Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The web(s) of history

Dungeons & Dragons was created the year I was born, I played it throughout my childhood (and young adulthood), and I think about it a lot.

Today, thanks to an article I was reading online, I'm just thinking specifically about one fictional deity character who was created expressly for the game. In a world that contains numerous sentient races, including onyx-skinned elves who live underground and revere selfishness, cruelty and guile, there need to be corresponding pantheons for such races to worship. So all the way back in the pre-World-Wide-Web days of 1980-ish, stats were enumerated and physical attributes described for an evil goddess known as the Demon Queen of Spiders.

Her proper name was/is Lolth.

That's a perfectly cromulent name for an imaginary totem of darkness who's a little bit Lillith and a little bit OHHHHH-a-spider-kill-it-kill-it-burn-it-with-fire. And in the age of Amiga computers and dial-up modems it didn't really have any other associations. But now, of course, it's unintentionally ridiculous. And I thought to myself, I can't be the only person to have noticed this. 0.2 seconds of searching on Google assured me that I am not:

That whole "the more connected we are by devices, the more alone we feel" lament? I know there's a grain of truth to that, but most of the time I'm pretty happy with the ability to instantaneously verify that other people have not only had the same fleeting thought as me, but taken it to their own crazy extreme. That makes me feel very reassuringly not alone.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Second lives

As a late adopter of Facebook, one of the things that I was most amused by once I finally jumped in and took a look around was the specific way in which people presented themselves professionally. By which I mean a certain subset of people did not necessarily list their day job as their job in their official profile, which stood out to me and continues, even a year-plus later, to catch my attention on a fairly regular basis.

I mean, on the one hand, I left my place of employment blank on my FB profile. Mostly I did those because I'm vaguely aware that my employer has Certain Rules about social media expectations, independent of the whole nature of my specific work with classified government systems, and it just felt safer, overall, to decline to name my employer at all, and thus have a fair amount of plausible deniability and built-in distance from any accusations of associating myself with the company's good name and reflecting poorly on its corporate values blah blah blah retch hurl. I'm reasonably certain that a lot of my other friends find themselves in similar circumstances and arrived at similar conclusions. I don't really post about my job, either, except the most anodyne tales from cubicle-land, because of course as you all know I save the juicy stuff for the more anonymous confines of this blog.

So when someone hovers over my profile picture or whatever it gives my name and the name of the college I went to, which is apparently the fallback default when you leave your employer blank, and that's fine by me. In fact, since Facebook started out as a service for college students and that's the time in one's life when one is supposed to engage in all sorts of questionable behavior and entertain all sorts of good and bad ideas, it seems apt.

What I've noticed, though, is that many friends of mine have chosen a third option to the dilemma. They haven't listed their employer in their profile, but they haven't left the field empty either. What I should more accurately say is that they haven't listed their primary employer, their day gig to pay the bills. They have instead listed some variation on their dream job, particularly if they pursue some kind of hobby or side-business directly related to the dream.

Thus my one friend who listed himself as employed by a microbrewery, despite being an IT guy in a corporate office. Or my other friend who listed himself as a writer, despite being a financial planner. Or my other, other friend who listed himself as a musician, despite being a ... ok, actually, I don't know what that guy does for a living because he's a high school acquaintance I had lost touch with and was never that close with but in any case, I'm reasonably certain he's not supporting himself playing weekend acoustic gigs at local bars.

Of course that's at least a small part of the overall inherent humor. In order to even be aware of these tiny elements of these people's Facebook profiles I have to have a pre-existing relationship with these folks, which means I (probably) know where they punch the clock 9-to-5 and I (probably again) know what they have a real passion for and ultimately I know how much or how little overlap there is there. Sadly, it's not very much, and by that I don't mean these people are sad I just mean its sad we're not all living in a post-scarcity, follow-your-bliss utopia.

So with that much foreknowledge these people are not fooling me. In all likelihood they are not fooling anyone, and I don't even really think that fooling people is the point. It's just basic self-promotion, which is completely understandable. My friend who volunteers for the brewery at tastings and whatnot really does have enough love in his heart for the product to have a complimentary vested interest in the success or failure of said brewery, and so he wants to get the word out there in every possible way. And similarly, my friends who write novels or play in a band may not get rich off those endeavors but they still want to reach as wide an audience as possible, and if they have a public-facing platform like Facebook they might as well make the most of it and exploit the free visibility. Plus as I alluded to earlier, this way they're dodging any potential human resources grief at their day job by not bringing them into their online world at all (and obviously the giant financial services firms and whatnot don't really need the minuscule extra boost of an employee's FB page acknowledging them, anyway).

But on another level, it reminds me very specifically of the episode of The (U.S.) Office where Jim and Pam find out that Dwight has a Second Life account and Jim joins so that he can cyberstalk Dwight and report back. The big joke that everyone probably remembers (and if not I am providing a screencap above that captures the essence of it) is that Dwight's avatar was basically exactly like Dwight, down to his workaday fashion choices, except in Second Life he can fly. What I remember even more vividly, though, is that at one point Pam asks Jim if she can see his avatar, and first he tries to blow her off but eventually she gets her way and finds that Jim has put a certain amount of effort into its fabrication, not only giving him cool threads and an electric guitar slung insouciantly across his back but listing his occupation as "sports journalist". And Jim continues to try to play this off as dumb messing around but there's a layer underneath that where he's embarrassed to admit (to Pam and to himself) that this is his ideal version of himself, a persona he'd like to inhabit if he didn't have bills to pay and if he'd had the courage, talent and luck all necessary to throw himself heedlessly into his own dreams and make himself a success in the process.

So, believe me, I get that, the gulf between where we find ourselves IRL with our mortgages and credit card bills and daycare costs and where we can imagine ourselves in a fantasy-fueled take on our lives. And once you recognize that disparity, you know, why not just go ahead and indulge the fantasy in some harmless peripheral way like the job data point on a Facebook profile? Obviously I'm in the very same boat as these friends of mine; I write for fun and because I love it and occasionally I try to get attention for it, even while I remain otherwise gainfully employed because I never went in for the starving artist lifestyle and I've grown accustomed to a certain level of creature comforts as a result of the so-called "selling out" (which, it should be noted, I committed to for my own sake and on my own terms long before I started my family, and my wife and kids give me all the more reason to keep the books in the black and are, themselves, absolutely ideal, and I wouldn't change a thing about any of them in any world real or virtual). The major difference is that I, apparently, will barely acknowledge in public forum my nebulous aspirations toward writing as a career, or as anything else other than an idle diversion. With the question put to me directly, I punt, whereas some of my friends take the possibility and just run with it. And I'm amused, but very much in a "Huh. That looks like fun. Good on them." kind of way.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Office haps

Before I explain what's been going on at work lately, a quick sidenote: usually the blog gets a few dozen hits per day, with occasional spikes into the upper double digits. Last week, for three days in a row, the site got hundreds (plural!) of hits per day. These hits all originated in ... China. Now, I'm not saying that these were attempts by Chinese government hackers to conduct some low-friction social engineering for nefarious purposes, that basically because there's a high incidence of the phrase "government contracting" in my U.S.-based blog they figured they might as well see if I was giving away state secrets for nothing. But I'm not not saying that, either. Anyway, in case you ever thought that my general policy of blogonymity plus only speaking about the work I do in the vaguest of ways was excessive, I point to this incident as reason why that policy should and will continue.

Anyway, moving on ... so my team consists of a bunch of subject matter experts who have to process information using a custom system. My job (in theory) is keeping that custom system up and running. There are also a couple of data admins whose entire job is getting info out of a completely separate system and entering it by hand into our system. As I mentioned not too long ago, I've been tasked recently with some of those data admin duties. The reason for this is because one of the data admins left a few months ago, replacing her took an egregiously long time, and we now have the equivalent of one and a half data admins, the one who's been here a while accounts for a whole and the new hire who's still learning the ropes is a half. And the veteran data admin went on vacation for two weeks starting on the 3rd of this month, so she's back today but the past couple of weeks have kept me busy with a never-ending stream of simple, tedious, time-consuming work. I try to be a good-spirited team player, but I admit it's been a drag.

I also may have inadvertently thrown my vacationing colleague under the bus in my handling of special data admin requests, because my goal was to get them done as quickly as possible, and apparently I know a few backdoor shortcuts that put the regular DA approach to shame. I violated Montgomery Scott's first maxim, and now there's no going back. Ah well.

In other workplace news, we're currently changing the physical security protocols, with the changeover allegedly being completed by Labor Day. Basically where we used to have one ID card that let us swipe in and out of the office suite, and another completely separate ID card that let us access the computer network, we will now have one all-purpose card for both. Which is nice and convenient, and they've been promising this for months and months, as evidenced by the fact that I got my card provisioned so long ago I can't remember when it was but I know they have literally shut down the office where I got it done in a round of efficiency realignments. In any case, lately we've been getting memos and reminders from the secruity team to test our new cards and make sure they work on the suite doors. I tested mine and ... it didn't work. Then I had to make a special trip to one of the remaining security offices, where there was a line out the door and they were walking among the crowd triaging, and I was directed to a kiosk that could scan and check my card, and the machine said everything was good to go. So back at my office, I tried again, and it still didn't work. I was not looking forward to whatever hoops I would have to jump through to get someone to believe me over the auto-scan kiosk.

But as it turned out, I overheard some of my co-workers talking and it was very fortunate I did, because it saved me an inordinate load of time and embarrassment. As it happens, they've once again relegated the contractors to a second-class status, because we're not allowed to open or close the office for the day by ourselves. That in turn means non-contractors are given a special numeric code for performing those tasks, and it further means that non-contractors swipe their cards through a reader and then enter the code on a keypad if necessary, while contractors hold their cards against the keypad just to pass through. Somehow in all the messaging about the changeover I missed this crucial point, but once I lucked into being within earshot of someone commenting on it, I was able to test my card the actual correct way, and long story short everything's fine. Just way harder than it needs to be, as usual.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Once and Future

I had hoped at the beginning of this month to get back into the habit of posting a little more regularly, but the world for some reason did not choose to make it easy to follow through on that optimistic resolve. Still, as slack as I've been, I would be even more slack if I didn't at least mention that I have had another short story published, which can be found in the anthology King of Ages, on sale now!

The above image is not from the book in question, but from the classic 1980's comic book maxiseries Camelot 3000, which I thought of often while reading the collection of stories in King of Ages. Camelot 3000 is about an alien invasion of Earth in the eponymous year, and the rise (and tragic fall) of new incarnations of the Arthurian archetypes in response. King of Ages is based on the theme of Arthur and his knights and followers reincarnating again and again through human history, and includes several future-set science fiction takes on the legends, as well as modern-day spins, pirates, vikings, and cavemen. It's fun stuff, if I do say so myself.

As always, I have other writing projects in the works, which I will publicize as they become available to read. And I've been having a crazy couple of weeks at work, which should be over by this coming Monday, at which point I will perhaps provide a retrospective post as partial explanation of my deadbeat non-blogging. Until then!

Friday, August 7, 2015


Well, the week kind of got away from me again. But I did want to share the following, which is from a Buzzfeed listicle which is definitely worth checking out in full. This particular gem, though, was the highlight IMHO:

The look on the dog's face and the presumed sound of his speech impediment (not to mention the bowtie!) had both my wife and I giggling helplessly for an unreasonably long while last night.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015


What the hey, let's have another round of Social Media Tuesday, shall we?

I generally endorse the solid life/interweb advice to "Never read the comments" because I generally endorse courses of action which, at the very least, delay the realization that the vast majority of humanity is terrifyingly base and hateful scum. Comment threads almost invariably devolve into a morass of negativity where people expound on why the article was everything that's wrong with the world, or why other commenters are everything that's wrong with the world, and things get personal and vindictive and then somehow they keep getting worse. Nobody needs that in their headspace (except the people who indulge in it, apparently, which is a paradox I may never really resolve and I'm okay with that) so steering well clear of it just makes good sense.

Of course, I don't always follow this very sensible advice myself. Part of it is that I tend to believe that certain sites I frequent attract a more elevated (and like-minded) slice of the internet community, and thus will prove exceptions to the rule. They often don't, of course, but I have trained myself to at least not get sucked into the madness. The problem with reading the comments is that they become a swirling vortex pulling you deeper and deeper until you cannot think about anything except composing your own vicious reply to someone who said something you disagree with (or you know is factually wrong). So I only allow myself to start reading comments if I reach the end of an article and still want to hear what other people think on the subject, but at the first sign of real trollishness I close out of there. That's the closest I can come to following my own advice, it seems, and it has kept me moderately sane so far.

My whole well-at-this-site-the-commenters-are-thoughtful-and-civilized rationale isn't entirely wishful thinking, and there have been some comment threads I've enjoyed, and I have in the process been exposed to the concept of gimmick commenters - people who adopt a very specific performance-oriented persona on a site, register an apt username, and comment frequently and in character, whether said character is an existing intellectual property or just an alter-ego of the commenter's own creation. This can be something as silly as registering as Cookie Monster, complete with profile picture, and always posting in the first person objective ("ME LOVE THIS SHOW NOM NOM NOM!!!") or as bizarre as cultivating a reputation as a kind of pan-omni-sexual alcoholic agoraphobic cineaste. Everybody needs a hobby, I reckon.

I've been playing Comment Thread Roulette for a lot longer than I've been on Facebook, so sometimes my experiences and lessons learned from the former bleed over into the latter. In theory, commenters on a random site are anonymous strangers, and also in theory people in my Facebook newsfeed should be friends, or at least friends of friends. But because I use Facebook for networking with publishers and writers and so forth, not to mention the fact that everyone uses Facebook to reconnect with childhood friends and in my case that means people I lost touch with decades ago, there is a high proportion of my newsfeed which is coming from acquaintances at best if not people I know virtually nothing about. So I have to piece together who these people are solely based on their status updates. And on more than one occasion I have found myself starting to think of these people, as they represent themselves on Facebook, as gimmick accounts. Mostly this is because their status updates and shares and comments, in aggregate, seem to reveal a deliberately ridiculous pose of artifice rather than an actual rational thinking human being.

One example was someone I FB-friended because he and I both had stories published in the same anthology. I quickly realized that almost every status update this guy made was him complaining about something, often very petty nuisances posed by the fallible customer service that all of us in this fallen world have to deal with on a regular basis. He also hates a lot of pop culture, clearly consumes a lot of it as if he's being forced to at gunpoint, then rushes to Facebook to say how terrible it all is. You would think that anyone with even a shred of self-awareness (which is a requisite capacity for being a writer, I daresay) would be at least slightly hesitant about criticizing the stupidity of daytime television, because doing so raises the reasonable question of why the critic is watching so much daytime television; the individual in question makes it fairly clear he is not a stay-at-home parent, nor is he an invalid retiree, so ... jobless loser, basically? Still, all of that didn't necessarily lead me to believe he was a gimmick, some people just love the airing of the grievances too much to ever acknowledge how petty said grievances really are, but at one point he posted something along the lines of "Well, for years I have been priding myself on having no idea who Taylor Swift is, but I finally heard that Shake It Off song. Can't say I'm terribly impressed." To which my initial response was to think I was dealing with an absolutely genius-level troll. A meta-troll! "Shake It Off" is LITERALLY about Taylor Swift not particularly caring if some people like her or not, including the immortal lyric "the haters gon' hate (hate hate hate hate)". To take that as an invitation to go ahead and hate on her and/or that specific anthem in response is either some next-level parody or about the most egregious, oblivious missing-the-point imaginable.

I know, it's excessively generous of me to even entertain the thought that it could be the former. But the latter is so gob-smacking that sometimes my brain's defense mechanisms just kick in on their own.

Here's another instance, one where I couldn't even deploy my mental shields of alt-explanations, because I already knew better. A dude who was in the high school band with me extended a FB friend request which I accepted. And it quickly became clear that this dude's Facebook presence was, not to put too fine a point on it, the embodiment of the Bitchy Queen stereotype, so consistent and so over-the-top that if I were reading about him as a fictional character in a book I would suspect the author of having a homophobic agenda evinced by creating a grossly unsympathetic and completely unbelievable caricature. I have a fair number of gay friends and by and large (this seems like a no-brainer but forgive me for belaboring the obvious) their presence in my newsfeed is exactly like my straight friends'. Some of them have kids and post pictures of them. Some of them are into comic books or Dungeons and Dragons and post links and memes about those topics. Some of them are more political than others, and comment on news stories or share petitions or whatever related to LBGT rights (as, again, do many of my straight friends). But one and only one of my gay FB friends posts near-daily status updates consisting entirely of selfies (two variations: at the office in suit and tie, three-quarters profile; at the gym in front of the wall mirror with shirt lifted to show off ripped abs) and whiny, entitled complaining about how he shouldn't have to put up with people who annoy him (a/k/a 99.9% of Earth's population). As I say, I knew this dude ages ago, and back then he was definitely whiny, but also closeted and not vain at all (any more than any other self-conscious teenager). When we connected on FB and I quickly realized he was now out and in a relationship with another dude, I thought maybe the "it gets better" principle would have elevated his overall outlook on life, but apparently not. But it does, to me, beg the question - how can one not realize what one is putting out there into the world, particularly when one is playing all-consumingly into a fairly nasty stereotype? No self-awareness? Self-aware but just don't care? Cultivating the larger-than-life-and-twice-as-catty mystique on purpose?

For what it's worth, eventually I unfollowed the dude. I haven't ever beefed with someone on FB so viciously that I've felt the need to unfriend and block them, but some people with a certain snide, one-note negativity don't need to be speedbumps in my scrolling every day. (The aforementioned pop culture h8r, on the other hand, provides a certain entertainment value because his hot takes are just bonkers sometimes.)

Finally, just to adhere to the Rule of Three, one more gotta-be-a-gimmick case in point. Another fellow author, this one a single mom of one little girl. Not a terrible person by any stretch, not a light-swallowing pit of negativity at all. But lacking self-awareness in her own special way all the same. Specifically, she does that thing, the one where a parent makes their whole FB account, profile pic and cover image and status updates and all, more about their offspring than themselves. The culmination of that came one day when this woman posted that she was so proud of her daughter for making poo in the potty three times that day.

Which ... I just ... I mean ...

That was the whole gist of the status update. There was no joke to it, no snark, no "here's a thing about potty training your children that no one ever talks about" or somesuch. Nor was there any kind of disclaimer acknowledging it was TMI but she didn't care, or any other context. She just put it out there, for whose benefit I can't even hazard a guess. It's one thing when a husband or wife gushes about how proud they are of their spouse; it may be an overly conspicuous bit of online PDA but at least if the spouse in question is also on FB then s/he will see the post and get the warm fuzzies, allocate some brownie points, whatever. It's forcing your entire friends list to be audience to your relationship maintenance, but at least it serves a purpose. Praising a toddler on FB doesn't do much for the toddler, or anyone else. It just forces everyone on your friends list to be audience to something pointless and also usually treated with a bit more discretion and decorum. Has this poor woman never heard of STFU Parents?!?! Or is she in fact totally familiar with it, and purposefully channeling a straight-faced take on it as a kind of very dry humor? Like asking a very tall person how the weather is up there, as if you thought that brand-new witticism up yourself, resurrecting something so utterly played out and ridiculous that it wraps back around to inherently funny again?

Probably not. In fact, after I calmed down a bit I realized that I really should go easy on her because, seriously, being a single mom is hard. So no, she probably hasn't heard of STFU Parents; just because she has a Facebook account and time to post status updates doesn't mean she's up on every hipper-than-thou meme that I have the luxury of familiarizing myself with. More to the point, she doesn't have a homebase partner to share the triumphs and tribulations of parenting with, including the not-for-polite-company aspects of biological functions. I could roll my eyes and say well that's too bad, but keeping it to herself is still her best option, but that feels a little too cold. So I'll give her a pass, not because I admire solid commitment to a comedy bit, but because we're all doing the best we can every day, and shoot, at least she's being positive about it.

Monday, August 3, 2015


Things I was ostensibly hired to do:

  • Develop web code
  • Maintain SQL databases
  • Act as liaison between server farm IT department and business agency (translate tech-speak to non and vice versa)

Things I have been tasked with doing in the past week or so:

  • Transcribe e-mail addresses from a hand-written sign-in sheet to an Excel spreadsheet
  • Build formulas in another Excel spreadsheet*
  • Show someone how to add rows to a table in Word
  • Manipulating graphics and text boxes inside an existing PowerPoint presentation
  • Basic data entry

The quantity of workload often increases inversely with the quality of said work. It's a living.

(* To be fair, in the process of fulfilling this request I actually learned something about Excel formulas and how to have them update to only reflect visible/non-hidden rows, so that was kind of cool.)