The Hive

I'm just another dude with too much time on his hands. It really doesn't have anything to do with ants.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell

I'm reading a lot of Malcolm Gladwell right now. It's really good, to the point where I've actually read a few of his articles years ago, like professors gave them to our class to read, and the fact I can't remember exactly what class or prof it was for or from is frustrating me, because I remember them and want to know how they were relevant to whatever we were discussing. He writes really well. He talks about some pretty interesting things, too, and even though most of it's based around complexity/network theory without ever explicitly referencing it, it gets into a lot of the more practical applications for the theory than most of the more technical books on the subject attempt.

My only problem with him is the structure of all his New Yorker articles is identical. I could lay it out right here:

1) Start by describing the life or work or innovation of a single person, a person and work that's trivia, someone widely unknown or completely forgotten

2) Pull back to broad discussion: the context of that person's life or work or innovation, or the larger system it existed within

3) Continue that discussion, sometimes digressing to focus on another individual who made a big impact in the same area, often in a completely different manner, style, or philosophy as the original person, then working back out to the big picture

4) After talking so long about other people and huge societal ideas that we may have forgotten how the article began, swoop back to the original person, apply the conclusions we've reached in the body of the article, and conclude that, because of who that person is and the way the system around them worked, their contribution and the way it changed us was nothing short of a miracle

Traditional beginning-middle-end stuff, but the elements of drama it carries--the personal narrative to kick it off, the mano a mano of the original figure vs. the second figure (always individuals, always somehow philosophically opposed to each other), the inevitably redemptive qualities of the ending--they get a little old after a while. They're extremely effective, it's like combining what could be dry, airy intellectual subjects with the lure of fiction, the telling of a story and the clash of personalities, it's stimulating all over the place. But after reading twenty or thirty of these articles in a row, their structure's become predictable, to where those dramatic elements work against it, because I'm frustrated that I always know where I'm going to be taken next.

Admittedly, they were written as separate magazine articles, as things to be taken one at a time over the course of years, and in that context they're liable to retain their freshness for much longer than when you read them one after another on a webpage. Still, I'd hope a writer as obviously talented as Gladwell would learn to mix it up a little more.

What the fuck is the internet??

I can remember around my sophomore year of high school, it must have been 1997 or '98, and I was watching TV and a Crest commercial came on. It was a normal commercial, except at the very end it had "www.crest.com" before it went to black. I sat there and thought, "crest.com? What the fuck does toothpaste need a website for?"

Not very prescient of me, that moment.

The most interesting topic of all time

I had stopped my car at my mailbox, a series of key-entry steel boxes at the bottom of the hill to my trailer park. It was raining outside, and hailing, and kind of snowing; I’d just gotten off a long, boring day at work, and, encouraged by the freight train of "It’s the End of the World as We Know It" playing over my car radio, I'd driven home in a hurry, eager to change clothes, eat some dinner, and watch some TV.

When I got out of the car the radio immediately dimmed like a switch had been thrown. The stuff hitting my face felt like slush, like something that pours out of a gas station beverage machine. No wind, though: just cold and wet, and three Netflix DVDs waiting in my mailbox. I ran back around to the driver's side, got into my car, out of the cold and wet, into the pounding guitars that were instantly five times louder.

At that point I should have been stabbed or strangled, maybe even decapitated, because it was clear I was living a scene out of a horror movie. Not like I was sad or angry or otherwise feeling nightmarish, but just because that scene—guy's rocking out in his car, guy gets out of car, rock music suddenly fades to the background and he realizes he's out in the rain and the dark and some dude with a chainsaw's just over his shoulder—is one I've seen dozens of times in dozens of movies, to the point where I knew it so well I knew I was living it before I got back in that car.


That was two days ago. The next night I drove Ken home after we watched The Salton Sea, one of those movies that makes you wonder why Val Kilmer doesn't do more serious acting. It had been snowing all day, but it had been too warm to stick until after we’d gotten back to my house. Then, for a few more hours, it snowed and hailed in equal measure. Sometimes it was completely silent outside, sometimes you could hear all that hail pinging off the roof of the trailer.

The roads, they were bad. The city's usually pretty good about getting wintry stuff off the road, but tonight it was if they’d be taken by surprise, or just weren't able to quickly scrape away the half-inch plate of ice that was frozen over everything. I got Ken home and got back okay, but my place is midway up a steep hill, a hill inclined at about 15-20 degrees, and I just parked my car at the bottom and walked back up to my house.

Only I couldn't. Halfway up, it was just too slick to walk. I'd take a step and slide back down to the spot I'd just left. I tried moving over to the shoulder, but it was too slippery there, too. I had the sense that, if I kept trying to walk, I'd end up falling over, and I'd end up just as bruised and humiliated as I was cold.

It was windy, too. Really windy; they'd been talking about wind warnings on the radio that evening, gusts up to 60 mph, which is fairly common in the Tri-Cities but still nothing you’re really ever used to. Up to that point I'd been able to keep a hand on my head to keep my fedora in place, but with all that ice I had to keep my arms out for balance, and while I was standing in the middle of the road, halfway between my trailer and the bottom of the hill, my hat blew off my head and rolled across the street.

Running after it was out of the question. Even walking sideways across the road, I discovered, was impossible. All I could do was get down on my hands and knees, crawl over to my hat, then crawl back across and up the rest of the way to my house. Literally crawling. Sometimes the wind gusted up and I had to put a hand on my head and duck-walk on just my knees. When I got to my yard I was exhausted, I was freezing, the tips of my fingers on the hand I'd been using to support myself against the ice were so numb I couldn’t feel them for twenty minutes.

I've had to chase my hat into snowdrifts as tall as me before, but I've never had to crawl across an icy hill to get it back. The weather here is weird.