March 2010

So I had a really crappy Monday, and I tried to blog about it, and failed most spectacularly with about  six different incarnations of this post.  But I’m back at it, because it feels important.  Part of what made the start of this week so abysmal had to do directly with my habit of giving people my opinion completely uncensored when asked, and part of it had to do with a relationship I’ve been working on.  Nothing unexpected has happened, which is cryptic at best, but here is my point:

It’s true; someday even the luck rocketship underpants don’t help.  What I love about this strip though is Hobbes being that quite cheerleader we all need on the days when nothing goes as planned.  In that respect, I have to give a big thank you to one of the most awesome bosses a person could have: so THANKS Greta. Greta is one of the most over-worked, people I know, and even though she was so sick she didn’t come in (but was still working from home), she took the time to call and offer me support and wisdom during the middle of a horrid day.  And no, you can’t have my boss…she is too awesome to just give away.

The main issues that occupied my Monday have not gone away, but at the moment I’m in a place where all I can do is wait.  But now I’m a few days after the fact and even that small space gives me more perspective. Part of which comes from my Twitter thought of the day from that same horrible Monday.  It was a Latin proverb: Dum spiro, spero, which means “While I breath, I hope.”

Waiting has to be one of the hardest things in the world for me to do.  Over the past few years I’ve become much more decisive than I was as a child.  This is partly because I got sick of having the endless “where do you want to eat?” conversations with my friends, and partially because I’ve never been overly patient in the first place.  But this is an odd place for me to be in.  For a long time, I didn’t know what I wanted, which resulted in inaction.  Now I know what I want, but to get what I want (if that is even possible) I have to wait.  I think that is worse then not acting because you are unsure of what you want.  So I choose to breathe and hope I get my wishes (as I’ve already done everything I can), which at the moment are fixed firmly on two very large components of what is generally regarded as “the good life.” Namely I’m waiting on news from law schools and to see if the relationship I’ve been cultivating is going to wither or bloom.

I have a love hate relationship with The Rolling Stones.  By that I mean that I either love a song they wrote or hate it.  There does not seem to be any in-between, nor could I tell you why I like some Stone’s songs and hate the others.  But one song that I am enamored of is You Can’t Always Get What You Want.  It has a very catchy little piano and organ bit, which I love and the lyrics are just on point:  “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”  Such a concise statement for so much of my day-to-day existence, and I guess it has been rattling around in the back of my skull since Monday.  I know this is true, and I actually tried to use this paragraph as the introduction to this post as I thought it was relevant.  But it dawned on me that is the exact opposite of what also must be true.  Sometimes you get what you want, and it turns out to be exactly what you need.  Now that is some hope I can get behind.

It’s odd though.  Monday was not what I wanted by any stretch of the imagination, but it may just have been what I needed.  It’s nice every once in a while to see your life turn into such a flaming effigy.  It reminds you that the numbing routine of work is not what we are on this planet for, and it pushes me to be better.  So thanks to all those quite cheerleaders out there for helping me push through, but I made this mess and it is mine to revel in.  And like my dad says, “The Boss has a way of giving you what you expect.”  To which I add my corollary: be sure to expect the best, even when in the middle of a quagmire.  You will still have a few of those days where the awesome pair of rocketship underwear doesn’t help, but if nothing else, there is always Calvin and Hobbes to read.


I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport as I write this.  To be more accurate, I’m sitting on the floor of the Atlanta airport, waiting for my flight to San Antonio, during a four hour layover.  I’m heading to see my friend Mike get married, which will occur on St. Patrick’s Day.   But at the moment what is on m mind is the airport.

Airports, so far as I can tell, do not rate highly on the list of places people want to go, and they are the butt of many a joke.  For example, my dad is fond of telling this one:  A man is trying to make up with his girlfriend, and after several rounds of pleadings, she acquiesces to go out to dinner with him, so long as he takes her to the most expensive restaurant he knows. So, he takes to eat at the airport.

Not the best joke ever, but considering I just paid $20 for what looked like a microwavable sandwich and beer, it is not too far from the truth either.  But that is only a small part of it.  For if you stop to consider what an airport it, you come quickly come to realize that they are nothing more than a modern-day way station: a temporary shelter for the voluntarily displaced.

A not so modern way station.

Now, over the years I’ve been in lots of airports from tiny towns in America to Frankfurt, to the International Airport in Bangkok.  And without exception there are a few constants.  First, no matter where you go, you are always guaranteed to find someone sleeping across a row of seats.  This weary travel is usually the one that the airlines are screwing over or they simply have an inordinately long layover. This latter situation usually having been forced upon them when required to take an early flight out of their departure city, only to doze in a terminal, while waiting for the one flight they need, which always seems to leave at six at night.

The second thing you notice is that most people don’t smile as they walk around.  They are focused on getting from point A to point B, and it has also been my experience that, generally speaking, the faster the mode the transport, the more frowns you see.  In recent years this has been exaggerated by the proliferation of electronic communications.  People are fixated on where they are going and what they are missing, and it has becoming increasingly difficult for people to simply enjoy the journey.

This is a shame, and here is why.  Right now there is an absolutely adorable little girl just playing with her mother (well to be fair she’s using her mom like a climbing wall, and doing assisted wall-flips off of her).  She has straw-coloured hair, blue chalk on her face, a flower dress, pink shoes, and a devil-may-care smile.  Occasionally she runs up next to the window that I’m sitting at to investigate the planes, and in general she provides more entertainment than any phone or TV.  Yet for all her energy and antics, she is largely ignored.

Then look, just as I’m typing this out, she is gone.  Poof! Boarded a plane at the last minute.  Who knows who will sit next to her, but they should be grateful that her mother let her vent so much of the youthful energy by using her body as jungle gym.  There are hundreds of these moments in your average airport everyday,  of that I’m positive. Yet they are largely ignored.  Of course people have places to go and people to see, but if everyone is wearing frowns or that detached, board look that clearly says “don’t-bother-me-as-im-functioning-on-autopilot-and-you-are-invading-my-space-by-trying-to-be-social,” and they can’t smile at such a simple display of exuberance for life, what does that say about the average adult human?

The whole of humanity is on display at the airport.  There are men with Churchill shoes and thousand dollar suits who seem to be vaguely uneasy about being forced to travel with the rabble.  College logos are on display from all over the country, as chartering mobs of late teen, early twenty-somethings swarm though the corridors.  There was a very sweet couple sitting quietly watching the plane that had been delayed for over an hour, as they mused that their two boys (ages 14 and 10) who were on board wouldn’t taking kindly to sitting idly on the tarmac.  There are other couples snuggled up to one another as they try and get comfortable, and, finally, there are folks like me…solitary individuals who are working on their laptops. So I guess that even I’m not immune.  And maybe that is the answer.  Airports are the place that people hone the skills they need to successfully kill time, and maybe the reason so many people look board is they don’t know how to just sit and enjoy the world going by…they have to “fill time.”

Well…it’s a thought.

I came back home from my first day back at a full time job on Monday, and I decided to relax.  So, I did what I enjoy, I started puttering around while I turn my TV on so I can have noise in the background.  Normally I don’t pay much attention to what is on the TV, as I want something mindless that won’t distract me.  Monday night I failed, as I ran across a program on VH1 that blew my mind a bit.  It was talking about the “new virginity movement” that is currently working its way through American pop culture, as exemplified by Abstinence Balls and the Miley Cyrus firestorm that broke  when she had her “racy” photo shoot.

In watching the show I was struck as I thought about two things: first, March 8th was International Women’s Day.  This is a day for celebrating the achievements of women past, present and future, be they social, economic, or political.  In my Peace Corp home country of Bulgaria it was a national holiday.  The second thing that struck me was how solely focused on women the whole abstinence program stayed.  Don’t kid yourself people, the virgin—in the religious sense of the word—and the whore are two stereotypes that are alive and well, thank you very much.

As I sat there watching it (I admit I got hooked) there was very little talk about the role that boys or young men play in the role of young people’s sex lives.  The aforementioned Abstinence Balls were the only thing I could see that outright featured a male presence, which in this case was a father.  The ball is where a father takes his daughter to a promesque-dance so that they can both publicly declare that she will remain pure.  I was, to say the least, a bit shocked.  The funny part though is that I’m not shocked at any of the ideas behind the ball, and I do actually think waiting to start knocking bones is a good thing.

No, I was shocked because it is events like this that exemplify the complete lack of trust these young girl’s parents must have in regards to their daughters.  Now, I don’t have children, but I have been a teacher.  Thus I have seen the good, the bad, and the down right ugly results of different types and styles of parenting.  I’ve also know several women who have made it into their mid-twenties before having sex (which I am going to define as intercourse, but only because it makes it easy to write about).  I can think of three examples, all of whom have admitted that they traded oral pleasure with guys and tried a few things before they had sex, but they did wait on sex.  The only two common traits that I can see between all three of these ladies is that they all related to me personally that they knew their parents trusted them to do the right thing, and they never felt lots of pressure from their parents either way as a child or teen.

This trust-centric approach just seems so much healthier to me, and I guess I was not the only one to find something objectionable in these activates. The program (which as it is on VH1 is admittedly designed to be inflammatory) also brought on a few feminist, who seemed to take an inordinate amount of glee if pointing out that there was a high failure rate in the sex-free camp when it came to keeping those vows. They also noted that a higher proportion of the kids who broke their vows either got pregnant or contracted an STD than someone who had gone though sexual education.

But neither camp seemed to speak a great deal about boys, which I found interesting.  Maybe it was because it was women’s day.  I don’t know.  But in thinking on it, was instantly transported back to high school. Now, I did not have a normal high school experience.  I went to Subiaco Academy, which is a private Catholic boarding school that is run the Benedictines.  It was an all boys school, so for the most part my sexual education (discounting what I learned growing up with a gynecologist) consisted of porno magazines, the weekend trips into the next town over, and whatever female friends I made while home over the summer.  However, being good educators, I was actually not allowed to graduate without taking a course entitled “Love and Marriage” and without having to watch one of the most horrific sex-ed films ever devised (when you get you close-ups of what some of those disease do…I swear that film would scare the ever-loven-crap out of anyone with half a brain!).

That said it was the class that has stuck with me through the years.  It was taught by Fr. Brendon.  The good padre had spent much of his life in Southern California, and he use to say things like, “God! I used to be on the beaches, with margaritas and senoritas. Now I’m stuck here with you!”  But maybe his most memorable line was on the first day of class.   Fr. Brendon always wore Birkenstock sandals, carried a gianormous, bottomless cup of coffee, and even though he could not have been more then fifty, he would peer at you from under a neatly trimmed head of steal-gray hair.  And let’s face it, even though I’d been around monks for three years, and I know they didn’t start out as monks, you still have that image in your mind.

But  on the first day, Father shuffled into the classroom, and once he had settled his notes and coffee on the podium, turned to the senior class (all 28 of us) and pronounced, “Gentlemen!  Relationships are not wham, bam, thank you ma’am.”  I think every teen jaw dropped at that.  Of course, I don’t know the personal stories of the guys I went to school with, so I can’t vouch for how effective the class was, but I think the effort was worth it.

Yes, Sometimes Trust is hard to come by...but keep trying!

From the problems that we face as a society over sexting to how easy it has become to get free porn via the Internet, we seem to be living in an increasing sexual society.  Who is to say if that is good or bad.  I just think it is.  I understand that sex appeal sells records, and I don’t begrudge an artist who is comfortable with showing some skin the right.  Besides, as the saying goes, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it!  Flaunt it!”  I think it will all come down in the end not to education, or promises, but to trust.  You have to teach girls its ok to wait till they meet someone they trust, but in the meantime, don’t spend every waking moment telling them not to learn about the world.  Conversely, you have to teach boys to be respectful, because without trust, it’s just a meaningless encounter.  Yet the fact that this is a topic of every age just shows how difficult it is to meet those twin goals.  Funnily enough though, you never hear anyone address that topic.  But hey, maybe if we are luck that will be one of the future achievements of women.

In this weeks edition of The Economist there is a fourteen page special report entitled “The Data Deluge.”  It’s an illuminating read about the ways that data mining can be used to predict everything from disease before the onset of common symptoms, to tracking what you buy so that a computer can suggest other purchases you might like. It also discusses the problems of storing the overwhelming amount information being generated and how that problem will only worsen with the passage of time.   Finally, the article also speaks volumes about how most of the data currently available for use is not reliable; why many of the largest collectors of online data (like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft) remain silent in regards to how they actually use and protect it; and the future of both governments and society when the amount of information available to the average person is literally on a scale so vast that it can only be compared to all the previous centuries of available data in terms of what the ocean is to a drop of water.

In reading the article there was one old adage that just kept popping into my head: “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.”  Two quick examples from the article will suffice to illustrate: first, up is Walmart.  When the company applied its algorithms to figure out what it sold in stores just prior to a hurricane, a surprising item that made the list was Pop Tarts. It’s completely logical, as they are fairly tasty (albeit in a cardboardesque kind of way), can be eaten without any cooking, and are relatively cheap.  The trash in this case, was just the years of records they kept and sifted though.

What sifting though all that data really feels like!

Second, and I found this one way more interesting, is that Google accessed European Commission documents that had already been translated into twenty languages, as well as a myriad of other books that had already been translated so that they could break the translation down into a problem of the probability of one word matching another in a different language; English acts as a bridge if there is no direct correlation.  This overcame a difficulty that had thwarted (I love that word….TWAR-T-ED!) some of the best and brightest minds at companies like IBM, who had been trying to program translators to incorporate the grammar of languages, along with all the exceptions, into a program and then move on to the words. This latter method never worked, but Google’s method yielded results within two years of getting the programing up and running.

This concept of using old data to find new correlations relates to too many applications to be discussed by the likes of me, but what the hell!  The beauty of being human is that I can do things the computers say I should not do! The irony of course is that they could probably predict it if they knew my reading habits. One more reason not to read the Economist on-line and stick to hard copies! But that is both my point, and may be the greatest acknowledged escape of the “Big Data Age.”

As time goes by, more and more companies will begin funneling and channeling information in both useful and harmful ways, and it will be ever more difficult for individuals to escape the fact that they can be profiled by a computer in ways that are both wickedly accurate, but at the same time leave out that all important human X factor. This factor, I think, involves a good bit of disregard for logic, intuition, a dash of vim and vigor, the ability of the human brain to weigh ethical and moral gray areas in ways not quantifiable or measurable, and those gut feelings that could either be God or indigestion speaking to you.

I’m appalled and almost indecently turned on by the fact given a large enough data set, the proper metrics and analytics, and time, data can be mined to yield hidden connections in our world.  But I defiantly get hot and bothered by the fact that as the computers that cooked up all those crazy financial deals prove, you can have all the data in the world and it can point you to all the hidden connections you care to find, but at the end of the day, there still has to be a human to see what’s coming down the tracks.  Now, if we could just find some humans that were good at that!