Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On shaming and second chances and the paucity of first chances

I've been following the internet discussions centered around Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed.  And I've thought, and thought, and thought some more, and I've finally been able to put my finger on exactly what it is that bothers me about the cases Ronson describes.  On the one hand, look at the job titles of the people Ronson describes:  acclaimed author, CFO of a major corporation, PR executive.  All pretty desirable positions.  On the other hand, look at the things these people did to screw up their lives:  falsifying a nonfiction book, yelling at a fast food clerk and posting it on the internet, publicly posting an offensive racist joke.  All pretty stupid things that anyone who's made it through middle school should know better than to do.  And after this, these people think they should get a second chance.  And they'll probably get it.  But the fact of the matter is that good positions like the ones these people screwed themselves out of are far rarer than people who want those positions and are capable of doing them.  So when the mass of people who are struggling to get by from day to day see these people, who've screwed up so egregiously, saying "I should have my position at the top of the heap back," we're inclined to say, "No.  Hell no.  You've already demonstrated that you're a jerk.  Let someone else - someone who hasn't acted out so stupidly - have a shot now.  You had your shot and you blew it.  Why should you get a second chance when so many of us never get a first one?"

To give another example, one closer to my life:  I was a student in the history department at University of New Orleans when the Stephen Ambrose plagiarism scandal broke.  I never had Dr. Ambrose for a professor - by the time I came along, he was at a point in his career where he was able to devote almost all his time to writing and research - but I remember following the news and being horrified.  Horrified not so much because of what he had done - I knew that in every field there were going to be some bad apples - as because of the general lack of consequences.  I knew that if I, as a graduate student, had committed similar acts of plagiarism, that would be it - my hopes of a history career would be over.  But when Ambrose did these things, the university stood behind him, his colleagues rallied around him, and after a brief period of finger-wagging, it was as if this had never happened.

And I think that's why people piled on the people profiled in Ronson's book - because we've seen how people at the top of the heap are allowed to fail, then offered a second chance and enabled to stay at the top of the heap, while those of us at the bottom of the heap know that should we fail in anything even approaching the same degree, that will be the end of what little social and financial stability we've managed to carve out for ourselves.  Public internet shaming is an attempt to equalize things - since we can't do it by bringing the people at the bottom up, we're left to do it by bringing the people at the top down.

Monday, March 23, 2015

REVIEW: Bone Walker, by Crime and the Forces of Evil

"Bone Walker wasn't supposed to be a major project."  So begins the liner notes for this new album from Crime and the Forces of Evil.  What it was supposed to be was a Kickstarter bonus to go along with Angela Korra'ti's Free Court of Seattle series.  Of course, as you read on in the liner notes, you see that it turned into a major project:  Extra musicians coming into the project, enriching (and complicating) the arrangements, health problems and software problems delaying the production, and no doubt countless other more minor problems that by comparison weren't worth mentioning.

But then you listen to the album and you know that - for you the listener, at any rate - it was all worth it.  Ten songs and 4 readings (with background music) transport you into the world of the Free Court of Seattle.  The songs are a mixture of traditional and original material (often within the same song), in a range of moods and tones.  If you like SJ Tucker or Blackmore's Night (to name couple a few of the musicians mining this same mythic vein), I feel confident in recommending Bone Walker to you.  You can get it at Amazon, Bandcamp, iTunes, or the band's own website.  Do your ears a favor and go check it out.

DISCLOSURE:  I'm friends with the leader of the band, and she provided me with an advanced listening copy of the album in exchange for a review.  Not necessarily a positive review, mind:  A free album can't buy that, and neither can friendship.  (If needed, friendship can buy some awkward feelings and an email saying "I really didn't like it - are you sure you want me to write about it?"  Fortunately that wasn't necessary in this case.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Stupid rules of the workplace: Dressing for a job interview

One of the most pointless causes of stress in the workplace is "what to wear to a job interview."  You know you're going to be judged based on what you wear, yet you're forbidden access to the simplest and most accurate method of determining what the correct thing to wear is.

Once upon a time, or so I've been told, it was simple:  A job applicant going for an interview was to wear a suit and tie.  (I'm going to restrict my discussion here to male clothing options, to keep the phrasing from getting ponderous, but rest assured that everything I say here applies to women, with the multiplying factor of sexualization of women's clothing, which I'm not even going to begin to address here.)

Anyway, suit and tie.  Because that's what you'd be wearing once you got the job.  Then organizations started changing their dress codes.  Some clung to the old suit and tie.  Some loosened up as far as khakis and a nice shirt, but jeans were still off the table.  Others adopted an "anything goes" approach.  Sartorial choices for job interviews were thrown into turmoil.  And how did the job-hunting gurus adapt to this turmoil?  By offering conflicting advice.  Some said to stick with the suit and tie.  Others said to look at what people in the office you'd be interviewing at are wearing, then match that.  Still others said to look at what the people in the office are wearing, then dress one step more formal that that.

Of course, none of the gurus stated the actual proper thing to wear, because it would only serve to point out the method of information-gathering that job-hunters are pointlessly forbidden access to (that I mentioned in the first paragraph).  The proper thing to wear to a job interview is, of course, whatever the person interviewing you wants you to wear.  And the forbidden information-gathering technique?  Asking them.

Seriously.  Imagine how much simpler it would make all of our lives.
HIRING MANAGER:  So, our interview's for Tuesday at 9.  Do you have any further questions before then?
APPLICANT:  Yes.  How would you like me to dress?
HIRING MANAGER:  Well, we typically dress business casual here, but I'd like to see you in a suit and tie.

Just like that.  Under a minute, pointless source of workplace stress eliminated.  I'd love to see this become the norm.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Of roads and redistribution

The major political issue in my town right now is streets.  Specifically, the city council wants to get the town off the treadmill of continual street resurfacing by investing in higher quality streets that will last a generation or more.  Naturally, this will require spending money, and consequently the local conservatives are losing their minds.

One of them wrote a letter to the editor of the local community weekly.  "What if I sell my house after 10 years, when we've just paid to put down 30-year streets?  What if I sell my house after 5 years, before they even put the new streets in front of it?  I'll have paid for something that I didn't benefit from!"

I just wanted to grab this guy by the lapels and get all Samuel L. Jackson on him:  "WAS THERE A STREET IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE WHEN YOU BOUGHT IT, MOTHERF**KER?"  Yes, there was.  The previous owner paid for that street, and they didn't take it with them when they left.  That's what it means to be an adult in a civilized society.  You benefit from things that other people paid for and, at the same time, you pay for things that other people benefit from.  Over time, it pretty much balances out, even if the way it does so isn't obvious at first glance.  For example, even if you don't have kids, you still benefit from paying for schools because it decreases the average ignorance of the people around you.  (Which I think we all agree is a Good Thing.)

With apologies to the people of New Hampshire, I sometimes wish the Free State Project would succeed, so that the rest of us wouldn't have to deal with these "rugged individualists," we could just send them to Coventry if they haven't gone already.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

You don't like it? Are you sure?

For a long time, I thought I didn't like Neil Young.  Not Neil Young's music, mind you - Neil Young himself.

To find out how this happened, we have to make a mental trip to the early 1980s in southern Mississippi, back to my tweenage years.  It was a time and place where it was possible to not know things in a way that just isn't possible today.  There was no Wikipedia - no internet at all for that matter - and so it was possible to not know something and then to continue not to know it because the answers weren't available in the data accessible to you.  This aspect of the informational environment I grew up became relevant when my dad let me have an old stereo that he wasn't using anymore, along with a bunch of 8-track tapes that he didn't listen to anymore.  This was my introduction to Paul Simon, Black Sabbath, Jimmy Buffet, Steppenwolf, and a lot of other music from the late 60s and early 70s.

Which is how we get to Neil Young.  My music collection now included tapes from Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  What I didn't have was context.  I didn't know who Neil Young was.  I didn't know about his history of being in Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills, nor about his friendship with Stills that predated Buffalo Springfield.  Instead, I had an information vacuum.  This was simply unacceptable.  So I created a story to fill that vacuum.  In my version of things, Crosby, Stills, and Nash had been a successful band, doing perfectly fine on their own, when Neil Young came out of nowhere and somehow (I was rather vague on this point) jumped on their coattails and became part of the band.  And I hated him for it.

My story was consistent with the (very limited) information I had, but it was obviously far from the truth.  Once I had the actual information, my opinion of Neil Young drastically changed - I'm currently reading his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, and loving it.  But all too often it seems that people don't revise - they make their mental stories based on the facts they have available, then defend the story even in the face of contradictory facts.  Remember, folks, your mental stories about the world are just models, and in cases where the model is in conflict with reality, it's the model that's got to change.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2014, part 4

This is the final installment of my blogging through the July/August 2014 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, guest-edited by C.C. Finlay.  The earlier parts are here, here, and here.

I enjoyed "The Aerophone" by Dinesh Rao, but not as much as I would have liked to have.  I love the mixture of different wordls:  An Indian scholar, working in Mexico, interacting with indigenous Mexicans, coming in contact with a world beyond ours entirely.  But the architecture of the story just didn't work for me.  It felt like the beginning of a novel that had just been truncated and an attempt made to pass off as a novelet.  In a way a hope that's what it is:  All things that I think make it a flawed novelet would make it an excellent chapter 1 of a full-length novel.

I was eventually able to forgive Ian Tregillis for not actually including diagrams in "Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty's Ship Confidence, 14-22 June 1818, With Diagrams" because it's just such an excellent blend of the weird and the nautical (two of my favorite genres).  But, considering that the diagrams are mentioned both in the title and the story itself, I'd really love to see a chapbook edition of this that actually included diagrams.

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of "Five Tales of the Aqueduct" by Spencer Ellsworth.  It's a cluster of smaller stories that go together to make a larger whole, but I'm afraid I'm still not at all clear on exactly how they fit together.  Still, the quality of the individual pieces is such that I don't begrudge it a second reading to try to figure it out.

This issues movie column, "Girl Power in Dystopia" by Kathi Maio, examines the Twilight movies, the Hunger Games movies, Divergent, and other recent cinematic examples of YA heroine's tales - a very nice synthesis of a topic that's certainly worth a bit of thought.

I was looking forward to "Belly" by Haddayr Copley-Woods, as I've been friends with the author for years and she knew I was reading this issue and refusing to skip ahead to her story.  For starters, be sure to heed the warning in the biographical blurb at the beginning of this story:  Do not read this story while you're eating.  That being said, I don't want to give the wrong impression of this story - the disgusting elements aren't added for "mere" shock value.  This is a viscerally powerful story (pun intended) and one that I won't be forgetting anytime soon.  I challenge anyone to read this story and not have their feelings about fairy tale witches changed.

"The Only Known Law" by William Alexander reminds of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.  Leaving your home planet is definitely going to change a species, and Alexander here shows one possible outcome of that change.

Based on the title, I never expected Alaya Dawn Johnson's "A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i" to be a vampire story.  But don't let that description mislead you and if you're the sort of person who doesn't like vampires, don't let that that keep you away from this story:  This is not like any other vampire story I've ever read.  For that matter, Johnson's vampires are like no other vampires I've ever encountered - she manages to capture the psychological distance between humans and vampires in a way that I've never experienced before (and in a way that, paradoxically, also highlights their psychological closeness).  Highly recommended.

So to sum up:  Would I recommend July/August 2014 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction?  Definitely.  Would I recommend Fantasy & Science Fiction in general?  Probably.  Keep in mind that this is the first issue of F&SF that I've read in over a decade, and that Finlay is a guest editor here.  Still, he wouldn't have been invited to guest edit without the approval of the regular editor, so I'm inclined to look positively on the regular editor so long as they don't give me a reason not to.  That being said, in the event that the F&SF ever needs a new editor, they could certainly do worse than offer the job to Finlay.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2014, part 3

I've been blogging my way through the July/August 2014 issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, guest edited by C.C. Finlay.  You can read parts 1 and 2 of this series here and here.

I didn't expect to enjoy Chris Moriarty's "Books" column this time around.  My first reaction was "Another tribute to Iain (M.) Banks?"  But I suppose it's a tribute both to Banks and Moriarty that I did enjoy it.  I daresay people will be writing about Banks for quite some time to come.

Next up was "The Traveling Salesman Solution" by David Erik Nelson.  This story impressed the hell out of me, not only for the strength of the ideas in the story because also for the protagonist.  The protagonist of "The Traveling Salesman Solution" (whose name I don't remember at the moment and can't find on flipping through the story just now) is in a wheelchair, but the story isn't about him being in a wheelchair.  There are details of the story that play out a certain way because he's in a wheelchair, but that isn't the focus of the story.  Very well done.

Cat Hellisen's "The Girls Who Go Below" is a fairy tale retelling, but so much more than that.  I didn't even recognize it as a fairy tale retelling - despite being very familiar with and fond of the fairy tale in question - until very near the end of the story.  And no, I won't tell you what story it is:  You'll have to read it and find out for yourself.

And this installment comes to a close with "The Day of the Nuptial Flight"by Sarina Dorie.  This one was just amazing - a classic science fiction story like they supposedly don't write anymore, told from the point of view of an alien.  When humans come to a new planet, maybe terraforming isn't the way to go.  Maybe there's another option.