Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #9: A Day in the Life

My typical day in BigTown begins at 6:30 in them morning, when I jolt awake and feel a spike of adrenaline coursing through my body, from my scalp to my toes, like a bolt of lightning. Then I realize that I can sleep for another hour, and roll over to catch some more z's.

At 7:15 my first alarm goes off on my phone, whose screen displays one of two options: SNOOZE and DISABLE. Thankfully, the first (default) option is SNOOZE, as otherwise I would just hit DISABLE. This puts my phone into a coma for five minutes, after which it goes off again, prompting me to hit SNOOZE again. In this way, my world becomes a series of five-minute naps dotted with brief flashes of consciousness, like a strobe light occasionally sputtering in a Discotheque in the Soviet Union during a brownout. In my dreams, I engage in vigorous debate with a vodka-chugging Chekhov from Star Trek about the efficiency of state-controlled utilities.

At 7:42 my second alarm goes off on my phone, which also prompts a SNOOZE. This, however, is different because Alarm #2 also goes off every five minutes, albeit starting at a different interval. This shortens the period in which I can sleep, as now Alarm #1 will go off at 7:45, Alarm #2 will go off at 7:47, and so on and so forth. My world goes from the aforementioned Discotheque to an episode of Pokemon.

Usually around eight I can drag myself out of bed and into the shower, where I engage in ruminations that often last me as long as fifteen minutes, especially if I forget to bring my watch and end up thinking about Weighty Matters instead of lathering. Afterwards, dressing takes me a while because I don't have any sort of bathmat and am completely paranoid about letting my wet feet touch the icky carpet. So I lay out my clothes on the bed, sit down on it, and lean back, holding my legs out and feeling my shower slippers slide off, then dangle my feet a few inches above the floor while moving only my upper torso to put on an undershirt and collared golf shirt. Then I lean over to the dresser (still sitting on the bed with my feet out) and grab some short-neck cotton socks. I can use my sock drawer as a sort of carbon-dating system to figure out how long it's been since I've done my laundry, although it regresses linearly rather than logarithmically. The warning point is when I run out of cotton socks and am forced to use my stash Emergency Backup Socks (EBS), the heavy wool monstrosities that are meant for Day After Tomorrow-style crisis and clubbing at Soviet Discotheques.

Finally, by this point my feet are no longer wet but merely damp, and I am able to slide them through a pair of khaki slacks and into the socks. With a brown belt and some sneakers, I am dressed for work, or for a typical day at $t. X, depending on if the dress code has changed or not. My backpack gobbles up the computer and all the snaking peripherals that accompany it, and I'm out the door.

The walk to the Metro station is pleasant, usually just warm and humid enough to remind me it's summer, but not enough that my pants start to develop their own tropical ecosystem inside. The entrance to the underground metro station is basically a big hole in the ground with what seems like an endless escalator plumbing the depths. There's also a series of gritty, unshaven men in orange construction-worker vests selling newspapers and copies of Street Vibes (The Official Daily Newspaper of the Homeless), and of course a token homeless person or two wagging a styrofoam cup from 7-11 (or occasionally Five Guys and Fries).

Once you get into the Metro station proper, you find yourself in a tunnel with a curved roof of tiles that look like Pez blocks. On one side you'll see a bank of 80s-era vending machines to spit out tickets and train passes (seriously, all that's missing is a couple of reels of tape and Matthew Broderick trying to play Global Thermonuclear War with them), and on the other various billboard-type advertisements, many of which have a distinctly political/lobbying flavor to them, such as the one with a picture of a pig that said "Who's HOGGING Our Antibiotics?"

There's also a dot-matrix LED display that alternates between helpfully telling you the train you want isn't coming for another 20 minutes and helpfully telling you that you should have added an additional 30 minutes to your travel time. Thanks, buddy. Occasionally, if you're very lucky, you'll see a third announcement that says that "Routine Track Maintenance" is being performed.

Finally, the actual train platform is filled with scattered knots of people zoned out on iPods or Crackberries. Most are respectably-dressed businesspeople who look like they could be lawyers or polticians; a few are clusters of students wearing identical bright t-shirts and lanyards. The lanyards, of course, are the dead giveaway, even for older high school and college groups. These older groups all have names that include words like "National", "Presidential", and "Congressional", designed to make them sound huffy and official. But the students still get lanyards.

Once the train arrives, the doors slide open and we all rush forward like o-linemen trying to get a push on a goal-line stand. While it's nothing like the ridiculousness of Japanese trains and certainly less saturated with f-words than a NYC metro, BigTown still manages to pack 'em in pretty tight. The train doors beep and try to close, and then stop as they've been jammed by someone's arm, or purse, or child. There's some quiet grumbling and then the doors finally slide shut and we begin moving, only to stop about 15 feet later with the announcement "This train will be delayed for 90 seconds".

A little while (and during weekdays a long while) later we arrive at my stop and I get off the train. There are two different exits to the metro station, and between 5 and 10 turnstiles at any given exit. Like grocery lines, I always pick the one that is letting people through the slowest. For most normal people, they get in line, watch the person in front of them slip in their ticket or wave their pass over the card reader, and then they get to go. Inevitably, though, I will be caught behind someone whose RFID smart-card has jammed, or been passed through a giant magnet, or is actually a library card.

After that annoyance, it's up the escalator...and up the escalator...and up the escalator...and finally I emerge and realize I picked the wrong exit as well, and now have an additional two or three blocks to get to my workplace. But no matter. The sky is clear and blue, and the people are teeming and energetic, and the humidity has been ratcheted up a notch, and my legs are sprouting emergent, canopy, and understory layers.

Some interminable hours (it may have been minutes) later, I arrive at the proper building, which is bordered on one side by a Johnny Rocket's family-style restaurant and on the other by a sex shop. Inside is the elevator to the office, which is slow (some might say "ponderous") and leaves lots of time for peaceful contemplation. I usually use the metal door to check and see if there's anything stuck in my teeth, and admire the glowing circles above the door that indicate the floor we're on (the numbers have been Sharpie'd on). The actual office is generic and nondescript, although quite EPIC, I must say myself.

I greet Gerald, the administrative assistant/website master/temp worker/social organizer for the office. Gerald's current profession fits the description the Navy has ("It's not a job, it's an Adventure"). My typical first glance of Gerald involves me going to the kitchen to get some water and seeing everyone stand around as Gerald tries to do an EPIC job like "catch a mouse that's been sneaking in through the ceiling tile" or worse, get the server to work properly.

On any given day, there's a 50-50 chance that I'll see Melissa, the other intern at my organization, who is from Cleveland (O-H!). Unfortunately, she did go to Miami of Florida (of her own volition), and that requires shunning. She does crazy law-school-type stuff which is so far above my head it resembles the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.

Then I reach my own office, which, according to the sticker on the phone, apparently once belonged to someone whose name started with "Guilerme". It is currently being used to store unwanted books and interns. I sit down, pull out my computer, and lock it to the desk, then go straight to work.

Work, in this case, refers to the unpleasant daily task I have of making breakfast (Poptarts done at 25 seconds per pastry), checking my email, and carefully analyzing the latest postings from my favorite sports blogs. At some indeterminate point later in the day, I begin my (unpaid) volunteer service of doing research.

About five minutes after that, it's time for lunch. The first week or so I ate lunch out, but being a part of Obama's stimulus package for local restaurants really got to me politically, so now I eat in my office, preparing gourmet Nutella sandwiches with the following recipe I created:

Nutella Sandwich
Makes 4 sandwiches. Prep time: 3 minutes.

1 Jar Nutella
8 Slices of Whole Wheat Bread*

1) Take two slices of whole wheat bread and place on napkin.

2) Open jar of Nutella and observe the topographical contours of the Nutella within. A brand-new jar will have no contours, just a smooth surface. A used jar should have Nutella scooped out along the walls of the jar, leaving behind streaks from the teeth of the knife that was used to scoop it out, with a central peak formed of Nutella. The central peak should also have the straight-line streaks.

3) Scoop out Nutella. Be careful not to make the peak in the center of the jar too thin, or it will collapse. To prevent this, lop off the top of the peak at regular intervals and reshape the peak.

4) Spread Nutella on one (not both) of the slices of bread. Even-coating and thickness of the spread are more important (for now) than distributing the Nutella over the entire slice. There's plenty more where that came from.

5) Repeat steps 2-4 until one of the slices is *completely* covered with Nutella.

6) Wipe knife off on the other slice of bread.

7) Take the other slice of bread and gently place it on top of the Nutella-bearing piece, being careful to align the "handles" of the bread.

8) Repeat for the other three sandwiches.

9) Realize you forgot to buy milk and run across the street to Rite-Aid to get it.

*White bread is not an acceptable substitute.

Then it's time for more work while I eat, then after lunch I go back to volunteering. Throughout this time, I am sure to check my email every hour or so to make sure I'm not missing anything from my boss, who has a tendency to A) not come into the office and B) send uncapitalized (though fully-punctuated) emails that start with phrases like "So I'm in brussels this week".

Finally, the magical hour of 5 pm rolls around, and I pack up and head out. Depending on the day, I have different engagements: dinner, meetings, performances, improv classes, wandering aimlessly around like a tourist, and watching Arrested Development.

When I finally arrive back at my dorm for the evening, I spend about five minutes trying to convince myself to blog, then decide instead to read Facebook or those same sports blogs, before getting ready for bed, reading a chapter of the Bible and a chapter of whatever novel I'm reading at the time (Eifelheim now, Cyrptonomicon earlier).

And that's where my fingers' been!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #8: A Convention of Freaks, A Convention of Geeks

So this week I went to two different conventions, one hosted by Microsoft, and one hosted by Microsoft's Mirror Universe evil-goatee-wearing-counterpart, otherwise known as the privacy-free speech-open source people, otherwise known as "The Good Guys". Unless you're Microsoft. Or Apple, for that matter, but that's a whole different blog post entirely.

The Microsoft convention was, as you might expect, evil. It was also pleasant, air-conditioned, and crammed to the gills with so much cool stuff I wanted to cry for not being an electrical engineer or a computer programmer. In yet another parallel universe, I'm working for Microsoft on one of these neato projects:

-A search engine plug-in called Viveri, which automatically takes your Bing! query and compares it against a giant table of statistical data that tells it what search engine is most often used for that query. It will then shoot that same query off to the appropriate outside search engine. So for example, if you search for "Tom Clancy", it will give you a list of results and a sidebar that contains results from an Amazon.com search; if you search for "Tom Clancy movies" it will give you results and a sidebar that contains results from imdb.com. Of course, Dogpile did this sort of meta-search back in the 90s, but it's not as cool as Viveri. (Then again, it did hit the market *13 years* before Viveri will...ehh...maybe not so neato)

-A simple, lightweight (system-resource-wise), easy-to-use system of tags for documents, images, videos, executables, webpages, what have you that is integrated with Vista's desktop environment. Click on a tag, all the associated files open up; click it again, they all close. Email it to a friend, they click on the tag and (if they have the requisite files) the files open up/get synched up. This is the kind of thing Apple should be developing.

-Various types of statistical analysis to combat spammer accounts, build a system of recommendations for doctors, restaurants etc., preserve privacy of sensitive records when queried by researchers doing database searches, and distributing large programming tasks over a server farm or whatnot. Basically, boring but useful and geekily cool stuff. The point? I found out that Spammers beat CAPTCHA image-recognition traps by using the promise of, shall we say, risque images (SFW).

- A game called Kodu, which allows you to create your own game. It is also, secretly, an educational program that *teaches you the principles of coding* with cutesy animals and scripted commands represented as colored building blocks. It's so cool I have to link the CES demo for it. According to the demo guy who was showing it off, Kodu was originally tested with a group of 9-12 year old girls, who, as you know, aren't exactly the prime demographic for learning programming. It received rave reviews from them, and is being mainstreamed into some first world countries, like New Zealand, Finland, Australia, and Canada, and some not-so-first-world countries, like Russia, Brazil, and Michigan. (No, seriously). In these test cases almost 43% of the students who sign up for it are, you guessed it, 9-12 year old girls, which is a bit of a breakthrough. It's going to be downloadable next week for $5 on Xbox Live, and it looks fantabulously cool. Of course, I would be remiss in not pointing out that Carnegie Mellon did it first, but it's not as cool as Kodu.

-And finally, as the piece de la resistance, a dome (made of cardboard, natch) that contained two things: a hemispherical 360 projector to post the night sky against the inside of the dome (like what you would see at a planetarium) and a small infrared camera that recognized hand gestures so you could spin, zoom, and warp the night sky. This may not seem remarkable in and of itself, but when I specifically asked whether it was a prototype for Project Natal, they said no, and winked. Of course, I would be remiss in not pointing out that PreCrime did it first, but it's- does anyone else see a worrying pattern here?

Then it was time to meet up with what Microsoft might call it's Rogue's Gallery: a collection of Privacy brigands from every organization that rejected my application for an internship this summer. I had a series of really funny observations to make about them, but I can't read my handwriting in my notebook of the hilarious jokes they were making. Or maybe those were serious points about the FTC's inability to effectively regulate digital privacy. I can't be sure.

Tomorrow: a Day in the Life of the Author

Monday, June 22, 2009

Assorted Odds and Ends

Serious Stuff
-Here's an interesting article on the problems with the ways that UIs are depicted in movies like Minority Report and Independence Day (in essence: 90's Macs can talk to aliens. They can't talk to PCs).

-An interesting debate on the best way to articulate Shakespeare, who was notorious for not leaving good notes on the interpretation of his plays...

-This is sort of serious stuff...

Funny Stuff
-...but it also counts as Funny Stuff, (same link) if you know about passwords.

-That lesbian-themed sex shop? There was a tour group posing in front of it today. I thought that was a little weird, then they turned towards me and I saw they all had braces, acne, and freckles. I wanted to vomit a little bit.

-Wikipedia has an actual article dedicated to Reductio ad Hitlerium, which, in essence, means calling your opponent/his argument a Nazi. Last semester, in my European history class, I was going to write about how much Obama's kickoff rally looked like a Nazi rally, (from a purely propagandistic/crowd fervor standpoint, please don't get me wrong) but...well...anyways...just go read this XKCD comic...

-And speaking of Fascists, I mentioned to fPendl about the whole "This train will be delayed 90 seconds due to schedule changes", and he said we should get Benito Mussolini here...*shudder*

-Does this group of college partygoers and their hedonism look familiar to anyone?

-The House hearings, which I watched in Little Trouble in BigTown #7, are only available for online streaming in proprietary .wmv and .wav format. Why isn't Richard Stallman upset yet?

-Sigh...even Billy Mays hates Ohio State now...(although the line about "TIRED OF WATCHING JIM TRESSEL SMILE AND TALK ABOUT HOW YOU "PLAYED HARD" line *killed* me). On a more serious football note, he missed the part about "Have a ridiculous D-Line and make our O-Line look like clowns" (jk Alex, please don't kill me. Or get tased.)

-This story of people trying to learn hoops to play with Obama is absolutely true. Although, as was pointed out in an Epic Meal yesterday (at The Le Bistro Bistro (!)), Obama is never going to get hip-checked, hard-fouled, or have a foul called on him. How are you supposed to call a foul on POTUS anyways?

-This is the attitude of pretty much every girl, to pretty much ever guy, except maybe Sr. Efpendl.

-Tim Brewster's Motivational Tourette's is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Little Trouble in BigTown #7: Wherein The Author Discovers that American Political Discourse is So Stultifyingly Boring and Poorly Worded He Wishes He Was Watching Parliament on CSPAN-2 Instead

(Note: written while I was waiting in line to get into the Hearing Room)
The Hearing Room is similar to a courtroom or a movie-set backlot of the UN: plebes sit on one side in rickety wooden chairs, important people sit on the other side behind long, high judge's benches. The whole place is packed (there's a sign outside that says "Hearing Room Full"), with the seating arrangements reflecting might be termed a Betty Krockerian distribution: moist and fluffy lobbyists on the inside, dotted with a few hard activists here and there, all coated with a layer of sweet, pinkish interns standing around them, ready at any minute to get licked off by coffee- or printout-starved Congresspersons.

At the behest of an aide, I slip in and find the only available seat: a front row one with a hastily-photocopied sheet of paper that says "RESERVED". The assembled representatives are busy making their opening statements, capped at three minutes apiece by a digital shot clock mounted above the door. I half expected there to be a pair of LED score readouts on either side with the labels "HOME" and "REPUBLICAN", with corresponding markers for team fouls, T.O.'s, and Filibusters remaining etc.

There's also a pair of industrial-grade videocameras trained on whoever happens to be speaking at the moment, probably streaming via C-SPAN8 ("The Ocho"), and also being outputted to a pair of high-def TV's mounted on the walls. I am surprised to see Greg Siegel's theories on sporting events and hypermediacy being applied here: people are watching the viewscreens instead of the speakers who are 20 feet away. I too succumb to the temptation, as the second camera is angled so if I sit up strait you can see the back of my head and shoulders, rather like a third-person shooter (or Super Mario 64, if that's more your game). I amuse myself for a few minutes making dramatic turns of the head, until I realize I am one of the two people in the room who is not wearing a suit, and definitely the only one wearing dark jeans. (I am also the only one with a notebook instead of a Blackberry).

Although I feel inferior to the $300 tailored suits and I-Went-To-Wellesley-DOntcha-Know-That's-Where-Hillary-Went pantsuits and skirts, I remind myself that, in the words of an immortal South African, "Clothes should not be giving you status...you should be giving status to your clothes!" Which is just a fancy way for me to feel better about wearing a khaki sport coat my mom bought an an outlet mall (on sale, too). I try my hardest to do what I had learned to do as a small child to improve my self-esteem: I focuse on other people's flaws. Thankfully, there's an immediate target: a legislator from [State Redacted] who is sitting *directly behind* the lady giving her opening statement and casually deciding in the middle of the statement to flip open a magazine and read.

Oh, politics.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #6 (The Ultra-Offensive MINORITIES Issue)

I was recently quite surprised when I realized, on the metro, that there were a large number of Afro-American people on the train. They were just...there, blending in. If I were in Atlanta, I wouldn't notice them because there would be so many of them that it would be instead the white people would stick out. If I were in Asia, I wouldn't notice them because there were so few of them they would disappear into the crowd. But here, they were everywhere, and nowhere, because they didn't clump together as racial minorities are wont to do. That's how we know the civil rights movement has come about full circle: we don't think about other races in terms of them being other races, but rather as being that businessman, that doctor, that mother, that student, that whatever in a crowd full of other businessmen and doctors and mothers and students.

But, alas, although Bill Simmons is busy saying "Ladies and Gentlemen, the OBAMA era!", there is still rampant racism out there. A few days ago I was sitting waiting for a train when an extremely drunk woman came wobbling down the escalator and plopped next to me, her somewhat tipsy husband following quick behind.

She had pale blonde hair and skin to match, which made me think Scandanavian at first, but her slurred accent made her sound like Chekhov from Star Trek.* She made some rude farting noises by pursing her lips and going bppppppppppppt (with those exact letters, like in Calvin and Hobbes). Then she proceeded to deliver the following monologue, which I am recounting as best as I can remember:

"Hey...hey you! Are you Korean? You are Korean. I am sorry, I very drunk right now, I make bad sounds like this *bpppppppppppt* because Koreans fart so much. Is true, I have friend, she is Korean, she is so beautiful and so smart because they build like that [in the background her husband is cradling his head in his hands and mumbling "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry" over and over again] But she is also very bossy because she came in and told us to take care of her kitty-kat for a week. For a WEEK!"

[She takes a breath as a train rumbles by. Her husband mumbled something about how their Korean friend had earlier taken care of their dog for a week and was just asking for a favor]

"Whatever, don't listen to him. I am very drunk right now. He, not so much. But yes, Koreans. They are beautiful and smart and bossy. [Me: So where are you from?] Poland, we are Polish Polish Polish, but not him *indicates her husband* he live here since he was fifteen. We eat cabbage a lot. Cabbage is bad for stomach, but good for soul. What did you do tonight? I got drunk"

[Another breath. Her husband can still be heard going "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry..."]

"What did you do tonight? [Me: I went out with my girlfriend] Oh you have girlfriend? Is she pretty? [Me: I'd like to think so] What did you do? [Saw a movie] What movie? Wait, don't tell me. You watched Star Trek, didn't you. All Koreans love Star Trek, they love it so much."

["I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry"]

"I like Star Trek too. I went in only because he wanted to, because he is geek. Huge geek. But I didn't expect to like it, but it was good. I couldn't decide who I would want first, blonde one or brown-haired one."

At this point (or thereabouts) my train arrived and I politely said goodnight, and even managed to make it into a subway car and behind the protection of a window before bursting out laughing.

More on Poles later...


*Star Trek IV has to be one of the most underrated and unintentionally hilarious films of all time.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Assorted Odds and Ends

I'm running behind because of the improv class I've been taking, so it will take a moment for me to catch up with a full blog post. In the meantime, here are some good links and short anecdotes I wrote up while on break at work:

Serious Stuff
-On the dearth of women in education, with some excellent comments on sexism and some...not so excellent comments

-I *definitely* saw this giant shark in the "extinct sea creatures" part of the Smithsonian...

-More good comments on Disney's latest princess movie, which strikes me as...ummm...well...maybe a little racist...but not this bad. Maybe this bad.

-The New Yorker has an interesting, if a bit bizarre article about creative writing classes and their relative effectiveness

Amusing Stuff
-From the Wikipedia entry on Hamlet:
"Some scholars have observed that revenge tragedies come from traditionally Catholic countries, such as Spain and Italy; and they present a contradiction, since according to Catholic doctrine the strongest duty is to God and family." Note that (according to the late, great Mr. P, God rest his soul), when the Medici's plotted assassinations in Florence, they would usually attack the target in a church, and would time the stabbing to commence with the raising of the chalice during Communion. To quote, "Only the Catholics could conceive of such a plot". (that single line is the one that convinced me to go to my high school)

-There is a girl named Lindsay in my improv class, who definitely fell asleep outside with a book on her face and no suntan lotion on her belly. Her lovely belly is now the rough color and texture of a boiled, prickly, aloe-vera'd lobster, which she spent about five minutes having to reveal to a bunch of medically curious young men in our class.

-I have to include an Emily story in this post to make sure she has more tags on my blog than Kaity does. On her time in London:
"I didn't really appreciate it...When I was a kid my parents had to bribe me to go to the British Museum by promising we'd eat at Friday's afterwards..."

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Little Trouble in BigTown #4
(Written from the convention center)

Today I went to a conference on Privacy and Security in the real world and on teh Intehwehb. It marked my very first Celebrity Sighting of the summer, as I saw a guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and a long ponytail who looked a lot like Bruce Schneier. In fact, it *WAS* Bruce Schneier, and I was so geeked out that I practically wanted to jump up and down. I didn't, unfortunately, although that would have been really cool.

In fact, Mr. Schneier sat down and talked to myself and several other young geeks who were watching a demonstration of TrueCrypt, which is a surprisingly robust (or "Ordo-like", if you've read Cryptonomicon") program for encrypting your sensitive data, if you think cryptography is cool, or if you're like Mr. Schneier and routinely start sentences with phrases like "So let's say you're being interrogated by the secret police..."

I then set up station at Geek Share, a little open table where geeks like me sat down with signs proclaiming what skills we had or programs we could teach people to use. It sits right outside the Grand Ballroom where the convention's panel and forum are being held, and probably more than a few Proms (for high school) or Semis (for college) as well.

From the various self-proclaimed privacy and security geeks (many of whom have the stylish long hair and ponytails), I learned about all kinds of things that made the Paranoiac in me cry, like the BlueTooth Sniper Rifle, which allows you to read all the passwords, contacts, and files off of a BlueTooth-enabled phone, or a bomb that will only detonate when someone with a specific RFID signature from a passport, Enhanced Driver's License etc.

-Edit: I also forgot there was a big screen in the ballroom that had a live Twitter feed of participants and audience members in the audience, displayed on a massive screen behind the panel participants. At first most of the Tweets were about what was going on ("#conference: moderator just said....") but then someone said "#conference: what do you geeks and lawyers think about Gay Marriage" and suddenly the on-topic tweets were obliterated under a blizzard of bored audience members tweeting their support of gay marriage. It would have been funny except the panelists couldn't see the Twitter feed and had no idea they were being upstaged by a couple of free-lovers.