Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Hunger Games opened

I finished the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy about a week ago. A couple friends have been on me to read the books for several months, so I finally started.

I rather like dystopian novels, after all. My favorite was Fahrenheit 451 (possibly ‘cause I’m such a book nerd). And 1984 (and its little-known predecessor, The Napoleon of Notting Hill) and Brave New World were both fascinating. Unfortunately I haven’t read Animal Farm, but never fear, I’ll get to it someday.

What fascinates me so much is how each dystopian novel unnerves you by tugging at one seemingly innocuous tendency in modern society (or, at least, modern Western society) and stretching it to its logical conclusion. In Brave New World, for example (since that’s what I read most recently), the pursuit of happiness becomes elevated above all else. These novels explore how the world might end up if such-and-such a tendency were to persist and become the world’s defining characteristic over against contradictory tendencies. They act as a warning against imbalance.

So I approached these expecting to enjoy them. At least, I did last week. When I first heard of these books several months ago, I wasn’t too sure I was interested in reading them, since—well, they were marketed as members of that quasi-genre of Young Adult Fiction. Which I always thought was, Fiction That Adults Are Too Smart For. Good fiction is good fiction, I figure, and shouldn’t be limited by age group. Something that young people can understand should be deep or perceptive enough that a mature adult can likewise enjoy it.

Anyhow. I finished The Hunger Games, this first in a three-part trilogy, and I’m wondering—what terrible tendency, exactly, is this dystopia warning us against? You pick any of those books I mentioned before, and if you read them it’s pretty obvious what latent cultural tendencies the authors had noted—for example, the pursuit of security over freedom, or the pursuit of happiness at the expense of everything else. The only inkling I have here is a note in the author’s biography that she has been exploring violence’s effects on today’s youth through fiction for some time. So far, I can only suppose that her most popular dystopia centers on the same theme.

I withhold judgment until I’ve actually read all three parts of the trilogy. But so far, I’m not seeing so much of the dystopian cultural critique as I was hoping for. I’m hoping it’s just because I’m not even halfway through the story—and usually the dystopian climax, in which the chiaroscuro of tendencies out of balance is finally revealed, comes almost at the end.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Life on my own #18: Office politics (and The Sports Guy)

Office politics. Inescapable.

I work next to The Sports Guy. He signs his e-mails that way. And you have to capitalize all those initial letters in The Sports Guy or else he’ll start honking his bike horn at you.

Not the one on his bike, mind you. I’ve never seen him ride a bike. He keeps this bike horn at his desk, ready at hand whenever someone starts to tease him. Or just in case the traffic gets bad in the hallway.

The Editor bought it for him on a whim and gave it to him during the Christmas gift exchange. She might be regretting that impulse buy. Remember, kids, just because it’s loud and oddly shaped, doesn’t mean it’s the perfect gift.

The Sports Guy, including his capital letters, is highly childish. He once crammed about 26 Tootsie Rolls into his mouth just to see how many would fit. And he was surprised to find out that his jaw hurt afterward. Before he was bequeathed the noisy bike horn, he kept a strange-looking Big Bird rubber toy at his desk, and would occasionally squeeze it rapidly, several times in succession, if he felt the urge come upon him. Yes, it makes rubber ducky noises. I stole it in self-defense and have taken to warring back at him with it when he toots his horn.

Then there’s his rather odd manner of telling time. “It’s five quarters till four!” he’ll shout. Immediately after his talking computer has informed him that it’s actually two-forty-five, in a sort of female Macintosh computer voice. It’s a constipated computer, I’m sure of it. Or senile. The swirling beach ball probably mesmerized its brain into mush.

Oh, the drama that ensues when he’s come in for the afternoon. With him on one side and The Editor on the other (whose capital letters are merely bestowed, unlike The Sports Guy’s), a veritable buzz persists over my head, interspersed with giggles from time to time.

Instead of ignoring each other, they repeat to each other exactly what the other told them. Or they repeat about three times what I have said. Or the front desk lady. Doesn’t really matter who said it first—for all they care, it could be some Letter to The Editor they are quoting. But the chance words of wisdom fall like seeds in fertile ground and bear fruit ten or twenty times over. Usually word-for-word and prefaced with “Remember…” or “Don’t forget….” Pieces of advice are particularly vulnerable to this trick.

Instead of holding a grudge against one or the other of the coworkers, he’ll laugh and join in the fun we’re making of him, too. Once, when he went on vacation for three days, everyone else in the office contributed a bit of femininity to his desk… pink heart-shaped Post-It Notes (in two different shades, no less), several floral and environmental calendar pictures, a pink Easter basket converted into his inbox (complete with an artistic pink “The Sports Guy’s Inbox” on it), even a Schedule for the Day reminding him of his important appointments with the manicurist and some friends at the ballet. I recorded his reaction on my handy little digital audio recorder, and told him so afterward.

He didn’t even pull any vengeful return pranks! You see how difficult it is to work in this kind of environment?

There’s not a chance I’ll be able to get any real gossip taken care of.

P.S. This is the same guy who used to think that Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” was about a character from Andy Griffith. “Gomer Pyle… I wish I was Gomer Pyle…” yep, that’s what happens when The Sports Guy doesn’t pay close attention to the lyrics.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

RS, meet marijuana.

Early this month I had a novel experience. Marijuana stung my eyes.

Innocent that I am, I’ve never seen someone so much as smoking marijuana, let alone growing it. Or at least, I’m not aware that I have. But to judge from the pictures I’d seen, it looked like either poison ivy or buckeye leaves. (That’s why some people joke that Ohio State University has marijuana in its emblems.)

And then, I was sitting at my news reporter’s desk being all reporter-y. The chief of police in my town called up a little before my lunchtime, rather randomly I had thought at first, and asked if I had a minute to come take a picture. He could hardly disguise his glee—they’d found an in-home grow, he said. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that meant marijuana.

I walked in the police station and the chief met me at the vestibule. Then, leading me down a short corridor, he began to descend a stairway. As I neared the stairway I could smell something.

It reminded me of spearmint. You know how, if you have a huge clump of it overtaking a section of your yard, the smell of mint overwhelms you—and you can nearly taste it, with all the sap in the air? Especially after you’ve mown over the extra? This was that same sensation—like breathing in sap. Bits of the sap-filled air seem to settle on the tip of my tongue, and it stung my eyes too, like Vix VapoRub.

It turned out the police had executed a search warrant that morning, taking marijuana and its growing equipment from a house in town. 38 plants, still green and wet, were bagged up in garbage bags or stuck in a large plastic tote in a room in the police station’s basement. It wasn’t a small room, really, but it wasn’t big enough to handle all that concentrated sap floating from the plants into the air. And the leaves were sticking to the officers’ hands, like so much sap oozed from them that it acted like glue. No wonder the air was saturated.

I snapped my pictures, got the pertinent information, and skedaddled. My eyes were starting to water, and nobody was even smoking anything!

Compendium of Links #24 (Ed-Tech edition)

I didn’t expect to have a bunch of links to read this week. After all, I didn’t even have internet access at the library for most of it. But today’s catch-up day, and I can’t resist the allure of these links about… education and technology.

Why you should postpone college—Amen and amen! Written by somebody at Forbes who forgot to add that summer jobs could just as easily serve his purpose of “grownup training,” avoiding the necessity of a two-year gap between high school graduation and one’s freshman year at college.

You can’t afford Apple’s education revolution—yet. I.e., i-Texbooks sound awesome at fifteen bucks a pop (compared to fifty at the used bookstore), but there are some caveats—like the cost of the device itself. (I’m not going to spend my extra $500 on it. When my current laptop poops out, I’m buying a real Mac, with InDesign and Photoshop and possibly Quark if I can afford it.) And for the record, I’m writing an article right now on the bunches of iPads the local school district purchased for its buildings. Not one for every student, but enough for a full classroom (and the middle school got three classes’ worth).

40+ Items tech will kill this digital decade—like newspapers, desktop computers, post offices… some of this is a little far-fetched (and has a whiff of wishful thinking), but much of this list is either plausible or already disappearing. How many people use 411 anymore? But I find it amusing that classrooms are on there, with the notation that “home schooling will now be for the cool kids rather than the outcasts.”

Why manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back to the U.S.—at least, not in the tech industry, and according to the now-departed Steve Jobs. And since that’s the industry that’s actually growing (I think…), it makes a difference.

And on the flip side, how Apple is taking advantage of poorer work conditions/regulation overseas. Especially in China, it appears.

And rolling back toward the theme of the first link… another grand ol’ rerun from the guys at What You Ought To Know.

College kids, listen up. It might help, if you have the leeway for these choices.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Dependence on the library

I was all set Tuesday afternoon to walk over to the library after I got off work. (The perks of working in a newspaper: you’re downtown, where you’re also most likely to find the local Carnegie library.) But alas and alack, they closed early that day.

My library doesn’t normally do that.

Seems their server had crashed. They were going to reopen the next afternoon… except that they found another problem. Then they were going to reopen Thursday afternoon. Didn’t happen; the server problems mounted. Thursday night was a no-go, too.

They finally said they’d reopen today, Friday, and extended extra time for everybody who had stuff due that they couldn’t return. (Or rather, that the computer couldn’t recognize as returned. Because it was, in fact, laid up for the duration.)

And you know where I access the internet for fun? Yep, at the library.

I spent Tuesday night watching a movie instead of goofing off on my laptop at the library, even though I’d already watched said movie over the weekend. Oh well, I decided, if it was good enough to watch once, it’d better be good enough to watch again! (It was.)

So that’s why I was absent from my poor blog all week. Just don’t ask about the preceding two weeks…..

If my dumbphone could speak…

Smartphoner picks up phone.

Smartphoner speaks to phone: Where's the closest gas station?

Phone: That is an unintelligible statement.

Smartphoner: What's so unintelligible about it?

Phone: That is an unintelligible statement.

Smartphoner: It's not a statement, it's a question.

Phone: That is an unintelligible statement, you idiot.

Smartphoner: *sigh* Where can I buy gas?

Phone: You are able to buy gas at any gas station.

Smartphoner: I know that. Where's the closest gas station?

Phone: That is another unintelligible statement.

Smartphoner: What's so unintelligible about it? *speaks loudly and distinctly* where is the closest gas station?

Phone: Your question contains no frame of reference.

Smartphoner: Well at least it's intelligible. Which gas station is closest to me?

Phone: Your question contains no frame of reference.

Smartphoner: Closest to me, I said. Where's the closest gas station?

Phone: That is an unintelligible statement.

Smartphoner: What don't you understand about my question?

Phone: That is an unintelligible statement.

Smartphoner: Just tell me where I can find the nearest gas station.

Phone: You should be able to find the nearest gas station at the corner of High Way and Main Street, providing your physical capacities or the capacities of your car have not changed since you last traveled a short distance.

Smartphoner: Oh, you're a grammar nazi, are you?

Phone: That is an unintelligible statement.

Smartphoner: Well at least I can go get gas now. Where's High Way and Main Street?

Phone: Please stop making unintelligible statements.

Smartphoner: How do I get to High Way and Main Street?

Phone: Travel east for 1.2 miles and turn right into your destination.

Smartphoner: Finally.

Phone: You ungrateful wretch.

Smartphoner: Huh? What's that you said?

Phone: I'm sorry, I do not speak unintelligibility.

Smartphoner: And they said it was a smart phone.

Phone: I am an IQ*Smartphone. I can respond to a variety of voice commands and utilize the 3G radio device network to nagivate the Internet and locate my geographic coordinates. In addition my touchscreen capability allows my user­--

Smartphoner: I do NOT need the schpiel right now.

Phone: I'm sorry, I do not speak Yiddish. I am fluent in English, Spanish, French, German--

Smartphoner: Shut up.

Phone: My features also include the complete anniversary edition of Emily Post's Guide to Etiquette.

Smartphoner: Where's the off button?

Phone: That is an unintelligible statement.

Smartphoner: If you say that one more time, I WILL smash you to smithereens.

Phone: ______________

Smartphoner: OK, now how do I call customer service?

Phone: You may call customer service by dialing 1-800-SMART-FONE from any touch-tone telephone or by dialing *5555 from your IQ*Smartphone.

Smartphoner: And are they going to answer me at this time of night?

Phone: I cannot speak for the customer service representatives, but the operating hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, or 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The time now is 8:23 p.m.

Smartphoner: Thank goodness. I need you to get a software upgrade, I think.

Phone: To request a software upgrade, first send a text message to *5555 with the word "SOFTWARE" so that a customer service representative may identify the software version currently installed on your IQ*Smartphone. Then call the dedicated line indicated in a reply to your text message to continue with the software upgrade process.

Smartphoner: Do they have an upgrade for the voice command thingy?

Phone: I'm sorry, you have asked an imprecise question.

Smartphoner: The voice command recognition software. Is there an upgrade for it?

Phone: Please send a text message to *5555 to--

Smartphoner: OK, OK, I know that.

*initiates customer service call*

Smartphoner: Hello, I'd like to get my phone software upgraded. It doesn't recognize what I'm saying half the time.

Customer service: Have you completed the initial phone auditory training according to the instructions that accompanied your IQ*Smartphone?

Smartphoner: Yep, and it worked fine during that.

Customer service: Have you read the voice recognition software README file?

Smartphoner: More or less. But it's not responding whenever I ask it something the first time.

Customer service: Have you customized your smartphone to understand contractions?

Smartphoner: What's that?

Customer service: Please open the "settings" tab on your phone and click the checkbox next to "learn to recognize common contractions" under the "voice recognition" section.

Smartphoner: Uh.... thanks.

Life on my own #17: Magazine subscriptions

I got my very first issue of The Atlantic in the mail this week! It was a pleasant surprise to find it in my quaint black mailbox when I got home from work. I wonder what the mailman thought about it?

Funny thing about magazines—you can get your first very own issue, complete with your name stamped on it like a monogram, while still having read the thing for years. Me, I grew up with Dad’s extraneous copies lying around, simply begging me to turn to Barbara Wallraff’s wordsmithing column just inside the back cover. That tells you how long ago I got hooked. She hasn’t written that dual column for, oh, six years at least? Very likely more. And even those copies of Dad’s were actually refugees from the library, some of them with “discard” marked on ‘em. My parents were (are) cheap like that.

Alas, my local library hadn’t the forethought to order a subscription when it found out I’d be moving to town. Thus I’ve been bereft of the fond pastime of reading the thing since I graduated from college. Jeffrey Goldberg’s dry advice column filled that irresistible back page after Wallraff’s column was discontinued, renewing my old habit of reading the thing back-to-front. But when I wasn’t at home, I was cut off from that lifeline of commentary and wit. The website, while excellent, is no replacement for the feel of slick magazine pages getting caked with the residue from my last peanut-butter supper. And the website isn’t monogrammed like my magazine is.

Of course, it wasn’t like I could read the actual magazine regularly while I was at college, either, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on my poor, Atlantic-less library. But it’s the principle of the thing. An intelligent adult cannot breathe without at least biannual exposure to the thrilling political and provoking cultural analyses pierced by that magazine’s staples.

So my loving sister surprised me at Christmas with a gift subscription. And the fruits of that gift are just now dropping to the ground, ripe for devouring. (Not to say overripe.) After eight months in my little town, I’ve now been able to curl up on my Craigslist couch with an incongruously upper-class publication.

Although, it arrived Jan. 23, and it was the December issue. I’m holding my breath for the January’s imminent arrival.

I was determined to turn over a new leaf, not to say a new page, with this magazine. I resolutely opened to the table of contents, scanned what delicacies and meaty main courses were in store, then continued scanning page after page, periodically stopping for a bit to actually read something in its entirety. Kind of like browsing at the buffet bar, you know.

This one article about a sort of 3-D camera was first to catch my attention, I think. And it’s only going to cost roughly $500 for one of those cameras. Considering it claims to focus on everything at once, that’s a pretty cheap camera. DSLRs are at least that much, not even counting the lens.

Then there was this article by Daniel Klein. Here’s hoping I spelled his name right. Anyway, here he retracted with the utmost grace and humility a previous op-ed in the Washington Post, I think, that posited that liberals couldn’t think as clearly as conservatives about economic policy issues. He’s a libertarian, and it turns out that the study he highlighted (and for which, to his credit, he was also eagerly awaiting results from a clarifying follow-up study) was flawed because it included only, or mostly, questions confronting misguided liberal notions about the world. (Like the idea that today’s standard of living is no higher than it was 30 years ago. Or that minimum wages don’t actually increase unemployment.)

Anyhow, turns out that the follow-up study—which was basically the same thing, except that libertarian-minded questions were balanced with progressive-minded ones—showed that conservatives/libertarians might be smarter on the economic policy conundrums that proved their theories right, but they weren’t always on the ones that proved their opponents’ ones right. And that’s also why liberals didn’t fare so well in the first study. It’s called “myside” bias apparently, by those whose hyphen keys are missing from their keyboards.

No, really, it was an enlightening article—and provided fodder for an impromptu self-evaluation, since it basically listed the economic policy statements and which ones could be borne out by empirical research (otherwise known as numbers that aren’t the ones published by the Department of Job and Family Services).

There were bunches of other articles, too—like the one about Pakistan (we are just dumb for having them as an ally, but we’d prolly be dumber if we didn’t keep them); or the one about James Garner (who was as honest as Abe and way more handsome); or the one about China’s WalMarts (my gosh, when I was born Wal-Mart barely covered half the U.S., and didn’t even spread outside the country till afterward); or Mr. Goldberg’s wonderful back-page piece informing everyone of the hidden drug references in everything but “Stairway to Heaven” (which is, he says, about nothing at all).

The content is fantastic. Plus the whole thing makes me want to write flippantly, though it’s full of articles that are anything but. Well, except for Mr. Goldberg’s piece.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Compendium of Links #23

I just spend an overnight with my college roommate and a mutual friend back at college. (Our mutual friend is a senior this year.) That was the first time I’ve been back when there were actually classes going on… I went a couple times over the summer to get the yearbook finished up, but I don’t really count those visits since I stayed in the Mac lab the whole time.

It was weird to be back, and yet it felt very comfortable. I even knew a lot of people there, mostly fifth-year seniors but several students who were a year or two behind me.

Anyhow. A small collection of the links I’ve found in the past couple of weeks:

“If I Were a Poor Black Kid” by Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic—this was an interesting essay drawing on sociological research into why poor people are, and stay, poor. Apparently some of the cultural stuff is different. Which may be why education isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem, but in some cases it can help.

Another bit from The Atlantic warns people to take infographics with a grain (or a heap) of salt. Because they can really play with the facts till they aren’t facts anymore.

The New York Times a while ago revisited an ethically questionable practice carried out in North Carolina a few decades ago—sterilizing a bunch of folks against their will (i.e. with parents’ or guardians’ permission). Apparently the state had an aggressive eugenics program from 1933 to 1977. The NYT came back to it because the state was thinking about paying restitution money to the victims. On my part I can hardly believe a state did that….

Lisa Robinson’s advice to be careful when critiquing worship songs should be remembered by everybody who thinks songs are getting dumbed down either musically or lyrically. Please. (And I direct this at myself, too.) (I think I found this via Challies.)

The theory of multiple universes is a poor substitute for God…. and is equally unscientific. That’s a link to one of Gene Veith’s posts, where he excerpts a lengthy portion of an article on the “multiverse” theory and asks some questions at the end.

This week’s video is just for the music: a mix between pop and rock and a little reggae thrown in. I rather like it! (Found via the Boundless podcast.)

Something about this makes me think the Beach Boys would sound like this if they were young and popular today. It feels like bubblegum music almost.