Thursday, March 13, 2014

Drive to Succeed

Not an easy commute on this day.
But it's fun to say "jackknifed semi."
For most of my career, my ride to work has been short. This is what you get when you live in a major metro area with a variety of industries -- you can usually find a job close to home. My former job was 5 to 15 minutes from home (I will explain the 15 minutes momentarily).

On most days, my brain had barely registered the new day and sent electrical pulses to all my extremities before I was in my workplace parking lot. I had time for about one NPR story or two songs. When it was cold and snowy, I spent more time cleaning off my car than I did driving it and the heat would just be reaching out of the vents before I had to shut off the car and cross the parking lot.

Unless, of course, there was a train. I live in a town that is well-serviced by a commuter rail line that shares tracks with a freight line. My last job was, shall we say, on the wrong side of the tracks and I often had to wait for a people train and a things train before I could get to work. Most frustrating: watching a full coal train go one way and and empty coal train going the other way. On those days, I truly believed we had not evolved much beyond the early industrial age.

Still, I had a short commute. Now, I have a longer one. Google Maps puts my current commute at 25 miles and 35 minutes. But due to a confluence of expressways that jam up as easily as an old bathtub drain, my morning drive is usually about 45 minutes.

There was a time when I would have dreaded this kind of drive. Perhaps it's the anxiety meds (SSRIs FTW!) but I generally enjoy my commute. Here are some reasons:

1) I mostly take expressways. Stoplights make me grumpy, so I purposely take the route with the fewest of them. Yes, I pay tolls. But you do this for a better driving experience, right (Chicago-area residents can pause to laugh now)?

2) Between broadcast radio and my phone, I can listen to anything I want. NPR (except when they do stories on college rape statistics or Mongolian goat farmers losing their land to global warming), liberal talk radio, Steve Dahl podcasts, Vampire Weekend.

3) I find that I am developing special relationships with the hundreds of billboards that line my main route. Giordano's Pizza used to have some ads featuring the Bulls' Derrick Rose's darling smile. There was a pop-eyed bro who illustrated an ad to get your basement seepage problem fixed: "Basement leaking got you freaking?" I was really bummed when that went away. There are a few that I hate. I have to avert my eyes from the bladder control fix ad that scolds "Diapers are for babies, not for ladies" and features actual panties blowing in the wind.

4) I get to drive by O'Hare Airport twice each day. Sometimes the planes come in so low that you believe their bottoms are scraping your car roof. Once in awhile, the airline is unfamiliar so you have to guess where it's from. And some of the cargo planes are freaking huge. It's way more fun to watch planes than to fly on them.

5) I love my job, so the ride is not even an issue. I love where I work, who I work with, and what I do. In fact, I think this is the best job I have ever had. Strange that I had to drive to get there. Sometimes, you need to reach just a little farther.

A sweet day at work. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Department of TARDIS Studies?

I have been trying to understand theoretical particle physics for decades. This started when my mother took a job at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the late 1980s. But I still find the subject hard to get my head around. I'm really bothered by the a huge gap between what the scientists are trying to know and what people want to know.

At Fermilab, I know that they are wading in the deep, dark waters surrounding our fundamental existence to get at the very essence of matter and, in the long term, unify many theories with one Grand Explanation. But I think science needs to learn to work more at the here-and-now level and worry less about some point in the future when It Will All Make Sense. Junk science (anti-global warming propaganda, conflicting and impossible food news, politicians who don't know women from ducks) is filling this gap, which is extremely troubling.

So I think there should be a new subset of scientists devoted to a Unified Theory that would be helpful, would get people's attention, would matter to many, and would generate revenue: map the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who and find any and all possible connections. (I am up for other major sci-fi franchises to be added, but not graphic novels. Sorry).

Never would I have believed that the goofy movie that debuted when I was seven would still be captivating people today. I mostly liked it because it was space, and Princess Leia was a sassy brunette with real responsibilities. I had the toys, watched the sequels, then grew up. But growing up is no longer an impediment to being a Star Wars freak.

I consider myself a bit of an early adopter when it comes to Doctor Who. In the late 1970s, PBS aired the Tom Baker series, and so, as a pre-teen, I became certain that a dalek lurked around every blind corner. Then I grew up, and laughed at the silly special effects, but still admired how those stories stayed with me. (The Ark in Space is low on actual cheese and high on concept). Those stories stayed with many other people, as well, and The Doctor was resuscitated in 2005. I wasn't interested, really, until recently, when the chatterings of friends whose opinions I value told me to re-investigate the reboot. I did, and liked many aspects of it, and found other aspects maddening. It turns out am exactly the right audience for the show's spin-off, Torchwood, so that's where I am spending my binge-time now.

As for Star Trek: never been a fan, but you probably are.

I am convinced that one day, hundreds of years from now, Star Wars will be a religion. Star Trek may spawn a political system, and perhaps the Doctor Who chronicles will be used as a theory of workplace dynamics and psychology. That's how important these story lines are to people -- many of us have found that they have worked their way into our daily lives. It's more than buying a TARDIS pencil holder or having Mark Hamill sign your still originally packaged Kenner lightsabre at ComicConExtravaRama. It's wondering how Rose Tyler would react to something, or really understanding why Han Solo replied, "I know."

Would it be silly to spend science time on sci-fi? Two answers: 1) Physicists are studying dark matter, or stuff that exists but cannot be seen around all the stuff that is visible. Doesn't that sound like sci-fi? and 2) Science and religion have always been traveling companions, but religion, some believe, is fading as a source of inspiration or explanation for people. Other stories and ways of thought are becoming central to our lives and maybe deserve more respect and attention.

One more thing: theories of sci-fi have posited that the seemingly outrageous thinking involved in creating alien races and whole other galaxies actually help human people reason through our earth-bound problems. Big, crazy thinking has a place. What scientists can learn from those who have created our beloved fantasy franchises is how to tell stories that allow us to conceptualize larger questions. We can keep things in their separate good/evil-colored bowls, or we can learn that our heroes are related to our enemies.

We can try to get our minds around time as an equation:

or we can have fictional characters 
       who we often love more than real humans 

inspire us to think about our place in the universe.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Meet George Jetson. And His Kindle.

I could not let 2013 end without catching up on 2011's big trend -- I finally read an e-book on a tablet (a Verizon with Android and a Kindle app, if you care). Until last December, many people have expressed surprise that I work in a library yet did not own a tablet or read e-books.

Except for the snow, this in no way resembled my first experience 
with an e-book. Thanks to the awesome site Paleofuture for the image.

It certainly wasn't any lingering devotion to paper. For the past few years I have been trying valiantly to replace jottings with typings, to store statements and documents with the companies they belong and/or have them emailed to me, and to move my calendar online. It was more that dead trees worked just fine for me. And since I work in a library, I can either practically reach out a grab a book or reserve it with a few clicks.

But on Black Friday, my husband scored a tablet for 99 cents (some restrictions applied). I was hooked very quickly. For the first month I was mostly using it for Very Important Business like Words With Friends and Pinterest. During my holiday break from work, however, I decided to take it to the next level and read an e-book.

And I picked a doozy: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. It's one of those epics where the author seems to sweep his arm over the world and dump it all into his pillow case. The book features a blockbuster novel with a mysterious author, shadowy otherworlds, a cult, elaborate revenge plots against rapists, and a lot of people following each other and meeting in cafes. I still am not sure what happened, but I do know that reading it on my tablet was no different than reading it in paper form. I still got a cramp in my arm from holding the thing, I could still monitor my progress (with a percentage read down in the corner instead of a bookmark), and I could even still "turn" the "page." Without a papercut. The novel was complex, beautiful, sometimes unbelievable, but it was still a novel.

When I was at a library conference at Navy Pier last year, I got lost (Navy Pier is looooong) and spoke briefly with a tourist couple who were also lost. When they found out what I was doing there, they both said to me, "Tell the librarians to keep books. We still want books, not just e-books."

I assured them that librarians are on their side, but are also trying to offer many formats for many different readers. Still, people seem to get afraid that technology will soon render their world unrecognizable. Predicting the future -- down to the most mundane gadgets and daily tasks -- used to be something we did with excited anticipation. Now, no one likes to imagine how we will be traveling, eating, or reading in 2125. This will save us from looking silly when most of our predictions don't materialize, but it also often makes us react negatively to things that can actually be helpful.

I will still read paper books, but I will also now read e-books. Neither are going away, and I make the choice based on what my needs are. I think if, looking form 1930, we could have seen all of our options for reading, we would have been happy to look forward.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Away With Part of Your Manger

Bike helmets. Thai restaurants in strip malls. Nativities without the Baby Jesus before Christmas.

These are all things that could have been commonplace when I grew up but weren't, but are now. No surprise considering the date: I am wondering about the third.

Nativities have always been a fascination for me. Maybe it has to do with growing up Catholic. The story of the birth of Christ takes on special significance when you believe that He is manifest in the daily world. That significance is magnified when you are a child.

As for me, I was a kid with an especially active imagination, and I always had a lot of questions about The Nativity. So seeing plastic or chalk or porcelain representations of The Greatest Story Ever Told transfixed me. The figures, dressed in various colors and styles, placed in the manger in a certain fashion, helped answer my questions. And since each Nativity is slightly different, it was like hearing many opinions on my queries.

Today almost all the nativities I see anytime before December 25 omit the Baby Jesus. All the usual suspects are there, and they are all staring at the center of the manger. Just tonight I saw a beautiful, almost life-sized Nativity made of painted wood. Clearly one-of-a-kind, the creche had been floodlit so I could see it even in the dark. Yet, Li'l Christ was nowhere to be seen.

I have not been a practicing Catholic for awhile, so perhaps I missed the Vatican edict to hold Christ back until Christmas.  At some point there must have been some discussion, even if it was just among the yard-decorating laity, about hewing more closely to what is considered to be the full story of the Nativity. (Of course, only Matthew offers the anything close to the narrative Christians are familiar with.)

Forgive me for being cranky, but isn't the retention of the child from the Advent manger a bit too didactic? In other words, la-di-dah that you listened real close in Sunday school, but lighten up. Isn't Jesus the Reason for the Season? So why not let him on the scene for the whole party? Are you saying that you are a better representer of the story than those of us who paid for the whole Nativity and are gonna display it?

And, until December 24, shouldn't your Nativity really look like this?

A timing question: since many people take their decorations down (or SHOULD) about a week or so after New Year's, you are effectively halving your Jesus displaying time. Should you ask for a discount on that particular figure?

Furthermore: what should I be doing with all my Nativities where the players are fixed in place? Snap off the plastic Jesus and glue him back in when the bells ring at midnight? That will give me one more holiday with some of my beloved Nativitii:

If these are the new rules, that makes some recent models more valuable than others. Here, the new Jesus Display Policy would save you a little bit of cooking.

image: Cakeheadlovesevil

And here, you'll have a little more Play-Doh to shove at your screaming child. Unlike Plastic Lawn Jesus, you can't leave him in the box until December 25.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Conversation With My Millennial Self

Gen X Self: "Awesome! I just reposted something about Fleetwood Mac from Tai Babilonia on Twitter!"

Millennial Self: "Hey. That's great! Um, who's Tai Babilonia?"

"Are you kidding? Tai Babilonia!"

"Amazing name! But she is..."

"A famous pairs skater. You know, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner."

"OK. When did they skate?"

"Early 1980s."

"Yeah, I was kind of just being born."

(rolls eyes) "Fine. That's right. I'm just saying that it's so cool that Twitter brings so many disparate people together, and we all retweet each other and there's this really neat interaction between the famous and the obscure..."

(Nods head a bit too earnestly) "Yep. It's really interesting. It's kind of the whole premise of social media, but yes, it's really neat."

"Oh, you're humoring me."

"No...I just...It seems that Generation X is a bit more vocally enamored of the connections that social media can inspire, where we, who are slightly younger, take them for granted. That's all."

"So sorry for being old."

"No! Please don't feel that way. I'm just glad you are using social media and have embraced the possibilities..."

(Enter Baby Boomer with a vinyl album acquired during Record Store Day)

Baby Boomer: "Check this out! A rare Beach Boys recording!"

Millennial: "Really?"

(The two of them meet heads over the album. Generation X self is off to the side)

Millennial (to Gen X): "Wanna see?"

Gen X: "Nah. Not a big fan of the Beach Boys."

(Baby Boomer and Millennial turn to stare at Gen X. End scene).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Keep It Inside the Park

I love baseball. But as another season comes sliding into home, here are a few things I hate about it:

  • Pitchers should never hit. Looking at you, National League.
  • There is too low a bar  for throwing a manager out of the game. Short of socking the umpire in the jaw, a manager should be allowed to argue for his team. Now, an ump should be able to order a manager who has lost it to the bench.
  • Fields with landing strips. Please no.

Image courtesy of the Detroit Tigers, even though I am kind of dissing their park.

  • Rivalries. Look, we aren't bashing our heads together, so let's dispense with the faux hatred. My White Sox are supposed "enemies" with the Minnesota Twins, but I love when the teams play, because that's some good baseball.
  • Charlie Sheen in in Major League. I hate that f*&kin' actor.

  • My dad has explained the infield fly rule to me about 3,627 times since I was seven. I still don't understand it. No part of baseball should be harder to understand than particle physics.
  • Just like you hate when I complain about pitchers who hit, I hate when you complain about the designated hitter.
  • Kevin Youklis' batting stance.
  • Disco Demolition was not the beginning of the end of civilization. It was a publicity stunt, which have been part of baseball since players wore wool suits.
  • To each his own style, but submarine pitchers really bother me.

Still, I love this game. During the winter, I get into basketball, but baseball is the only professional sport that has my heart. A lot of it is due to the fact that I have been watching the sport with my parents since I was small. And one night, my dad took me into the backyard with my Wiffle ball and bat and drew a small diamond in chalk on the driveway and taught me all the basic rules of the game. 

And it all stuck, except for the inflield fly rule. Which is what Wikipedia is for.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Movable Type

You may prefer an e-book. 
Last night, my husband apologized for wanting to read an e-book.

Since I work in a library, and since I plow through old-fashioned books like crazy (my secret -- most are not good and can be put down after the first chapter), there is kind of an assumption that I prefer that people hold a paper object in their hands and move their eyes across two pages of inked type to "read."

Not at all. I don't care what format you choose to read in, just that you do read.

Again, my husband apologized. He's not a big book guy. He's extremely intelligent and reads constantly, but mostly blogs, e-zines, and comment threads that pertain to his interests. Some people love long narrative, some don't.

Still, he wants to read a novel: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I brought the book home in paper form from our library's book sale cart (which I affectionately refer to as the "rotting book cart."). It was one of those books that I almost put down but kept with and now have a gauzy affection for. It won the Pulitzer, so I'm not alone. Now that I am done with it, it's sitting on his bedside table. Gathering dust. So I asked him about it, and that's when he sheepishly admitted that he would really prefer the e-book for his tablet.

People! Do not be ashamed of your format! (Now that would be a boring t-shirt.). We all have myriad reasons for preferring a paper book or an audio recording or an electronic file. I prefer traditional books, not because I have a love of dead trees in my palms, but because paper is still the easiest format to obtain. Since I don't travel a lot, I don't really need an e-reader. Also, I am a device spartan -- I have a phone and a netbook and that is it for me for now.

However, when my husband asked about finding Gilead in e-book format, I got a taste of how the other side lives. Because of course we first went to the Library*, and of course the Library did not have it.

If you don't work in libraries or publishing you may not be aware of how the availability of e-books is the current infected thorn in the side of those who do. Libraries, for all sorts of reasons that make sense but stink, or don't even make sense, are being squeezed out of the e-book cycle -- and market. Never mind that many people get acquainted with authors through their libraries first and then go to a book seller to purchase subsequent titles by that person. Many publishers have decided that libraries have no business lending e-books to patrons, and certainly will get no discount on the books that they do lend out. Never mind (sigh) that publishers seem to have no problem selling libraries paper books at deep discounts.

Now, if a library can secure an e-book (and many cannot be obtained because of tangled legal issues) they have to pay big time for it -- often triple the cost of a traditional book. Even joining together to pool resources ("consortia" in library-speak) can't break this logjam, although it can provide more access to a few more books. Still, those books have to be the books that will circulate the most, which means romance, mystery, and best-sellers like Dan Brown and that one about the bondage.

I don't know if Marilynne Robinson's publisher has not squared its legal issues with the groups that run our local e-book consortia, or if those groups find that they just can't spend money on Gilead when other books will be more popular...than a Pulitzer-Prize winner, but whatever.

Libraries have tried to explain this issue to their patrons, but clearly it's not an easy, 1-2-3 chat. Patrons are encouraged to contact publishers and urge them to sell to libraries, but publishers are not Congresspeople and only respond to sales. Libraries cannot then encourage their patrons not to purchase books, because that would be stupid and unproductive. 

Despite all of this negative energy, I believe the customer will win out -- we always do. And libraries, being local, are in the best position to respond to patron/customer needs and choices. In the coming years, look for publishers to be cut out of the reading cycle. Look for authors and readers to connect more directly -- perhaps at libraries. 

And look for Gilead. It's really amazing.

*Actually two libraries: our home library and the one where I work. I have borrowing privileges at both.