Saturday, May 29, 2010

Slipping On The Noose

About six months ago, I was unceremoniously introduced to the world of the unemployed. I blogged about it at the time, as I do regarding most significant life-changing events. Last week's post contained a less-than-subtle hint that I've since managed to find new employment. Allow me to make it official and announce, formally, that I am indeed working again. Hooray for me!

My new employer requires that all male employees wear neckties. It's a technology company that services external customers, some of whom occasionally visit our offices, so the owners want everyone looking professional. Fair 'nuff.

I once read a quote (whose source I, unfortunately, don't know) which declared that neckties are for "compulsive neurotics who were prematurely toilet-trained" (and who) "carefully line up pencils on otherwise clear desks." Is that the image that we want to project to our clientele, gentlemen? Do we want to look like a bunch of wieners? Hmmm?

I haven't had to wear a necktie at work for over fifteen years. My very first job was with a very small startup venture whose offices were inconspicuously located in a tiny little rural town above a Stedman's store. Most of the employees were kids fresh out of college like myself. It was a very informal environment and we didn't get a lot of outside customers visiting us so we dressed casually.

My next job was with a medium-sized appliance manufacturer. It was a much more formal environment infested with V.P.s, managers and human resource wonks who all apparently placed a fair degree of importance on employee attire, so the men were expected to wear collared, button-down shirts, creased pants and, of course, the ubiquitous necktie.

My next two or three jobs also required me to wear a tie ... at first. Around the mid nineteen-nineties, however, business attitudes in general began to relax somewhat. More and more companies began to abandon the archaic insistence on the necktie in favor of a new standard of attire that became known as "business casual". Men were still required to wear shirts with buttons and collars, but the necktie was no longer mandatory and the pants need not be creased (although blue jeans were still considered "pantalones non grata"). The nicest thing, to me, about losing the necktie was that I could now wear short-sleeved shirts on warm days. You just can't wear a necktie with a short-sleeved shirt, unless you want to walk around looking like NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz.

Trends tend to be prone to a slippery slope effect and so, for the next few years, office dress codes continued to relax even more. By the time I returned to the aforementioned appliance manufacturer for my second tour of duty in 1999, office staff were wearing jeans and T-shirts to work. I'll concede that the workplace dress code pendulum may have swung a little too far in the opposite direction. The main problem here is that there will always be that small contingent of people with no sense of style or taste. You know what I'm talking about. The Wal-Mart crowd. They cause offense or embarrassment (for the human race in general), co-workers complain to management and management responds in the same way that they always do; with knee-jerk overreactions. Rather than dealing with the small handful of offenders individually, they pass sweeping policies and, before you know it, everybody's wearing neckties again. I've noticed a gradual shift back toward more formal office attire policies over the past five years or so among companies in general, not just my former employer.

What's the deal with neckties anyway? What, exactly, is the appeal of this decorative bit of silk (or polyester for the budget-minded) hanging from a man's throat? They have no practical purpose. They're not wide enough to be effective bibs or, if they are, you shouldn't be wearing them. They make you hot in the summertime, yet they really don't warm you up in the winter; not like an ascot, which is practically a scarf!

I did a little research on the history of the necktie. Seems that men have found it necessary to wear some form of ornamental decoration around their necks since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians, the Chinese and the Romans all wore ornamental neckwear that resembled ancestors of the modern contemporary necktie. These generally indicated social status in some manner, which explains why, even today, the higher one ranks on the corporate ladder, the more likely one is to be seen wearing a tie.

Since it's been so long since I've had to wear neckties on a regular basis, many of the ties that I still had were showing their age, so I bought some new ones. The other day, during an idle moment at the office, I took a moment to examine the tie that I was wearing a little more closely. "Montebello", read the label, "100% silk". Ooh! Italian silk! Classy! Then, underneath that, "Made in China". Ah! Apparently, this is a product of those well-known Chinese silk traders, the Montebellos, not to be confused with the notorious Sicilian Yuang family.

I once had a debate with a former work colleague about not just neckties, but office attire in general. The company for which we both worked at the time still required men to wear neckties. I, being always a bit of a rebel, had expressed a desire to dress more casually, especially since we never had external customers in our offices at the time. "Who were we impressing?" I challenged, "Each other?"

My workmate countered with the premise that one's attire affects one's work ethic. He seemed to be suggesting that, if we were to dress casually, our work habits would likewise become increasingly lax. What nonsense! I pointed out that, if he truly believed that, then he would be obliged to dress up when he had to come in to the office on the occasional weekend, as sometimes happened, or even if he were to work out of his home. He conceded that he wouldn't likely take the philosophy quite that far.

On the other hand, another gentleman whose acquaintance I recently made expressed the opinion that our attire affects the attitudes and demeanors of those with whom we come in contact. The example he gave was that of walking into an everyday coffee shop and, here, I'm talking about a real coffee shop; a Tim Horton's, not some pretentious Starbucks or William's. If you walk in wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap, you'll likely be greeted with something akin to "Yeah, what'll ya have?" Walk in wearing a dress shirt, pressed pants and a tie, on the other hand, and you're much more likely to hear "Good morning, sir, how can I help you today?" Here, I'm inclined to agree. Our appearance has a decided impact on how people regard us.

Being a little older and, hopefully, a little wiser than I was when I had that debate about office attire with my old colleague, my rebellious attitude toward neckties has mellowed somewhat. I no longer detest them quite as much as I used to. Heck, I even have a little fun with them. This past week, I walked into the office one day sporting a plain but very bright canary-yellow tie against a dark mauve shirt. An exercise in contrast. The following day, I wore a tie whose color matched that of the shirt that I wore so closely that, at first glance, you almost couldn't tell that I was wearing one (a tie, I mean, not the shirt). Yes, I've learned to accept the necktie, although I'm still no Bryan Ferry.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Speed of Thought

Last month, when I posted The Genius of Pac Man, I didn't realize that Pac Man's 30th anniversary was only a month away, else I'd have saved it for yesterday. No matter. If you haven't already read it, feel free to click the link above in honor of the anniversary.

Do you think in sentences? I sometimes like to take a walk in the early morning, before work. The weather is nice this time of year, and it's quiet, and it gives me a chance to reflect on "things". As I allow my thoughts to roam where they will, I find myself thinking in sentences.

"I should wash the car this weekend."

"What can I blog about this weekend?"

"Get a load of me! After being unemployed for five months, I've only been back at work for four weeks, and I'm already obsessing about the weekend!"

As I mentally formulated these sentences in my mind during recent walk, I suddenly realized that this is a redundant mental activity. I had already finished the thought long before I'd finished mentally assembling it into words.

I believe that we think in concepts, not in language. Language is a tool for communicating the concepts to others. The concepts themselves don't take nearly as long to formulate as it takes to communicate them.

Before Firefox became an alternative web browser, it was a fictional fighter jet that Clint Eastwood stole from the Russians. Remember that movie? If you saw it, you may also remember that one of the features of this cutting-edge Russian weapon was thought-control. No cumbersome pushing of buttons or pulling of control sticks. The pilot merely had to think what he wanted to do, and the plane would do it. The only problem was that, as it was a Russian aircraft, the pilot had to think in Russian. At one point, Eastwood's character couldn't seem to launch any defensive missiles because he was thinking about launching them in English. Realizing his mistake, he repeated the thought in Russian and launched the missiles just in time to avoid certain disaster.

How ridiculous! We don't think in words! As anyone who has ever looked at an E.E.G. readout will tell you, we think in little squiggly lines! A mental image of an airplane launching missiles would be neither Russian nor English.

The advantage of this advanced thought-control technology was supposedly speed. A pilot could launch a missile much more quickly by just thinking about it as opposed to having to think about launching the missile, then remembering what control makes that happen, and then physically activating that control. I could see this advantage backfiring, though. It may well be that thoughts are a bit too immediate. If a pilot encountered an unknown aircraft, simple paranoia might cause him to instinctively think about shooting it down. By the time he had a chance to identify it and realized that it was, in fact, a friendly fighter jet, or a Boeing 747 full of tourists, he might already have launched six missiles at it. Or what if you had a somewhat dyslexic pilot in the cockpit? As the plane approached a particularly high mountain peak, it might nosedive straight into the ground!

Exploring this idea a little further while taking my walk, I made a conscious decision to stop mentally formulating my thoughts into sentences. Sure enough, I found that an unending stream of concepts, perceptions and emotions suddenly flowed through my brain very quickly. But I also found these concepts, perceptions and emotions to be very fleeting. It seems that, for me at least, mentally formulating my thoughts into sentences helps to solidify them. It makes them more substantial and lasting. Without some sort of structure, thoughts become almost dreamlike; all jumbled and disjointed.

This post was mentally conceived in about 0.7 seconds.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Paralyzed by Choice

I recently ventured into my grocery store's "health and beauty" aisle on a quest to acquire a tube of toothpaste. Doesn't sound like a great challenge, does it? After all, there's lots to choose from. Too much, in fact. That's the problem.

To begin with, there are, of course, several brands to choose from. Crest? Colgate? Closeup? Aquafresh? Ultra brite? That's to be expected. Then I need to decide if I want a paste or a gel, or maybe one of those swirly paste/gel combos. What really drives me nuts, though, is the plethora of specialties within each brand. Do I go for tartar control? Cavity prevention? Whitening? What if I want all of the above? What if I want to control tartar, prevent cavities and whiten my teeth? Fear not! They've thought of that too. There's "Colgate Total" or "Crest Multicare" for demanding bastards like me who have to have it all. Of course, this does beg the question why anybody would buy one of those one-trick-pony toothpastes rather than the one that does everything. They generally cost about the same amount. Maybe some people just don't need all of that. Maybe there are people out there with dingy, yellow teeth who just never get tartar buildup or cavities, so all they need is whitening toothpaste. I don't know.

It's the same with over-the-counter cold medications. I recently went to get come Contac-C. I didn't have a cold, but we were low and I like to have some around for when someone does catch a cold. There's a Contac-C for sinus congestion, one for runny noses, one for coughs, one for colds and flus, one for sore throats, one for fevers and let's not even get into night-time or non-drowsy! What if I buy the wrong one? What if I buy the Contac-C for colds and flus and then get a sore throat? Boy, wouldn't I feel like an idiot! Knowing me, I'd wind up with a medicine cabinet full of six different kinds of Contac-C that cure every ailment except for the one that I happen to have.

Excuse me sounding like an old fart but my life is complicated enough without having to stress out over which toothpaste or cold remedy to buy. I just want a toothpaste that cleans my teeth, okay? That means whitening, tartar control and cavity protection. The same goes for cold remedies. Just give me something that relieves the usual cold symptoms. You can even drop the night-time versions. Just because a cold remedy is "non-drowsy" doesn't necessarily mean that it will actually keep me awake if I take it at night, does it? If I happen to take it before bed, I'll get to sleep on my own.

Obviously, there are costs involved in developing and creating all that varied packaging for essentially one product; both the cost of creating the packaging itself and the marketing costs involved in researching and developing it. Why not keep it simple, and pass the savings on to consumers?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lego My Tie Interceptor!

My nineteen-year-old nephew, Jonathan, was doing a little spring cleaning in his bedroom recently. While cleaning out his closet, he came upon a model of a TIE interceptor (from Star Wars for you non-geeks) made out of Lego. He had bought the miniature starfighter when he was twelve years old, had patiently assembled it, and it had adorned his bedroom for several years before finally being relegated to the closet. Now, he decided that he had finally outgrown it, but it seemed a shame to simply throw out the replica which he'd spent so many painstaking hours assembling and which, for that matter, had been not inexpensive when acquired, especially for someone with the income of a twelve-year-old. But what else to do with it?

Why, give it to his forty-seven year old uncle Andy of course! It would look right at home next to his voice-command Artoo-Detoo, his die-cast Titanium series Millennium Falcon, his Darth Vader chopper toy, his AT-AT walker, his vintage battery-operated tin airplane, his latex Batman cowl with matching Batmobile and his large collection of Simpsons paraphernalia, too numerous to list. And indeed it does!

Truth be told, I don't really have an appropriate place for the thing myself, especially considering that it's not exactly small! It measures about 15 inches long by 10 inches wide by 11 inches high. The only place that my wife will let me keep it, of course, is in my already cluttered attic but, what with all that other stuff, I've run out of free surfaces. Still, my inner nerd absolutely refused to allow me to turn it down.

On a slightly more serious note, let me say for the record that I've always liked the look of the generic TIE fighter ever since they were first introduced in the original Star Wars movie (now commonly known as Episode IV: A New Hope). It was refreshing to me to see a spaceship design that abandoned the stereotypical rocket ship or flying saucer look. Heck, it doesn't even look aerodynamic which, of course, is completely unnecessary for a space vehicle. The large solar panels are a semi-credible means of collecting energy for power generation (at least within reasonable proximity to some kind of star) and its small size and unusual shape gives it a tiny profile, making it a tricky target to hit, at least from the front or back.

Of course, I do see some practical problems with the design. Between the forward-facing-only window and the huge panels on either side, the pilot's field of vision would be extremely limited. If you're anywhere other than right in front of him, he can't see you. I wonder how many TIE fighter pilots have died, never knowing what hit them?

The Empire seems to have some kind of hangup about limiting their soldiers' field of vision in general. Those stormtroopers probably don't have much of a peripheral vision inside those helmets of theirs either. That's probably why none of them can seem to hit the broad side of a bantha with those blasters of theirs. Darth Vader himself could sympathize with their plight, since his helmet and mask caused the same problem. I've worn a Darth Vader helmet and mask (a confession which I'm sure hardly shocks you at this point) so I know whereof I speak! The Dark Lord of the Sith needed his Force powers just to figure out who was standing around him!

Anyway, practical design flaws aside, I still think that TIE fighters are cool and, dammit, one way or another, I'm making room for my new toy in my attic. Thanks Jonny! You're my favorite nephew!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Courtroom Sketch Artists

I was reading a news article about the Omar Khadr trial which included the courtroom sketch that you see above. That got me wondering why people still sketch courtroom proceedings by hand in this age of digital imagery.

A quick consultation with the Repository of All Truth, Wikipedia, informed me that many courtrooms don't allow cameras during the trial, and so the sketch artist remains the only medium for capturing images of legal proceedings. However, the judiciary ban on cameras seems directed primarily against the media. If the objection to courtroom photography focuses on the potential distraction caused by media photographers in the courtroom rather than the capture and distribution of courtroom images in and of itself, then His Honor, Justice Halmanator must deem that objection overruled.

At risk of incurring the wrath of UCSA (the Union of Courtroom Sketch Artists), couldn't you replace the courtroom sketch artist with a similar public official equipped with a digital camera? With today's technology, they wouldn't even have to use a flash, necessarily. That way, you could get a whole lot more pictures and quickly pick the best ones for publication.

It's not like there's no precedent for using technology to update archaic courtroom procedures. Look at stenographers. In the days when courtroom transcripts were recorded by scribbling on paper in shorthand, writers cramp was the scourge of courtroom stenographers everywhere. Eventually, the stenotype machine was able to relieve this occupational hazard, while significantly increasing the speed at which courtroom stenographers could record their transcripts. These were eventually replaced with computerized stenotype machines, eliminating paper entirely. If there's no problem with updating the technology to capture the spoken word, why not do the same for capturing images?

As for any UCSA members concerned about their job security, nobody's suggesting that the same people couldn't continue to do the job, and simply trade up their paper, pencils and pastels for digital cameras. I understand that courtroom sketch artists may not get the same professional satisfaction out of snapping digital photos as they do from practicing their artistic acumen so, fine, feel free to pick the best digital picture and render it by hand afterward if you really must. Besides, that way you have the advantage of subjects who hold their positions while you draw them.

I've always suspected that a photographic memory must be a prerequisite skill for courtroom sketch artists. I mean, it's not like they can ask the court to freeze long enough to draw their pictures.

Courtroom Sketch Artist: Hold it! Hold it everybody! If you could hold those positions for just a moment please? Uh, Mr. Khadr, could you tilt your chin up just slightly? Yes, that's good. Now look at the prosecuting attorney ... yes, good ... er, don't smile though. This man is trying to put you away for life. He's not your friend. Look adversarial; defiant ... yes, that's good! Now, if the defence attorney could just rest her hand, lightly on Mr. Khadr's shoulder. You're reassuring your client. You're there for him. Everything's going to be alright. Good! Now everyone just hold those positions for just a few minutes...

I think we can all see how digital photography would just make things so much easier.

Disclaimer: There is, to the best of my knowledge, no courtroom sketch artists union known as the UCSA. I made that up. Three organizations that have adopted the acronym UCSA include the University of California Students' Association, the University of Canterbury Students' Association and the University of Canberra Students' Association, none of which directly represent courtroom sketch artists, but all of which might conceivably produce them.