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: Experimental Beverage Disposal: If you have leftover coffee, a zester, a bit of citrus, freezer space, and some time, try making a coffee granita. Mine is turning out nicely.

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(4) : Poem: "BART Spokesman Linton Johnson": I wrote this in September 2008.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson
You speak for the trains
You must say so many things
Joyous and doleful
When the trains are stopped
Or when ridership is up
Or when the stations cry out for murals or bleach
You hear what the tunnels say
They whisper in your ears as you ride
Like a regular passenger
Out of uniform, out of sight
The seats and the cars plead with you
The turnstiles and ticket machines click and tick
As you watch the security cameras
They thank you for saying what they cannot
Each conductor drives one train
And announces its stops and destination
Only you sing of BART the whole
From Dublin to Pittsburg to Fremont to Richmond to SFO
Your heart MacArthur, centered above the freeway
Sing of the vessels that carry us from desk to bed
Speak for the trains
BART spokesman Linton Johnson
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(4) : A Fuss: Ned Batchelder pointed to John Hodgman's condemnation of "meh" in one-off blog comments and tweets.

By definition, it may mean disinterest (although simple silence would be a more damning and sincere response, in that case)... But in use, it almost universally seems to signal: I am just interested enough to make one last joyless, nitpicky swipe and then disappear...

I think Hodgman is basically right here.* Another way to put it: "It's incredibly easy to make people feel embarrassed about having been enthusiastic about something, and 'I don't see what the fuss is about" is an effective tool with which to accomplish that task and shut a conversation down."

After submissions closed for Thoughtcrime Experiments (we've chosen the final stories, by the way!), Leonard defined our scoring process as: "From A to E the tiers are 'absolutely not', 'no', 'eh', 'yes', and 'yes!'" Note that the middle tier is "eh", not "meh". "Meh" is "I don't care" but "eh" is "I could go either way."

Batchelder praises Hodgman for "fighting the good fight for sincerity and engagement." Brandon Bird also recently mentioned "the new sincerity" and I'm into it -- earnest, enthusiastic passion is to me part of what makes a person worth talking to.

I expect a certain level of honesty, openness, engagement, and willingness to stand by one's statements in any conversation -- it's jarring to try to converse with people who don't share those values. I'm thinking when I vociferously challenged a claim by someone at my sister's housewarming -- he said that all TV is mindless because it dictates how you interact with it. Another conversant sort of stepped forward and said, to cool down the discussion, "I think we didn't mean for this to get...so..." meaningful? heated, to his eyes, because I showed that I cared and thought the other person was genuinely wrong about something important? I backed away. I probably should have shown more empathy and hospitality in conversing on a level that made the other guests comfortable -- direct challenges to statements of opinion do come off as angry and impolite, in some situations. But "meh" still isn't the answer to that; diplomacy is. And that I need to work on. My first year in college, a dorm-mate suggested I work on "something that starts with a t and rhymes with tact." I'm better, but evidently not great. Eh.

*(Disclaimer: JS, I still value and enjoy the flask you gave me that has "meh." laser-engraved onto the side.)

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: Crunched: Yesterday, thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend who's getting a trainer certification, I had a free one-on-one Pilates lesson. This morning my abdominal muscles are all WHAT DID YOU DO?!


: Lego Learning: When I was rejecting submissions for Thoughtcrime Experiments, I told many writers that I'd give them suggestions for improvements if they wanted them. Some replied and took me up on the offer. Today I'm working on some of those critiques. Suddenly I am interested in litcrit theory and practice, because now that is a tool I can use to help people.

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(5) : Late Adopter Treat: One nice thing about not having an account on Friendster, PayPal, Amazon, Facebook, MySpace, eBay, or Twitter is that I know any email I get entitled "Your [website] account is compromised!" is fraudulent phishing spam.


: Dropping In On Columbia Classes: I know more than I thought about copyright, less than I thought about collaboration.


(2) : Citation Needed?: Some of you adore footnotes, right?

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(1) : Going to WisCon: I've registered to attend WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, in Madison, Wisconsin this May. Now I just need to make travel and room arrangements. Anyone else going and want to share a room? I'll happily sleep on a floor.

By the way, Julia, thank you for inspiring me to start congoing. I meant to participate in Flycon this weekend, but I should probably concentrate on anthology, AltLaw, and writing work.


(2) : Sudden Travel News: It looks like I'm doing a job interview in England in a couple of days. Then I have a free weekend in London, probably returning Monday March 23rd. I've already arranged to see the Kevan-Holly household and my sister-in-law Rachel, but if I haven't reached out to you and you wish to share a pint while I'm there, let me know.


: BART-Approved: Not only did Seth translate into Latin and many friends enjoy my poem "BART Spokesman Linton Johnson", but Johnson himself just wrote me and said he loved it! Yay!

Okay, moment of validation over, back to errands.

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(1) : Dara, Your Style/Substance Thoughts?: These Anacruses are not technically Bad Pennies, but Ana, @job, Taggert, Chronastromy HQ Officer Training: Final Exam, MAXBETTY92, Branford, #13102099, and The Musical all deserve to be grouped together. Any others?

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: Settling In: Evidently every time I take the train from London to Cambridge, it's a GLORIOUSLY SUNNY DAY and I just gape at sheep and whatnot.

Also evidently the well-known series of river bridges belonging to various Cambridge colleges is "the famous 'BACKS'" (according to a rather enthusiastically HTML'd set of directions that included a reference to "[t]he notorious East Coast Port of Harwich").


(1) : London-bound: I think the job interview went well. I told them to chalk anything they didn't like about me up to jet lag. Haven't been run over yet by the Vauxhalls and the double-decker buses driving on the left. Have been amazed by how many more numbers, prices, & statistics British advertisements seem to have. Today, train to London.


(4) : Startled: Someone hit on me at a Campaign for Real Ale event last night. I think I'm still blushing.


(1) : Relief: Now that I've watched the Battlestar Galactica finale, I can read my RSS feeds without fear of spoilers!


(2) : 'Well, I'm back,' she said: I finished Toil by Jody Procter, read Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat, and got most of the way through Infected by Scott Sigler during my journey back home (via bus, subway, rail, airplane, AirTrain, rail again, subway again, and a lot of foot).

I can of course recommend the company of those I saw in the UK (Paul & Sarah, the Collabora team, Rachel, Rachel & her friends, Holly & Kevan, Avedon, Joseph). I can also recommend the London Transport Museum, a Chalmers-guided Best Of tour of the British Museum, the taster flights of beer at Porterhouse near Covent Garden, Rainbow Cafe on King's Parade in Cambridge, and any food Holly makes, especially cakes. Maybe I can link and elaborate when I wake up.

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: Fine Line: It's such a small step from a shotgun wedding to a shogun wedding.


(2) : Links: I usually keep stuff like this in Delicious but I wanted to bring a few things to your attention.

Dreadwhimsy is incredibly short stories inspired by weird photos.

Flea of One Good Thing linked to her six-year-old son's blog, Shut Up I'm Six. What more do you need from, say, games journalism than the following?

hay guys type in wizard101 and you will git a cool game its about a life but in a computer and you have to fight bad guys its cool i like it do you?

Forever's Not So Long is a very short, poignant science fiction movie whose final shots will stay with me for a while.

Waiter Rant, in Las Vegas, shows a person having an inappropriate emotional reaction, then analyzing it. I love that. Dara discusses a dormant skill cropping up again.

...that poem, which I thought I had left composting in the backyard of my brain, to feed future poems but not ever to remerge. Surprise. It's back, shuffling its overwritten zombie stanzas up the stairs, dropping rhymes like clods of earth all over the kitchen floor.

Despite the abundance of exclamation marks, this fantastical history of Quizno's is worth reading till the end.

Firefox now has a Kannada release!

A hilarious Trader Joe's FAQ, and a beautiful song/ad for Trader Joe's (or, as my mother calls it, Trader's Joe).

I had no idea that this program existed to help me travel late Saturday nights!

Ganesha helps Alison Bechdel unclutter after decades of doing her monthly comic strip.

Susan Senator, dealing with her autistic son's move out of her house, writes about the changes that only experience and time bring:

We go into things seeing them only in two dimensions: what we've seen from the outside, and what we've heard/read. Those are the two dimensions. When we enter into the thing, the big thing like marriage or childbirth/adoption, we then experience the addition of the third dimension. We go deeper. We go through some kind of pocket of time and in-the-moment action, and then suddenly we are on the other side....

When it was over, it was over, and I was on the Inside.

So when you go through something as intense as childbirth/adoption and suddenly there is a baby where there wasn't one before, you are just pulled inside out and a whole new consciousness surrounds you.

Then you get used to it. Then you get good at it. Then you enjoy it. And then they are ready to go. And suddenly, there you are, in two dimensions again, looking outward at their leaving you, not knowing how it will feel, only guessing by what others say/do and what you have heard/read.

She strikes at a reason I read so avidly, and that I gain such comfort from reading memoirs of work and parenthood. I can only guess at what those other lives are like, seeing flattened perceptions of their experiences. But if I sort of go through time along with them, watching and listening to their observations over the weeks and years, then I get a little bit of that third dimension from Alyson and Kristen and Susie, Rivka and Rachel, Flea and Susan, and now Claudia .

So parents don't talk in high-pitched baby talk because they like to, but because it works. If I try to explain to the Peanut that I need to put his socks on before I feed him, "I need to put your socks on" doesn't work. Now if I say "I need to put on your little sockies on your little toesies that are soo cutie" in a high-pitched voice with lots of animation (think smiling like crazy, waving the socks around), then I'll get an extra few seconds to put the socks on before he starts screaming. The only problem is that after talking in such a manner for 10+ hours, it's hard to turn off when I talk to an adult (aka, the husband).

And tomorrow night I get to see another Paul, Storm, and Jonathan Coulton concert. Whooo!

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(3) : A Quiz! And, Thoughts on Ads for Nonsensical Products: Last night Ron came over and we played The Big Idea, the Cheapass Game where you get cards with nouns and adjectives on them and have to combine them to create products that you then pitch to your fellow players. Leonard's fond of the game, and I am too, except that we simplified the investing/IPO stuff away so we could just focus on the funny pitches.

I wish I could remember more of the products Ron did; the X-Treme Toaster launched bread, Texas toast, an entire bagel, or half a panini outwards at up to 60 miles per hour, with a user-controlled directional system that you could use to target your friends and enemies. Leonard made a hit with the Mentholated Drug Forklift, for use in medical injections of 50-foot monsters, and the Mechanical Machine as useless expensive status symbol: "It does nothing, because it means everything."

My inventions:

The supposed plot of The Big Idea is that other people invest in your company and then you do a public offering, but if I were really pitching to investors I would do company pitches, not product pitches. Our pitches were like ads, not business plans. How boring would it be to bury the Mentholated Drug Forklift in a PowerPoint about the top-flight experienced management team and market projections? However, Leonard's pitches were often short "here is the problem, here is the solution" expositions, which translate more easily to investor meetings than does "Sometimes, people just can't see things from each other's point of view" (excerpt from my pitch for the Herbal Natural Chainsaw).

You learn people's styles as they improvise. Ron goes to infomercial style, hilariously repeating litanies like "bread, Texas toast, an entire bagel, or half a panini." I dreamily meander among references to theory and axiom -- Kenneth Arrow's theorem on ranked preference voting, "shared joy is increased/shared misery is diminished". Leonard uses narrative arcs, sci-fi monsters, and Veblenesque/Situationist critique.

The funniest pitches started off with a great first sentence. The best was probably Leonard's intro to the Mentholated Drug Forklift: "When you're giving injections to Godzilla or the Fifty-Foot Woman, you quickly realize that standard needles won't do the job." This reminded me of a pet project I now reveal to you. Guess whether these are opening lines for

This American Life or Trader Joe's Radio Ad?
  1. Here's a ritual that happens in millions of American families every day.
  2. At [This American Life/Trader Joe's], we spend a great deal of time contemplating the great issues of the day: the economy, climate change, cheese.
  3. OK, here's something that we did not expect. Check this out.
  4. Our enemies are in hiding.
  5. Steamed food is cooked with steam.
  6. Here's my seventh grade teacher's sad fate.
  7. No matter who you are, life is all about making choices.
  8. So how many years were you an executioner in your job?
  9. Lately it seems like everyone is talking about value.
  10. It used to be, if something was big news, it got turned into a song.
  11. We don't get to use the word "jumbo" very often.
Answers in comments.

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: Ada Lovelace Day, Belatedly: I am abashed and thankful that Rachel and Danny thought to mention me in speaking of women in tech on Ada Lovelace Day. I offer a sidelong glimpse into a short list of my influences Right Now Today:

A woman, my manager at Exodus, a history major or something, whose career path reassured me that CS wasn't the only way into interesting tech jobs. I thank you, Jed, for making a similar point -- QA, tech writing, education, design, sysadmin, and management are damn cool.

Marissa Mayer at Google might be, among other things, Google's Steve Jobs, and inspired me to think more about product design leadership.

Rachel Chalmers, of course.

Mel Chua, who reminds me to learn about how I'm learning, and that my default answer should be "yes, I can do that."

And all my Systers. I thank them for daily popping up in my inbox, being the friendliest forum for questions stupid and subtle, and reminding me that we are legion, diverse, wage slave and entrepreneur bare-metal hacker and CIO and everywhere in between and sideways.

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: A Book Review About Leadership: I mostly wrote this book review in the fall of 2008.

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

by Norman Dixon

1976

On The Psychology of Military Incompetence is 400 pages long, and worth savoring. Its fundamental question: Given that information is the reduction of uncertainty, how do leaders of different temperaments react to information? The author limits himself to cases of British incompetence in battle, but of course you can extrapolate from that.

Dixon clearly but steadily builds his case against the prewar British military. The one-line summary is: culture stagnates into convention, which drives out the unconventionality you need to succeed. More nuances ahead.

From Skeleton to Prison Cell

Dixon shows that to advance in the British armed forces, in peacetime, demanded rule-following and an authoritarian mindset. But the mission of a military is to win wars, and that requires fluidity and a willingness to take risks -- and offend superiors.

So, what happened when peacetime promotions hit a war zone? Disaster -- in the Crimea, in southern Africa, all over Europe in the First World War, over and over again. Soldiers' courage and tenacity get their generals out of the holes they dig.

In general, institutions get the leaders who fit into those institutions and succeed at the unstated goals (for example, avoid retreats at all cost, impress politicians, keep civilians uninformed and complacent). If the unstated goals don't line up with the institution's stated goals, then leaders will tend to do the things they've been rewarded for in the past, especially in moments of high stress and low certainty. Therefore, in battle, bad commanders freeze up, wait for orders, ignore new information to appear "decisive," give panicked and contradictory orders, lie to maintain their personal reputations, and so on. And disaster happens, over and over again.

In Dixon's view, the British military suffered from groupthink and valued particular upper-class traits over merit. It's astonishing that military personnel would need to be told that the map is not the territory, the signifier not the signified, but indeed they cared more about the signs and forms of morale and professionalism (such as clean clothes and polished brass) than about warm clothes, edible food, and working equipment.

Narcotic Assumptions, Lenses & Blinders

I'm in India as I write this and dealing with my own need for shiny appearances. I often forget, once I return to the States, that I find -- for example -- hermetically sealed bathrooms reassuring. My parents live in a home where the plumbing and electrical work aren't consistently hidden beneath stucco and sideboards, and it surprises me how much that bothers me. I haven't seen any marked crosswalks in their city, either; we watch for a lull in the bicycles, mopeds, and rickshaws, then rush over the dusty, rocky street. No accidents yet.

I consciously desire function over form, but that only works if I can convince myself to rely on an ugly-looking system to work.

I calm myself with a fallacious appeal to statistics: if something's wrong, it would have broken already. If other people depend on similarly rickety-looking setups, then they must be dependable. Or I just go straight to infantilism and believe my parents wouldn't put me in danger.

Seth Godin recently wrote about the "edifice complex". He reminded us that, in times of uncertainty and stretched budgets, when we can least afford the "organized waste" of facades, we find them most reassuring.

In good times, insecurities and rationalizations like mine are a luxury. In battle and competition, they're delectable poison.

British commanders, similarly, clung to the false clarity of their chain of command, "masculinity," pride, and privileges when they faced the mess of battle. They feared shame more than they minded losing men, and they scorned the "motherly" chores (or retreats) that would ensure troop survival and readiness.

Valiant forays are masculine, but feints and retreating are girly? Again, ideology got in the way of success, as when insecure commanders pooh-poohed nonwhite adversaries, self-improvement, and new technology.

The lesson: Real self-confidence doesn't need ideology as a crutch. The flipside: if you see someone leaning on received assumptions, and repeating them rather loudly, it's because without them he wouldn't know who he was.

Leaderships

The argument above takes up most of the book. In an aside, Dixon suggests that "senior commanders have often to fill a number of incompatible roles": heroic leader, military manager, and technocrat, plus politician, PR man, father figure, and therapist. This is of special interest to me.

I've learned models describing styles of leadership: authoritarian, democratic, and whatnot. These days I'm more interested in the balance among managing up, down, and sideways. Reading these books and thinking aloud about them helps me get perspective. What leg of that tripod have I been shorting?

Works thematically related to On the Psychology of Military Incompetence: Dilbert, the Harvard/NASA case study on the Columbia shuttle disaster, and John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama.

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(1) : Fanac: I've booked my flight to WisCon and will be in Madison from Thursday evening, May 21st, to the morning of Tuesday, May 26th. This encompasses the entire schedule so that completist Sumana won't miss anything. Now I just have to find or rent a place to stay.

In the interests of seeming like an interesting person once I'm at WisCon, I really should do the PDF/print-on-demand layout for Thoughtcrime Experiments soon. Like, today.


: Serious: I'm at a restaurant eating dinner with 7 others, including Nina Paley, Bradley Kuhn, and Richard Stallman.


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