Up the Stream With a Paddle: Twitter as a Writer’s Tool

Last night’s Prairie Home Companion took a good-natured swipe at Twitter, the online blog-like service that restricts users’ messages to 140 characters or less at a time. Garrison Keillor’s detective character, Guy Noir, was walking through the Minnesota State Fair and found a Twitter booth, at which the attendant was posting updates like “I am updating my status”; “I can’t think of what to say next, so I’ll leave it that”; etc.

I immediately checked to see if Garrison has a Twitter account. While my search was not exhaustive, I didn’t find a likely candidate. (Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that the user claiming to be “garrisonkeillor” is an impostor).

This makes sense. Twitter gets a lot of abuse from people who don’t actually use it, and fair enough: when you first hear the thumbnail description of the service, and if you’re still getting used to the idea of blogs, Facebook, and the rest of what the kids are calling “web 2.0” and “social media,” it’s easy to assume that such a format is good for nothing but the sharing of trivial information.

I’ll be the first to admit that Twitter users share a lot of trivial information (I’m certainly guilty), but the great thing about this and other services is that the recipients don’t have to keep listening. As soon as someone’s feed-or “stream,” as the whole combined Twitter/Facebook/etc. output is often described-bores you, you can opt out.

My friend Brad wrote about this recently, comparing the relative intrusiveness of unwelcome/unneeded information sent by Twitter to that sent by email:

If you are like me, you have probably heard a number of friends complain bitterly about Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook status updates) by saying something like: “Why do you think I care what you had for lunch?” It’s a fair enough question if you discount the opt-in nature of most social media. That is, if your analogy is “Why would I want an email about what you had for lunch?”

But that’s a false analogy – I’m not emailing you, and if I were, I would definitely not email you my lunch menu. It would be rude. But, there may be some people who might find it interesting that I am eating at a particular restaurant, or eating a particular dish, or just that I’m having lunch. The transaction cost of letting them know is near zero, and the burden on others’ attention is near zero too.

Besides, to anyone who actually uses Twitter, it quickly becomes clear that the people who lampoon the medium by saying “I don’t care what you had for lunch” are telling us more about the limits of their own imaginations than they are about the limits of this mode of communication.

This morning, I experienced an unexpected upside to the opt-in nature of “the stream.”

Most mornings these days, I try to get in a little work on my novel (tentative title: Learning to Lose). I’ve decided that two of the supporting characters-a married couple-are struggling to conceive, and I wanted to know what sort of books, gadgets, medications, and related items they might have lying around. My first stop was the Wikipedia entry on infertility, and I did find it to be a good start.

Then, on a whim, I posted the following question on Twitter, which-because I’ve set up my account this way-then updated my status on Facebook:

For my novel, can anyone tell me some things a couple undergoing infertility txmts might have lying around? (Hold the ribaldry, please.)

In response, I got the following advice. Even the non-writers among you will easily be able to see how much more usefully, idiosyncratically human these details are, as opposed to the more schematic view offered by something like a Wikipedia entry.

Commenter 1: pregnancy tests, sex toys, porn, alarm clock (so you can get up early enough to get ur daily ultrasounds done before work), under eye concealer, knitting/books/etc for dr’s ofc waiting rooms, lots of rx meds including gross stuff like vaginal suppositories, bedside calendar & pen for recording “activities”. and no, i’m not in this process. i just happen to be in the car w/a doctor & parent who’s gone thru this. she sez feel free to contact her for more info if needed.

Commenter 2: Baby name book, syringes, what to expect when your expecting. they are already living as if they are expecting a baby.

Commenter 3: prescription drugs with names like “medroxyprogesterone-135.” Mine were actually compounded specially by a local pharmacy. Many women use a cream or gel for this purpose, but I couldn’t sleep with the constant sensation of having peed myself. Let us know if you have other questions.

Commenter 4: Thermometor! Sutton, never having “been there” I did egg donation for a cousin in 1990..let me recollect..(sometimer’s disease strikes in your 50’s)..I’ll get back to you on this one.

And so on. The comments are still rolling in, and, from the sound of some of them, it seems clear that I’m gaining insight from people with personal knowledge of the subject. This last fact leads to two points I wanted to make about the opt-in nature of “the stream” and how well it worked for me in this situation.

  1. For one thing, I had no idea that I knew anyone with personal knowledge of fertility therapies. But since my tweet/status update was going to be seen by, potentially, hundreds of people, I figured it was worth a shot.
  2. Even if I had known which of my friends has personal experience with this issue, I might have been reluctant to approach them with questions about such a potentially emotionally fraught issue-especially since, having been contacted directly, they might have felt obligated to help me out, even if they didn’t really feel up to it. But because tweets and status updates aren’t “to” anyone, I could just put the request out there and see who felt like responding. No one was put on the spot, and no one shared anything more than they wanted to.

Some final thoughts: I’m a Garrison Keillor fan, for the most part, so I hope this doesn’t sound like an attack on him. I think he and many other people misunderstand Twitter, but, on the other hand, if users who willingly refer to their posts as “tweets” can’t have a sense of humor about the whole concept, they are taking themselves way too seriously.

And while, I haven’t had lunch yet, I had eggs for breakfast.

The Week’s Twitters (2009-09-05)

  • Employing the subjunctive. #
  • Transcribing interviews about the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. #
  • Missoulian has a pretty new web site, but I still can't reliably search for and find articles. How hard is this? #
  • And can anyone help me change a background photo in the header of a WordPress blog? #
  • Anyone else out there like a good, stiff… index card? I'm disappointed by Mead and Ampad. Any suggestions? #
  • Is there no way to "share" a Facebook status update with comments thread, or am I missing something? #
  • Costco members: worth it to join for $25 per year? (I'm thinking mainly of diapers/other baby supplies.) #
  • Not particularly scared about H1N1. #
  • Hint for Scrivener users: create all cover/bid letters in one "project" so they are all in one place for easy review/reuse the next time. #

Saturday Crime Roundup: High-Speed Edition

High Speed, Emphasis On “Speed”
I’ve been following news about the boat crash that injured Montana’s U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg and-I think it’s fair to say-almost killed Dustin Frost, his chief of staff, late last week.

If it turns out to be true that Montana state Senator Greg Barkus was operating the boat at speeds of about 40 miles per hour just before the crash, there’s no question that recklessness was involved. I’m not sure if that kind of recklessness is, by itself, legally actionable, but anyone driving a boat that fast at night clearly cares more about the wind in his hair on his scalp than he does about, say, the possibility of meeting unexpectedly with a submerged log and the potential resulting effects of extreme deceleration on his passengers.

In this case, drunk operation is an easy conclusion to leap to, and not just because I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t drink while boating: the fact that the accident in question resulted from colliding-not with a hard-to-see log-but with a cliff strongly suggests that Senator Barkus did not have all of his wits about him.

We’ll have to wait and see, though, because-and here’s what motivated me to open up ScribeFire and post about this-it could apparently take as long as two months for the state crime lab to determine what Senator Barkus’s blood-alcohol content was that night.

From today’s Missoulian:

“Dave McAlpin, director of the crime lab, has said he hopes to return BAC results within 30 days, but Wingert warned that “our timeline, typically, is two months on something like this from the crime lab.”

He said he would not be surprised if results weren’t available until early November, given the lab’s considerable backlog of cases.”

I don’t mean to bash the crime lab here. Still, it was obvious from the start that there was going to be strong local and even some national interest in this investigation’s outcome. Given that, I’m surprised that McAlpin doesn’t prefer to go public saying something like “we’ll have those results in 72 hours,” as opposed to being quoted repeatedly in the newspaper explaining how slowly his lab works. I mean, the people on those CSI shows solve whole murders in under an hour.

I kid, of course. To be fair, McAlpin is also a state senator, so he has to send the testing out to a private lab to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. And, if there is a backlog, there’s no good reason this case should get to jump to the front of the line-speaking of ethical concerns, I suppose it might look like McAlpin were hiding something if that happened.

Still, I wonder what really goes into testing a vial of blood for BAC? Seems to this lay person that it couldn’t take more than a few minutes, certainly not more than a day. And that, in turn, leads to the question that Amy asked as we read this news over breakfast this morning: “Just how much crime does Montana have?” As ex-Baltimoreans, we’re thinking “not much,” relatively speaking. But then again, it’s not like they really actually solve very many crimes back there.

High Speed, Emphasis on “High”
In other crime news, a $12,000 pot deal gone wrong apparently led to a car pickup chase down Broadway Thursday afternoon, one truck repeatedly ramming the other until one of them had the misfortune to roll over within sight of a Missoula County sheriff’s deputy. I note with approval that the subsequent arrest and seizure of drugs, cash, and a gun proceeded under a search warrant, which certainly seems like more caution than a court would have thought required under the circumstances.

Bonus: Misbehaving Clergy News
Meanwhile, a former area pastor has been arrested in a prostitution sting. It must be so rough on these guys, having to be held to the same standards they demand of everyone else. And I wonder what he thought he was going to get for $60, other than ill?

Rescue Warriors, Citizenship, And Providing For The Common Defense

DSC 0133

On Thursday’s Diane Rehm Show, guest host Susan Page interviewed David Helvarg, author of the new book Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes.

This former Coastie found the interview fascinating for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, I was tickled to learn that I spent four years as a “rescue warrior,” although I don’t think I’ll try to drop that title into conversation the next time someone asks me I assume someone wants to hear about that time.

On a grimmer note, I was saddened to learn that-on September 11, 2001-two Coast Guard helicopters out of Massachusetts were preparing to attempt rescues from the roof of the World Trade Center’s North Tower when-according to Helvarg-they were advised that doing so would risk being shot down by Air Force fighters.

That was a chaotic day, and I understand why on-scene commanders would feel it necessary to close that airspace with extreme prejudice. What if they hadn’t done so, and another errant jetliner had plowed into the Empire State Building?

Still, given that a Coast Guard-organized boat lift ended up evacuating about 500,000 people from the south tip of Manhattan that day, I must say I’m prouder to be associated with the federal branch of service that was prepared to take effective action, instead of the branch of service that, we can see in retrospect, arguably increased the total death toll, if only by the handful of people that those helicopters might have been able to pull off of that roof.

Before anyone jumps on me for bashing the Air Force, I suggest they read this article detailing the utterly ineffectual response on 9/11 of the only military branch specifically tasked with protecting this country from an airborne threat. You’ll learn that, while planes were plowing into buildings up and down the east coast, the Air Force planes scrambled in response were racing out over the Atlantic Ocean, so little had their training prepared them for the concept of anything but inbound bombers from overseas. (Come to think of it, do we even need an Air Force anymore?)

Along these same lines, Elaine Scarry’s 2002 article in the Boston Review, “Citizenship in an Emergency,” is a must read. She makes the point that, when it comes right down to it, the only effective defense of the nation mounted on that terrible September day was the attempted re-taking of Flight 93 by a band of incredibly brave passengers, the mere thought of whom gives me chills to this day. Writes Scarry:

“When the plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania are looked at side by side, they reveal two different conceptions of national defense: one model is authoritarian, centralized, top down; the other, operating in a civil frame, is distributed and egalitarian. Should anything be inferred from the fact that the first form of defense failed and the second succeeded?”

Given this line of criticism, it’s especially disturbing that we continue to see the metastasis of the federal police state, military mission creep into civil defense and law enforcement, and the devolution of much of the electorate into a panicked “whatever it takes, just keep me safe” voting block, when there’s evidence to suggest that centralized authority doesn’t have much ability to actually keep us safe from very much at all.

That’s why I’m glad to hear this kind of thing (in a recent article in The Atlantic) from Craig Fugate, the newly appointed administrator of FEMA:

“We need to change behavior in this country,” [Fugate] told about 400 emergency-management instructors at a conference in June, lambasting the “government-centric” approach to disasters. He learned a perverse lesson in Florida: the more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster…. We tend to look at the public as a liability. [But] who is going to be the fastest responder when your house falls on your head? Your neighbor.”

I hope we can all internalize the only really usable lesson from 9/11: average citizens are capable of amazing things, even if armed with little more than cell phones and coffee pots full of boiling water.

If catastrophe strikes, have you given any thought to what you will do-after seeing to your family’s safety-to help your neighbors and your community during those crucial first 72 hours before centralized help is likely to arrive? How well do you know your neighbors? Who on your block will need what kind of help? What skills and tools do you have? What do you know how to do? Depending on the nature of the emergency, there may be a need for everything from strong backs to messengers to someone keeping tallies on an improvised chalkboard. It’s worth thinking about, and it’s worth talking to your neighbors about.

That said, I hope the chronically under-funded Coast Guard continues to get what it needs. If a catastrophe ever strikes in my vicinity, and representatives of the federal government arrive, I hope it will be in a helicopter painted international orange. (Hm, maybe I should move closer to a large body of water.)

How To Scramble the Perfect Egg

Growing up, I didn’t eat a lot of eggs. They were an occasional special meal on weekends, as I recall, but that was in the 1980s, when everyone thought that eating eggs on a regular basis was about as healthy as eating broken glass.

I remember first developing an appetite for eggs as a result of all of the “Early Riser” egg sandwiches I bought on meal exchange in Bard College’s coffee shop, after, well, rising too late for the dining-hall breakfast service. It was during a weekend home from school when my father saw me cooking myself eggs for a sandwich and remarked as to how he didn’t even know I particularly liked eggs. Well, I was starting to, and it was a romance that would only strengthen as time went on.

The eggs on those sandwiches were generally “over, hard” in kitchen parlance, a good way to ease into egg eating but one that didn’t remain all that appealing to me. Eventually, I became mostly a scrambled man.

I never put much thought into how I scrambled my eggs. I just beat them up in a bowl with a little milk, as a girlfriend taught me to do in my early 20s. Then I just poured them in a pan, usually greased with (shudder) Pam cooking spray, and stirred them around until they looked cooked enough to eat.

It turns out I had to move all the way to Montana to learn how to cook scrambled eggs, from Ari LeVaux, who writes the Flash in the Pan column for the local independent weekly paper. I enjoy reading Ari’s column even though I don’t really cook: he always has hints for (to me) exotic stuff like elk sausage, which I like reading about because it reminds me what a strange new place I live in. I have yet to attend a barbecue in Missoula where someone hasn’t broken out something they killed themselves, so it’s always a taste adventure, but also I have yet to shoot anything myself (well, other than some ponderosas with the bad luck to be standing behind my target), so Ari’s kind of cooking tends to be mostly a spectator sport for me.

So you can imagine my excitement when a recent column of Ari’s included a recipe for something I cook all the time, scrambled eggs. Says Ari:

“My favorite way to cook good eggs is the minimal scramble. Heat a medium-sized pan with 2 tablespoons olive oil and beat your desired quantity of eggs in a bowl with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, but before the oil starts to smoke, add your eggs. Watch them spread out flat and sputter. Wait 15 seconds, until the edges start to cook. Then stir it minimally with a spatula, just to make sure there’s no sticking. Wait 10 seconds and do it again. Then kill the heat, stir it one more time, and let the remaining pan heat finish the job.”

As someone whose scrambled eggs often remain on the heat for ten or more minutes, I was dubious, but after a couple of tries at Ari’s approach, I’ll never go back. The “minimal scramble,” as he calls it, results in scrambled eggs that are more like, I don’t know, cuisine, as opposed to simple filler food that gets whipped up out of habit. Ari’s eggs turn out a pale tannish-yellow color, look great on the plate, and taste fantastic. In the past, if we were having a brunch and I wanted to impress with something egg related, I always went with omelets. Now, I’m looking forward to laying some of these eggs on people.

Speaking of laying eggs, Ari’s whole point in recommending this method was in response to a reader’s question about the best way to enjoy the fresh eggs her backyard chickens lay. I have yet to try this method with fresh eggs, but a neighbor put a coop in this summer and the hens should be laying any day now, so I hope I’ll get the chance soon.

Here’s a charming video in which Ari demonstrates his method:

A Whopper And Whatever’s On Draft, Please

A recent New Yorker article (behind a pay wall, drat the luck) about the life, times, and uncertain fate of Governor’s Island offered this charming summary of the place’s history:

Benjamin Franklin’s nephew oversaw design of a fort. John Peter Zenger, the first American champion of freedom of the press, had, as a German immigrant, been quarantined here. Wilbur Wright took off and landed here for the first airplane flight over water in the U.S. The Smothers Brothers were born in the island’s hospital. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit in 1988 in the Admiral’s House. The Burger King was the only one in America that served beer.

Governor’s Island would be 150 acres of prime Manhattan real estate if it weren’t cut off from the tip of that larger island by a significant stretch of open water. From 1966 until 2003, it was used as a base by the U.S Coast Guard, an organization with which I have more than a passing familiarity.

The first time I ever heard of the island was in 1995, while I was at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey-in boot camp, in other words. We were nearing graduation, and I was sitting through a class on how to fill out our “wish lists,” the form on which we would tell the Coast Guard where we hoped to be stationed next.

The instructor drew our attention to a section of the form where we could enter the two places where-even if the Guard couldn’t give us one of our first choices-we absolutely didn’t want to be stationed.

“I’m not telling you what to put there,” he said, “but I always put the same two places: headquarters, and Governor’s Island.”

I followed his advice. As it turned out, I didn’t get sent to headquarters or to Governor’s Island, but neither did I get my first choice, one of the 400-foot icebreakers that cleared the Northern Passage each year and then took a slow southerly ride home, calling in ports from Tokyo to McMurdo Station. Instead, I ended up on a 378-footer out of Seattle, which took me south to Samoa and north to the Arctic Circle. Close enough, and I have no complaints now.

But what if I had lived for a couple of years on an island off the tip of Manhattan? I’ve always been fascinated by New York City-what a way that would have been to experience the Big Apple. I’ve fantasized about it from time to time: looking out my barracks window at the lights of the greatest city on earth, racing to catch the last ferry back on a Saturday night, watching the ships go by. Since it’s a place that’s always been a trigger for my imagination, I’m kind of glad to hear that its fate is still al little unsettled.