, wasting neither treat nor the time spent to make it--a childhood, like most, ignorant of dreadful, unbeautiful things and naive about what was happening outside your kitchen; it wasn't evasion but a child's mind that expected morsels forever, forever a hearth, forever safety--but my forever couldn't last, warmth receded, instead of laughter, pleading, low at first but with increasing urgency, for comfort and for rest--for a moment again without the medicine, like it used to be, when cookies were a cure-all and humor nourishment for bodies born to feel the sublime violence of laughter.


DC Interlude

Her mom hugged me and called me "her son." I squeezed back with "ماں"—mother—one of the few Urdu words I know (that isn't profane) but one I recited an unnecessary-dozen times to myself before saying aloud. It was an emotional highlight of the trip, a scene studio execs would have shown in a trailer for this summer blockbuster. It felt that way, at least. Leaving aside time with FJ or LM/AF the rest of the experience was movie-like—at least in my experience of it—not necessarily a bad flick, mind you, but more so a tedious, naturalist drama, one where you have to pay attention when you'd rather be eating popcorn or texting. 

The whole thing was "from the mind of FJ," setting and plot that I had previously known only from her descriptions. The cast, too, all seemed celebritized. Imagine what it might be like to have a BBQ with the cast of Arrested Development or to have a serious conversation with those guys from Duck Dynasty. Not bad, right? Fun for the most part but definitely surreal or detached—especially if you knew you wouldn't be doing it again, at least not for a long time.

There were moments of comedy—sitcom-esque—like when I tried to compliment mom's cooking only to realize she had no idea I was I talking to her...because she doesn't speak much English. 

And at least one moment of suspense when FJ's father, the perceived villain of the film, began to descend the stairs while I was in their living room. There was momentary panic as FJ rushed me outside and we walked down the block. It was dark. Their subdivision was lit by well-spaced streetlights but the kind that are higher than they need to be in a feeble attempt to spread the light over a larger area—especially with those eco-bulbs. As we walked back a figure—a hulking silhouette holding something under its arm. "Is that your dad?" I asked. FJ gripped my hand tighter and our pace slowed. The figure approached with lumbering plods. "Shit, it's him," she said. The streetlight made it hard to see his complexion or face. At any second we would run into the trees. But it wasn't him and the silhouette passed us with a nod and a smile. 

I'm glad to have seen this movie. It's an important genre-film. But I'll need some serious time before the sequel. And so will FJ, I think. 

Two & 1/2 stars. 


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 reasons to try Pete’s No.6

[A blast from the past. I started a food blog with DFS and AJE in 2009. It lasted all of five posts. Here is one of them.]

June 8, 2009

Pete’s No. 6 | Honey chicken salad sandwich
Easley, SC

If simply telling you to visit isn’t enough, then I suppose I should give you “reasons” based on “facts” constructed into an “argument.” Whatever. You people are never satisfied. Anyway, here goes. First off, they have…

1. History!
There’s something to be said about old things. Classic cars, vintage clothing, Keith Richards. When something endures long enough to be considered “old,” it’s quality. (Does not apply to politicians. Or milk.) As the oldest restaurant in Easley, Pete’s No. 6 is a little slice of the long-since-past, the Golden Age of Americana when men were men, women were women, and J. Edgar Hoover was simply a “confirmed bachelor.”

Pete’s is over 50 years old! It’s true. People were alive then. I’ve seen it in stories and Eddie Izzard stand-up specials.

And if that’s not reason enough to visit, then you have the…

2. Chicken salad!
Vegetarians and vegans, I know your flesh-starved brains may be decaying because you lack the nutrients found in oh-so-succulent meat, so before you get your man-thongs and knickers in a twist, beware: Chicken salad does, in fact, contain chicken–a form of meat. The “salad” part is simply a reference to a sort of dish consisting of foods, as meat, seafood, eggs, pasta, or fruit, prepared singly or combined, usually cut up, mixed with a dressing, and served cold.

In this case, the “salad” part refers to chunky, chunky chunks of white meat with a mayo-honey dressing mixed with pecans (pee-kanz) and craisons on sour dough. Hold the tomato. (Always hold the tomato. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.) This extra-sweet, crunchy, chunky mixture of fresh ingredients is guaranteed to make even the most Yankee of souls whistle Dixie while demanding their industrious neighbor pay for and sanction morally bankrupt economic habits.

And if that’s not reason enough to visit, then you have the…

3. Sides!
Thick and creamy mac & cheese, slaw, fried okra, veggies, etc., etc., etc. You get two with your lunch plate. “Only two?” you ask greedily. Two. And that’s all you’ll need. You get a mound. Of each. Deal.

And if that’s not reason enough to visit, then you have the…

4. Price!
Scrumptious chicken salad and two sides for right around $8. Not too shabby, I’d say. Not in this economy. And if you think that’s too expensive, then you can always skip out on the bill and force Pete’s to petition Congress for a bailout.

And if that’s not reason enough to visit, then you have the…

5. Dessert?
Ok, so I didn’t actually have dessert. But I do know that they make their desserts fresh everyday. So I’m willing to bet they’re better than that chemically-baked, steroid-enhanced “apple” “pie” crap you get at McDogfood’s.

And if that’s not reason enough to visit, then you have the…

6. Flashing lights!
At night, Pete’s sign lights up like a 60s Vegas strip joint, seizure-inducing lights and all. (Remember: They’re old, so you can’t sue them. A seizure in their time was simply God smiting little Timmy for taking “an extra minute” to put on his Howdy Doody underoos.) If you’re not lured in by the nostalgia, great food, or fair prices, then at least give them a try when your truck crashes into the parking lot from your undiagnosed epilepsy.

And if that’s not reason enough to visit, then… what the “H,” “E,” double-hockey-sticks do you want from me?



What sleep reveals

It's a hardship, maybe, or unnecessary value, this nocturnal predilection, granting hours to observe an intimacy reserved for labs and lunar gazes--while adding weighted increments to already burdened shoulders perhaps ticking back from future nights any perceived gains. But here I lay beside/beneath you in your somnambulant gymnastics with an opportunity for observation. So I take it lying down.

That night you landed in your new home and on a pillow next to mine--it was an awesome/distressing eve, a milestone/scary moment--I watched your eyelids fall and your mouth relax, your body limp and your chest rise and fall. But as much as it was for you relief it was equally anxious. Here in this foreign LAnd with a foreigner's grip around your waist and heart, a fleeting feeling of security and peace swept away conscious pleasures and replaced them instead with unconscious, or suppressed, fears. I saw it in a clenching jaw and heard it gnashing teeth, the physical responding to the psychological pressures. I remember waking you up the first time your eyes flinched and you groaned unpleasantries into an impartial night. I couldn't allow it, yet it was abundantly clear that the remedy for such ailments wasn't an immediate cure but a sustained course of actions.

And what diligence you've shown, taking it daily like a spoonful of cinnamon but unwavering in your answering the challenge. When you embark on a journey at the speed of life, the steps seem impossibly small and the destination a paradox distance down Zeno Way. Yet the focus then unfocus then refocus and misfocus distracts from the trip. And eventually you turn around, notice where you're going is miles past, shrug as if it took only seconds, march toward the next impossibly distant marker.

And one year from the first slumber I've witnessed hundreds. A progression of restfulness that evaded me nightly but in retrospect comes into focus. Last night you slept with the relaxed demeanor of an exhausted toddler--mouth slightly open and arms sprawled without reserve beyond the 54th parallel of "your side." It was an invasion of comfort--a blitzkrieg of ease. You tossed only when disturbed and turned when it benefited your occupation. I'm not saying there aren't nights of distress, when your memories catch up with your peace and it results in temporary/inconsequential relapse. But those moments are fleeting and rare and these new moments more generous and often. And where will you be a year from now with comfort coming this quickly?

And where will I be? In my own bed, perhaps, 50s-sitcom-style wearing button-up pajamas and a night cap, but still watching over you--your personal moon man but with smoother face and brighter eyes--making sure of your progress and night-day dreaming about dreaming some night.


Coffee Noir

There I was--four feet from the barista, six feet from the drip, tap dancing a bit from the first cup of java and anxious for a refill. Between me and the joe stood a dame, a petite blondey with a soft spot for pink--the kind of girl you see in the pictures. She was bubbly and cute with curls that looped like a Coney Island thrill ride, a Shirley Temple Barbie doll without the figure or the height but with every bit of the plastic.

It was supposed to be quick, you see, her ordering a passion fruit something-or-other, me with a chuckle chatting up the barista for an extra shot, all of us on our merry ways, yadda yadda yadda, happily ever end. LOST.

But then it happened.

I didn't know it happened at the time, 'cause when it happened nothing happened. But now I realize: That's just when it happens--when you don't know it's happening.

The dame stood there for a second, like you do at a beanery, weighing her options--no doubt looking for a sign of the hue of each caffeinated confection. California as of yet requires only calories--not Pantone. Her standing-there-for-a-second turned into her standing-there-for-a-minute at which point my nerves got the best of me and I did what I always avoid doing in such situations. I made eye contact with the barista--nodded my head toward the dame.

"Ma'am," she said, placing her stained fingers in the folds of her green smock, "can I help ya with something?"

Then she said it. Her curls bounced and her dress swayed. She spoke with such naïveté and raison d'être and je ne sais qua: "What's good here?"

I felt the line moan. My own temperament wasn't much better. You see this wasn't your ordinary local, obscure coffee shop in some hipster-niche locale. The sign outside, from what I remembered, said "Starbucks Coffee Company." You might deduce from this alone that if you walk into said mystery shop--even if you're unfamiliar with their wares--that "what's good there" is likely their coffee. It would be more excusable, it seems, to haphazardly stumble into a local hambergery, say a McDonald's, and casually ask to speak with the chef. In that case you are at least excused by the simple fact that the name on the door does not imply what the purveyor has to offer.

The Tom-foolery might have been amusing had I not been jonesing for another hit and had the shenanigans ended right there. But the hoopla continued with the barista, a temptress on the road to perdition, baiting the blondey at every turn:

"Well, what do you like?" asked the baiter. 

"Um. Lots of things," replied the baitee, a rejoinder for the ages.

"I bet. What kinds of flavors do you like?"

"I like sweet and sour and bitter and salty and smooth."

"That last one wasn't a flavor, hun, but like your first dates we'll let it slide."


"Let's start with something easier. Do you want a hot drink or a cold drink, sweetheart?"

The question perplexed her like a blindfolded rat in a maze made of cheddar. She looked at the menu again as the line inched forward with baited breath and the audacity of hope and dreams from their fathers. 

After an endless six seconds she replied with cold confidence: "Cold." Her grin made of teeth and pride and posture statuesque. There was a collective exhale as the room felt one step closer to release like a prison orgy on parole week. 

Anticipating the question to come I flashed the barista a stern glance. Rarely had I been so forthcoming with this doll, but I wanted to avoid an easily avoidable disaster. My eyes did not prevail. She was having too much fun, you see, playing the dominatrix to our collective submissive. 

"Ok, dear, one cold drink coming up. Do you want that tall, grande, or venti?"

The man six fellas back started to a tie a noose with his shoelace as the rest reached for their iPhones and earbuds. There's only so much you can take before you have to end it all with a little NRP and Doodle Jump.

Not me, though, no, sir, not me. I was captured, raptured, enthralled by the spectacular du jour. I had gone from annoy to enjoy and would probably pass through the cycle again before it was all over. At least I had something for my blog. I sat Indian- Native-American-style on the floor and grabbed some metaphorical popcorn. I was in this to the end even if it hurt like a Star Wars fan at the sixth rerelease of Empire in 3D.

"What are those?" the blondey inquired.

"Those are sizes."

"Like small, medium, and large?"

"Like that, yes, but tall, grande, and venti."

"Why don't you call them small, medium, and large?"

"The same reason you get a 'Like It' at Cold Stone, sweety. What'll it be?"

"I always get a small 'Cookie Doughn't You Want Some' at Cold Stone..."

"Do you want a sm...tall?"

"I want a medium."

"A grande?"

"Yes, a medium grande."

It was clear now that this dame had some wits about her or at least she could play merry-go-round with the best of 'em. Had I underestimated her? Was she some sort of consumer mastermind out to throw a wrench in the corporate machine?

"I want a medium grande cold drink," she said with spunk. "To go."

"That's lovely, doll, but what kind of drink?"

"What do you have?"

"We have tea."

"That's it?"

"Yup." [This gal was tired of dominating.]

"What kind of tea?"

"We have black tea, grey tea, green tea..."

Then with a level of enthusiasm unmatched by man or clown she interrogatively exclaimed, "Do you have pink tea!?"

The lady eleven fellas back applauded.

"GRANDE PASSION FRUIT ICED TEA," the barista yelled to the bar. "Do you want sweetener?"

"Is it good?"

"It's sweet."

"Then ok."

"What kind of sweetener? Simple or sugar-free-all-natural-farm-raised-organic-certified-fresh sweetener?"

"What's the difference?"

"The first one is good. The second one won't make you fat."

"Oh. I don't want to be fat."


Blondey paid and bounced a few feet over to the bar where she waited like a dashboard hula dancer for her passion fruit something-or-other. I made my way four feet to the counter and held out my empty cup of dreams.

"A refill of joe, Lilly, black. And make it a strong one. After that I'm gonna need it."

"You and me both, Danny," she said with a sigh. "You and me both."



Clippy: Misunderstood animated pedagogical agent or spawn of Satan?

[This was the one "paper" I wrote for my PhD program in Rhetoric and Communication at RPI. It was for an Introduction to Human/Computer Interaction class. I don't remember the exact assignment. Profile a famous person or "thing" in HCI, I think. I can't believe I turned this in. Haha. Nonetheless, here it is reprinted in its entirety for your enjoyment and my personal archive.]

Let me help you with that. Oh, come on. I don't want anything. I just want to lend a helping hand. Look at me, I have eyebrows! I need attention. But that is all I need. Feed me attention and I will solve all your problems. It looks like you're writing a letter. I love writing letters. I love reading letters. I just finished reading The Collected Letters of Van Gogh in three volumes. That man could write a letter. Plus, he could paint. But you, look at you. You can't spell. I have to AutoCorrect most of your words. Don't be mad, I have eyebrows! It looks like you're writing a BORING letter. Let me spice it up with quotes from Vincent's letters to Theo. Did you notice that below my eyebrows are actual eyes? These eyes of mine have seen many things but nothing more pathetic than your attempts to write a letter. Do you think John gives a shit about your problems at work? I'm going to say no. Click F10 and I'll replace that uninteresting, grammatically weak, lexically poor sentence with one that will— Please don't, I have more suggestions. I can change shapes! Look, I can—

— Justin Kahn
Imagined Monologues:
Microsoft Office Assistant: The Paper Clip

Hello. My name is Daniel, and I hate Clippy. [“Hello, Daniel.”] The first step to recovery is admitting the problem. Fine. I admit it. I probably spend too much time obsessing over a recently deceased animated pedagogical agent. To clarify that techie term, these interface agents pop up in “instructional environments” and “draw upon human-human social communication” by “embodying observable human characteristics (such as the use of gestures and facial expression)” (“Pedagogical Software Agents”). But my Clippy contempt hardly seems problematic in a computer culture that loves to hate Microsoft’s maligned office assistant. Distain for Clippy stems from some seemingly irrational social consciousness that has collectively perceived, judged, and condemned him to the deepest circle of Hell. I would not be surprised if our generation’s children were born with this hatred scripted in their DNA, afraid not of monsters under their bed but of Clippy in their documents. [“It looks like you’re having a nightmare…”] Clippy fans, if there are any, keep to themselves, seldom exclaiming happiness at his lame jokes or expressing thanks for his intrusive help. Microsoft may have buried its grotesque creation for the moment, but Microsoft’s patent history tells us that that they won’t give up on animated pedagogical agents. Even if Clippy does not return, it’s not hard to image his offspring popping up in our .docx files soon enough.
It may not be a problem to hate Clippy—whose real name is Clippit, by the way—but Sun Tzu reminds us that to truly defeat the enemy we must “understand the enemy.” This essay attempts exactly that—by situating Clippy culturally, historically, and theoretically across modern media, consumer product development, and human-computer interaction research. By understanding Clippy in context, we can begin to answer questions such as, “Are all animated pedagogical agents bad?” or “How do we prevent future iterations of Clippy?” or even “Was Clippy the anti-Christ?”
Pop Culture Paper Clip
Anyone who grew up in the era of Microsoft Word is bound to have an opinion on the annoying paper clip that excitedly bounced and blinked upon opening the program. Even before starting a document, Clippy would give users a helpful “hint”—nothing actually helpful, of course, like which horse to bet on at the track or how to pick up women in a bar. Clippy’s advice usually ranged from program functions to design tips—e.g., keyboard shortcuts for “cut” and paste or how to insert clip art to spruce up a page. Moving past the advice and into the document, I assume most users thought they were through with the strange animated being, but Clippy’s persistence and omnipresence is where this digital office supply went from unusual help interface to infamous rage agent.
Upon typing the salutation to a letter, for instance, Clippy would pop up—like a Viagra advertisement on a sketchy website—and proclaim, “It looks like you’re writing a letter” [“No way, paper clip.”] and ask if you’d like help. Of course, it wasn’t just letter writing that prompted a visit from the Clipster. Any time Word determined that the user needed assistance, based on Bayesian probability, the office assistant would appear (“Office Assistant”). This barrage of help, though not that frequent, was enough to create mass hatred.
A CNET news article from 2001, titled “Microsoft ‘Clippy’ gets pink slip”—six years before Microsft actually canned the clip—quotes Ketan Deshpande, senior software engineer at Manage.com: “Not one person in my office, from the receptionist to the sales people to the engineers to the CEO use the blasted paper clip. Not even my wife, who is an elementary school teacher, uses it” (Luening). It’s not unfair to say Deshpande’s sentiments were representative of the time. Even Microsoft sought to capitalize on the unpopularlity of its office mascot, launching officeclippy.com in 2001—a site with animations of Clippit voiced by Gilbert Godfried where users could commeserate about the horrors of the office assistant and learn how to disable his “helpful” nagging (“Office Assistant”).
The mark of pop culture significance, though, comes with a mention on Family Guy—Fox’s “comedy of references” that targets the obscure, random, or painfully obvious. In the episode “Lois Kills Stewie,” matricidal baby Stewie breaks into the CIA to gain control of the world’s power grid. Suddenly, Clippy appears, saying, “Looks like you're trying to take over the world. Can I help?” To the excited cheers of millions of fans, Stewie replies, “Go away, paper clip! Nobody likes you!” (“Lois Kills Stewie”). Clippy has also made appearances in the comedy of Dmitri Martin, College Humor, Drawn Together, and The Simpsons (“Office Assistant”).
Microsoft’s Frakensteinian Obsession
As humorous or pitiful as he may be, Clippy’s pop culture idolatry was an unintended consequence of his flawed design. Unlike Spud McKenzie or Ronald McDonald, whose sole purpose was advertising, the neurotic paper clip we’ve come to despise was actually meant to help us. To see how, it’s important to understand the history of Clippy’s development, and Microsoft’s obsession with animated pedagogical agents.
In 1987 John Sculley, former CEO of Apple, wrote a book called Odyssey in which he described a system of retrieving information with the help of user interface agents—essentially “people” that would serve as liaisons between the user and the information at hand. Apple shot several promotional videos of their idea that featured a bowtie-wearing butler happily fetching information about various topics, informing the user of incoming phone calls, and generally assisting in data gathering and transferring. The concept as a whole was called the “Knowledge Navigator” (“Knowledge Navigator”).
Bill Gates saw potential for this concept and in the July 1995 edition of InfoWorld magazine extolled the virtues of “social interfaces” or interfaces that allows users to communicate with them using basic social skills like talking and gesturing instead of new commands or difficult logic. Gates predicated that social interfaces were the next iteration of computing and not just experimental toys (Pontin 29).
At that time, Microsoft was banking on the success of its face-lift software for novice users of Windows 3.1. Meant as a competitor to Apple’s At Ease and Packard Bell’s Navigator (“At Ease”; “Packard Bell Navigator 3.5”), Microsoft’s Bob was a GUI designed to look like a house. Users could decorate their house however they pleased. Different icons, representing programs, could be placed in corresponding places throughout the house. Tying all of this customization together were Microsoft’s assistants—mainly a yellow dog named Rover—that let the user ask questions and seek advice about operating and navigating Bob (“Microsoft Bob”). In theory, Bob would let users intimidated by the Windows GUI play around in a more familiar environment through a more social interface.
Not surprisingly, people were not interested in asking a dog questions about their house, and Bob failed almost from the beginning (Newman). But Microsoft wasn’t deterred. They were certain that social interfaces, with animated pedagogical agents like Rover, were the future of interface design. Shortly after Bob’s release, Microsoft also introduced the world to Comic Chat and V-Chat, two GUI chat rooms where users were represented as animated avatars and could change the mood, setting, or method of communication with basic commands (Kurlander, Skelly, and Salesin 2-9; Damer). V-Chat also relied on automated “bots” to host the chat rooms and update users on the room’s status or other news. Users could interact with the bots, but their answers were greatly limited (Damer).
Even with limited success in the chat room world, where people actually wanted to talk to animated agents, Microsoft finally released Clippy on the world in Word 97. I’m sure his designer, Kevin J. Atteberry, who credits himself with creating one of the most annoying animations in history, will be forever proud and/or ashamed of the achievement (Atteberry). Clippy, of course, was not the only iteration of the office assistant. Other, equally annoying animations included Bosgrove the butler, Genie the…genie, Kairu the dolphin, Max the Macintosh computer, Peedy the parrot, Robby the robot, Dot the red ball, F1 the robot, Merlin the magician, Links the cat, Rocky the dog (who looked a lot like Rover), Mother Nature, Einstein, Shakespeare, and even an anthropomorphic Microsoft logo (“Office Assistant”). The default and most iconic assistant was Clippy—whose code name at Microsoft during the design phase was “The F****** Clown” (Sinofsky).

Even during production, programmers realized the pain and suffering embodied in Clippit, but Microsoft executives insisted, with the passion of mad scientists, that these animated agents would be helpful for users —even outside the social interface realm. In 2000, despite the cultural climate of disapproval and growing hatred of Clippy, Microsoft introduced Agent, speech recognition and text-to-speech software that used animated agents as its main user interface. To very few people’s surprise, the software will no longer be supported in Windows 7—a testament to its unpopularity (“Microsoft Agent”). Newer versions of Microsoft’s speech recognition software are not designed around user interface agents.
In the face of user disapproval and financial loss, Microsoft fanatically pursued animated pedagogical agents. Rover even continued his prominence in Windows XP as the search dog. Currently, Microsoft holds at least twelve patents for different animated agents, the latest of which was filed in 2006 (McCracken). But why? What does Microsoft know that everyone else apparently disagrees with? Reviewing relevant HCI research may provide some answers—and the names of a few people to burn in effigy.
HCI Researchers and Clippy, Sitting in a Tree...
Nass, Steuer, and Tauber are widely credited with bringing social interfaces and animated pedagogical agents to the forefront of interface design. In their article, “Computers Are Social Actors,” for CHI ’94, the authors found that users anthropomorphized the computers they were using, applying social rules of politeness and even seeing the computer as having a “self” (Nass, Steuer, and Tauber 77). The authors concluded that even the slightest resemblance of human characteristics was enough for users to interact socially with computers and that a “photo-realistic, full-motion video, or other high-bandwidth representation may be high overrated” (77). Nass et al. expanded on the notion of human-computer social interaction in a CHI ’95 paper titled, “Can Computer Personalities be Human Personalities?” Their study confirmed that humans respond socially to computers and to quote at some length:
In contrast to the prevailing idea that the creation of personality requires natural language programming, artificial intelligence, complex graphical environments, or richly defined agents, this research demonstrates that even the most rudimentary manipulations are sufficient to produce powerful effects. (Nash et al. 229)
From then on, the dominant research in animated pedagogical agency focused on believability of actions instead of believability of representation. Lester and Stone’s “Hermann the Bug” implemented a competition-based sequencing engine with fifteen behaviors vying for dominance. The behaviors are chosen based on the demand of the moment—e.g., if a student waits too long to choose an item in Hermann’s environment, he would reassure them that none of the choices were wrong (Lester and Stone 5-6).
Johnson, Rickel, and Lester called for more study of the role of animated agents in pedagogy, arguing that many features still needed proper testing to determine if they were pedagogically relevant (Johnson, Rickel, and Lester 73). Moreno et al. took this call seriously and wanted to see if using animated agents directly correlated with a better education in computer-mediated environments (Moreno et al. 177). Their study showed that students liked their lessons better with animated pedagogical agents and that students had a greater understanding of material when presented in a social agency environment compared to simple text and images (209). Additionally, one of their studies confirmed Nass, Steuer, and Tauber’s earlier findings that the visual appearance of the agent did not significantly affect student learning (210). Atkinson’s study affirmed the efficacy of animated agents in an electronic pedagogical medium that was originally presented by Moreno et al. (426). Interestingly, Atkinson’s study used a parrot animation very similar to Microsoft’s Agent.
While this short snippet of literature is not by any means exhaustive, I argue that it’s representative of the academic culture at the time—both positive and hopeful about the possibilities of animated pedagogical agents. As far as research goes, there’s not much “out there” to contradict the optimistic outlook on user interface agents in pedagogical realms. And why should there be? The literature makes sense; it is well argued and intricately researched. Why, then, did we have so much trouble with that damned paper clip?
What did Clippy Teach Us?
I suppose I’m forced to admit that the idea of animated pedagogical agency isn’t inherently bad. Clippy’s original sin was not so much in his being but in his designed demeanor. I can theoretically imagine an interface agent that doesn’t compel me to injure it or myself, but its characteristics would need to be drastically different. For instance, Clippy threw the technology in our face. He was always there, like a frustrated school master watching over our shoulder—but with the personality of a used car salesman. For a lot of users, he broke the already fragile illusion of transparent computing. [The computer knows best. Big Clipper is watching you.] The invasiveness wasn’t conducive to learning, especially in a user’s home, an environment where most people want as much control as possible.
Yet it seems reasonable to me that people treat their computers like social actors, so the idea of a social animated agent doesn’t have to be annoying. But consider Clippy as a being. He’s analogous to that annoying guy at work who always knows more about computers than you do—that Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live skit character whose first response to your technical issue is, “Move!” Of course, Clippy tries to help, but so might your well-meaning but overbearing and incompetent cousin who “took a computer class in high school” and once worked on his former girlfriend’s Apple IIe. [“It looks like you’re trying to insert pictures. Would you like help?” he asks. And three hours later you need a new graphics card. And a shower.] Clippy’s persona, and the persona of most of Microsoft’s animated pedagogical agents, simply isn’t up to par with the people I’d want to hang out with on a regular basis. I certainly don’t want them as teachers.
Or it may be that characters like Clippy are the last vestige of the social interface design—a concept that has since evolved into social media and cloud computing. The idea may be back with the revitalization of user experience design but certainly as a shell of its former self and, hopefully, without Clippit.
Regardless, Microsoft’s office assistant was the embodiment of an interesting human-computer interaction concept, and animated pedagogical assistants are likely here to stay. Clippy on the other hand, who became a cultural icon and the personification of technological villainy, will be a twisted reminder of a good idea gone bad. [“Get bent, Clippy.”]
Works Cited

“At Ease.” Wikipedia. 27 March 2009. 19 September 2009. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_Ease] Web.
Atkinson, Robert K. “Optimizing Learning From Examples Using Animated Pedagogical Agents.” Journal of Educational Psychology. 94.2. (2002): 416-427. Print.
Atteberry, Kevin J. Odd is Good. 19 September 2009. [http://oddisgood.com/pages/cd-clippy.html] Web.
Damer, Bruce. “Microsoft V-Chat: Frantic Antics.” Avatars! 1997. 19 September 2009. [http://www.digitalspace.com/avatars/book/fullbook/chww/chww7.htm] Web.
Johnson, W. Lewis, Jeff W. Rickel, and James C. Lester. “Animated Pedagogical Agents: Face-to-Face Interaction in Interactive Learning Environments.” International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education. 11 (2000): 47-78. Print.
Kahn, Justin. “Short Imagined Monologues: Microsoft Office Assistant: The Paper Clip.” McSweeney's. 21 April 2005. 19 September 2009 [http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2005/4/21kahn.html]. Web.
“Knowledge Navigator.” Wikipedia. 7 July 2009. 19 September 2009. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_Navigator] Web.
Kurlander, David, Tim Skelly, and David Salesin. “Comic Chat.” Computer Graphics Proceedings, Annual Conference Series, ACM SIGGRAPH. (1996): 225-36. Print.
Lester, James. C, and Brian A. Stone. “Increasing Believability in Animated Pedagogical Agents.” Proceedings of the Eighth World Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education. (1997): 16-21. Print.
“Lois Kills Stewie.” Family Guy. Fox Broadcasting Network. 11 November 2007. Television.
Luening, Erich. “Microsoft ‘Clippy’ gets pink slip.” CNET News. 11 April 2001. 19 September 2009 [ http://news.cnet.com/2100-1001-255671.html] Web.
McCracken, Harry. “The Secret Origins of Clippy.” Technologizer. 2 January 2009. 19 September 2009. [http://technologizer.com/2009/01/02/microsoft-clippy-patents/] Web.
“Microsoft Agent.” Wikipedia. 22 September 2009. 22 September 2009. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Agent] Web.
“Microsoft Bob.” Wikipedia. 3 September 2009. 19 September 2009. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Bob] Web.
Moreno, Roxana et al. “The Case for Social Agency in Computer-Based Teaching: Do Students Learn More Deeply When They Interact With Animated Pedagogical Agents?” Cognition and Instruction. 19.2 (2001): 177-213. Print.
Nass, Clifford, Jonathan Steuer, and Ellen R. Tauber. “Computers are Social Actors.” Human Factors in Computing Systems. (1994): 72-78. Print.
Nass, Clifford, et al. “Can Computer Personalities be Human Personalities?” CHI ’95 Short Papers. (1995): 228-229. Print.
Newman, Michael. “Bob is dead; long live Bob.” Post-Gazette. 23 May 1999. 19 September 2009. [http://www.post-gazette.com/businessnews/19990523bob6.asp] Web.
“Office Assistant.” Wikipedia. 17 September 2009. 19 September 2009. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_Assistant#cite_note-13] Web.
“Packard Bell Navigator 3.5.” Nathan’s Toasty Technology. 19 September 2009. [http://toastytech.com/guis/pbnav35.html] Web.
“Pedagogical Software Agents.” Communications of the ACM. 47.4 (2004): 47. Print.
Pontin, Jason. “Microsoft plans social interfaces everywhere.” InfoWorld. 23 July 1995. 29. Print.
Sinofsky, Steven. “PM at Microsoft.” Steven Sinofsky’s Microsoft Tech Talk. 16 December 2005. 19 September 2009. [ http://blogs.msdn.com/techtalk/archive/2005/12/16/504872.aspx] Web.


incomplete thoughts

[Over the years I've left exactly four posts unfinished. I have to come to terms with the fact that I will never finish them. So, here they are in their entirety, forever and always to be undone, for your enjoyment/engagement/entrapment. Likely my views have "modified" on these topics. Please keep that context.]


When you view an enticing work of art or read an inspiring piece of fiction you have an emotional reaction. This response stems from your subconscious emotional response to the universe at large.

Just as we evaluate the world with our conscious mind, classifying existents based on conceptual similarity, we do so subconsciously on an emotional level, creating categories of things based on the emotions they evoke. While we have no say in the fact that our subconscious functions this way--just as we have no "say" in whether or not our heart pumps blood--we can direct and strengthen (or stifle and weaken) this process just as we can choose to better our heart through healthy heating and exercise (or impair it through McDonald's and Psych marathons).

Nonetheless, whether or not you consciously address, identify, and classify your emotions, the culmination of these subconscious evaluations manifests in your "personality"--both public and private. More generally speaking, these evaluations are your unique manifestation of your emotional evaluation of everything you've experienced. This is your "sense of life."

In a way, sense of life is what makes you you. No two people's sense of life are the same since no two people can have the exact same experiences and, thus, the exact same emotional responses to those experiences. None of this discounts the conscious mind, of course. On the contrary, it emphasizes its importance. Without consciousness and reason, we would have no way to evaluate our emotional responses and adjust them if need be. We would have no way to choose what to value and, thus, to direct our emotional responses--to the degree that we're able.


Self-esteem is two things: Efficacy and value. It's the recognition of your ability to live--inviolate trust in your mind to create the world you need and want to live in--and the decision that you are worthy of living. Both are necessary for a flourishing life. A man confident in his ability to live but who doesn't believe he deserves it will eventually cease trying (and may even work against himself to atone for his perceived sins). And a woman who loves herself but who doesn't feel competent to deal with the "harshness" of reality will ask "What's the point?" as she gives up on an "impossible" endeavor. (Giving up comes in many forms. I don't necessarily mean suicide.) To some degree, people who choose to live possess elements of both aspects of self-esteem, and the extent to which these aspects are strengthened is the extent to which they have the capacity for happiness.

Achieving and sustaining self-esteem is an active process--one that is renewed as we successfully act to gain and keep our values or diminished as we fail to do so. Of course, having strong self-esteem means you're able to deal with the failure to obtain a value. It means that not achieving something doesn't crush your spirit, your desire to strive for other values, your insistence that there are values you deserve and will eventually obtain.

This process of self-esteem growth or decay is no more visible than in the pursuit of romantic love.


[The beginning of a short story and a rough outline.]

Columba sat patiently on the stone floor--content and confident for the first time in his life--as he awaited his execution. No longer conflicted about his actions, he felt certain, a psychological state his brothers had previously demanded of him but one he could never deliver. He was a monk, raised in the monastery when his parents, unable to provide even basic sustenance, left him at the church's entrance. He was just shy of three weeks old.

Growing up, Columba showed a certain propensity for creativity and precision--the former his bane and the latter his only saving grace. The monks were not ruthless in their rearing, but neither were they nurturing, at least of his more artistic talents. The Abbott, though, had little tolerance for what he saw as frivolous affronts to the true work of God.

Hardly six years of age, Columba "procured" some inadvertently discarded ink and proceeded to paint, with some feathers he had collected, a caricature of the Abbott on a flat river stone--a portrait more worthy of a veteran artist than an adolescent boy. Columba rushed to show his brothers, bounding through the halls with exuberant energy. He liked to look at his painting. He wanted to do more, one for each brother, for each visitor, for the pope himself. Staring at his creation intently, he ran straight into the Abbott, falling backwards but gripping his artwork at the expensive of his body.

He offered his work to the Abbott, extending both hands upward from where he sat. The Abbott took the stone and examined it closely.

"I made it for you," Columba coyly remarked. He even garnered the nerve to smile.

In exchange for his gift, Columba received a beating and a reminder. Between the strikes he heard many "how dare you"s and intense descriptions of his obviously innumerable sins--the worst of which was, apparently, his insufferable pride. When the blows subsided and the Abbott turned to walk away, Columba mustered enough energy to ask, "May I at least have the painting back?" Enraged, the Abbott swiftly turned and hurled the rock. It struck Columba above the right eye, leaving a scar that would forever remind him why he took a voluntary vow of silence that very evening that lasted until the day he died.

Job as calligrapher. Best around. Beauty of books. Bibles.

Innovator of new styles to increase productivity. Never recognized. OK. Content with producing quality work. Secretly took pride.

Did his job well for years. Decades. He never questioned.

Older, slowing. Knew he wouldn't work for much longer. Methods so excellent that the monastery had a stockpile of Bibles.

Asked Abbott if he could keep one of his books--for himself. Abbott outraged.

Columba secretly takes one Bible, thinking they'll never find out. Witnessed.

Search of his room reveals the book and the old man is taken to the local prison.

Day of execution, last words, short speech about property and pride.

Executioner will not commit the act. When one angry monk (witness) rushes to kick out the stool, town people stop him.

Columba walks off, leaving them. Says nothing.


[I started writing this in July 2008. Boy how things change. I'm not even sure if my friend would make this argument any more.]

on the possibility and actuality of love

In the short time I've had to appreciate it, life--god, Bog, and the Rest--has blessed me with a plethora of wonderful and intelligent friends (and enemies) with whom I've had the privilege of discussing some of the most important and most trivial aspects of life--from aesthetics to appliance preferences, politics to bathroom habits (yet I repeat myself). One wholly generic topic that intrigues me--a topic that has captivated many men since we developed a capacity for captivation--is that of love. This space does not shy away from the topic, often providing an electronic medium for concept exploration and abstract reflection. Note, though, that no post directly addresses the possibility and actuality of love, all previous entries assuming both. At this point, some of you (perhaps one of the three regular readers) might be wondering why I now question my assumption--even wondering if something has happened to make me doubt if love is either possible or actual. To get my bias "out there," I admit that I still believe in both attributes of love. This post is more so inspired by a friend who doubts the latter characteristic--the actuality of love. I don't want to erect a straw man in lieu of his/her argument, but I know so little about his/her opinion--save what we could accomplish in a 12 minute car ride--that I'm afraid I may do so. I can only promise to make a concerted effort to provide what I see as his/her best argument against the actuality of love. (He/She also doubts the possibility but concedes that he/she cannot rule it out entirely.)

Why discuss it now? Because the topic interests me and this is my blog. Ha. Showed you.

Three caveats:

1. Any discussion of the topic brings with it an absurd number of variables. That being said, I do not mean to present a comprehensive theory/philosophy. I'm sure no one expected such, but I figured I should get it out of the way.

2. "Attacks" on my friend's arguments should not be seen as attacks on my friend as a person. I have a great deal of respect for him/her, his/her life-philosophy, and his/her ability to live it. In fact, more than "attacks" on his/her arguments, I want to use his/her hypothesis to explore my own ideas on the same topic. Again, this should probably go without saying. But I said it. (Wanna fight about it?)

3. This will, more likely than not, sound incredibly pretentious.

Friend's argument (paraphrased heavily): First, we must define love. Love is the recognition and adoration of virtues

It is possible for two people to love each other conditionally. (We both agree that unconditional love is not actually love.) The idea of falling in love is not an impossibility since its existence does not create a contradiction. But just as it is not a contradiction to say that an egg dropped from the top of the Empire State Building may not break, the chance of it not breaking is statistically zero. Likewise, the chance of two people falling in love is probably less likely than the unbroken egg.

What most people experience is not love but a twisted sort of infatuation. They need another person to feel good about themselves. (Alert: About to take liberties with my friend's argument.) In this way, love seems impractically selfish--because the partner's feelings, emotions, actions mean little except as a means to happiness. Both people essentially "do" whatever they want in the relationship and inevitably make each other miserable--though they may not show the misery. "Hell is other people."

There is a mathematically null chance of two rational egoists meeting, discovering each other's philosophy, and living it together. Therefore, love is possible--in the sense that it's non-contradictory--but not actual, since it the number of circumstances required for it to occur make it statistically impossible.

My response:

If love is a response to values, then falling in love requires two people who share the same values to meet. ... 


the new ecclesia

You have to approach Las Vegas at night--in a car--listening to that song that gets you ready to run marathons and cliff dive. 

There's nothing. There's endless nothing. Mocking, honest, ominous nothing.

Then there's the sky--but not where you left it. Instead descended, the stars plucked from their orbits, intentionally gridded across an otherwise meaningless void. The order stuns and awes--its meaning inescapable. These are the lights of warmth, safety, prosperity--of being able to tame the nothing into submission. These are the lights of the mind. And what a mind it is to turn sand into gold.

These stars shine up/on you and past you until their light is mixed/diminished by the neon churches of sin protruding from the skyground below. Here are the new cathedrals, towering not to demonstrate your insignificance but to elevate your greatness--at a price, of course, an indulgence of a different accord, one where the extent of your happiness is the extent of your goodness.

And no matter your evaluation of the services prepared by the high priests of pleasure, it is exactly for this reason that their temples supplanted the cacti--for the pleasure of their congregation.

And the pleasurists said Let there be light! and there was light. And they saw that the light was good, so they added buffets. And the buffets were good and cheap and stocked with fountains of chocolate sauce so that you may coat even your prime rib in a cascade of sugar.

And on the seventh day, you rested. And on the seventh night, you partied. As it was and ever shall be. 



permanence & change & change

This space looks empty.

I can hear the faint echo in this neglected gallery of self-portraits done in myriad forms. It's so quiet without the cacophony of run-on prose or the marked syncopation of comma after comma, dash upon dash, open open open parentheses. (Close close open close close parentheses.) It's funny how much louder the not-poetry was compared to the not-not-poetry. Non-existants never cease to amaze me.

Yet the echo is familiar--as it's me calling out, asking if I should return to curate, as I often do after bouts of inactivity...or, rather, activity elsewhere. I hear the whisper and wonder if it's worth it to put my words on the web. And reflect on why they're not here already.

Emotional exigencies aside, I'm compelled to dust off the cob webs for the sake of consistency. I've always written here, so I should write here--faulty logic that nonetheless strikes flawlessly at the part of me that yearns for the nostalgic and the familiar. I have no particular audience in mind save for the teeming millions who hunger tirelessly for the next word to slowly/effortlessly escape from the tips of my fingers. Satiating the masses with fishes, loaves, and the occasional semicolon.

And then there's the catharsis--the sweet kiss-on-the-cheek and belly rub of a thought-spark igniting a thousand pixels and, at the end, seeing meaning in the freshly burned forest. It's almost creative destruction except without the violence that it subtly implies (unless you count my brutality against the English language (and I'm sure you do (KMN))).

Lastly: There's the fun of it all. Being coy. Being explicit. Making you work for it and being intellectual promiscuous. What's the risk compared to the reward? Why am I even asking you--aside from the fact that you're not likely to tell me to STOP while I'm ahead?

This space no longer looks empty--for awhile.


Almost like I pictured you in that dream--the one where we're running in wet sand, chasing the foamy tide and each other and a future--you have that same expression, wide-smiled face with solar intensity framed by lips who find purpose in such moments and in the movements that follow those moments. Your eyes are velour and your demeanor warmth--an invitation to see, an opportunity to recall.

It had taken you energy you didn't know you had to get here, to get me, to get yourself--to recognize that you belong to a culture no more you belong to a slave master. Awakening your senses, your sense of life, your sensational spirit. To hear it spoken. To feel it against your fingertips. To taste guava from an orchard outside the confines of an Eden.

And every morning it takes that same energy to raise the night shades that deflect/reflect the darkness and to lift your eyes to mine with that sense and that smile, saying, "Good morning, love." Yet here you are--almost like I pictured you in that dream--the one where you grab my hand for the first-second time, squeezing deeply the grooves of our identities to make sure that I know it won't be gone again and that it never really left.

Every morning I look at you and think that I couldn't possibly love you more than I did the day before. Then we get up, tease each other, buy bread, eat rice, make fun, take a walk, find a Starbucks, drive, dash, dodge, make love, watch Spongebob, drink martinis--live. And at the end of it all, when you reflect the moonlight and I the day, I find it possible to surpass a summit, to love you more than I did the last time I watched you sleep, to know over and over and over and over that I will/have moved mountains if they annoyingly cast a shadow on your footpath. I will/have pluck(ed) orbs from the sky and fashion(ed) them into a suitable jewel for your ankle when it seem(s/ed) bare. I will/have love(d) you until the time when those night shades will not reopen and we part for the only real time in what I know will be a regretless life beautifully lived.



It's the way you keep focus through a laugh, anchoring your gaze in mine like an innocently selfish child who refuses to relinquish her staked spot at the start of Saturday morning cartoons, or it's how your compliments come from a place so guarded in your heart that their value transcends price and enters the realm of the sacrosanct, or it's the way your body changes when we talk, betraying the urgency of your desire and the depth of your sensuality, or it's where you lead our conversations--miles into the immediate moment, years into the distant future, which by playful wit feels just as immediate--or it's how the number of minutes we devote to each other feels insufficient as hours meander by and moments stack up like fortified Jenga towers amidst an army of reminiscent fingers, or it's the way we kiss like lovers separated by decades having been separated by the length of a shower, or it's how when I look at the sky I'm reminded of a picnic and how I expect--not hope but expect--as I gaze skyward to see your smile overshadow the clouds and your happiness outshine the sun; perhaps it's these things and perhaps it's everything that makes me realize the intensity of what I feel for you, but no matter what it is--of the mind, of the body, of the incontrovertible spirit--the fact remains that what I once understood as happiness cannot remain a benchmark for my current joy, and what I experience now--when it's you and me as against the world--is orders of magnitude stronger, nearly to the point of warranting a new kind--and all because of one remarkable difference, one actuality that cannot be approached in sensation by the merely possible, something, I realize, that I lacked from previous engagements of romantic love: love.


words I wish I'd written

"She has the soul of a poet and the fire of a bullet."


Knowing that people like You exist has helped me get through this week. Thank you.

[If you know this applies to you, then it does. [You know who you are.]]


Sometimes it sucks having a semi-complete record of my most intimate thoughts--being able to pick a moment and relive it as many times as the will can endure--but even so I wouldn't trade it for golden idols or diamond trinkets. Or for Her.



Take, for instance, that moment of painfully selfish honesty--when it was impossible to know if this newly-flourishing friendship would manifest as phoenix or burn as sacrificial offering to the pop-Gods, Harry and Sally--when the context required a phone call of inexorable futility and no-other-answer than the one you gave but did not owe me; take it as an example of why living, properly understood, is the most difficult action anyone can attempt and why those who abdicate their responsibility also relinquish the rewards of accomplishment, but also take it--and every moment since--as the consummate sign of what is possible with thought, what is available when integrity trumps whim, when the impossible receives just treatment as a non-value instead of a dis-value, and the emotions that flow from that recognition usurp the emotionalism of desiring not-even-the-unearned but the unearnable; take it as an example of remarkle happiness, of illuminous virtue, of that which should always be named--as what I cherish most about our friendship and what, when asked, I couldn't immediately concretize: our particular, peculiar, perfect benevolence.


A nervous excitement between their lips and the moment--as if this night's closing was the opening of another and its beginning the final couplet of a since-rewritten poem--their breathing mingles and eyelids withdraw, focus shifting from taste to vision, a reluctant departure, if necessary--for now. It's a "goodbye" kiss but a "hello" moment--the end of the start but the start of something exciting and beautiful and, among other words, fun.



Like a dream of falling, when at the moment of impact I'm jolted awake and made aware of my safety, the realization struck as a nudge over the precipice of affection--complete (and replete) with an initial stumbling and the eventual accepting-enjoyment of the tumble--marking with gratuitous surprise the third time I've sojourned this bluff, steep as it seems, and the first time I've willfully chosen my path in an ominous sky; and with it all, a mark of imperfection, and without it all, relief--a moment not taken to deftly awaken this vastly integrated culmination that what I wanted was illusory and what existed, more so--that my desire was real and just and (eventually) just beyond the Cave or the Stoic Calm and, in fact, something I cherish as the purpose and the beauty and the life of meaning, but that the desired [oh! the "gorgeous" desired] was but a shadow puppet maiden cast by a gloved hand--where beneath the velvet, where lips should meet skin, rainclouds.


His attitude is confidence and his demeanor radiant joy, yet beneath it all, buried below impervious self-esteem and subcutaneous beauty, a profound loneliness manifests without fanfare or pomp but with transient circumstance. There are the values he obtains--friendship, art, and the rest--and the values he pursues--romance, success, and the like--and then: You. It's not what he needs to share but what he has shared and that he needs to. A simultaneous knowing and not, the potential and the actual and the potentially actual, and distance.


It's a misnomer and an oxymoron to say that someone is in "bad health." Disease is not a state of health but an abrogation of health. What we refer to as "good health" is, in fact, the normal state of life. Since human flourishing is the standard by which we judge the good, then deviations from it are necessarily the exception--as it would make no sense to hold a baseline standard that was not the norm. This principle is easy to demonstrate in physical well being. A man who has the flu is not a flourishing human being. He lacks health momentarily but soon returns to a satisfactory equilibrium. He regains his health. The more complex example is to compare an ordinary, non-diseased man with another who also happens to eat well and exercise. Are both men in good health but with different degrees of good? No. The latter man, assuming he understands himself and the basics of nutrition, is healthy while the former man is probably in a slightly unhealthy state. He certainly isn't healthy in the proper definition of the term.

Admittedly, it's a different way of framing the issue than most people are used to, and some people, I'm sure, would disagree. But even among the people who agree with me, there are relatively few who view happiness the same way. Yet, using a flourishing life as your standard, I contend that happiness (rationally self-interested happiness) is "health," and unhappiness is the absence of "health." As such, it's important to view unhappiness as a fleeting aberration, as a disruption of what is proper for a human--in the same way that a cold interrupts physical well being. Many people are too quick to accept that unhappiness is a normal state of being. This makes little sense. If given a cancer diagnosis, most people would (I hope and assume) fight the disease to the best of their ability, never conceding that cancer is an acceptable state of health or, worse yet, that it is health. Yet this is exactly how some people view unhappiness: as a form of living or as life itself.

In the same way that disease is not health, unhappiness is not life. I mean this in as close to a literal sense as I can convey without being a literalist. Unhappiness is the absence of life. To maintain a state of unhappiness--that is, to accept it as living--is equivalent to accepting the flu as health and refusing to treat it. In both cases, the disease may go away on its own. Or, as sometimes happens, the disease kills you--metaphorically, literally, a combination of both.

I, for one, choose health. Do you?


I sometimes forget how far I've come, what I've accomplished, that, in the best possible sense of the term, I'm a saved soul. What I might have become--without the morality of self-interest, without Ayn Rand--it's hard to fathom, harder yet to face in any concrete way. (Frankly, though, that alternate future, that anti-life road I was spared from navigating, deserves nothing save the acknowledgement that it could have been--that it never will be.) What deserves attention, or at least momentary, explicit recognition, is the distance I've traveled--from that point of a young, frightened boy kneeling at the precipice of Hell and eagerly accepting my fate to where I am now as an evolving, confident young man standing upright and proudly at the entrance to Heaven on Earth. My gates are not pearly, though, but a gleaming steel of blueish green. There is no St. Peter standing guard with book of sins--only my clear conscience and the confidence to know that this place, this Nirvana, is mine to seize.

A few compliments lately--about rationality and benevolence--jolted me into this reflective exercise. I've learned to take compliments gracefully and with genuine respect, mostly because I've learned that people often mean what they say--at least the people I choose to spend time with. The latest two did not strike me as wrong or insincere, of course. Contrarily, I've rarely felt better about receiving such kind words. Yet they were unexpected in a sense. Why? I'm not sure it matters--at least not as much as it used to--because the unexpectedness doesn't come from a sense of guilt (finally), and I genuinely appreciate the words--right now especially, more than I can convey with typefaced text.

I suppose it's because I no longer seek such praise. I don't even mean approval, really, but praise as such. My self-esteem is no longer, in any way, derived from the worth other people see in me. If they find something of value in me (genuine value, properly understood), all the better. I want to be of value to people I love. But I don't need them to find value in me--as long as I find value in myself.

Moreover, I've been along for the ride. That is, I've been with me for every step of this transformational journey. What were only incremental steps along this path to enlightenment is now one cavernous gap, the other side of which I can barely discern--not that I care to stare long anyway.

And so I find another way that the people I value enrich my life--by reflecting the me I've become and helping me notice exactly how I've molded myself. It's a sweet sculpture thus far, but the devilish details are yet to come. It's abundantly clear, though, that in me I find no fear. Confidence--check. Anxiousness--check. Eagerness--check. But not a second of hesitation or doubt or the guilt that's oft associated with selfishly striving for happiness.

My, how I look forward to defining myself.