Things that just occurred to me, in no particular order

Fuzzy edges

Crappy photo or just vintage?

My folks had a Polaroid Land camera. My grandparents did, too. It was this glorious bit of plastic and chemistry. You clicked the button, pulled the paper tab and waited and you were rewarded with an image.

True, it wasn’t a great image. The colors were off, tending towards yellow-brown. The edges were indistinct, lost in the fade and fog due to the cheap plastic lens that focused the picture.

But it was as close to instant as you could get. You didn’t have to wait weeks for the developer to see that look on Grandma’s face. A few plastic clicks and you had those memories captured in place, ready to be passed around the family reunion with the bucket of chicken and potato salad.

You can probably find one of those old cameras at a yard sale for a buck or two, but I’m not sure you can get old Polaroid film anymore. Not easily, I’d guess. And not inexpensively, either.

But I notice the images themselves are back in vogue. There’s an app for that nowadays. There are a handful  of those Smart Phone filters, for iPhone or Android, that will happily turn those crisp eight-megapixel images into something faded, crappy, yellow and blurred.

It’s a weird thing for me. I just traded up my phone, and it came with a better camera in the back.  I installed one of those filters last night and started snapping old-timey Polaroid shots.

But then, I was looking back at some of the pictures I took with my old phone and the 1.2 megapixel camera it came with. I  realized those pictures were  virtually indistinguishable from the new hi-def pictures from my new phone , once they’d been run through the filter.

Why do I even need the filter? It doesn’t make logical sense to spend more money to get a better product, then install an app to cripple it somehow. What’s next, a Rotary Dial attachment for when I want to make old-timey phone calls?

What is it about this crystal-clear, crisp edged point-in-time that makes us long for foggy lenses and faded color? Is it a misplaced sense of nostalgia, that faded things are somehow cooler? Or is it simply that our tools have gotten fast and powerful enough to easily duplicate that vintage feel?

I don’t know. I’ll keep the filter on my phone because I do like the effect, but I plan to use it sparingly.  I’ll opt for crystal clear more often than not.

Maybe  the best thing about nostalgia is that you can turn it off.  You can visit the past but you don’t have to stay there.



Let’s say you own a plot of land. Your neighbor dies and his heirs sell to a local developer.

Now that guy’s bringing a plan forward to turn the land on the other side of your fence into something. Could be a factory or a church or a chicken farm. It doesn’t matter what because it’s going to change your life drastically.

Of course, this local developer knows the process. He knows what forms to fill out and where to sign and what boards he needs to meet with before he can get started. So, it’s no surprise that this guy is halfway to breaking ground before you realize what’s on his mind.

From your perspective, it looks a lot like he getting a special deal and you raise holy hell. A few other neighbors do, too. You write a few letters, meet with a few local officials yourself and do what you can to unravel all that he’s done.

And suddenly, people start to pay attention and what looked like a slam dunk for this guy starts looking much less likely.

Now, from your point of view, it looks like a conspiracy. He greased all the right palms and settled the deal before you knew what happened. The officials must be on his side. “What happened to the public process?” you cry.

The thing is, it looks a lot like a conspiracy from his point of view, too. He’s invested a lot of money and done a lot of work to get to this point. And now, when there’s no turning back, it all starts to look different. It was anything but easy getting to this point, he says, but his  sure thing ain’t so sure anymore. Maybe some people stop returning his calls.  The officials must be on your side, he thinks.

About the only thing both would agree on is that is that something fishy is afoot. And they’d both be right.

It’s the way government works, top to bottom. Nobody is rewarded for doing their work early. Nothing is settled until the last vote is cast and counted and things can change on a dime. I’d gather it was that way in Ancient Greece, with some last-minute Athenian wheeling and dealing. And I guarantee it was that way back in the late 1700s when our Founding Fathers made their deals.

Keep that in mind this week when there’s a debt deal nationally or a zoning deal next door. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s just government.

Faulty disk

The very earliest memory I have is one of youthful vandalism.

I’m young, old enough to grip a rock in my wee fist. I can see a car driving past and I do what instinct tells me.  I remember rearing back and throwing the stone at the car.

I also remember my Mom’s reaction.  She jumped up, grabbed me, yelled and swatted my behind.

I asked her about it years later, and she doesn’t remember it at all. I gather it was just one example of my, shall we say, exuberance, at that young age. It was small potatoes for her.

But it was a big deal for me.  She recalls other things, like me trying to jump into some falls at Yellowstone National Park. I have no recollection of that whatsoever.

The rock incident occurred  a year or so later in life than my failed Yellowstone expedition and I figured that was because my brain, such as it is, had developed enough to start saving memories.

I asked my son his earliest memory a couple of years ago and he told me it was something impossible, from the first two months of his life. But he recalled it perfectly.

Here’s why:  He saw the tape. We bought a video camera soon after he was born and started running tape, recording burps and coos and assorted hijinks.

Here’s the thing: He recalls other bits of his life, when his own memories should override everything, more strongly than others because they were reinforced by video evidence. He recalls things from my perspective, from behind the camera, better than he does from his own.

So it’s no surprise: media shapes what we remember. And now, according to an article in this month’s  Science Magazine, the Internet not only shapes what we remember, but the actual mental  mechanism we use to remember. Folks taught  information kept on a computer that is due to be erased recall things better than those told the computer file will be preserved,  forever at their fingertips.

It’s a scary thing, especially in this age of Photoshop and partisan, Wiki-fiable and rewritable media. If our media-formed memories prove stronger than those formed by natural experience, we need to be pretty careful guardians of how those memories get written.


My roommate was aghast.

Her boyfriend was standing over the kitchen sink, a lighter in one hand and a fistful of non-dairy creamer in the other. He sprinkled the one on top of the open flame from the other and was rewarded with a flash of flame.

She gasped.

“I had no idea that stuff, those chemicals, were in my non-dairy creamer.” She swore off the stuff then and there.  If it burned that easily, imagine what it did to your stomach lining?

Of course, I knew that the increased surface area from the powder made it flammable. It would have worked if he’d used flour or talcum powder or sawdust. It’s the reason why grain silos have been known to explode.

But she didn’t know that. Her boyfriend didn’t either. He just knew a cool trick that would impress people.

It’s kind of the way it is right now with science, news, politics, philosophy and economics. Everybody knows a few good tricks, enough to do the social equivalent of lighting a small fire over the kitchen sink.

But few of us know the underlying facts, theories and science behind those tricks — and therefore what those tricks really mean.

I doubt most people could really explain the science behind allergies or the economic principles that drive the stock market. It’s the age of specialization and everybody knows a lot about our specific areas of expertise, but there is no way we’d be able to know all that there is to know today.

So we rely on experts, or people who claim expertise. The problem is, they are often just regular people who know the cool tricks, and not what’s behind them.

The downside is that it’s easy for people to push concepts or ideas that are not supported by facts. They may not even know the facts themselves, but who’s going to challenge them? Their opponents are mostly just as factually ignorant.

So they spin their versions, myths based on what they fear is happening instead of what is supported by fact, and make a knee-jerk reactions every few years at the ballot box, or daily in the grocery aisle or doctor’s office.

I’m not perfect. Never made any claims at such, and it never surprises me when I’m reminded by a reader that I’ve gotten it wrong.

But it’s nice when I get it right.

So, the voice on my phone cackled at me like an old TV western prospector.

“Ye Got it wrong, last three times you’ve run the story, ye’ve gotten it wrong, hee hee.”

He said his name so fast I couldn’t quite make it out.  But damn, he was happy.

“Ye said that that bridge to the park the city is working on goes from Oxford Street to the park. It don’t! It goes from Birch Street to the park.”

And then he cackled some more, gleefully.

Now, I’m right in the middle of two other stories, so I had to think about it. And it’s always possible that I did get it wrong in the story today.

“Umm,” I said, thoughtfully.

“Hee! I’m right! I’m right! Hee hee! I knew it! Ye got it wrong, didn’t ye!”

I told him I’d have to check, but he was gone at that point, chortling, giggling and choking just a little bit. He must have won a bet.

Thing is, I wasn’t wrong. The little bridge goes from Oxford Street to Simard Payne Park. It’s right there, signs on the road, maps on the computer. Birch Street is  blocks away. I don’t even know what the heck he was talking about.

Somewhere a gleeful, chuckling leprechaun of a man lost a bet.

Life in 19 minute chunks

I tend to be the newsroom’s  guinea pig. When the IT guys want to try out a new system, bit of hardware or whatever, I usually find them hovering over my right shoulder.

For the past month, I’ve been the tester for a new multiple OS system, a desktop using a remote hard drives or something. It’s been a smooth process, with few hiccups — until Monday. That’s when the temporary license on the software they were trying to fold into our delicate infrastructure finally expired.

The result for me was that my system reset itself every 20 minutes — 20 minutes, on the dot, with no sympathy, no warning and no respect at all for the journalistic thought process.

Now,  it took me a few resets before I figured out what was happening. I complained to IT and they said they were working on it. All that was left for me to do was cope.

Eventually, I figured out the reset interval and began timing. I’d start counting down when the computer rebooted and learned to sum up my projects as the 20 minute mark approached. My timer would ding at 19 minutes, I’d save, close my files, step back and the computer would reboot. A minute later and I’d be back in and working.

It’s been an interesting laboratory for me to study my work habits. I think of myself as a hard worker and I get a lot accomplished. But there are so many distractions today — emails, Google Reader updates, Tweets and Facebook posts — it’s real easy to let something interfere with your focus.

But when you have 19 minutes and the clock is ticking, it’s easier to put those distractions aside. I found myself focusing on the task at hand, knowing that the quick email would steal precious seconds from my current thought process. I began grouping my work intervals, delaying Twitter, email and even phone calls until the next 20 minute cycle.

Now, I’ve tried lots of organizing schemes. I have a copy of Allen’s “Getting things Done” on my bookshelf and a drawer down to my right with 43 folders in a tickler. I’ve read on Lifehacker and other places that eight minutes is the ideal amount of time to devote to a particular task, but I never tested it.

Now I know.

IT finally replaced my system Wednesday afternoon, so my enforced breaks are over. But I’m thinking about buying an egg timer or something.

There was a this patch of open space in Westminster, between where we lived 10 years ago and Stanley Lake. I have no idea if it’s still there, but it’s one of the reasons we left the Denver area and moved to Maine.

I used to ride my bike along a path through there.  I never really stopped because there was not much to it. It was a dirt patch, all owned by the city and kept as open space. Just some scrubby trees, creek beds and lots of Prairie Dogs. They’d whistle to each other as I pedaled past, popping out of their dens briefly. That’s why my Dad always called them Whistle Pigs.

I saw hawks and the occasional coyote there, too.

That little patch was bordered on either side by homes,  city streets and retail developments. Not exactly virgin wilderness.

But it was, I was told, prime develop-able space and that was to be its fate. The City Council was in talks to sell that patch to a developer for a corner shoppette.

But right around the corner, there was a ghost shoppette just a few years old. It was home to a vacant Media Play (remember Media Play?) and a bunch of smaller shops, all equally empty. They’d all gone out of business about the same time and no other retail outlets were interested in moving in.

It was too much for me. You could stand on the asphalt corner of the vacant Media Play lot and throw a pop bottle into the open space patch, if you had a good arm.

I could not figure why someone would sacrifice the last bit of wild in that neighborhood for another sterile, utilitarian retail destination. It was enough to overcome my last bit of resistance and bail on Colorado for good. I don’t even know how it turned out, if they paved over the prairie dogs or ever found someone to rent Media Play’s old home.

I thought of that patch the other day, driving past a Turner Street retail development. When we moved here, it was vacant land, full of whatever passes for Whistle Pigs in Maine. Now  it’s developed, but it’s never been fully occupied.

There’s a gym nearby, a restaurant and some offices. But much of it is empty, just like that old Media Play on Wadsworth Boulevard.

The neighbors say they have to open the door every once in a while to let out any wildlife that slipped under the plywood front door and got trapped.

So, at least there’s still a way to see urban wildlife.

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