Sunday, June 12, 2011

Random Roundup

1. Why would-be engineers end up as English majors
Well, to dispense with the obvious, it's not for the job opportunities. Things are bad out there for engineers, but I'd hate to be trying to parlay a literature degree into paying work these days. And I've seen how hard even brilliant writers have to work to be noticed. There is an insult built into that headline.

This article was thrown out by the RPI alumni association, and I was uncharacteristically moved to respond. The problem is that I fail to grasp its justification that we need more scientists and engineers. As mentioned, the job market for even experienced engineers and scientists isn't great, or at least no one's falling over themselves to hire me. We're not so valued that we're actually paid a whole lot compared to the remunerative sort of "knowledge" work (unless we go into management), especially if you're a science researcher, which career path also includes some massive opportunity costs. It seems like the establishment job opportunities are shrinking, and there are not such prestige positions floating in the manufacturing plants anymore to inspire the working class kids, because the damn plants are gone. Thankfully, there remains hope on the new ideas side of science and engineering, and I agree that innovation is incredibly important for our economy. To be an innovator, that's an exhausting life of start-up-like environments, but it's great if you make it, or fit that mold, but you're basically on your own swimming in the big world with a rational probability to sink, and as any manager will opportunistically tell you, managing a startup is not necessarily the same skill as science and engineering.

I do not agree to the full faithful extent that innovation will fuel American job growth. It should, but how long has it been since this was actually the case in America? (Outside of the defense industry?) Seems the first thing that happens to a startup project when it hits the big time, they go and build a production plant in China. The problem of disappering manufacturing in the US has little or nothing to do with science education.

Like teaching, science and engineering is basically a professional field that American society pretends to value more than it actually values, and I'd complain about it more, except I have not missed how much less they value teaching. The real utility I see for science education is meta: the country would probably be better off with a bunch of trained engineers and scientists we don't hire rather than with a bunch of trained lawyers we don't hire. Our society suffers from our abject terribleness at quantitation and empiricism. But I don't think training kids in liberal arts is a bad idea either, and disagree it's an educational ultimatum. Our society also suffers from our abject terribleness at humanity.

RPI is an institution that, at least in the early 90s, unrepentantly adopted the sink-or-swim system. Lots of incoming freshman, and they gave us the "look to your left, look to your right" deal at orientation. As a student, I had little problem with it, although it did feel pretty impersonal. I doubt that learning to flourish in an environment where I could perform without really interacting with the professors or grad students did any wonders for my character or my later career. I did like it better than the grad school environment, where I didn't feel any particular expectations.

As a parent seeing college in the not-so-distant horizon, I am a lot happier to imagine a system that's liberal about admissions, but rigorous about academics. This at least gets kids through the increasingly ridiculous application and acceptance process (at least if all the scare stories are true), and gives a chance to the young people who have the capacity to tough it out, or who have an aptitude that is not well-reflected by their SAT score. It's already bad enough how kids are classified and sorted as alphas, betas, etc., at the frist opportunity, and sink-or-swim at least gives them the opportunity to swim.

And personally, I'd love an English-major type of job. How do I get one? I am vain to think I might get a little farther as an engineer who dabbles in English than as a wordsmith who decides to take up engineering, or at least I've seen it happen that way more often. Or maybe I'm already there. My boss told me last week that what I really produce is PowerPoint slides. Depressingly, he's right.

2. Obligatory Weiner Stroking
I'm brave about statements like that right up until I actually enounter people who are good at English, at which point I can be counted on to, uh, um, do some speak-stuff or something, er, and stuff. It's more accurate to say that I've seen mediocre engineers turn to mediocre wordsmiths more than the other way around, but the quality literary folks seem to be cut from some other cloth entirely. This sorry segment is derived from a comment I left among my betters in wit and words over at alicublog. The fuckers.

I'd like to firm up an opinion here, take the wax off the subject, but it's such a damn tiresome thing to flog. I don't approve of celebrity worship either, but what ever happened to placing these guys up as the world's most unlikely hearthrobs? I mean Jackie was a fashionable gal, but Jack? The dude looked like he just emerged from under a bridge. The next batch of under-50s were more fuckable than he was, by the questionable judgment of this straight stiff, but look where that ever got 'em. The one dude, it got impeached. The way I see it, politicians, even the good guys, already live a prurient double life. There's the public face of integrity, representation and idealism, and then there's the actual business end of it, forging compromises with the deeply anti-democratic power elite. Weiner, to his credit, thrust against a famous supreme court justice, not just his disreputable tendency to address the female staff with porn and pubes, but the slim feller was gripped in a campaign to confront the quiet man's wife's conveniently undisclosed lobbying efforts. Andrew "supervillain" (thanks, Roy!) Breitbart's cozy relationship to the selectively adjudicating motherfucker is a factor here too.

And although recent news looks as if Weiner's boned, if that public/private friction only comes out as fairly juvenile dick pix, then to this citizen, it's almost a relief. I mean, it sure beats the sort of fucking the Clarence Thomas family endorses, and at the very least, Weiner wasn't a hypocritical Family Values sort of bullshitter.

The whole thing makes me wonder how much more ridiculous politics is going to be for the generation that came of age after digital photography was commonplace. I can see it now. "Judge Stuart, your record is remarkably impartial and you are highly respected by your peers, presenting only the most serious judicial countenance. But on the other hand, how do we know you can be trusted not to once again" [dramatic pause, and then flourished photos] "go wild?" Either we're going to reach a point where we only elect the most horrid prudes to office, or else evidence of mild deviancy is going to be so common among the general population, we'll finally stop giving such a righteous fuck about it all. Obviously I'm hoping for the latter--hell, I wish I had a little more deviancy of my own as a reference, but I also wouldn't rule out the next Not-So-Great Awakening hitting us as everything else in the world goes to shit too.

3. Traveling, Part N+1.
I've got another trip coming up next week. Yeah, you've already heard a hundred-and-four ways that I loathe these trips, so why not offer number up the 105th, even if we're getting into the territory of sheer pettiness.

A day trip is bad enough, but let's observe for a moment that your typical military-industrial hub is frequently peppered with museums, and, less frequently, nice restaurants. Does the trip have to be so joyless, boss? I'm figuring if you're willing to dump twenty-five bucks to feed me at the mid-scale airport chain, then fine, I can spring for another twenty-five for a quality meal and a glass of decent wine and the privilege to not have to think of any anodyne conversation to fill up an otherwise spiritually vacant forty-five minutes of my life. Find a hotel in walking distance of something, you soulless monster, or at least let me borrow the keys to the car for once. The scheduling of these things, and next week's is no exception, is an inspiration of dullness. Land at about 7:30 (clamber into the hotel room a little after 8) for a 9 AM meeting. Brilliantly, this leaves me a wealth of time to listlessly stand around, but not quite enough of it to shoehorn in a movie, even. It's enough to drive a man to blog.

At least when I used to work in Washington, I had an excuse. I was limited by where I lived (the least interesting highway stop in northern Virginia) and worked (the other side of the river), and a need to hightail it back to my young family every night. It's an extra special "free" time of travel, however, when I can depend on a dinnertime flight out of Boston (mmm-mm, Logan's finest, and no booze), a morning meeting, and a carefully scheduled return trip designed to preclude any stops on the way to National Airport's feasts of grease, salt and upscale plastic utensils. I can't wait!

Friday, June 03, 2011

Review: Lamb, by Christopher Moore

I felt that I was clever to choose this book for Easter reading, not by virtue of the menu item (which in the context of one of the story episodes, would have been a little off-putting anyway), but for its holiday theme. Lamb is a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ (some time later, thanks to some divine intervention) by his best friend Biff. That cover synopsis gives you all you need to understand the tone and theme of the book, but there's a note of honesty beneath the levity, and a touch of context under the unlikely adventures. Biff's just a nickname anyway, based, he tells us, onomatopoeically on the frequent disciplinary whacks to the head he tended to receive. The son of God is given to us as his friend Joshua, which is a little bit closer to his Hebrew name, not thanks to Moore's sense of accuracy I think—he doesn't do the same thing with the rest of the gang—but to help create a little more distance between the character and the usual weight of his Christian associations. If nothing else, it's all worth it to make a joke when a reanimated Biff encounters a guy named Jesus. Moore can't resist a healthy bit of this sort of intentionally anachronistic humor, and Biff gets to "invent" a lot of modern traditions for this sake. Sometimes it's brilliant: Biff's dissertation on sarcasm vs. irony, for example, is priceless, but some of the others are just good-natured groaners. Sure, it's a given that Jesus Christ might appreciate some of the mental discipline of studying martial arts, and reject the aggressiveness. But Jew-do, "the way of the Jew"? Where's my tomato. (On the other hand, I agree completely with the author that the question of "what if Jesus knew kung-fu" is indeed an essential one.) Moore also smartly works in a few early bits that Jesus would later use in his sermons. You might learn about foundations, for example, if you're apprenticed at an early age to the depressing life of a stonemason. And I think I laughed every single time Biff said Jeez! in the usual modern way. It's a silly book, but one where the jokes belie a certain depth, reminiscent of Terry Pratchett's writing, the style and tone (and subject) of Good Omens in particular. Biff is a great narrator, the obnoxious smartass who is funny enough, with enough underlying decency, and who gets a regular enough comeuppance to keep him loveable. The whole thing is obviously playful and speculative about a story that some people take very seriously, and it clearly doesn't place much weight on the hard-to-swallow-anyway One True Wordiness of the gospels, but it's irreverent in a way that I think will affirm the basic message if you're a more liberal-minded believer, and that will draw out the power of the story if you're not a believer at all. After all, if there was anyone who was entitled to a little gallows humor, it was Jesus H. Christ.

Because when you get to it, it's the human element of the Christ story that's the powerful one. Here's some poor bastard (literally) who's saddled with being the son of God, has some idea of what's in store for him, and, if you want to take the tradition as, um, gospel, then he's got some idea of the sacrifices that his sort of sinlessness is going to entail. How hard it must be to embody the contradiction of a loving god who has nonetheless consigned us to all of this crap (which was even more craptastic than usual in occupied Judea). Moore does a good job finding a uniting character to marry together the various accounts of his life, making Joshua some combination of a distant brooding studious sort and one of those rare truly decent folks, irrepressibly earnest, oblivious to the danger of speaking his mind, and yet engaged with the people, impossible to dislike. The girls loved him of course, but the poor guy was destined to love everyone, which isn't easy when you're 14. It's got to take a little inner torture to get to the inner peace. Jesus would have needed a friend like Biff to get him through his youth at least, someone to lie and distract for him as he went about his righteous subversion. Otherwise, how would he even make it to 33 with that habit of calling things as he wisely saw them and showing up the authorities.

The first third of the book, covering the early years, is probably the most entertaining, where we can see Josh and Biff acting most like children and teenagers, and dealing with the pressures of growing up fast in tough times, as well as with some of the neighborhood awkwardness that comes with Josh's whole who's-your-daddy issue. I think here's where Jesus most convincingly needs a helpful Biff too. As they get old enough, the boys are inspired to explore Joshua's heritage, and hunt down the three wise men. This takes them on a rather lengthy trip east, devoting years of their life to the study of Chinese and Arab teachings, early Chinese Buddhism (the admitted stretch—in addition to karate, he learns something about compassion and original sin from a yeti), and some yogi mysticism. (He eventually outclasses these teachers as much as he did the Pharisees.) And this is great, because now we can finally make a guess as to where Jesus might have obtained his Buddha nature, not to mention some select bits of Confucianism, some inner-spirit conjuring tricks, and in an earlier cameo, the version of the golden rule attributed to the rabbi Hillel. The last third of the book takes us through the gospels, kind of the backstage view of the events we're familiar with. This is the weakest section to my mind, as Moore doesn't get to innovate as flippantly, and is stuck trying to find a new angle on old material. Most of the disciple gang are a bunch of useless fuckups and true believers—I was especially disappointed with Thomas, who was made into a dolt to serve a pun--but we do get some good jokes here and there. After a Looney Tunes moment at Peter's expense on the lake, it's "Peter, you're dumber than a box of rocks. I'm going to call you..."

The apostles quickly attain the wisecracking level repartee of a fraternity bullshit session, which is okay by me and all, but it comes at the point where the book most needs to acknowledge its serious points. If we're running under the assumption that the new testament is basically a true story, then someone had to be capable of pulling off all that evangelizing. But on the other hand, our narrator Biff is given to deconstructing things like capability an leadership (his whole raison d'être is to humanize his friend after all), so it fits pretty well. And poor Biff. He's constantly accused of being dense, which he may have been—willfully—but it comes through that it's really his annoyingness that made the writers of the original gospels ignore his contributions. That's tragic enough, but among all of them, he was clearly the most loyal, and clearly understood Jesus/Joshua far beyond the capability of the rest. And he is the one whose passion for the guy prevented him from buying in at the very end, his wisdom to challenge the truth and the justice of it only left him out-saved by an endless bunch of simpleton zealots. Biff at least, with a chance to tell his story, is given a touching second go.