Yahoos Are Surprisingly Polite!

As I mentioned earlier this month, our group just moved into a new building. One of my coworkers, who we’ll call “Dave”,[1] had a meeting right after the move-in. It struck him that all the whiteboards in the new conference room were completely pristine… and this situation could not stand!

So Dave drew a diagram on the whiteboard. It consisted of:

  • A cylinder, with an arrow pointing to…
  • a box, with an arrow pointing to…
  • a cloud labeled, “The Internet”
  • a stick figure person or two
  • several other boxes surrounding the diagram labeled, “Deliverables”
  • and finally, a big “DO NOT ERASE” message next to the diagram.

Lo and behold, the diagram is still there weeks later. Isn’t it is amazing how respectful people are of the “DO NOT ERASE”? It really restores one’s faith in humanity, doesn’t it? Unless… well, the alternative theory is that nobody has had time to erase the diagram because they’re too busy polishing up their resumes, pronto. (“My God, honey… did I tell you what I saw on a whiteboard today? I’m surrounded by total idiots!”)

1. Because his name is “Dave”.

Flawed or Tragic?

Lance Mannion, guest-blogging for Prof. Michael “Danger” Berube, has posted an interesting essay on tragic heros vs. flawed heros.[1] Mannion’s distinction between “tragic” and merely “flawed” heroes is that tragic heroes have deep vices and can truly sin, while we know that flawed heroes are always “the good guys” no matter what they do. Tragic hero: Hamlet. Flawed hero: Jack Bauer.

For his part, Mannion regrets the loss of the tragic hero:

I think something important was lost when the tragic hero disappeared from our storytelling, and the rise of the “flawed” hero isn’t a real or satisfying replacement, especially since so many of the flaws are actually tricks to make us like and admire the hero all the more and forgive him whatever apparently bad things his job calls upon him to do.

Although I take his point, I think we need both kinds of heros, particularly since I find tragic heros to be less realistic than the flawed hero. The tragic hero’s epic vices inevitably bring his entire world crashing down around his ears. Thrilling to read about, sure. But realistic? Real life just doesn’t seem to have that kind of delicious symmetry. The real-life hero has ordinary flaws that sometimes interfere with his or her heroic goals, but often don’t impede those goals at all.

Of course, we can all come up with examples of real-life historical figures whose epic vices inevitably doomed everything they had worked for… but in most of those cases, the person in question has actually crossed the line and gone right over to villainy. For example, I’ve heard Richard Nixon described as a classic tragic hero, but based on my cursory readings of the guy’s real historical actions, color me skeptical on the “hero” part.

As for the disappearance of the tragic hero in modern literature, Mannion seems quite right, although I think we still have some remnants. Here are some examples off the top of my head:

  • Morpheus in The Sandman. I just re-read The Kindly Ones and once again I found it breathtaking to see that sprawling series’s myriad plot threads gather together into their inevitable conclusion. Note that the conclusion would never have happened if any of those disconnected threads had gone differently. And Morpheus’s flaws were directly responsible for kicking off every one of them.

  • William Munney in Unforgiven. At first glance, this might look like a standard grim-and-gritty western with your standard anti-hero — played by Clint Eastwood, even! But don’t be fooled — this is a story where everyone’s fundamental flaws, including Munney’s, inevitably lead to deeply tragic results all around. My only qualm about calling Munney a tragic hero is that Munney himself isn’t actually destroyed at the end; he doesn’t die, and he doesn’t remain a monster. If we believe the movie, he returned home and continued doing his best to be a decent father. Ideally, he would have rode off and drank himself to death instead of returning to his kids. But you can’t have everything.

  • Darth Vader is a possibility. Yes, I know, I know the Joseph Campbell stuff was layered on with a thick trowel as an afterthought. And I know Lucas’s execution of the tale… leaves something to be desired. Still, we’ve got the elements, don’t we? Anakin’s epic flaws -> the destruction of interstellar democratic rule! No wait, actually that was Jar-Jar. Never mind.

  • Someone in Mannion’s comments thread mentioned Vic Mackey from The Shield. The events of Season 5 are promising in this regard — finally Vic’s sins from the first episode are causing everything to start unravelling! But we won’t know for sure until the show wraps. For all we know, Vic will end up on a Caribbean beach under an assumed name, sipping Mai-Tais. Likewise for The Sopranos — Tony’s greed is epic, but we don’t know yet whether it’s sufficient to bring everything crashing down.

1. Props to Mr. Mannion for his title and intro. I loved the Spenser books when I first found them on my parents’ shelf. And I had forgotten about his Galahad quote. I wonder how I can work that one into casual conversation?

Lesson Learned

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fancy-schmancy audiophile by any means. But I have concluded that even for my very very low standards for casual office music listening, $4.99 headphones do not cut the mustard.

Of course, once you get above the $15 range, headphones come with a dizzying array of specifications for impedance, noise cancellation, frequency response, you name it. I thought I left all that nonsense behind when I took my last systems engineering class.[1] Cutting through all the technobabble, the only real question about headphones is: do I want to look like a refugee from the 70s, or do I want to jam small plastic objects deep into my ear canal? Choices, choices.

BONUS Lesson Learned: Just because a book has time travel, and dinosaurs, and interplanetary warfare, and Martians does not mean that it will end up being any good.[3] My friend told me this before I borrowed the book, but I ignored his warning. Serves me right.

1. In retrospect, my parting words to the fine, hard working members of the Engineering department were ill-advised. Of course, I wasn’t serious; I mean, I don’t even have the power to damn someone’s progeny unto the seventh generation[2], and even if I did, it all seems excessive. Nowadays I’d say, second generation at best.

2. That authority rests with Pat Robertson.

3. Of course I’m sure there are people out there thinking, “A book with time travel, dinosaurs, interplanetary warfare, and Martians — that sounds like the dictionary definition of a horrible book!” Just another painful reminder to the rest of us: if you are in fact dead inside, you really can’t be helped.

Can We Please Get Some ‘Quality of Service’ Around Here?

Let me go on record to say that I agree with the telecoms that network neutrality should be abolished. After all, it isn’t AT&T‘s fault that the original architects of the Internet chose to design the Internet in a manner that prevents AT&T from maximizing its revenue and delivering increased shareholder value. Hell, AT&T fought the invention of the packet-switched network all the way. So, let’s cut them a break, eh?

First, the telecoms really do deserve to be able to extract more rent from Google and my employer and other ingrates who have figured out how to make large amounts of money using their precious infrastructure. ‘Cuz how fair is that? It’s like, I build a road for all kinds of people, and then you use that road to make a fortune in the lucrative asparagus-shipping market, and all you do is pay me a pittance for road maintenance. What a bastard you are! Of course the telecoms could try to extract this money directly, which would obviate the need to shell out all that extra cash to Washington lobbyists and PR firms and whatnot. But trust me, that money is well-spent. Just think how embarrassing it is to call up your top customers and say, “Look, I realize that you’re buying a lot of my stuff, and I realize that under ordinary circumstances this would mean you should get a bulk discount… but see, the thing is, I’d actually like to charge you a lot more than anyone else, because, well, you can afford it. Right? Guys?” Even a stone-cold telecom exec can’t stomach making that sales call. They pay telecom executives well, but not that well.

Second, the telecoms also face a deadly threat from their users. Current pricing models for DSL and cable assume that users only make occasional requests for bytes. The telecoms can “guarantee” a certain minimum download speed to all their customers because on average, no one customer is actually using anywhere near the bandwidth that the company agreed to deliver. That model was a swell idea a few years ago, but now things have gone crazy. Cray-ZEE! People are downloading giant video files! Listening to streaming audio! Watching streaming video! Playing MMORPGs! Joining peer-to-peer networks! Bandwidth usage is going, up, up, up. And the telecoms can’t just raise rates, because ordinary people tend to get really angry when you start charging them more for the same service, particularly when the service has historically always decreased in price.

So the only sensible solution is to enable the telecoms to filter out and degrade quality for certain websites as necessary, so that the telecoms can A) extract higher rates from wealthy businesses on the high end and B) stamp out bandwidth-sucking startups and other wastes-of-time on the low end. This requires abolishing the basic standards on which the Internet was founded, but hey, you gotta break some eggs to make them omelets. Well, okay, that’s not the only sensible solution. Sam has an alternative plan — he says, “Maybe they can charge the NSA for our phone records if they’re hard up for cash.” That’s my Sammy, always thinking outside the box!

That’s Not Gypsum You’re Smelling, That’s Brimstone!

Must I thus leave thee, Paradise? — thus leave
Thee, native soil, these happy walks and shades?

Platform Engineering’s fall from grace has been ignominious indeed. At the height of our powers, we had a commanding view of the campus from the top floor of Building A. Then they moved us down to the second floor of Building A. Then the second floor of Building B, Building A’s poor cousin. And finally, tomorrow we move across the street to the newly-reclaimed Building E. Somebody up there hates us.

A couple of weeks ago, several of us went on an exploratory mission to Building E. The place was gutted — walls stripped to the studs, pipes exposed, workers welding, the smell of gypsum everywhere. We trooped up the stairs to check out our floor. Ryan opened the stairwell door, looked out at our floor, closed the door, and said, “It’s raining in there.” We thought Ryan was kidding, but sure enough, water was streaming down from a ceiling pipe and pooling on the new carpet. The puddle was large enough to comfortably support several full-grown koi. As we gawked, a construction worker with no hard hat snapped at us, “This is a hard hat area.” Nothing to see here, move along…

Anyway, it could be worse — at least they didn’t shuffle us off to the satellite campus at Mission College. I mean, we’re not total losers.