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


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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Coexisting with Jerks

Most people one meets are reasonably nice - or fake it well. Sadly, there are exceptions, and the Internet seems to give those exceptions license to behave as badly as they can. Case in point: my friend,* Casey Liss, who is one of the three hosts of Accidental Tech Podcast. As the title suggests, the podcast is a tech show, but the guys occasionally veer off into other territory, including their personal lives. Some listeners apparently don’t like this, which is their prerogative.

Then Casey shared this particular piece of feedback - anonymous feedback, of course.
Listening to Marco and Casey droll on and on [sic - I presume the listener meant “drone on and on,” but it’s fascinating to me how many angry people are also bad at basic communications skills] about their sh**** defective kids is the worst thing to have happen to you on a long commute where you can’t play with your phone to change the track. Worst 30 minutes of my life.
Casey provides a few more choice examples of these kinds of uncalled-for comments, but the above quote is the epitome of the genre: ugly, with unnecessary profanity, and taking a cheap shot at young children, along with the general level of whininess about content.

It’s a widespread phenomenon that crosses genres and political boundaries. The anonymous trolls of GamerGate. The (usually) anonymous hate mail that conservative columnists such as Michelle Malkin receive. And neither side in the Sad Puppies/Hugo Awards nonsense has distinguished itself.

Now, everyone has bad days, and I’d hate to be judged on my ugliest behavior, but I’d venture that 95% of us are decent people and, of the rest, 80% fake it well. It’s that last one percent that feels compelled to spew vile insults and generally make lives miserable.

Why are you wasting your time on this? (Part 1)

Our anonymous jerk complains that he lost 30 minutes of his life listening to something he didn’t want to. Well, get a grip. If you know you’re going to be in a car unable to change what you’re listening to, either accept that some minutes are not going to be to your liking or find something you know you’ll like. I don’t listen to podcasts in the car for this reason; if I find a section I don’t find interesting, I’ll skip it. Instead, this guy is so annoyed at the 30 minutes he can’t get back that he wastes still more time writing a nasty comment.

Why are you wasting your time on this? (Part 2)

Of course, one might ask why I’m wasting my time on a low-life. The answer is that I don’t like bullies, and that’s what this guy is. He’s taking advantage of the anonymity afforded by the feedback form and the fact that Casey was likely to be offended, quite rightly, at the cheap shots at his family.

This is my little reminder that we can’t do anything about people like this out there on the Internet, but we can control our own reactions to trolls. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Easy to say, hard to do, I know. This kind of crap comes with the territory, though, and the more listeners a podcast has, the more of these reactions the podcast will get. The response isn’t to eliminate feedback; feedback is useful, and polite feedback should be cherished. But vitriolic comments are just noise. Don’t pay attention to them, and don’t let them ruin your day.

* Okay, he’s not really my friend, never met him, he’s just some guy with a podcast. I spend 90 minutes or more each week with these three guys, which is more time than I spend with a lot of actual people I know and like. It’s a strange world we live in. Still, Casey seems like a likable human being.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Math is Hard

Every year at work I am required to take a refresher training course in the often-bewildering ethics rules. For two out of every three years, the training consists of certifying that I have looked at a web page. However, every third year the training is in person. This is such a year for me.

In order to keep attendees paying attention, the ethics folks organize some kind of a game. One year it was “football,” in which correct answers would move the ball some random number of yards down the field. Another year it was a version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” I seem to recall a version of “The Weakest Link” as well. This year it was “Deal or No Deal.” For those who haven’t seen the game show, the key feature is that the contestant selects an object of unknown value and he or she can play for the value of the object or can take the offer of some known amount of money. The offer is usually somewhere around the mean value of the remaining objects. (As an example, if the contestant knows that his object is worth either $100 or $1000, the banker might offer $525, slightly under the mean value of the two choices.)

Frankly, my aim is to get out of the room in no more than an hour, and I don’t care about the outcome of the game. My colleagues, however, are so competitive they are constitutionally unable to help themselves. This year they even argued about some of the answers in a legalistic, hair-splitting manner. As a result, one would think everyone should be strategizing about both the answer and the bet - taking the “deal” or not.

As we got to the last two questions, my team was up by about $900 and would get the last question. All of the objects near the average value were gone - all that remained were some low-valued objects ($100, $200, and $600, if I recall correctly) and some high-valued ones (three more in the $2000 range). The “banker” offered around $1000 - enough to get ahead of my team if the other team answered the question correctly. Take the deal? There was a 50% chance that the object would be worth less than $900, and thus the team would lose regardless of whether it got the question right. There was a 50% chance the object would be worth a lot, although the team would still have to get the question right to climb ahead of my team. At that point, we’d still get a chance to answer one more question for the win, and we would know whether we’d have to roll the dice on the object in order to get enough money to win.

Taking the $1000 offer by the banker is straightforward: to win, the other team needs to answer the question and hope we blow our question. If the probability of answering correctly is 50%, then the odds of the other team winning are 25%. Rejecting the offer is more complicated. Half the time the object will be worth too little, and the team loses with certainty. Half the time the object will be worth more than enough to get ahead. Depending on the draw, we might be able to win by taking the banker’s offer and answering the question - the same odds as if the other team took the $1000 banker’s offer. The rest of the time we’d be forced to reject the banker’s offer and hope for a good outcome. We don’t know the odds of this outcome, but if we’re in that branch of the decision tree there’s some chance the other team will win regardless of how we answer the question; otherwise, it still comes down to whether we can answer the question correctly. In short, the only way this choice is better is if the odds are high the first team gets a good draw and the second team gets a bad draw from the remaining objects, because all the other possible outcomes are no better (and some are substantially worse) than just taking the banker’s offer. Yet we could all see the distribution of remaining objects, so the “first team’s draw is good, second team’s draw is bad” outcome is unlikely.

Naturally, the economist-free team rejected the banker’s offer and got an object worth $600. Game over. In the end, I’d like to think I re-learned some of the ethics rules and the other team learned a little about probability theory.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Farewell to Venexia and Goatswood

From Ziki Questi’s blog, I see that two photogenic role-playing sims are about to fade from the grid: Venexia and Goatswood. I never made it to Venexia, despite some good intentions, or if I did I neglected to memorialize my visit in this Journal, but I did report on my visit to Goatswood here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Journey to the Ninth Circle of Hell

In Dante’s Inferno, the Ninth Circle, the lowest level of Hell, is reserved for the traitors. Frank Lefravre has re-created Dante’s vision in Cocytus: the Ninth Circle of Hell. (My thanks to Inara Pey for chronicling the exhibit.) A latter-day Virgil starts by crossing a wooden bridge and then descending into the caves.

Ninth Circle of Hell 001

The circle has four concentric rings, starting with the Caina, named after Cain, and containing the traitors to relations.

Ninth Circle of Hell 002

The next circle is Antenora, after a Trojan nobleman who betrayed the city to the Greeks, and contains political traitors.

Ninth Circle of Hell 003

The third circle is Ptolomaea, after the governor of Jericho in the second century BC, who killed his dinner guest (and father-in-law), and is reserved for traitors to their guests.

Ninth Circle of Hell 004

The fourth area is named Judecca, after Judas Iscariot, and contains traitors to their benefactors. These traitors are completely encased in ice.

Ninth Circle of Hell 005

At the center of Hell is Satan, condemned for treachery against God. Satan stands waist-deep in ice, beating his wings but unable to escape.

Ninth Circle of Hell 006

Dante and Virgil escape Hell by climbing down Satan and through the center of the earth, before emerging in Purgatory. Fortunately, one need not take that particular perilous journey; a teleport is all that is needed to escape this particular Hell.

Dante’s Inferno is a popular theme in Second Life, it appears. Back in 2011 this Journal commented on such an exhibit.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


I don’t put that many miles on my car over the course of a year, but I do have a consistent weekday driving pattern to and from the nearest Metro station parking lot. It’s about 10 miles each way, usually under 20 minutes, depending on how I catch the traffic lights and how much congestion I run into. This gives me the opportunity to observe my fellow drivers in their natural habitat.
I’ve noticed some behavioral quirks among many of these drivers. First, and most irksome: far too many people sit in the left lane, often matching speeds with the car in the right lane. Most of the traffic on my route eventually turns left, but c’mon, guys, a left turn give miles down the road is no reason to move to the left lane now. These rolling road blocks are time-consuming and dangerous. Traffic builds around them and drivers become impatient. At the first sign of a passing opportunity - boom! - someone will take the chance.

A second pet peeve involves people who brake for no apparent reason. I drive a small car, and can’t see around the behemoth SUVs, pickups, and minivans ahead of me. When someone brakes, I anticipate slower traffic ahead. When someone brakes repeatedly, for no particular reason, the brake light starts to lose its ability to communicate useful information about road conditions.

I’m convinced many of the people engaged in spontaneous braking are using the brake to make small speed adjustments. Normal drivers would slow down one or two miles per hour by easing up on the gas and letting friction do its thing. Instead, I get the constant barrage of brake lights from drivers who must believe a car in motion has only two available modes, gas and brake, and stopping one activity involves starting the other.

And don’t get me started on the people yapping on the phone, texting, reading a map, reading the newspaper, performing personal grooming chores,...

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Hazards of a Good Walk

Tourists. God bless 'em.

I'm fortunate to be working a mere stone's throw (or within easy looting distance, for anyone who measures distances that way) of the National Mall, with its numerous museums and mostly car-free walking. Although I would take daily walks when I worked further up town, and that area gave me a more varied set of routes, it's really delightful to take 30 minutes, once or twice a day, to get out of the office and stretch my legs. Less delightful when the temperature is below 35 or above 85, but that's still a good chunk of the year to spend communing with Mother Nature - or at least zipping through the great outdoors before the office beckons. Three things put a bit of a damper on my enjoyment.

First, the drivers of cars, trucks, and, most especially, buses who don't obey traffic controls. I don't mean cruising through a light that's been yellow for a while, I mean people who refuse to believe that right turns on red are to be done *after* a stop, that "no left turn" means it, and, most importantly, that pedestrians in a crosswalk with the light have the right of way. I know it's congested, I know you're in a hurry and want to make the light, but sheesh, you're in a climate-controlled vehicle. Besides, your day would go downhill rapidly if you were involved in a pedestrian death.*

Second, bicyclists who ride, generally illegally, on sidewalks as though pedestrians don't exist. Yes, I know it's dangerous for cyclists to be on the roads with cars. When the sidewalks are largely empty, I'm all for looking the other way. When the sidewalks are choked with pedestrians, however, walk your bike or pedal very slowly. Zipping along ringing your little bell does nothing to improve safety. 

Third, hordes of tourists, especially group tours, especially school groups. I have nothing against tourists: I like going places, so I know what it's like to be in a strange city trying to enjoy the sights. Furthermore, tourists spend money, which is good for the city's economy. But let's all play nicely. If you want to take a picture, I'll walk behind you. In return, don't stand on one side of the sidewalk taking a picture across the sidewalk so that I have no chance to walk behind you. (And no, I'm not walking in the street.) If you're ambling along, I'll go around you; no need to change your speed or direction. But if you're in a group of four or more, please don't spread yourself across the sidewalk so that no one can get by. If you're in a group of 20 waiting for your tour on a crowded sidewalk, please stay to one side, rather than milling across the entire sidewalk. (The Crime Museum on 7th Street is particularly bad for this.) And school groups on the Mall should take up some reasonable amount of space - let's say 95% rather than 100% of the width of the sidewalk, leaving just enough room for one crotchety middle-aged person to get by.

Ah, who am I kidding? Bad drivers are going to drive badly, some cyclists are going to ride unsafely, and tour groups are going to do whatever the heck they want to do. Some days I even remember this, and try to smile as I make my way through the throngs.


* Always look drivers in the eye if possible. That way you might be able to tell if one is already having a bad day and just doesn't care any more. Let that driver go.**

** The other day I was driving down the highway and passed a car that was moving a little erratically. It turned out that the driver was sobbing uncontrollably. Not good.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Little Schoolhouse

The lot next to my spot in Caledon Mayfair now has on it a small schoolhouse. Although the building may have once housed a chapel, one look inside shows that the structure has been repurposed.

This brings back memories... not all of which are pleasant. Ah well, brave heart, Rhianon.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Forests and Trees

I sometimes think it must be exhausting to be a young person with liberal tendencies. So many minefields, so much to remember in order to be sufficiently sensitive. A case in point is the most recent Accidental Tech Podcast (No. 116, "Women Aren't a Minority"). ATP has three guys in the tech industry talk about Apple news, software development, file systems, and whatever they feel like. (The start of episode 116 concerned the relative merits of raccoons versus ducks.) It's generally fun to listen to, even if I don't fully follow the technical details of some of the topics. (I was fully on top of the raccoons versus ducks discussion, I must say without false modesty.)

A big chunk of the episode was devoted to a reasonable enough question: what can the podcast do to attract more women listeners? Co-host John Siracusa acknowledged that the gender breakdown of listeners was just an educated guess. He also postulated that the best way of increasing listenership was to go after the relatively underserved market, i.e., women. I'm not sure that's true - as an obvious example, suppose there were a podcast called All Things Left-Handed, and consider whether the best way of increasing listenership was to attract a bigger share of right-handers - but there's nothing inherently wrong with trying to increase listenership, or even to target a particular demographic.

Siracusa (and co-hosts Marco Arment and Casey Liss) also get credit for rejecting the obvious suggestions, such as having women co-hosts. In their view, that would change the show sufficiently that it would be a different show. (I couldn't help but be reminded of the view of some Doctor Who fans that the next Doctor needs to be a woman. Nothing wrong with a show about a Time Lady, but it would be a different show. I suspect I will one day be on the losing side of that argument, however.)

Then the conversation devolved into the usual blather of more-sensitive-than-thou political correctness. The three hosts started discussing whether they should reject advertisements about products that are targeted toward men, such as Harry's razors. (My reaction to that: I don't drink beer, but I still watch the Super Bowl and even manage to enjoy some of the better beer ads.) They then discussed whether ad reads should be more "gender inclusive." My eyes rolled and I could feel my fingers twitch toward the fast-forward button.

The final straw was when a listener complained that the hosts of the podcast should not presume to "speak for all women." That's the kind of bullshit statement that makes me stop taking a topic seriously. To give Arment, Liss, and Siracusa credit, they never came close to suggesting that they spoke for any women, much less all of them. However, even acknowledging the comment cheapened the discussion to the point where I had to fast-forward until the segment was, mercifully, over.

I don't think I'm out of the mainstream when I make the following statements:
1. Criticizing a female or minority politician's policies is not misogynistic or racist. (It *is*, however, beyond the pale to suggest that a female candidate is a "serious" candidate only because of her gender, as Washington Post columnist wrote about former H-P CEO Carly Fiorina.)
2. Stating an opinion generally carries with it the implication that the opinion is that of the speaker, and not of an entire group of people, such as an entire gender. If the speaker prefaces the remark with "all [group] believe," then the foregoing statement does not apply.
3. A man who states an opinion is not "mansplaining." A statement can be condescending in either words or tone, but, without more information, I will take statements at their face value.

Relatedly, the idea that groups of individuals are, collectively, fragile flowers that need special protections from the mean world, is itself an insulting one deserving of mockery. The feminists in the UK who needed "safe spaces" and found that clapping was alarming and therefore suggested the use of "jazz hands" to indicate appreciation were deserving of mockery. Campus liberals who demand "safe spaces" when conservatives speak on campus or the school screens the movie "American Sniper" are deserving of mockery. The First Lady, who recently said that blacks don't go to museums because they don't "feel welcome," is most certainly deserving of mockery. (Has she ever been to the Smithsonian museums on the Mall in Washington? Lots of minorities, many of whom are children, don't seem to feel that they're not welcome.) Back in the real world, your boss might give you a bad performance review, or a peer might object to your ideas. Some people may react poorly to criticism, but it is insulting to think that entire *groups* need coddling.

My advice to the ATP guys: keep making a good podcast, don't worry about the composition of your listeners, and you'll increase the size of your audience. Let the discussion devolve into who best passes some test of political correctness, and listeners will go elsewhere.