Saturday, October 26, 2013

Pilgrim's Progress

If that a Pearl may in a Toad's head dwell, 
And may be found too in an Oyster-shell;
If things that promise nothing do contain 
What better is than Gold; who will disdain,
That have an inkling of it, there to look,
That they may find it? 
-John Bunyan, Apology of Pilgrim's Progress 

I'm not sure what the American Dream is (as with many dreams, it hazes over in the memory), but in my profession, the method of achieving the image of success, as reflected in the funhouse mirror which is the CV, is to participate in a multitude of advisory institutions, editorial boards, reading and research groups, department councils, and above all, conferences. All of which boils down to an unceasing procession of glorified meetings.

In the conference presentation, one of which I traveled across the country to deliver not-too-long-ago, you speak for fifteen minutes about a facet of your research and your conclusions. The value of the exercise comes in refining your work, your speaking style, receiving feedback from other scholars, networking - all good things, none of which shows up on the CV. Your talk might have stunk worse than a decomposing warthog after six days in a marshy root cellar, but you get to keep those two lines on the one-page encapsulation of your life. And good for those other scholars, because if you could Yelp colleagues for their speaking and organizational ability, quite a few of my compatriots would be sitting on three stars or less.

After suffering through some travel delays that proved quite improvident (as a friend put it, there is no more grim or tacky place than the Newark airport), I arrived in Rhode Island and awaited the hotel shuttle. One fitting the general description arrived almost immediately, and I asked the driver (then in the process of pulling away) if it was for the Hampton Inn Providence. He said no and sped off, giving me a good view of the logo for the Hampton Inn Providence emblazoned on the vehicle's side. So, puzzled, I called the hotel, and they said they were sending the correct shuttle. Cue me waiting another half-hour, having watched myriad shuttles go by, before the original van reappeared. Driver again denied being for the hotel I wanted, telling the other departees that he hoped the right one came soon, since I'd been there a long time. Cue me comparing contact info with another traveler and finding that the van was indeed the van for my hotel. Apparently it lay in a place called Warwick, which led to the driver denying my attempts to arrive at the Hampton Inn Providence, since I actually wanted what was technically titled the Hampton Inn Providence/Warwick.

                                                           You son of a b*****

After that shameful display, I boarded the shuttle and was driven roughly 200 yards to the hotel, which stood in clear visual range of the airport itself.

Despite the five hours of sleep I somehow managed, the conference itself went rather well: while I combated jitters at the podium and won convincingly, most of the effort had been expended in reading my paper over and over on the plane, smoothing over rough edges and becoming increasingly and intimately aware of its flaws. However, since it was a diachronic (read: we'll take anybody) conference, the only people aware of the flaws were my co-panelist, who surely had her own foibles to worry about, and the faculty respondent, whose critique comprised mostly 'industry lingo' and was thus incomprehensible to most of the audience.

So fresh off what I must only slightly tongue-in-cheekly call an escape, I experienced the best part of the conference junket. Once you're done, and the conference continues, all you find is catered food, free dinner, and more or less intriguing conversation with exhausted, intelligent people. Which all culminated in me using a spare day at the tail end of the conference (an extra day in the hotel being cheaper than the cost difference between flying out Sunday and flying out Monday) walking around the charming, pint-sized city of Providence.

                                                 Each of these buildings are 3" tall.

So at the end of it all I sat in the hotel jacuzzi, reading a copy of Bunyan I'd bought for three dollars at a rummage sale to benefit the Brown MFA students, avoiding the siren song of cable television in my room, readying myself for the travel snafus to come (and come they did) on the way home, waiting until the last minute to pack my shabby clothes in the nice luggage my grandparents had bought me a decade prior, and wondering what to make of it all.

Sound words I know Timothy is to use,
And old Wives' Fables he is to refuse;
But yet grave Paul him nowhere doth forbid
The use of Parables; in which lay hid
That Gold, those Pearls, and precious stones that were
Worth digging for, and that with greatest care.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Kanye West is a visionary and other critical musings

Take a good deep look at that chiseled face. I'll wait.

That, my friends, is what visionary looks like. Now I'll admit, I am not a huge rap/hip hop person. Sure I do love me some old school Snoop 'doggy doggy' Dogg Lion but I am not what one would call a fanatic. Occasionally I listen to some Jay-Z as well.  

But Kanye? Man he blows me away. His songs are symphonic. Perfect blend of melodies, rhythm, lyrics creates a pretty powerful experience. I understand he probably has a whole army of sound engineers, sound technicians, sound advisers, sound managers, sound quarterbacks whatever tweaking every little note but the finished product still carries his stamp of authority and approval.

Here's 'Homecoming', a great example of what I mean by symphonic:

The dude from 'Coldplay' is on the piano and the song begins with a beautiful piano riff that forms the backbone of the whole piece. It was everything, the clever puns, a catchy refrain, good meaningful lyrics. Pretty powerful song, really, that stays with you long enough and succeeds at evoking strong nostalgia and a tinge of wistfulness.

John Coltrane, the legendary Jazz innovator and renowned saxophonist, pioneered a technique called"> 'sheets of sound'
with his improvisation and creative arrangements. I think Kanye does something similar with his songs. He puts in a lot of thought, a lot of effort into creating the right blend of sound. Pick up his new album 'Yeezus' and listen to any of the songs on there ('Black skinhead' is my favorite) and you'll see what I mean.
Kanye may be a jackass, as President Obama so memorably called him in an off-the-record remark during a routine interview, but damn he is a visionary.

And since I promised other critical musings in my title to the post, you will be rewarded aptly:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Adventures in Technical Support; Or, Resisting the Abdication of Self-Reliance

Like, I imagine, many children of the digital age, I have achieved a basic understanding of the modern computer without actually having any cohesive insight into its true workings. When my family received our first computer in the medieval wastes of 1998, my brother and I garnered a practical education in what computers can do, what one should not do (in my brother's case, delete the system.ini file), and how to fix one's typical problems, such as finding files in the computer's internal labyrinth, getting the printer to connect, updating drivers, booting the computer through startup, getting damaged floppy disks to read onto the drive (mostly by hitting the computer case), and dealing with viruses. Oh god, the viruses. Of course that means that my parents still believe their spawn are computer Svengalis who can magically fix their every error.

So the result of all this is that, in the rare cases where a computer problem falls outside my domain of pragmatic fixes, I tend to know immediately that outside help will be required. Monitor broken? Go to Best Buy. Monitor breaks again, almost instantly? Back to Best Buy. [Note: this does not constitute approval for Best Buy's selection, business model, or prices. Trust that I have not been paid off by generous, morally upstanding, compassionate overlords there.]  Liquid cooling system brimming with eels? Call your local spear-fisherman. And so forth.

                         Nothing these bastards love more than a good mainframe.

Anyway, in the not-too-distant past, I was listening to something mundane when the audio quality changed drastically from no apparent cause. Being that I didn't want to spend the next couple years listening to Megadeth rendered as either whale song or a child's tin-can telephone, this problem had to be solved.

Unfortunately, audio drivers are about as far removed from my expertise as anything, so the simplistic scans and diagnostics from the Control Panel did nothing, and my efforts to find useful technical advice on web fora were fruitless. Imagine that. So what happened, in my darkest hour, was to turn to live chat with technical support on two separate websites. One was Microsoft itself, the other was something more generic (I can't remember its title offhand, but it might have been

So we went through a time-sink rigamarole with my information, and description of the problem, and an eternity later I entered tech support chat. As always, I am miffed by the possibility that I might be talking to a computer masquerading as an actual person, which resulted in my application of a lo-fi Turing Test (consisting of variations on "Are you a human?" - let's face it, I was in need), which seemed to return the result that these entities were at least partially human.

                                                 Our worst-case scenario.

Results were mixed. The Microsoft android (potentially) only said he couldn't fix the problem and that I would have to send the computer in to have it fixed for the low price of $100. I told him that was unreasonable and that he could find some other sucker, which he seemed to take in stride. For the non-corporate avatar, however, my problem was far worse. They accessed my computer remotely (which might not have been the wisest move for me to allow) and determined, via some fancy graphic, that my computer had been invaded by "polymorphic viruses" and it was critical that I have them inspect and repair it for the entirely reasonably price of $200. I don't know why all these prices come in multiples of 100, but it might have some significance.

While that sort of terminology might have intimidated rubes and True Americans, I immediately determined it was hogwash and told them in no uncertain terms that they were not welcome in the conversation or on my computer. So, bereft of outside help once again, I paced and pondered whether to lug the desktop all the way to campus to the Student Technology Center (who had been helpful in virus removal years before, for affordable prices). As I was doing so, I doublechecked the connection of my speakers to the rear of the stack.

Apparently movements of my feet or my desk had ever-so-slightly disconnected the cable from the jack. My audio started working perfectly.

C'est la vie.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

For a suitcase of cash you too can be a marquis

Contrary to public perception, The Economist doesn't always deal in dreadfully serious articles about, say, the state of the Swedish bank system (which is doing mighty fine thanks for asking) or the fragility of the cotton commodities market. The boffins who run this very British institution know their regular readers (and other casual bystanders) occasionally like to partake in a little spice here and there. I have alluded to this before (here and here).

Take this week's issue. Did you know that for a mere $5000 you can be dutifully anointed a baron in Rwanda? Or for $130,000 you can triumphantly attach the lofty moniker 'Baron von' to your name? If you are brave (and rich) enough you can shell out $2 million and gleefully call yourself 'Prinz'. 

It's true! This is a thriving market around the world. 

Most of the allocators of these titles are people who were either: 

a) deposed by democratic governments in their countries (the Rwandan ex-king Kigeli) 

b) aides in former royal households (some Vietnamese dude now in Texas sells medals for $38 - shipping and handling separate)

or my personal favorite:

c) pretenders to thrones ('Prince' Davit, a pretender to the Georgian throne which has been vacant since, like, the early 1800's)

You gotta hand it to these entrepreneurs. They have cleverly seized upon society's lamentable obsession with all things royal.  

Of course, dear readers, you and I both know there can only be one king, don't we? Long live you magnificent brooding bastard.

The real King
Rest assured your humble blogger will never stoop so low as to buy fake titles. He will remain, through eternity, your comrade, true and always.