Archive for 2008

Merry, Indeed

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

It had the potential to be a rough Christmas. What with the impending layoff threat and some strange times in other respects, I was apprehensive and when I get anxious about that sort of thing my default mode is procrastination. It makes zero sense logically, as though delaying thought and concern about something actually made it go away rather than just creating extra panic and stress when the zero hour looms and all activities must be shoehorned into a frantic week or (ahem) afternoon.

Obviously I can’t describe the future, but I’m more optimistic than I was even a week ago. It helps that I survived the layoffs, although it wasn’t all rosy: My boss was affected and while I didn’t get a chance to work with her for very long, she was seeming like she’d likely become one of my favorite managers in my career to date. And it’s really hard to be joyful about keeping your job when so many peers are affected and, of course, there may be more cuts in the future. But beyond that, I’ve just found a greater peace this season than I expected to. Even before the revelation that I wouldn’t spend the holidays unemployed, I was coming to a strange harmony with what has historically been an awkward season for me.

See the thing is I love Christmas. Or more specifically, I love the concept of it that I’ve fostered in my head, an entity that does not actually exist. There are elements to the materialistic version of Christmas that, honestly, I loved as a kid. I mean even then I felt a peculiar form of guilt when it came to receiving gifts. I knew I was being spoiled and I kind of wished that I wasn’t so “I want this and this and this” about it, but my object-obsessed self typically won out. I would somehow compensate by feeling like I had to truly cherish every gift I received no matter how small. The idea that I might be disappointed in something felt sour and shallow and I would do whatever I could to force delight in every act of kindness.

Somehow I felt this was not misguided but in fact the “right” way to celebrate Christmas: Get a ton of loot and feel overwhelmed by the blessings of fortune that had made them possible. Any time I heard some kid gripe about a lame present a grandparent had gotten them or express remorse that their most coveted item hadn’t made it under the tree, I’d cringe. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel the same way, I certainly did, but I actively worked to convince myself otherwise and felt the outward expression of this disappointment was churlishness defined.

Even worse to my mind was the gaming of Christmas, comparing the quality and quantity of gifts with a peer or sibling. Even the one-upsmanship of gift giving, intentional or not, coupled with a peculiar extra guilt only my mind could conjure that has me despising myself for not meeting my own ridiculous standards for gifting makes for an awkward game of internal tug-of-war.

What I began to realize a couple of years ago and has, in typical fashion, taken me a long time to gestate into an idea I can use to impact my attitudes. It is simply this: A particular amount of self-serving greed is, if not exactly ideal, at least tolerable during Christmas for children. A lot of our Christmas spirit so to speak is fostered by the ideas we get of the holiday when we’re young, and the wonder of a pile of gifts and toys to a child is worth the sort of flawed object lesson it represents. But there’s a point at which the adorable sparkle in a child’s eye at the mountain of gifts morphs into the slavering glint of entitlement that follows, I’m sad to say, many folks well into adulthood. And I’m not exempting myself from this either.

I think it in fact forks in one of two ways, either you get competitive in the receiving arena or you get competitive in the giving arena. Neither, in my opinion, is all that great. Having a little less this year due to some belt-tightening on account of Nik planning to take some classes next month and the uncertainty on the job front has made the deep plunge into material excess of the past seem as uncomfortable as the struggle to appreciate the gifts I received as a kid. What I’m only now, at nearly 32, starting to understand is the appreciation is of the person, of the gesture, of their mere being. I don’t need things. I have so many more things than I know what to do with. What I need are people. Friends. Family. Love.

It is only this suddenly discovered insight that has lifted my spirits this month. Not that I kept my job or that I can buy or create or obtain gifts for people I care about. Not that I will receive more than I could ever need this year or that I have a fun Christmas tree in my living room. Not even that I have a living room with a roof overhead. It is that I have this life, this season, these people to share it with. Yeah, it could have been a rough Christmas if I had decided to look at it that way. It’s not easy for me to look on the bright side.

That I can, and am, is what makes this Christmas merry.

Enjoy the season.

Where to Now?

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

There is a carpet in the hallway at work. It has a sine wave pattern, filled grey on the right, purple on the left as I walk toward my cube from the bathrooms or break room. I like to walk along the line, gently angling back and forth as I traverse the rolling hills of color.

I imagine that I’m building momentum like a marble on a rippled slide because as I hit a certain peak I veer off, like I’ve caught air and that’s when I have to turn to get into my cube. It’s like I’ve executed a jump off of a ramp to get back to my station.

I’m frequently tempted to shout “Whee!” as I do this.

* * * * *

There is a life I’m living that no one but me experiences. It’s full of strange interactions, and in it I’m frequently a guest on radio interview shows like Fresh Air. In this life I’m not remarkable; I don’t fly or have super powers. Mostly I’m me, only motivated and capable of realizing the ideas that are constantly floating around my brain.

In reality, my world is full of mundane interactions and no one cares to interview me. When I try to be creative, usually I have to settle for an approximation of what I saw or heard or created in my head. In my inner life, I’m smarter than the real me, I’m always kind to people for the right reasons and I don’t let fear of failure or the unknown stop me from doing what I most want to do.

The person that lives inside myself, who leads that life I don’t share externally, would totally yell “Whee!” when he spun on his heel toward his cubicle.

* * * * *

Today, I still walked along the carpet pattern. I still spun toward my cube, and I still couldn’t whoop with imaginary excitement as I did so.

But.

I whispered.

“Whee.”

Visible Lines

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

I’m worried. You may have heard that my brand new company is preparing to reduce 10% of their workforce by the end of the year and while I don’t have any specific reason to fear that my position is on the chopping block, I don’t have any reason to think it isn’t either.

Why would a company hire a guy and then lay him off a few weeks later? Well, I hope they wouldn’t, but since these layoffs seem to be based on positional elimination rather than merit-based consideration, it could be as simple as someone saying, “This group was important before, but we decided their work could be done by someone else.”

The worst part is that usually I don’t fret too much about layoffs. Normally I wouldn’t really care. Fine, fire me, get me severance and some time off to find a new place. I can get a job, I think even in this economy. People always need Ops guys. Someone’s got to make sure these systems stay up and running. They don’t get to fall over and drop service just because Wall Street is hosting the Greed/Remorse Olympics this year. The problem now is that I love this job. Reading Valleywag you’d think people were tying nooses in their cubes, but everyone here has been warm and helpful and positive in the face of some pretty tough situations.

I’m worried not because I’m scared I’ll be unemployed but because I’m scared I’ll lose this job. It’s still early to make these kinds of calls, I know this. But after two companies whose products and culture failed to interest or engage me, I feel home at work more than I have since late in my tenure at the City of Tracy. Which means, sadly, this is the first time since then that I felt like leaving there was the right decision.

So yeah, I don’t want to leave, but there’s nothing I can do to convince them to let me stay.

Something Happier

By popular demand (ie Ryan keeps pestering me) here are my opinions on the new season of TV. I haven’t watched nearly as much as in previous years, so I’ll also roll my opinions of the returning shows into the thoughts on the new ones.

  • Fringe – I like the show but I missed the first few episodes due to a TiVo programming gaffe. I watched a couple later episodes and decided I liked what I saw but was frustrated enough to not make it appointment-TV. I figure I’ll let it play out and if it survives a whole year I’ll catch up on DVD.
  • Raising the Bar – Something od about my taste: I think the “Law” parts of Law & Order shows are the best parts, but I have yet to find a show exclusively about lawyers that doesn’t make me want to jam a rolled-up legal pad through my nostril and into my brainpan. TNT’s new vehicle for Mark-Paul Gosslear’s hair is no exception and I couldn’t even make it through the pilot.
  • Gary Unmarried – Going beyond the usual pain of awkward anti-chemistry in a new sitcom cast, the writing was flat and the premise was weak. I made it through the pilot but couldn’t make it stay in my Season Pass list.
  • Do Not Disturb – Worst. Manmade thing. Ever.
  • The Mentalist – Far and away my favorite new show, it took a bit to get over the fact that it’s just USA’s Psych without the father and not played for laughs, it manages to take the intriguing premise of Psych and do away with that version’s show’s disposable nature.
  • How I Met Your Mother – The curse of the early season on HIMYM remains with the first few episodes being a bit weak, but the most recent near-wedding episode was fantastic. This show is far better than it’s relative obscurity suggests.
  • Heroes – I could write a whole essay on what’s wrong with Heroes, but if you happened to catch the recent Entertainment Weekly cover story on it, they touched on most of my complaints: Life or death stakes are a joke, the time travel plot device has (as predicted) derailed both the best character and the overall story arc and each time the show starts to display some promise it bungles it with lazy writing and the typical traps that plague most network TV shows. I’m committed until the end of the Villains arc, but if it doesn’t get a whole lot better very quickly, I’m out.
  • The Office – Still funny, still appointment-worthy, it seems to struggle a bit under the weight of its Jim/Pam legacy. As Nik pointed out, there would be nothing wrong with having them just be happy for a while in the backseat but the need for writers to constantly create conflict when none need exist is casting a grim shadow over the slow progression of the season and I fear a carnivorous aquatic creature hopping moment may be imminent.

Do You, Uh…

Monday, October 20th, 2008

So. Where was I?

Ah yes. I was writing. Blog entries and various other tidbits of collated words designed to keep people more or less in the loop. The loop being, of course, a belt loop. Possibly a loup like one might use to examine a piece of jewelry, but I’m not sure why I’d want to keep anyone in one of those.

Here’s what is happening and so you don’t get disoriented, I’ll resort to the warm comfort of bullet points.

  • I work for Yahoo! (exclamation mandatory, no lie) now. I realize that for the first time that simple sentence binds me under a thorough blog policy mandated by my employer and I could, like, get fired for writing about them or me or work or anything probably. But I’m willing to risk it because a) it’s the first time I’ve been able to tell people where I work and not have them give me the 1,000 yard stare and a blank nod and b) I really want to talk about Yahoo! related stuff and, well, I can’t unless you have the appropriate context and disclaimers. So, contextually: I work for Yahoo! and if you catch me saying “[Yahoo! Product] is super fly!” you can cast appropriate scorn and derision upon me for being a corporate shill. Also, disclaimers: I now work for Yahoo! so my words and opinions are my own and do not reflect any official Yahoo! position. Sometimes, they don’t even reflect my own position and I just say stuff to be weird.
  • For example, “Kumquats are partially responsible for the recession and I’d like to propose a ballot measure to have them strictly regulated and heavily subsidized by our government. Also, made into pies.”
  • Since I’m sort of an “Eat Your Own Dog Food” kind of guy, I’ve been spending the last few weeks re-acclimating myself to the Yahoo! site and associated products. When I found Google years ago I basically latched onto it and never looked back. I don’t know how I got the image in my mind of Yahoo! as a mid-nineties dinosaur that had no further relevance for an insufferable snob elite internet power user such as myself, but there it was. Turns out that in a few weeks of re-evaluation they are: Nearly indistinguishable from Google in terms of relevant search results; Possessing of a customizable home page that, in some ways, surpasses Netvibes; Serving as one of the few legitimately tolerable remainders of the misguided “portal” craze.
  • My job isn’t flashy at Yahoo!, but it is important. I’m responsible for making sure the other stuff you use the site for stays up and running. Basically Not Mail. But Sports. Finance. News. That sort of thing. In practice it’s almost identical in execution to my last job only I’m not dealing with the unique masochism of telephony technologies which is a phrase much like ice cream cooking.
  • Eventually my shift will be 10:30 to 19:00 which will—I hope— allow me to skip most of the traffic in transit to and from Sunnyvale. For the duration of my training, I’m working earlier like 7:30-16:00 or so. What that means is that for a couple of short, blissful weeks I can take the special Yahoo! East Bay Shuttle that goes from a Park and Ride about ten minutes from our apartment directly to Yahoo! HQ. I love not having to drive in traffic, but I love letting someone else drive in it for me even better. It’s a sensation I can best describe as “dreamy.”
  • Nik and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary last week. Because I had arranged for the time to be available as vacation from my previous employer, I stipulated (lightly) that I would very much like to have it off at the new job even though it would literally be me taking vacation during my training. They accommodated the request which I thought was cool of them and Nik and I had a very enjoyable time off.
  • We also made a long-delayed trip to the Shark Tank to see a home game as part of the festivities and we were able to use some of a gift my parents had given me for my birthday (remember that? January? Anyone?) to score the best seats I’ve ever had for a Sharks game. Section 102. Row 17. Right on the ends. It was glorious. The game would have been a triumph for the seats alone, even if it had been some 1-0 snoozer. But instead we were treated to the most exhilarating game I can recall attending. Dramatic see-saw scoring, fisticuffs, a full 5-on-3 penalty (killed by the Flyers), 40+ shots taken by the Sharks and an incredible OT victory. It was so great I was giddy. It was like this: “Man. I’m really giddy.”
  • One thing we didn’t enjoy was having to deal with our apartment complex’s maintenance crew. And by crew I mean one overweight guy and his skinny underling who does all the work. This marks the fourth time they switched out our washer because the “renovated” one that came with the unit broke in under six months and they replaced it with a circa 1972 model that had—I’m not making this up—faux wood paneling and was louder than a herd of bison playing rugby in the laundry room. They brought a new model in and forgot to take the safety rod out so we ran it through a few cycles (they did a few of their own to test and make sure I didn’t forget how to twist a knob or something) and the result broke some pivotal component that allowed it to spin during the crucial spin cycle. So they had to interrupt our anniversary to haul up and install a new washer. It was very romantic.

You Keep Using That Word

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

McCain seems a little confused. I can help. Try #23.

A Meandering Path

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

These times arrive without warning, where writing takes place but for a variety of reasons both valid and borne of a misdirected sense of vanity, nothing materializes. “This isn’t my best work,” I whine internally to no one in particular. “That’s never stopped you before,” the cynical voice of Reason replies. He has a point, but that guy is kind of a jerk so I stubbornly refuse to let him emerge from the fracas victorious. I put the posts somewhere deep in the WordPress database. “That’ll show him,” I think. But muffled and gagged, I can still make out mocking laughter from Reason. There was no way for him to lose, really.

Some events or circumstances are easy to talk about. I maintain my gaming site on a rock steady schedule. It’s not interesting, mind, but it’s comfortable. I don’t really concern myself with maintaining a readership because there is none nor do I assume there will ever be. If some person wanted to hear my thoughts about Warhammer and Tetris, they have my sympathies. I had presumed and in fact predicated the launch of that site on the theory that it was, even in my own tiny target demographic (“People I Know Who Humor Me By Reading What I Write”), a niche audience of zero. Here, I feel a smallish responsibility to feign universal appeal. It’s not something I find particularly natural.

I have collected a series of anecdotes, therefore, that chronicle the last several months in greater detail than you’ve seen here. None are worthy of publication by themselves, but I can provide an executive summary of them, devoid of context and probably lacking any cohesive chronology. It’s the Lost method of drama: Obfuscate a simple, straightforward tale with unnecessary mystery and misdirection by destroying the basic tenets of narrative structure. I’m sure it will be fascinating.

False Alarm

The lesson I learned, above all else, was this: If you’re adamant about not visiting a hospital, do not complain to your wife about chest pain, especially when accompanied by arm discomfort. However, if you’re serious about seeing a doctor quickly, do complain to hospital staff about chest pain. They take it very seriously, at least up to the point where their frequently asked questions begin to elicit answers that don’t jive with cardiac issues. For example, chest pain without an associated shortness of breath will typically get initial attention but will quickly be followed by something just north of absolute apathy. Perhaps you need to be under 35 years of age to get that kind of attitude (the “Man, I wish this doofus wouldn’t have wasted our time”), but for someone who was reluctant to visit the ER in the first place, it’s an effective guilt trip.

Odds Are Not

The logic for including the eponymous eighteen wheels on truck rigs is difficult to fault. However, the good citizen brigade may find the freedom it permits these vehicle operators to suffer major damage to a critical portion of the trailer without obvious ill effect to be lacking. Certainly when one of several redundant tires on the truck in front me exploded and sent radial-belted shrapnel across the front of the car and several lanes of highway 237, I had less than positive things to say about it. When the shrapnel succeeded in shearing the mudflap from the back of the truck and sent it hurtling sidelong at me like a square rubber discus before I could safely change lanes, I felt there could have been some sort of auxiliary system in place to alert the oblivious driver so he didn’t proceed to bumble down the road in front of a wake of debris without so much as letting slightly off the gas.

The parking lot of our destination—arrived at after the incident—contained those concrete stall stoppers, designed to keep vehicles from getting overzealous with their approach and careening into planter boxes or, you know, walls. Parked up against one as I was, the extent of the damage seemed fairly light. Some scratches, a bit of a dent in the license plate. At the time it didn’t occur to me to lie on the asphalt and examine the underside of the car. The rest of the afternoon proceeded without incident, but as evening fell, the fate of Nikki’s poor Honda could not be avoided.

The Middle Gets Slow

The only other time I’d ever sat in the bleachers was at an Oakland A’s game. I presume that most sports teams have a standard fanbase personality: Devoted, expressive, cynical, somber, raucous, etc. A’s fans, at least 15 years ago, were fairly passive and mild. The team was reasonably good for the most part (this was the skinny Mark McGwire and early Jose Canseco before-he-was-a-total-joke era) but the fans weren’t rabid like Raiders fans nor were they plauged by the angst of Giants fans.

But this experience, at AT&T park, was different. Bleacher bums arrive, generally speaking, late. Mostly around the second or third inning. They don’t make the trip a huge event with lumbering backpacks stuffed with goodies to keep younger children occupied. They’re typically working stiffs catching a game after their shift’s end, or younger dads trying to connect with middle school aged sons without having to acquire additional mortgages. They also include some die-hards who find outfield seats to be among the best bang for the buck values and attend games primarily to amuse themselves being various shades of blue in the direction of the nearest visiting player.

The first inning had some action as the visiting pitcher struggled with control and gave up a run on a double steal, but then there was a long lull where the Giants’ pitcher, Matt Cain, retired batter after batter and the opposing pitcher mostly fumbled his way through the lineup, aided by San Francisco’s lackluster offense. As the bleacher crew worked through various libations, they grew more vocal and variously entertained themselves with chants directed at the opposing left fielder (“What’s the matter with Wa-aard!?” “He’s a BUM!”) and engaged in some semi-friendly heckling of the non-Giants fans in the crowd (“Hey, MEAT!”) which eventually resulted in a couple of relatively harmless ejections.

After another late inning run by the Giants, it seemed all but over. Naturally once Cain was replaced by the closer (Brian Wilson, apparently on hiatus from the Beach Boys) things started happening on offense for the other team but it was a long wait in the middle there between initial fireworks and the relative thrill of the final moments.

Clearly Undefined

The worst part of the entire experience was the IV. The last time I had something stuck in my vein and left there was the ill-fated attempt to give blood for a work-sponsored drive that had ended with me nearly passing out from some mysterious reaction to the process. This time it took two separate nurses the better part of twenty minutes to identify a suitable vein and once the apparatus was installed, it ached and caused me discomfort the entire visit. A visit, mind you, that was interminable as they had to “wait for lab results,” which is ER-speak for “sit there and try not to die of boredom.” In fact fifteen minutes after their estimated time to receive the results, they sent an auxiliary nurse in to collect yet another sample of blood which effectively doubled the time we had to wait.

Naturally we had skipped dinner in favor of the emergency room, so if the boredom didn’t get us, starvation seemed to be their backup plan.

At last an extremely annoyed-looking doctor came in and said, “Sometimes we don’t figure out what the problem is. But in this case, it definitely isn’t your heart.” This, I gathered, was meant to be reassuring although as an engineer (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) I find that kind of apathetic shoulder shrugging to be less than satisfactory.

“Probably,” he continued, “It’s muscular.”

I could only nod.

Worse Than Originally Feared

A different freeway but a familiar circumstance: A folded-over radial truck tire just cleared the Cadillac in front of us. Nik was driving, and traffic was moving but heavy. The thick “whap” as we rolled helplessly over the tire was unmistakable: Where the Cadillac’s clearance had been sufficient, ours was not. Soon after a heavy scraping sound forced us to pull over. This time there was no concrete slab to obscure the view: The front bumper was cracked in half and the heavy gauge plastic that served to protest the engine from the bottom had pulled free of the secure position behind the bumper and was dragging on the ground. I tried to secure it by hand back into place, but less than a quarter mile down the road and the sound began again.

We were close to our destination so we went ahead and exited, finding a gas station where we could park and I could shred my knees on the hot, uneven pavement as I tried in vain to free the protective cover from it’s stubbornly clinging fasteners. Eventually the situation was corrected but I later thought that it was unlikely a tire had caused such extensive damage. Something else was probably the real culprit, something like a projectile mud flap.

Read Carefully

By some miracle we arrived at the station almost simultaneously: Me, coming North on 680 from Santa Clara and my buddy Ryan and his companions coming West from over the hill. We’d communicated the entire trip via text message because in some twisted bizzaro fashion it had become illegal to talk on our cell phones while driving but somehow acceptable to compose and send typed messages. As I approached they finished purchasing their tickets and I slid my debit card from my wallet. In the Out Of Service terminal next to me, a BART employee worked to get the machine working again. I struggled—momentarily—to get the card oriented correctly when the employee whipped it out of my hand.

“It goes in just like in the little picture.” There was no mistaking the scorn in her voice as she initiated the transaction for me and thrust the card back into my fist.

“…’You simpleton‘,” I said, over my shoulder in the direction my incredulous party. They cast me semi-sympathetic glances but checked nervously over my shoulder to get the reaction from the technician. For a second I had a crazy surge of guilt, like I had crossed a line by suggesting sarcastically that she’d been a bit harsh. But I’d specifically made my comment loud enough so she could hear. It was she, after all, who’d felt inclined to point out my momentary confusion in spite of the fact that there was no one waiting in line behind me so no real cause for alarm that my experience might have taken a few additional seconds.

The Best Pancakes In The World

The restaurant was supposed to close at midnight. We arrived at ten till, and though we had no hope of them serving us, I had needed to use a restroom for the past thirty minutes. I resigned myself to just using their facilities and then worrying about finding a place that was open late. My arm still ached and the spots where all the EKG nodes had been ripped from my body smarted because they had taken huge clumps of chest, leg and arm hair with them. I still had work in the morning and all I wanted was some food.

When I emerged from the bathroom I was surprised to see Nik sitting at a table, perusing the menu. “They’re going to serve us?”

“I guess so,” she said simply.

Our waiter was crazy. He sat down on the bench next to Nik, complaining of a myriad of health issues: His back, his feet, his headache. I felt curiously ashamed to have been so easily convinced to see a doctor over an unusual pain that had subsided after an hour. The guy looked to be in his mid-fifties. But he quickly plowed ahead. Nik ordered dinner and I stuck with breakfast. Carrot cake pancakes with eggs and sausage. It felt like the order took forever to arrive.

Food, to me, is usually either decent and functional (“good”) or lacking, therefore unsatisfying (“not good”). I rarely find the taste of food to be so obviously superior or inferior as to distinguish itself. Typically, I chalk this up to my relatively poor sense of smell which is commonly associated with one’s taste sensitivity. After these marvelous pancakes, I wonder if my problem is that food is too readily available to me. Absense, perhaps, making the mouth grow fonder as well.

We were both so hungry, and ate so fast, that the waiter said as we went to the front to pay, “I hope you didn’t rush because we’re technically closed.” We laughed nervously and assured him that was not the case. I noted we were the only non-employees in the building. As we walked back to the car I turned to Nik.

“That guy. He’s crazy, but I kinda liked him.”

“Yeah, me too.”

That Children Might Love

Originally the insurance company wanted to call the incident a “collision,” albeit one without fault. I argued that the problem, the source of the claim, was the first set of debris which flew toward the car and was functionally the same as a rock hitting the windshield. It was, to me, unlikely that a high-clearance tire had caused such extensive damage. Of course they wanted to treat each circumstance as a separate claim and I tried to convince them it was a single “problem” brought to light by two different encounters.

Ultimately they left it in the hands of the adjuster at the body shop, which made me apprehensive. On the bright side the insurance company covered us for a rental car as long as necessary. We had to go to two separate agencies because the first—inexplicably—didn’t have any cars to rent. What we finally ended up with was a Ford Fusion, a model I’d never heard of. For someone who generally dislikes the Ford Motor Company, I have a hard time finding negative things to say about the vehicle.

We used the included navigation system to guide us to the Tech Museum in San Jose. It was sort of a make-up for the previous week’s abbreviated trip to the City which was tentatively scheduled to include a stop at some museum or other. I was leaning toward the Museum of Modern Art, but several others sounded interesting. In the end Nik just wasn’t up for it so she compensated with the Tech. On the way we dubbed the navigation system’s feminine voice “Madge” for no reason other than that it seemed like a funny name and, we’ve learned, you have to anthropomorphize navigation systems or you don’t have any one to yell at when you get lost in spite of them. Or because of them.

We fought Madge less than we fight with the Nav systems in our phone, whom we refer to as “Gladys.” She mostly struggled to deal with an unexpected festival in the park outside the museum and the dicey parking situation in downtown San Jose. Fortunately, my annual visit to the arcade expo gave me at least a passing familiarity with the area. The Tech is a cool museum, the kind of place that seems like it may have been the inspiration for Seattle’s Experience Music Project, only the EMP isn’t as well implemented. The interactivity at the Tech is remarkable, although about halfway through Nik and I determined that the place was probably aimed, demographically, a bit younger than us. We thought it would be the perfect place to take, say, a fifth grader.

Still, we enjoyed ourselves. I got to design a robot, ride on a Segway and get a sonogram of my hand. The sonogram required immersing your fist in a vat of water; nearby there is a thermographic projector which reflects an image of your thermal output. We found it amusing that the hand I’d recently seen from the inside out was now nearly indistinguishable on the thermograph because it emitted almost no heat. We also learned about genetics, and took a cleverly designed quiz about the Internet which I mostly aced, at least enough to save face. I was proud to find that Nik did remarkably well on the quiz as well.

On the way home I showed her where I worked since it was nearby and she got to experience my commute, almost exactly as I do eight times a week. We both agreed it had been a happy day.

Security Over Sorrow

Their mantra became universal before the night was through: “It’s good that you at least had it checked out.” As for me, I mostly agreed,. More than anything, I was happy to see Nik slowly lose the crinkle of worry that had settled between her eyebrows. It meant she was glad to have wasted the time, even to find out it was, indeed, wasted.

Jazz Like Blue

They had to return three times before they gave me a piece of meat that wasn’t almost gum-like from being overcooked. When they finally did, it was sumptuous. I was trying, after all, to better enjoy my food by not thinking of it merely as a means to an end. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the mellow music drifting through the speakers was being piped in from upstairs, where an ensemble played its own variations on themes the hotel trio had just treated us to.

We poked around the Virgin Megastore afterward, letting our dinner digest a bit. I found Al Green’s greatest hits collection. In the Focus’ six-disc changer, it got plenty of airtime. If you’re looking for some good soul music, I recommend the disc. Music was, ultimately, the theme of the evening. Later that night we ventured out again seeking dessert. Of course at the time we couldn’t have even thought of such a thing, but as the night cooled and our food broke down we went searching for more experiences.

The bistro was practically closed, like the chain restaurant, only less gaudily lit and with a more professional, though less likable, staff. We ordered a chocolate mousse something or other and waited for the quartet to return for their last set of the evening.

The thing about jazz, for me, is that it needs to be seen live. Recorded jazz is well and good, but it lacks the sense of time and place—the context—that gives live music its heart. The red lights in the window glinted off the drummer’s cymbals, shimmering under the steady syncopation. The trumpet playing leader found an inspiration in a just-heard conversation and instructed the band to lift their key up a step and a half so he could riff on the refrain. It was momentary, fleeting and yet permanent because it latched itself to the memories of everyone there. The chocolate was delicious, but far too rich to finish. Between trumpet solos played through heavy mutes the leader slid smoothly over the worn carpet on the stage, stepping lightly in his soft cotton threads.

I supposed you had to call a jazz band’s clothing “threads.”

The bassist looked comically like Napoleon Dynamite, but his groove was steady and perfectly matched to the persistent beat from the drummer, somehow regal with his cropped white chin beard against dark skin. Jazz musicians play a style that can hold many moods simultaneously: Melancholy, joy, sorrow, triumph. It’s not an interpretation thing, the mood comes from the collective. It’s the sonic equivalent of tears of joy.

As the set came to its end, not with a grand crescendo but with the same kind of relaxed intensity that defines the whole genre, I took a deep breath and looked across the table. She smiled at me, for no particular reason.

I reached over and held her hand until the last note died away.

New Hands on the Wheel

Monday, June 16th, 2008

I was talking to my dad yesterday, naturally, and he clued me in to the fact that the Sharks had finally settled on Todd McLellan, formerly an assistant coach for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings, as their new head coach. McLellan hasn’t been a head coach in the NHL before, but he’s had success in the AHL and, obviously, under Babcock in the NHL. He seems to be focused on defense, power plays and puck possession. Aside from possession which the Sharks already professed to concentrate on under Ron Wilson, those are traits that the Sharks could have used a lot more of in the last few postseasons.

Perhaps I’m still sipping the teal Kool-Aid but I’m optimistic. I’ve said for a couple of years that the Sharks have the talent (mostly attributed to Doug Wilson) to go very, very deep into the playoffs but they seem to lack a particular spark to make them take advantage of that and I put the responsibility behind the bench. I hope I’m right and McLellan can be the guy to push the gang that extra step they need to make a real run at the Cup.

In other related news, Nabokov got robbed of the Vezina by Martin Brodeur. I can’t help but point out that Nabby had almost universally better stats, especially where it counts (W) although I guess the voters were impressed with the Devils’ ability to give up more shots.

For a minute there I was starting to think there was no East Coast bias. I guess we dodged that bullet.

Deserving a Second Look

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

You may recall that I used to work for the City of Tracy. Used to live there, too. Working at the City was actually one of my favorite jobs, but the opportunities there didn’t match my longer term goals so after three years I needed to move on.

The thing about City work is that it has a unique atmosphere. It’s kind of like working in a temporal vortex where things move at a particularly languid pace and everything is essentially five to eight years behind “modern.” For the most part it’s just a curiosity but for an IT worker it’s actually fairly dangerous to one’s marketability when you’re advertising in 2004 that you have “recent experience with Windows NT 4.”

But what I really miss about working there are the constant internal improvement efforts. Well I guess I should clarify that I miss the friends I made while I worked there, and I miss the way we used to get a particular joy out of finding the absurdities in all these self-important projects, speeches and meetings. At least when I worked there, mockery was kind of a collective hobby in IT.

Fortunately my buddy Ryan is still holding down the fort and occasionally provides me little tidbits that reassure me the silliness persists and I get a chuckle out of his stories. Today he sent me something so priceless I have to share.

To place this in context, each Tuesday there is a City Council meeting. These meetings are aggressively dull and yet they constitute a huge amount of the weekly effort throughout the City’s office-based departments in preparation, co-ordination and post-meeting organization. IT is no exception: The minutes and schedules in particular have to be disseminated by City Ordinance and part of that effort is focused on the official website, which I was once responsible for and I left in Ryan’s capable hands when I departed.

Last night they had a presentation that was given during the Council meeting discussing brand strategies as pertains to the City. It was, as presentations are required by Federal law to be, accompanied by a Power Point slide show. After several introductory slides describing what branding is, how it can be defined, what the City’s core values are and how they should be projected through the brand, the talk turns to character voices.

And that’s when things get weird.

Slide from City of Tracy Presentation

Let me walk you through this. Some well-meaning person decided it was a good idea to use an “urban” voice as an example to explain character voice pertaining to branding. Yet it becomes instantly clear that this person is as far removed from urban culture as you can possibly get without actually living on another planet. They start with some clip art depicting a 90s-era urban youth who appears to be sitting on a toilet only the toilet has been replaced with a pile of poop. On one hand, it’s clip art so you always, always, always get what you pay for with clip art. On the other hand, someone looked at this desecration of “Thinking Man” and thought, “Yeah, that sums up ‘Hip Hop’ culture perfectly.”

But picking bad clip art is hardly worthy of note when it comes to Power Point presentations. What really sets this slide apart from the pack is the text. For the sake of completeness, it is reprinted here:

HIP HOP / first person

Parks & Community Services Summer Program – Marketing Introduction

Come lay cool with Tracy’s summer program. It’s loud and proud. Kids of all ages can blow the summer away. Do arts, do crafts, do games and do music—all for the li’l guys. Tweens can throw on their kicks and do adventures and ‘hoops. They can also do swimmin’, do mad science, do LEGOs, do gaming. Do more!

Note the awkward phrasing that sounds exactly like a 40ish white woman doing her best to impersonate an urban youth. I actually have no idea who wrote the copy, so I’m not revealing anything here. And I certainly don’t claim any authority to urban slag. But “Lay cool?” “Do (noun)?” “Throw on their kicks?” It’s priceless. And it’s just the beginning.

Economic Development – Marketing Introduction

T-town shops boom. We hit Top 20 in Cali. We can’t stop showin’ and growin’. We are the destination for this shoppin’ nation. Plant your jive on 205. We’ve got your beaners… your beamers…your bling bling. Don’t be wack. Get down with Tracy! T-town’s where it’s at.

Apparently hip hop, to the author of the slide, is all about interjecting arbitrary rhymes into casual daily conversation. Even if it is incredibly forced or practically nonsensical. Also, hip hop youths have absconded all their “G”s to use in their greetings with each other and therefore none are left to complete present participles, requiring judicious use of apostrophes. Note also the use of slang that is ten years out of phase like “wack” and “bling bling,” now relegated solely to ironic (intentional or not) use by decidedly un-cool people too old to use them sincerely. The forced inclusion (twice, for reinforcement) of the completely idiotic nickname “T-town” also warrants a mention.

But nothing can compete with the clueless use of the derogatory slur “beaners.” Used to describe illegal Mexican immigrants, it is probably meant here more as a reference to Tracy’s annual summer shindig “The Dry Bean Festival” or possibly some sort of agricultural citation; the fact that Tracy has a large hispanic population is likely completely lost on the author. I imagine this slide being shown in a conference room full of lily-white middle aged cube dwellers daydreaming about their next caffeine infusion and nodding along. The image is juxtaposed with the mixed-company audience at the City Council meeting where the slide appears and a nervous flutter ripples and those same city workers look at each other with confusion.

“What? Don’t people call it ‘Cali’ any more?”

Listen Closely

Monday, May 12th, 2008

That sound you just heard? That was my cry of joy and relief.

It Should be Obvious

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

NBC CEO and President Jeff Zucker is pooh-poohing ratings. There are a lot of sour grapes in the reporting and comments for that particular story (at least on TV Squad) citing that it’s easy for Zucker to be somewhat dismissive of the ratings because using that metric his company is getting creamed.

But what he is saying actually is closer to reality than anything I’ve previously heard from TV executives and I have to give him the appropriate hat tip for it, even if he’s arrived at the conclusion for self-serving reasons. What drives me batty about the Nielsen ratings is that it is a single metric used to measure TV viewing habits that is antiquated, entrenched solely because of tradition and adhered to because as far as I can tell no one wants to be the one to break ranks with it.

I don’t intend for this to devolve into a pro-TiVo rant, but I can’t quite grasp why the Nielsen Company has been tabulating PVR-based statistics for over three years but has yet to incorporate them into its ad rates. Actually, I’ll clarify: I can’t figure out why advertisers don’t demand that the PVR stats be included.

As I understand it, the process goes like this: A network attempts to develop a show that it hopes will attract a sizable audience so that large group of people can be exposed to ads that command a higher price due to the large number of consumers reached. In order to correctly set those ad rates, they need to use a system of monitoring how many people are watching the show and, ideally, who those people are (ie their demographic) so the correct advertisers are paying appropriate rates. From the network’s perspective it’s in their best interest to have as close-to-accurate numbers as possible so they can court the right advertisers and quote them the right price. The advertisers want those numbers to be as spot on as possible as well, so they aren’t over-paying and aren’t sending their ads at people who don’t care about their products. So far I can’t see any reason why anyone would want to use vague, representative numbers when they could have a more detailed analysis.

I get that advertisers would get their knickers in a twist about PVRs because they almost universally contain commercial-skipping functionality. To a degree it doesn’t matter whether the advertiser is hitting the target demographic with their ad if that demographic is just fast-forwarding through it anyway. But in an epic example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the advertising industry chooses to ignore the potential for accurate ratings data that is presented by PVR devices because they also happen to allow their expensive ads to be marginalized with 30-second skip features. It’s a period of transition I admit but some advertiser out there needs to understand that a) they’re still putting commercials in shows even though PVR technology exists and is becoming more prevalent and b) they’re still using old data-collection methods to determine where to advertise and how much to spend.

Logically they should be using the PVR data-collection features which reaches both a more desirable demographic (early adopters, families with disposable income, people who recognize value-add products, etc) and a larger cross-section than Nielsen does. It also avoids the issues often cited as criticisms of the Nielsen system because it becomes inclusive since anyone who purchases a product (or a service as it has been offered by cable and satellite providers) can join in the stat-counting if they choose. Advertising and rate-setting is an attempt, in essence, to quantify and monitor popularity so it makes no sense to have some committee or algorithm determine who is most representative of the average American. What the Internet culture has taught us most clearly is that popularity isn’t predictable but it is a driving force for creativity and there is an appetite for people to be a part of culture definition. I know I certainly wouldn’t mind my viewing preferences to be counted among those that are used to determine what shows have entertainment value.

TV executives and creative people who work in television seem to have a lot of stories about shows that were unexpected hits or subject matter that seemed unlikely to find an audience but actually found one where no one expected it to emerge. How can a system like Nielsen possibly be equipped for that? An example is the original Iron Chef, imported from Japan and translated literally with overdubs, which aired on the Food Network several years ago. I saw a retrospective show on the channel talking about it where they said the demographic that latched onto the show was young, educated males which they didn’t expect. Basically they meant that the nerd crowd picked up Iron Chef and watched it faithfully and anecdotally I knew it was happening; I first heard about the show on Slashdot and got hooked on it that way.

But it made sense in retrospect: Nerds were used to watching comically-dubbed Japanese shows from all the anime they consumed, plus there is a strong interest in Japanese culture among technically literate young males. Add to that the adversarial nature of the show that pitted skill against skill rather than concentrating on athleticism and it was like a geek’s football. Plus it had a certain camp and unintentional comedy from the translation work and it was a surprise that shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. What if Apple had been watching the PVR stats and noticed that 18-34 year old males with a high percentage of engineering backgrounds were recording Iron Chef episodes? They could have scored a coup by picking up ads for dirt cheap on a tiny extended basic cable network show that would have catered directly to their target audience. But instead they were paying top dollar to advertise on CSI to a bunch of blue-hairs because most geeks long ago realized that CSI treats science with about as much respect as it does the investigative process of police departments.

Even if a lot of those nerds were fast forwarding Apple’s spots, you can bet that the low rate would be worth it to hit up those geeks that hadn’t yet acquired a network-attached digital recording device but were still watching Iron Chef every week.

The crazy thing is that it’s probably only another year or so that this end-run around the sadly obsolete Nielsen system (announced revamp notwithstanding; I’d call that a case of too little too late) will be viable. Eventually someone will wise up and either PVR tech will become ubiquitous enough that the entire game will have to change to a more embedded advertising routine (witness the corny Ford injection into recent PVR-friendly dramas like 24 and Alias, “You take the new Mustang GT! I’ll take the F-150 with 250 horsepower and optional side airbags!”) or someone will find a way to target the ads directly on PVR boxes themselves.

But either way, I’m just hoping someone figures something out soon because I’m tired of good shows getting canceled due to poor Nielsen performance that represents nothing. Maybe it only takes the one network exec or the one ad firm to break ranks and change the game. Maybe Zucker is that guy, but I doubt it. If he finds a hit show next season and shoots to the top of the “charts,” expect a full redaction.

All One Could Ask

Monday, May 5th, 2008

I’ve been hard on the Sharks. I still think the answer to their frustrating playoff performances lies mostly behind the bench, but I feel I need to soften my typical post-postseason angst in the wake of last night’s herculean effort. For as much as I wish they’d managed to squeak one past Turco—a man who deserves a massive amount of respect—you can’t say they didn’t try. And try. And try. But when a guy is prepared to make 61 saves in a game…

There is one thing though. I think the Sharks actually won. That reviewed goal that was eventually called off? Someone please answer me this: Why didn’t they let the tape run? Wouldn’t the location of the puck after Turco peeled himself out of his own net have been a clear indication of whether or not it crossed the line? Perhaps the rules stipulate that you have to actually see the puck cross the line and go into the net but if that’s the case I have to ask, “why?” Why can’t someone apply simple logic and say that if the puck disappears from view beneath a goalie whose body ends up in the net and when they move after the play the puck is found beyond the line, that stands to reason that a goal was scored? Otherwise what’s to prevent goalies from backing into their own nets on in-front scrambles to obscure the overhead camera while the defense collapses in front to obfuscate any alternate angle shots?

It even leads me to another question that has bugged me forever: Why haven’t we applied better technology to sports? There has to be a way to accurately determine relative position between a puck and a goal line or a ball over the plate or the pigskin on the first down marker? If accuracy is really a priority, why are we still relying on humans to make these critical determinations?

Anyway, it’s all academic at this point but while my disappointment is still there at least I can’t say I didn’t get to see some phenomenal hockey. I mean seriously, seeing those guys gut it out after 120 minutes of hockey (with the Sharks down a man from their initial line-up, too) was amazing, and something I won’t soon forget.

I just feel bad for my dad and brother out in the Central time zone. The game wasn’t over until 1:45 am their time.

Minor Meta Memorandum

I’m still unclear how it happened but the WordPress upgrade from a couple of weeks ago resulted in the loss of all user account information in the database. I even tried restoring the old database to pull the information from and it, too, is missing the data. There is no logical explanation for this and it frustrates me greatly to have to say this but if you had an account with which to post comments here, it is gone and must be re-created.

I apologize profusely.

Couldn’t Happen to Just Anyone

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

A number of short essays on a number of subjects follow.

  • Yeah, I picked up Grand Theft Auto IV. I’ve played other games in the series and despite its reputation for being vile, its primary objectionable content comes from two things: One, it has a very colorful approach to dialogue with most if not all characters taking the Quentin Tarantino approach to phrasing and two it has a sense of humor I’d commonly associate with thirteen year old boys in medium sized groups who think there aren’t any parents around. My interest in the franchise is rooted mostly in the oddly compelling way in which the game’s story unfolds considering the developers take great pains to allow you an enormous degree of freedom at any given moment. You can certainly play the game as if it had no plot to speak of (and it’s actually only the last two or three that have really made the narrative effective) and many people do. But when you experience the game as if it were a long, meandering Godfather-style crime drama, it shows some remarkable resilience as an escapist bit of entertainment.

    I said once that I thought GTA would be better if they discarded the juvenile fledgling criminal premise and since then other games have come along and done precisely that, following GTA’s loose blueprint for open-ended environments with optional narrative elements woven throughout. Last year’s unexpected marvel Crackdown, for example, flipped the tables and cast the player as a superhuman crime fighter ridding the city of its seedy underbelly in a sort of destructive, Dirty Harry fashion. The equally surprising Gun also did something similar with a wild west theme making the player a kind of bowlegged stranger moseying in to clean up a lawless frontier.

    If you wonder why I continue to play GTA despite its environs not being precisely my cup of tea, understand that these other games lift their playbook directly from the most recent Grand Theft Auto game so they hold an appeal largely due to their genre innovation. Except something I noticed playing IV is that even in open-world games (called “sandbox” games by hobbyists) where you are cast as a good guy, there is always a sort of anti-hero edge to the proceedings. I think this is because these games are equating freedom with the ability to be a pill in their created worlds. If you think about it, the open-ness these games are providing isn’t really from the fact that you can re-order the missions you accept (you could do rudimentary variations on that theme as far back as the NES days) and it isn’t about just wandering around a large but defined space. Adventure games have given us the wandering ability for decades. Instead the freedom, whether in Crackdown, Gun or any other sandbox-style game lies in your ability to torment AI-controlled characters of no consequence. It’s in the way you can blow things up that don’t require destruction. It’s in the fact that the developers put options in the game that aren’t devoid of consequence but that give the (perhaps mistaken) impression of mischief. Even as a super-cop in Crackdown, you spent most of your “freedom” either terrifying civilians with your destructive power (ostensibly only to be directed at the criminal element, but you were of course free to blow passerby apart as well, if you didn’t mind being “reprimanded” by your virtual employer) or climbing up onto buildings where no human should be able to reach.

    Some people like to point at this controlled mischief and say it encourages real-world emulation. I can’t say I agree but I also don’t exactly ruffle my feathers to defend the games because the cop-out standard party line of “it’s only a game” conveniently ignores the truth which is that if there weren’t some perverse joy to be had in the ability to whack a virtual pedestrian with an SUV because he’s wearing a dippy shirt, the games wouldn’t have much of an audience. In effect the mischief is the hook, even if the most recent game finds a certain zen by making the option almost more appealing than the act itself and framing a well-told story within the confines of that premise. No one who wasn’t already nuts would play these games and think, “It’s on my TV so it must be an okay thing to do.” But anyone who says the potential for senseless carnage isn’t significant is lying to themselves about why they play.

  • I missed the San Jose Sharks game on Friday. It was purely accidental; my TiVo has difficulty handling the hastily-scheduled playoff games and the several-hour HD broadcasts are too taxing on my limited disk space to make the typical set-it-and-forget-it principle of TiVo worthwhile anyway. Plus, I enjoy experiencing the games as close to real time as I can anyway. But on Friday I simply lost track of the time and when I did finally remember, the game was long over.

    I was relieved to see that they had won in OT, something they seem to have a hard time doing in the playoffs as a general rule, but it was a tempered relief.

    When the team dropped game three, I groaned and made some remarks about their lack of drive and determination. Nik took me to task at the time, saying how poor of a fan I was for not believing in them despite the long odds. “Isn’t being a fan rooting for them no matter what?” she asked, pointedly. I conceded at the time that she had a case but inside I felt it was coming from someone who didn’t really understand. She hasn’t grown up as a sports fan in the Bay Area. She hasn’t been pulling for the Sharks since their inaugural season. She hasn’t watched the Giants find spectacular ways to lose just on the brink of ultimate victory.

    But I do appreciate the sentiment she offers. How can I not be considered a fair weather fan if I let my cynicism born of years of disappointing seasons color my encouragement of a team that certainly carries within its roster the skill and talent to pull off the nearly impossible? Yet I continually find it a challenge not to fix my disdain directly on the team itself. The truth is they do have the talent, so why have they gotten to this unmanageable position of requiring a herculean four-game winning streak just to forge ahead? You can say they’re halfway there, but you also can say that they didn’t do it in a convincing manner. I see the glass, I see that there are equal parts liquid and empty space, but it’s difficult to fixate on the remaining contents and discount the void.

    My brother suggested via Twitter that should the Sharks win on Friday he suspected they could go all the way. At most all I can say for now is that I hope he’s right. I desperately want him to be correct, but then I think of the facts. Only two teams have ever rallied from 0-3 series deficits to emerge victorious and the last case was 33 years ago. Put another way, such a feat has never occurred in my lifetime. Also, this mandatory win in game six must take place in Dallas but more significantly the final and crucial game seven has to be won at home, a place where other than Friday the Stars have essentially owned the Sharks for the better part of two seasons, including these playoffs. And finally, I understand that the teams are painfully equal in terms of talent and drive. I wish I could hope for a 5-1 massacre tonight or Tuesday but I fear the best case scenario is another 3-2 nail-biter or at best a 2-0 defensive showcase. But that equality leaves precious little room for the unknown variables: Officiating, momentary lapses of concentration, lucky bounces, hot opposing goalies, you name it.

    I know they can do it. I’ll be pulling for them to be that team, to enter the history books. I want them to make it happen, I’m just not quite ready to believe that they actually will.

    And maybe that’s the problem.

  • I think about my career sometimes. Through an unexpected series of choices, curveballs and luck I’ve arrived at a position where I make a comfortable living despite not having the most impressive educational background. I’m competent at the job I’m asked to do and I generally make a favorable impression, mostly through subterfuge I fear, with my employers. But I work as hard as anybody who, you know, sits down for a living and I can’t complain too loudly about most of it.

    The only thing that trips me up sometimes is the fact that while I do well and feel good for the most part about my working life, none of it is really what I feel like I’m meant to do. I started with a short stint in an accelerated occupational school for graphic design, hoping at the time to put my interest in artistic endeavors to some kind of practical use. I did okay at it but quickly found that it was a hard way to make a living and transitioned semi-naturally into an unexpected area of interest with web design. The step from web design to web development (focusing more on the technical side of building web sites than the artistic) was fairly smooth and from there I found an endless well of fascinating challenges along the lines of programming, system administration and technical support.

    But I find that here in this unintentional place I’m encountering the same basic stumbling block I did toward the end of trade school which is that my natural ability has hit its peak and further development would require a level of interest and a desire for enlightenment that I cannot feign. As with graphic design I have just enough raw ability inherent to be a so-so field journeyman but not enough drive to hone my skill to the point of being a true asset to anyone, much less myself.

    I find myself at a bit of a crossroad. On one hand my primary marketable skill is an ability to glean a surface level understanding of any complex system fairly quickly. I also have a pretty broad background in technical and design work so my self-evaluations have resulted in thinking that I might be decently suited for management. There is some interest in me to pursue that avenue; it allows me to maintain my current course and use the skills and experience I already have while furthering my career without demanding a huge commitment of time and resources. But on the other hand it doesn’t necessarily address the fact that my main source of job dissatisfaction comes from being in a field that interests me in a vague intellectual sense but doesn’t offer a lot in the way of personal enrichment. It will only ever be, I fear, a mere job.

    On the other hand, I’m so well entrenched in this sector that any course re-direction would require the aforementioned resource dedication be it schooling or blind transition with the almost certain financial implications. I’ve toyed occasionally with pipe dreams of magical wishes coming true and having unlikely dream jobs like novelist or musician or freelance weirdo essayist. But when I switch off my wandering daydreams and examine reality I find that what I really want is to provide for my family which suggests that I may be happiest just where I am. I also find myself asking from time to time whether my creativity hits a roadblock when evaluating myself. Perhaps, I think, there is a job out there that meets all my criteria for perfection that I’ve never even considered. I certainly didn’t entertain the notion of being a NOC Engineer ten years ago. Maybe I’m missing something.

    Or maybe, I’m not missing a thing.

It Shone Through the Clouds

Monday, April 28th, 2008

So.

We moved last weekend in an epic four-day event that I’d classify as thoroughly exhausting. We did manage to get all but one room fully unpacked and ready for habitation, which was a pleasant surprise. Somehow I’d assumed we’d toil for days and have nothing to show beyond a small corner of a room with a sad mattress on the floor and we’d point to it from across a sea of boxes overflowing with our collected trinkets and say, “See? We live here now!” People—mysterious people with no business being in our home to begin with—would back away slowly, speed-dialing their personal injury attorneys in anticipation of their treacherous journey to the front door.

Instead we managed to coordinate a very pleasant environment to exist within and while neither Nik nor I want to get ahead of ourselves I’m prepared to say that thus far we adore our new digs. Well, I think Nik could do without the wild, mutant turkeys that roam the grounds. They seem docile and prone to avoid human contact, but their beady eyes are black and unblinking, hiding machinations unknown to man. It’s certainly unsettling; I can hardly blame my wife for her apprehension.

There are some peculiarities to the new abode, of course. There are a striking number of mirrors around the place, which is a marked change from our last home where you had your standard bathroom mirrors and that was it. Here, it seems, every room has some vast reflective surface in prominent locations so that regardless of where you are you feel accompanied by a flanking clone. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t fallen out of any kind of self-maintenance routine but as it stands a trip to the restroom holds a minimum of a baker’s dozen screaming reminders that I’m unshaven, unkempt, uncoordinated and unhealthy. I guess it’s some sort of ploy to encourage use of the exercise facilities? I can’t imagine even the most vain among us requiring this many options for self-regard.

Also the baths have these “fancy” gravity plugs that operate with some theoretical physics and while they do an admirable job of stopping water from pouring down the drain when you want it to stay in place, when you do need to dispense of it, the plug slaps against the drain’s rim with a loud and metallic clank. Repeatedly. I first encountered this when a neighbor was draining some water and it sounded like someone kicking the pipes in the wall. I tracked the source of the sound to our own bathroom from which I could hear the flowing water so it sounded like someone flushing the toilet over and over again, kicking it sharply in-between. I couldn’t imagine someone having that much angst over their toilet. Nik happened to be out on an errand at the time: I sent her a text message telling her we were dealing with a domestic toilet abuse situation and, offhand, did she know any hotlines for that kind of thing? Perhaps a listing in the phone book to get me started? Plumbing abuse? Toilet hostility? My efforts weren’t yielding much fruit.

There were the requisite number of maintenance issues as well. We had been spoiled at our last place, a brand-new condo that had never had previous occupants. Here we found cabinet doors that didn’t close, drawers that were broken and not useful for storing, you know, items, dishwashers that practically tumbled out of their niches, shelving units that were missing pivotal brackets and so on. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. We only have one dishwasher. In any case a man I suspect may be or is possibly descended from Hobbit lineage came by to correct many of the problems. He also spoke to our cat with strange yowling noises that I can only guess reveal either a secret Dr. Doolittle-like ability or a severe mental defect, but either way it didn’t seem to affect his ability to repair our home. It did concern me a little that he had much more to say to our pet than to us. Maybe she was relaying pertinent information to him, but I’ve known her for at least seven years and she’s only ever confessed to me a strong desire for fish-flavored cat treats and scraps of roast beef.

We do have one major, nagging issue: The wonderful new TV I just bought doesn’t “go” with the new apartment’s layout. Specifically the cable outlet in the living room is in a tiny corner next to the fireplace. The TV is like four feet long and two and a half feet tall so it’s never going to fit in this corner and the only option I have is to put the entertainment center directly in front of the fireplace. If this seems counter-productive and a little dangerous, you’re absolutely correct. I compromised by pulling the unit out away from the hearth but that leaves the tangle of cables and power strips exposed to anyone with eyes and while I don’t claim to be some interior design guru, I can say that I’ve never heard the phrase “cable snarl chic” used to describe a decor.

My eventual solution will be to have the TV mounted above the mantle, but since I was trained in all manner of home improvement by my father and I lack even his questionable proficiencies, I have to bring shame on the house of Hamilton and spend money to have someone do it for me who is far less likely to install it upside-down or to perhaps knock over the chimney inadvertently. I’ll also need a new housing unit for the various components which stacks vertically and fits in the small corner of the room. I’m trying to console myself by imagining how wonderful it might be to have a roaring fire beneath a glorious HD display some winter evening, like a poetic juxtaposing contrast between the most ancient technology and the height of man’s achievement. Instead I wind up thinking, “What if I melt the screen I don’t think renter’s insurance covers stupidity and the cat might jump on it and it would fall on the hard tile and shatter to a zillion pieces…”

I end the train of thought making the sound approximated in every “Cathy” comic strip since it began to blight our collective culture: “Aaaaack!”

Lost in the Plot

Speaking of TV, Nik and I were catching up on Lost during a moment of tranquility and while I’ve been kind of so-so about the show since somewhere in the latter half of Season 2, I’ve stuck it out mostly because I’m this far in and I might as well find out how it goes. Now we had a couple of episodes left on the TiVo from before the spring break and then the one that first aired last Thursday. I’d heard that the pre-break finale was an excellent episode and, well, I found it to be not excellent. First of all, the Michael character drives me insane (“Waaaaaaalt!”) and the entire episode was an extended flashback.

But then I watched the first episode back (last Thursday’s) and… all of a sudden the whole thing clicked for me. I mean I think I finally am starting to understand what the show is about, what it’s doing and why I’m compelled to keep watching even though they’ve made some questionable narrative decisions along the way.

Now, it’s certainly possible that this is nothing new to devoted fans, message board devotees and so on. But I stopped following the Internet furor about the time I stopped thinking the show was just awesome and started thinking it was merely good enough to keep watching. So for about a year or two I’ve been out of the speculation loop. If this is all retread of ground covered by them, I apologize and if you don’t want specu-spoilers, stop reading now. But this is my unified theory of Lost, for what it’s worth (nothing).

The Island

For a long time everyone was trying to figure out what the real setting was for Lost. Is it purgatory? A dream? Hurley’s psychotic delusion? I think the island is just an island. But it’s a very special island, a place with certain characteristics that are in some cases sinister and threatening but in other cases are remarkable and even desirable.

The principal characteristics that make the island unique are:

  1. It has a certain sentience. There is a kind of awareness the island possesses: It is in tune with humans that live on it, it has a certain degree of influence over them and it seems to occasionally select people who find themselves there to be its agents. It is possible the island itself doesn’t actively select these people but there is a personality type that is drawn to the island, its secrets and its strange persona but the result is the same either way: The island can become an object of obsession with effects that extend beyond the physical location of the island itself.
  2. The island affects human immune systems. This can manifest in a number of ways: It can present itself as remarkable healing properties. It can work to cause madness or sickness in others. It also acts as a sort of population control, turning the immune system on embryonic life as suggested by Juliet in a recent flashback.
  3. There is a temporal element to the island’s properties. New (and welcome) character Daniel and the time-traveling Desmond have experienced this but we’ve also seen evidence of it elsewhere. People who are connected to the island via whatever mechanism is attributed to the island’s odd sentience seem to age differently. It appears that Widmore (Penny’s father and Ben’s nemesis) may have been the captain of the Black Rock which clearly ran aground on the island long ago. Perhaps the island’s influence on immune systems is part of it, but it may also be that time simply passes at a different rate on the island and those who spend long periods of time there seem to age less quickly to those outside the island.
  4. The island is difficult to locate. Perhaps it is the temporal anomalies, maybe it’s just that the island is cloaked in some fashion or a combination of other factors contributes but the island is not readily located. Even once found it doesn’t seem that it can be readily re-located once left. The lack of information on flight 815 in the “real” world suggests this, as does Widmore’s dogged pursuit of the place, despite indications that he’s been there before.
The Backstory

It seems clear that the human influence on the island dates back quite far. The mysterious statue feet seen at the end of Season 2 and the odd runes in the secret compartment leading to what may be the control center for the island’s security system (the smoke monster) suggest some kind of ancient power or perhaps a lost civilization that was able to somehow harness the power of the island.

Also it appears that the island is most commonly found by accident: The Black Rock ending up on the island somehow, Rousseau’s ship crashing there, flight 815, etc. But it does seem that some people have been able to locate and retain the location of the island, including what I suspect is a scientific research commune called Dharma, from which grew the Others possibly because Benjamin Linus became one of the chosen or obsessed and executed a hostile takeover of the island to suit his own purposes. It seems pretty clear now that he wrested control away from Widmore but it’s not known yet whether Widmore represented Dharma or was maybe part of the original “Others” (when Dharma filled a similar role the survivors of 815 now fill), but either way there was a power grab that left Dharma all but abandoned, Widmore out in the cold and Ben Linus in charge.

The Arc

The show—the current story unfolding as we watch—is about what would happen if a magical island existed in the real world? What if there was a place that didn’t work according to the rules we accept as “reality?” What if people who had nothing in common ended up there? It’s a dangerous place, but it has a certain compelling charm that can change people. The island wants itself to be protected; the people who are enchanted by it want to keep it a secret and hold it for themselves; people who lose it want it back.

The basic arc seems to be that the flight crashes, we are introduced to their plight, we find evidence of the strange things that occur on the island and the things that have come before. Then we begin to slowly meet the key players outside the survivors: Ben Linus and his Others; Widmore and his mercenaries. The conflict that has and will arise is between those who want the island for themselves (Linus, Widmore and I think Locke will be to Ben what he was to Widmore) and the people caught in the crossfire are the survivors who’ve wanted nothing more than to be rescued.

But even they will have to make a tough choice: Stay on the island and enjoy the power it holds but risk the violence that erupts from those who wish to possess or control such power or leave that power behind and escape back to a sense of “normalcy.” The initial narrative device of the flashback allowed us to see the characters of the survivors and other key players has been replaced with flash-forwards designed to keep the audience guessing as to the final showdown which I suspect will be either the season or the show’s finale and somehow ends with the Oceanic Six leaving the island, Ben escaping to hunt down Widmore and most likely a lot of the other cast members dead.

I think by the end of the show we’ll know a lot more about Widmore, we’ll understand much more about the island and we’ll have a pretty good idea about Dharma. I think what we won’t necessarily understand is the significance of the events that happened before, such as the Black Rock, the statue feet, the smoke monster and Rousseau’s party. I think they’ll leave some of these questions open-ended in case they ever want to do a spin-off or a motion picture.

Opinion

Assuming I’m more or less correct, I actually find myself liking the show a lot more all of a sudden. I was so concerned that there was going to have to be some big twist at the end but I like that it suddenly feels like simply a science fiction story (introduce strange, supernatural elements into an ordinary setting) told over a long and intricate narrative. I grant that this introduces a lot of macguffins and misdirections; but the show itself has seemed to stop introducing randomness just to be freaky and has settled into a groove of knowing (at last) what it’s about and just getting the story told.

If people are expecting a sudden revelation I have a feeling they might be disappointed, but I think it’s only chance to work is to fight the urge to pull the rug out from under the viewers and just let them come to the realization that the island’s significance isn’t why it’s so strange, simply that it is so strange.

Upgrade Fallout

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

So, WordPress apparently has a nasty vulnerability that is being exploited all over the place. To avoid hassles I don’t want to deal with I performed a long overdue upgrade on ironSoap’s WP installation. For the most part it went smoothly (thanks DreamHost!) but a couple of things didn’t make the transition without incident. One is the poll plugin, which I can re-install but don’t have any more time to attend to today and isn’t a big deal. Another is the comment-spam prevention plugin that disables comments on older posts. That doesn’t affect anyone but me so no harm there either.

Unfortunately the biggest oops of the whole procedure is that, to the best of my ability to discern, all user accounts were deleted. If by some miracle you can still log in, awesome. But I suspect that all four of you may have to re-initiate your login accounts if you want to post new comments. I apologize for that and when I get the time to repair the plugins I’ll first make every effort to restore user accounts from my backups but my cursory examination suggests that may not be possible without re-setting all the passwords, something I’m very hesitant to do.

Sorry for the trouble.

As the Storm Approaches

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Our weekend was dominated by our efforts to prepare for our relocation, scheduled to take place next Wednesday. It’s an odd day to move, I concede, but my atypical schedule sort of dictates a lot of unusual timelines. At this point, I’m more or less used to it. Of course the mid-week move comes with a particular limitation in terms of availability of free or cheap assistance in the manual labor department so I’m rolling the dice a bit and agreeing to allow mercenary strangers to pitch in for a set hourly rate. Including these types of miscreants in the process is something I’m familiar with: My very first job when I was sixteen was on the other side of this equation as I traveled up and down the west coast hoisting people’s weighty belongings into and out of a trailer. I can’t say my experiences there offer a lot of solace for the upcoming transaction.

In any case my best laid plans vis a vis this humble blog have been frequently marginalized or downright derailed lately. My queue of “drafts” is expansive and many are unlikely to see the light of day at this point having lost their sense of immediacy. As I said last month after a suggestion toward a future post evaporated into a procrastination-induced void followed by a limp apology, I don’t usually like to promise things: Either I post or I don’t. Posting about what I plan to post about is dull and fraught with the peril of my own well-intentioned but markedly lazy execution. Be that as it may, I do feel compelled to say that while there is no guarantee, I am considering introducing a series of short fiction entries here.

My rationale is that I’d very much like to finally complete a longer fiction piece but, as I alluded to above, I don’t have the best track record in terms of follow-through. I always have a catalog of excuses but principal among them is a certain fear that my lack of fiction-writing experience will sully the entire thing. When I first began ironSoap.org I wanted to just have a place to write something—anything. Over the last six years I’ve been more or less consistent with writing on a regular basis, a practice advice-givers are keen to impart on fledgling writers. Now that I’ve gotten to that point I feel it’s time to start focusing that into something practical that is in line with my longer term goals.

There are two elements really at work here. One is that I desire feedback and while ironSoap.org doesn’t have much in the way of a broad audience, it does at least have a convenient feedback mechanism in the comments. The other is that I need practice in exercising certain writing practices that my blogging-style writing doesn’t typically address. I’m talking about the more pure creativity necessary for creation of characters and settings, focusing on pace and voicing and—this is the key item—editing. It may be painfully obvious but I do very, very little editing of my own work on ironSoap. Most posts are stream-of-consciousness ramblings that get posted nearly as they tumble out of my brain, through my fingers and into the edit pane. I don’t worry about it too much now, because I feel a loose conversational style is acceptable in the format. However, I’d never want anything that felt like a creative expression to be that casual in feel and presentation.

So my solution was to try and get some short fiction out as a series of trial runs. I’m not sure when all this will take place, I suppose opportunity and drive will dictate it, but if you see something here that doesn’t feel like a typical “Paul’s Brain Dump” kind of post, that’s probably it.

Meanwhile, a dump from my brain. Natch.

  • As much as I advocate the use and proliferation of RSS, I’m starting to feel that it’s being abused. My chief complaint is the newish trend of submitting design elements along with the data. The most nefarious offender I encounter is Xbox Live’s Major Nelson who sends enough extraneous data to rebuild his entire post (including comments) with each entry. Listen to me: You’re doing it wrong and you’re missing the point. I was okay when RSS feeds started having a single image accompanying them and I let it slide when ads started being sent with feed content (I understand the economics of blogging and content creation) but this is over the line. My other complaint is sort of the flip side of that which is feeds that include a headline and nothing else but a link to the full story on the site itself, as seen with ESPN’s NHL feed. No. Give me at least a bit of teaser text so I know if the link is worth following. That’s the point of RSS: To have content that interests me delivered the way I want it. I don’t need a “new post notification” tool.
  • In related griping: I loathe Netvibes Ginger. It’s buggy, it’s got useless “features” and it takes four stupid clicks to add a new RSS feed to a page. What? No. You’re doing it wrong. I’d use iGoogle instead except it doesn’t have a read/unread feature for its feed displays, which I find invaluable based on the sheer volume of feeds I subscribe to.
  • I’ve tried to avoid posting about the Sharks. I do it every playoffs and all it really accomplishes is raising my blood pressure. But you know what? Heck with it. Something has to be said. Here it is:
    Hey Sharks. What's up?
  • What made me crazy watching last night’s game (other than the fact that it wasn’t in HD and the “Comcast Sports Net” SD feed looks like it’s filmed on a consumer-priced VHS camcorder from the early 80s) was the interview with Tim Hunter prior to the third period. At this point the Sharks are down by two goals and have played miserable, abysmal hockey for forty minutes. So they ask, “What do you guys need to do?” Tim Hunter acts like they got a couple of bad breaks and says they need to win a few more one-on-one battles and do a little more hitting. No. I’m tired of Wilson and company standing over there like wax sculptures while the most talented team in hockey plays like they’re at an off-season exhibition fan meet-n-greet. We know the Sharks are good. There’s no excuses this time: The run to the playoffs is what the Sharks are capable of. This entire series has been a crushing disappointment and the coaches act like they’re some team of destiny. There. Are. No. Teams. Of. Destiny. Wake those fools up. Bench Thornton. Healthy scratch Michalek. Drop McLaren off in downtown Oakland and drive away. I don’t care. The fact that the Sharks are still in the playoffs is a miracle I can’t fully explain but if anyone in that organization actually wants a Stanley Cup they’re going to have to play like they did for the last two minutes of game five from here on out. Period. Personally, I’m sick of wanting the team to win more than the coaches and players actually do.
“This was really the way my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.” – Jack Kerouac