Sunday, November 14, 2010

Worst Game of Concentration Ever

So picture this. You're cleaning out your entire house to prepare for a move across the country and into a smaller apartment. So you're getting rid of roughly a third of everything you own and trying desperately to ensure that what's left is clean, neatly packed, and organized. During this process you have come across approximately 50,000 of those little button cards that come with every piece of clothing you've ever bought. Generally your policy is to throw the little bastards out or into a box for Goodwill, your logic being that if you ever needed such a button, you would never, ever find it again and you would end up replacing all the buttons anyway. But today you recognize one of these 50,000 buttons as coming off your favorite sweater, and you decide to save that button somewhere very safe.

And a day later the sweater shows up with a broken button. Quick! Where did you put the button? In this chaos that is your household in the middle of a move, where is a single, tiny button?

I don't like this game. Not at all.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Suggestion for Conan

Get better closed caption transcription. George Takei did not play Mr. Zolo.



Saturday, November 06, 2010

Chuck is Really On a Roll

I've been having a hard time reading Chuck's vanity cards at the end of Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and Mike & Molly. At first I thought this was because the print was getting smaller, but now I realize I'm just getting old. It's a shame because he's been writing some awesome cards:
The number one rule of human behavior might be "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But the number two rule is "people who try to exert moral authority tend to be hypocritical $#*! heads."
Chuck Lorre Productions #308
The last presidential election proved that we are capable of change.

The following two years proved that while we are capable of change, we won't.
Chuck Lorre Productions #299
To each of these, may I respond, "Word, Chuck. Word."

This reassured me, because many of my inner voices are more than a little douchey, and it's nice to know I'm not alone:
...perhaps more important than do's and don't's is learning to trust in the mysterious power of intuition. The soft inner voice that guides you to a better outcome than experience and logic could ever provide. This is what I call the Zen of Sitcom. The willingness to allow transcendence to play a part in the making of a TV show. Try it sometime in your own job. It can be the source of great inspiration. A word of warning though: it's not foolproof. If your business collapses or you wind up getting fired, you're probably hearing the same voice I listened to when I created Grace Under Fire, Cybill and four or five TV pilots that now function as landfill. If it's possible, try not to listen to that one. As inner voices go, it's kind of a douche.
Chuck Lorre Productions #306, Zen and the Art of Sitcom

I found this one a fascinating glimpse into the world of sitcom censorship:
Five days before tonight's episode was to air, I was informed by a high-ranking CBS exec that the swastika armband on the hot, crazy girl and the Hitler/Charlie Chaplin mustache on Alan were unacceptable for broadcast. In other words, eighteen years after Seinfeld went to a Neo-Nazi rally, forty-two years after Mel Brooks unveiled "Springtime for Hitler," forty-five years after Hogan's Heroes, and seventy-five years after Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck poked fun at the Third Reich, some genius at CBS who will remain anonymous (Marty Franks), decided that Two and a Half Men had crossed a line.
Chuck Lorre Productions #301, Censored
Well, when you put it that way, it certainly does seem absurd.

Two and a Half Men is sort of starting to get on my nerves (Alan is as unlikable as Charlie at this point, and my favorite characters--Evelyn, Berta and Charlie's therapist--really shouldn't be my favorites and have way too little screen time), but I'm a huge fan of BBT, and Mike and Molly seems sweet so far. As a longtime fan, I'm just thrilled to see so much Chuck-Lorre-branded entertainment available, and I'm looking forward to joining the promised Church of Chuck. I'm kind of hoping we can send a mannequin to church while we sleep in:

Thursday, November 04, 2010

It's Just Sick

We've now been locked in a room for JAD* sessions every morning for two weeks.  There is (naturally) an enormous bag of candy.  It has gotten to the point where all candy-related communication is exclusively nonverbal.  

Kara: [Points to bag of candy.]
Martin (who is next to the bag of candy): [Digs through bag of candy looking for Kara's favorite candy. Offers a Reese's peanut butter cup.]
Kara: [Facial expression reflects a certain lack of enthusiasm.]
Martin: [Throws peanut butter cup back into bag.  Offers box of Milk Duds]
Kara: [cups hands]
Martin: [throws candy]

This whole candy-related subtext is going on all day long.  My manager can't keep away from the bag of candy for more than five minutes at a time.  When he walks into the room he sits down and then immediately stands back up and walks over to the candy.  He is pretty skinny, but if he keeps this up he may start to look like the rest of us.

I like to think that the candy facilitates communication. All the other communication in the room is fraught with a certain amount of tension and anxiety.  I think having a parallel conversation going on that's comparatively trivial gives people who represent opposing views or interest groups an opportunity to interact in a friendly way, thus greasing the wheels for consensus on the stuff that matters.

Or maybe I just like candy.


*JAD = Joint Application Design.  This means we lock everyone in a room--Business Analysts, technical folks, and human end-users--and don't let them out until they've designed a system that we think will work.  Candy and caffeine are frequent guests at JAD sessions.  Management typically stops by the room periodically to throw in fresh candy and hose us down with coffee and then locks the door again and wanders off.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book report...

Now that I've finished WoT (until the next one comes out this month) I've been devouring pulp SF with almost the same voracity that I apply to candy. I've burned through 3 "Clone Republic" books (by Kent) and one "Star Carrier" book by Ian Douglas. I like the Star Carrier book better but happened to have ordered 3 clone books off Amazon so I'm going to finish them before I grab more Douglas books. None of them are great, mind you - nothing like some of the Scalzi, Heinlein, Feintuch, books that I adore. But good fun anyway. And they hardly ever describe dresses in a lot of detail. I never knew how important that was until I read 10,000 pages of Jordan back to back. Trust me, it's important.

While we're on the subject of food...

Happy Halloween! In honor of Halloween, I'll share three facts. One, I just ran 13.1 miles (34 for the week), which is great. Two, 13.1 miles for a guy my size = burning 1700 calories. Three, that probably just about covers the amount of candy I've eaten so far this week. I disgust myself sometimes. Watch out kids, if you knock on our door tonight, I may lose control and eat all your candy. If I do I guess I'll have to let you give us extra tricks instead.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I'll Miss Uncle Giuseppe's

Hmmm, is it bad that a lot of these have to do with food? Well, that ain't gonna stop, so I guess, get used to it.

I just got back from the incredibly exciting grocery store Uncle Giuseppe's, where a live singer crooned "Unforgettable" to the Saturday rush. And I came home with fresh pumpkin ravioli. That's not gonna happen anywhere else...

We Should Never Have Fast-Forwarded

I'm one of the worst offenders. I have a Tivo. Even before Tivo my family obsessively muted the commercials because (I don't know whether you've noticed this) the commercials are at least 20% louder than the actual programming. Now I never watch anything when it's on anymore. Even if I want to watch something live (e.g., the final episode of Project Runway, or any episode of Mad Men), I generally fast-forward through the commercials. I'm obviously not the only one, because advertisers have resorted to two new strategies, one of which I like and one of which is really starting to burn my cookies.

The one I like is that they've resorted to making interesting commercials. I know, right? Who would have thought of this novel idea? I will stop my Tivo to watch each of the Dean Winters Allstate commercials at least once. My parents are obsessive fans of the Aflac duck--you are not allowed to fast forward through the duck under any circumstances. A lot of commercials have an arresting visual that makes me curious enough to go back and at least see what they're advertising. And the Unilever campaign placed during Mad Men airtime was genius.

The other type, which isn't really new, just changed, is the "in-your-face-commercial-in-your-TV-show" ad. Some of these are a little more subtle--during a recent car chase on Fringe, we inexplicably got an incredibly long and focuses close-up to show us that Olivia and Peter gave chase in a Taurus. Charlie on Numbers drove a Prius, which was actually in character, but he talked about it a LOT, which wasn't. On Chuck, Devon has just bought a minivan. Not just any minivan, "an AWESOME minivan! The Toyota Sienna, the safest family auto in its class." No, seriously, that's what Devon tells Ellie. In one of the craziest examples, during the episode of Bones where Hodgins and Angela finally tied the knot, they first rented a Prius and got so distracted advertising it that they got thrown in jail. Here again, Unilever has managed to go tasteful by putting Unilever products into Mad Men...where they kind of seem like they belong.

The in-show ad is not a new idea--television has been placing products in its shows for a long time. But it's definitely getting more aggressive and brazen, and less well-integrated with the entertainment that delivers the advertising. I'm not sure where these trends will be headed, but it's probably safe to say it'll be even more obnoxious eventually. I wonder if we'll end up fast-forwarding through portions of the actual shows...and then if we do that, I wonder what they'll do to us?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Job interviews

We've been conducting job interviews at work for the past few weeks and I've come to see more and more how wise Dave Barry really is. In his now old and perhaps classic book "Claw Your Way to the Top" he talked about how to make an impression when applying for a job. He gave an example of a cover letter for a resume that sounded like it was written by a superbrain athlete fashion model president. He pointed out that the letter was very impressive, and that it made the author of the letter sound like a complete, arrogant, douche. He suggested that people may not want to hire a douche, even if they're so very, very qualified. Having sat through two particularly tragic examples of over-eager, particularly confident, moderately qualified douches, I can now personally attest that Dave Barry was right again. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and between eagerness and obsession. I've now interviewed two people who are, as Joey said, so far over the line they can't even see the line. "The line is a dot" to them.

Dave Barry recommended submitting a cover letter that was made up entirely of a punch line from a joke. He said that eventually you'd be hired by people wanting to hear the rest of the joke. From where I'm sitting now, this is not a bad idea! I'm waiting for someone to come in with a rabbi joke. They'll probably get my vote.

The AHM

I've recently stopped reading on of my author blogs, mostly because I was detecting a creeping stench of "arrogant a##hole" building up over time. He's a very good writer, and funny (at times), but I figure if I want to enjoy that I can just read the books, where the creeping stench will not be present, rather than the blog. It occurred to me, though, that when I started reading the blog there was nary a stench, not even a whiff. It seems, as I said, that the whole "AHness" kind of crept on in. And I was wondering if there could be some way to quantify and measure these creeping jerkiness.

What is needed, I have decided, is an A##hole Meter. What is also needed is an abbreviation: the AHM. I'm not sure what should go into the AHM, how to make it tick, but I'm convinced the idea has merit. Perhaps it should be the proportion of sentences that have "I" and "great" in them in a blog post. As those sentences become more common, points start clicking on the AHM. Or the number of posts that have a tone of "you people suck." I think in this particular case, though, it's more of the first. This author has a ton of fans posting just loads of sycophantic bs for his every post, and I think it's finally starting to sink it for him. So the AHM would probably be picking up on that.

I think an AHM might come in handy in lots of situations though. You could take it with you on a first date, or if you're conducting a job interview, or evaluating a potential renter. I'd say I could take it to work but it would probably just melt down within the first 5 minutes. I believe some levels of AH-ness do not need a device to measure. It's like using a device to tell if the sun is out. Look up, you'll know. And for some people you just look at them, or hear them for 1 minute, and you know. Whether you want to or not.

By the way, I'm not going to say who the author is because I'm just not that interested in making personal attacks against someone, even someone who would never know I've made them (unless they're in politics, that's different :o). That may keep the AHM from clicking as loudly for this post, but maybe not.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I'll Miss FreshDirect

Another thing I'll miss about New York is FreshDirect, New York City's 100% fabulous grocery delivery service. Even though I live on Long Island, most of which does not get FreshDirect, I continue to get tantalizing e-mails like this one. I just can't seem to hit unsubscribe and say goodbye to delivered-to-your-door goodness forever. And yes, I'm aware that Stop-N-Shop and Safeway deliver groceries. FreshDirect is a fantastic customer experience. Finding what you want is easy. Ordering it is easy. Choosing things for a special dinner is easy. Picking the best produce is easy. Ordering delicious and healthy non-frozen single-serving meals is easy. Finding the nutritional content of everything you buy is easy. Ordering wine and beer is...maybe a little too easy. The site is beautiful. The customer service is excellent. I haven't yet read "Delivering Happiness," but FreshDirect was one of the first businesses I thought of when I heard about the book.

Goodbye, FreshDirect! I'll miss you!

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Little Test....

So, say there's a two-way street, and due to construction it's closed down to two lanes. One lane is full of cars going one way. What is the other lane for?

a. Um, traffic going the other way.
b. Sixty-five MPH.
c. The same thing. I don't know why nobody's in that lane. I guess it's because I'm the smartest person here!

Ready for the answer?

If you said a, I like you very much and you are sane.*
If you said b, you are clearly an IT professional who hasn't slept in a month. Go to bed.
If you said c, you're a degenerate freeloader who thinks the world is all about you! Congratulations! Also, I hate you.


*The term "sane" as used here is strictly relative, and should not be construed as an alternative to professional care.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I'll Miss the Wackadoos

There are a lot of things I'll miss about New York. This is definitely one of them. It defies satire. The former madam, Kristin Davis, performed better at the debate than some presidential candidates have, and ya gotta admit, she's got the sound bite down. (I personally think the MTA runs pretty damn well, but I can still appreciate a finely-tuned insult as much as the next person.) And astute Blackadder fans no doubt watched Jimmy McMillan lay out the platform of the "Rent is too Damn High" party with fond reminiscence about the Standing-At-The-Back-Dressed-Stupidly-and-Looking-Stupid-Party:



Seriously, and I mean this with absolute sincerity, New York is a place where magic happens. Crazy, wacky, surreal magic, to be sure, but magic, all the same.

Monday, October 18, 2010

So True



I've taken on a role in my latest project that I lovingly refer to as "Documentation Whore." I won't go into all the geeky reasons I'm not thrilled with being the Documentation Whore. The documentation has to be done, and I'm pretty good at doing what needs to be done and explaining to the compliance trolls when something isn't necessary. (This is because I still have that scrap of optimism which imagines a world where the documentation actually helps someone. Most of us are well beyond that point, and see the documentation as meaningless busywork. Coincidentally, this is probably why I'm the Documentation Whore.)

The problem is that people insist on inventing new documents. The trolls only want a specific set of documents explaining what insanity you've wrought over the course of your project. But there's a host of other people who seriously just invent documents and then ask you to produce them, and a lot of what we end up doing is regurgitating the same content into a variety of different templates. Seriously, sometimes it's just easier to produce something that looks like what people are expecting than it is to educate them about why what they are expecting is insane or asinine (or both--why limit ourselves).

And so another day passes where our entire project team is convinced that Scott Adams has installed surveillance equipment in our workplace.

End of an Era, Part II

I totally know what Shifter's talking about. I'm going through the same thing with books. I got an e-reader a few months ago (yeah, no, not a Kindle, and not a sexy new Kindle, but a Bookeen Opus, which is the smallest and lightest e-reader on the market, and yes, I like it, but I'm tired of explaining to random people in airports and restaurants that not all e-readers are Kindles). My dream would be to have only a few physical books--the ones by my favorite writers, the ones I pick up and look through occasionally, and the ones that are autographed. So I started looking through my books and really being honest with myself. Which ones might I read again? Which ones have I not opened in ten years?

It's been an interesting experience. On the one hand, I'm a former English major, so a lot of my stuff is readily available for e-readers, and it's free. The collected works of Charles Dickens are easy to come by. Even the collected works of Wilkie Collins aren't difficult to find. On the other hand, there's a lot that isn't available yet. I have some academic texts that I really enjoy. Some of my absolute favorite books, my touchstone books, are not yet available as e-books (Marathon Man is one I'm particularly sad about--I'd feel great about having that book in my purse all the time).

Some things are actively better as e-books. When I bought the collected letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (from before she was Barrett-Browning), I could not afford a nice edition. A good edition reproduces certain pages of the letters, and has footnotes providing context for some of the things they mention. I was really fond of Browning's doodles--there's a cute one where he draws a musical note in the margin to describe the squeaky wheel sound that grates on his nerves when he has a migraine, for instance. Not knowing that it's there makes the letter kind of whiny, but the doodle hints at a lively humor. The edition that I had was pretty much your bargain basement text, with no footnotes and no facsimiles. So far I've only been able to replace volume 1, but there's a nice PDF with the pages I remember and nice footnotes.

I have six boxes of books ready to go to a charity. A couple of other boxes are waiting to be mailed out to friends and family, but I'm still replacing a few special titles. I'm really hoping that I can get down to one bookshelf (which would mean getting rid of about 3/4 of my collection). No doubt some tough choices lie ahead...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

End of an era...

Today I sold about 3/4 of my CD collection. A few hundred I think. I didn't sell them because I needed the money. I sold them because I needed the space. Our house is big, I think, but it still gets filled up and I literally haven't played any of those CDs in years. There were enough CDs there to take up the room of a fair size book case. So off to the store I went.

It's not that I don't still listen to music. I still do, quite a bit, but every CD I own has been ripped to MP3 on my PC(s) and it just never seems necessary to put in a CD. My CD changer is ancient and only still works because I never use it. So it seemed time to acknowledge the change in technology and life-style (and age) and get rid of CDs. The guy at Half-Price books was pretty impressed - he told me a few times that "you've got some nice stuff in here" "stuff I don't see every day" and so on. It made me happy and sad all at once. Happy that my taste was seen as leading to "nice stuff" and sad to be parting with that nice stuff. It's weird, because I still have access to every single song if I want it, but not having the physical media, the discs themselves, feels like a loss. Probably because for years of my life collecting those CDs was one of my main focuses outside of school and friends, and indeed a big part of some parts of school and friends. Music was a big part of my identity. And, back in the day, I would NEVER consider letting go of CDs in favor of MP3s because MP3s are not 100.000% true to the sound of the CD. Who cares that only a dog could hear the difference! If it's not perfect, it's not good enough for my music. Or it wasn't. But now I'm more practical, and need the space, and, well, a lot older. How depressing.

I couldn't go through with it all the way, though. I kept back about 50-70 discs that I just couldn't part with - favorite bands, rare stuff that was hard to find, imports. I won't be using those discs either, but I'm just not ready to let them go. As Monty Python noted, "I'm not dead."

I swear I didn't put her up to this...


My youngest daughter is on a crusade, entirely based on her own inclinations and personality, to save the endangered dragons. She has been going in and outside of our house putting up signs, like this one. Dragons, it turns out, are really just misunderstood and poorly treated creatures of mother nature, and we should all do our part to keep them around. How cool is that?

The picture of "Frustrating"


So we got this really cool puzzle, and I worked on it for 5 days, and it was 999 pieces of fun! And it was one piece of shear frustration. And that one piece kind of killed the buzz. Can you spot the one piece in this picture? Top left quadrant. I knew you could...


Freeways

My brain was actually working the other day, which was good because it turned out to be a particularly disappointing day. When my brain is actually working, which is rare, I come up with random thoughts. And one random thoughts was that freeways are just modern marvels. I don't mean that they're marvels because of how they're built, how big they are, what they allow us to do, or anything like that. I mean those are marvelous, but that's not what my thought was. The amazing thing about freeways is that they work, at all.

Think about what it takes for a freeway to actually function. You have to have tens of thousands of people all driving cars. All the cars have to be reasonably maintained. They all have to be driven by people who can judge speed, distance, direction, and so forth. These people all have to have a shared understanding of rules of the road - how to pass, what it means to pass, how to merge (oh yes, they REALLY need that shared understanding), when and why to honk, when to stop (never), when to speed up, and so forth. And the thing is, if even ONE of these things doesn't happen, a freeway won't work. If ONE driver is sufficiently inept, they can either slow the whole thing down atrociously or they can get in a wreck and stop the whole damn thing. It amazes me that we can get tens of thousands of people to more or less satisfy these requirements every day to the extent that freeways actually run. In general, it seems impossible to get a group of 10 people to work together at even mundane tasks, but here we routinely get 10,000 people to work together on a rather complex task.

Now I know, Mr. and Mrs. Snark, that there are plenty of times freeways DON'T work, and that when they don't it is precisely because someone or a group of someone's don't meet those basic requirements. They drive like idiots, or they drive a car that blows up, or they don't know the rules of the road, or whatever. And I know this because I have sat there for hours paying the price for this failure of some individuals out of our 10,000 to be smart or lucky enough to keep the thing going. But consider, I live in a city which, with the metro included, has a few million people, lots of them use the freeways, and it is almost NEVER the case that I can't get where I'm going on the freeway. Given the variables that have to align for that to happen, it's kind of, well, amazing.

Another fascinating thing about the freeways is when you view them as a complex, self-correcting system. Freeways can be a chaos theoretician's dream experiment. A butterfly flapping it's wings, distracting a driver, causing a fender bender, causing police to come, causing rubber-neckers, can indeed cause the freeway equivalent of a hurricane.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

It is finished

Lo, many months ago Shifter did undertake a great undertaking, which was undertook lo many months ago. And that undertaking did require the undertaking of a buttload of reading. And that buttload of reading, which was undertook, did involve ALL of the Wheel of Time books, each of which has a gazillion words and pages. And now, as it was undertaken, so it was undertook, and it is done.

Finally.

Having now re-read the entire series, and read the new Book, which was outlined by Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson, I can make a few observations.

First, the series is, if anything, even longer than I remembered.

Second, the first books were every bit as good as I remembered.

Third, the latter books were not, overall, as bad as I remembered. Reading them all in order definitely helped with many of those later books.

Fourth, SOME books (especially Crossroads at Twilight) were EVEN WORSE than I remembered. Really, CaT was a colossal waste of trees, brain cells, and precious hours that I could have spent plucking my eyebrows or other tasks, all of which would have been more interesting and valuable than reading that book. However...

Fifth, the new book (book 12, The Gathering Storm) really rocked! I am very impressed by what Sanderson did. It is definitely not a "Jordan" book and in some ways that is not a bad thing. The pace was much faster, for example, and clothing was described much less often. I know it seems like I harp on clothing descriptions a lot but believe me, I harp on them far less often than they show up in all 11 of the other damn books. There were actually some decent and I think fairly accurate reviews of Book 12 on Amazon, and I agree with them that the writing for Matt Cauthon was a bit jarring compared to Jordan, but aside from that it was a fairly seamless transition from Jordan to Sanderson. And it was just a good, fun book.

So now the next book (Book 13) comes out in about a month and I will pick that up and read it, but probably not right away. I'm longing for some books that are under 800 pages - working on some true pulp at the moment. The Malazan empire books are calling to me as well, but again I'm hoping for some lighter, sub-900 page novels for a bit.

And there you have it.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Actual Excerpt From Our Team Meeting

"So we feed all this data into the system and use it to forecast the financial impact over the term of the transaction down to the dollar, the euro, the yen, what have you."
"How do you do that?"
"We have a midget in a room."

Monday, September 06, 2010

Better Off Ted S2 on Netflix Streaming

Including two episodes the network couldn't even be bothered to burn off.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

A movie experience

I recently had the experience of watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I went in to this movie with mixed feelings. On the one hand, some of my family had seen it and liked it. Also, the first 2 X-men were pretty good movies - not stellar, but good. On the other hand, the reviews were far from stellar. On the whole I'm glad I watched it. Not because it was good. It was, to me, the worst movie I've seen in at least a year. But I am glad I watched it because it helped me understand what makes a good comic book adaptation.

One of the challenges good comic book adaptations face, Batman Begins, Spiderman, Ironman (why all "man"s?) and so forth, is that their subject matter is inherently cheesy. A simplistic adaptation of any of these characters ends up with a guy in tights and a mask dropping insipid one liners while punching people. (Ok, Ironman wore a metal costume, but the same idea's there). What a good comic book adaptation does is take these characters and develop their back story, their context, and their powers (and their costumes) enough that you can engage with them as people. They'll never be "believable" but they are, (they do, after all, wear tights), but if this is done well they WILL be engaging. You can find enough humanity and story in there to put aside the men in tights aspect. To do this, the writer/director often must go beyond the original characters to some extent. Often not to a huge extent (Frank Miller's 2 Batman works - Batman Year 1 which became Batman Begins and Dark Knight, for example, both were well written and so translated well), but at least a bit.

The reason I came to understand this watching Wolverine is that they did exactly the opposite. They took a character who is inherently cheesy (the man has metal claws growing out of the back of his hands, and likes to growl, for Chrissakes) and they set up a story line that was if anything less believable, less engaging, and more cheesy than the comic book. They started with a nonsensical so-called plot (two mutant brothers are sucked into a mutant special forces that ends up hunting down other mutants all to develop a sinister super mutant who will hunt all other mutants, which Logan/Wolverine didn't know because he quit to become a lumberjack halfway through), threw in truly ridiculous dialog, and then went on to show that even competent actors cannot save a train wreck of a movie from itself. They did not do this to stay true to the comic book (I've seen that done - it turns into a train wreck too, but at least then it is a train wreck with a reason). No, they twisted the Marvel universe more than any of the movies I've mentioned above. Far more.

No, I think that this was the result of a different deliberate choice - not to make a bad movie, or a "accurate" movie, but to focus exclusively on bringing 1) a little bit of action, 2) a lot of special effects, and 3) as many good/bad guys with powers in as possible. All of this is done with no regard to any other part of the movie, parts like say plot, or character development. The bad news is that as a movie it failed utterly. The worse news is they made a lot of money at it, so we will of course see its ilk again.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Did you know...?

Did you know what my typing speed is? No?! Shocking. I was just on a website that tests your typing speed for you (ok, kind of cool if you happen to want to know what it is) and then it informed me that I can now post my typing speed on my blog! How cool is that?! I mean I just know you've all been wondering how long it takes me to type all this drivel, right? Is it minutes, or long, torturous hours? Does it hurt as much to type it as it does to read it? Is that even possible?

Well, now I can tell you! Only to tell you the truth, I just can't. I just can't imagine, even using my very vivid imagination about all our fictional readers (and our 3 non-fictional ones) that anyone actually cares what my typing speed is. It just defies my ability to dream. I do not regard this as a bad thing, however! It restores my faith in humanity.

Granted, I imagine you're just dying to know what computer game I'm playing today. Or my favorite passage in obscure sci-fi or fantasy novels. But not the typing, no, not that. That would just be weird.

Wheel of Time Update

Ok, quick break from grant work to let you all know that 1) Shifter is still alive and 2) Shifter is STILL reading Wheel of Time. I am now on book 11 (Knife of Dreams) and am only about 200 pages away from FINALLY getting to read the new book, The Gathering Storm. Reading the series has been an interesting experience. First, it has taken longer than I thought. Partly because I just couldn't help myself from cheating and reading other books here and there, and partly because other things ate my life (such as evil Facebook games, now dead to me). One of the things that surprised me was that overall I enjoyed most of the series more than I had recalled. There is an undeniable change in the style and nature of the writing as the books progressed, which still does make me sad. The books were always filled with detail, from Eye of the World on, but it used to be filled with rich and interesting detail. After 11 books it just got to be repetitive and boring detail. It's hard to criticize Jordan for this because, well, he's dead, but also because he just kept doing what he had done all along. Maybe that's the problem - he needed to adapt by giving less of the agonizing details as he went on. I think a part of it was that the storyline got to be very complex, and he had to remind the readers, in each book, who everyone was, what they looked like, what their accent was, what clothes they wore, and even (occasionally) what the hell they were doing there. Oddly enough he didn't remind you often about that last point, which I really would have appreciated.

But this post was not meant to complain about WoT. On the contrary, in spite of the writing style I found that I enjoyed the books straight through much more than I had one at a time. I was better able to remember all the characters and plot lines, and that did make it more interesting. I was more, rather than less, frustrated by all the little re-descriptions that were required in each book (you'd still be getting those half way through every book), but I could see why they were there. But I now agree with Brandon Sanderson, oddly enough, that the series was not written to be read one book every 2-3 years but instead as a series. One can speculate on the wisdom of writing a series of HUGE books that has TWELVE VOLUMES (now expanded to 14 by Sanderson because book 12 would have been the size of an unabridged dictionary) and expecting it to be read in sequence over a short period of time, but there you have it. There are a few freaks (e.g., me) who will do this, but most people probably won't.

In any case, the 11th book, which I am on, is a lot of fun, as was book 9 (Winter's Heart). In it you can see that Jordan really means to bring this all to a close - the last battle is coming and there will actually BE a last battle, not just some convenient narrative trick that avoids it even happening. Which is surprisingly rare sometimes - lots of build up then "presto, quest solved" happens too often in fantasy. But Book 10, Crossroads at Twilight, was pure dog doo. It is the one book that Jordan said he was not pleased with, it's the one book Sanderson, his fanboy/successor (who I do like a lot as a writer, fandom aside) said he wasn't thrilled with, and it is the one book I wish I had never read twice. If you try this experiment I'd advise reading the cliff notes version of the book online. It will save you time, brain cells, and sanity, and you'll be less confused and better informed than if you had read it.

So, probably within the week (work allowing) I'll actually be reading the novel I set out to read 8 months ago. And they said I wasn't single minded! I can't wait to see how Sanderson tackles Jordan's world and plot.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

So, What's the Point of Fiction?

I'm just going to bring this into the blog, because I think it's something both Shifter and I are interested in. And I'm not spoiler tagging anything--if you haven't read Tana French's first novel, I'm sorry to say that it is two years old and you are officially on your own. Feel free to go away and read it now. When you've finished it after two sleepless nights, the blog will still be here. Are you back now? Good.

Seeker, our most faithful commenter and author of her own blog, made note of the fact that I'm reading Tana French's new novel, Faithful Place. As it happens, I've been waiting for it desperately since I finished her last one, which I had been waiting for desperately since I finished her first book. Seeker asked if it was like her first book, In The Woods, the ending of which didn't meet with her approval:
The fact that she did not RESOLVE what happened IN THE WOODS made me CRAZY....I thought it was very unfair to her audience. Let me know when you finish if I can trust that she does not do the same thing in her other novels....
So, I don't need to finish French's book to answer you. If I were you, I just wouldn't read them. I don't think you and Tana French see eye to eye about what makes a good story, and I don't think that makes her an unfair writer or a bad writer or a mean writer. I think it just means she may not be writing for you.

I don't need a bow on everything, especially if the writer has any inkling that she might write about a character again. Frankly it makes the characters a lot less interesting if all their problems can be resolved in a mere three to five hundred pages. I know I have a boatload of stories that I'll never know the ending to in my life, and it doesn't bother me if a writer chooses to make her stories lifelike in that way.

And a cop who's dealing with an unresolved mystery in his past is far more interesting than a cop who figured it all out and put it to rest. I mean, I might be happy for the cop whose story has a bow on it...but I could understand if a writer never wanted to write about him again. I worry deeply about my favorite characters when I see the writer making a bow (Val McDermid, I'm looking at you).

I understand that part of the problem is that In The Woods was marketed as a mystery, and it is. And the convention in a mystery is for the detectives to figure it all out at the end. I think this serves some deeply human desire for us to see the Rebel Alliance defeat the Evil Empire, to see The Federation triumph over The Borg, and even to see Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson find their perverted criminal and put him away every Wednesday at 9:00 (8:00 Central). It's not a trivial thing--I think there's a very real and eternal need we have for fiction to put things right in a way that we don't get often in life, and mysteries are champs at this.

But here's the thing. The mystery genre has been around for a very long time. (Opinions differ on exactly how long--I'm partial to giving Wilkie Collins the credit for The Woman In White in 1860, but then I'm partial to Wilkie Collins in general.) There's a very recognizable formula, which is why we have all these subgenres around--it's a desperate effort to breathe some vitality and variety into a genre where avid readers nearly always know what's going to happen. I have no idea when my mother was last surprised by the end of a mystery. I suspect she may have been in her teens. Once it becomes so formulaic that all that distinguishes you is the type of crime and how technical or gut-driven your detectives are, you've gotten to the point where software can write a serviceable detective novel. (I sometimes wonder whether Hal has taken charge of Elliot and Olivia.)

When that happens, great writers play with the genre, and I think Tana French does really interesting things with it. In The Woods is delicately poised on a knife edge between mystery and the freakishly nebulous genre of Serious Fiction.* And there are two things that pull her novel out of the ordinary (well, two that matter to me as a reader). One is the characters--they had a life before the story and they have a life after the story, and none of it seems like it's any less complicated than the bit we're seeing for the 400 pages or so where we keep them company. And the other is that she frustrates our expectations in a genre that's held very few surprises for decades--which only makes the characters more exciting. I would be thrilled to see Rob or Cassie again. I have often wondered, since I put the book down, how Rob will make sense of what we've seen him go through.

If every book ends with everything all tied up it starts to remind me of a television show that's written to be syndicated and run out of order, like a sitcom. (Or, indeed, Law and Order. "Do you think he did it?" "Yeah, it's 9:52.") It's a very artificial narrative style. That's fine sometimes, but it would be awful if every story on earth had to be like that or be branded as "unfair." Luckily, there are plenty of great writers whose fiction will satisfy your ideas of fairness and good storytelling--we're spoiled for choice, and there is something for everyone. It's kind of like being at an amusement park. You're either a spinny-ride person or you're a roller coaster person.

Me, I want the descendants of Wilkie Collins, whose advice to Charles Dickens was, "Make 'em laugh...make 'em cry.........make 'em WAIT." If a writer were nice to us all the time, Little Nell would have lived, and men all over England would have gone to their graves without once crying in public. If you can always count on a fair universe, it takes away a little of the suspense. I read partly because I want the thrill of the unknown, the frisson of being pulled inexorably from page to page under the spell of a writer's story. And I read my favorite writers partly to give myself over to their safekeeping, to trust them to take me somewhere that I might not go myself and that I might not even like, because I think the experience is one worth having. If you bought your ticket for the spinny ride once and you threw up at the very end, look for a roller-coaster. Look for someone who will thrill you in a way that makes you trust them to take you on a worthwhile journey.

As always, someone else has said it better than I. I think this is very much related to the "the writer isn't working for you" theme that Neil Gaiman has progressively elaborated from time to time, to the vexation of lots of different readers (which I kind of think proves his point). As he says, "For me, I would rather read a good book, from a contented author. I don't really care what it takes to produce that."





*NB: You have to say "Serious Fiction" with a Very Serious Face.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Credit Card Gnome

I can't stop thinking about how hilarious it is that the charges that alerted my credit card to fraud were for dating services. I keep imagining the gnome at Credit Card Headquarters whose job it is to look at everything I buy. (I know the gnome is actually a data mining program, but gnome is funnier.) And here's what I'm seeing:

Dinner for One
Dinner for One
Dinner for One
Dinner for One
Dinner for One
Sensible Shoes
Sensible Shoes
Cute Skirt
Cute Skirt
Cute Skirt
Cute Skirt
(Dear Lord, how many skirts does this woman need?)
Dinner for One
Dinner for One
Dinner for One
Books
Books
Books
Books
Books
Books
Books
Books
Books
Books
Books
Ereader!
Ebooks
Ebooks
Ebooks
Ebooks
Ebooks
Sensible shoes
Dinner for One
Jdate
EHarmony
Match.com
HEY, WAIT A MINUTE! THIS IS NOT MY HUMAN! MY HUMAN IS A BOOK-READING, SKIRT WEARING, SENSIBLY SHOD PERSON WHO DOESN'T COOK!

I'm sorry, it's just getting funnier and funnier the more I think about it.

Is the Application the Exam?

So I'm applying to take a certification exam, and the application is notoriously brutal.  You're basically trying to correctly categorize all of your experience so that as little of it as possible is frowned upon by the certification committee (because you, say, miscategorized a peer review and put it in the wrong place). I've just spent the last week estimating and/or documenting my hours on various projects, which was, in itself, an insane process.  Now I'm going through an Excel spreadsheet where everything I've ever done for every project I've ever worked on is laid out with an attendant number of hours next to it.  I'm going through to see if I can remember enough of what I did to put all those hours in the application.  If I estimated 40 hours on something but I can only remember 5 hours of work, I figure that'd be an issue.  So far I've had no trouble figuring out what I was doing for all that time, although when you spent 200 hours doing something it puts things into horrific perspective--I guess the 14- and 16-hour days add up.
 
Here's the thing.  If I put all this shit in the right categories and my hours are right, I almost don't think I should have to take the exam.  I realize this is ludicrous.  For one thing, there are things on the exam that I've never done or that I've done infrequently, and I suppose I ought to know them.  But holy mackerel, if I don't know the difference between verification and validation by the time I get that application filled out, I'll be in a sorry state indeed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What Matters Now

This is free, and it is totally worth reading.

What Does It Say...

...when the credit card company calls to verify charges to dating sites on your account as "unusual activity?" Even my credit card company knows I'm not dating. I'm almost as concerned about that as I am about who got my card number and how...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Unlikely Disciple

Last night I finally finished The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose. I can't recommend the book highly enough--it's hilarious and fascinating. Several parts made me laugh out loud (the image of John Waters beaming through a Jerry Falwell sermon is something I'll summon up from time to time when I need to smile). I wish I had been that creative and courageous with my college experience, and I hope I'm this open-minded at least some of the time. I'll probably re-read it at some point... but not until I meet my goal of reading 50 books this year, since I don't think I could count this twice. I'm actually thinking of downloading the audiobook, which, as anyone who knows me knows, is the fate of all my favorite books.

It's telling that even the most hateful review on Amazon gives the book three stars.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Good to Know

Women are such idiots that L'Oreal felt the need to translate the name of their new lipstick. Because we wouldn't know that "Infallible" means that the color will "never fail."

Or maybe they just think we grew up Catholic.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In which Shifter tries to run on water

Today was an incredibly beautiful day here in the not-so-Frozen north. We've been really hot this summer, but today? Ah, today! Today was exquisite. It was like 70 degrees, maybe 75, and had this lovely breeze. There were clouds in patches with sunlight shining through, and there was not even a bit of humidity. It felt like the best of fall come early. It was, in short, the very best type of day for running.

So naturally I did my long run yesterday in heat, stillness, and humidity.

Yesterday's run was not quite so great. I got up at 4 because it was still muggy, and drove to a park where I like to run a 1.7 mile trail around this pond. It's not too boring, not too hilly, and was my way of taking it easy for what I hoped would be 20 miles. Now if you get up at 4am, and it's past the equinox, you're going to be running in the dark. No problem! I've run around this damn pond so many times I could do it in my sleep. So there I am, starting off down the trail in the dark park, secure in the knowledge that it'll be a good run.

Then I ran into the lake. Or at least it seemed that way. I'm running along the trail, and suddenly I come to this water stretching out in front of me. And I can't see the end of the water on the other side! Two possibilities presented themselves. First, I had accidentally taken a turn and had actually run to the pond, instead of around it. The second was that the trail was flooded. I could not assess these possibilities, in the dark, so I ran back the way I came, ran out of the park, and ran around on the roads for 5 miles until it was light enough for me to figure out what was going on. I returned to the trail and found that it was option b. The trail was flooded out. We've been having a lot of rain, and it was enough to cause a little mini pond right in the trail. No problem! I can run on the grass next to the trail, and get to the other side of the temporary pond, now that I see what's going on. Which I do. Squish, squish, squish running through the grass - a bit damp, but fine. Then I come to another portable pond. No problem! In the grass I go. Oops, problem! This particular pond has turned the grass next to the trail into still more pond with grass growing in it. AKA a marsh. With about 3 inches of standing water. Splash, splash, splash through the marsh I go. #$@#.

I don't mind water, to be honest, but when your shoes are entirely drenched (as in you just ran in a pond) two things happen. First, your feet are soaked and blisters become a real possibility and second, your shoes lose all their absorbency. It's like running with cardboard or leather soles and no padding. Since this was 5 miles into what was meant to be a 20 mile run, it was not a good thing. But doggedly I ran on, deciding that perhaps what I would do is run all the way around the loop to this big portable pond, turn around and run back until I hit it from the other side, and in that way do my laps. Then I hit another pond - squished through it, not too bad. Then I came near the end of the loop, close to my start point, when I hit a portable lake. I couldn't even see the other side of it. The trail went in and just did not come out again. I thought there might be ducks or a boat on it further down the waterway that had once been my running route.

At this point I realized that it was possible I should simply declare this trail "flooded" and find somewhere else to run. I'm not the brightest bulb in the light store at 4 in the morning (more like 6:00 by then) but I do catch on eventually. I turned around and ran back until I could take a side trail away from the pond (and all it's new subsidiaries), got back to some familiar highways, and ran along the road. At about 15 miles my feet were just killing me so I called it quits, ran to my car, and drove home. My shoes are still drying out.

There is no moral to this story. There are no words of wisdom to share and no witticisms to impart. I will simply conclude with "#$@!" and hope with better luck for next week.

A useful little tip

Ok, if you happen to own a building that looks like 2 or maybe 3 IHOP restaurants all merged together, and then you paint it beige and call it "Executive Office Space," it still looks like 3 IHOP restaurants painted being and nobody is going to pay "executive" prices for your crappy office space. I know you would think that there is no need to point something like this out, but it turns out, based on the buildings I passed on my run this morning, you would be wrong.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Robot, or Really Perky Employee High on Artificial Sweetener?

I'd like to draw your attention to a comment on my rant regarding the artificial sweetener, Reb-A. It goes like this:

Hi Katy,

I work for ZSweet® all natural sweetener. We use Reb A in our sweeteners because it is an all natural zero calorie alternative to sugar & artificial sweeteners. We believe our Reb A has a superior non-bitter taste & blended with erythritol & other natural zero calorie botanical extracts it's the best tasting sugar substitute available.

I would LOVE to get your critique of ZSweet®... I have confidence you'll love it 'cus I too hate the nasty aftertaste of most sweeteners & get so mad when I find out I accidentally purchased something with sweetener when I'd rather just have unsweetened.

Please let me know if you'd like a sample of ZSweet®. Thanks!


Shifter thinks it's a robot. I think it's a real human being armed with some marketing language and the kind of enthusiasm that can only come from having found one's true calling (or, possibly, from having drunk far too much Reb-A-sweetened kool aid in the ZSweet® canteen--but probably the true calling thing). If I may paraphrase New Model Army, nothing is as perky as the eagerness of innocence, with boilerplate effictios and a gospel of the truth.*

What say you, IR's? Is she a robot, and should I request a sample?

*I know, effictio doesn't scan properly. But I did all this hard work trying to remember that word that Dr. Connelly taught us in Trads I, and it is such a cool word.

More Wednesday Humor


This post at Gizmodo is the best commercial for the iPhone that I've ever seen (and let the record show that I cry when I watch the commercial with the girl whose hairdresser hacked off all her hair with a machete, and tear up when the girl with new braces smiles for her father).


The post also convinces me that I can never again do online dating. You have to find a special photographer with a fancy camera and use the right f-stop setting and find a blurry field that's awash with soft light at 4:00 in the afternoon. And all of that is before you even write a profile that makes you sound witty and intelligent yet fun and approachable, while attracting pleasant humans who don't have hobbies involving machetes (hairdressers, I'm lookin' at you) and ward off unpleasant humans with poor hygiene, questionable hobbies, and frightening personal ambitions, or who were tragically born without a sense of humor. It's enough to make a girl resolve to just add 15% to her budgets for beer and batteries and wash her own damn car. (You can take that as a metaphor or literally. I won't judge you. Much.)

Hilarious

In case anyone needed a little hump day humor, I came by this by way of Techland (click to go the Techland post, which has the video of how this wonder came to be):



Edited because Blogaway does not rock video clips...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What I always want to know

Is if they remove 10% of the calories from an item, like say 10% of the calories from a 100 calorie granola bar, whey they have to remove the 10% of the calories that have, oh, FLAVOR. It's like they took out just this one little piece, but all that is left is tasteless crumbs glued together with tasteless goo. And, in the case of granola bars, let's face it, IT'S 10 CALORIES PEOPLE! IT'S A FEW TIC-TACS AND A LIFE-SAVER. Surely, we can get along with the extra 10 calories if it will allow us enough flavor to face the rest of the day without ripping out our own tongues.

My apologies if I've had this rant before. I can't recall and don't really feel like doing a search for "granola bar shaped $#%!" to double check. I imagine our IR's could be as forgetful as I am, though, so perhaps it's all to the good.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Reb A: The Natural Sweetener That's Just As Disgusting As Artificial Ones!

Every couple of years I have the same experience.  I go to choose something--a protein bar, a yogurt, a beverage, what have you--and I comb through the list of ingredients and all the other text on the packaging looking for things that will make it taste awful.  Saccharin, Olestra, Olean, Aspartame, Nutra-Sweet, Sucralose, Splenda...you name it, I look for it.  And every few years they come out with a new one and I buy it.  Sometimes it's intentional.  Sometimes I actually think to myself, "hey, maybe they've come up with a diet/diabetic-friendly sweetener that doesn't taste like a muskrat wiped its feet on my tongue!"  Sometimes it is unintentional.  I read the whole label, see nothing suspicious, and buy the item, and then I end up with a bunch of whatever it is.  At home today I have the box of South Beach Peanut Butter Snack Bars that introduced me to the fact that sucralose and splenda are the same thing.
 
Today I bought a bottle of Lipton tea.  This was sort of an intentional muskrat-foot-licking experience.  I saw two raspberry teas and I read the calories on the one with good old-fashioned, come-to-mama sugar.  And I was like, oooh, 160 calories.  Maybe they have a plain old ordinary iced tea that won't be as bad.  And as I was looking for the less awful alternative, I found a zero calorie raspberry tea and combed through its ingredients and found nothing offensive.  I don't know why, but I assumed this was unsweetened raspberry tea.  But before I got to the checkout in the cafeteria I noticed the suspicious "PureVia" logo.  At this point my taste buds should have sent up the red flag.  "Muskrat!  Muskrat!  Muskrat!" they should have shouted, perhaps summoning the psychic equivalent of flashing lights and a klaxon.  But I thought to myself, hey, Splenda tasted fine, and the aftertaste, although still disgusting, was really almost negligible for an artificial sweetener.  Assuming that artificial sweeteners continue to improve with every incarnation, this PureVia will be even better.  Even if I don't like it, it's worth trying.  If I'd been thinking clearly I would have realized that this was a word related to stevia, an alleged sweetener that my insanely healthy friends had introduced me to before.  I had a little on a strawberry and my reaction was, "In what way is this superior to a plain old naked strawberry?  Now it's a strawberry with hideous aftertaste!"  But alas, I did not make the connection.
 
Oh, the muskraty badness!  It tastes every bit as bad as aspartame.  And how dare you call this natural?  It is Unnatural.  I don't want to go so far as souls burning in eternal fire, because, you know, po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  But "natural" is not a word that should be applied to a taste like this, unless it is the natural taste of a bug that never, ever, EVER wants to be eaten by predators.
 
I drank about a quarter of the bottle on the "maybe I'll get used to it" premise, but I couldn't stand any more.  Still, that's probably enough to see if it has the same effect as aspartame, which is to make me an evil, gum-snapping bitch.  After all, it should have some benefit.  Hope springs eternal....

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Is it any wonder

Is it any wonder I'm liking Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell so much? Take a look at this interview with the writer, Susanna Clarke. In the first 15 lines she endorses The Watchmen (good old Alan Moore), Neil Gaiman, and the statement "so many beers, so little time." How could I ever not love this book? She also sounds like she is much smarter than I am, or at least much more educated, so I suppose I'd be a bit intimidated if I met her. Which just goes to show it's a good thing I don't live in England, in Cambridge.

The Other Guys

This movie took me by surprise. Not because it was so good. I didn't expect it to be good, and it's not. It's acceptable entertainment, and it delivers laughs and good performances. I expected something like a less-quotable "Airplane." Maybe a "Hot Shots" type movie. And that's pretty much what it was...almost the whole time.

Most of the time it's a mildly entertaining, Saturday-Night-Live-sketch-level film. Every once in a while it shows a weird political bent that takes you off guard, like 40 seconds of dialogue where it sharply dresses down the SEC with a vigor that makes you think maybe the script wandered down a dark alley and got jumped by The Daily Show or Harry Markopolos. And just as you're thinking, "what just happened?" it drops you back into the anti-buddy cop sketch you were watching before.

But the coup de grace is the credit sequence, which out of nowhere becomes an animated statistics course on the history of financial fraud and lunacy. If you put these credits at the end of a Michael Moore movie, no one would think them out of place. A.O. Scott at the New York Times has a funny take on it in his review, here.

One website I saw denigrated the credits as somehow anti-capitalist. But I think you can be a healthy capitalist and still be pissed off that executive compensation has risen to an insane degree, or that some executive retirement packages could buy an island. I own way too many shoes to be a socialist, and it pisses me off that the SEC had their noses rubbed in Madoff's misdeeds over and over again but failed to investigate until Madoff had already out-Ponzi'd Ponzi many times over and his scheme actually collapsed under its own weight.

It was odd and unarguably gutsy, and I have to say, it's probably all I'll remember in a month about The Other Guys. Anyway, if you go, don't walk out on the credits--you're leaving money on the table.

Friday, August 06, 2010

If for some reason you have not read this post

If you have not read THIS POST by Katy about, oh, a week ago you simply must GO AND READ IT NOW. Hilarious and just so damn true. I don't usually do a "you rock" post for T (or S, can't remember which one Katy is) but it's a very good post, and it's worth posting to point that out.

This is kind of sad

This link is to a NY Times story about Barnes and Noble being up for sale. That in and of itself is not sad, or happy, but the subtext is. They're talking about the decline and perhaps death of the traditional bookstore. Of course this is not a new idea, and Katy's posts (which I read avidly) about e-readers, and my own drooling over whatever competitor with the I-pad becomes best, are symptoms of it. Eventually, the article is saying, we will be buying all our books on line and perhaps many of them won't even be physical books.

In many ways this is good. Let's consider research, for example. When I wrote my dissertation I assembled literally over a thousand articles that I stored in two HUGE file cabinets. These file cabinets, neatly alphabetized, followed us from house to house for years, eating up floor space and injuring the unprotected eyes with their ugliness. And they were HEAVY. We finally got rid of them, and did not replace them. And you know why? Well a big reason is because I now do 80% of my article reading using pdf's stored on my itty-bitty Ironkey thumb drive. It has a file cabinet's worth of crap on it, and it is VASTLY superior in storage and utility to any paper based system.

It is not hard to extrapolate from this to non-professional reading. Just as I had huge file cabinets, I still have huge bookshelves stuffed with books I have read and plan to read. And perhaps as the e-readers get better and better, and physical books get less and less convenient (if, for example, the Barnes and Noble down the street from me closes), this too will go paperless. And if that change comes, well, so be it. I am not one who decries change simply because it is change, or progress simply because it's different (or repetitiveness simply because I say the same thing in different ways - ha ha). This has already happened for the most part to record/CD stores, and our lives keep on rolling. And while I do miss using my big old stereo system at times, selecting MP3's on my linux box, and especially on my I-pod, is indeed MUCH more convenient.

But I must confess, and the point of this post is to confess, that I will painfully miss bookstores if they go the way of the dinosaur. More than software stores, electronics stores, music stores, or video stores, book stores are my favorite places to go. There is no where else you can go and simply be surrounded, simply surrounded, by ideas, knowledge, and possibility. This book can tell you how to renovate your house, that one how to build a computer, that one how to learn a language, and on, and on, and on! And you're also surrounded by dreams! Fantastic or horrible or strangely familiar worlds of fiction or even non-fiction just sitting there for you to peruse. Old friends lie within the pages of books you've read before, and new friends await on the pages of so many other books you have yet to read. It's a heady feeling!

I cherish hopes that they will still have the odd used book store, or odd ball new book store, around in large cities for the cultural dinosaurs like me to graze in even if/when B&N and other chains are gone. Because even though I love amazon, and shop there as much as I do B&N, it's never going to give me the rush that a real bookstore does. It's like non-alcoholic beer. Sort of similar taste, nothing like the effect.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Follow-Up to Shifter's Earlier Post

JP over at Time has a blog post about the same issue Shifter brought up a week or so ago.  The first commenter actually brings the article Shifter blogged to JP's attention.  Both the post and the (thus far polite, although it's only a matter of time--Tuned In has trolls on both ends of the political spectrum) comments are interesting.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Unlikely Disciple

If you haven't heard about this book, I urge you to find out about it. It's hilarious and fascinating, and it has successfully wrested my attention away from the Tess Gerritsen books I've been tearing through at a rate of 4 a week. (Almost all gone!)

And by the way, I'm loving the fact that books now have trailers:

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

If Vulcans Ran a Business

Every once in a while, companies like to survey their employees to find out what they're thinking.  And unlike Don Draper, we can't get up and walk away, so, you know, we answer the questions.  And then the managers get up and say, "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that you feel this way!"  Because if they got up and said, "Well, yeah, we figured" that probably wouldn't go over so well.
 
Once upon a time I worked someplace where the survey scores were abysmal.  I mean they were so low that you couldn't believe there wasn't an attendant suicide rate.  And the company was shocked.  And they tried a bunch of things.  And I think they started asking us quarterly.  "Do we suck any less?  Now?  How about now?"  And we kept telling them that they sucked as much as they had the first time they asked, if not more.  And so it continued.  Eventually they broke us into "focus groups."  As you might imagine, employees were herded into small conference rooms where they sulked quietly until they were allowed to leave.  And then one day a friend of mine just lost it in one of these sessions.  He was like, "You want to know why you suck?  I'll tell you why!" and he went into this diatribe that lasted about five minutes.  And unlike most people (for example, Katy) when he lost it he was clearly angry but also thoughtful and articulate, with enumerated points and quotable sound bites.  Seriously.  It was like watching Martin Luther King bitch these people out for treating employees like garbage.  There were lots of ominous sounds of agreement in the room, and it suddenly became clear that they had kept the focus groups small so that we couldn't overpower them.
 
This was valuable information.  They had (thanks to him) an bulleted list of things that were awful: 
  • No recognition for employees' achievements, unless the employee did something they couldn't not recognize (like saving millions of dollars or rescuing a child from a burning building). 
  • Employees in a position of indentured servitude where, in order to get a better job, you had to do your current job and that job for one or two years (you know, to prove that your skill level was "repeatable" and not a fluke) without being paid any extra money. 
  • A silent "class system" where some jobs were universally acknowledged as "process" jobs and some jobs were universally acknowledged as "project" jobs, which would be fine except that a) some jobs had responsibilities in both categories but still got arbitrarily classed as one or the other, and b) only the "project" jobs were rewarded or respected. 
  • Wholesale lack of promotion for non-salaried employees--if you had a timecard, your career path went no further than the entry to your cubicle. 

And they stopped being shocked and started to admit that they really had no idea it was this bad.

Since it was a company, and companies move slowly, they didn't actually move to solve the problems right away.  First, they made up some Goals.  And the Goals were supposed to fix these very bad things.  And Goals are measured.  And as we all know (say it with me) what gets measured gets done.  Only they weren't very good at writing Goals.  (Once they decided that the measure of success for a particular project would be the number of reports it produced.  This goal was bad because it failed to take into account that 25 reports that are inaccurate and useless are actually worse than one good report that is accurate and saves people time.  And it led to employees being pressured to accept badly written and inaccurate reports or lose compensation.  We call that "driving the wrong behavior.")  And the Goals were tied to compensation.  Let me say it again.  The Goals were tied to compensation.  So that meant that if the employees were unsatisfied, they got paid less.  Can you guess where this is headed?
 
They worked for a whole year to fix the very bad things.  And at the end of the year all of the bad things were essentially still true.  So when they issued the survey, they found maybe a tiny, statistically insignificant improvement to the abysmally low scores they had started with.  I remember this made them really angry.  One manager said with frustration and barely restrained rage, "You realize you're all screwing yourselves, because your bonus is tied to this, right?"  And we all said, "That should give you some idea of how pissed off we are about it, shouldn't it?"  It wasn't pretty.
 
So the next year they threw away the Goals and instead they tried doing things.  They started explaining how employees could move up.  They started to open their minds to ways to promote or at least meaningfully engage non-salaried employees.  They explained what characteristics promoted employees had demonstrated that had impressed the evaluation committee, so that you had some idea of what you could do next year.  They intervened with managers who weren't especially natural at these things to try to help them.  And they started helping employees to find ways to quantify the value of their process work so that it could be better respected, evaluated, and rewarded.  And lo, the survey answers were favorable.  And there was much rejoicing.
 
Imagine, then, how it feels to be confronted with another company with another survey that indicates that employees are inches from hanging themselves.  And we haven't even started with the Goals.  They're just meeting with us over and over again asking us to tell them (in huge public forums with no prospect of anonymity and great fear of personal recrimination from our managers) why we're so unhappy.
 
Nobody wants to tell them everything.  There's no one who's going to stand up and say, here are 40 things you do wrong.  Fix ten and then we'll talk again.  Two people stood up in the meeting.  One person actually asked for data about salaries.  They agreed to provide the data, but we all know we'll never see it.  HR wouldn't allow it.  Their hands are tied, you see.  Another person suggested more teambuilding activities.  An innocuous suggestion, one might think.
 
I kid you not, the look of confusion on all the managers' faces was hilarious.  "What do you mean?"  (Seriously?  None of your little management books or Franklin Planners came with a teambuilding exercise?)  It was like watching Bill Clinton struggle to redefine the word "is."  It was like watching Bill Shatner playing a Vulcan being introduced to the concept of teambuilding:
 
"What is this....Team...Building...of which you speak?"
"Well, you know sir.  Everybody gets together.  As a team."
"So you get together with this...team.  And what do you do?  Do you... produce... deliverables?"
"No, sir.  You have fun.  You get to know each other."
"Fun?  Explain... 'fun'."
"Well, sir, you know, fun.  Games.  Food.  Non goal-directed activity."
"I do not understand."
"Well, like, managers could wear silly hats or sing a song."
"Why would we do that?"
"Well, to make yourselves approachable.  To make your employees laugh."
"We do not wish to be approached.  We do not make people laugh.  We are feared!"  (Okay, straying toward Klingon...but then, remember, it's Shatner.)
"Um, could you play a game?"
"Would there be deliverables?"
"No, I told you, no deliverables.  It would just be a game."
"Why?"
 
And so on.  It would be really funny if it wasn't so damn sad.
 
I miss the managers who wore silly hats and sang songs and gave us pizza.  Hell, I miss the managers who made fun of us (and themselves) and devised games to help us understand our industry better.  I miss the manager who made me rewrite my review 5 times because it didn't accurately represent my work--and who got me a promotion.  I miss the manager who somehow always got everybody to stand in the hall outside our cubes once a day and laugh about something that happened--and who backed me up like a champ when I needed it.  And those managers, coincidentally, had some of the most tirelessly devoted and productive teams I've ever seen.  And the happiest.  I really miss laughing on the job.  I miss getting up to go to work and knowing that I was going to accomplish something meaningful and I was going to have a good time doing it.  And if I ever see that again--anywhere--I promise I will enjoy every second.  And I will recognize the managers who make it possible--even if they think they are just doing their job.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

New Kindle

I'm sure this is old news, but Amazon's site is lauding the new and improved Kindle. It's not really a surprise, since they were mighty quick to drop the Kindle's price on the heels of the iPad's bid for a piece of the ereader pie, and the third generation was being whispered about over the last few months. But it does mean that my parents may well become Kindle owners.

Allegedly the 3G is now truly global wireless, and indeed the coverage map is pretty convincing, although I will be interested to see feedback from users in Canada and Australia. The thing also has smokin' battery life (a month!), and is smaller and lighter than the previous version and packs more storage, all of which make Kindle ownership considerably more attractive. Alas, attractive is definitely in the eye of the beholder, because the look of the thing is relatively unchanged--personally, I don't much care for it, but it's not a substantial complaint. And it comes in black, so if the white one reminded you too much of school computers in the 1980's, your prayers have been answered.

Do I regret my Opus? No. Proprietary format is a real pisser for me--and I don't often find myself wanting ebooks where Amazon is the only or the cheapest option. My major complaint is the number of books I want to read that aren't available in any ebook format (philosophy books are hard to come by, but the ereader will do nothing to round out my steady diet of mysteries, because every mystery you ever wanted is an ebook). And Kobo's app provides a very similar experience to the Kindle app for Android--you can go from complete ignorance of a book's existence to reading it in less than 5 minutes, without a computer. All with the added benefit that I can read it on almost any ereader I want.

But my objections are those of an eensy beensy segment of the population (the ones who chuckled over Shifter's Random Geek Thought). The Kindle is a force to be reckoned with, for sure. I hope they put the new ones in Target so we can get a good look at them. And I can't wait to see the reviews....

Muerto

Before any of our IR's explore the links, I'll warn you that the stuff you'll find ranges from a nice desert landscape that you could bring home to mom to certain leather accessories that your boss might not want you perusing on company time. Just so's you know.

This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. On my recent trip to Arizona, friends and I went to get henna tattoos at a studio in Phoenix. The place is full of art, but I saw this as soon as I walked in and couldn't stop looking at it. It's this amazing fusion, with the edge of tattoo style and the smiling satire of Mexican/southwestern calavera art. What you may not see immediately is that it is leather, carved and colored by hand. The piece seems a little flat in the photo, partly because the original has such amazing texture. The colors are gorgeous--rich and vibrant. It was a privilege to get an up-close look at it. I love the tattoo details--the swallows, the roses, even the ocean, which reminds me of Japanese tattoos. And the contrast between the living and dead, the color and the black and white, is a favorite theme of mine.

I got to meet the artist, Marco Antonio Turrubiartes, and I'm sure I conveyed my appreciation poorly and with a lot of repetition of the words "cool" and "gorgeous," like someone with an 8th grade education, but he was very gracious. Dude has an etsy shop, and as far as I'm concerned, he's destined for stardom.

Friday, July 30, 2010

If I could draw

If I could draw I'd try a web comic strip about Adam, Eve, and God, only with Adam played by a hacker. I can see a picture of Adam looking out on the Garden of Eden, turning to The Lord, and saying "Meh." I can also see him looking out at the first sunset, turning to Eve, and saying "Nice graphics." I think the possibilities are endless. It's such a good idea, in fact, that I'm worried that it's already been done and that perhaps the only reason I thought of it is that I saw it, years ago, and forgot it but the idea stayed floating around my subconscious until it popped back out now. I don't have the heart to Google it - let me dream that I had an inspiration. It's kind of sad, though, that when you have a good idea you (or at least I) always have to wonder if it was someone else's thought that I snarfed without realizing it.

Random geek thought

I think the reason computer geeks sometimes prefer fantasy to reality is that fantasy is open-source.

And if you get that, you're either a geek or you've been reading too much of T&S.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A bit more on Strange and Norrell

First, several of our dear IR's all of whom happen to be related to me, pointed out that they TOLD me to read MS&DN just years ago and I ignored them. I must accept that this is true. The thing is, I ignored them all the way to the point of forgetting they ever said anything, so now I publically apologize, to all of our other scads of readers, to these others for forgetting to credit them with the recommendation as well.

Second, I am now three discs into it and I think that this is one of the first books that I believe may actually be better on tape than on paper. The narrator is doing such a great job with the inflections, right down to the right tone for the very lengthy and involved footnotes, that I can't imagine reading it anywhere near as well as he is speaking it. Of course, as I've never actually read from print myself, this is speculative claim at best. But I'm making it anyway.

Blogs aren't peer reviewed, isn't that handy :o)

Anti-theft devices and lawnmowers

I went to buy a new lawnmower today. Why, you ask? Because my old lawnmower SUCKS and was increasing my chance of heart attack every time I tried to mow the lawn. And my neighbors were laughing at me. Because I was wanting to kick it. So that's why.

So I did the comparison shopping thing, the talk to the experienced mower guy at the store thing, the budget (or lack there-of - who has a lawn mower budget?) thing, and then went to make the purchase. That went fine, and the check out guy even told me I was buying a nice mower (Toro, $300, for the curious - I bought cheap last time and believe me, I got cheap). Then as I was wheeling it out of the store on my cart, the store's anti-theft system went off. Evidently somewhere in my mower box was an anti-theft device they forgot to turn off.

Now I'm of 2 minds about anti-theft devices. You know, the little magnetic or whatever things that set off alarms if you leave the store before they're turned off? On the one hand, they make sense in principle and I can see a need for them. On the other hand, I can honestly say that I have never been prevented from stealing by an anti-theft device, but I have been inconvenienced while making a purchase by anti-theft devices several times. It's great when you've got a huge cart of groceries and some clerk has to recheck your receipt in case you added an extra box of meaty-o's that you didn't pay for. Be that as it may, after the check-out guy told me to ignore it and I wheeled my mower to the car, I couldn't help but wonder. Who shoplifts a lawnmower? It's a big freaking box people. It weight 81 pounds, and it's about 4 feet long by 2.5 feet wide. It would NOT fit under my trench coat, and I could NOT change into it in the changing room. It seems like telling the check out guy to, say, look out for people wheeling out huge boxes of mowers without paying for them might be almost, almost mind you, as effective as anti-thefting the boxes. Remind me not to try to swipe a new refrigerator next time I'm there. I'm sure they're on to that trick too.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reading author blogs...

I've just decided something. A rare occurrence! I have decided that I shouldn't read writer blogs anymore. No Scalzi, or Rothfuss, or Gaiman, or Gerrold, or anyone! Not because the blogs themselves aren't interesting, because they are. No, what gets me are the comments. And not because they're inane (and usually they are). Nope, because somehow reading comments is addictive. Every time I read a blog post I'm drawn to look at the comments. Every damn time. And sometimes there are like HUNDREDS of them. And I read just one, then another, than another, and it keeps going on and on and on and the next thing I know BAM another hour of my life is gone. I don't even know why I do it! What do I have to show for that hour? Less faith in humanity, less sleep than I could have had, and a nagging feeling like I'm just coming out of some waking coma in which I had dreams populated almost entirely by suck-ups or stupid people. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some more blog comments to read.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell

Well, I did it. I finished listening to the ENTIRE Harry Potter series on CD. It was 95% done in my car when driving to and from work, and 5% done on runs (which, as I've said, is a slow thing to do). I really enjoyed it. I had always meant to reread it, and this way I got to while still reading several other books! Driving to work has never been so pleasant.

But now I'm without a book. Or I was! Until I went to our local library and checked out a few new books on CD. The first, and the title of our post today, is Jonathan Strange and Dr. Norrell. I'm too lazy to type a description of it, but here it is swiped from Amazon:

"It's 1808 and that Corsican upstart Napoleon is battering the English army and navy. Enter Mr. Norrell, a fusty but ambitious scholar from the Yorkshire countryside and the first practical magician in hundreds of years. What better way to demonstrate his revival of British magic than to change the course of the Napoleonic wars? Susanna Clarke's ingenious first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, has the cleverness and lightness of touch of the Harry Potter series, but is less a fairy tale of good versus evil than a fantastic comedy of manners, complete with elaborate false footnotes, occasional period spellings, and a dense, lively mythology teeming beneath the narrative. Mr. Norrell moves to London to establish his influence in government circles, devising such powerful illusions as an 11-day blockade of French ports by English ships fabricated from rainwater. But however skillful his magic, his vanity provides an Achilles heel, and the differing ambitions of his more glamorous apprentice, Jonathan Strange, threaten to topple all that Mr. Norrell has achieved. A sparkling debut from Susanna Clarke--and it's not all fairy dust. --Regina Marler"

Naturally, I couldn't have said it better myself. The book was recommended to me, indirectly, by Seeker, a regular commentator here at T&S, through my beloved. I popped it in the car today while stuck in traffic and, after listening to 15 minutes, I'm hooked. I love the writing style, the topic, the rich mythology that underlies it all, and the sense of humor that lurks just around the bend. It's a very long book - 28 discs long (so well over 1700 minutes or close to 30 hours) - but I'm really looking forward to it. So I'll let you know how it goes, as it goes, and will dread tomorrow's traffic jams just a little bit less.

Footnote: Still using SoundJuicer to rip the tracks and Thunar to rename them. I just love Thunar - handiest little application I've found yet on Linux.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blogging from Idaho

Ok, first of all I just have to mock Idaho's name. Granted we didn't have all the linguistic fun that we have when the state was named, but in today's parlance it's so easy. Observe...

Who da ho??
I da ho!

Case closed.

Second, yup, I'm in Idaho visiting my bro and having a very good time. This particular brother is the one who reminds me that in the world of computer knowledge I know about as much as a fairly bright kindergarten student. The man even has his house wired in a sensible and useful way for wired or wireless inter-tubes connections in each room. He also has what appears to be a very safe setup for browsing using Firefox and something called "Noscript," an add-on that requires authorization of any script use on any web page. Not sure if I could get my beloved to use it, as it does add some inconvenience and complexity to everyday browsing (but not all that much), but it's still pretty cool. Of course, the man's job is system security so if he can't keep his home system safe, we're all really in trouble!

Third, well, that's really all I had to say. Who da ho???

Sadly and eerily true I think

This article, posted by a friend on Facebook (insert shame of facebook use here) really pointed out a lot of what I've been observing and thinking about both for myself and for others. I haven't checked the sources yet (I'm curious about the design of the experiments he discusses - in my own experience even well-meaning reporters can flub thins up when they try to report results of studies) but the basic ideas and observations seem right on, and very discouraging.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Andy Richter Controls The Universe on DVD

Okay, I have no idea how I missed this, but Andy Richter Controls The Universe is out on DVD, and has been for quite some time. If you liked Better Off Ted and somehow you had missed Victor Fresco's earlier show, you should try it. It's for sale on Amazon, and available for rental (although not for instant viewing) on Netflix. Jonathan Slavin, who played Phil in Better Off Ted, is equally hilarious in Andy Richter Controls The Universe. Paget Brewster is great at comedy, and of course, Andy is terrific. It won't satisfy you if you're hankering for more Jay Harrington, but if you're looking for more Fresco humor that makes you feel better about the bizarre things your job requires you to accept on a daily basis, this is for you.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Finally...

I'm not at all sure that this is the Android device I'm looking for, but it's closer than the Streak. The Streak is sexy, but a) it's a Dell, and b) $100 per inch of screen is excessive. HDMI, etc. are nice, but probably not anything I need--I could wait until those things became more common and hopefully less expensive, and then I'll know more about whether/how I'd use the thing and be able to make a better-informed decision on a more expensive product. I'm just looking for an entry-level non-e-ink Android e-reader to compare to my Opus.

I need to see the difference between a resistive and a capacitive screen (I know capacitive is more expensive, so it must be better, right?) and I'd like someone to get into this Cruz Market and tell me what's in there, but honestly, this will be a lot closer to my needs and my budget. We shall see...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Internet Sweet Internet (Oh, Yeah, And Electricity, Too)

Sometime Thursday night, after I got home but before I went to bed, the outlets in my dining room mysteriously stopped working, along with two of the outlets in my kitchen. I checked the breaker box, saw that nothing was tripped, and thought, well, there's the end of my expertise, so I went to bed.

In the morning I turned on my radio, and it just stared at me. Of course, I realized. My wireless router lives in the dining room. So no internet, hence no internet radio. Boo! Which also meant...yes, my phone was out, too, because the only phone jack that's actually hooked up is also in the dining room. Still, you don't want to be late for work because you have no internet. Especially not when work has the internet. So I went to work and totally forgot about it until I got home.

All this weekend I have had no home phone (slightly inconvenient), no electricity in the dining room (marginally inconvenient), and no internet or wireless network (hugely, preposterously inconvenient for something that most ordinary mortals, myself included, did not have anywhere until after I was in college).

Tonight I was on the phone (my cell) with my folks, when my father mentioned that I should check all the outlets that had safety breakers on them. This hadn't occurred to me, since the only one I'd ever noticed was the one my hairdryer is plugged into, upstairs, far away from the dining room, and also clearly operational. Then I went down to the kitchen and realized that in fact there were two of them there, too. Including one that was obviously tripped. I pushed the button and immediately heard a bunch of beeping and chirping behind me as all the electronics got back to work.

Huzzah! Oh, sweet, sweet internet. Let's never part again!

P.S. I think this may need I need a new hot air popcorn popper. Didn't they used to last more than five years before they started sabotaging your home electrical system?