Notre Dame

This is the only photo I took of Notre Dame the one time I went to Paris, six years ago. I was only in Paris for a little more than a day, so I didn't go in. I've often had mixed feelings about Catholic cathedrals. Perhaps that's just me being a little extra Protestant, but I still feel something of a loss at today's news, it is still the loss of a great and historic work and I am glad that the devastation was not total.

Echo

My in-laws screen phone calls to their landline, so when we were there over Thanksgiving, every now and then the phone would ring [loudly] and then we would hear the answering machine pick up. Their message was interesting, as it started with a warning that their phone number had been spoofed and was being used by scammers, and that they had nothing to do with it. I kind of imagine the first few calls they got before they realized that.

I've had a noticeable uptick in spam phone calls to my cell phone lately, and I usually just go into the recent calls and mark the number as spam so that it doesn't call back. If I'm feeling particularly interested, I'll google the phone number to see what it comes up with, usually nothing useful, and I wonder if it's some random family's number and if they get all sorts of irate return calls.

Whenever I think about that, I think of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. The basic premise of the show is that some particularly enterprising company has developed the technology to be able to reprogram humans to do whatever they want. It's mostly used by ultra-rich playboys for ultra-rich playboy reasons. In a handful of flash forward episodes some number of years after the main events of the show, events have taken their eventual dystopian turn as nation-states and hackers have essentially figured how to hi-jack just about anything with an electric current to reprogram humans to fight for their side or another.

The stakes are a little lower when it's a phone number, but it's just a small example of the sort of thing we have so little ability to really possess that we tend not to think about. We're not too far away from realizing our phone number has been stolen, or our Facebook account, or our bank account. I wonder how long until it is so rampant that our current systems based on honesty and customer convenience collapse under the weight of bad actors.

Incidentally, the setting for Dollhouse's dystopian future was 2019. Happy new year.

Suburban Snowscape

The first snow of the year came on a Sunday, gracefully, and has been plenty pretty to look at and enjoy without the concerns of having to get anywhere. The roads are likely fine as well by now, but why should I leave the fireside?

Industrial disillusionment

From an interview with an anonymous Silicon Valley engineer:


When you’re an engineer, you’re constantly being told to do things that are clearly not good for the user. If you’re building any kind of app or platform that makes its money from advertising, you are trying to maximize “time spent”—how long a user spends with your product.

...

But every worker knows this is bad. Every engineer and designer knows this is awful. They’re not happy making these features. But they can’t argue with the data. The engineer and the designer who care about the user don’t want to put these features out in the world. But the data says those features are increasing time spent—which means they’re good. Because more time spent means selling more advertising, which means making more money.

...

But there's no way they can push back on it. They can talk about it—in their company Slack, in their public forums, at their all-hands meetings. They can express a lot of malaise about it. But they can’t argue against the experiment succeeding, because you can’t argue against increased profits.


"Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!""

Clean Living

Now that we're into August, I've gone a full month with out any soft drinks. One of the nice things that my office provides is free sodas, in our kitchen we have a refirgerator unit that's like you would find in a 7-11, four rows with seven columns each of 12oz soda cans — we have Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, 7-Up, Nestea (and the diet versions of all of those), and they've recently added Canada Dry and La Croix into the mix as well. This was a nice improvement over my old job, where we had poorly stocked vending machines that charged something like $1.35 or $1.50 (it might have been more by the time I left) for a 20oz bottle, if you could find what you wanted.

All the same, it's a nice perk, but I had settled into a rhythm where whether I would bring my lunch in or run out and grab something and bring it back, I would have a can of Dr. Pepper with lunch, and then by the afternoon I would have another with a bag of microwave popcorn (also provided free). I can definitely say I feel better than I did a month ago. Most nights I would end up taking a couple of tums before bed because I knew I was going to have heartburn, but excepting when I've had something particularly heavy or spicy that's all but cleared up now.

Since then I've been sticking to water or unsweet tea at home or when we go out and maybe the occasional bit of wine. I can at least get water free at work, as well. I'm not holding my breath on wine.

Nothing like a deadline to inspire some motivation

I've been awfully quiet around these parts in the last month or so. I've not been quite as diligent a reader as I was at the start of this blog — part of that is owed to me picking up an X-Box One and a copy of FIFA 18 — but I have still made my way through a handful of books in the time since.

At the moment, I'm racing to finish the second Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I read the first one quite quickly, I think in three or four days and so I anticipated the same for this one. As it happened, I received the three week digital loan for it just a day or so after I had started another book (Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, more on it in a round-up to come), so I figured I had time to read that one and then still squeeze in the Potter book before my three weeks were up.

When I checked the status of my loan for Chamber of Secrets and to adjust the holds I have placed this afternoon I saw that, because I took my time reading Everyone Brave and didn't start this one right away, I had 1 day and 19 hours remaining to finish the book. I'm about three quarters of the way through, so I should be able to comfortably finish it over the next two nights before it turns into a digital pumpkin and a letter informing me that my load has ended. At least I don't need to worry about late fees.

Self-deception in children's literature

I recently landed on this article by the Washington Post's art critic, Sebastian Smee, spewing invective over a particular artist being given a retrospective at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn museum. (Is Sebastian Smee not the perfect name for an art critic? Some people, from the moment they have been named, must be destined to fulfill certain destinies.) I haven't got a terribly strong opinion on the artist, Georg Baselitz, myself. I was (and am) not familiar with the artist, and at a first glance on Google Arts & Culture and Image Search I can't say that much connects with me. A terrible amount of upside-down folk. Okay.

The main thrust of the article is the accusation that the artist continues to have a reputation simply to save the reputation of those that actually bought into what he was selling. The art world is reaping the rewards of holding on to a sunk cost fallacy:


"Quite simply, too many people have paid too much for Baselitz’s blowzy work over too many years for his reputation to undergo the correction it warrants. Too many curators and collectors have placed their chips on the roulette wheel of his talent. None of them wishes to lose what loose change, intellectual or real, they have bothered to fork out."


Again, I don't have an interesting or worthwhile opinion on the artist, but I do appreciate the phenomenon Smee is discussing. It reminded me of another book I read just the other day, and that I mentioned here on the blog. I'm talking, of course, about Square, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.

Square is an anthropomorphized shape living in a land of other similar shapes. He has a cave filled with other (non-animated) squares that he pushes out onto a hill each day. "This is his work," we are told flatly. (Though I note that it's not called his job, but his work.) Then one day, we are introduced to Circle, who comes hovering by. She has been taken, for some time, by his sculptures. When he asks what she means, she talks about all the wonderful and perfect replica square sculptures he makes of himself, and how he is absolutely a genius.

This is all news to Square.

Furthermore, he is to make Circle a perfect sculpture of herself. How indeed can the genius refuse the request of a fan? He works and frets all night. He is a genius, so what what he makes must be perfect. She is, herself, perfect — a perfect circle. She doesn't even need legs! Square has two legs under his shaped body to carry himself. His trickster friend Triangle has two legs under his body to carry himself. Circle has none! She just floats here and there, presumably spewing random positivity to everyone she meets. So her sculpture must be perfect.

It goes about as well as one might expect. He chisels here, he chisels there, and eventually he's chiseled the whole damn block away. There's just a bit of rubble lying about in all directions and a puddle of water (is it sweat? tears? I'm not actually sure. It could be just plain water, I don't know enough about chiseling/sculpting to know how much water is used in the process). When she returns, she sees what he's left with and...it's perfect. She declares him once more a genius, and this time he believes it. The book ends with the closing reflection, "But was he really?"

Not to try to make too much of a kid's book, but it's a fun look at how we want other people to see us. Square deeply wants to be seen as a genius, even if he only just found out he was one. What happens when the book ends? Does he internalize it, making genuis sculptor a part of his identity? Will he ever have to confront a lack of talent or ability, or will he surround himself with "encouragers" that assure him he's a very special shape? One imagines a future hellscape dystopia wherein some other shape—an octagon perhaps—is writing screeds that the entire sculture community has been hoodwinked by Square, and that Circle and her fellow cohort are too invested in saving face to admit their emperor has no clothes.

I only hope that that shape has as good a name as Sebastian Smee.