Something Ain’t Right

On the Perils of AI

That’s Artificial Intelligence, the next big thing that’s going to transform us. At least that’s the way futurists and tech visionaries have been telling the story since 1952 or so.

While we await the computer-driven millennium, I think it’s important to maintain some perspective. If you’re a knowledge worker chances are you’ve encountered a colleague, client or C-suite executive smitten with the latest novel technology sure to lead to marketplace domination or a total revolution in whatever sector you toil.

I’m not certain it’s that easy.

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The Writing on the Wall

A Wealth of Writers: The Newsletter Boom
Late January 2022

Newsletters are not new, though the word itself only first appeared in 1903.

That makes the concept a little bit older than my grandmother. And while Nana went to her rest more than a half-century ago,  the venerable form lumbers on, these days in a digital guise.

Back in the day, a newsletter often looked like the nearby example. Crafted on typewriters at kitchen Continue reading

None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds

The Source of All Things
Tracy Ross
Backpacker, 11/27/07

Sawtooth Range
Seen from the Sawtooth Valley, Idaho, USA
Photo courtesy Arcoterion under CC BY-SA 3.0

Emerson warned me.

Okay, strictly speaking, that’s not true.

Kay Kier, one of the best professors of American literature I ever encountered, warned me, and the rest of a sweltering summer class at Queens College, to not lightly dismiss the warnings of the man she referred to as Chairman Ralph.

Foremost among these was the admonition to not turn oneself into a prisoner of foolish consistency. The whole world–statesmen and divines according to the Chairman–certainly prefers consistency. Yet it seems to me that a foolish consistency supposes the existence of a wise one, as well as the existence of both wise and foolish inconsistencies.

So, maybe the most unfoolish thing we can do is accept all four. In that spirit, I’m going to unshackle myself from the self-imposed restriction to reflect mostly on long-form writing (which, due to my age, means primarily books) only after I’ve finished them. It’s not a rule I’ve always observed and, lately,  it’s getting in my anthology-reading way. Here’s why.

The whole point of this space is for me to figure out my thinking about what I’ve read.  The entire process is dialectical: there’s what I thought before I read title X. There’s what reading title X causes me to think. And then there’s what I think after I’ve put myself through the process of trying to string together a coherent 1100 words or so on the matter.

Chairman Ralph in 1857

Increasingly, I seem to reach points at which I stop dead.  I’ll read something that dominates my thinking, at least for a while, and if it’s part of a larger whole and I wait to finish the book, I risk losing the opportunity to capture that impact.

That brings me to the rather remarkable story linked to above (and here, too), which I really urge you to read for yourself. I don’t know much more about Tracy Ross than what she lays out in this piece. Her regular beat is outdoor enthusiast magazines and while I’ve been known to enjoy my time en plein aire, I’m hardly the strap-on-a-pack-and-head-for-the-hills kind of guy. Long before there was glamping I was the leading advocate of executive camping.

So, I don’t really spend a lot of time with the outdoor buff books. Typically, I’ll encounter a story from a magazine such as Outside in a sportswriting anthology. And more often than not it’s a tale of limits pushed and unexpected, unwelcome results. It’s almost as if the game- and player-covering scribes hired to edit such volumes can’t conceive that sport might result in death or disability.

Ross’ story is harrowing in the extreme. But the harrowing part has little to do with the wilderness setting. That’s merely, as the title says, the source of all things and also the setting in which Ross enters her own personal hell and the one in which she ultimately begins to find redemption.

The locale for the trip at the heart of this tale is Idaho‘s Sawtooth Range, as raw a wilderness as you’ll find in the lower 48. I say that without the benefit of personal experience but having spent some time in the woods of Colorado. A typical Easterner operating on presumptions of scarcity and density, the ability of the American West to absorb large groups of people and still leave you feeling isolated has always overwhelmed me. It’s hard to wrap your head around just how alone one can be.

A trail view from the Sawtooths in Idaho.
Photo courtesy Katja Schulz., USA, ,CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just me. One guide, curious if not worried, questions Ross on her hiking alone. “I’m prepared and I’m conservative,” is her answer, a code any Boy Scout will recognize. Ross is no mere Boy Scout. She grew up in Idaho, spending large amounts of time in the Sawtooths. Later, she spends years in Alaska, living remotely at times and ultimately working as a guide at Denali. She’s no tyro.

She’s returned to her childhood haunts, the place where she first experienced and fell in love with the glory of undisturbed nature, in the company of her father, now in his sixties. The man who raised her after the untimely death of her own dad, he’s not just her mother’s second husband, he’s the man who sexually molested Ross.

That abuse started on a camping trip at Redfsh Lake, a favorite destination in the Sawtooths.  And when Ross entered puberty some years later it intensified. Like many teens in similar situations, she contemplated suicide. Unlike many others, she instead had her father arrested.

The story of her teen years–foster care, forced return home, wild abandon, self-destruction–is unfortunately not unique. The wilderness helps her find the road she eventually follows to the point we meet her. She and her dad will hike to a favored place and she’ll get the answers to the big questions she’s been carrying around her entire life.

Can such a scene ever go as planned? I gave up scripting conversations after learning the other player had no way of knowing their lines. You decide for yourself if Ross’ confrontation was satisfying. For me, the gut-punch, more powerful because it spoke to something familiar, came earlier in the tale, during Ross’s first visit to the range, the one on which she was questioned by the guide.

Litle Redfish Lake around 1950. It probably looks much the same today. Magnificent.

That trip lead to the one with her father because she couldn’t, alone, find what she sought. On that earlier trip, Ross, looks at a childhood photo of herself taken at Redfish Lake. As she describes it, it’s a typical picture of childhood innocence, the kind of smiling happy child snapshot that populates the photo albums of many families.  “I became a sad kid after that picture was taken,” she writes. “I’ve been a sad kid ever since.”

It’s hard to conceive that the editor of a magazine titled  Backpacker would publish such a tale. And it’s heartening to know that there’s at least one editor who not only knows a great and powerful story when it comes across his or her desk but who trusts the book’s readers to recognize it, too.

It’s almost enough to make me hang up my cynicism toward the publishing enterprise.


I’m Losing Friends, I’m Losing Face

Midsummer 2021

If I’m unable to finish a book I ought to at least prove I keep reading.

What better brain food for a Sunday morning, then, than a sociological take on just what’s going on with folks refusing Continue reading

The Honesty’s Too Much

I spend a lot of time thinking about reading. Not just because I don’t want to bore you, but because I’m paid to think about how to turn words into cold hard cash.

Ultimately, that requires reading and readers. I don’t know if I entirely agree with the arguments Holden Karnofsky recently made on the subject. But they’re provocative and worth considering.

That people skim and search for the relevant tidbit or le mot juste seems inarguable. How that isn’t akin to a sous chef gutting a fish, as Michael O’Malley once put it, appears less clear.

I do agree that writers who seek major time commitments from readers–those penning items  thousands of words long–must consider the audience, if only because you can’t win the argument (or make the sale or get the donation) if you lose the reader.

Read Karnofsky’s post here:

Be Adrift on Your Radio

Mid-July 2021

Generationally speaking, I’m less inclined than younger people to ramble on about myself. It’s not as though I don’t have a head full of thoughts containing the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ just like everybody else. It’s more that Continue reading

All You do is Talk Talk

May Day 2021

In his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud,  introduced a concept he referred to as Fehlleistungen. English translations rendered that mouthful as a Greek word, parapraxis.

I’d bet even money it’s more likely you know the concept rather than either technical term. There’s even a Continue reading

Roam If You Want To

Peripatetic (adj.) : moving or traveling from place to place

In the depths of winter, I always find a splash of color goes a long way in reminding me of the vibrancy of life. And what, I ask you, is more vibrant than a flamboyance of flamingoes?

So while you might think cooler temperatures and longer nights offer a time to catch up, the reality is that my attention span–which has always been a weak spot– Continue reading

Wandering Early and Late

Here we go, again

No, that’s not me pictured at right, but it pretty much sums up my recent state of being.  A path beckoning. Family close at hand. The year withering.

I actually take great solace at this time of year. Despite the sinking temperatures and paucity of daylight, there’s something Continue reading

I Roam Around, Around, Around

wandering (noun): a going about from place to place

By now I should have this (mis)timing thing licked.  But I don’t, so I am allowing myself the quarterly luxury of sharing some longer pieces found on the web that have captured my attention.

Should any of you care to share your ideas on how to break my logjam, by all means, please post in the comments section. All I ask is that you stay away from programmatic Continue reading