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Taggers may learn highly instructive things

Thursday August 07, 2008 @ 11:45 AM (UTC)

I love tags. They’re intuitive, individual, flexible and informative. They appeal to the part of my mind that color-codes obsessively and also to the slapdash right-now portion (or portions). So one of the chief advantages to upgrading to a newer blog engine was the tags, the glorious tags.

I haven’t finished tagging the archives yet, but after Ryan wrote the Top Tags plugin, I was surprised to see certain trends emerging. For one, I hadn’t thought I blogged about ‘real life’ all that much. For another, I was disturbed to see ‘grouse’, my chosen tag for negativity and ranting, in the top 5. Am I really that negative? I wondered, and considered how many fewer items could be tagged with ‘huzzah’, grouse’s opposite number.

So I’ve been trying to be more positive. Oh yes, if something is a grouse (like yesterday’s Zyrtec-D rant) I dutifully and truthfully tag it that way. But I’m trying not to write as many, to think of more blog items that celebrate or interest rather than excoriate. Tagging is self-revelatory. C’mon, be honest, you’ve looked at your tag cloud on some site or other. It’s interesting to see in aggregate the choices and distinctions we make in individual places, and to compare them to the aggregate choices of other users and the site as a whole. And the thing about any sort of self-revelation is that sometimes it shows you things you didn’t really want to see. It gives you a chance to change.

So I’ve already managed to push grouse down to number five on the Top Five Tags list…let’s see if I can’t push it off altogether!

Zyrtec-D: worst packaging ever

Wednesday August 06, 2008 @ 11:43 AM (UTC)

I’m a very allergic person. I’ve been on one antihistamine plus decongestant or another for years, which is often inconvenient. For one thing, the insurance companies don’t like paying for all those meds, so they get the fast-track to over-the-counter. For another, the decongestant in my pills, pseudoephedrine, can be misused as a meth precursor. So the law restricts how much I can buy, requires me to submit my name to a Federal database, requires the store to keep them behind the counter, yada yada. Oh, also (thanks, Wikipedia!) the feds require “Non-liquid dose form of regulated product may only be sold in unit dose blister packs.”

I go back and forth between on-brand and store-brand, between Zyrtec-D and Claritin-D – varying antihistamine is better for your allergies, and sometimes there are coupons! Claritin-D comes in standard blister sheets: 6 or 8 pills, perforated divisions, exactly the sort of packaging we’ve all been opening since our parents couldn’t get child-proof stuff open and we volunteered to help. You rip the blister, out pops the pill.

Zyrtec, on the other hand, has this:

Zyrtec-D's packaging sucks

First of all, this is a waste of resources. The box is bigger and more complex (internal divider) to hold piles of individual blister packs, the blister packs use more plastic and foil than a traditional blister sheet. Secondly, they are absolutely positively without any doubt not “Easy Open” (who thought of the phrase “Easy Open Blister” anyway? The word ‘blister’ not associated with leisure and ease, folks.). You have to fold the tear to get it started, the loooong tear sometimes goes awry and doesn’t hit the blister, and even when it does follow the curving perforation perfectly, it only removes a shred of the blister around the pill, leaving the patient to dig at the heavy foil for a while before she can get the damn thing out. That’s without getting into picayune stuff, like it being easier to estimate how many pills you have left from a sheet than from a jumble of blister sarcophagi.

I know, I know, free market, free country, why do I keep buying them? Because I still have some $5 off coupons, and when you need medication to breathe, $5 off three weeks’ supply is not bad. And I can’t believe that the company won’t wise up eventually. After all, I am not the only person to post a picture of this package to Flickr with a grumpy caption. They can’t kid themselves they’re saving the world from meth by adopting such ridiculous packaging when the other brands aren’t encasing their pseudoephedrine in hyperbranded pucks that look like mini-golf greens. Give over, guys. I just want to take my allergy pill and go to sleep without sneezing. You just want me to buy it. Why can’t we get along?

I've been wrong my whole life!

Tuesday August 05, 2008 @ 08:01 AM (UTC)

When you’re a kid, the facts that don’t make sense are all the more important for it. Other kids will fall into the same trap you did, and you can correct them. This is important stuff. These are the foundations of being right. “Koala bears aren’t bears,” for example; and “Panda bears aren’t bears.”

Except Giant Pandas are bears and have been for years (that article is from 1985). Now, I’m not sure whether I already had a panda vs. bear opinion in preschool, but it’s quite possible I’ve been wrong about this distinction my entire life. The change took a while to percolate out into public knowledge – I remember the zoo feeding us the Proconyid (raccoon family) line on field trips when they showed us the Red Pandas. It took even longer to filter into my consciousness. I actually realized today, after the first shock of hearing “panda” listed among the bears on a nature special, that I have been told this before. The information simply broke against the wall of kindergarten certainty that Pandas Aren’t Bears (compounded perhaps with a later tendency towards splitterism) and fell away.

So partially I’m blogging this so anyone else out there laboring under this misconception (and as enamored as I of Being Right) can learn the startling truth, and partially I’m admitting my error publicly so it will forever be cemented in my mind. From now on I will remember: Everything I thought I knew about Pandas was a lie!

Panda Cat

The control of risk

Monday August 04, 2008 @ 04:21 PM (UTC)

San Gabriel Mountains
Photo by Jason Hickey via Flickr.

The San Gabriel Mountains are some of the steepest on Earth. They’re geologically complex, riven by faults and scraped back and forth by plate tectonics. They are coming down.

I read about them in “Los Angeles vs. the San Gabriels”, the final essay in John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. McPhee’s description of the way the mountains’ unstable rock interacts with the local cycle of fire and flash-flood is chilling; what’s more disturbing is that at their feet, in the path of the debris flows, are expensive and expansive human settlements, sprawling bedroom communities of Los Angeles.

I highly recommend reading the book; in fact, I’ve already lent my copy to my family so they can read it, or else I’d be quoting more extensively. But my own reaction to the book made me think. Reading about families buying or building uninsurable multi-million dollar homes in the foothills of these moving mountains, I was incredulous. How could they live there just because it’s pretty and less smoggy than other parts of the LA Valley? How could they trust their lives and the integrity of their homes to the partial protection of a debris basin?

Debris Basin
Photo by yikai1 via Flickr.

There are other stories in the book that mystify me as much. In “Atchafalaya,” the first essay, the author describes a city in Louisiana in a uniquely precarious position — “Water approaches Morgan City from every side.” (page 80) — one entirely dependent on the Army Corps of Engineers for the sea walls that protect them from flood. Years have passed since Control of Nature was published, so I went to check the city’s Wikipedia page to see how they’ve fared. The words ‘wall’ and ‘flood’ don’t appear; apparently no one deemed the dangers notable.

We all live with risks, calculated or ignored. It’s easy to disapprove of the choice to build new mansions in the foothills of the San Gabriels, and hard to understand the Caltech geologists who outline the dangers of the mountain front for McPhee and then admit to living there. Easy to condemn the citizens who shrugged off their town government’s attempts to educate them about the season’s high likelihood of flows, refused to engage in mitigation activity, then sued that city when flows devastated their property. But what of the hardy men and women McPhee interviewed who live in the mountains because they love nature, who know the dangers better than anyone and stand in defiance in order to live in the wilderness? Is it knowledge that makes risk-taking acceptable in the eyes of an observer? Is it love?

Mt. St. Helens steaming
Photo by Barry Maas via Flickr.

I have lived most of my life in Oregon. I’ve known, most of that life, that there are dangers. The weather is generally mild, and floods are not too common or dangerous, but underneath the state it’s a different story. The Juan de Fuca and North American plates have been locked without a major earthquake since 1700. I’ve been told all my life that we’re overdue for a big quake, and learned in college that much of the earthquake proofing in the Northwest is proven against San Andreas style shaking, not the subduction zone movement it will someday need to withstand.

But I love Oregon. I want to move back there, and I accept the risk. When friends from the Midwest ask about earthquakes, I usually say, “Yeah, it’ll happen someday, and it may kill me, but it may not.” It sounds fatalistic, but it does represent my position: A quake will occur, possibly within my lifetime, possibly later. It is likely to be massive, so there’s a limit to how much I can do about it. It’s an omnipresent, huge threat, but its very omnipresence and size make it ignorable. I can’t stress about it every minute, and when it happens, I’ll either be too dead to care or able to stop fretting about it for the rest of my life. Living in San Jose concerns me a little more, but not worrying is a similar process here, pretty easy to accomplish.

But tornado season every year? Regular flooding of the Mississippi? Knowing that every time the chapparal on the mountains burns, two good rains in a row could move a hill down into my neighborhood? I couldn’t cope with those risks.

This isn’t just a question of my comfort levels and yours; of my childhood practicing earthquake drills and learning about the volcano that erupted nine months before I was born versus Ryan’s childhood of riding the schoolbus home playing ‘spot the twisters’. Our cities are crowded; people want to live on the fringe where rents are low, or in the foothills above the smog. People want to retire further away, to remote but growing towns vulnerable to forest fire. The rich want to build beach houses on shifting dunes, while others cannot afford to move out of the floodplain, out of the trailer park in Tornado Alley, out of the path of the Mississippi. Our world is crowded. And, as the ice caps melt, our field of options will get smaller.

We all underwrite each other’s choices. Within the US, by paying for rescue, for flood or high-risk home insurance, for disaster relief with our taxes. Across the globe, with international aid and our emotional investment in the lives lost at the edge. Who is going to decide what risks are reasonable? Whose freedom to risk can be respected, and whose should not? In this society of contradictions, where rugged individualism is espoused and habitual litigiousness is practiced, who has the right to decide where you or I make a home?

This just in!

Saturday August 02, 2008 @ 11:33 PM (UTC)

Another story of mine has been accepted for publication! Full details over on the author site, but in general: it’ll be out next year, it’s a realistic short story called “Ashes”, and it’s in a well-respected literary journal published in my own home state of Oregon.

I feel like dancing, but in these shoes I would scare the cat half to death; I’ve already charged around in a state of giddiness until she looked feral and harried. I’ll settle for an imaginary jig.

Because the real world has one for you.


Via boingboing.

The Jar-Jar Effect

Friday August 01, 2008 @ 10:34 AM (UTC)

I thought of a new law of argument. You know, like Godwin’s Law or Skarka’s Law.

“No aesthetic discussion can continue productively once Jar-Jar Binks is mentioned.”

Only problem is, I don’t want to affix my name to it. I don’t want my name associated with Jar-Jar!

So I’ve decided to make it more general. Now I maintain that there is a Jar-Jar effect. It’s when you’re having a constructive conversation or debate, and one person brings in a subject from which the other recoils so viscerally that the entire conversation is destroyed. As if that person cannot bear to be engaged with Jar-Jar (or Nazis, or George W. Bush) even in an abstract conversation. Jar-Jar effect. Tell your friends!

The Lonely Mecha-Dragon

Wednesday July 30, 2008 @ 03:17 PM (UTC)

Sadly, this piece of fiction received too many accolades and therefore has been removed so I can shop it around to magazines. My publishing a piece for free on the web longterm can really destroy its chances in the magazine market.

Maleness is the human default

Tuesday July 29, 2008 @ 08:01 AM (UTC)

This may cover an idea very familiar to some readers, but I want to refer to it in an upcoming post, so I here we are.

This is one of the unspoken assumptions of our civilization, and one on which a lot of sexism is founded. It’s so fundamental you might say we inhale it with our first breath, or at least learn it with language. I was brought up by strident anti-sexists, but I learned this principle anyway: men are ‘normal’. Women are ‘other’. I even, as a child, assigned a certain logic to it: Adam first. Eve out of Adam.

So what’s my point here? My point is that there isn’t actually any logic to this societal assumption (in the absence of religious belief). Men and women are just two human possibilities, neither more natural or ‘regular’ than the other. But it permeates our culture: I’ve heard of medical receptionists whose software is hardwired to always say ‘M’ under patient gender unless they manually enter ‘F’ (in ob-gyn’s offices, this is apparently the cause of much grousing). Men’s products are just “The Amazing Foo!” whereas women get “The Foo for Her”. Men play fooball, women play women’s fooball. T-shirt sizes are assumed to be men’s unless stated to be women’s. Babies are assumed to be male unless frilled and bowed. Most video games feature male protagonists, and protagonists (and characters in general) in movies and TV are overwhelmingly male.

This is a hard slant for many men to notice, I assume because most of us would guess we’re biased to consider ourselves ‘normal’. Just as a white person might take a long time to pick up on the overwhelming white normalcy in advertising and media, it’s hard to notice as odd what seems natural from your viewpoint. But women, often subconsciously, adjust to the world which has been written, made and tailored for men. There’s a whole arm of literary theory about the way women identify specifically with male characters after they’ve been trained by years of literature and media to do so. I think Virginia Woolf’s portrait of this dual consciousness in A Room of One’s Own captures it beautifully:

Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall [stately heart of London], when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.

I am not an expert in literary theory, or in gender studies, but I think this simple idea about the world is an important one to consider…and, as I said, a necessary prelude to a future (geekier) blog post.

Graceful exit

Monday July 28, 2008 @ 08:03 AM (UTC)
A long time ago we used to be friends,
but I haven’t thought of you lately at all…
-The Dandy Warhols

I’m back on the friend thing.

If social networking had a cheesy 50’s film strip, the narrator would say, “Never again will you have to wonder what happened to that guy from math class. Never again will you lose track of that one really cool girl.” It’s an excellent theory – as we diffuse across countries and hop oceans, friendships can be preserved, connections strengthened despite distance. You can reconnect with people you thought you’d lost.

But on the other hand…do you still like each other? You remember drifting out of friendships during high school as your interests and personality changed. How much more have you changed since then? If you still click, that’s amazing. But maybe that one really cool girl from high school doesn’t like me anymore. Maybe your drinking buddy from college has changed religions and given up on pop culture. It’s hard to rule out until you’ve had a good look at each other’s Facebook profiles, or until you realize you’ve been ‘networked’ for six months and realizing you haven’t a word to say. And then there are the people you meet, the new friends, who you don’t end up seeing again. You move, they transfer schools or break up with your friend, and there they sit on your “Friend” list, someone you met twice and liked. Forever.

When I am thirty, how many Facebook, goodreads, or Jyte “friends” will I have, and how many of them will really want me on their list? But on the other hand, who wants to “defriend” someone on Facebook, thus transforming the world’s most passive communication device into something a bit passive-aggressive?

I propose a tapering mechanism. If someone doesn’t look at my profile, click ‘more’ on my book reviews, or otherwise exchange digital high-fives with me for six months, let me fade off their list. Maybe the system can warn them first, ask them quietly if they really want me to go. Not with a plonk but a whisper, I will fall off their friends list, off their updates and off their radar. And if they ever wonder, “What is up with that weird Felicity girl, anyway?” they can search for me anytime. They can read my blog, shrug, and move on. We aren’t friends anymore, and that’s okay.

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