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.

* 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.

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

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