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
Sensible shoes
Dinner for One

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.)


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."
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.