Saturday, September 5, 2015

Just so everyone knows, I'm not dead. We've just moved out to Brighton, which sounds like a euphemism, but isn't. The new place has a lot to recommend it -- mainly to me, as other people for some reason seem to object to living in a building any older than they are.

I eyeballed the place and dated it (correctly, according to the property records) to the 1920s, based on the fact that there are so many layers of paint on everything that the frou-frou trim is starting to lose its detail, and the elevator is a tiny thing with decorative grilles at the ceiling, an electromechanical call system, and a brass accordion door that you have to heave open and closed by hand. There is a linen cabinet in our hallway, as if we are adult enough to own actual linens, and a proper double-hung window in the shower that has had several layers of privacy frosting applied to it. The interior layout of our apartment was done by someone who had never so much as heard the words 'fire code'. We have been irresponsibly daisy-chaining surge protectors on the only three-prong outlet not in the kitchen or bathroom until we can get to Microcenter and pick up a large bin of adapters. The interior of my closet has several sets of twisted-pair wires and some unprotected screw terminals along the door frame, and I think it may have once been the telephone nook. We have an intercom by the front door that works and can be used to buzz people in through the security doors, likely because it would have been more expensive to yank it out than to keep it fixed.

The property company is also based out in Wellesley and is unlikely to ever see the inside of the apartment, never mind any of us, unless we try to burn the place down. This is a great comfort to me. I get along much better with maintenance workers than management. Maintenance could not give two shits about what we're doing in there as long as they don't have to fix any of it in the middle of the night.

The building is so very in Brighton that our 'new tenant' circular contains a few pages outlining how to be a good student resident. We live across the street from a place that I can only describe as The Compleat Stoner's All-In-One Food Emporium. They serve:

  1. Things that are deep fried;
  2. Things that go on hoagie rolls;
  3. Things that involve pizza crust;
  4. Ice cream;
and they are open until midnight, 7 days a week.

There are two laundromats within spitting distance of the building, and one of them has big signs in the window announcing that they have free wifi. BPL Brighton is about a fifteen minute walk away.

My roommate got a new mattress for Allston Christmas this year. I personally decided that the last time I moved a goddamn dresser would be the last time I ever moved a goddamn dresser, and bought a clothing rack that comes apart for transport. I do not want drawers badly enough to load them into a truck, ever. (Although I do own a nesting 8-piece luggage set, and a collection of duffel bags, for exactly this horrible purpose. I bought most of them for moving across the country in the first place.) The only piece of actual furniture I own anymore is the cage stand the rats live on, and I suppose you can also count their cage.

The critters are dandy. They hated riding in the truck closed into a cardboard box, but I assembled das Rathaus and inserted them back into it as soon as we got to Brighton, and within an hour they were so utterly fine that I was dropping loud clangy chrome pipes in my attempt to put my clothing rack back together, and they didn't even stop eating. I've moved rats before, and this is standard operating procedure: As long as they have their mommy and their house, they really don't care where they live. They did cleverly manage to dye themselves purplish in blotches, by rolling in the grapes I gave them in lieu of a messy water bowl for the ride over.

The only hitch is that Comcast refused to send a henchcritter out to hook up our internet until Jazmin went down to the office in person with a copy of the lease. Seems the previous residents neither called to have their service properly turned off, nor paid their damn bill. All is well now and I'm told the Googles will work again soon, but until then I'll be AFK a lot.

Saturday Serial: Superman #13

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I hate moving. Moving transforms me into the Simple Dog. The only voluntary moves I have ever made in my life were the ones that took me from 'living in my parents' house' to 'living absolutely fucking anywhere that is not my parents' house, seriously, I don't even care anymore'.

All of my other moves have been due to forces beyond my control. The semester ends, the lease ends, college ends, the friendship ends. Moving to Boston was the first time I've ever even had a choice as to where I went, and that was more a matter of figuring out where I thought it would be most pleasant to starve to death than anything else. Usually I'm just informed that as of X date, my home will not be my home anymore. The lead time varies. I land in the only place I can both find and afford before I'm out on the street.

I even hate it when the landlord has to come in to look at or fix something. I don't like reminding them that I'm there. I know I probably sound like big brassy trouble rolled in a boatload of sequins when you read my writing about the circus peeps and all, but I actually get through like 95% of my waking hours without talking to anybody. I'm used to authority figures looking at me in perplexity, realizing they have no idea what to do with me, and then quietly leaving me alone, on the theory that it'll make life much easier for both of us. This suits me fine, because when they meddle in my life, bad things happen.

Having someone simply inform you that you need to pack your shit and physically exist somewhere else makes the universe feel arbitrary and cruel. Anything could be taken away from you at any moment, and there's nothing you can do about it. The world does not care what you want or need from life, and is certainly unconcerned with your comfort.

I know perfectly well that if I were booted and left on the curb with all my luggage, I could find a place to sleep. I'd have to call a bunch of people and it would be intensely uncomfortable,  but someone would be able to take me in. But it would be for a few nights, living out of suitcases in a space that wasn't mine, and then I'd have to move again. And again. And again. It's incredibly hard to keep your head above water when you have no safe place to go home to. Physically, I'd be fine crashing with any of my friends, and I'm sure they'd be very nice to me, but emotionally it crushes me to feel like I'm living in a narrow hallway, constantly having to shuffle my things around and press myself against the wall so that other people can get past and into their proper rooms, always apologizing for being in the way. I'm not really supposed to be there, but there's nowhere else to put me. No matter how small I make myself, my existence is an inconvenience.

Money is always a problem. I'm wrestling with the idea that maybe I just can't adult like I'm supposed to without collapsing in on myself. One of my friends informed me that the problem was that the rest of the world didn't perceive the value in my contributions. He's a card-carrying mensch, and it is very nice of him to try to reframe the issue as 'you're clearly brilliant, they don't fucking know what they're talking about', but in the end, the problem is exactly the same: The set of things I am capable of doing and the set of things that would justify my inclusion in society are not isomorphic. It doesn't really matter how amusing people find me if I can't pay my own way in life.

How do I know what I can't do, for that matter? It's easy to figure out if you are mechanically deficient. I can't bench 300lbs, because I lack the musculature needed. When the deficiency is one of energy or concentration or being able to do things without dissolving into hysterical crying then I don't realize my incapacity for doing things until I notice I've spent a long time just not doing things, and try to figure out why. How do you explain to people that, while in theory you are physically and intellectually capable of doing that thing they want, on the soul-lular level, you have, as tumblr says, lost your ability to can? How do you tell them that you spend so much of your day talking yourself out of a dead panic and breathing very determinedly to keep yourself from passing out from heat and just getting the fuck out of bed so you can do some dishes that things like work that are normally of paramount importance just get shoved to the side?

And how do you justify doing -- or worse, buying -- anything even remotely fun while you're like that? "Because otherwise I would go insane" is not a very acceptable answer. "In for a penny, in for a pound," is not what they want to hear either, but it's closer. It's a bad idea to go hog wild, but even if I put every cent I had towards solving the problem, I would fall tremendously short. A couple dollars of chocolate seems like it shouldn't matter much, especially since it's calorie-dense and I'm not eating much of anything else. I still have a tiny stroke trying to figure out how to explain that later, when someone interrogates me about where the money's gone.

I feel like I have to defend how I came to own anything at all. I have a computer because I need it to work. I have portable widgets and fancy ball gowns because sometimes people give me things that aren't money. I can't sell them, they're not worth anything second-hand. I have costumes and hoops and makeup because it's part of how I make a living. I didn't blow all my money on toys, I never had any money to begin with. I don't expect other people to pay everything for me. I just make do without. You just don't notice, because I'm trying hard not to let it show. Acting skills are free, so I have a lot of them.

Jazmin is trying very hard to take me with her. Her mother and sister are also involved here, so I suspect there were a lot more arguments about it than I got to see. She's twenty-five. I don't want to be her hard life lesson on why it's a bad idea to trust people with money matters just because you like them.

I do want to thank, from the very bottom of my heart, everyone who has sent donations and well-wishes of any kind. Twenty bucks makes the difference between having groceries and not having groceries sometimes, and sympathy helps.

It sounds petty, but one of the really depressing things about not having any relatives worth speaking of is not having a lot of people who respond to crisis or holidays or birthdays by trying to feed you or give you useless tchotchkes. I don't really miss being handed stuff. I'd just have to move it later anyway, and gifts from my family always came with godawful strings attached. It's just isolating when events in my life, good or bad, go completely unremarked upon by the outside world.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

An Open Letter To The Gifted

Dear Young Enthusiastic Genius Kid,

Today is September 1st, so you're about to start college, or perhaps already have. That's great. I really hope you intended to be there. Universities are great places, if you actually want to go. A lot of your classmates don't, which is a social problem we're going to have to deal with someday, but many of you probably do, so congrats on obliterating the minimum SAT scores you needed to secure your spot.

I'm about to turn thirty-four. This makes me like way ancient by the standards of college freshmen. You really have no reason to believe me when I say I had much the same educational experience that you did, unless you go back through the archives of this blog and develop a vague feeling of kinship. That's fine. I didn't listen to anyone this old when I was your age either, which was probably a good decision, since most of them didn't know what they were talking about anyway.

I'm about to give you a piece of college advice that directly contradicts almost everything everyone else has ever said to you. And that piece of advice is:

Slack.

You have spent most of your academic career to date flipping between being ignored, because "being able to pass the assessment test" is considered equal to "receiving an appropriate education", and being buried under repetitive busywork, because they have nothing else to give you, and you can clearly carry the weight of the entire group project by yourself, so why fix the situation? The very few people who did pay attention, and had some glimmer of an idea of what to do with you, gave you extra assignments that were vast in scope, in the hopes you would trip over something that caught your interest.

These people meant well, but executed poorly. They literally had no idea what you could do with a subject if you got down to really thinking about it, so they were loath to give you clearly-defined goals. They were afraid that if they named an end point, you would achieve it, decide you were bored with their topic, and move on to something else. This is an entirely reasonable fear to have, because it's what people do. But by dodging this discomfort on their end -- their own fear that you might not achieve what they think you might be able to -- they've robbed you of an important life skill here, which is how to tell when you're done.

"Let's see how far you can take this," is not a project goal. "Let's see how far you can take this," is the kind of terrible idea you come up with halfway through a weekend in Cabo San Lucas after knocking back three shots of tequila and those two loose Vicodin you had left over from the last time you broke that ankle, which will shortly be replenished by an accommodating Mexican clinic when you do it again. By giving you a task that has no defined end point, they hope to instill in you a feeling that if you just work a little bit harder, you can do a little bit better, forever and ever, amen.

This is a brilliant tactic to use if you want to produce perpetual-motion machines, fueled by a lifelong nagging sense of inadequacy. It skips over how the perpetual-motion machine might feel about things. A lot of the perpetual-motion machines, as it turns out, are unhappy. They work according to paradigm as long as they can stand it, and then they burn out and drop off the radar. "Don't be like that," the outsiders tell the younger perpetual-motion machines. "Only losers quit. You have an obligation to use your brilliance for the good of everyone else."

You don't. You really, really don't. It's great if you do, and I'd recommend not using it specifically to be a dick, but you don't owe the world any symphony, theorem, or cure for cancer, if getting there kills you.

If you want to get through college with your sanity intact, learn how to slack off. You are a legitimate genius. They will expect you to excel in everything. Fuck 'em. If you have as much potential as they say you do, it would be mathematically impossible for you to fulfill it all in one human lifetime. Some things will seem fascinating and important to you. Some things won't. Don't feel guilty for this. Learn how to be just 'above average' in shit you don't care about so that you have energy to devote to shit you do.

About eighty kabillion people will be giving you stern, if unasked for, warnings about how you can't coast on raw brainpower your whole life, and you'll have to buckle down if you want to be the blazing success in the particular narrow manner the establishment expects you to be. They are lying. Misguided, at best. This Calvinist ethic of 'work until you drop dead' is based on how hard they expect they would have to work in order to achieve great things. They aren't you. If you can give them what they want without breaking a sweat, and you don't care enough to dig any farther into the subject, then do that. A+ work is A+ work no matter how little time and thought it took you. Effortless is not the same as worthless.

The system you're in is set up for people who think in a normal fashion, just uncommonly well. You are not this person. Your life will be a lot easier if you learn how to game the system. I'm not telling you to cheat. You have an eidetic memory, for God's sake, writing it on your hand is just lazy. I'm saying that when they give you an assignment with a process and an end goal, the most efficient way for you to finish it is to figure out what they really want, throw away their crap process, and complete something that looks a lot like the work you were asked for, but is much easier to do without driving yourself mental. A professor who demands an outline, a first draft, a second draft, a final draft, and a page full of potential references, will get exactly what they want if you write the damn paper in the first week, reverse-engineer the "early drafts", fill your bibliography and outline in from what you already wrote, and then spend your evenings playing Halo until it's time to turn everything in.

A professor who is also a genius kid will know perfectly well what you did, but a professor who is also a genius kid won't say anything about it, because they would have done the same damn thing. And judging from what my professors did around journal submission time, they still do.

You do have to learn how to apply yourself at some point. People will try to teach you. It won't necessarily work. Part of being a genius kid is having a lot of really caterwampus sorting systems in your internal indices, so the standard method of flashcards and highlighters may bore you so hard your brains try to leak out your ears in self-preservation. This teaches you nothing. Figure out how to jam things into your head on your own, if you have to. Once you have that skill, you have the option to use it full-tilt on things you care about, and use it half-assed on things you don't.

Boredom, in fact, will not just teach you nothing in the short-term, it may make you wrap back around to failing, if it's bad enough. You probably want to ignore everything your first advisor says that doesn't contain the words "required for graduation". (You can find a better advisor in your major later. Really.) As a freshman, they'll recommend you take a lot of 'study skills' and 'orientation' courses. "It's an easy A," is their argument. "All you have to do is show up and sign-in. No thinking required!" They seem to think this is wonderful. For someone who enjoys using their brain to do complicated and intricate things, being forced to physically transport yourself somewhere and sit for an hour and a half with nothing to think about is the very definition of Hell. If you know you won't go, drop the fuck out of that seminar. Your easy freshman A may be, I don't know, BIO 121 Lecture For Non-STEM Majors. Maybe the squishy-slimy stuff isn't interesting enough to devote your life to, but it's sufficiently cool to make you show up TTh afternoons and doodle paramecia in your notebook. Mine were always foreign language classes. You will confuse and probably alarm the machine-cog whose job is just to get students through their freshmen liberal studies courses before they die of alcohol poisoning, but it is your schedule.

Keep talking to people. College is like Earth, in that people with your particular variety of brain are going to be rare. On the other hand, college is also full of people who managed to best the thesis dragon in single combat and come out with their doctoral hoods only slightly singed, so you have a much better chance than average of finding some of the rare people while you're there.

Not all of your instructors will be on your level, which is disappointing. It's frustrating to deal with people who have the information you need to jump through the pointless hoop, but not the ability to understand why you want the whole thing at once rather than having it spoon-fed to you over the course of fourteen weeks. But a lot of your instructors will be, and if there's one thing I learned growing up like this, it's that genius kids care a hell of a lot less about age and rank than almost anyone else. Talk to the crotchety old English professor dude like he's a human being. Let some of the weird smart things slip. It's a super-secret handshake; if he recognizes it for what it is, the conversation will suddenly flip into a thing you might actually enjoy. He will not care that you are eighteen and he is nine million -- brains is brains, and interesting ones are uncommon.

Also, and almost completely unrelated: Learn to cook. Dorm life runs on a barter system. People will pay for ingredients and booze and trade you all kinds of things if it means they don't have to eat the godawful Dining Services food one more time.

Good luck,
A Slightly Older Genius Kid

Monday, August 31, 2015

Stephen Colbert Shares Why He Thinks Women Should Be In Charge Of Everything

In Glamour, of all places.

I have mixed feelings about essays like this. It's great to get acknowledgement from outside that no, you're not overreacting, people like you really are getting glossed over a lot and this is a thing that ought to be fixed. But words, as they say, are cheap. These these tend to be slacktivism at its most pernicious. Hey, I've raised awareness of something! Man, I'm tired. I've done my bit by pointing at the problem, and it's probably above my pay grade anyway, so I'll just go have a nap and let someone else make the actual changes.

Thing is, it's not above Colbert's pay grade. He could make these things happen.

Colbert is already signed onto a multi-year contract. He was told to bring his Report staff with him. IMDb lists him as executive producer for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and he makes snarky reference in one of his toonified podcasts to having to do line-item budgets for things like backup electrical systems. If the GQ profile is to be believed, Colbert is allowed to micromanage things to the point where he spent July wandering around the work crew restoring the Ed Sullivan Theater, asking technical things about the new HVAC installation. CBS seems to have just backed a dump truck full of money up to his house and told him 'go do whatever that thing is you do, and we'll sell some ads'.

In short, Colbert does not need to worry that the person who clears all the bookings will be a lazy dudebro. Colbert is the person you clear bookings with. There exists the possibility that someone higher up on the network food chain will bitch at him if they think The Late Show is turning into The View, but at least here at the beginning, they appear to be keeping their paws off his project until they figure out whether he's a genius madman or if people tuned in just to gawk at his shiny cufflinks.

Colbert does not react well to institutionalized sexism. He spends Caitlin Flanagan's first interview on the Report trying to figure out whether she's trolling everyone, and for the second one decides it doesn't matter and just puts the boot in a couple of times. (Side note: I can't tell if she's trolling. Which suggests her public fa├žade is all weird because she is, in some way, crazy.) A couple of other gender essentialists have ventured into his lair, and "Colbert" agrees with them enthusiastically every time, which I gather means Colbert himself thinks they're arguing on a par with his idiot character.

He doesn't react well to any kind of systematic oppression, in fact. The reasons he gives for even digging around in the subject suggest that he knows better than he'd like to what it's like to be on the bottom of the heap. The 'least of my brothers' bit he references in his Congressional testimony is Biblical -- I really lack the cultural context to properly appreciate a lot of this stuff, but the general gist of Matthew 25 is God sorting the decent people from the assholes, the assholes complaining 'hey, we did all kinds of worshipping, what gives?', and God explaining that no amount of brown-nosing is going to help you if you can't be nice to His favorite pets, i.e., your fellow man. The specific verse is Matthew 25:40, although his 'whatsoever' variant is actually from a hymn.

(I have to say, I'm imagining the life of a very smart, very sweet, very bookish LOTR-D&D-scifi-musical theater geek boy, in South Carolina, ca. 1980, and I am coming up snake eyes. Based on stuff like how he's learned to handle personal space and which things tend to poke him directly in the feels, plus some pattern recognition from my own life, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess most of his friends were girls. I'm glad he had his family and his faith for support, because his school life must've been hell.)

Colbert also has some family history in this -- his father, a physician and an academic, was appointed the first veep of academic affairs at the Medical University of South Carolina, and a few months later ended up talking to some of MLK's people and bringing an end to an ongoing strike at the hospital. Andrew Young talks about it when he's interviewed on the Report. Being as it was a university, there were plenty of smart people who could talk circles around you, but Dr. Colbert's main recommendation was apparently that he wasn't a jackass. Which tells you maybe a little bit about the Colbert family, and a lot about how bad race (and class) relations were in 1969. The family's endowed a chair at MUSC, with a focus on interdisciplinary activities. Fitting, assuming Colbert is anything like his father. The man cannot keep his nose out of anything even vaguely interesting, and can duct tape just about anything to just about anything else if it makes for a good joke.

I don't think the Glamour piece is fishing for credit. If it were, then he would have mentioned that his FEMINIST intentions were FEMINISTly inspired, by FEMINISTS, because it's a buzzword right now. Colbert never once uses the term. It might just be to remove any doubt that he's doing it intentionally. I wouldn't personally take the wiseass bits as evidence of insincerity; the entire Daily Show crew was, and is, very ha-ha-only-serious, Colbert especially so. I think it's his way of bleeding off enough of the tension to finish getting his thoughts out. It does not seem to have prevented the audience at GQ from taking him quite seriously.

One of the guests listed for his first week of shows is Scarlett Johansson. Given her history of being shafted in interviews as compared to the male Avengers stars, the Glamour piece, and the fact that Colbert is an enormous nerd (his set for The Colbert Report, if you've forgotten, had a Captain America shield hanging on one of the walls behind his desk), I have high hopes.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Having watched a metric fuckton of (secondhand) news lately, I have spent quite a lot of time staring at channel bugs while Jon Stewart points out how shit their owners are at reporting these days. Mainly he picks on Fox for being intensely good at a terrible mission, CNN for being terrible at a pretty good mission, and MSNBC for being so terrible in all respects it's a wonder any of them get paid.

CNN has existed since 1980, and has the incredibly generic name of Cable News Network because at the time, it was the only one. It theoretically aims to provide a non-biased source of plain unvarnished news. On the rare occasion where they manage to actually report something, rather than giving endless time to talking heads, CNN still carries most of the big non-network names in news -- people like Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper. Fox News and MSNBC were both started in 1996 as mortal enemies, Fox leaning hard right and MSNBC leaning hard left. They are both utter rubbish for telling you what's really going on, although they're great if you want to take a look at the wingnut/moonbat debate du jour.

BBC World News is available in the US to cable subscribers with a good enough package -- you get it at about the same subscription tier as ESPN2, I think. On the rare occasion that I want to know the news, the BBC iPlayer streams all their stuff. The Brits are rightfully proud of the role they've played in disseminating news whether in times of peace or war, so their news services are not region-locked. You can still listen in on shortwave, if you're so inclined.

The wee baby news network in the US is actually Al Jazeera America, which, given the social climate over here right now, you'd think would be the last thing to find commercial success. God forbid an Arabic lady read you news about the Greek financial crisis. The news service is based in Qatar, an infinitesimal country hanging out on the coast of Saudi Arabia, whose two main exports are oil and halfway-decent journalism. There is much wrong with Qatari society by American standards, but one advantage to being an emirate still actually ruled by the Emir is that if the Emir wants your news channel to keep running, your news channel will keep running no matter how much other countries bitch at him.

The channel bug for Al Jazeera is that whatzit over there. It looks suspiciously non-representational. It might be a flame, I suppose, but that has nothing to do with Al Jazeera; al-jazeera is Arabic for "the peninsula", as in the Arabic peninsula. My Arabic is terrible, but I recognize the general idea of the letter shapes; those square marks are the dots that go above or below certain letters, much like in English we dot lowercase I and J. You can see them in the text below the logo, where the swapped reading direction and adjective order conveniently put each Arabic string above its English equivalent.

The logo probably says "Al Jazeera" somehow, I reckoned. After sufficient staring, I figured out how most of it fit together; unbeknownst to me, if I'd bothered to spend another two seconds on Google, someone would show me how that worked in .gif form. But how the fuck are you supposed to turn that interlaced squiggle into "alif-laam-jiim-zayn-yaa-raa-taa marbuuta" if you don't already know what it says?

You don't, is the answer. I looked up how to decipher Arabic calligraphy and even the experts say 'if you haven't the foggiest clue what it says, just consider it a pretty design'. Traditionally, calligraphy pieces are of common sayings, quotations, or verses from the Qu'ran, which the reader is meant to guess at from whatever vague remnants of letterforms they can pick out.

I feel a lot less bad about not having the faintest clue what any of these damn things say now that I know they work almost entirely by priming.