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Tech Q&A

Mark Svenvold

Describe your latest project.
I seem to be clawing my way down into complete loserdom. There was a time, recently, when I was on a book tour, playing on elevators and ordering room service. Now I'm proofreading advertising copy at a big ad agency in New York City. I'm clearly not cut out for this job and believe I will be fired any day. You have to be a born noticer of small details in ad copy, which I am not. My first day on the job, one of the staff introduced himself. He was wearing a kilt. I didn't notice the kilt. My mind is elsewhere, it seems, alas.

  1. Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America
    $2.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "What Tony Horwitz did for Confederate re-enactors, poet Svenvold does for storm chasers....[F]ascinating. Svenvold even makes the topic of catastrophe insurance engaging. At turns wacky, macho and whimsical. A literary version of Twister." Kirkus Reviews

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
His name was Mr. Gage, Dr. Gage — Ralph Gage — who taught English and Humanities at Hazen High School, which is in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. Okay, it's near Renton, Washington. Renton, the ass-end of things, in the local lexicon. Anyway, he had a big round, balding head, and he was full of beans. Every day he would taunt us and challenge us with preposterous statements designed to dislodge us from our complacency. He'd say things like, "Well, you know, Abraham Lincoln was a wife beater." It was great stuff to blurt out later, say, at the dinner table, to my parents, who voted for Nixon, twice. I had the most humiliating and the most triumphant experience of my high school career in his class. Most humiliating: a report on pre-Socratic philosophers, which didn't go very well. The report ended when I put my head down on my desk and began quietly sobbing. Most triumphant: an essay I wrote in answer to the question about the book Brave New World, "Discuss Mustapha Mond's conception of God." I worked on that for days. My mom made coffee for me at night — my first experience with coffee and writing — and on the morning it was due, she typed up the final draft before the school bus arrived. A week later, Dr. Gage read my essay aloud to the class. I fairly floated out the door. It was my very first public success as a writer. I more or less blame Mr. Gage for everything that's followed.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
I've never taken a Geek Test but I'm comfortable with what I know to be the geek within me, which is less a technophile than a guy enamored by stationary stores and the treasures within — clip boards, high-lighter pens, files, maps, three-hole punches, all the things that promise better living through desk organizers and accordion files. I tell my students to embrace the "geek within," and some of them actually get it. I missed the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series because I was in the Butler Library at Columbia University, at midnight. But I turned in the manuscript for Big Weather on time. That's pure, unadulterated geek power.

What do you do for relaxation?
I'll play my guitar, or play with my children, or — I know this will sound obnoxious — I'll go for a five mile run in Riverside Park, along the Hudson River, down to the 72nd Street Pier and back. Nothing spectacular: a steady, nine-minute-mile pace, a couple of small hills. Then I take a shower and a nap. Then the endorphins kick in, washing over me. Often, I feel like I'm floating. Very, very relaxing. I have to do the run to get that relaxed.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Douglas Adams, without question. It's not really a fair contest. That's like saying Mark Twain or P. J. O'Rourke.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Let's start with the place and period: I'd vote early 20th century, England or France, before the First World War, before the Titanic was sunk — so let's say 1910 or 1911, right when, according to Virginia Woolf, the modern world seemed to come into being. The Special Theory of Relativity is five years old; Freud is making his discoveries in the unconscious; Cubism is well under way; all the art and literary "isms" are percolating like mad. I'd vote to be Ezra Pound capering around London before the War — not the crazy, messed up, proto-Fascist Pound, but the young, dashing, brilliant, generous Pound. He wore a cape around town. As Yeats's personal secretary, Pound would revise the great poet's work, before sending them off in the mail. Imagine! Yeats was furious, at first, until he saw how Pound had improved them. Imagine arriving in a city like London and feeling in your bones that you could actually change the world. What an incredible time to be alive.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
I'd like a hand-held digital recorder/computer combination that could recognize any human voice and transcribe any interview I conducted into my computer. I know computers can recognize my voice. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about a computer that could recognize any human speaker of English and make accurate transcriptions. This would be a revolutionary step. Transcribing interviews is intensely laborious, tedious, dreadful.

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