Monthly Archives: February 2007

Latest Readings: “The Master” & “The Night Watch”

I’ve taken the past couple of weeks trying to modernize my reading list a bit so I’ve continued mercilessly down the path of reading the previous Booker Prize nominees.

The Master – Colm Toibin

“The Master” is a biographical novel centering on a relatively brief period in the life of the author Henry James. I’ll admit that it wasn’t particularly enthralling as narratives go; I had difficulty sustaining interest in the plot line and found the mildly graphic presentations of homosexual love mildly annoying. From a broader perspective, I will say that I was interested to see James’ approach to writing and how he took bits and pieces of people and news around him and wove them into great works of literature. It did remind me that, like James, I should take better notes on the topics that randomly pop into my head for future writing. I’d give the book a rating of ‘satisfactory’ but it won’t make it onto my ‘recommended reading’ list.

The Night Watch – Sarah Waters

“The Night Watch,” a 2006 Booker Nominee, made be question briefly what exactly the criteria ARE for the Booker Prize. Its representations of homosexual love are patently salacious though happily brief. The book presents in generally reverse-chronological order the lives of four people during World War II. In the first part we’re introduced to the characters as they live in 1947 in London after the end of the War and for parts two and three we’re taken back to 1944 and 1941 respectively. Three of the four main characters are lesbians involved with each other romantically at various times while the fourth is a straight woman sleeping with a married G.I. The primary premise of the book seems to be to compare and contrast the nature of the various types of relationships at issue. In all cases, fidelity seems to be in scarce supply. From a standpoint of readability the text does start out somewhat slowly but builds to quite a crescendo. While it does present a vivid picture of life in London during the war, its graphic depictions of violence and sex will keep it off my ‘recommend to friends’ list.

Current Novel: “The Secret River”, Kate Grenville [175/334]

Daily Robism: There is no more misleading measure of an employee’s performance than the amount of time actually spent working.

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February 23, 2007

One thing that I think this ongoing letter to no one is missing is more of a sense of everyday goings on. I’m sure that in some vague way I’ll be amused to look back on the entry I wrote when grandpa died (I still consider this some of my best writing) but that’s the sort of thing you remember regardless. That’s a life event after all; you don’t forget real life events. Instead, I think it’s time to focus on the more mundane. I can tell you all (okay, I can tell future me) about how I drove up to the area of the office and had lunch with my boss in the 2-week “Rob’s Lunch with Human” cycle and how it’s Randy’s turn in two weeks and how I just KNOW it’ll be such a grand time and how I really need to figure out exactly WHO is in this 2-week lunch rotation because otherwise I’ll miss someone in the cycle and then they’ll be all offended when they hear about the lunch that everyone ELSE got invited to. I can describe in excruciating detail how my boss and I talked about work for almost the entire time but how that’s OK because, as he says, work is his hobby and of course it’s good to talk about hobbies, especially hobbies that you happen have in common and then when I was driving home it really seemed to me that it took much less time to get back home than it took to get up to the north-east side…

Hmmm… You know, one thing I think this blog has going for it is that it doesn’t really deal at all with everyday goings on…

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Odd? Who you callin’ Odd?

About two weeks ago I went to lunch with an old friend of mine and during that repast we wandered onto a blog topic from a while ago. Where was that… oh yeah, here it is: Best Friends Forever. In that teeny-tiny blog post I wondered aloud briefly about the definition of friendship, how friendships come about, blah, blah, blah. You all saw it. It’s printed out and pinned to your wall at work.

Anyway, Charlie (he’s the friend in question, if I may make so bold as to call him a friend without causing him to feel undo pressure to reciprocate that moniker) recalled for me the circumstances under which our friendship came about. I have a horrible memory for EVERYTHING so I’d long ago scrapped all the details about this period of my life but Charlie said that when we first met he was a bit … well, irritated by me. He came to work in my department briefly (one of these ‘job exchange’ deals) and since he was the new guy I had a tendency to watch his trouble ticket queue (this was in tech support you understand) and make sure he got what he needed to get his customer issues taken care of. Anyway, from my perspective I was trying to be helpful and proactive but from Charlie’s perspective I was an interfering prig who was disapproving of how he was doing his job.

This makes me sincerely wonder just how the rest of the world sees me, especially when they first meet me. I’m sure that in a LOT of ways I can be irritating on first contact. And come to think of it, we did have a Euchre party last Saturday for my wife’s co-workers and after it was over she scolded me for ‘glaring’ at our guests. This wasn’t the first time she’s had such a complaint but as usual I pled total ignorance. I distinctly recall not glaring at anyone; since she had complained about it before I was extremely careful to look at people with only the most inscrutable impassivity. I didn’t even use my Lurch impression on people as they came in the door. But somehow, just as with Charlie, I was irritating to people with nothing but the best of intentions (or at the very least neutral ones). I really must figure out what’s causing that and put an end to it.

Then, the very ground of my existence shook beneath my feet. Charlie said something that I can not yet believe and which has changed my life forever. He said *gasp* that I *choke* *sob* was *wail* ODD. Can you believe the audacity? Me?!!? Of all people?!? ODD??!?!?? You have to be kidding or else just trying to fill in conversational dead air if you would dare accuse me of such a thing. I defy ANY of you out there to name even ONE odd thing about me. I’m the most pedestrian, most typical Joe 5-Pack on the face of this planet!

Okay, maybe not MOST typical. Clearly Charlie meant this as a compliment and the fact that I took it immediately as such is clear evidence of my deep-rooted cynicism. I guess what was surprising was that my ‘Oddness’ was this obvious to people, that anyone had actually NOTICED that I was odd. I look at the people around me and it’s obvious from my perspective that I don’t really think like you people. So it’s no surprise to me but to be told by an outside source that there’s something not quite tight in your set of legos; that’s astounding. This means that not only am I probably really not a normal person (whatever NORMAL means) but that everybody around me knows it and only my good buddy Charlie is man enough to tell me. My question at this point is HOW obvious. As I’m walking through Target are people thinking, “My, what an odd person (but DAMN he’s handsome)?” I’d give some significant amount of … well, something my wife wouldn’t miss so not money… but something cool… to walk around in someone’s brain for a day and spy on myself.

Random joking aside though, I’m not really convinced that anyone has any sense whatsoever what ‘Odd’ means. In the most definable sense, Odd just means ‘Not like Me.’ By that standard, everyone I’ve ever met is odd. I completely don’t understand why people do most of the things they do. Oddly enough though, I think people tend to enjoy being around those they consider ‘Odd’ (well, unless they’re scary at the same time) because the odd people around us represent different facets of the human condition that we haven’t experienced yet. Humans are naturally curious so we always want to know what other people are doing and how they live and how they think. I’m deeply curious to know what goes on in the minds of the people I know. So there, come on people. Let’s get some quality blog work going on out there. I need your innermost thoughts and I need them in my RSS reader by this time tomorrow. Chop, Chop!

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The Tattered Day in the Work Life

Today I spent the first two hours of my morning typing out a massive email missive to my current manager at work. As is typical for me it was a bit on the irreverent side (if not completely insubordinate), pried deeply into managerial corners that are completely not my concern as a mere grunt employee and contained the sorts of things that just don’t generally endear employees to their employers.

With that little bit of fun behind me I couldn’t help thinking back over my work history at all the amusing things I’d done in the past to make a buck. If I go really far back it seems I’ve always had a way of seeking out and doing the shittiest jobs I could find. I remember when I was working in ye olde Terry Courts kitchen at Purdue. Most of the kitchen staff avoided cleaning duties like the plague but if I was around I’d happily take the industrial abrasives to the old grill cook top after a night of cooking up 250 cheeseburgers. There was something inexplicably appealing to me in doing the work that everyone else hated.

After college of course things changed mightily. I remember working Tech Support at a software company and the phone system let you see who was waiting in the old phone queue. It didn’t take long to figure out who the problem customers were since they’d inevitably sit on hold for 20 minutes while half the staff who were supposed to be on duty got up and walked around the office ‘not noticing’ while poor Steve Morgan sat in the queue for what must have seemed like forever. I never really seemed to mind the problem customers so much though. At best, they had an interesting problem to be resolved and at worst they made a damn funny story. Sadly though that couldn’t last forever. Eventually the software company closed; we made a 10-foot-long curtain from paperclips, put together a 1000-piece puzzle and then the office was no more.

Then came the fun of interviewing again. I’ve always said that I interview like a sack of wet potatoes but I really think that’s unfair to the potatoes in a way. I distinctly recall having said unfortunate things like, “Then I’m probably not the person you want to hire. Unless there is nobody else.” But then, I’m all about honesty in the interview process because frankly, who wants a job they’re not qualified for? If you take the sum total of all interview questions I’ve ever been asked, my most popular response has probably been, “I have no clue but I’m sure I can find out.”

Any rate, interviewing skills aside, it wasn’t long before I landed a sweet gig at Corporate Systems Engineering. I’m sure you can tell from their name that they do electrical grid load management devices. These people introduced me to such winning concepts as the 26-hour workday. It would have been less infuriating if I’d actually had something to DO during these 26 hours but I was there ‘just in case they needed something.’ I was there for a year and I recall one especially amusing directive. My boss asked me to write 15 test programs for their hardware device. My first and obvious question was simply, “Why don’t we just write one test program that’s flexible enough to do all 15 tests?” He looked at me like a cow looks at an oncoming train and responded that it would be impossible and too complicated. Luckily, he left for Florida for a week immediately afterwards so I had time to finish the ‘impossible’ task before he got back to complain about it.

I worked at that bastion of intellect for about a year and got the next job I interviewed for. It just so happened that on the day I had the 26-hour workday I also had a job interview. So I left work at 10am after having been there for 26 straight hours (they were gracious enough to give me half a day off) and went to sleep for about 3 hours until I had to get up for my 2pm job interview. When I rolled into the IT manager’s office for the interview I was quite a sight. But let me tell you when the interviewer asked that inevitable question, “Why are you leaving your current job?” the bleary-eyed response of “Because I just got off at 10 this morning after working 26 hours straight” probably left a pretty stark impression because I got the job.

Needless to say, I left Corporate Systems after the obligatory 2-weeks notice. I often wonder how they’re getting along as during my year there I basically rewrote every bit of software they had. I can’t imagine how much cursing and general yelling must have gone on in that office trying to unravel an entire company’s worth of software that nobody understands. But, as the owner always said, he could hire ‘any $50,000 a year programmer’ to do my job so I’m sure he replaced me practically the next day with an equivalent employee. Ass.

The next job was relatively uneventful as it was pretty short lived. I was only there for a few months and only managed to become partially convinced that the whole place was a disaster. My manager there also got a huge earful of my opinion about every topic possible. I recall one day I went into his office and railed bitterly about the contractors we had in the office. My argument was simply that we shouldn’t have all these contractors in positions of architecting our systems as they have absolutely no motivation to do a good job. In fact, the worse job they do the longer they get to stay. My thesis was a determined one and I stated it without hesitation. It wasn’t until later that I realized that my manager himself was a contractor. He seemed to take it pretty well all in all.

Sadly, the secret rantings of the current job cannot be shared. But do check back later when I’ve shuffled off this current mortal coil and perhaps I’ll have some more happy anecdotes to share.

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Project: Child’s Growth Chart

I have to say that I like the outcome of this little project but sadly it’s only about 30% my doing. The concept and final preparation was my wife’s.

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Atheist As&holes

So as part of my isolation rehabilitation I’ve gone out looking for some random online conversation. For the most part, this has been in the form of a few carelessly selected yahoo groups. One of these was some group of ‘Freethinker Atheists’ who claimed their group was a place where “[doubters] can become comfortable with those doubts.” I consider that goal in itself to be a little suspect but let’s put that aside at least.

In general, the group seems to practice simple hatred. The members clearly blame religion for all the world’s ills and they say so, often and in just so many words. While I don’t profess any religion myself and tend to look at most of them with at least a seed of suspicion I can’t say that I can in lay mankind’s woes completely at the feet of religion. Obviously religion has contributed significantly to the causes of human ignorance and given people newer and more perverse reasons to hate and kill each other but in general I think that lacking religion they’d find some other reason to do the same things.

Worse perhaps than their hatred is their pompous attitude about the whole topic. It is clear from their language and tone that they see absolutely NO possibility that they could be wrong about anything. Their approach to atheism is as rigid and dogmatic as the most conservative of modern religions that they argue against. They completely fail to acknowledge that they dabble in the realm of the unproveable and the ill-defined.

On a personal level I don’t really see what the big argument is about. If a person chooses to be Christian then so be it and the same with any other religion. All I ask is that you practice in a manner that’s self-consistent. If you choose to worship Satan then worship Satan all the time and not merely when convenient. Religion is a personal choice and one has to choose what serves best but one must do so without hypocrisy. The atheists seem to make their stand on the platform of reason and freedom but then give advice to new members that they should ‘pretend to be religious’ so they don’t draw attention to themselves. If there is a God, I can imagine no greater sin than such fundamental dishonesty with oneself and others.

Finally, I’m not really certain how a truly honest and intelligent person can completely discount ANY theory about the universe around us. Despite time-worn arguments to the contrary, it is entirely possible that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and all the evidence we see around us to the contrary is a mere sham meant to condemn us all to hell. It’s possible. Now, it doesn’t make any SENSE (at least from a human’s limited perspective on the issue) but it doesn’t HAVE to make sense to be true. In the past when things that didn’t make sense turned out to actually be true we changed our thinking to match. That’s called science. On a most fundamental level, everything is still possible. Everything. We could be all part of some God’s dream and not really exist at all. The Bible may be literally true. Life could have been seeded here from another planet by aliens who occasionally visit us and were interpreted by primitive peoples as Gods. All these are well within the realm of possibility. I can’t disprove yours and you can’t disprove mine. As I often amuse myself by saying:

“Everything susceptible to mathematical proof has no application to the real world and everything in the real world is too complex to be represented mathematically. So you can’t prove anything of any real relevance.”

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New Reading Strategy & Purple Hibiscus

In the interest of finding some random book chitchat, I’ve interrupted my regular reading list to take on something from one of the infinite number of online book clubs. Selected primarily because it was reading something fairly modern and seemed well populated I popped into booksamonth on yahoo groups. They happen to be reading ‘Purple Hibiscus’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and therefore, in accordance with the purpose of the group, so did I. The actual speaking members of the group seem to be comprised entirely of women. I’ve been lurking for at least a week and I’ve yet to see an obvious male post. While the book was one that leaned toward the more feminine gender I’d expect at least one man to be present in the club. Perhaps someone will suggest some Tolstoy next; that’ll awaken the male perspective.

As to the book, it’s a pretty straightforward one. The narrator, 15-year-old Kambili, lives in Nigeria with her extraordinarily rich Catholic father and mother and her older brother Jaja. Because of his own strict religious upbringing Kambili’s father is strict with the children and his wife to the point of outright abuse in the name of keeping them on the straight and narrow. Like all children, Kambili and Jaja accept that their lives are normal ones until they visit their aunt in a neighboring town. There they see normal family interactions (though colored by the ravages of poverty) and when they return home they find they can no longer behave in accordance with father’s idea of perfection. Quickly matters come to a head and Kambili is beaten nearly to death by her father and spends several weeks in hospital. The near loss of her daughter is finally enough to spur Kambili’s mother from her terrified stupor and she poisons the father to release them all from his iron will. When the police discover the cause of the father’s death they come to the house to ask question but Jaja takes the rap for the murder and goes to jail in his mother’s place. The ‘Purple Hibiscus’ of the title refers to a hybrid of the plants given to Jaja by his aunt on their first visit. These plants represent the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ if you will that the children brought back from their aunt’s home.

Overall, I’d say the book was satisfactory but not great. The storyline was relatively unsurprising but the setting and details of the whole thing were rather amusing. The portrait of everyday Nigerian life was enlightening. The book was on the Long List for the Booker prize in 2003 so I’ve added a sprinkling of the 2006 Booker Prize nominees [Okay, I’ll be honest, I’ve added every Booker nominee ever] to my ‘to be read’ pile. I think this will add a bit of something more modern to the queue and lighten things up a significantly. If one thing can be said it’s that this was much lighter fare than the Conrad I’m working on at the moment.

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