Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pardon our dust

So... about every couple years, WordPress craps out on me. Can't tell if it's feature creep, spam weirdness, general decay, chaos theory, gremlins, gravitational wells or just plain old me screwing something up. Anyway... I realized that my last two posts never posted. And they didn't get saved as drafts. And you couldn't leave comments. So I installed the new WordPress, deleted plugins, restarted various PHP files from factory fresh, etc. etc. At least posts and comments and most of my widgets are working (don't you have feckless widgets?). We'll see about getting a decent new theme going sometime soon. Suggestions welcome.

If you are interested, the posts that got missed involved me ranting about a NYT article where they used math badly, and a few thoughts about the NCAA brackets at work. No big deal. Fill in the blanks in your head.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Thank you, SpeakerSite!

I used to do a lot more public speaking than I do these days. I mean, I teach one class a week... but while that's speaking, and it's kinda public... it's not really the same. Back when I was in cellular land, and then in legal marketing, I was probably standing up in front of an audience at least three or four times a year. Now? Well... it's been awhile. I've done a couple small talks related to my day gig, but nothing much besides that.

Partly, it's priorities, eh? Kid, day job, teaching, writing... not much time. But partly, I think, it's not having access to a community of folks who are interested in speaking.

A few years back, I connected with some online writing groups, and just having a place to "be about that" was immensely helpful. I knew anyone I met through those sites would be interested in writing, and that we could connect based on the specific set of skills and interests that almost always go with that passion.

I'm pleased to report that I've found such a spot for the public speaking side of my brain, too. It's an online social networking hub that connects speakers to each other, and to those who need their services. It's called SpeakerSite.

I signed up after a friend pointed me to the site, filled out a detailed profile, joined a couple groups, and kept an eye on the message boards and open calls. It's fun to see what's going on around town, and how many people are "out there," willing to speak on such a wide variety of subjects.

About a month after joining, I got an email from somebody who found me through the site. She was looking for a speaker to talk to graduating design students about the job market; both some "how to" stuff, and some positive, "it's not all gloom" inspirational stuff. We connected by phone, chatted for a bit about the details, and -- short story even shorter -- it worked out. So now, for the first time in about five years, I've got a paid speaking gig on a topic I really enjoy.

I don't think public speaking is ever what I'm going to do for a living; same for teaching and, probably, for writing (except inasmuch as I write marketing stuff for the day gig). They are both things that I really enjoy, however, and having outlets and opportunities for both is truly a blessing.

Thank you, SpeakerSite! It's great to have somewhere helpful and well organized to connect with this part of my life.

Some puzzles frustrate. Some tickle. Why?

I play a lot of games. And games are often "puzzle-like" in that you have to figure out how stuff fits/works together in order to progress. I also very much enjoy certain kinds of word puzzles (Scrabble, Boggle, etc.). I've never been great at geometry or math puzzles, though. 

So, it's strange to me that when I'm presented with certain puzzles I can't figure out, I get pissy upon being told the answer. While others, even when I can't figure them out, make me glad. 

BoingBoing just posted a geometry puzzle that, when I read the answer, irritated the crap out of me. It's interesting, kinda... but I mostly felt a combination of stoopid and mildly irritated.

On the other hand, I've known puzzles that made me laugh out loud when I found out the answer. The one that comes to mind was told to me years ago by the father of a friend. He, the dad, was a math professor at Northeastern, and invented some new infinite sets and other crazy smart shite like that that mortal minds can't even understand in the abstract. This was the riddle he posed:

You're on a game show, and you've made it to the final round. The host shows you three doors. Behind two of those doors... is crap. Junk. Stuff you don't want. A lifetime supply of Donkey Chow. Whatever. Behind the third door is the major prize. Call it a million bucks. Whatever. Two bad doors, one good. The host tells you to pick a door, and you do. Doesn't matter which one. Then he puts his arm around your shoulder and says, "Now [your name here], I'm going to show you what's behind one of the doors you didn't pick!" With a flourish, he points at one of the doors and it opens, showing you... some crap. Obviously, he can always show you a crap door, since, of the three, there are two and you only picked one. Easy peasy, rice and cheesy.

"But," says said cheesy host, "I want to give you the chance to change doors... if you like. What's your final answer? Stay with your original choice? Or switch?"

That's the puzzle. Given the above situation, should you; stay, switch, or does it even matter?

If nobody points out the answer in the comments, I'll add it in a week or so.

When the answer was revealed and explained to me, it made my head hurt... but in a good way. It made me laugh.

Why should some unsolved puzzles, upon explanation, cause me glee... and others, woe?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The cure for panic is action

Great Bruce Sterling speech/rant at Wired.com. It's his speech from Webstock, and it puts a lot of grumpy, gnarly, interesting, scratchy, vaguely troubling ideas into a human zone. I do love me some Bruce. Go read the whole thing, but this part, from near the end, is just great:

I've never seen so much panic around me, but panic is the last thing on my mind. My mood is eager impatience. I want to see our best, most creative, best-intentioned people in world society directly attacking our worst problems. I'm bored with the deceit. I'm tired of obscurantism and cover-ups. I'm disgusted with cynical spin and the culture war for profit. I'm up to here with phony baloney market fundamentalism. I despise a prostituted society where we put a dollar sign in front of our eyes so we could run straight into the ditch.

The cure for panic is action. Coherent action is great; for a scatterbrained web society, that may be a bit much to ask. Well, any action is better than whining. We can do better.

I, too, am bored with the deceit and pissed at phony market fundamentalism.

One of the things I teach the kids in my History of Advertising class is that credit is a bet on the future. You pay x% more for a car than the sticker price because you bet that your ability to pay will improve more quickly than the debt accrues. You may even hope that the car will help you do that.

Same with a house. You get a mortgage and end up paying 3X the cost of the house over the life of the debt because you believe that; a) the house will appreciate in value of 15-30 years to the point where it catches up to the vig, b) you're investing in something you can own rather than rent, and, c) you gotta live somewhere, so having your own place simply feels good.

Credit is OK. Betting on the future is good. The problems come when we define "future" in very different, and conflicting, quantities.

What totally rips my salami about the economic crisis is that a lot of it had to do with finance people, who clearly didn't understand what they were doing, taking my bet on "the future" -- my mortgage, wherein I have defined "the future" as 20 or so years from now -- and leveraging it for much more short-term gains. In effect, they combined all "the future" bets that millions of us defined in terms of decades and tried to squeeze value from it by the year, quarter, month and even day-part.

Would you ever bet all the equity you have in your house that the real estate market would do X or Y in the next day or so? Of course not. Your bet is that the value will go up in 15-30 years.

By taking the values and definitions all us homeowners bought into and flipping them around into the equivalent of junk bonds, these finance freaks have ruined the entire world's economy.

That's what happens when you don't count ALL the costs. As a friend on mine once said, "Your one night, drunken fling is the end of another man's 20 year marriage."

I was willing to invest a good chunk of my lifetime in my home. The banking system decided to get licker'd up and have a quickie with it. Thanks, Wall Street.*

We can do better. Thanks for reminding us, Bruce.

* Note: I'm aware that this is a gross oversimplification. If you've got a better, less gross, less simplified way of describing what's going on... knock yourself out.