Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How to produce an upgraded version of your software

This past weekend I updated to the latest version of iTunes, despite all past experience telling me that this was a big mistake.  I figured "They've done enough major version upgrades, and it's been long enough since the last major version upgrade, that they should have all the kinks worked out."  Obviously I was mistaken, or else I'd be enjoying my new iTunes instead of writing this blog post.  (I don't think having to accept the EULA and then reset all my preferences each time I open the program counts as "enjoying."  If you do, you're welcome to it, but I think you're kind of weird.)

Mr B's Guide to Upgrading Software

1.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

So your program now handles file type X, so long as users input values for foo and bar, which they never had to do before.  This is all well and good, but be sure to add some sort of a check so users are only prompted for foo and bar when they're using a file of type X.  Adding new features shouldn't make it more difficult to use old features.

2.  If it ain't broke, don't break it.

This should go without saying, but apparently a lot of developers need to hear it, so here it is:  All features that worked properly in version X of your software should continue to work properly in all versions subsequent to X.  Anything else is the opposite of improvement.

3.  New user interface:  Ain't nobody got time for that

I don't care how clever, ground-breaking, or intuitive you think your new UI design is, I don't want to learn it.  If you've added new, useful features that necessitate a new UI, I may grudgingly admit the usefulness of it once I've gone through the learning curve, but I still didn't want to learn a new UI.

So what do users want in a new version of your software?  Well, I can't speak for all users, just because some of them want really odd things, but in general, our desires are very simple.  If you must upgrade your software (and we really wish you wouldn't), we want a new version that looks like the old version and does all the things the old version did, but crashes less often, takes up less space on our hard drives, and uses less memory when running.  If there are other specific features we want from your particular program, we'll ask you for them - please don't just sit there and try to make up new features you think we'll like.

Thank you.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Falling in love with history again

The other night I started reading 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam.  I only made it through the first couple of chapters, but it really changed my perspective in several areas.

First of all was just impact of reframing the amount of time you have available.  Thinking of just the 24 hours in a day makes time feel cramped, like you have to try to squeeze everything in.  But when you multiply by 7 and spread your activities out over the course of a week, you find (or I do, at any rate) that your schedule feels more open.  If you do something a couple of times a week for an hour of two each time, you can do more (and, perhaps more importantly, feel like you're doing more) than if you try to cram everything into every day and only do each thing for a few minutes.

The second thing that jumped out at me was when she talked about core competencies.  Reading this chapter made me think about my stillborn career as a history professor[1].  And I realized that a lot of the things I would need to do as a history professor don't really fit into my core competency as a historian.  For one thing, I have no gift for academic politics.  I don't have the knack of the sort of quid pro quo and mutual backscratching that yields plum committee assignments, a desirable office space, and a manageable courseload.  I'd end up being the poor slob with a tiny office in the basement who's stuck teaching seven sections of Western Civ every semester.  I also don't have the knack of producing the sort of theory-heavy, technical papers that lead to journal publication (and hence to tenure).  I am good at research - I'm like a terrier:  I can find the scent of my quarry and stick with it until I find what I'd looking for.  I think I'd do well in lecturing, but can't be completely certain as I've never really had a chance to test it.

But where I really shine as a historian is in a place that's not really valued in academia:  As a storyteller.  I seem to have a natural talent for finding the narrative around a person, event, or concept, and then of telling that story in a way that grabs and holds people's attention.  I was able to make my wife - who has a limited interest in history - not only understand the causes of World War I, but also care about them.  I'm a popularizer[2].

And so, having found my core competency as a historian, now I've got to take the next step:  Embracing my core competency.  Reveling in it.  Loving it.  Owning it.  Possibly even getting some money and some recognition for it.  After all, I've got time.

[1]  Long story short, I stopped after getting my master's degree because I realized that the nomadic lifestyle and high debt load of a newly-minted PhD didn't really fit into the kind of life I wanted to lead.  I was kind of stunned when a professor I approached for advice about getting my PhD said "If at all possible, don't do it," but on further reflection and research, I began to see the truth in his words.
[2]  I really don't like the word "popularizer."  Not because of the word itself, but because of the way so many academic historians use it, with a condescending sneer and a connotation of, if not incompetence, at least a lack of rigor.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

X-Men #1: It's a milestone, but it's much more than that

If you're at all plugged into the comic book world - and likely even if you're not - you've seen the news that X-Men #1, released yesterday, has an all-female team.  When I was out picking up my comics yesterday, I also grabbed a copy of X-Men #1 because I'm a historian and it's historically significant.  But what I discovered when I sat down to read it last night is that - in addition to being historically significant - it's also a cracking good story.  This is exceedingly important because while the "all-female team" aspect might provide a bump in first issue sales, it's not going to sustain the title over the long term, and even more so because if the series fails, there will be people who say it failed not because of shortcomings in art or story, or because it just didn't "click" with readers, or because the market is saturated with X-men titles, but because it had an all-female team.  Like it or not, X-Men is standing for women in comics everywhere.

But if #1 is any indication, I don't think X-Men is likely to fail.  The art was quite good - outstanding in places - and the story managed to hit all the right notes without making any of the common issue 1 blunders.  The origin of the threat is set up efficiently, in only 2 pages.  The characters are introduced as they need to be, in the amount of detail they need to be.  The story starts out in media res rather than getting bogged down by telling the origin of each character, and bits of the history and surrounding world - including other characters - are mentioned without feeling the need to explain everything.  I can't be 100% certain, but I'm pretty confident that someone with no exposure to the X-Men - or whose exposure  comes only from the movies - could pick this up as their entry point to the X-Men comics and, even though they wouldn't understand everything, wouldn't be so bewildered as to stop them from coming back for issue #2.

So if you don't have it already, head out to your local comics shop (you do have a local comics shop, don't you?) and pick up X-Men #1.  You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

80% of life is showing up - but not JUST showing up

People know the quote "80% of life is showing up," or at least think they do.  Even if they know the source (it's Woody Allen), they probably don't know the full context.  He explains it this interview, and there's more to the idea than it appears at first glance:
I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.
So it's not just showing up.  It's showing up and doing the work.  If you want to write a book, you have to put in your "butt in seat time," as my writer friends refer to it.  If you want to be a blogger, you have to blog, day in and day out, for as long as it takes.  Market research, networking, search engine optimization - none of that matters unless you've actually done the work.

TL;DR:  You can't sell a product you haven't made.

Won't get fooled again - my thoughts on comic book crossover mega-events

When I picked up last week's comics, I discovered that they'd accidentally put a copy of Justice League #20 into my pull file. I didn't discover this until after I got home, so I decided that I'd just read it and see what I thought of Justice League. And I really liked it – so much so that I was considering adding it to my pull list. Until I saw that they were about to go into a mega-event that would also entail buying Justice League of America and Justice League Dark. I just went down that road with the Rotworld saga (Animal ManFrankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E., and Swamp Thing) and I'm in no hurry to do it again. I imagine that the creators enjoy these sorts of mega-events, because it lets them paint on a bigger canvas. But so often (especially in DC) they either result in massive universe changes that (from my POV) ruin stuff as often as not, or else they have to find a way of undoing everything that happens, returning more or less to the status quo anteRotworld took the latter path – it was obvious from the first issue that it was going to end with everything getting undone, it was just a matter of how they were going to undo it.

I think crossovers work better in more “street-level” titles, where you can have a bigger story without it automatically becoming so big that the very structure of the universe is in danger. For example, I'd be very surprised to learn that no one at DC is working on – or at least has pitched – a crossover event involving Green ArrowThe Movement, and Team Green. I'd probably even buy that. But if they are working on it, I hope they don't do it for at least a year: The Movement and Team Green are brand new and just finding their legs, and Green Arrow is still in the process of being brought back from the brink of death by a new creative team. But eventually I'd enjoy seeing those cross over – and if no one in DC is working on it, I'd be happy to have a go at writing it.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why the Producteev outage has me so upset

As far as I'm concerned, the to-do list is one of the greatest pieces of technology ever invented. The caveman who scribbled the first to-do list on a cave wall ("Kill mammoth. Domesticate dog. Drag home mate.") was an inventing genius  Or maybe it was a cavewoman, and the list looked more like "Scrape hides.  Gather herbs.  Avoid getting dragged home by Thog."  Either way, they were a genius, and they've made my life immeasurably better.

The next big advance in to-do list technology that has made my life better is the ability to keep one's to-do list on a computer and have the computer automatically update recurring tasks.  It saves one from having to remember to list items that have to be done over and over again.  Anyone who has any familiarity with Getting Things Done recognizes the importance of this:  Not having to hold something in your head frees up mental space from remembering to do things, which can then be used for actually doing things.

From the outside, my life doesn't necessarily look like one where a to-do list or other productivity technology would be necessary.  I work from home and my routine is largely the same, week-in and week-out.  But look again:  The inherent sameness of my days means I need to-do lists and calendars more because I don't have the mental cues (Monday was the big meeting about the Smithers account; Tuesday was when Charlie smashed the copying machine with a hammer) that help to separate one day from another.  On top of this, I have a wife and 2 kids with major medical problems.  This means I have all the usual responsibilities of running a household, cubed.  I've got hundreds of things to keep track of over the course of a month, with consequences ranging from minor (garage full of recycling because I forgot to take the bin down to the curb) to potentially catastrophic (ran out of medication on the Saturday of a long weekend).  On top of that, I have Asperger syndrome and an anxiety disorder.  If I don't know for certain that I've got everything I need to do plugged into a system so that I can be sure nothing's going to slip my mind, it's disastrous for my mental state.  I can't focus.  I snap at people.  I feel completely untethered from my routine and thus totally out of sorts.

For a long time I kept my to-do list in an app on my iPod Touch.  I had tried close to a dozen different apps before I found one that suited my needs:  To me, a task management app that doesn't handle recurring tasks is useless, one that only allows recurrences daily, weekly, or monthly is only slightly less so.  Everything was fine until I dropped my iPod in the toilet and it stopped working.  Since getting a new iPod wasn't in the cards right away, I started looking for an app that would let me keep my to-do list on my computer.  I once again had to go through an extensive search before I could find one that met my standards.  I finally found one:  Producteev.  I got all my tasks entered, repeating at their proper intervals, and everything was fine.

Then this Monday, Producteev had to migrate their software to a new system, and I haven't been able to log in since.  I know there are things I need to do, but I can't get to my data to see them.  I'll probably stick with Producteev once they get things up and running again, because checking out the competition during this outage has confirmed that Producteev still meets my needs the best.  But I doubt entirely trust them again - there'll probably always be some level of underlying anxiety that this could happen again.  I'm even entertaining thoughts of writing my own to-do list app just so that I won't be dependent on someone else's system.  But I know that - as much as I might wish otherwise - it's not practical to build everything I need myself.  It's just a hazard of living in an interconnected society, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dubious pleasures of the digital age

Earlier this year, I applied for a position as content manager at a local publishing house.  I didn't get the job:  Over 300 applicants were rejected, and I was one of them.  Still, I have other applications in with this company and haven't given up hope of eventually working for them, so I follow their Twitter and blogs to keep up with what's going on.  This morning I noticed that the company website had been updated to announce their new content manager.  Immediately I googled her, to see what kind of a mistake they'd made.

The words "dubious pleasures" in the title to this post should give you a clue as to what I found there:  They hadn't made a mistake.  No, they'd hit the jackpot.  They found some kind of journalistic wunderkind.  In a blind comparison of qualifications, I never stood a chance.  (I still think I would make a great communications director for the company, but that's neither here nor there.)

But here's the weird part:  I wanted to dislike this woman.  Really wanted to.  I wanted to hate her guts - after all, she got the job that I had wanted.  But I just couldn't do it.  She seems like a really neat person.  She does improv comedy.  She belongs to a humorous bluegrass-style band that is going to be playing at one of our local SF cons this summer.  She and her boyfriend have a blog where they put plastic dinosaurs in interesting places and then post the pictures they take.  How could I possibly hate someone like this?  (For more than a second or two, at any rate.)

Hopefully one of my other applications will come through - I think she'd make a great coworker.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The importance of math in the study of history

I'm currently reading William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Several times during the course of his narrative, he mentioned the hundreds of tons of Nazi documents seized at the end of the war.  This just seems like such a vast amount of paper that I was having trouble wrapping my mind about it.

So I set out to try to translate it into something I can relate to.  Based on my experiences with the US postal system, I know that 5 sheets of paper is about an ounce*.  Multiplying this through by ounces per pound, pounds per ton, etc., yields the result that 100 tons of paper is approximately 16 million sheets.  A quick search at Google turns up the factoid that a sheet of 20-lb paper is 0.004 inches thick.  Multiplied through by 16 million sheets yields 64,000 inches, or 5,333 feet.  So a hundred tons of paper would require a little over a mile of filing cabinet spaces (at this scale, I feel pretty comfortable ignoring the thickness of the folders).  A quick search of an office supply shopping site turns up a 4-drawer, 26-1/2" deep filing cabinet for $170**.  Crunch the numbers and you'll need about 600 filing cabinets (at a total cost of just over $100,000) to store 100 tons of documents.  And the Allies had multiple hundreds of tons of Nazi documents to deal with - it's really kind of amazing.

Things like this are why I'm glad I had science-level training in math before switching over to history:  There's so much history that can be inadvertently glossed over if one doesn't know how to deal with the numbers, and one's experience of history is really the poorer for it.

*  I'm making the assumption here that any differences in the weight of a single sheet of paper between standard US office paper of today and German office paper of the 1930s and 1940s will be negligible enough over the course of hundreds to tons that I can still get a meaningful approximation.
**  Not necessarily the best deal, but it got 4.4 stars in customer reviews so should be adequate for our purposes here.

A reflection on the Boston Marathon bombing - lights in the darkness

As I followed the course of yesterday's events in Boston, I noted that we appear to have learned from September 11.  We haven't learned the lessons that the demagogues who tried to use September 11 as a hammer to try to force us to come around around to their way of thinking would have wanted to, but I think we have learned more important ones.  Here's are the lessons that I observed in action:

  • Help the people who need help.  This was reflected not only in the people on the scene who rushed to the aid of the injured, but also in those who at a distance sought to find how they could best help.
  • When you pass on information, make sure it's from a trustworthy source.  The New York Post found itself with egg on its face yesterday after announcing that the police had a suspect in custody.  The Boston Police Department, on the other hand, is deserving of massive kudos for the attention they paid to making sure people had accurate and relevant information.
  • Don't let people use the tragedy for their own ends.  Every scammer who tried to work their way into the dialogue was quickly shut down.  Every demagogue who sought to use the bombing for their own ends (I'm looking at you, Alex Jones.*) was promptly shouted down.    And someone has already purchased the domain bostonmarathonconspiracy.com in order to keep it out of the hands of conspiracy theorists.
  • There's no need to stay around and listen to  news coverage from people who don't know anything.  After 9/11, the news media filled the space between facts with the blathering of any talking head who was willing to sit in front of a camera, and people ate it up.  Yesterday the media once again brought out the talking heads, but people weren't having it.  They were turning the news off after they had the facts of the matter, or else ignoring the media entirely and getting their news directly from the source.
In short, even as I was witnessing some of the worst of human behavior, I was also witnessing some of the best.  To everyone who behaved like a decent, thoughtful, good human being yesterday:  My hat is off to you.  In a time of darkness, you managed to stand up for the best of what makes up human.

*  Please note that I am linking to the Wikipedia entry about Alex Jones, not to any of Jones' numerous conspiracy sites.  I want to provide information to those that need it, but not to provide Jones with any more links.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A game of thrones and books and movies...

After we finishing watching an episode of Game of Thrones the other night, my wife turned to me and asked  "Why do you like this? Everyone in this show is a dick!"  I knew this wasn't just a moment of Princess Bride-style exasperation ("Jesus, Grandpa, why'd you read me this thing?"), that she actually wanted to know.  And I was at a loss to tell her.  GoT has interesting characters, but other shows have that.  It has well-plotted stories, but other shows have that as well.  Ditto a well-crafted world with fascinating cultures.  But nothing I could think of that was only in GoT.

So I tried a different mental tack.  Maybe the reason that she wasn't loving it as much as I was, was that I had read the books and she hadn't.  Elements of back-story that were explained in the book were omitted from the movie.  Things were simplified.  The characters became, in some respects, caricatures of themselves, with a trait that manifested in a dozen small events in the books being shown by one larger event in the show.  But none of these are things that are unique to GoT.

Then yesterday when I was reading A Storm of Swords, I had a realization.  What makes GoT different from so many other fantasy novels is George R.R. Martin's use of point of view.  We don't just see the events with different characters' eyes, we think about them with different characters' brains, so a character who's one of the "good guys" when we're reading from one character's POV is a "bad guy" when viewed from another and a nonentity when viewed from yet another.  Rather than black and white, we're presented with dozens of constantly shifting shades of grey.  And consequently no one is really a "bad guy" except from a certain point of view*.

It's kind of a shame that the Serious Literary Critics will dismiss GoT as "just fantasy," because I think serious study of the books would do them good.  Martin has produced a truly postmodern novel.  Things happen.  People even cause things to happen.  And while there are stories, there's no one "story."  Each character is their own protagonist, facing their own challenges, confronting their own opponents.  And so we find ourselves in one chapter rooting for a character who we villify in another chapter.  Nobody thinks that they're the bad guy, and at least for a while we're forced to believe them.  That is what makes this series so fascinating to me.

*  This also means that no one is really a "good guy" except from a certain point of view.

Change your life: Fight the "Perfection"

On Single Dad Laughing (one of my favorite blogs), there's a post up today called "The Disease Called 'Perfection."  This is one of the most touching pieces of writing I've read in a long time.  You should go read it.  Go ahead - I'll wait.

Wasn't that good?  Don't you feel a little better knowing that you're not the only one who has problems they try to cover up?  And just think about all the energy we spend trying to cover up those problems - can't you think of much better things to do with that energy?

To get the ball rolling, I'm going to drop some of the shields I've been hiding behind.  I hope it helps somebody out there.
  • I feel like a failure professionally.  Even though I have a graduate degree, even though I have a job (which is itself an accomplishment in this economy), even though I'm managing to keep a roof over my family's heads and food in our stomachs, I feel like a failure, because I feel like I should have done more in the past and should be doing more now.  I feel like I should be "exceptional" and the fact that I don't think I am just eats away the joy of anything I accomplish.
  • I hate my body.  I'm about 75 pounds overweight and out of shape.  Even though I've bought a bicycle and go riding a couple of times a week, I feel like I'm not exercising enough.  Even though I try to eat healthy food and cut down on unhealthy food, I feel like I'm not really able to do it because the things I want to eat (candy, ice cream, pizza), just taste so good.
  • I don't treat my wife and my kids as well as I'd like.  I don't hit them, or anything like that.  But I can be  overly critical.  I yell sometimes.  I don't always notice when someone needs my attention.  I know I should do better, but a lot of times it's easier not to.  A lot of times I'm just so wrapped up in myself that I don't notice what anyone else needs.
  • Hell, I'm battling "Perfection" as I write this post.  Every word I type is having to force its way past an inner monologue yelling "You're faking it!  You're just confessing to these things so no one will suspect there are worse things hiding under there."
And maybe that inner voice is right.  But this isn't the final step anyway.  This is just the first step on the way to being "Real."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Screw April Fools

I wouldn't say April Fools Day is my least favorite event  on the calendar - that dubious honor belongs to the annual beginning and end of Daylight Savings Time - but it's certainly very near to that.  Thanks to my late diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome*, I had/have difficulty enough with communication and recognizing/dealing with joking on regular days, so when you throw in a day where people are even more likely to be untrustworthy, and I'm in hell.  Consequently I've taken to skipping any blog post dated April 1, as I'm all too likely to be baselessly excited or needlessly upset (depending on the content of the post in question) before I remember what day it is.  I also tend to not post on April 1, as I know that there's a good chance that someone will think that my post is a joke.**

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way - my son (who is autistic) is so upset by the very idea of April Fools that he's been dreading the day for over a month.  I was planning on keeping him home from school today, and was only saved from the necessity of doing so by the fact that his spring break carried over to tomorrow (by virtue of the fact that this year April Fools falls on the day after Easter).

Some people think puns are the lowest form of humor, but I think that the prank is much lower.  A pun is at least based on clever wordplay and can be enjoyed by both the teller and the listener, whereas a prank is nothing more than a lie with good PR and the "humor" from it is at the expense of the listener for falling for it.

*  For which it must be noted I hold my parents and doctors blameless, instead laying the blame on the lateness of translating Hans Asperger's writings into English.
**  For example, I think it's cute/interesting/amusing that my son has only 2 songs on his MP3 player, and has no desire for any more, the songs being REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It" and Crazy Frog's version of "Axel F", but if I had written the post I originally planned to make about that, people would have thought it was an April Fools post (and not a particularly good one, at that).***
***  People would also expect that the links in the post would go to songs other than the ones they're identified as.  Which I suppose would be kind of funny, but getting people over the age of 10 to listen to Crazy Frog is quite humorous enough, without resorting to cheap tricks.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Game of Thrones: Postmodern escapism?

Today The Nation published an article by Michelle Dean called "Is 'Game of Thrones' Escapist Enough?"  Dean looks at Game of Thrones through the lens of our historically demonstrated appetite for escapist entertainment during bad times and, compared to past escapist utopias, finds it wanting.

And if you're looking for Great Depression-style, good-guys-in-white-hats, only happy endings fare, she's absolutely right.  But I don't think that sort of escape would have found many takers in today's world anyway.  Instead, I think Game of Thrones demonstrates a newer, postmodern sort of escapism that better resonates with people today.

Ned Stark, for example, is one of the characters people are more likely to want to identify with.  We get to hope that we would act as honorably as he does, while at the same time we imagine we could have handled the Westerosian politics more skillfully than he did and thus end up keeping our heads.  Likewise, Tyrion is a fascinating character because he is deficient in the martial virtues prized by his culture, yet he manages to make his way through the world more successfully than some characters who better embody the ideals of Westerosian manhood.  He is a dwarf among (sometimes literally) larger than life men, and yet he succeeds when he "should have" failed.

I think Tyrion, and also Arya (among others), demonstrate the escapist ideals of Game of Thrones:  By any rational analysis, these are characters who should have been completely crushed by the events of their world, but instead they're able not only to survive but to take action which significantly changes the world around them.  In a time when so many people feel helpless in trying to improve this situation, the power of this fantasy cannot be understated.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A tax on people who can't do math? Maybe, maybe not.

My friend Clay used to regale us all with tales of the fantastic things he had planned for when he won the lottery.  One day someone pointed out the fact that Clay never bought a ticket, an observation which he scoffed at.  "All that does," he said, "is increase your odds an infinitesimal amount."  He was right, of course, while also overlooking (for comedic effect) the qualitative difference between no chance and even the smallest non-zero chance.

That qualitative difference, not the actual odds, is what keeps people playing the various lottery games that have sprung up around the country.  After all, if you're working a minimum wage job, you've never heard of anyone like you who ever got rich by working, but every week or two you see on the news someone like you who got rich by winning the lottery.  Just last night, someone in New Jersey won $338 million in a Powerball drawing.  And besides the fact that you see people who win the jackpot, there's also the fact that every now and then you'll win a smaller prize.  This intermittent reinforcement has been determined by scientists to be the best way to train an animal* to exhibit a certain behavior.

Recognizing this, the people who run the lotteries have devised a variety of different games, with a variety of different reinforcement schedules, in order to provide maximal appeal to the maximum number of players.  Besides the big weekly and biweekly draws, there are smaller daily draws that can be placed for a little as 50 cents.  For people who'd rather not even wait for a daily draw, there are scratch-off games.  For people who don't even have time to wait to buy a scratch-off ticket from a cashier, there are vending machines that sell scratch-off tickets.  And finally, for people who want to "invest" larger amounts of money in the lottery, scratch-off tickets are now offered in multi-dollar denominations**.

Financial planners, libertarians, and other true believers in the capitalist system generally say that people shouldn't play the lottery, but should instead save and invest that money.  They might be right, from a strictly mathematical point of view.  But, interestingly, they're not right by a sufficiently noticeable margin that they don't feel the need to pad their numbers.

The effect of compound interest on investments funded by cutting out small, "frivolous" purchases has been dubbed "The Latte Factor" by author David Bach.  Bach has made a career out of this one idea, and latte factor calculators have sprung up all over the web.  The one that I used in writing this post sells the idea by urging people "just input $5 daily for fancy coffee over a period of 40 years at 10% and see what happens."  What happens, as it turns out, is that by cutting out this coffee you'd save just over $73 thousand in foregone spending and earn just under $890 thousand by investing these savings.  Of course,  the most expensive coffee on Starbuck's menu is only $4.25 and Warren Buffett, the most successful investor in the world, says says investors should expect a 7% return.  Plugging these numbers into the calculator yields savings of $62 thousand and earnings of $277 thousand.  Still nothing to sneeze at, but noticeably less than the fanciful example touted by the calculator.

But let's go back to our hypothetical lottery player.  They're going to be spending less than someone buying the most expensive drink at Starbucks every day, and hence saving less when they cut out this spending.  While some lottery players spend more, a fairly typical amount - and what I'll be using for my example here - would be $2 per week (one entry for each of that week's Powerball drawings).  Likewise, they're not going to be able to afford to invest in a mutual fund in order to get higher returns.  Once they save enough to move beyond hiding their money in their mattress, they'll probably be putting it in a saving account earning 1% interest.  Using these numbers, over a period of 40 years, would yield savings of $4159 and interest of $954.  Even if they do the math on this, our hypothetical lottery player is likely to decide that given the lower amount of effort involved in investing that $2 a week in the lottery rather than a saving account, coupled with the potential (however unlikely) for higher returns through playing the lottery, that they're better off with the lottery.

*  People are animals, my friend.
**  The largest of which I've ever seen is a $30 scratch-off game.  I'd never play it, but apparently I'm not the target audience.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Congressional Democrats, you brought this on yourselves

So far today I've received at least 3 emails from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) panicking about Paul Ryan's fundraising success and asking me to donate money to help Democrats regain control of Congress.   I considered donating - after all, I don't like the Republicans and the policies they're promoting, so it seems like helping Democrats would be a no-brainer - but on further reflection I decided not to.  Here's why.

It starts with one of the basic points covered in any economics 101 class:  Money (or other resources) used for one purpose are then unavailable to be used for another purpose.  You can't spend the same money twice.  Now if your name is Trump, Romney, or Gates, this doesn't really affect your life much:  You've got so much money you'd be hard-pressed to spend it all a first time.  For the rest of us, though, this is one of the major facts affecting our lives.

From there we'll need to sidestep a bit and talk about Kate Bornstein.  Kate is an author and an activist and a wonderful person who I'd love to have a chance to meet in person.  One of her books is at least partly (possible even largely) responsible for the fact that my daughter is still alive today.  Kate is also a cancer patient.

Which is how we get back to Congress.  Because Congress has failed to enact single-payer healthcare, Kate Bornstein is faced with overwhelming expenses in order to get the treatment she needs for her cancer.  Her friends and fans have started a fundraiser to help her pay for the treatment she needs.  I've glad that the technology exists to help Kate in this way, but I wish it weren't necessary.  It is, though.  It's just as necessary and just a reprehensible as all the fundraisers my children have to do to ensure that their schools have the money they need.

I hold the Democrats responsible for this.  They've allowed the Republicans to hijack our government, to channel our money into giveaways to millionaires and corporations, and to spend more defense than the entire rest of the world put together.  I expect nothing less from the Republicans - they make no efforts to even pretend they care about the interests of ordinary people.  But Democrats do make that claim.  They claim to care about ordinary people and then fail to act in the people's best interests.  It doesn't matter to me if this is a result of conspiracy, incompetence, "the political process," or some other reason.  The fact remains that Democrats are falling down on the job, and so even if I want to help them take Congress back from the Republicans, I can't because I'm having to use my resources to make up for their failures.  And that is why I donated money to Kate Bornstein today instead of to the DCCC.

Monday, March 18, 2013

My thoughts about the Steubenville verdict

All day today I've watched the bloggerverse, both professional and amateur, blowing up over the Steubenville verdict.  Since I'm not really someone who's able to keep silent when there's controversy around, I'm going to throw my 2 cents in.

For starters, I'm outraged at CNN and Fox News for broadcasting the name of the victim.  Depending on whether or not you believe that this was an accident, it's either a gross incompetence or an egregious breach of journalistic ethics.  For my part, I've made a conscious choice not to watch those particular pieces of video, even though I've had several opportunities.  I respect the victim's right to privacy, and the fact that the media has chosen to breach that privacy does not compel me to participate in that breach.

As for the perpetrators, Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays, they've made their bed and now they have to sleep in it.  This wasn't something that happened to them; it was a direct result of their choices and actions.  Amy Davidson at The New Yorker has written an excellent essay about this in which she asks "Does it destroy a teen-ager’s life to take him off the path of being an adult rapist?"  I don't think it does, but I also don't think this is the time to worry about the rapists' future, especially given how lenient their sentences are.

Yes, lenient.  Instead of complaining that their lives are over, Richmond and Mays should be down on their knees thanking the judge for the generosity they've been shown.  A minimum of year or two in a juvenile facility, with the possibility of additional time to be determined at future hearings, is much better than the sentences in adult prison they could have been given.  Yes, they do have to register as sex offenders - because they are sex offenders.  And even with this, future hearings will decide whether they're to remain on the register for the remainder of their lives or can be taken off after a time provided they've demonstrated their ability not to rape people.

And finally, about the victim.  Regardless of what she was wearing that night, how late she stayed out that night, or how much she had to drink that night, she did not ask for this and none of her actions constituted permission to rape her.  I hope that she's getting the help she needs to carry on with her life.  She's got a long and difficult road ahead of her, and while the courageous actions of women who've been down this road before her have made the patch easier than it once might have been, it's still a difficult road, and one that no one should be sent down.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The worst part of job-hunting

Some people get stressed out over job interviews.  Not me - I think job interviews are great.  I get to get dressed up and go talk to something interesting at a place that I might get to work.  Plus, if I've got an interview it means that I've already made it past what I consider the worst part of the job search process:  The waiting.  That interminable period of hell between the time you submit your application and the time you get either a call for an interview or a rejection letter.

The first part of the waiting isn't too bad.  First comes to the time until the end of the application period and about the first week after that.  This is when you know it's unreasonable to expect to hear anything.  That doesn't mean you don't hope to hear something, but you know not to expect it.

After this, depending on what size organization you're applying to, you will fall into one of two sublevels of hell.

If you're applying to a large organization, you'll fall into the Black Pit of Ignorance.  You (hopefully) know that your application has been received, but beyond that you know nothing.  You don't even know if an actual person ever looked at your application, thanks to the spreading usage of language processing software to pre-reject applications before they even get to HR personnel.  (An inexact science, at best.  Trust me on this - I've helped write language processing software before.  Your best bet?  Cut and past so that your application uses the exact same wording they used in their ad.)  Or, your application could have been rejected by HR, without ever being seen by anyone in the department you'd be working in.  Hopefully you'll be released from this level with a call for an interview.  Barring that, your next best result is a rejection letter - at least you know not to expect anything else from them.  Unfortunately, given the large number of applications that any open position generates nowadays, your more likely negative response is an enduring silence.

On the other hand, if you're applied to a small organization, you'll likely fall into the Chasm of Informed Helplessness.  By looking at the patient's website you can see whether or not the position has been filled.  By following the company's Twitter, Facebook, and/or blog (a necessity in order to be prepared for the interview) you can often see how the work you're applying to do isn't being done, if the person who had previously held the position you're applying for has already left.  You can see exciting opportunities to make things happen in your hoped-for position coming and going.  But despite all this knowledge, there's really nothing you can do.  You might want to email or call the person who's doing the hiring, but even this should be done judiciously lest you cross that ill-defined line between showing interest and initiative and being a nuisance.

But, unless someone radically changes the terms of hiring, this is the way it is.  And as long as the number of applications is completely out of proportion to the quality of job being offered, it's always going to take longer than anyone on either side of the desk would want it to.  But it's still frustrating, and there ought to be a better way.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sorry Meatloaf: Sometimes two out of three IS bad.

People love to group things in threes:  Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Morning, noon, and night.  Father, son, and holy ghost.  The three little pigs.  The three bears.  The Three Stooges.  Celtic folklore has extensive catalogs of triads:  The Three Greatest Virtues, The Three Greatest Betrayals, and so forth.  There's just something about three that appeals to us.  It allows more definition than a binary, yet isn't so large a number as to become unmanageable.  Fours tend to split into two pairs.  Fives tend to split into a triad and a pair.  Three apparently is, as Schoolhouse Rock taught us, "a magic number."

Somewhere along the way, people discovered the rhetorical power of having a group of three where one of the members doesn't quite fit:  The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Done properly, this is a powerful technique.  Done improperly, it blows up in your face.

I starting thinking about this while driving my son to school yesterday.  There's a restaurant near our house with a three-part name.  Since I don't want to single them out in this post, especially since I've never eaten there and I've heard it's a great place, I'm going to disguise their name here and call them "Bob's Sammiches, Shiraz, and Beer."

You can see here that Bob tried for the "three with one mismatch" technique, with the first two items alliterating and the third not.  There's also a rhythmic mismatch here:  Two multisyllable words and one monosyllable.  But it doesn't quite work, because the first two items aren't enough alike.  They're both multisyllable food words that start with 'S', but "sammiches" is a folksy bit of slang while "Shiraz" is a foreign word, lending it an air of exoticism that stands in stark contrast to the Americana of "sammiches."

So what could Bob have done instead?  I think in this case he'd be better off choosing two of his three items and avoiding the triad form altogether.  Which two?  Let's see:

  • Bob's Shiraz and Beer:  This is probably the least good option. It sounds good, but it omits the food entirely.  This sounds more like a liquor store than a restaurant.  It even sounds more like a liquor store than a bar.  Not at all what Bob is going for.
  • Bob's Sammiches and Beer.  This could work, if Bob was going for a "down-home" style, playing up the stereotypical folksiness implied in the name.  But I've seen Bob's place, and I've read the reviews, and I don't think this is at all what Bob is going for.  Which leaves...
  • Bob's Sammiches and Shiraz.  I think this gets across the idea that Bob is trying to convey:  A mixture of folksiness and fanciness.  Fine food served in a fun atmosphere, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, Bob didn't come to me before naming his restaurant.  Still, I wish him all the best and (assuming it lives up to the initial reviews) hope that his restaurant is around for many years to come, becoming a local fixture.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Long Haul Reading

While sorting through some papers this morning (there's nothing like the loss of an important piece of paper to provide the incentive to get all the others in order), I came across an article I had clipped from the November 2011 issue of Men's Health:  A list by Stephen King of the 10 best long (ca. 1000 page) books. I think it's a wonderful list, even if several of the "books" on it are actually several books united under one title (if Stephen King hasn't earned the right to bend the rules a bit, I don't know what writer working today has).

And so, without further ado, Stephen's list of the 10 best 1000-page books:

  1. Bleak House (Charles Dickens)
  2. War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
  3. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
  4. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)
  5. Paradise Falls (Don Robertson)
  6. The Winds of War (Herman Wouk)
  7. Hurry Sundown (K.B. Gilden)
  8. The Sword of Honour Trilogy (Evelyn Waugh)
  9. The Raj Quartet (Paul Scott)
  10. A Dance to the Music of Time (Anthony Powell)
Of these, I've read two:  Infinite Jest and The Lord of the Rings.  And I really have trouble thinking of two books I've read that are more different from each other.  The Lord of the Rings is serious, earnest, straightforward, with a traditional point A to point B narrative, while Infinite Jest is ironic, over the top, convoluted, with a narrative structure that for a time had me wondering if there was a story there at all.  At times I wondered if DFW was playing an elaborate joke, and that when I "got there," I'd find there was no "there" there.  With JRRT, I had no such doubts.  

Given the interesting experiences I've had with the books I've read from this list, I'm looking forward to exploring the rest.  How about you? Do you love (or hate) any books on this list?  Are there any books you think King should have included in this list? (And if so, what would you eliminate to make room for it?)  I curious to hear what you all have to say.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Christina Perri + Monty Python = Silliness

It occurred to me this morning that Christina Perri's "Jar of Hearts" and Monty Python's "Lumberjack Song" could be combined into one exceedingly silly song.  (Whether or not they should be is left as an exercise for the reader.)

(To the tune of "Jar of Hearts")
Who do you think you are
Hanging around in the bars
In suspendies and a bra
Just like your dear papa?
You think that you're okay
'cause you go to work all day
Cutting down a tree
Having buttered scones for tea.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hilary Mantel on Monarchy

"I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not.  But now I think the question is rather like, should we have pandas or not?  Our current royal family doesn't have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.  But aren't they interesting?  Aren't they nice to look at?  Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it's still a cage."
-- Hilary Mantel, "Royal Bodies," London Review of Books Vol. 35 No. 4 (21 Feb. 2013)