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 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.