Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blooming Tree

My house came with exactly one tree, a cherry tree of one sort or another. The tree has done well, which leads to an annual problem: the cherries ripen and fall off the tree, onto the driveway and any cars parked there, onto the sidewalk, onto the roof,… it’s a mess that requires daily attention for several months. Every year I threaten to have the tree taken down.

Given the hassles that the tree provides, I figure I should appreciate its virtues as well. One of those is: the tree looks darn good in the spring, when it blossoms.

2016 03 24 Cherry tree in bloom

2016 03 24 Cherry tree blossoms

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Drink Old Enough to Drink

Apropos of nothing, my 50th birthday present several months back was a lovely bottle of Glenfiddich 21-year-old whisky, complete with a presentation box:

Glenfiddich 21 box

The whisky has substantially more oak flavor than the standard 12-year-old version - not unexpectedly, given the age - and, moderating the effect of the oak, a sweeter taste, from its stay in rum casks.

Glenfiddich 21 bottle

It’s a beverage that comes out only on special occasions. Of course, sometimes a hard week is itself a special occasion.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Ode to OMAS

I saw the unhappy news that one of my favorite pen companies, OMAS, was shutting down.

OMAS Pens  1 of 5

L-R: OMAS 360 ballpoint in red, 360 fountain pen in green, Arte Italiana Milord pencil and fountain pen in black, Arte Italiana Paragon fountain pen and ballpoint in black, Milord rollerball in black, Emotica fountain pen in red.

The large Paragon fountain pen is a little too big to hold comfortably for long periods and the section leaks for no apparent reason, but the nib is the most amazing I’ve ever owned.

OMAS Pens  4 of 5

The smaller Milord fountain pen has a semi-flexible fine nib and is another one of my best writers.

OMAS Pens  3 of 5

The 360 series has the distinctive triangular shape (that, alas, doesn’t come through well on the pictures) but is nonetheless comfortable to write with. The ballpoints, both the 360 and Paragon models, use Parker refills, so I can write with the wonderful gel refills.

OMAS Pens  5 of 5

I always loved the looks of the Emotica pen better than its writing capability, and the cap doesn’t post well. Still, it’s a fun pen to use on occasion. The clip flips out and separates into two pieces that can form a pen stand when the pen is not in use. Also, one can play with the clip during dull meetings, which is always a plus.

OMAS Pens  2 of 5

But, alas, the company wasn’t making money and, according to the post I linked to above, its Chinese overlords (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy still owns 10% of the firm, but clearly doesn’t control it) decided to throw in the towel. Very sad.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

We're (almost) all libertarians now

Okay, a little wishful thinking on the title. But I can’t help but think that most conservatives can’t see the (privacy) forest for the (terrorist) trees.

Politics surely makes for some strange bedfellows, and some of the strangest mingling of limbs has come about in the wake of the FBI’s demand that Apple create a method to unlock the iPhone one of the San Bernardino terrorists used. Apple is thus far resisting the demand (and a magistrate’s order), citing concerns about data privacy and deterring hackers, while politicians as disparate as Senators Tom Coburn and Diane Feinstein support the FBI’s demand as a necessary tool to combat terrorism. And I hope Sen. Feinstein doesn’t notice that conservative gadfly Ann Coulter agrees with her – or, worse, agrees with Donald Trump. Who could possibly be against terrorism?

Well, a lot of people see things Tim Cook’s way, including the Macalope and the Macalope’s colleague, Rich Mogull; tech writers, such as John Gruber; 1Password developer Agile Bits; and some guy named Edward Snowden.

In this case, it seems pretty clear that the owner of the phone was a terrorist who committed an awful crime on U.S. soil. So sure, in a vacuum, I’m all for finding out what’s on that phone. On the other hand, no case exists in a vacuum. If the FBI thinks you said something unkind toward President Trump, should they be able to force Apple to unlock your phone? Worse, though, is that a back door into the phone, once in the wild, will not be limited to law enforcement. I might be willing to live in a world where anyone with a badge has access to the contents of my phone, but do I need to live in a world where any hacker can do the same? No, thanks.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Agency in Fiction

I listen to several Doctor Who podcasts, including Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who. In recent episodes of both podcasts, I heard discussion of how different female characters lacked “agency” and that this created anger among, inter alia, female fans of the feminist persuasion. Female characters who lack “agency” are evidence of bad male writers, or something like that. Let me present their case and my rebuttal.

Example one was from Verity!, on the topic of Donna Noble’s departure from the TARDIS in “Journey’s End.” In brief, Donna gets zapped with Time Lord knowledge, which allows her to help defeat the Daleks, but her mind can’t cope. To save her life, the Doctor wipes from her mind all knowledge of the Doctor or her time with him. Apparently this is a Bad Thing because the Doctor takes choice away from Donna, denying her “agency.” The Verity! ladies contrast the Doctor’s treatment of Donna with his treatment of Clara in “Hell Bent."

Example two was from Lazy Doctor Who, in a discussion of Susan’s departure from the TARDIS in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” (Yes, fine, these are spoilers, but come on, the first example is from 2008 and the second is from 1964. Live with it.) Susan falls in love with a human, David Campbell, and is torn between staying on Earth with him and continuing to travel with the Doctor. Knowing that she would never leave the TARDIS and the Doctor despite the desire of her heart to stay with David, the Doctor locks her out of the TARDIS and dematerializes, making the decision for her. Bad Doctor.
One writer describes agency as
Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
At the two points in the stories described above, Donna and Susan both lack agency. Is that a bad thing from either the point of view of the story or on the part of the author? In the example of Donna, it’s hard to see how the Doctor’s actions were in any way unjustified. His friend was in trouble, and his choices were (a) let her die or (b) save her by wiping certain memories. Suppose he had given her the opportunity to choose. If she said, “No, let me die, I’d rather die now with the memories of our travels together intact than live without them,” would he have agreed? Really? How about someone who sees a friend about to jump off a ledge to her death? Would that be a good time to inquire how sincere was her desire to commit suicide, or would a responsible friend take the opportunity to save a life? In short, denying a fellow character agency may well be the best course of action.

In the example of Susan, one could certainly argue that the Doctor was being unfair/irresponsible/just plain not nice in taking the decision out of her hands. On the other hand, he seemed to be acting out of a sincere and selfless desire to ensure that she got what she wanted, rather than staying with him out of a sense of duty. I’d argue that the character was right to deny her agency.

More to the point, however, in both cases the authors of those episodes made a reasonable artistic choice. Not everyone has agency in all circumstances. Prisoners in jail cells, victims of crimes, passengers on doomed airliners - all have limited or no ability to "make decisions and affect” outcomes at those moments. Perhaps a prisoner has agency to the extent of making an escape attempt, fighting with a fellow prisoner or a guard, or even choosing to serve his time with a minimum of fuss. Similarly, a crime victim can, after the fact, call the police, ignore the whole thing, or turn into a Death Wish-style vigilante, but at the moment of the crime she is more reactive than active. When an author creates characters and places those characters into a situation - the plot - those characters often choose actions that propel the plot. At other times, however, one or more characters may find themselves passive players in the unfolding drama. To suggest that it’s somehow sexist to have this happen to female characters is absurd.

I’ve spent over 700 words venting on a subject that deserves far fewer words, but the mere word “agency” in this context, on these podcasts, hits me like nails on a chalkboard. Life provides many opportunities to be offended. Feminists, such as those on Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who,* might pick their targets with a little more care.

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* In fairness, I might not have two independent observations, as Erika Ensign participates in both podcasts. Discussion in one podcast might spill over into thoughts on another.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Digital and Analog

It’s possible I have a commitment problem. Not the usual kind, involving another person, but one much more serious: I can’t commit to either a digital or an analog organizational system.
Earlier this evening, Kirasha tweeted a picture of her new planner, prompting me to reply, "Don’t get me started. I think I’ve finally kicked my planner addiction.” That, of course, is a lie. No one ever really kicks that addiction; one merely keeps it under control. Mostly.

I’ve always had an unhealthy collection of notebooks, both spiral bound and three ring. At one point I invested in a Filofax, which still seems like a great idea - except the paper is terrible. I finally realized I didn’t want to tote the thing with me all the time, which led me to a Palm Pilot. The Pilot begat a Palm III, which begat a Palm V, which begat a Compaq handheld, which… well, you get the idea. This culminated in my current iPhone 6S with Day One (for journaling) and OmniFocus (for my task lists).

But I couldn’t stay faithful to my digital system(s). For one thing, I have far too many fountain pens to keep them un-inked forever. For another, it’s just not satisfying to poke at a phone to do anything more than dash off a quick note. So it was back to Rhodia pads an the wonderful Rhodia bound notebooks, with the occasional dalliance with other systems and brands. I’m now halfway through a Piccadilly bound notebook, which is good in many respects but whose paper will let wet ink lay on the page seemingly forever. As a left-hander, this results in page after page of ugly smears.

Notebook
Piccadilly notebook. Note "Independent State of Caledon" mouse pad.

Nonetheless, I seem to be fated to keep alternating between the two formats.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Ain't Tongue-Tied

As Neil Young sang (in “Hawks and Doves”), “I ain’t tongue-tied/Just don’t got nothin' to say."

I’m trying to be in-world a little more often than the past year or so, but I can feel the effects of doing so after 30 minutes, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to actually accomplish anything. Add to that my continued problems with getting sustained acceptable frame rates with my aging iMac, and the in-world experience is a little frustrating.

Back in the “real” world, the U.S. Presidential election cycle is in full swing, and boy is it depressing. Vying to represent the party of FDR, HST, JFK, and LBJ are a septuagenarian Socialist and a lying, money-grubbing crook. Oh, and that other guy that no one has heard of. (Used to be Governor of my state. As much as I complain about the job he did, he is clearly the best of the three, admittedly an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations, which is no doubt why he’s around 1% in the polls.) I don’t want any of those people issuing executive orders, much less making appointments to Federal courts.

But the public’s attention seems to be on the circus on the other side of the political aisle. It was bad enough to have what seemed like every politician with an R by his name running, including yet another Bush and former governors of New York and Virginia from so long ago that dinosaurs still roamed the Earth - plus a former tech company CEO, plus a neurosurgeon -, each unable to get enough press time to articulate a coherent sent of policies, assuming he or she had one. We then had to be treated to the spectacle of Donald Trump and the accompanying media love/hate-fest. The Donald had one dynamite insight, which is that immigration of millions of unskilled workers and their dependents depresses the wages of people at the bottom of the pay scale, and that immigration of millions of people from the same area, far from increasing “diversity,” inevitably changes the social fabric of the country. Weirdly, no one else from the Republican party was willing to agree with that incontrovertible, and wildly popular, truth. Yet no matter what other nonsense comes from Trump’s mouth, or what mainstream liberal positions he espoused either recently or, indeed, currently, his popularity keeps increasing. (Apparently. We’ll see once people actually start voting in primaries.) I understand frustration with the political establishment, and I understand the populist vein Trump seems to be tapping into, but c’mon, people, consider the prospect of four years of his kind of incoherence. It would be like the Obama years, but with more charisma and humor.

However, there seems to be no point in saying all this. Indeed, if polls are to be believed, the previous two paragraphs have offended roughly 60-70% of voters. Now, unlike certain celebrities who keep promising to leave the country if so-and-so is elected, and keep disappointing me by reneging on the promise, I’m not going anywhere. But it’s a really depressing prospect that this is the best we can do.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Effect of Higher Minimum Wages on the Unskilled

More evidence that, yes, labor demand curves do slope downward.

The money quote:
My baseline estimate is that this period’s full set of minimum wage increases reduced employment among individuals ages 16 to 30 with less than a high school education by 5.6 percentage points.
It doesn't seem to matter how much research is done: far too many people persist in thinking that increases in the minimum wage are somehow a magical cure-all for poverty.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Day

Pope Francis rolled into town Tuesday afternoon, with a schedule for the subsequent two days that involved multiple events in downtown DC, so Federal bureaucrats did what we do best: panic. The guidance from OPM was to treat the event like a major snowstorm, so we did, and, by and large, stayed home. I worked from home on Wednesday, only to see Metro announce an unusually high vacancy rate in their parking garages and ridership roughly 20% below that of the previous Wednesday.

Thursday I needed to be in the office, and the Pope’s schedule, while bringing him closer to my office than the day before - addressing Congress at 9:30 a.m. -, seemed to involve fewer events for fewer people than on Wednesday, so I took my chances with Metro. Ridership was again light, and attendance at the office was again down considerably, so the day passed reasonably uneventfully, for which I was grateful.

My office overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue, so I did take a half hour to watch out the window as a small crowd gathered on the sidewalks below, anticipating the Pope’s return from the Capitol. Sure enough, flanked by more than a dozen police motorcycles, police cars, and unmarked black Chevy Suburbans, the Fiat 500 drove up the street.

In general, I have mixed feelings about telework. For Pope Days (or snow days), telework is a great way of allowing people to get work done when the alternative is taking the day off, so having the ability to work at home is great. Regular telework, though, takes people out of the office and makes interacting with colleagues more difficult. Today I had a number of instances where I needed to talk to someone and had to figure out if that person was in the office or at home and, if the latter, if it made sense to email the question, find a home number, or just wait for a more convenient time in the office. On Wednesday, I managed to get some work done, primarily by scheduling a report draft to be delivered that morning so I could edit it and provide comments by the afternoon. It’s great to avoid the time-consuming and energy-sapping commute, but I’d be hard-pressed to argue that I was more productive overall.

Yet the government is making a big push to have workers telework more. For some jobs, particularly those that do not require much personal interaction, that makes sense.  For many others, however, the costs can be quite high. The benefits accrue mainly to the employees. We’re told that telework can lower costs for the agency, but it’s hard to see where. The agency has to provide more equipment (network infrastructure, portable computers rather than less-expensive desktops). The goal seems to be to reduce the number of square feet the government leases, mainly by eliminating private offices, but for that to work nearly everyone in the agency needs to be working from home most of the time. (For example, I’m told that at the Government Services Administration headquarters they’ve eliminated offices and insisted everyone work in large rooms at a random desk, with a small locker available for personal items. Most employees telework three to five days a week, allowing the agency to reduce space by more than half. In contrast, someone at my agency working at home one day a week still keeps an office, and few work at home more than one day a week, so the agency hasn’t saved anything on office space, as far as I can tell.)

I also suspect that if I had to stare at my walls and not talk to anyone for days on end I would go raving mad. Perhaps I already have and just haven’t yet noticed it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Creep

On Tuesday, I had a disturbing experience on the Metro. At the Bethesda station, a pretty young thing got on and took a seat. A few stops later, a stocky young man got on, carrying a plastic beverage cup and some food in a wrapper (eating and drinking are prohibited on Metro, but some passengers choose to ignore this, apparently feeling that rules are for little people). I didn’t think of either of them until Rockville, the penultimate stop. The guy was standing in front of me as I started to pack up, and I soon realized why: he was staring directly at the girl from about three feet away. For the next few minutes, he changed positions several times but never stopped staring. Eventually, halfway to Shady Grove, the girl became sufficiently disturbed that she moved halfway down the train car and took another seat. The guy waited a few seconds and then followed her, deliberately “tripping” on her foot before taking up another position to start staring again.

Even though I wasn’t directly involved in this little episode, I was creeped out. I can only imagine how the young lady felt. She left the train with a female Metro employee, so I felt confident that she was in no immediate danger. Afterward, I regretted not having the presence of mind to use my phone camera to take a picture of the perp.

By the way, this wasn’t some 2 a.m. run: the whole incident occurred right around 4 p.m.

Hell is indeed other people.