What I'm writing

The Long Way Home

Before weblogging and RSS—long before Facebook, Twitter, or the next poor bastard service, doomed to be worshiped and then sacrificed on some given Friday—I used to write long essays I'd publish online by hand editing the HTML and posting the static files. Having to manually create the HTML template and design, incorporate navigation, and craft the links and images, took a considerable amount of time.

To justify the time, I wanted to make sure that what I published was worth the effort. I would research a story and edit and re-edit it, and look for additional resources, and then re-edit the story again. My one essay on the giant squid actually took two months to research, and days, not minutes, to edit. Even after publication, I would tweak the pages as old links died, or to refine a section of the writing.

Now, we have wonderful tools to make it easy to put writing or other content online. We can think of a topic, create a writing about it, and publish it—all in five or less minutes. We've also come to expect that whatever is published is read as quickly. We've moved from multi-page writings, to a single page, to a few paragraphs, to 140 characters or less. Though there is something to be said for brevity, and it takes a true master to create a mental image that can stand alone in 140 characters or less, there still is a place for longer writings. We don't have to be in a continuous state of noise; a race to create and to consume.

Other than a few posts, such as this, all writings at Just Shelley will be spread across pages, not paragraphs, or characters. Such length will, naturally, require a commitment of your time in addition to your interest. However, I can't guarantee that your time will be well spent, or even that your interest will be held (though the former will, naturally, be dependent on the latter). All I can guarantee is that I probably took longer to create the writing than you will in reading it.

I am using a tool to publish, true, and even providing an Atom feed. There are no categories, tags, or taxonomies, though, because everything here fits under one bucket: it is something that interests me. Taxonomies would just clutter the site's zen-like structure, as well as set expectations I'm almost certainly not going to fulfill.

To further add to my state of web regression, I've not enabled comments, though I'd love to hear from you through some other means. As anachronistic as it may seem nowadays, this is not a site that's community built. It's not that I don't care about you or community, or that I'm asking you to be a passive observer. My hope is that if I don't inspire you—to talk, to write, to howl at the moon— I make you think; if I don't make you think, I provide comfort; if I don't comfort, I entertain; if I don't entertain, at a minimum, I hope I've kept you in the house long enough not to be hit on one of those rare occasions when a meteorite falls from space and lands in front of your home just as you were leaving.

Just Shelley is my place to be still, and my invitation for you to be still with me.

My tree


Writing Computer Books

I'm in the middle of 'proofs' for Adding Ajax, which is never a terribly fun experience. You can only fix errors during proofs, because the layout of the book and the indexing can't change. You don't have time for anything major; to spend a lot of time rewording phrases you might not be as happy about. It's also typically the time when a computer book author will see 'content editing', whereby someone in the publisher has 'polished' up the writing –a process that can leave you feeling disconcerted. Even a little down.

It's discouraging, at times, being a computer book writer because we're not really treated as 'authors'. Someone like David Weinberger will take 2 years to write Everything is Miscellaneous, get a nice advance for doing so, have a rollout party, and then lots of people will write reviews. The publisher will send him around to places to talk to folks and typically pay the tab. The only time computer book authors get 'sent' to a place to talk is if we pick up the tab, and usually we have to have another reason for being at an event–such as doing a presentation, if we're so lucky as to have our proposals accepted. Being an author is no guarantee of acceptance.

As for the tech community, I've had so many people ask me what open source projects I've been involved with. What have I done to give back to the community, I'm asked. I point to my books, many of which are on open source technologies. Writing isn't the same, I'm told. The code we lay down in the book isn't 'really' code, and therefore we don't garner any 'street cred' for writing about technology–only creating something.

Ask all but the 'star' computer book authors, of which I am not one, and I bet they'll all say the same thing: typically, we're not taken seriously. One link to an application is worth more than five links to books written. But in the book community, we're just 'hack' writers, writing to a formula.

Yet for all that we're writing to a so-called formula, it's an enormous amount of work to write a computer book. We not only have to write, we also have to create little mini-applications all throughout the book. We have to second guess what our readers are going to want to see; balance the use of word and code so that neither is too much; use the right amount of bullets and figures; and basically try to mix in enough of the human element to keep the writing active and entertaining, without compromising its quality. Our code must be error free and innovative. Once finished wih the code, we're faced with other problems related to syntax: would that be better as a colon? Comma? Period? Sentence too long? Sentence too short?

All of this gets packed into 3-5 months, depending on the size of the book. This for a book that is effectively double the size of David's Everything is Miscellaneous.

People will say that David's book is 'different'. Somehow, his writing is more creative, his ideas broader, his reach further. More people will be impacted by his book. It is somehow grander in the scheme of things. This is highlighted at every facet at the book publication process, and when the computer book author rolls a book out–other than reviews at a few sites, a note at the publisher, and comments at Amazon–there is no major drum roll to announce the book. No rollout parties. No press. It's just another computer book.

Then, from time to time, you get a note in your email. Someone will tell you how much your book helped them. These notes are our champagne bottles, our corks going off. I guess everything is relevant in addition to being miscellaneous.

Enough of such maundering. Back to the proofs.


A Critic's Value

Sometimes I enjoy writing; other times, I hate being a writer.

For those of you who think it would be just wonderful to publish a book: think again.

There's few things that can make you more vulnerable than to work your butt off on something and then have it trivialized, panned, and dismissed–usually by some anonymous pundit. Months of writing, months of editing and production work gets reduced in five minutes by a critic with an attitude.

One is tempted to reject all critics but there is value in criticism, even when such is unpalatable or unpleasant. Via 3QuarksDaily's, I found the Boston Review article, Why Photography Critics Hate Photography to be an intriguing writing; especially the part on the critic's rejection of the emotionalism of photography, and hence their suspicion of same:

Brecht was right. Photographs don’t explain the way the world works; they don’t offer reasons or causes; they don’t tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end. Photographs live on the surface: they can’t burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events. And though it’s true that photographs document the specific, they tend, also, to blur—dangerously blur—political and historic distinctions: a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Berlin, circa 1945, looks much like a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Hanoi, circa 1969, which looks awfully similar to a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Baghdad from last week. Yet only a vulgar reductionist—or a complete pacifist—would say that these three cities, which is to say these three wars, are fundamentally the same cities or the same wars. Still, the photos look the same: there’s a very real sense in which if you’ve seen one bombed-out building you have indeed seen them all. (“War is a horrible repetition,” Martha Gellhorn wrote, and this is even truer of photographs than of words.) It is this anti-explanatory, anti-analytic quality of the photograph—what Barthes called its stupidity—that critics have seized on with a vengeance and that they cannot, apparently, forgive.

But the problem with photographs is not only that they fail to explain the world. A greater problem, for Brecht and his followers, is what photographs succeed in doing, which is to offer an immediate, emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of monopoly capitalism or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or suffering, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs, also, to find out what our intuitive reactions to such otherness might be. (This curiosity is not, as the postmoderns have charged, an expression of “imperialism,” racism,” or “orientalism”: the peasant in Kenya and the worker in Cairo are as fascinated—if not more so—by a picture of New Yorkers as we are by an image of them.) None of us is a creature solely of feeling, and yet there is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, on an emotional level.

One of my favorite photographers is Walker Evans, who took what he called a 'documentary approach' to his photography–rejecting any hint of emotionalism in his work. About his most famous work, in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, one reviewer wrote:

The images are quintessential of Evans' "documentary style"; Evans' dis-interested approach to these families resulted in portraying them with dignity and strength, although they lived in complete poverty. He sought to show the beauty of order and respectability within such an impoverished condition. Thus, many of the photographs are posed portraits, often made with the 8×10 view camera…Evans' use of objects, as well as interior and exterior(architectural) shots, which were all components of his strategy to build a comprehensive documentary work. Although at times Evans used his Leica(35mm),a small format camera, he did not take "snapshots" of daily activites; he despised that journalistic approach. Evans kept his images, as usual, in sharp, hard-focus, and also varied his focal length–sometimes up close, other times, wide-angle.

Reviews of the book referred to the "naked realism which is the truth as Walker Evans' camera eye sees it." The effect is one of confrontation with the reader–not with Evans, but with the tenant-farming families themselves. In this regard Evans became the visual translator of these people to the rest of the alienated American public. In so doing, and in conjunction with his work for the FSA, Evans revolutionized the concept of documentary photography. That is, he artfully removed himself from the equation. His objective style brought the viewer into confrontation with the subject, with no hint of subjective authoritarian influence. These images are the best example of that fact, and accordingly were the hallmark images for which Evans became known.


I'm not Okay

Don't come towards me. I'm not okay.

When did okay stop being a word? Every spellcheck in every application I use now tells me okay is not a word. OK is a word. But OK is an acronym for okay. Isn't it? Or was I brought up wrong?

When did towards stop being a word? The checkers will accept toward, but not towards. So I cowardly give in and have eradicated (that's a word, isn't it?) towards from my vocabulary. Still, toward doesn't feel right.

I wonder how many other words I use that mark me as being from a certain era, place, culture, and socioeconomic background. I am only now aware that I write with an accent.



Yesterday the temperatures were in the 60's and today it's cold and snowy; this weekend, the weather should be in the 60's again. This is our winter.

Loren Webster is writing about W. G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn, reminding me of how much I enjoyed Sebald's books, especially Austerlitz

I'm inspired to re-read the Sebald books, but this time, in addition to enjoying that wonderful prose I'm looking for references to moths and butterflies. I've noticed that Sebald alludes to butterflies and/or moths somewhere in all of his stories and I remember reading in a biography of him somewhere how he was fascinated by butterflies and moths. I want to see how the topic is treated in each book; how he integrates these winged creatures into each story.

Speaking of butterflies, I visited the Butterfly House at Faust Park yesterday for the first time. I wasn't expecting much when I arrived; I've been to other butterfly houses, and the number of visitors seemed to be disproportionately larger than the number of butterflies. However, when I entered the Butterfly House's glass dome, within a few seconds a Dead Leaf butterfly landed on the shoulder of the man in front of me—a occurrence that would happen frequently to most visitors as you wonder the paths amid the seemingly thousands of delicate, flying creatures.

(I would have taken a photo but the hot and humid room had fogged all my lenses. It would take close to half an hour for the lenses to come unfogged; just about the time when I was getting red faced and drenched in sweat, having foolishly dressed for winter. )


Even with the sunlight the conservatory was too dark to really get photos of the butterflies so I had to use my flash. This flattened many of the photos, washing out some of the color and detail. Still, the butterflies seemed to like the flash, and each time it went off, a few would fly toward me, and dance about my camera–too fast to photograph, barely slow enough for my limited senses.

I started wondering aimlessly around, being careful where to walk because the butterflies were on the ground as well as the camera bag, the trees, the flowers, the feeding dishes, the sides of the conservatory, and other people. It wasn't crowded, which made photography easier. Two women had brought their two young children, and had some difficulty keeping them under control. The kids weren't being destructive–just young and absolutely fascinated by the butterflies. The mothers apologized to me for the noise, and I said I didn't mind at all. How can one get upset at the sound of such joy?


Still, when they left, and everyone else had left, I had the place to myself except for one of the workers pruning some of the bushes. I went through the place once more, and this time, perhaps because I was the only one there, I was surrounded by butterflies every where I went. Not just butterflies: exquisite moths, too. I had to use flash, and harshly, to be able to get photos of the Cobra Moths, but I didn't care–I had to show you these creatures. The moths are larger than my hand, and beautifully colored, as well as camouflaged with the cobra 'heads' at each wing tip.



I forget at times that butterfly wing colors and patterns are a defense mechanism; orange and reds are the bright colors of poison; dots and swirls resemble owl eyes, or snakes; speckled greens and yellows allow the insects to blend into jungle greens, and meadow yellows.


One of my favorite of the butterflies was the Owl Butterfly. I discovered its name from another photographer I chatted with earlier, when I had first arrived. He was a younger man, big, with blond hair, face pink from the heat. He had been there since early morning (wisely, I noticed, dressed in a light t-shirt). He was kind enough to give me some lens tissue to clean my lenses and then spent about an hour showing me butterflies, which he photographed with a film camera using a macro lens and natural light. He mentioned that the Butterfly House is a second home to him–that and the Botanical Gardens.


At first I took him to be a simple person; then I realized that he was, instead, a man of simple pleasures–not unlike the Butterfly Man in Sebald's book, The Emigrants. I don't have this book in my limited library, but a search returned the following:

The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps. Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It's the butterfly man, you know. He comes round here quite often.


Further reading suggested that Sebald's Butterfly Man is an allegorical reference to one of his favorite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, author of the acclaimed, albeit infamous, Lolita. Like Sebald, Nabokov was a man passionately in love with words. In a review of Lolita at Amazon, Simon Leake wrote:

Playfully perverse in form as well as content, riddled with puns and literary allusions, Nabokov's 1955 novel is a hymn to the Russian-born author's delight in his adopted language. Indeed, readers who want to probe all of its allusive nooks and crannies will need to consult the annotated edition. Lolita is undoubtedly, brazenly erotic, but the eroticism springs less from the "frail honey-hued shoulders … the silky supple bare back" of little Lo than it does from the wantonly gorgeous prose that Humbert uses to recount his forbidden passion.


Nabokov once said, My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting. It is this man, and this passion, which is threaded throughout Sebald's Emigrants, as a review from a reader at Amazon describes:

Sebald is never without his playful, even absurd, side, and it is present in this book as well. Running through his narratives, and culminating in the memoir of Max Ferber's mother, Luisa, are allusions to "the butterfly man." In Ferber's section, "the butterfly man" is a boy of about 10 who chases butterflies in the German resort town of Bad Kissingen. This man is clearly Vladimir Nabokov, for the scene described is exactly the same as one described in Nabokov's own memoir, "Speak, Memory." Whether muse or mentor, "the butterfly man" holds great significance for each of Sebald's characters. And, who but Sebald would have had the imagination and creativity to braid, like a silken thread, the spirit of the most celebrated of all literary emigrees throughout this book?

As in all of Sebald's books, photographs are an integral part of the work and, once again, rather than adding clarity, they seem to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction instead. What is real? What is not? With Sebald, we never really know.


Just before the exit at the Butterfly House is the Miracle of Metamorphosis display. Here, chrysalids from throughout the world are carefully hung and nurtured. No matter what time of day, there is always at least one butterfly being born in this display. When I was there, several owl butterflies were getting ready to take wing. One could see the entire life of a butterfly, from larva to chrysalis to butterfly if one wanted to visit over a week at the Butterfly House. But not the death, though. I imagine that workers scour the plants nightly for butterflies that have died, removing them for mounting, study, or disposal. It wouldn't do, you see, to have the walks littered with the fragile wings of dessicated butterflies; or corpses of moths hanging from the trees.

Before I left, a Blue Morpho butterfly I had been trying to photograph with its wings open, trailed by three Paper Kites and several Red Lacewings suddenly flew around me in a spiral that started at my knees, circling round and round until above my head–vanishing joyfully into the dark depths of the bushes above and around me. I didn't get a photo of their flight. I didn't even try.





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