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.