News, culture, and politics. Not necessarily in that order.

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The Unbearable Lightness of the Kilogram, Universes Next Door, and the Occupy Movement

November 29th, 2011 · Books, Chicago, Culture, Essays, Fringe, Journalism, News, Performance, Politics, Science, The Economy, Stupid, TV, Writing

Context: This essay was written for, and performed in, the November 19, 2011 edition of The Paper Machete, a weekly showcase for Chicago journalists, comedians, and other writers, hosted by Christopher Piatt. I’m just getting around to posting it now because, well, my own universe is fairly chaotic and other deadlines prevailed. You are encouraged to mentally translate references to “this week” as “a week or so ago.”


For the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a shiny hunk of metal in the shape of a cylinder. This particular cylinder is made of platinum and iridium, and it’s kept under three different bell jars, locked away in a vault outside of Paris. It requires three different officials with three different keys to access it. Human hands are not allowed to touch it, except under special circumstances, on rare occasions.

It’s even known by a special name: Le Grand K. Or Le Grand Kah, if you want to be very French about it, and since we’re all grown-ups here I suppose we can.

What’s so special about this particular metal cylinder? According to an article in the October 2011 issue of Wired magazine, Le Grand K is currently one of the loadbearing support beams of the metric system. The kilogram by definition is equal to the weight of the international prototype, which is the majestic cylindrical beast known as Le Grand K.

Once a year, the officials with the three keys sneak a look at Le Grand K to make sure it’s safe and sound. And about every 40 years, Le Grand K is given a ceremonial weigh-in. Its weight is compared with that of a number of duplicate cylinders, including the ones used as the national standards for other countries, which have traveled all the way to France for the occasion. The cylinder for the US usually lives in an underground vault outside of Washington, D.C. Missing Paris in the springtime something fierce, no doubt.

So here’s the beautiful part: For no good reason that anybody understands, since the 1940s, as compared to the duplicate cylinders, Le Grand K has been mysteriously losing weight.

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Not Zero: The Fukushima Litotes

April 1st, 2011 · Blogs, Chicago, Climate Change, Culture, Energy, Environment, Essays, Fringe, Journalism, Language, Media, News, Nuclear Power, Performance, Politics, Science, Writing

Fukushima Podcast

A little context: The following piece was written to be performed in the March 26, 2011 edition of The Paper Machete, a weekly showcase for Chicago journalists, comedians, and other writers, hosted by Christopher Piatt.

The Paper Machete has posted the audio of the performance as a podcast. You can listen to it here:

The Paper Machete — Dave Awl: The Fukushima Litotes

The text is below for your reading pleasure. Or your reading epistemological discomfort, perhaps.

This essay also posted as a diary on Daily Kos.


I. Litotes


I suppose every historical disaster comes with it the opportunity to burn one or more memorable quotations into our collective mind. The Hindenburg gave us, “Oh, the humanity!” More recently, the Iraq War presented us with “Mission Accomplished,” Katrina introduced “Heckuva job, Brownie” into the national discourse, and even the BP oil disaster may forever remind us of CEO Tony Hayward’s plaintive “I’d like my life back.”

And Fukushima? The story of its aftermath is still being written, but there’s already one sentence that will be lodged in my brain, at least, for a while to come.

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Another Year

January 16th, 2011 · Culture, Film

Saw Mike Leigh’s new film Another Year last night. Like his previous film Happy-Go-Lucky, it’s a movie that kind of … sneaks up behind you and then clubs you over the head with insight.

For me, Mike Leigh’s best films become a kind of shorthand for key bits of understanding about the crazymaking challenges of being human. This one is in that category and will stick with me for a long time.

Roger Ebert’s review is spot-on.



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January Catsitting

January 10th, 2011 · Cats, Journal, Kiwi, Mr. Blue, Pets

I’ve been catsitting for my neighbor’s flock of five cats for the past few days: four Persians and one Maine Coon mix. Starting to dream about those sad-eyed, smashed-in faces, as I did the last time I was given the privilege of looking after them. They all look like they’ve been pondering the writings of Chuang-Tze for the past 1,000 years, with little breaks for hairballs and Fancy Feast.

My favorite is Nigel, the grey tabby, who when you scratch him under the chin, rewards you with a giant yawn and then his orange eyes fill with tears.

They all accept my presence except for Jordan, who stares at me balefully when I open the door and coo my hellos, and then sadly creeps away under the bed or the sofa, only occasionally poking his head out to ascertain whether the trespassing ape has gone away yet.

Lush, the orange one, doesn’t like to be touched but gives me little eye-squinches of acknowledgment, the feline tip of the cap.

Elliot, the Maine Coon mix, is friendly and inquisitive and follows my progress by leaping to the top of whatever surface is nearest to me, like Kiwi does at home. He’s blue-grey like Mr. Blue was, but with a giant leonine mane. Mane Coon. And bears a slight resemblance to Cocteau’s Bête, maybe. Something in the eyes.

Noah, white and voluminous as the imagined beard of his namesake, clambers into a large pot in the kitchen — apparently his favorite roost — and presents his upturned face so his own endlessly leaking eyes can be gently dabbed with a tissue. He makes soft croaking noses in his throat, which startled me at first because I thought they were a sort of hiss, but in fact they seem to signify pleasure.

By the way, I know the lists of group names for animals advise you to refer to a group of cats as a clowder or a cluster or a clan, among other things. But I think of these cats as a flock, possibly because of the slow soft gentle drifting way they move around the apartment.

All of them have something of the quality of owls as much as cats. If any of them let out a soft whoo instead of a meow I’m not sure I’d be surprised.

When I’m in their apartment, I definitely feel like a visitor in their world, which has its own customs and rules and perhaps its own magical laws. I try to be careful not to transgress.

And when I return to my own apartment, Kiwi looks strangely minimal and slender and round-eyed, and sniffs me over ferociously, wondering what I’ve been up to and who these others are, and whether he ought to allow these field trips to continue.


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The King’s Speech and The Writer’s Prayer

January 5th, 2011 · Books, Culture, Film, Fringe, Journal, Neo-Futurists, Performance, Poetry, Theater, Writing

I saw The King’s Speech a few nights ago, and I think it’s the film most relevant to my own experience that I’ve seen in a very long time.

The thing is, it’s not just a charming historical drama about royalty and speech therapy; it’s about people who allow their own anxieties and self-doubt to silence them, and what it takes to overcome that.

On that level, it spoke very powerfully to what I’ve been struggling with as a writer lately, especially for the last five years or so. Some of its images will stick with me for a long time, I think: particularly the scene where speech therapist Logue (Geoffrey Rush) gets the Duke of York (Colin Firth) to read a soliloquy from Hamlet beautifully by having him wear headphones playing music, so that he can’t be distracted by the sound of his own voice.

As a writer, I think I need to figure out how to put on those headphones for a while, to keep my awareness of my own voice from unnerving me.

Which reminded me of an old piece of mine called The Writer’s Prayer (performed in Too Much Light and included in What the Sea Means), about what writers need to tell themselves to overcome what Russell Hoban calls “blighter’s rock,” and get on with it.

I reproduce it here for whatever therapeutic effects that might have, and to let it out to play on the Inter-mo-net.

The Writer’s Prayer
© 1999 Dave Awl

I write these words knowing that no eye will ever read them and no ear will ever hear them. I write these words for no one but myself. These words will never be published, read aloud, disseminated, distributed, circulated or shown. These words are a secret between the ink that forms them and the paper on which they are written. I write these words from a place of utter security, knowing that what I say here need not impress or persuade, charm, amuse, uplift, comfort, move, or heal anyone anywhere, for no one but me will ever know they were written. They need rise to no standard of quality or art. These words serve no master but me, and convey no meaning but that which rests lightly on the surface of them, an ephemeral ripple moving vaguely across my consciousness. These words carry no responsibility and no agenda. They feel no pressure and honor no duty. These words will go into the wastes of time unregarded, unconsidered and unremembered. These words are free to be exactly and only what they are, what they were, what they will be; and then to evaporate, erasing themselves in their destined transcendence, returning to the original long word that contains all the other words, and from which they but briefly imagined themselves to be separated.


… and so mote it be.


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Some Nerve Showing Your Face Around These Parts

January 5th, 2011 · Meta

So yeah, it’s been a while. Cobwebs everywhere. Belly-up insects on the windowsills.

I’m going to make another run at integrating this blog into my daily Facebooking and Twittering activities, partly by simplifying the way I post here. I’ve cleaned up the oppressively elaborate tagging system I used to use — pretty much only top-level categories now, no more cascading hierarchies like “Kids in the Hall > Daryll > Little Oompah-Band References.” And I’m not going to spend hours every day digging up copyright-free images to lovingly tweak in Photoshop to produce illustrations.

So, no promises, but we shall see what it is that we see. If nothing else this ought to be a useful place to park chunks of text that are too long to post as status updates or tweets.

Also, I’m no longer clinging to the silly mid-00s illusion that I can be semi-anonymous by hiding behind a blog name. It’s the era of real names on the Internet, so the blog is still Ocelopotamus but I’m Dave Awl now, like anyone who bothered to click on the About link or read a few postings could figger out pretty quick.

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Music Break: The Bongos, “The Bulrushes”

March 4th, 2009 · Culture, Music, New Wave, Video

I still love this song to death after all these years — Richard Barone and the Bongos are definitely one of the most underappreciated bands of their era. Such a great, distinctive sound. Play this song three times and it will be stuck in your head for weeks.

Richard Barone on the video above:

The Bulrushes video is my favorite of the several we made. Instantly archival-looking, even new, it had the appearance of lost footage… like The Beatles at the Cavern Club. Besides the sense that Phil was documenting moments with the urgency of someone who knows they will never happen again – matching and complimenting our energy with his camerawork – the look and feel of this video was truly influential: Grainy, saturated Super-8 footage was simply not seen much in the early 80s, when the emphasis was on florescent colors, sharp edges, and and the false clarity of videotape.

And I love this quote:

I got more than one phone call from other bands asking how we got that Super-8 effect in our new video. “We used Super-8,” I would answer, in a tone that can only be described as… well… impish.

Moby is a big fan of this song, too, bless him, and even did a remake of it with Richard B, but I have to admit that I much prefer the original.


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I Entweet You

March 4th, 2009 · Blogs, Comedy, Culture, Facebook, Internet, Journal, Meta, Social Media/Social Networking, Tech

By-the-by … I am on Twitter these days, if you want to come tweet with me there.

I’m new enough to the Twitterverse that I’m still finding people I like to follow, but have been particularly enjoying Rainn Wilson and of course the current Grand Emperor of Tweetsylvania, Stephen Fry. Was also very excited to find Mike Scott of the Waterboys today.

Up until this week my Twitter feed has been mostly just a mirror of my Facebook status updates … but going forward I’ve decided to try mixing it up a little bit and issuing some Twitter-only tweets.

Also, I’m pretty sure you can read my Twitter page without joining Twitter or logging in. So there’s that.

Anyway, here I am if you want some of what’s in my beak:

Twitter / DaveAwl

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The Partly Dave Show: Please Mister Postman (at the Rhino Fest, Friday Feb. 20)

February 13th, 2009 · Chicago, Culture, Fringe, Journal, Music, Neo-Futurists, Performance, The Partly Dave Show, Theater

Partly Dave logoSo, here’s some of that “other news” I mentioned in my previous post: Partly Dave is back!

Oh, yes, you read that right, Mabel. The Partly Dave Show has been unpacked from its wooden chest, mothballs brushed away, and is ready to flatter your figure again just like the old days — and it’s happening in just one short week, on Friday February 20th!

Partly Dave’s triumphant return (our first show since 2007!) takes place at the Viaduct Theater as part of this year’s Rhinoceros Theater Festival.

The theme for this edition is “Please Mister Postman”: an evening of pieces about letters, mail, and the post office! Both of my scintillating co-hosts, Christopher Piatt and Diana Slickman, are on board, and our super-special guests include Scott Hermes (of the Neo-Futurists and the legendary Cardiff Giant) and Dan Godston (poet, trumpeter, and curator of the Chicago Calling Arts Festival).

And we have the privilege of presenting the debut of a hot new band as our musical guests this time out! For those of you who remember Analog Radio from the “Way of the Worrier” edition back in 2004 — well, Dann Morr from Analog Radio is in a brand-new outfit called Wells-next-the-Sea, featuring (I’m told) boys, girls, flutes, fiddles, and I don’t know what all kind of mayhem. This is gonna be good!

Hear are all the specs in handy at-a-glance form:

The Partly Dave Show: Please Mister Postman

Hosted by Dave Awl,
with co-hosts Christopher Piatt
and Diana Slickman

Guest performances by:
Dan Godston
Scott Hermes

And live music by:

Friday, February 20, 2009, at 9:30pm
as part of the Rhinoceros Theater Festival 2009
at the Viaduct Theater
3111 N. Western Avenue
Chicago, IL

Tickets: $12 or “pay what you can”
All reservations are handled through the
Viaduct Theatre box office at (773) 296-6024.

More info:

Oh … and check out the shiny new Facebook page for the Partly Dave Show!
Click through to “become a fan,” as they say over there!

And thanks to Chicago Stage Review for the mention!

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Um, Hello There (or: Oops, I Wrote a Book!)

February 7th, 2009 · Books, Culture, Facebook, Facebook Me!, Journal, Meta, Tech

Facebook Me! coverSo, yeah. No beating around the bush. I kind of disappeared from this little corner of Lower East Blogistan for about four months.

What happened is that I was writing a book.

Yes, it’s a book about Facebook. A Facebookbook.

See, for the last nine years I’ve been freelancing for Peachpit Press as a tech writer and/or editor on various book projects. Last year when I started spending all my time on Facebook, and then started helping friends figure out how to use it, I idly asked my editor if Peachpit would be interested in a proposal for a book about Facebook — never really dreaming they’d take me up on it.

Well, they called my bluff, and I spent the second half of last year working on the thing.

And now it’s at the printer and about to hit the shelves. The official release date is February 22. (Sweet tea biscuits! That’s soon!)

It’s called Facebook Me! A Guide to Having Fun with Your Friends and Promoting Your Projects on Facebook. It’s one third a how-to manual, one third an etiquette guide, and one third a manifesto for using Facebook to promote bands, theater companies, comedy groups, craft shows, films, zines, little graphic design companies, and whatever other creative projects you might want to spread the word about. (Plus, there’s a whole bonus fourth third of it that’s just pure fun, baked right into the crust!)

The specs:

Facebook Me! A Guide to Having Fun with Your Friends and Promoting Your Projects on Facebook.
Paperback: 216 pages
Author: Dave Awl
Publisher: Peachpit Press (February 22, 2009)
ISBN-10: 032159195X
ISBN-13: 978-0321591951

And look at this splendiferous back-cover blurb I got from Ms. East Village Inky herself:

“No better Virgil than Dave Awl when it comes to orienting the uninitiated to this strange and many-circled world of Facebook.”
—Ayun Halliday, author of No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late

If you’re itching to get your hands on a copy ASAP — and how could you not be? —
you can pre-order the book from Amazon.

(I also have it on good authority that Unabridged Bookstore here in Chicago will have the book in stock, along with plenty of other booksellers here, there, and everywhere across this great land of ours.)

Oh, and there’s an official Facebook Me! group on Facebook you can join for news and updates about the book.

So, that’s why things got so eerily quiet around here. Once I got started on the writing, I pretty much had to kick everything else in my life to the curb for a while — including poor, neglected Ocelopotamus here.

Now that the book is in the can, I’m hoping to start pumping fluids into the Ocelopotamus and see if I can bring it back to life.

I have some other news to post, soon, too. So if anyone’s listening — stay tuned.

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So If You Have a Mouth — And I Know You Do …

September 24th, 2008 · Advertising, Culture, Video

Regardez, my favorite TV ad from the 80s. Despite being an inveterate commercial hater, I had this one memorized in high school and would break into an impression of it at parties, on the school bus, when things got slow in Latin class, anywhere.

I’m not sure why I loved it so much except that it was possibly the gayest thing I ever saw on broadcast TV in the early 1980s — with the obvious exceptions of Brideshead Revisited and Hollywood Squares.

Hee hee!

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McCain’s “Maverick” Image: Pining for the Fjords?

September 16th, 2008 · Journalism, Media, News

Wow. This new Washington Post column by Richard Cohen is a scathing indictment from a journalist who admits he was previously “in the tank” for McCain.

There seems to be a mass rebellion starting in the media among pundits and reporters who are realizing that McCain is no longer the principled maverick they’ve been worshiping all these years, but has completely and utterly sold out in his quest for the presidency.

If “McCain has betrayed his principles” becomes the new CW in the media, that could sink him as surely as the “exaggerator” meme killed Gore in 2000. I’m tempted to pull quotes from this, but just read it.

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Walking Off the Girder

September 15th, 2008 · News, Politics, The Economy, Stupid

Oh, for Pete’s sake. Even in the midst of all the turmoil on Wall Street, as of this morning John McCain still thinks “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

Um, Senator? Mr. Magoo called — he wants his myopia back.

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Horsefeathers and Rattlesnakes

September 13th, 2008 · Journalism, Media, News, Politics

It’s amazing, but suddenly the press seems to be showing distinct signs of calling out the McCain campaign on its recent and continuing orgy of horsefeathers and very bad judgment.

Via this diary on Daily Kos, for starters we have yesterday’s scathing editorial in the NYT:

As we watched Sarah Palin on TV the last couple of days, we kept wondering what on earth John McCain was thinking.

If he seriously thought this first-term governor — with less than two years in office — was qualified to be president, if necessary, at such a dangerous time, it raises profound questions about his judgment. If the choice was, as we suspect, a tactical move, then it was shockingly irresponsible.

The merciless drubbing continues (boldface mine):

The idea that Americans want leaders who have none of those things — who are so blindly certain of what Ms. Palin calls “the mission” that they won’t even pause for reflection — shows a contempt for voters and raises frightening questions about how Mr. McCain and Ms. Palin plan to run this country.

One of the many bizarre moments in the questioning by ABC News’s Charles Gibson was when Ms. Palin, the governor of Alaska, excused her lack of international experience by sneering that Americans don’t want “somebody’s big fat résumé maybe that shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment where, yes, they’ve had opportunities to meet heads of state.”

We know we were all supposed to think of Joe Biden. But it sure sounded like a good description of Mr. McCain. Those decades of experience earned the Arizona senator the admiration of people in both parties. They are why he was our preferred candidate in the Republican primaries.

… and then there’s this:

Ms. Palin talked repeatedly about never blinking. When Mr. McCain asked her to run for vice president? “You have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission,” she said, that “you can’t blink.”

Fighting terrorism? “We must do whatever it takes, and we must not blink, Charlie, in making those tough decisions of where we go and even who we target.”

Yes, Gov. Palin seems to believe that the most important element of great foreign policy is that one never blinks. But you know who else doesn’t believe in blinking? Reptiles. Reptiles don’t tend to blink very much. And yet, I’m not sure I’d want an alligator or a rattlesnake, with or without lipstick, occupying the Oval Office.

But it’s not just the NYT. Scot Lehigh in the Boston Globe started out yesterday’s column this way:

HERE’S THE QUESTION voters should be asking themselves this week: Just how stupid does the McCain-Palin campaign think I am?

The answer: Dumb enough to hoodwink with charges so contrived and cynical they make your teeth ache.

And after methodically dispatching the McCain campaign’s various strawmen and red herrings, Lehigh concludes:

Voters, meanwhile, should be insulted that the McCain campaign is trying to peddle them this kind of transparent trumpery.

For pete’s sake, even the AP is telling it like it is today (boldface mine yet again):

McCain stood by two of his campaign commercials — one which said Obama favored comprehensive sex education for kindergarten students and another that suggested Obama had called Palin a pig. Both are misleading and factually inaccurate.

Back in the NYT, Bob Herbert writes:

While watching the Sarah Palin interview with Charlie Gibson Thursday night, and the coverage of the Palin phenomenon in general, I’ve gotten the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail.

How is it that this woman could have been selected to be the vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket? How is it that so much of the mainstream media has dropped all pretense of seriousness to hop aboard the bandwagon and go along for the giddy ride?

For those who haven’t noticed, we’re electing a president and vice president, not selecting a winner on “American Idol.”

… and Dick Cavett turns in a sharply worded dressing down that’s a pure pleasure to read:

Every time I nostalgically try to regain my liking of John McCain, he reaches into his sleaze bag and pulls out something malodorous.

If there were a prize cake available, McCain’s lowbrow ad attempting to paint Obama as a virtual pornographer and peddler of sex to kindergarteners would take that pastry. Plate and all.

And it might be, if not instructive, at least fun to give McCain’s trash-peddling Karl Rove acolytes some truth serum and ask them if — in their heart of hearts — they really think Obama meant to call our Sarah a pig.

To believe that, wouldn’t you have to be at least as dumb as Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland? The man who used the word “uppity” about Obama?

Westmoreland, a living embodiment of that stock cartoonist’s character the Good Old Boy southern senator — complete with slouch, beer gut and eyes over his bags — courageously claimed ignorance of any racism in that favorite term of those who murdered Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. Anything involving Westmoreland and ignorance is unlikely to be disputed.

I find myself feeling uncharacteristically encouraged after reading all this. Is it possible that this time around, the truth will actually get its boots on in time to catch up with the swiftboat armada of the right? Or is this all just some kind of massive head-fake, a last pretense of even-handedness before the press spends the final month of the campaign swallowing everything the McCain campaign shovels out like a boa constrictor devouring a (purely rhetorical) pig?

Stay tuned.

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