Random things culled from the Interwebs

I’m having a bit of an infographic contest with a friend of mine. Every couple of days she’ll send me a link to an infographic by email. I, in turn, will counter with a link to another infographic. It’s really a modern, data fueled one-up-manship contest just like those you might overhear in a pub on a Friday night…only with visuals.

To that end, here are a few things we’ve both found interesting in the past couple of weeks.

The Story of Broke

Brought to you by Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff, The Story of Electronics) and the fabulous team at Free Range Studios, The Story of Broke “calls for a shift in government spending toward investments in clean, green solutions—renewable energy, safer chemicals and materials, zero waste and more—that can deliver jobs AND a healthier environment. It’s time to rebuild the American Dream; but this time, let’s build it better.”

99% v 1%: the data behind the Occupy movement

The Datablog at The Guardian regularly produces fabulous graphics from unimpeachable data sources. For this article and animation they take a look the Occupy movement’s slogan that it represents “the 99%” to determine if that figure is accurate.

XKCD: Money (pretty much all of it)

The great thing about XKCD is that it’s a comic but it’s also drawn by a massive geek which means there are sometimes great opportunities for data presented visually. Monday’s cartoon is all about money visually representing how much it takes to do certain things.

Finding the scent

Well, I’m sucking at this NaBloPoMo thing. It’s now the 17th of the month and I’ve only written 10 entries. That means I’ve missed a week’s worth of entries. In some ways I’m surprised by this; it’s not as if I’ve got a wild social life that’s taking up a ton of time. In other ways, it’s pretty much par for the course.

Loathesome Job has had a lot of deleterious effects on my personality over the past 8 months. In order to survive, to keep my spleen from exploding from both astonishment and outrage I’ve had to spend a lot of mental and emotional energy detaching:

  • I have learned not to care about the fact that virtually everyone I work with has a rampant case of not my job-itis.
  • I have learned not to care that the person who is ostensibly in charge of making the websites my group works on good thinks that making the experience pleasant for the user is the same as making sure someone who is blind can access the site at all.
  • I have learned, mostly, to stifle my bullshit alarm when Management sends a note out saying that the IT guy will be around to install webcams on all our computers but it’s not so they can watch us during the work day.
  • I have learned to accept that I’ve been given what is essentially a window watcher job because Management has such a need to control its staff that they’d rather waste my talents than give someone on the “content” side “technical” tasks.

I’ve detached so well that things that used to really bother me merit merely a weary shrug these days. I can’t seem to get exercised about or involved in virtually anything.

It does not help that it is midnight outside at 5pm. It does not help that I work in a 12 ft x 8 ft cubicle jammed into an interior room with 14 other 12 ft x 8 ft cubicles. It does not help that when I do make it out of my office building there is nothing, and I mean nothing, stimulating in the vicinity. It does not help that almost my entire support system, anemic as it is, exists no where near me physically (not to mention the fact that everyone in my support system is dealing with their own problems right now).

Manhunter, 1986

There’s this great scene in the movie Manhunter, in fact it’s the first time we meet Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). Will Graham (William Petersen) has brought the files from the Toothfairy case to Lecktor ostensibly to get the doctor’s opinion on the killer’s motives and methods.

Lecktor realizes that Graham isn’t actually there to get his opinion on the case. No, Graham is there to get the old scent back, to get back into the mindset that allowed him to catch Lecktor in the first place.

I’m afraid that I’ve detached so well that I’ve become detached not only from life but from who I am and what I want. I’m even more afraid that I won’t be able to get my own scent back.

Ten rules for dealing with crazy

  1. If you don’t have to deal with a crazy person, don’t.
  2. You can’t outsmart crazy. You also can’t fix crazy. (You could outcrazy it, but that makes you crazy too.)
  3. When you get in a contest of wills with a crazy person, you’ve already lost.
  4. The crazy person doesn’t have as much to lose as you.
  5. Your desired outcome is to get away from the crazy person.
  6. You have no idea what the crazy person’s desired outcome is.
  7. The crazy person sees anything you have done as justification for what she’s about to do.
  8. Anything nice you do for the crazy person, she will use as ammunition later.
  9. The crazy person sees any outcome as vindication.
  10. When you start caring what the crazy person thinks, you’re joining her in her craziness.


Poster: Anonymous (2011)Who was William Shakespeare?

Questions about William Shakespeare’s identity have been floating around since the 19th century with guesses as varied as Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. In 2007 Time Magazine reported on the public emergence of some 300 Shakespeare skeptics asking to be taken seriously. Among the signatories to that 2007 “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” was Shakespearian actor Derek Jacobi who gives the prologue and epilogue that frame the story of Anonymous.

Opening near the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, we’re rapidly introduced to a wide cast of characters, both noble and not, including playwrite Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) who is plucked out of near obscurity by Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford, who chooses Jonson to serve has his theatrical beard paying the struggling playwrite handsomely to present de Vere’s plays as his own.

Both the backstory and the current struggles to position the correct man to inherit the throne from a rapidly decaying Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) intertwine with the political nature of de Vere’s plays.

Taken in by William Cecil (David Thewlis) after his father’s death, the young de Vere (Jamie Campbell Bower) agrees to marry Cecil’s only daughter as part of the price for covering up the killing of a houseman the Puritan Cecil had sent to de Vere’s chambers to find out if the young man was, indeed, composing plays and poems in defiance of Cecil’s wishes.

Young de Vere catches the eye of a younger Elizabeth (played in a wonderful bit of casting by Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson) leading to a torrid affair which results in the Queen’s pregnancy. Shunned for reasons not known to him when she is sent off to have the child away from the court’s prying eyes, de Vere begins a revenge affair with one of the Queen’s maids only to be exposed upon her return to London and banished from court for the remainder of his life. Before returning to his wife, de Vere manages to pry out of William Cecil information about his offspring, the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) who in the film’s current time line allies himself with the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) in his bid for Elizabeth’s throne.

Jonson, meanwhile, has an attack of conscience revealing to a middling theater actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) that he is just the front for the aristocrat who has actually penned the first brilliant play, Henry V, staged. Shakespeare, seizing the moment, steps into the spotlight as the groundlings call for the playwrite setting in motion what we are to believe is the biggest literary fraud ever perpetrated on the world.

Tensions mount as more of de Vere’s plays are staged and Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), the hunchbacked son of William, takes over as Elizabeth’s closest advisor after his father’s death. Maneuvering to have both the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton eliminated in favor of his candidate for King, James of Scotland, Cecil manipulates de Vere with the unwitting help of Ben Johnson.

The outcome of the story is, of course, known: James of Scotland becomes James I of England, Scotland, and Wales, William Shakespeare becomes the greatest author who ever lived, and Ben Jonson becomes England’s first Poet Laureate. While Anonymous makes an interesting case that Edward de Vere was the true author behind the words we attribute to William Shakespeare the movie also posits one stunning, unbelievable fact that can’t be revealed without spoiling the end of the film; the timing along strains credulity.

Anonymous is beautifully crafted and acted and a grown-up intellectual exercise into one of literary history’s greatest mysteries.

Device Review: LG Optimus V

LG Optimus branded for Virgin Mobile

Back in the early spring when I got the Lothesome Job I also decided since my new employer would be severely limiting my access to the Internet it was time to upgrade to a “smart phone.” I choose not to go with the iPhone for a few reasons.

At the time my early-adopter techie friends were almost universally telling me that in DC the iPhone was a great computer and a really crappy phone. This was right before the iPhone provider landscape opened up when the only option was AT&T which has surprisingly bad coverage in my major metropolitan area. The other reason I decided not to go with the iPhone is because I am almost infinitely cheap.

The cost of the device isn’t the issue. The cost of the device is never the issue. It’s always the cost of the overpriced service plan that makes me hesitate when it comes to mobile devices.

In DC you can’t get an iPhone service plan for less than $69.99 per month. In fact, the current price for a plan for the iPhone 4 (16 GB) for basic access, the lowest priced text messaging plan, and 5 GB of data transfer (that’s browsing the web, checking email, tweeting, scrolling through Facebook) is $94.99 per month on Verizon. A comparable plan from AT&T costs $104.99 per month. That’s a Benjamin+ every month before taxes just to have access to their network.

Right now I pay my cell phone service provider $25 per month, plus tax, for unlimited talk minutes, unlimited texting, and unlimited web browsing, and right now I’m paying for about $10 per month more access than I actually use. I do all the talking, texting, and browsing I do using the LG Optimus V which is LG’s Optimus line specifically branded for Virgin Mobile.

Since the Optimus is the only smart phone I’ve ever had I admit a narrowness of experience in saying this: the user experience design on this phone pretty much sucks.

Some of this is due to the fact that it’s an Android based phone. Given that Android is an operating system developed by a company whose primary business is search it shouldn’t be surprising that the browser on this phone defaults to search. Unfortunately, search isn’t my natural inclination. Defaulting the browser to search also doesn’t make a lot of usability sense given how oriented toward applications the mobile phone market is; if you want to find a restaurant near your location it’s likely you’ve got an application specifically for that functionality and you’re unlikely to plug that query into Google. The biggest reason the user experience design on this phone sucks, though, is directly due to the hardware and software interaction.

The “home” button on this phone functions inconsistently; sometimes it takes you home to the main page of the application you’re using and sometimes it takes you to the phone’s home screen. More important is how the off button functions.

The hardware button on this phone brings up a menu that includes:

  • Silent mode
  • Airplane mode
  • Phone off

Selecting “phone off” doesn’t actually turn the phone off. The OS on this phone requires confirmation that yes, you do really want to turn the device off. Given that you have to hold the hardware button for several seconds in order to bring up the menu and then you must tap a selection on said menu, confirmation seems like an unnecessary step for the user.

The off button on this phone doesn’t turn the phone off. No, in order to actually turn this phone off you have to hold the hardware button long enough for a menu to come up. From that menu you must then select “Turn Off” and then confirm that yes, you mean to turn the phone off.

I realize this is a gold-plated problem but since user experience design is part of what I do professionally it’s increasingly hard not to apply that knowledge to the rest of my life.

If you don’t mind inconsistently functioning buttons and a slightly cumbersome interaction for basic functionality, the LG Optimus isn’t a bad entry level smart phone. If you want something you don’t have to figure out, this isn’t the phone for you.

Structure vs. Rules

As part of my wrap-up at Floundering Non-Profit I had an exit interview with TemporaryBigBoss during which the fact that I had problems with Floundering Non-Profit’s lack of structure. TemporaryBigBoss laughed when he heard that I was going to the Federal government remarking that I would have plenty of structure as a Fed. I agreed with him at the time but it’s turning out that we were both wrong.

Structure is systemic. It is dependable processes that make sense allowing people to put their actions to certain events on automatic. They don’t have to think because they know if A then B. Structure has responsibility and accountability built in to it.

It is not filling out a form simply because it’s time to fill out a form. It’s not requiring your employees to account for every minute of their work days when they’re working from “an alternate location.” It’s also not telling your employees one thing, like that there is no overtime unless it’s pre-authorized, but then issuing them blackberries and expecting them to be constantly available. These are rules for the sake of rules, and the Fed has plenty of rules and not all of them make sense.

Starting in December the Department for which I work is requiring that every employee use a special badge with a chip in it to log into her computer. Digital certificates do provide more security than an id + password system particularly because it requires that users remember only an eight digit number which they theoretically picked specifically because it is memorable. So, no more forgetting your badge in your other pants and getting a temporary stick-on badge for the day from security.

And that’s fine. It is a government building and it’s the government’s computer equipment and systems which gives the government the right to control how its employees access those resources. It’s their right to set the rules for accessing their systems and facilities. What’s not taken into account with this new rule, what doesn’t consider the structure of the Department’s day to day business is the fact that if you are a new employee it takes 4-6 weeks after all your paperwork is in to get a badge with a chip in it.

Four to six weeks during which you will be unable to login to your computer, access your email, or get into any of the network systems you might need to do your job.

Rules are not structure.

Context is key

I saw an interesting thing coming into work this morning: a small Chinese woman taking a picture of a parking sign with her cell phone.

What made this interesting wasn’t that she was cursing in Chinese (at least I assume she was cursing), nor was it that difference between her high and the height of the sign made for a visually comic juxtaposition, nor was it the fact that after she was done taking her photograph she got into the parked vehicle, a white Cadillac Escalade, one of the largest SUVs on the market. No, what made this amusing was she took the photograph to prove she’d parked legally yet the image provided no context of her vehicle parked by the sign.

The national dialogue about controversial issues often frustrates me largely because it lacks context. No framing is given, no background, just the facts of a single, specific instance which is then used by whatever commentator is presenting the story to frame a position on an issue that likely affects many people in different ways. But thinking about context makes me wonder about moral relativism.

A new(ish) study by the Pew Research Center gives a detailed age breakdown of the American electorate on a number of issues including whether or not our nation’s values have changed.

For better or worse, U.S. values have changed.

Pew concluded, “Among Millennials, only 54% say the change in moral values has been for the worse. This compares with 70% of Gen Xers, 77% Boomers and 78% of Silents. Millennials are twice as likely as Xers to say the change in moral values has been for the better (19% vs. 9%), and they are more than three times as likely as Boomers and Silents to view this change positively.”

Conservatives look at this, and at Lost in Transition
The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
, a recent book detailing the results of a survey of young adults (18-23), and claim this means that younger people have no fixed idea of morality.

And I can see where conservatives might look at the Pew survey’s results on moral issues and conclude that anything goes for the Millenial generation. On specific social issue questions Pew writes,

Social issues by age group: Interesting difference and concurrence.

“As discussed in Sections 1 and 4, different generations of Americans have starkly different views on some of the social changes occurring in the country today. That’s particularly the case when it comes to trends related to diversity, homosexuality, and secularism.”

While Millennials tend to take a more liberal position on most social issues, this is not universally true. Most notably, there is no significant generational difference on one of the most divisive issues in the nation: abortion rights.”





Hey, Class of '87, when did you get to be such a bunch of Republicans?

No survey can speak for everyone in a given age group. The generational voting history outlined in the Pew study certainly doesn’t reflect me for my age cohort. And yes, there are certain things that are always wrong; child p0rn springs immediately to mind as a prima facie example.

But maybe what those who don’t want to dig into the details see as “moral relativism” is just the manifestation of the idea that what is subject to fixed morality is a lot narrower than it was even 20 years ago and that many issues dubbed “immoral” really only need context to be seen in a different light.

Are you going to read that?

They say the first step to solving a problem is to admit that you have a problem. I have a problem: I’ve got a raging case of “I’ll read that eventually”-itis.

By no means am I a hoarder. I just get behind in my reading. Life takes over, something moderately decent shows up on TV, I stupidly take a very badly constructed design class which takes twice as long as it should each week, and I get behind. Yeah, I’ll generally read something when it shows up but the fact is that if I set something aside I’m probably not going to read it anytime within the natural lifespan of the material. So, I’ll put it aside.

And it stays aside until the pile of aside gets to big, or is too inconveniently placed and I move it somewhere out of sight…and then I forget about it. Sometimes years pass before I get back to said stack of reading material. If you look at the 30lbs of assorted periodicals I put in the recycling bin this afternoon 2005 was my lost year for The Utne Reader and 2010 was my lost year for Wired.

I have to say in my own defense that I don’t save things randomly or just by chronology. The copies of The Utne Reader that went into the bin all had articles about happiness, focus, or serenity on their covers. In order to keep from becoming a hoarder there’s no question six year-old magazines need to go.

The thing of it is, I hesitated when I dropped into the recycle bin those magazines purporting to detail the secret to happiness or the way to find more focus and purpose in your life. What if they do have the secret to happiness? What if they can help me find more focus, more time, more energy, more creativity?

As they dropped from my hand my rational mind kicked in: if those secrets had been found and published, wouldn’t they be all over the Internet by now?

The only good thing about this is that by clearing up and cleaning out I have a chance to start over. I have a chance to reduce every time a magazine comes up for renewal. How often to you get a new chance on a regular basis?


Wealth disparity in the U.S. Image excerpted from this infographic about Occupy Wall Street.

TGF is a bit of a data geek and she’s turning me into a bit of a data geek. This is not a bad thing necessarily.

So, that job I hate? Yeah…according to figures from the Census Bureau for 2010, and according to this handy calculator based on those figures, it puts me in the top 6% of earners in the United States.

How is that even possible? Given the imbalance in weath distribution in this country and given the fact that my skills are of no real, practical value (seriously, in a survival economy knowing how plumbing works rates a lot higher than understanding website Information Architecture), what does that say in my little microcosm about how things are for most people in the U.S. ?

These figures stun and scare me and I don’t know what do to about them. Impoverishing myself won’t help the masses, and it’s become abudantly clear after nearly 7 months in the Fed that change from the inside is not possible.

Something’s got to give, though. I just don’t know what.









Random act of kindness

I did a random act of kindness for a stranger this evening.   I found someone’s Federal ID badge, her contracting company ID badge, and authorization card to move equipment around her agency, and an RSA key, the kind that auto generates a really long random number so you can securely login to a protected network.

After going around a couple of times with the guy on the other end of the “Please call if found” number about how I didn’t think the Post Office would be willing to deliver all of this stuff, he finally agreed to meet me on the corner outside the building the ID granted access to.  It was a nice fall day and I needed the walk.  Plus, with the time change this weekend it’s probably the last time I’ll walk out of my office in the daylight for a while.

All this is by way of saying, I realize this is a crappy entry but sometimes life intervenes.