Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Black Friday Fits

I can't believe it's been three years since I last wrote about my utter bafflement over the phenomenon that is Black Friday. Back then, a man was trampled to death by a horde of shoppers.

Instead of that horrible incident serving as a wake-up call for more reason and restraint in the world of mob consumerism, Black Friday has only gotten worse.

Several horrifying stories have come out this year, the most notable the one about the lady who pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers in order to get a video game.

I can't say much more about this than I did three years ago, but Stephen Colbert had some brilliant quips about it.

The Colbert Report

Stephen says Black Friday is the day when Americans "wake from their tryptophan-induced coma to trade gluttony for greed."

We are
spending money we don't have on things we don't need to give to people we don't like.

I'll buy that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Haxcellent Advice

I have a new favorite advice columnist. Her name is Carolyn Hax, and she writes for the Washington Post. I don't think her column even has a name, but I absolutely love how she cuts through the bullshit and zeros in on the issue.

Here's a great example:


Dear Carolyn: I have been dating a wonderful woman for a year, exclusively for six months. We are both 24. Our relationship is built on solid friendship; I love her fully and unconditionally.

I have reached a point in my life that I want to get married and begin a family. She makes me happy on every possible level and I could not think of a better teammate. Recently we have cooled off physically, and I attribute that to the end of the “honeymoon stage.”

I’m sure it is only my self-consciousness, but I fear the cooling down will continue beyond the normal leveling that I expected. I am fully committed to her, and she to me. We trust each other 100 percent. When I make comments about marriage and growing old together, she agrees that she also wants these things. However, when I have suggested that we move in together, she shuts me down.

She spends 90 percent of her time at my place. It makes financial sense and I believe we would both be happier. She claims she fears judgment from friends and family because we haven’t been together long enough to warrant their acceptance.

I find these sentiments to be petty and childish, and that is not her personality. She is the strongest person I know. We are adults. We know what is best for us. I fear she is being less than forthright but I do not want to accuse her of being deceptive. She has given me no reason to doubt her sincerity to date.

I have attempted to ask questions like, “Are you sure that is the only reason you are apprehensive?” and she tells me she is sure and drops the subject.

Am I worrying unnecessarily? Or is her hesitation to take the next step in a relationship that has been beautiful and fulfilling from day one a clue that she is not ready for these things? — Worried she won’t grow up

Carolyn's reply:

First: Stop busting her chops about moving in with you. She’s not ready. That’s fine.

Next: “I love her fully and unconditionally”; “happy on every possible level”; “We trust each other 100 percent”; “She is the strongest person I know”; “We know what is best for us”; “Beautiful and fulfilling from day one.”

Um. What if she makes a mistake? A sloppy, impulsive, hurtful, consequential cuss-up of distinctly human proportions?

Will you reconsider your entire opinion of her? Will you blame her for that? Will you believe she owes it to you to return to idealized form (i.e., “grow up”)?

There’s a fine line between thinking someone is perfect for you, and needing them to be perfect. It’s appreciating someone’s good qualities vs. refusing to accept the bad ones. Over that line is where most controlling behavior starts, and it’s a fine enough line that people who cross it rarely see when they do.

So please dismantle your pedestals — smash them — and worship the truth instead. She is flawed. You are flawed. The relationship is flawed.

To get you started: Your relationship hasn’t been all that since day one; you dated other people for months. Which is fine! And, you don’t know what is best for you; you know some things and guess at others, like anyone else. Which is fine! And she’s not the strongest person you know, given her immature living-together response. Which is fine! She’s 24, human, and you’re not the strongest person you know, either.

And: You don’t trust her “100 percent” — which is fine, since absolute trust is fiction — and even you don’t believe she makes you happy on every possible level. You’re plainly doubting her on legitimate fronts: sex, maturity, maybe even honesty.

The only way you’ll be able to weigh those issues rationally is if you accept that pan-happiness doesn’t exist. Here or anywhere.

Accordingly, finding someone good isn’t about finding someone with zero (or fixable) shortcomings; it’s about finding someone whose strengths elevate you, and whose shortcomings don’t aggravate yours or preempt what you want out of life.

That means you do need to trace the origin of her concern about appearances. Does she actually guide herself by them, or is she too . . . scared? dishonest? . . . to admit her real concern about moving in?

You can’t learn who she is if all you do is dance around the issue with “Are you sure?”-type feelers. Again — don’t press her to move in. Simply spell out your frustration with her answer and ask what’s behind it.

Then, most important: Be someone who can hear a difficult truth without making the truth-teller pay. If your response to bad news is to punish, withdraw or obsess — if your mind receives every outbreak of humanity as cognitive dissonance — then you’ve got important emotional work to do before you have any business committing to somebody else. The strength of a relationship isn’t in its proximity to perfection. It’s in finding intimacy and peace.

"worship the truth instead." Can she throw down some advice, or what?


And recently a friend sent me this video from my other favorite advice columnist, Dan Savage, who has similar advice on perfectionism in relationships, which he calls The Price of Admission:


What would I do without my advice gurus?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Knowledge vs. Intelligence

Here is my one-question IQ test: does reading the entire encyclopedia automatically make you smarter?

If you answer yes, then you're not very smart.

If you answer no, then you at least understand the difference between knowledge and intelligence.


This question comes courtesy of a fun but sometimes annoying book I'm reading: The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs.

Over the course of a year Jacobs reads the entire Encyclopeadia Britannica from A to Z: thirty volumes and 33,000 pages. He then writes about his quest in bite-sized chunks of interesting, funny, and trivial facts he learns as he works his way through the alphabet.

I appreciate his project. As a fellow trivia nerd, I think it's a cool and noble goal. Certainly better than, say, building the loudest car stereo or eating a 25-pound burger.

What I find annoying is how Jacobs is obsessed with being "smart," and he thinks the way to do it is to cram his head with facts. Being smart and knowing a lot of stuff often go hand in hand, but that's correlation, not causation. (A concept smart people understand.)

I don't know if it's just his shtick-- playing dumb and going for the cheap laugh rather than showing off his intellect-- but time and time again throughout the book, Jacobs illustrates how having all this knowledge does not make him particularly smart. He focuses so hard on trivialities that he fails to see the big picture.

For example, it irritates him that the logo for Rene Lacoste's brand of tennis shirts is described as an alligator, even though his nickname when he played was The Crocodile. Which one is it on the shirt, Jacobs asks, an alligator or a crocodile? Now, a smart person would get that the two animals are similar enough, and a logo is crude enough, that there's really no difference.

Is it a boy or a girl? How old? Have long ago did it eat?

But Jacobs starts his own journalistic investigation, calling the company and such, to get to the bottom of it. When one source says an alligator and another source says a crocodile, he is greatly distressed. What he doesn't consider is that the people themselves might not care or understand the difference between two similar animals. A smart person would understand that people often use the wrong words.

This is a theme that pops up a lot in the book. What Jacobs doesn't seem to consider is that knowledge itself is fluid. There's often not a clear definitive answer, but lots of different competing theories or interpretations. He has an almost pathological respect for the writers of Britannica, as if they are the final arbiters of all facts. If he really wanted to show how smart he is, he would illustrate his understanding of bias and where knowledge comes from. The world is complicated. The smarter you are, the messier knowledge becomes.
To be fair, it's possible that Jacobs understands all this. His book is popular literature, not an academic treatise. His whole "smart person" angle could just be a marketing gimmick. And he does bring up some insightful ideas about the process of reading the entire encyclopedia. The book is part memoir, and he does a good job of threading his own life through the new things he's learned. For example, throughout the year he and his wife are struggling to get pregnant, so entries that deal with stuff like gametes or fertility or reproduction, for example, get particular attention.

I do admire Jacobs for having the stamina to finish a project like this. I know I couldn't. I'm a slow reader and it takes me forever to read something-- even exciting novels that I really get into. I don't know how Jacobs could possibly read, pay attention to, and absorb 33,000 pages of dry encyclopedia entries. (Which I calculated is 90 pages a day for a year.)


Part of the problem might be that I'm listening to part of the book on an audio CD during my commute. The guy who's reading the book? He's very... shticky, like a bad comedian delivering lines in emphatic and excited tones. And the voices are just too much. Whenever he's quoting someone who's not the author, he'll adopt a terrible accent. His French or German accent sounds like a drunk frat boy at a party trying to imitate a foreign professor. He tries to sound haughty and British when he quotes the Britannica himself. The accents are so bad as to be distracting, so I end up not understanding a thing he says. It's annoying.

I got both the book and the CD from the library, which is an interesting experience in itself. I'll listen to some of it, then find the place in the book where it left off, and start reading again.

This process is complicated by the fact that the audio CD I got is abridged. I hate hate hate abridged audio books. It makes me angry to even know they exist. But I didn't realize this one was abridged until I started switching back and forth from it to the book, and noticed that lots of entries were missing. WTF?!?

If it were any other book, I would have immediately stopped listening to the odious abridgement. But with a book like this, with lots of bite-sized entries that don't necessarily advance a plot, I think I can pull it off.

It's not as impressive as reading the entire Britannica. But then again, my blog isn't nearly as impressive as his book.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lost in Stinky Decatur

I needed to go to the Decatur Conference Center for a work thing. So I typed "decatur conference center, decatur il" into Google maps and asked for directions.

It gave me an address and clear directions to it from my house. I printed them out, including a map of the Decatur area where I was going, in case there were some complications. It looked pretty straightforward, as Google Maps directions usually are.

So I left early, followed the directions, and got to the location early enough to allow for any unforeseen complications. As I got off the exit and drove through Decatur, I mused at what a gross, depressed city it was. Near my destination I passed a huge-ass factory.

Isn't Google Maps' webcam amazing?

I have no idea whose factory it is or what it makes. All I know is that it was huge and belched lots of smoke (from several different orifices) into the gray Decatur sky.

As I got closer to my destination, I noticed a stench that was inhuman. It vaguely smelled like a fast food restaurant, but only if you took all the good smells out of it. I know that doesn't make sense, but that's how it felt. Take whatever unpleasant smells come out of a processed burger, fries, and a coke, mix them together and magnify it by 1000. That's what it smelled like.

I put one and one together and assumed that the smell was coming from the factory. There were houses (and even a park) nearby and I thought, "Do these people have to live with this smell all the time?"

But I had other things to worry about. Namely, finding my destination. I knew at some point I was supposed to turn left into the conference center parking lot. But when I came to that point where I needed to turn, this is what I saw:

Not only was it impossible to turn left, there was no sign of the conference center. Was it behind those trees? I kept driving, thinking that maybe the map had misjudged where to turn. The center must be somewhere around here, I thought.

I drove around and around. Three blocks down the road, then back, then circled the area where the map said the center was supposed to be. I drove through a park. Onto a road called Lake Shore Dr, which I thought was funny, since I've recently spent a lot of time on another Lake Shore road-- the one in Chicago. This one in Decatur was less impressive.

I drove around a neighborhood, cursing the whole time. WTF, Google Maps? Where is this damn conference center? There were a few buildings around the park, like this:

Is that the conference center? I asked snarkily. I parked outside this building. I don't have a smart phone, so I couldn't consult any web sources. I tried to call people at my work, but no one was answering the phone.

Finally, I swallowed my pride and asked a local man. He said that the conference center was on this same road, but on the complete other side of town. I would have to drive all the way through town to get there.

Both of these locations are the conference center, according to Google Maps. Same address, same name, but they're 6.2 miles away.

WTF, Google Maps? I've had small issues with using web map directions before, but nothing of this epic FAIL proportions. What could it possibly have been thinking?

But that's the problem. It doesn't think. It's just a computer program, and in this case it couldn't interpret 4191 US 36 West.

As I drove to the correct location for my meeting, and showed up about 15 minutes late, I pondered who was at fault for this snafu. Was there something I should have done differently? Was I negligent in letting Google Maps tell me where to go?

What did people do before there were online mapping tools? Twenty years ago I surely would not have been expected to look up the address of a conference center in another city and find the directions on my own? No, whoever organized the conference would have sent me directions. In this case, they didn't even send me an address. All they said was "Decatur Conference Center." And in this day and age, that should suffice.

But it didn't.


If you're dying to hear about the elusive Decatur Conference Center, it's about as impressive as it sounds. Which is: not very. On their website they claim to be "down-state’s largest conference center and hotel." I think about the best thing it has going for it is its central location. After my adventure in finding the place, it was also hard to find my way around inside it. The signage was spotty and the place looked pretty run down.

Even their website is cheap and hard to navigate. They don't list any directions, or even an address, that I could find easily.

So I think I'll blame them for the Google Maps FAIL.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cross Examination

When I was in the 8th grade, I had to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school.

The book was okay, and I don't remember a whole lot about it, but one thing I vividly remember is how excited I got when the trial started and the defense attorney deftly picked apart a witness' testimony. He asked probing questions, logically deconstructed the witness' claims, presented conflicting evidence, and caught them red-handed in a lie. It was my first experience with that kind of rhetorical chess match, and I was heady with excitement.

I had fallen in love with logic.

To this day I still love those kinds of court room scenes in movies and books where an attorney gets someone to admit something that seems innocuous, gets them to verify it again and again, only to use their own words against them. There's something so powerful and compelling about catching someone in a logical fallacy or an outright lie.

Above all, I love truth. And I love it when people can extract truth in clever and intelligent ways, especially from those trying to hide or deny it.


So I am absolutely loving the climax of the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy. I'm at the end of the third book, and Lisbeth Salander and her lawyer are using brilliant logic and cross examination to catch all the mean, evil bastards in their own lies and smoke screens. I'm listening to the audio book during my commute to work, and every day I can't wait to get in my car to hear what's going to happen next.

It is the culmination of three books' worth of intrigue, machinations, and people trying to out-think each other. The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a reporter who values research, doing your homework, and evidence to prove his claims.

As a librarian, I like that kind of hero.