Sunday, November 16, 2008

We Can Come Out Now

Good news for the thrifty--the New York Times Fashion Section says we're in.

One of the hardest things about moving to New York has been dealing with the constant obsession with fashion. There's not a single manicured, blown-dry, well-heeled, label-wearing maven who won't deny it, but that's only because it's so endemic here.

I made a decision before I moved here to live below my means. I left a job, a home, and a community that I loved to come to New York. But I wanted to live in a place where I could make a salary that was commensurate with my skills, and a place where I might eventually meet someone who wanted to date me.* Because I wanted to make the loss of a good job and community count, I resolved to max out my 401k and save for a home and a car, should I need to relocate.

I worked with some women who were real keeping-up-with-the-Joneses types. But there were a few budget-conscious people around, too. And thank goodness for my building, where women were careful with their money, and where I never had to worry about anyone looking down on my handbag or my shoes.

If anything good is going to come out of the bad economy, I hope it's a long hard look at conspicuous consumption. It encourages everyone to buy things their income doesn't support (so-and-so can afford it, and she doesn't make more than I do--I must deserve it, too), and I have a big problem with that. I had a problem with it before it was cool. I've lost friends over it in the past, and I'm sure that'll still happen. But the fact is that I'm happier living below my means than above them, and as the nation suffers the consequences of millions of people doing the opposite, it's hard for me to believe we wouldn't all have been a little happier if conspicuous consumption had been outed as stupid and reckless ten years ago.

What will probably happen is that the conspicuous consumption will go underground--there'll probably be a surge in purchases of $500 underwear. And as soon as stock goes up, people will be back to buying massive houses and filling them with crap they can't afford. For now I'm just happy that for the next month or two I'm not going to get as many haughty looks for my Sears jeans or my 2001 Chuck Taylors.

*This does occasionally happen in New York. Sometimes, the feeling is even mutual.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Not Just Any Thought....

I first saw Russell Brand on Graham Norton's show, and was delighted to discover that he had a podcast, which makes me laugh out loud (because I'm not funny enough just walking around in my lime green shoes in the morning--it's also important to be laughing at something my earbuds told me, to achieve total dork chic). Apparently he caused a bit of a stir at the MTV awards (more than could be said for Britney Spears), but I haven't actually seen that. I did see him on the Secret Policeman's Ball benefit for Amnesty International, where he and Eddie Izzard gave the funniest performances. I like this bit:

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Made It!

I made it to my 60 miles the week before last, and this week I made it to 50 miles, which was my goal. Unfortunately this weekend I have been a huge slacker, but I think I had that coming--I'll pick up a few miles tonight and work on making it back up to 50 over the course of the week. (Our competition weeks have been running Friday to Friday.) It's just really hard to do the miles on the weekend because a) I don't have my friend to go to the park with, b) I don't walk to and from work, which gets me about 4 miles right there, and c) I really, really enjoy sitting on my ass on the sofa with a good book or a movie, especially over a 3-day weekend.

But I have now lost count of the number of days that the scale has consistently said I am not overweight according to my body mass index, which is very exciting. I'm not real obsessed with the weight side of things (I can't afford to get obsessed, because I did that once and it sucked). I'd just like to get moving enough to maintain my weight and make sure my pants fit, and to find a form of activity that's sustainable for me.

I like the walking, and it saves me a fair amount of cash ($2 each way on the subway, which is a minimum of $20 a week assuming I don't go anywhere other than to and from work). Of course, I'm not counting the new absurdly expensive shoes that I bought myself as a reward for walking 400 miles. I was saving them for a 500 mile reward (since some people recommend that you change your shoes after 500 miles) but my foot pain was feeling very arch-support related, and has gone completely since I started wearing the new shoes. I can safely say, however, that the number of times I haven't taken the subway during this competition has more than paid for my new shoes, so that's fair.

I also feel pretty fit--I can walk all over Manhattan with my suitcase packed for a weekend. It's not pleasant and I feel sweaty, but I don't feel like I might die. I can run up the steps in the subway (on the days when it is pouring rain and I'm not prepared). I'm pretty sure I can keep up with most of the normal people in the city. And here's a major one--hills do not seem to bother me more than they bother other people. For years every time I had to climb a flight of stairs or a hill, I secretly thought that I was going to die of a massive heart attack. Now I feel the same discomfort as a normal person, which is a very nice feeling.

Maybe in a few more weeks I'll be bold enough to make the appointment with the cardiologist that I've been putting off for well over a year now....

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I Do Not Know How Shifter Does It

I know that most runners top this number every week, but I'm shooting for walking 60 miles this week, and my feet are killing me. Perhaps I should explain.

At work, we've had this walking competition going on for a couple of months now. Everyone got a pedometer (which many of us promptly lost and had to replace) and we all count how many miles we've walked each week. There are prizes for the team with the highest total and I think for the most improved individual walker, etc. My team is pretty good, but there is no chance that we will win, because none of us are accountants.

I don't know whether you've worked with accountants. They seem perfectly normal, but the second you mention a competition of any kind, they're consumed with the desire to win. Maybe it's because accounting draws in people who are ever so slightly OCD. Maybe it's because winning is just an extension of their natural desire to quantify things. I honestly just get the hell out of their way when there's a contest, because they get quite cutthroat.

Still, I joined the competition with the certainty that although I would not win or even place, I would enjoy it. I did a walking tour earlier this year for my vacation, and it was fantastic. Besides, I need the exercise. I had been logging 25 to 35 miles a week, which I thought was pretty awesome. Then I had a couple of pedometer accidents--I left the first one on a plane (it fell off and I didn't notice until the plane was on its way somewhere else) and the second one was a slacker (as I see it, if I can take the steps, it had better count them). On the advice of a coworker, I started looking at Omron pedometers, and now I have a new favorite gadget.

This pedometer has software that gives you feedback on your performance--how many minutes of aerobic activity you've logged, how many calories you've burned, as well as the obvious numbers of miles and steps. It rates your performance against goals you set, a lot like the habit tracker on Everyday Systems or Joe's Goals. The best thing is that it just hooks to your computer with a mini USB, so you don't have to do much to get the feedback, and then it presents you with color coded ratings. I'm a sucker for a frowny face/smiley face system.

I set my goal as 7 miles a day, because this is just a little more than I walk on a good day, and why shouldn't they all be good days? Then I went on a five mile walk on Saturday, followed by a trip to the zoo, for a total of 12.5 miles. Yesterday I figured out that with barely any effort (I just have to do 8 miles either today or tomorrow, and meet my 7 mile goal the rest of the time) I could get to 60 miles this week. I'm really excited about the idea, but my blisters, toenails, and arches disagree vehemently. I realize that runners may have better shoes than I do, but other than that, how on earth do they get past these issues enough to keep running? I know many runners have nasty feet, but there must be some trick to getting past the pain.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mmmmm, Shiny Apple

In a footnote that will surely not matter to most people, but that pisses me off to no end, the Apple backdated options case settled today, with the general counsel who allegedly falsified documents to defraud shareholders paying $2.2M--the $1.6M she made from her share of the backdated options ("Give it back....give!") and a flimsy $200,000 slap on the wrist.

Personally, I think it ought to be Jobs paying money--he's the CEO, and he signed the papers. The whole point of SOX and all that strident fuss over Enron is that the CEO should bear some actual responsibility to go with all the loot he (or she) gets when things go right. Instead, they offered up a scapegoat in the form of this arguably sleazy lawyer, who says she's now going to spend the rest of her life "addressing the greater challenges of social justice and economic disparity" (good thinking--that means you're a good person). I'm honestly not even prepared to condemn her--if she were an Enron villain, they wouldn't have given her such a sweet deal, and in her parting speech she's far from ashamed, which either makes her brazen, stupid, or innocent. Why quibble?

And the fact that the entire company hasn't come tumbling down like a house of cards probably means that this options thing isn't indicative of genuinely widespread and deliberate malfeasance at Apple. But I'll say it again, the fact that Jobs won't even man up for a serious discussion about anything except for how awesome he is doesn't say a lot for the respect he has for the people who pay his bills.

Apple shareholders deserve a lot better than this, but honestly, they probably don't care. And truly, America doesn't care. We just want his damn iPhone so bad that we're willing to allow him to take our money to Vegas, if that's what he wants. I heard an interview on the radio a few weeks ago that said that although right after Enron, everyone was all het up about how companies shouldn't be allowed to give employees a pension built entirely on company stock, no legislation has been passed and the practice continues. Apparently we can't be bothered to see anything through if it's not front page news.

We deserve companies that care about the shareholder. (Yes, Virginia, they do exist. I worked for one--I'm not saying executives wept bitter tears for the shareholder when their stock went down, but return on shareholder investment was a priority that every finance employee was aware of, something not true at every publicly-traded company.) We deserve companies that strive for open, honest, and transparent accounting that doesn't require a team of spelunkers and a ball of string to understand. We deserve companies that make money in spite of being decent, honest, and hardworking. But all we got was this iPhone.

Mmmmmm, shiny.

Bad Relationships

Okay, I admit, I've been going to bed at nine or ten this week in an effort to keep up with my neighbor and her dog, who go walking in the park every morning at 5:30 (good relationship). There was a time when the lure of a new episode of Project Runway would have kept me awake until 11 at least, but that time was at least two seasons ago. This season has been a crashing bore, and just as I was coming to terms with the fact that I might have to dump PR, the coming attractions for next week sucked me back in, just like that man you almost dumped saying he's sorry and buying you flowers.

Because there, in glorious viking gear, metal tits and all, was Chris from last season announcing that next week's challenge is to outfit your very own drag queen.

Hey, sometimes even a bad relationship has one more good left night in it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Where the Bear Stearns Trouble Really Started

My company shares a building with Bear Stearns. Mostly, that's been super (they have a swell cafeteria). Lately it's been sort of sad, as you ride up in the elevator with people who are asking each other, "Have you found anything? Do they have anything else?" And I felt bad for them, because they seemed like nice people.

Then, last Thursday, inexplicably, they all started behaving like total morons. Our company is at the top of the elevator shaft (there's a second bank of elevators that goes to the top of the building). Logically, you would expect any elevator that comes to our floor to contain either exiting passengers or the occasional person who missed his floor due to blackberry abuse.

Last Thursday, every single elevator that came to our floor was full of Bear Stearns employees. They were all riding the elevator up in an attempt to exit the building. We waited through four elevators and then I finally took the stairs--I should know where they are anyway, in case of an emergency.

And as I walked home thinking about what rude people they were, I realized--they're not rude. They just don't know up from down.

Friday, August 01, 2008

1975 IBM Slides

I had a favorite English professor once who got upset with people who wanted to boil a poem (or whatever we were reading) down to a message. He would insist that the medium was important, and that it was part of what excites us about literature. "If he'd wanted to write a message he would have written a message. He wrote a novel. If you want a message, that's like asking why the ballet dancer doesn't just walk across the stage--she'd get there a lot faster."

You would think that in business communication, you'd pretty much want to walk across the stage. In certain cases, you'd want to walk in a way that made people want to follow you, or make people remember that you walked, but ultimately, the medium shouldn't be the message--it should be effective, efficient, and virtually invisible.

Unfortunately, every tool we're given for business communication is a double-edged sword (on account of the humans, no doubt--pesky bastards). We get so many e-mails every day that Merlin Mann can inspire people with Inbox Zero. We get spreadsheets of breathtaking scope that are linked in so many places that it takes an Excel guru just to figure out whether the spreadsheet speaks the truth. (Spreadsheets lie more often than you might think--and not always because the person who created them wants them to.) And above all, we get information of every size, shape, and import wedged into the all-powerful Power Point presentation.

Although I use Power Point every day and see it as tremendously useful, I do think it can be a crutch that encourages terrible, terrible habits (I love to be read to, but I can read your slide--honest). I also think that most office culture cripples people who want to cultivate good Power Point habits. I'm regularly forced by management to revise my Power Points because they have to be useful to people who won't see my presentation.

I would argue that what you want in that case is maybe a word document or a website with some illustrations--something that would be updated at crucial moments rather than being passed down like a sacred artifact that eventually loses its context, integrity, and relevance, but no. The general rule of presentations in the workplace is that the speaker should be completely irrelevant, so that the presentation may be preserved for posterity and used to train, lead, or inform people after you've been laid off. It can then also be read by managers who won't bother to show up for the presentation they've asked you to give. I'd like to see a culture in which people who respect you show up for your presentation and people who don't just don't get the information, but unfortunately, Ms. Dobbs doesn't run American business (more's the pity).

So this week, while I was slaving away at such a presentation that would undoubtedly be stolen, printed, hidden in someone's cube, and unearthed years later when our entire enterprise landscape will (God willing) have changed so much that it won't be accurate or relevant--at which point someone will attempt to apply it to their daily job--I came across this wacky time capsule. The truly striking thing is that every slide is not covered with thousands of words in microscopic font. And yet, I'm not sure I'd relish a workplace where this is the sort of thing I was expected to create. I guess it proves that it's not the tools--it's us.

Courtesy of Big Contrarian, whose blog I discovered thanks to Merlin Mann.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Procrastination as Art

I have a giant tray of change near the front door. It lives there quietly accumulating coins, and every once in a while I dump it into a plastic bag and start trying to find a way to divest myself of it. One week I took 99 cents at a time to the bagel shop downstairs every day. I was feeling pretty good about it until I realized that a) the cashiers in the bagel shop dreaded my appearance, and b) the coins were not disappearing fast enough.

Another time, back in Arizona, I took the coins to a Coinstar machine which said it would give me an Amazon gift certificate without taking a percentage of my cash. But it lied--the machine was equipped to provide an Amazon gift certificate, but did not have any of the actual certificates (a feeble excuse, since there is no physical place to give Amazon the gift certificate and therefore all it needs to do is print the gift certificate code on, say, a strip of adding machine tape) so it gave me cash and took a fee for counting my change (which it wasn't supposed to do if you took the gift certificate). Oh, Coinstar machine, you traitor.

Lately, I've been considering something like this:

But that seems a little active. Really, when it comes right down to it, I'm pretty lazy. So I thought to myself, what if I got a larger receptacle for my change? And what if it were disguised in some way? Which is how I found this, and this, and this:

(Freakish and scary and unwelcome in my home, but still weirdly fascinating.)

Just in time, before threw good money after bad by purchasing an expensive bank or a pair of cargo pants and a belt, I discovered that the bank around the corner will sort my change and give me bills without taking a percentage. Whew! Still, that Tamagotchi thing looks like fun--I'm hoping Target will carry a cheap knock-off, because an $80 bank is sort of an oxymoron.

New Heights of Stupidity

The audio commentary is funny on several counts. Note that Mr. Cunningham appears to have been transported here from another planet, where heels are news. But note also the tact when he says that he got to Greenwich Village, and "there was a [slight hesitation] person, I think probably a [watch your brain do calculations at a million miles a second here to see what noun is coming] performance artist...." Nicely done, Bill. Well played.

But really, this is the sort of thing that New York is obsessed with. This just in, women wear heels no matter how stupid they look or how hard they are to walk in! Also, women suffer for fashion. Quick, alert the media! Oh, wait, you already did.

On the bright side, this is really what you get in New York. A thousand rare birds that could never survive in the wild all fluttering around in their special artificial environment being fabulous in whatever way takes their fancy. It gets wearing occasionally when the ways that take their fancy are so frequently gut-wrenchingly expensive (it's no accident that Carrie Bradshaw has shoes and no down payment--if Darren Star were into cinema verite, she would also have bunions), but it is sort of spectacular, nonetheless.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Speaking of Kevin Smith

Above is a link to an episode of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" in which Kevin Smith knows way too much about what makes a turkey excited. It's from 2007, so if you were thinking that he already knew more than he should, you've probably already heard it. The Kevin Smith bit starts a little more than a third of the way into it.

Next Running Thought

First, a big "HIYA" to Katy who rejoins us here at T&S - Yay! I'd say Woot but I never really got the trick of doing that without feeling like an idiot down. When I do it it's a self-conscious "Woot" - kind of like a 50 year old talking about something being "da bomb" if you know what I mean.

Next, on to the running report! Brought to you by Linux, the best tasting operating system out there!

Yesterday was a 13.1 mile run, mostly because I just got back from vacation the day before and didn't feel like getting up at 4am for an earlier and longer run. It was warm, but it was MUGGY, which sucks. If you haven't run in lots of humidity, well, you're a very lucky person. I, in particular, do poorly in hot, humid conditions. Nobody does well in them, but some of us suffer more than others. I suffer most. I mean if everyone else loses half an hour on their time because it's just that hot and muggy, I'll lost an hour. If everyone else loses an hour, I'm probably lying dead in a ditch somewhere along the course. It's probably because I have the sweat glands of four normal men, and the body hair of five. And if that makes you think you don't want to give me a hug after a long run, you're right on track! But that's not what I was going to tell you about.

As I was running, I had another Deep Thought. And here it is! I was doing some self analysis, cause what else are you going to do when you're running for 2 hours by yourself, and I was thinking about how I tend to tell everyone how poorly I adhere to running wisdom. For example, my refusal to eat rutabagas and acorns, my preference for double flame thrower burgers, the fact that I stretch only after runs, and not for very long, and on and on and on. And I was trying to figure out why it is I do this. And my first thought was that it's kind of a safety net for my ego. It goes like this - let's say that I run a race and I do terribly, and 80 year old grandmothers are passing me and laughing all the way. I can always say "yeah, well if I was eating the acorns like you I could do that too!" So instead of just deciding that I suck I can say no, no, it's just that I'm not trying all the way. Another very real reason is that I'm lazy - some of the stuff you're supposed to do in training is hard and I just don't want to add 40 miles of biking to my weekly running routine. But as I ran, and sweated, and ran, another thought occurred to me. The real reason I don't do these things.


As an adolescent I always wanted to be an iconoclast, someone who did not go with the flow. Most of us did that, I'm sure. I had the pseudo-long hair, the heavy metal t shirts, and so on. I dabbled in this experience and that thing and even got "arrested" once, which was cool at the time. Long story.

Well, you would think that over time that streak would kind of die out. As I get older, you might expect that the heavy metal t shirts would be put in the closet, then a box, then the trash, and the hair would first be cut short and then fall out. And indeed, these things have happened. But, there's still some streak of wild and crazy guyness left in me. And here it is! I don't eat acorns! I won't touch a rutabaga, and I don't do ice baths! Woot! I'm sticking it to the man! I never bought a heart rate monitor and maybe I never will! I rock! Some days, in the summer, I run indoors even if it's not raining! Carpe Diem, baby. When I tell people I don't do these things, what I'm really saying is, "I have something to say! It's better to burn out than fade away!" You can just hear the Def Leppard riff int he background.

So if you see me on the way to the school parent's night with my 2 children in our minivan driving from our house in the suburbs after I get off work at my 9 to 5 job in my tie, just remember, I'm a loner, a rebel, and anywhere I roam, where I lay my head is home (yea yea).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Of Heroes and Duds

I first became aware of A. O. Scott when Roger Ebert went into the hospital again for his cancer, and Roeper started shopping around for a new co-host. No offense to Roeper, but I think the best show would feature Scott and Kevin Smith. (I'm sorry. There's nothing wrong with Roeper, but I just never warmed to him. I miss Gene too much.) I loved Scott even though he seemed far too well-spoken to be a natural in front of a camera--as on-camera failings go, it's a hell of a lot better than any of mine--and I found him easy to listen to. I subscribe to his Tivocasts and read his reviews, and I really enjoy them.

This weekend finds a quick little ditty by Scott on the state of superheroes in film, and his assertion is that The Dark Knight represents a peak, to be followed by a decline, mostly because the genre has rules (that whole Good and Evil thang) that make the films a little samey.

I'm no comic book expert, but it seems to me that this represents an opening to look at some heroes who aren't household names. What of it, people? Are there no Dark Horse-type comics (or heroes even more off the beaten path) who could really give the genre a good shake-up? Don't you think the time is right for a "hero" who makes Batman look a little unambiguous and sunny? Someone who makes Hancock look like Annie doing her final chorus of "Tomorrow?"

Attack of the Dinglefrapps*

I know you're probably not a freelancer, but even if you're not, this is pretty sound (and extremely funny) advice for anyone trying to get their spending under control. Plus anyone who can write about budgeting and incorporate the sentence, "The future is here, and it has a Huge Unrealistic Goal squatting in the middle of it" deserves to be read.

*The word "budget" makes people uncomfortable, so in the great tradition of English speakers everywhere, Rogue Ink has decided that a budget shall be a dinglefrapp and that budgeting will be dinglefrapping. Dude, how could you not click that link immediately?

Why are you still here? You must click the link.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is it still 1960?

On the advice of TV junkies I admire, I decided to Tivo the Season 1 marathon of Mad Men on AMC. It's definitely sharply written, and the art direction, like that on Friday Night Lights, is probably raising the bar--not only for television, but for film as well.

Traveling back to 1960 is disturbing, but I think the toughest thing for me was the shift in my perspective that happened around episode 5. For the first few episodes I was thinking 1960 was alien--it was like watching the moon landing or a travel program about somewhere else I've never been. "Look at that apron. Look at that alarm clock. Look at the women doing their hair so they can make dinner for their husbands."

But after a few episodes 1960 started to seem familiar in a very unsettling way. The more things change, the more they stay the same. These women live in a world of unrelenting chauvinism. There's not a single married couple that doesn't seem to feel like strangers at least part of the time. There are catty women who are twice as dangerous as the men who swagger around feeling entitled to whatever they want. Here and there a character struggles feebly to escape, but often the struggle fails before the third act. At first these things were as quaint as the kitchen curtains, but the more I watch, I can't help but wonder whether we've just driven these things a little further underground.

As Coward said, "Rocks are infinitely more dangerous when they are submerged, and the sluggish waves of false sentiment and hypocrisy have been washing over reality far too long already in the art of this country." Maybe our art is finally learning its lesson, even if our reality is changing less than we'd like to admit.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I'm back!

I'm really, really tired and really not all that coherent, but I have a computer that will access the internet and that isn't supervised by the Almighty Layoff Gods who wander, snarling, around my office. Not that I'm planning to avail myself of that much tonight, but I just thought I'd say that I've missed the blog, and thanks to Shifter for keeping the light on for me while I had my prolonged luddite phase. I will post, soon. But first, sleep, for it has been a long and arduous day of fighting with Dell and the Worst Delivery Service Ever, Which Should Be Banned Forever From Residential Brooklyn (I speak, of course, of DHL). (I know DHL was only protecting me, but not for nothing, I'm a little tired of people and organizations deciding what's best for me. Thank God my upstairs neighbor is a hot little 30-something charmer, that's all I have to say.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

I gotta get me one of these!

Snarfing this post from Dubious Quality (one of the only blogs I read regularly, yes I know that's weird). It's a story about an unbreakable umbrella. They advertise this for self defense - I'm just thinking it may be able to stand up to having 2 kids below age 8 without being destroyed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Another running thought

Short run today, just 6.2 miles, so short thought.

A few years back I had this running calender where I logged my miles and it had these little inspirational quotes in it to keep me from giving up on running or sawing my own leg off, or any other running related psychotic break. Well one of my favorites was this one...

"The first 20 or 30 minutes are your gift for your body, and the next 20 or 30 minutes are your gift for yourself."

And it had an explanation which I will now provide.

The first 20 or 30 minutes are the most beneficial in terms of cardiovascular health. After 20 or 30 minutes you reach a point of diminishing returns in terms of the good you do for your cardio - I wouldn't say a point of NO returns, because I truly believe someone who can run 20 miles is more fit than someone who runs only 3, but certainly you get a much bigger bang for your buck for those first 3. Which means that...

The next 20 or 30 minutes aren't for health - they're for the joy of running. Your time for yourself, for achievement, or whatever.

Beautiful, really, and right on. And actually inspirational for me, in a small way, as few things are. Except for the part they left out of the quote.

"And the next 2.5 HOURS are ...."

They didn't include that part. How do we account for the 20, 22, 26 mile runs? Here are some possibilities.

"The next 2.5 HOURS are your punishment for all the evil you've done in your past lives."

"The next 2.5 hours are because you never were all that bright, were you?"

"The next 2.5 hours are because that grizzly bear STILL hasn't stopped chasing you"

"The next 2.5 hours are for Ugho, the God of Sweat"

That's all I could come up with on my 1 hour run today. I'll have more the next time I have to run 3.5 hours.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Only the Government can do this Part 2

Ok, so I just have to tell you what happened with my ticket. Those who don't know what I'm talking about, you imaginary New Readers, go and read the first post on this topic below.

Alright, so I waited 14 days, as instructed, to Pay My Fine. Verily, did I wait more! Even unto 20 days did I wait. And then didst I approach the Hungarian Websites of Fire once more, confident in my ability to give gobbeths of money unto The Man. But lo! Once I had gone through the Hungarian fire, I did discover that there was still No Trace of my crime, my fine, or my ability to pay it. It was as if the crime did not exist. At this point shall I abandon ye olde way of talking, for it does tire my tongue and annoy your eyes. So there I am, staring at the computer screen, trying to figure out how to Pay The Fine. And I give up - I decide to Phone It In. I know, dangerous, but what can you do.

So I do it. I Phone It In. And get a message machine telling me that they're sorry, their phone payment option is out of order for the next 14 days. Thank you for calling. Wow. 14 more days - that will put me after my traffic court date and into the Penalty Round where lo, there is an issuance of warrants! (it slipped out, forgiveth me). So in desperation I call the courthouse, hoping that I can speak to a living person and figure out what to do.

I talked with a human being first thing - good sign. I told her my dilemma and she said that their phone payment system is down for 14 days. I said, literally "yes, I got that." I asked her about my mysterious citation that does not appear on their records. She had me read the ticket number and told me that it does not appear on their records. I spoketh not. She then said that they hadn't entered them into the system yet but would in a few weeks. I asked if I need to pay before the court date. She said, in an alarmed voice, Yes! I didn't point out that the court date is before they will have it entered into their records. I did not say "so how is it that you have 3 options of payment, including online payment, phone payment, and mail and yet I only have one way to pay?" I didn't ask how many of my tax (and citation) dollars went to pay for phone and online payment options that exist only for the temporally gifted (those clever guys who can pay in the future and it ends up showing up in the past). I didn't ask her about the inherent weirdness of the situation. No, this is the government. It's not her fault. It's not even that surprising that she sees nothing wrong with the situation. It's just that... Well, I mean, it's just that ....!

I mailed it in.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A few thoughts on running

Today was a 20 mile run. It was an odd one but worthwhile. When I run long distances I get a lot of random thoughts. Some of which will be placed here in the cavernous space that is Thwackum and Square.

On Nutrition.
Runners always get weird about what they eat. You ever notice that? After the run, you have to eat two rutabegas, and before the run, one acorn. And the night before, a rabbit. Or stuff like that. I've had conversations with runners about what we eat the night before a race or a long run. Isnt' that weird? Only runners do that. So we're weird about it. And most runners are very health oriented - go figure. I'm not, but that's another story. You know what I eat? When I'm lucky, a double flamethrower burger and fries from Dairy Queen. Cone is optional. I've done that about 4 times over the years and in each run I've had plenty of energy, no digestive problems, and a good run. I've had healthy food the night before and had no energy, plenty of digestive problems, and crappy runs (yes, I got the double reference there). Believe me, there is nothing like mile 14 out of 18 when you all you can think is "When you're sitting in your Chevy and you're feeling kind of heavy, d.... [you know the words, sing along]". So for some reason my body deals well with junk food, and less well with healthy food. I am an unhealthy runner. Which works just fine. The whole reason I run is because I don't have the self control to regulate what I eat. The rutabegas go against the whole point of running! So Dairy Queen, here I come.

On gratitude.
I got up at 4am for the run today. It was very good weather, and there was a moderate amount of wind. Now wind is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it cools you down, which you need almost always. On the other, when you're running uphill and into the wind, it's not fun. But what I've decided, about 3 years ago, is that if you're going to be grateful for one part of the wind, you've gotta be grateful for it all. What I mean is that when it cools you off, be grateful, and when you're running up hill into it, be grateful - it's all the same thing so you take the whole package, and be thankful for the whole package. Being a weirdo, I will actually think "thank you" when I feel the wind hitting me. It's as close as I come to communing with nature. Which ain't all that close.

On sleep.
Did I mention the 4am thing?! I am so NOT a morning person. But 3 hours of running feels so much better when you're done about 7:30 in the morning than when you're done at noon, believe me. Well, thing is, I couldn't sleep last night and tossed and turned until about 1am. So I got to do that run on 3 hours of sleep. Which actually didn't feel bad at all. The rest of the day felt crappy - I'm dead tired! But the run itself rocked. Speaking of which, when the alarm went off at 4am I was about 75% convinced to sleep in and do a 14 mile run instead, just to take a break. And then I decided to go ahead and get up and try it, and shorten it if I needed to, and that was a Good Idea cause it rocked. There ya have it.

The next long run I'll try to have some thoughts that are actually interesting, so that you'll have something a bit more stimulating to read. But for now I'm tired, and this is what I thought, so whaddya want? A thesis?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

On top down versus bottom up

No, that's NOT what this post is about - get your mind out of the gutter, you perverts! Oops, I said the soft part loud again :o)

So here's what I've been thinking about (partly because I've been living this, and partly because we're all living this). There are at least two ways for change to be processed or instigated. Or perhaps there are two ways I'm viewing change (perhaps there are infinitely many other ways to view it). One way is top down. It would go like this. Someone at the top says "This situation needs to change, here is my Master Plan for how it will change to address the goals I've set, now go to it and do it." And then with that direction, perhaps with a lot of modification, input, and so forth, change happens. Note that the Master Plan does not have to be enacted exactly as prescribed, that's not implicit in Top Down, but there is a Master Plan, there is a clear Architect (or perhaps architectural committee), and it is, to some extent, orchestrated. When I'm thinking politics I think of the New Deal as perhaps an expression of Top Down change. True, conditions had to be right from the ground up, but you got this guy in office, FDR, and he had these tons of ideas and plans, and he pushed as many of them through as he could, and he made change happen. It was a restructuring and it was deliberate. So that's the way things could happen.SEE CAVEATS BELOW

Then you have change from the bottom up. That's more incremental change driven by group psychology, group action. It's the kind of change that takes place all over the place, with no orchestration, and often without people even realizing it is happening. Think about how the country is currently dealing with the oil crisis. Lots of little stuff happening, here and there. People drive a bit less, they buy energy efficient cars a bit more, they bitch and moan A LOT. The government tries to incentivize this, prohibit that, restrict the other thing. But a lot of those changes appear, at least from a distance, to be disjointed, often ineffectual or token in nature. Change DOES occur, but without the Master Plan or the architect. I think of this kind of change and I think of the Invisible Hand and good ol' Adam Smith. Never mind that the Invisible Hand may be flicking us all off (invisibly), but it's there and it's at work.

Now in my own business life I've seen both kinds of change. We have a Central Office, which is national, which has been hysterically mandating change - very top down. I don't know if there's a Master Plan in place, or if it's just knee jerk paranoia driving it, but aside from that it fits all the other criteria. And then we have bottom up change, driven by the consumers, or the staff, or the interaction of the two. I have come to kind of loathe the top down approach because when someone in Washington decides to tell me how to do my job, even though they have good intentions, they often screw things up on several levels: 1) they assume I don't know how to do my job and they have to tell me (and my staff) how to do it. Sometimes they demonstrate that they clearly know how to do our jobs much less well than we do, and so we are mandated to do things that make no sense. 2) They have no idea (and no way of knowing, or accounting for) the individual circumstances in over 600 national sites that they are dictating to. So even if what they are mandating makes sense overall, it may not make any sense in each local setting. Again we end up with mandates that in our own locality make no sense. 3) (and this may be particular to my setting) what they are TRYING to do is ensure that we do our jobs well. But our jobs are not the kind that you can simply say "do what the manual says" and it ensures they are well done. They THINK that's the case but it just is not. So they end up coming up with more and more regulation that a) does NOT improve our work and b) actually stifles the work that we do need to do.

Wow, what a rambling complaint. But the thing is that I don't think that top down change is necessarily always a bad idea. I think there are some situations that require a degree of top down in order to be resolved. Again, I think of my impressions, based on my very loose education, about the New Deal. Top Down seemed to work then. It seemed outright necessary. It was a situation when sitting back waiting for local control to balance things out was utterly failing, and so you needed that approach. I'm not saying it was all good, or all successful, but it seemed necessary. And so I wonder if there aren't situation in our lives now, such as the oil crisis, the economy (to a lesser extent, perhaps), the mortgage crisis, that could benefit from Top Down leadership. Then I wonder a few more things. First, what would it take to actually have Top Down leadership in these situations. Second, what are the risks of Top Down change. I think that Top Down can be very risky (so can Bottom Up actually, but for different reasons perhaps). The risks are similar to what I face at work, and what we all may face nationally.


I believe that the present administration has attempted a Top Down leadership style and it seems to have failed. What I mean is that the present administration seems to have been very much into "do it this way because I said, I don't want to hear any other opinions, and screw the local complexities of the situation." For example, oh I don't know, "Who cares if they had nothing to do with 9/11 or any terrorism, we're invading anyway!" Screams top down to me. Now this may be instructive in a few ways. First, what does it take to be able to do Top Down. I'd say a national crisis helps a lot. 9/11 was such a crisis, and for a time Top Down was quite possible, and they really played it up. New Deal - same thing. Get people scared, poor, dying, what have you, and you can do Top Down. Also doesn't hurt to have majorities in both houses and the Supreme Court. Next, what happens if you have poor leadership in a Top Down situation? Things get bad. My own belief (just my opinion, but what else am I going to write here) is that things are worse now than 8 years ago. My own belief is that some (not all) of this is from poor leadership. Top Down.

So why would I, or anyone, want Top Down change? Well I think that, as I said, some situations may require it. Change, including political, economic, social revolutions, can occur bottom up, no doubt about it. But you can't always afford to wait. Sometimes powerful and good leadership can make things happen faster and perhaps much better. Perhaps if we had good leadership with some guts behind it years back we would not be so dependent on oil right now, for example . (Yes, you could argue that we had great leadership - just leadership that happened to own a lot of stock in oil companies. But that's a different post and one I know even less about). Perhaps if we have good leadership now we can get out of some of these things faster. Perhaps.

So then a lot of other questions: what are the characteristics of a good leader, able to instigate and promote top down change without screwing things up too much? What are the conditions necessary for such a leader to act? Another interesting idea is applying these concepts to change that happens in our own personal lives. What changes have you made, have I made, in your/my life that was top down, i.e., deliberate, orchestrated, goal driven, planful? What changes have we made that have just kind of happened - the accumulation of millions of tiny day to day choices, events, preferences, that have happened without us even realizing it? Are there pros/cons from the two on a personal level that match those on the macro level? Just wondering. More questions abound, but those are at the front of my mind.

Now, IF anyone was reading this, I'd invite them to let me know what they think of this. What ideas they have, and so forth. Normally I'd hesitate to put such a long and potentially political post in a blog when it's out of character, but I figure anyone who comes here is used to some change around (we added a separate author half way through for Chrissakes). And perhaps long and convoluted is better than silence? You be the judge :o)


1) I know very little about the New Deal, or any politics, from an academic sense. So anyone reading this with more sense of history may want to comment and point out some of my glaring errors.

2) As I write this I'm thinking that the whole top-down, bottom-up dichotomy is a construct, just as all ideas are, and may not necessarily be the most useful construct. There may be other ways to categorize change and change forces that could lead to more interesting or fruitful discussions. These are just the ones I'm thinking of at the moment.

Ok, thanks for the caveats, take me Back to the Top

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Look what happens when you donate to public radio...

Anyone out there ever listen to Public Radio?

I do. It's a Big Thing out where I live, in the frozen (hot and muggy) north. It's really usually pretty cool - good news, all that stuff that I would have paid good money to avoid before I was thirty. Anyway, because it's "public" radio you have pledge campaigns about 4x a year, and the line is usually something like this: "If you are listening to NPR, you owe it to yourself to become a member (i.e., give us money bastard)." I used to listen to that, think about it carefully, and then solemnly agree. So I'd have to switch the station. Problem solved. But the past few years I've been willing to "become a member" and give money, and it actually feels ok. I do value the service, want to support it, yadda yadda yadda (how many d's in yadda anyway?). So I renewed my membership last week on my cell phone while stuck in traffic (see what happens when you're stuck in traffic??). And today I got this email:

Dear Shifter (well, not Shifter, but place YourName Here),

We needed you and you are there. We are so grateful that you are a member of NPR. At this time of the year, when we're focused on getting just a few more listeners to become contributors, we find ourselves reflecting on you. By being a member, you tell us that you are fully invested in making the world a better place in which to live. Your voluntary choice to do this is inspiring. And I want you to know that we are grateful. Enjoy the news and music. You have made it possible.

Thank you for your generosity and your confidence in the work we do.


What an email, huh!?! I mean wow! I work in a hospital, where presumably we help change people's lives, and I never ever get this kind of thanks. I must have accidentally sent my kidney in along with the check, because I think they got more than my membership dues for that kind of thank you. Or I put a few too many zeros on the donation amount - am I broke now??

I shouldn't deride it because it's a really nice email. And it did give me that warm fuzzy feeling. Until I realized that I never get that kind of thanks from anyone else for anything I do (well, almost never) and that made me bitter and depressed. Thanks a lot NPR. Sheesh.

But it is a very nice email.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Only the Government can do this

Ok, short story long here.

I got a speeding ticket. It's a doozy. It's $277 if you can believe that. That's like a record. It was a lot over the speed limit, it was in a work zone, and I wasn't paying attention to my speed or the cop sitting there. I'm a dufus, I deserve it. I will Pay The Price. Yup. Not happy but I agree it should be done.


There are a number of options you have to Pay The Price. You can Go To Court. Which involves taking a day off of work to go and sit in a room waiting to be called on to get chewed out for driving like an idiot, and then pay. You can Phone It In, with your claim number and credit card number, or you can Pay Online. How convenient. Now here is the weird part.

The most convenient by far is paying online, right? Except that to do so requires navigating this byzantine labyrinth (yes, I know the labyrinth was Greek, and byzantine was byzantine, but it sounds good together) of websites in order to go to look up your citation, agree to the terms, and then pay the money. The first website you're directed to does not exist. If you're persistent you find the second one, that one exists. But it's written in Hungarian. Or something. Decipher that, then you find out about the Numerous Websites of Fire that you have to jump through. All so you can then pay your $277. Now if you manage to succeed in your quest, you may just be told that your ticket number is not on file. The website will not tell you why. Don't ask, it's none of your business. The little piece of paper that the cop may or may not give you does tell you, when you read the fine print, after you've gone through the Websites of Fire, that it can take 14 days for your ticket to show up on their system. So wait for another 14 days, then come back and do it all again. And then you can pay them. $277.

Now I know, truly, that this is a situation in which I am the Bad Man who needs to Pay my Fine to Society and I will do so. But it's just weird that here I am, wanting to give a substantial amount of money to someone for speeding, and I can't do it. Not only can't I do it, I have to ##$% around on the internet for half an hour to find out I can't do it. And that's what only the Government can do - make you dick around for half an hour to find that you don't have the privilege of paying your fine to them just yet - please come back in 2 weeks and do it all again. Nobody else who wants my money does that. I think I could give $277 to almost anyone else on or off the internet with a minimum of hassle. Just not my local traffic court.

I don't even want to know what would have happened if I had tried the Phone It In option.

I'd probably still be on hold.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ok, another funny video

Ok, well this is a lame post, but if you happen to look here, you deserve to see something funny. Check out this Youtube video - quite funny! Also this one is safe for work, your parents, or any other occasion. You do see a nipple, but it's a guy's nipple, so we're all going to be ok.

On a side note, the scale is up to its old tricks again. I weigh, 203, no wait, 199, nope, 198, yup, pretty sure it's 198. For the moment. I swear there must be cosmic fat that just adheres to my body at random times, then vanishes, causing instant weight fluctuations. The cosmic fat molecules (CFM) seem to be able to detect camera lenses though. They glom on to me en masse (or is it just in mass in this case) right before any photo is taken. Usually on my chin. But that's neither here nor there. Well it's there, on my chin, but it's not here, as in, in this blog. You see.

Ok, enough prevarication, enough agony of waiting - here it is! The One Semester of Spanish Spanish Love Song!!!!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Barren Wasteland

I suppose there should be a counter somewhere on the internet to track the number of blog posts and even emails that are posted or sent solely to fill up empty space. Between some blog posts there is a vast wasteland of empty space, with no trace of voice, or mind, or thought. We here at Thwackum and Square have made the cultivation of this space between posts a veritable cottage industry. In fact, we've considered renting out some of our space between posts to other, more cluttered blogs. Some blogs, the kinds with multiple posts per day, have shown quite a bit of interest in the empty fields and rolling hills of nothingness in Thwackum and Square. They've intimated that they, too, would like a life and if they could just have some of our space in their blog they would have room for one. I've told them repeatedly that real life is overrated, but the grass is always greener, as they say. We're hesitant to mess up the pristine whiteness of our blog space, but hey, we've gotta make a living. But I digress.

So I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "this is exactly one of those posts he's talking about - one of the space filling posts that is inferior and a waste of time because it has no substance!" But no, you're wrong, and I'll tell you why! This is indeed a space filling post, but it is NOT inferior, because none of our other posts have substance! So this space filling post is on par with the best of our earlier posts, and thus cannot be lambasted! So there!

But seriously folks, or folk (depending on how many people actually read this), to add some substance I'll now link a few funny YouTube videos. These are NOT necessarily safe for work, or those with good taste. One is, well, loosely translated, "I'm doing Matt Damon" and is funny. The second is a companion piece that, loosely translated, is called "I'm doing Ben Aflec," and the final one is even funnier, unrelated to the first two, and is loosely translated as "My Mr. Johnson in a cardboard container". View at your own risk.

Matt Damon:

Ben Aflec:

It's in a box:

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mitch Benn Raps Macbeth

The audio on this is awful, but it's spectacular anyway.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times. It's huge, and it contains two items that interest me especially--the Magazine (on a good weekend about half the articles interest me) and the Book Review, which I'd read from one end to the other every single week if I only had the discipline.

Sometimes I don't have the discipline to finish either one of them off. I have a good novel going, or I have (gasp--say it's not so!) a social life. Sometimes I have that kind of Saturday date that inspires swoony flashbacks over my Sunday morning cup of tea. Sometimes I am seduced by the siren call of the television (especially now that Captain Jack is seducing my DVR regularly on Saturday nights--those blue eyes, those sure hands, and the ever-more-elusive glow of an actual script...). Let's just say that sometimes the Book Reviews pile up.

I know there's trouble when my Tivo stops responding to my commands. It has nothing to do with the Tivo--the Tivo would be happy to obey me if only it knew my mind--but it doesn't know its orders, because they can't be transmitted from my remote to its little command center through the dense pile of newsprint on my coffee table. This happened a few weeks ago, but somehow I wasn't inspired to make a dent in the pile of reading material. It continued to accrue until this weekend I had to raise the remote above my shoulder to make the Tivo do anything. It was time for drastic action.

I have read all weekend long. A new paper arrived this morning, and I read that, too. I have a paper grocery bag full of newsprint, and now I am taking it outside. As an added bonus, I am going to dust the coffee table. And I'm going to watch my Amazon Unbox movie, because now the Tivo will know that that's what I want to do. And so I'm safe from procrastination for...oh, a whole day, at least!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What's the Protocol?

For the past 3 hours there have been clothes in every washer and dryer in the basement. Now, I'm a reasonable person. I'm down with forgetting your laundry. I'm totally cool with falling asleep for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon. But it's 8:00, and I'm pretty damn sure that whoever left the clothes has actually gone out for the evening.

Am I allowed to remove their stuff from the dryer? I'll fold it and try to find a clean place to put it. Would it be upsetting to them if I actually dried their wet load of clothes? Because mildewed clothes are pretty disgusting, and you know, it's been a while since I did any random acts of kindness. But will it creep them out? Will they, like, attack me when I come home if they see that I've had my paws all over their undergarments or whatever else they left?

Seriously. I need to wash my bathmats and they won't dry by tomorrow unless I wash them soon. And I have an enormous pile of laundry to finish, too. And it's just mean to leave your stuff there all night long.

Yeah, I think in about fifteen minutes I'm going to go down there and fold their damn clothes so I can get on with my life. In the meantime, I'm just going to continue playing all my Netflix movies. Rock on, Bill Nighy, because I will never, ever get tired of you.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Samsung is Not My Friend

My new Samsung phone drops calls. Seriously, out of every three calls I make, it drops one (thanks, Samsung SGH A707).

And my new Samsung TV has a blinky sad pixel. Grrrrrrrrrrr.

A Coma Can Be Entertaining

If I asked you to read a book about a guy in a coma, you probably wouldn't be interested, but I have to tell you that The Coma was a pretty good read. Alex Garland's idea of what it would be like to be in a coma is more entertaining than some novelists' concepts of what it's like to be awake, and the woodcuts illustrating the book (by the novelist's father, Nicholas Garland) add to the surreal quality of many of the best passages.

It's a speed read (obviously, since my last post was about finishing Esme Lennox only two days ago), but some of its effects will definitely stick with me--notably a lingering paranoia about how bad my memory is....

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Damn You, Edith Wharton

So I finished a couple of books this week. The first one was Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville, and I loved it. It wasn't an easy read (a good thing, mostly). I'll admit I found Mieville overfond of the word "troglodytic." (And why not, after all--it's a terrific word.) And it was satisfying, but not quite satisfying enough. If you're a reader, you know what I mean. It's good stuff, it's just not up there with the best I ever had. It's not like I'm on saying, "Bring me everything this man has ever written, and be quick about it!" I'm not scouring the internet for stories he wrote at summer camp. (Don't ask me if I've ever found a story that one of my favorite writers wrote at summer camp. Because you already know the answer.) I'll pick up another one of his books the next time I indulge my book fetish, and maybe one of them will light the fire that's dying inside me. For now, my addiction is merely controlled, not sated. Perdido Street Station is better than methadone, but it's not the stuff that could only make you happier if it killed you, because then you wouldn't have to live with the disappointment. Dear God, people, is that too much to ask?

The second book also came tantalizingly close to satisfying my craving. I should have known the delicious thrill would be short-lived when I saw the Edith Wharton quotation on page 1, but I was sucked in by "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox." Oh, yes. Maggie O'Farrell has the power. If only she would use it for good instead of evil. I was enthralled, fascinated, so rapt on the subway that I ignored a tall boy in Buddy Holly glasses who wanted to flirt with me. And then I got to the end. I wanted to throw the book across the room. Usually, that's a good thing. But not when you're on the last page. I mean, Thomas Hardy had the decency to make you throw the book across the room and then scramble to retrieve it from under the dresser, cursing yourself for not having thrown it with the bookmark wedged firmly up to its spine so that you could IMMEDIATELY read the next chapter. What's the point of making you want to throw the book at the wall at the END? I ask you?

Then again, plenty of people like Edith Wharton. Esme Lennox may be your kind of gal.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Bad Thing To Discover on Monday Morning

Just in case you managed to drag your ass out of bed and decide you weren't sick today, you can always go to and while away a few hours untangling network diagrams. (It doesn't sound like it will suck you in, does it? Yeah, go ahead and click it.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Possibly the Best Ad for Internet Dating

Something else I found cruising the Information Aesthetics website:

Internet Wanderings

Tonight I watched "Stranger Than Fiction" again, for the first time since I saw it in the theater. After several hours of film-related googling, I'm aware that many Christians have used the movie as a springboard for a discussion of divine predestination, but personally I saw it as an existential manifesto. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. The film has a rich cultural heritage in movies, literature, and philosophy, and it's hard for me to imagine a more satisfying 113 minutes.

The DVD includes a terrific featurette on the creation of the "GUI" that Harold uses to measure, understand, and interact with his world. (The conceit is that we can see illustrations of Harold's thought process as he compulsively counts brush strokes, notes angles and quantities, and visualizes spatial relationships.) The GUI is an inspired part of the movie that helps us get into Harold's head and understand both the comfort and the overwhelming detail that we find there. The fellas who designed it thought about it...a lot. In one scene, they make the point that a lot of geeks are compulsive truth-tellers, which, let's face it, is funny 'cos it's true.

Harold's wristwatch, by contrast, makes broad, qualitative observations (it sees the pretty girl Harold ought to be looking at, and it thinks the way he knots his tie makes his neck look fat--it nicely represents all the things that Harold has repressed under his sea of calculated observations). The story has to do with how the watch transcends its purpose and becomes the hero of its little life, and how Harold manages to stop compulsively measuring things for ten seconds and have a life before he dies (how Garp of him). Harold and his wristwatch are my heroes.

Don't even ask me what I googled to get here, but my fascination with the GUI led me to this site, which is fascinated with visual representations of information. There were dozens of wacky and interesting things here, but one that I think is my new home page is the Newsmap. Granted, no graphical representation is going to make the "news" that we spend money when we're feeling blue any more earth-shattering, but I still really like it.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

New York--About to Be Stupid

I woke up this morning to NPR's story about congestion pricing in New York City, which is running the gauntlet for what seems like the 900th time since I moved here last year, only to meet almost-certain defeat in the legislature. The plan mirrors London's plan, and I remember following the debate about the London congestion charge closely. There was a huge brouhaha about it before it happened, and then immediately after it was implemented you never heard anything more about it. Londoners appeared to assimilate it with one or two minor bitches, and when I visited London after the charge was implemented, believe me, it had made a huge difference. You didn't even need any information about where the charge started--you could tell instantly by the fact that you could cross a street without feeling like you were taking your life into your hands. The noise, the traffic, and the stress decreased instantly the second you crossed the congestion charge border.

NPR thoughtfully interviewed some New Yorkers, most of whom deplore the congestion pricing idea. There were a dozen remarks, just to remind you that this may be one of the finest cities in the world, but that whenever someone's approached on the street with a microphone, their IQ probably drops 40 points. (I know this is true when I'm approached with a microphone--I say plenty of stupid things when I have a chance to think about them, let alone when I'm approached on the street.)

The grand prize was the woman who said, "I don't want to smell other people's smells or hear other people's iPods." Well, certainly, here you've hit on the chief allure of mass transit. God knows, there's not a single person on the subway who doesn't revel in the heady scent of someone else's armpit, or who doesn't prefer the tinny secondhand salute of the latest 14-year-old sex siren to their own music in their own living room. Guess what, lady--the congestion charge is for you--pay it with pride! If your personal comfort is that important to you, you can damn well pay a fine for the way that having thousands of extra cars packed into Manhattan every day makes the city less pleasant for the rest of us. And if you don't like that idea, you can just get over yourself and buy a metrocard. Does it take longer? Try reading--you might find out there's a whole world outside your carful of entitlement.

Excuse me, I have to go catch the subway so I can go smell some other people and listen to their iPods. 'Cos that's how I roll. It's better than coffee, let me tell you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Potato Head Update

Apparently Mr. Potato Head is a longtime favorite toy for your captive octopus. This article also explains what would possess a person to give a Mr. Potato Head to an octopus. It had occurred to me that it might simulate breaking into something's shell to eat it, but it hadn't occurred to me that it might keep the octopus from getting bored and thus engaging in self-harming behavior.

But also, some of the photos in this story are...less cute and a leetle more scary.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Danny, I knew it was you

The second I saw that there was a TV program called "How to Start Your Own Country," I thought to myself, "Danny Wallace is at it again." Sure enough, it's Danny, off starting a country and pissing people off in the very first episode by attempting to invade their island. Should you want to join his country (now located in the less contested area of his flat), here's his website.

The whole enterprise is less inspired than his cult (excuse me, his "collective") "Join Me," but it's still reasonably good fun.

Naturally, when you think of Danny Wallace (and who doesn't?) you think, "What the hell ever happened to Dave Gorman?" Well, apparently, Dave has been working on a little film called "America Unchained," about traveling across America in a used car without frequenting any chain restaurant, chain hotel, or chain gas station. Mom & Pops all the way. I can only hope Dave put on some weight before he set off on his latest adventure, because in his natural state, he's uniquely unfit to make the journey from one non-Starbucks coffee-house to another in America--and if he eschewed chain gas stations, he'd be doing some serious walking. It sounds like fun (to watch, anyway)--and in fact, the film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Austin Film Festival last year. We love you, Dave. Go make Netflix carry the DVD of "America Unchained."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

First Class Really Is Different

Whenever I fly, I've always sort of wondered how different first class really is. I mean, we're all breathing the same air, and we're all equally late and deprived of a decent bathroom. How different could it really be?

Once my friend and I got pulled off a flight from St. Louis to London (the flight was overbooked and we were students, and, I now realize, dupes), and as a paltry substitute for the money and free ticket they actually owed us, the airline put us on the next day's flight to London in first class. Apart from the legroom and the free booze (which was constant), I didn't think there was anything really different about it. Now that I've seen this site, I wonder if they didn't feed us economy food.

The site features photos and reviews of airline food taken by people that Dave Barry would call "alert readers." If you don't already resent the people in first class as you walk by them and they refuse to make eye contact, take a look at what they get fed. Honestly, it's amazing. This, my friend, is why they won't look you in the eye as you struggle to your tiny seat.

Next, read a random review of a first class meal (usually the reviewer gives it ten out of ten--maybe 9, and a popular comment is that the wine is subpar or, in a particularly snooty review, "undistinguished"), and compare it to a random review of an economy class meal (harder to pigeonhole--they range from people who clearly think McDonald's represents the zenith of American cuisine to people who ruthlessly declare that there was nothing edible served to them the whole time they were in the air).

Whether you're talking about the food or the people, there really is a difference.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

This is Cute and You Can't Tell Me Different

How cute is it that a cephalopod likes Mr. Potato Head? (Does he see the resemblance?)

Louis, an 18-month-old Pacific octopus living at an aquarium in Cornwall, gets very excited when he sees Mr. Potato Head, and seems to like his shape and color. There is a picture, people, of Louis playing with Mr. Potato Head. I've been scared almost every time I've seen an octopus or a squid, ever since my dad lured me into a huge room of some museum where the entire ceiling was (if memory serves--I was very small) a preserved giant squid (at Yale, maybe?). I had no idea I was in the presence of a giant dead squid until I looked up and saw it there--good times! Still, I have to admit the photo is pretty darn adorable.

The keepers feed Louis fresh crab by putting it inside the Mr. Potato Head (sort of like a kong). He plays with Mr. Potato Head for about an hour at a time. I sure hope someone puts footage on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Garbage Is Officially Forbidden

This has never happened to me before. Indeed, I never thought it would ever happen to me. I have run out of plastic bags.

I'm not talking about the plastic bags you buy to put your garbage in, although I'm out of those, too. I'm talking about the bags you get when you buy things. You know the ones I mean--you can't stop people from giving them to you. You practically have to threaten a shopkeep with bodily harm to prevent him from giving you a plastic bag with your purchase. They used to breed under my sink with an alacrity which, given my usual sex life, I frankly envied.

Well, I must have committed the ultimate act of sacrilege by breaking up my last breeding pair, because there are no more plastic bags under my sink. I'm kind of excited by this, because it means I've been successful in my enterprise to stop letting people give me plastic bags, but at the same time, I need something to put in my kitchen garbage can. If I take my garbage out to the communal garbage can without tying it up neatly in a plastic bag, there will be a nastygram from my super on the front door of our building. And although I'm fond of the nastygrams, because I really like my super, it's one of my missions in life to provoke as few of them as possible.

So now I'm in the unique position of probably needing to go to the A&P something. Maybe a couple of somethings, so I can install a new breeding pair of plastic bags under my sink. With maybe some mood lighting.

Why don't they address this issue when they hawk their "I Am Not a Plastic Bag" fashion statements? What are those fashionistas doing with all their garbage?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Aaaaah, Poetry

So yesterday two accountants I work with were talking to each other. Here's how it went:

Accountant 1: Did you figure out what that $1.6M was?
Accountant 2: Yeah--we've still got $300k in there, but we'll need documentation for the allocations before I put it where it belongs.
Accountant 1: $300k doesn't worry me. We shit $300k in a day here.
Accountant 2: Thanks, that's...pretty.
Accountant 1: Then we take another $300k and wipe our asses with it.
Accountant 2: [Weeps with uncontrollable laughter]

When I left the literature Ph.D program after I got my master's, there were people who said it was a big mistake, that I wouldn't hear poetry at work every day. How wrong they were!

This is what makes me laugh

When I'm awake at 2:30 in the morning, sometimes I can't stop laughing. Today this is what did it.

Then I got the e-mail from the grocery delivery, saying that my food order is "on its way." Holy shit. I've got to get to bed.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Here it is!

Ok, well I couldn't wait. I didn't scan the bookmark, instead I found the same slogan on a frisbee! I mean this is even better, right? What could be cooler than a flying disk encouraging our youngsters to reach for the stars, not drugs!

So short story long here. My daughter, who is 6, brought home a bookmark from school with lots of pretty colors and a bright letters encouraging her to REACH FOR THE STARS. Cool. Then, right underneath, a smaller and less impressive admonition: "not drugs."

At which point I died laughing. I mean I suppose I should be grateful. Here I was, thinking I should be responsible for teaching my 6-year-old to avoid drugs! But no, thankfully that task is not mine! It belongs to the bookmark makers! And now I find, also, the frisbee makers. Whew, that's a load off of my shoulders, let me tell you. But then I think, wait, even if it's not my job anymore to help keep my child from using drugs by say, talking to her about drugs, telling her not to use them or maybe even, gasp, no, trying to make sure she's got the mental resources to avoid being trapped by drugs anyway; even then, something bugs me. A niggling doubt. Just a glimmer of a concern. What could it have been. Was it, oh I don't know .... Satan! No, no, wait, sorry, wrong skit. Not Satan. But maybe something like, Stupidity!

I mean, really, reach for the stars, not drugs!?! WTF? "I was about to hit the crack pipe again but THEN I remembered "reach for the stars, not drugs" so instead I joined the Corporate America Dad!" How exactly is that one going to work? "Just Say No" didn't work. Isn't that great, by the way? Here is the DARE program, the program of the nation to keep kids of drugs. And it consisted in large part of telling kids not to do drugs. That was about it. And it didn't work. Sorry Nancy, but the facts is the facts. But I think I know now why it failed .... Wait for it ..... Yup, the frisbees. I can't remember any Just Say No frisbees. Or bookmarks. Silly buggers were just asking for failure when they forgot the frisbees.

But still, even with the frisbees, and the bookmarks targeted for 6-year-olds, I think our slogan manufacturers have a hell of a job wiping out teenage drug use. So perhaps we can help them! I think "Reach for the stars, not drugs" is a good start, but we can do better! What else can we come up with?

I'll try a few, and you can all join in as you think of them:

"Give a hoot, don't pollute (or do drugs)"

"Let's take a bite out of crime (and not do drugs)"

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going but without drugs"

Surely you can see the potential here?! Help me out, post a few of your own new anti-drug slogans and we can all take a bite out of drug use! (Yuhmmmmm, pot brownies).

One little caveat I just have to put in here (damn guilty conscience). I realize that what I typed above may sound really belittling about drug problems, and that was not my intent. Drug addiction can be really incredibly awful in some people's lives, and it is a complex problem that has, among other things, social, psychological, and economic roots that are not necessarily solved by "good parenting." I guess my point is mainly that as complex as it is, I'm just really really sure it is not going to be solved even a little by good slogans. Or even bad slogans. The whole thing just reeks of people not having the knowledge or will to take on a really difficult task and so falling back on moralistic platitudes so that they can say they've "done something." Yuck. But I still want to hear your slogans. Reach for the stars!

I've got a great one coming...

I just saw a bookmark that I just have to blog about. It's awesome. But it's so awesome I want to scan it and paste it, so you'll all have to wait a day or so. Yes, it's an actual paper bookmark, the kind you use in books. The paper ones. Remember those? Before the days of Netscape and Firefox?

So anyway this is just a teaser and a reminder to myself - write about the bookmark!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Money, Women, and TV

So the other day I was cleaning with the TV on in the background (I like to watch "How Clean Is Your House?" because although my home would never ever look like that, I almost understand how it happens to people, and boy, nothing makes me more motivated to do my laundry than seeing what would happen if I just didn't do it). My Tivo started watching "Sex and the City." I'm torn about the show. On the one hand, Carrie Bradshaw is often so vapid she makes me want to vomit, but on the other hand, Miranda is actually interesting.

This episode was on the first hand. It's the one where Aidan leaves Carrie (because she cheated on him) and serves her with papers saying she either has to buy the apartment or vacate it so he can sell it. Carrie despairs because although her apartment is huge and cheap and although she has money to buy shoes and to spend on cab fare (because she can't walk in her expensive shoes), she has no money for a down payment. Carrie thinks it's cool to live by the seat of her pants, and she thinks it's normal (she's shocked when all her friends have savings). And I think we're all supposed to think this is sympathetic--mostly, as far as I can see, because the seat of Carrie's pants is inhabited by the adorable ass of SJP, who's just too cute to be mad at.

Unfortunately, I'm heterosexual, so SJP's wiles do nothing for me, and I think it's pretty goddamn disgraceful. I suppose in today's dollars, Carrie would deserve a big old high-five for not having thousands of dollars of debt. But then bitchy Carrie goes one step further by being all pissed that Charlotte doesn't offer to help her buy her apartment. Charlotte says it's not her responsibility to fix Carrie's money problems. Right on! But then the show clearly shows that Charlotte was Wrong by having her give Carrie her wedding ring (she's divorced) to pay for the apartment, thus salvaging their friendship.

Is this an isolated incident? Society at large surely isn't saying that if a woman is pretty enough, she shouldn't have the self-respect to be responsible for herself, right? Well, I'm not so sure. A very different show, "How I Met Your Mother," recently revealed that adorable Lily racked up so much shopping debt that she and Marshall barely qualified for a mortgage. Marshall's response? Basically, "I love you, so I love your debt." Wow. That Marshall is just so good he's almost fictional. (Although I will say I know such people do exist.)

Women of America, this is bullshit. Get off your gorgeous fannies and take some responsibility for your own financial futures. Pass up a pair of shoes and pay down your credit card or start a savings account. Contribute to your 401k. Balance your damn checkbook. Because it just feels good to look after your own future and not rely on "good fortune" or on finding a Marshall. Screw L'Oreal. The 401k is because you're worth it.