Sunday, March 27, 2011

RIP Diana Wynne Jones

It's been quite a week for death. Liz Taylor died, Geraldine Ferraro died, one of my best friends' cats almost died and Diana Wynne Jones died. I was informed of her death this morning at breakfast.

We were discussing Liz Taylor and one of my friends looked sadly at me and said "Things come in Threes--Diana Wynne Jones died." I was upset by this as I have not been by a celebrity death in a long time (possibly ever.) I had spent the last few months stalking the young adult sections in bookstores to see if she had a new novel out.

Diana Wynne Jones was a phenomenon. She was a prolific writer of science fiction who wrote quality work. I can't remember what was the first book of hers I read (probably Howl's Moving Castle, since I fell in love with the film) but I had *avoided* her work for a long time simply because there was so much of it. Most science fiction writers who have a bajillion titles in print write crap (or at least, they started out well, but about halfway through their careers--either because their name sold books or because editors became afraid of them--they started writing crap.) There are exceptions (that fella with the German name--stars with V) but are you going to tell me that every volume by Asimov is brilliant? Every Harry Potter book? I'm not not even going to defend Tanya Huff's every work and if you know me well you know how I value Ms Huff's contribution to the genre.

As mentioned above it took me a while to pick up a Diana Wynne Jones novel. I didn't know about her when I was a young adult (I was all about Lois Duncan until I graduated to Stephen King) but I have no problem with reading books written for a younger audience. Before you roll your eyes and mutter "Harry Potter" under your breath consider that The Hobbit was written for Tolkien's grand-kids. Sometime in the last five years or so I started reading Diana Wynne Jones' books. I did not love all of them. I did however love most of them. I was fascinated by her characters and the worlds she created for them to inhabit. Even the books I didn't like were well thought out.

Among the authors I like she is a bit of an outlier. True, she is a female science fiction writer, but she doesn't have a chip the size of Texas on her shoulder. She doesn't write geek books, her books all are pre-internet-even the most recent one (although there is a computer in her most recent book, it is not connected to the internet and behaves like a computer circa 1980--one of the characters keeps calling it a "computall") She has rather, um, traditional gender roles in her books (women cook, clean and do secretarial work and the one feminist character I've encountered is kind of a laughingstock) but I still find her books great fun.

She has both male and female protagonists but they are always young. She wrote series of books--the Chrestomanci Chronicles and The Howl's Moving Castle series--but once the protagonists have grown up, they are background characters. They may still be important, but we don't see through their eyes anymore. Instead a new, younger protagonist tells us what he or she thinks about them. I think that's part of what allowed her to keep producing interesting books.

When my friend told me that Diana Wynne Jones had died I was crushed. There will be no more of her books. I will never find out how Marianne Pinhoe gets on at Chrestomanci castle, or see how Cat Chaunt does as Chrestomanci. It's an odd feeling. Many of my favorite authors are already dead. There will never be another Dickens novel or another Dumas novel or even another Roger Zelazny novel. I was sad and shocked when Douglas Adams died, but this is different. In fact it is because Ms. Wynne Jones is an outlier. Douglas Adams gave us the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and a few other things (I think all will agree that the Hitchhiker's Guide was his Magnum Opus) I felt that he'd already done his big thing. I was also sad when Kurt Vonnegut died, but he had become (for good reasons, I think) a bitter old man and I wasn't expecting anything further from him.

Diana Wynne Jones is different for me. Because she's been publishing for a long time I went out of my way *not* to discover how old she was, because I didn't want to know how much more time she had to write books. That's how much I like her writing. It's not like a friend of mine has died. It's not like an artist I like has died (Johnny Cash, Douglas Adams, etc.) It's something in between the two.

My heroes--be they authors or politicians or actors or singers do not improve with success or age. Some of them change their tone, some of them (the wise ones) don't have anything further to say once they've made their point. Diana Wynne Jones was unusual because she continued to write good fiction even though she was already successful. How good was it? Good enough that I'm thinking "now I'll never know how X and Y end." She didn't write fiction that was designed to change people's minds--like Vonnegut, Dick, Rowling*--as far as I can tell she wrote fiction to entertain and she did it well. I will miss her.

*I only included Sci-fi/Fantasy authors in this list. I omitted Zola, Dickens, Gaskell, Sartre, Sinclair, etc.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Decorative Pillow Intervention

Yesterday I worked. Today I had a North Shore Princess day. My best friend picked me up at 9 and we drove to Gloucester to meet two other friends for breakfast at Sugar Mags. Then we all went to Good Harbor beach with the dogs.

After walking the dogs I went shopping with two of my friends. I needed a new bar stool because my favorite place t perch in my apartment is at the kitchen bar and this week I noticed that there were dangerous structural flaws in my current bar stool. So I planned to buy a new chair. My best friend (who was driving me around to buy a new chair) had been saying I needed a few rugs to brighten up the atmosphere of the apartment, so apparently I was also shopping for rugs. Not real rugs-since I wasn't emotionally prepared to spend the money on an area rug (and besides--I hadn't measured my living room) but little throw rugs. Fine. I need to buy a chair, but if they think I need a few bits of carpeting I'm game-so long as they're not expensive. I agreed to a small blue and brown rug for $30 and then they insisted I needed a little rug to stand on at the sink--like a bathmat. So we looked at bath mats. They had several that looked like sea anemones (or skinned muppets.) I grabbed one and started chasing one of my friends with it. The Blob is coming for you.."Clearly you like it." said my friends.

We went to lunch and then we went to Pier 1 to look at chairs. This is when they attacked. "A few decorative pillows would really transform that couch." They said. "But the couch is always covered with books and clothes and school-crap." "When was the last time you spent money on beauty?" one of them asked. "You really need to make your place more hospitable-that way you'll feel happier there." "Is this an intervention?" Apparently it was.

I don't care about pillows and colors. All I care about is a nice bed and a comfortable place to sit with my computer.I don't want to own useless stuff--I live in a small apartment. But these were not marketing people urging me to buy these things--these were my friends. It occurred to me that, while I didn't see the need to own decorative pillows they might be right. They might know something I don't know. Just because I don't need decor doesn't mean that I shouldn't take their advice. They are trying to help me--the same way I try to help them when their computers get messed up. Also, they are my potential guests. My space is not just about me--even if I'm uninterested in decor, my lack of it might make other people uncomfortable.

So I bought the pillows and a nice throw rug and let my friends install them. They insisted on cleaning/moving a few other things as well. We measured the living room for future rug purchases and they made a few drape suggestions. While it's not my bag it's kind of nice to be able to trust people to help me with something.

And above all, it's wonderful to have friends who I can go to brunch with and who care about my living space enough to insist that I buy rugs.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Let me tell you about my day..

I went into work today. I was tired because it had already been a full week, but today was going to be okay. I would be working with my favorite geeks, doing geek things (moving e-mail over to a new domain, swapping the firewall out--fun stuff like that.)

I knew that there would be a few problems (and there were) but instead of it being just me and a consultant on the phone I had a few allies. This meant that when I remembered we had to change a setting on all the computers (or when in the course of doing stuff we discovered we needed to change a setting on all the computers) I would only have to change settings on *half* the computers-because someone else would deal with the other half.

More than that though, I had someone to eat lunch with, someone to laugh with when things went wrong and someone to prove (to myself at least) that when things went wrong it wasn't all my fault. 70 percent of IT projects fail--according to my IT project management textbook. It also meant that when things didn't go according to plan there was someone with a stronger personality than I have to tell the consultant working off site that "I'll take care of it tomorrow" is not okay all the time.

So even though it was a working Saturday it was going to be a good working Saturday. No Boss-just the geek squad doing geek things and snarking about it.

I mentioned how empty the streets looked-since it was Saturday. "Oh there's going to be a protest about Libya later in the day." one of my colleagues responded.

"What kind of protest? Against Khadaffi? Against Obama? Pro Khadaffi?" He didn't know. We went back to watching the consultant who was remotely connected to the computer we were working on attempt and fail (repeatedly) to sync up Outlook with the new Exchange environment. We offered each other MST3K commentary on how he was doing.

The consultant sorted out what needed to be done and told us about it. Meanwhile another colleague of mine was working in the server room on our domain controller (which is unwell-to put it mildly.) I went in to talk to him and noticed a cockroach the size of my thumb on the floor. In many ways I count myself as a tough girl. Dealing with giant bugs isn't one of them. I screamed and flailed. My colleague in the server room asked for a glass and paper. I provided the glass and two kinds of paper--a wad of paper towels for squashing and a sheet of 90# office paper to slip under the glass. He took the latter, slid it under the glass and handed the glass to me to dispose of the animal. Hmm, I may scream like a girl when I see giant insects but neither of the nerd boys in the room felt like helping me dispose of the creature*. I took it to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet.

Then we went to lunch and got burritos. We told the remote consultant we'd call him after lunch and watched a video review of a new smart phone while we ate. After lunch I checked facebook. Ted Rall had posted that the US was invading Libya. I walked back to the conference room where my lunch-buddy was and said "I know what the protests are about now." Apparently so did he--since he was reading CNN at the time. "Has the whole world gone mad?" I asked "Maybe?" he answered. It's not polite to discuss politics with coworkers so we didn't say more about it--besides we had 16 user accounts to sync with the new Exchange server, make sure passwords were properly set and share calendars, etc.

As I wandered around doing stuff this afternoon I wondered WTF? What if this is the start of WWIIII? Although I'm a news junkie, I've been very busy lately and there's been an awful lot of news to choose from (Japan, Wisconsin, Fidelity sending more jobs out of state, another piece of the Big Dig falling down, etc.) But this seems like it came out of the blue. I can honestly state that I don't have enough information to know if this is a good idea or not. My inclination is to think it's not.

For starters we've got two wars already-who are they going to get to fight in this one? For another thing most of the people who've been advocating this are people whose opinions I distrust. This doesn't mean it's wrong. But it seems awfully sudden to me.

So I've spent the day in WTF? mode while trying to do my job. I mean on a Saturday while trying to d something big I expect a couple of trip ups--"Oops we have to reset the VPN" "Oops I forgot to export the pst file before moving over to the new server" "Oops I gave you the wrong login info" "Oops I need to call the guy in New Jersey because the server didn't reboot properly" even "Oops there's a cockroach the size of my thumb in the server room" isn't out of the range of expected things that could happen. But "Oops we've invaded Libya?" That is entirely out of scope.

That's how my day went.

*not a slight on either of their characters-just an observation

Monday, March 7, 2011

In Which We are Much Calmer

A few weeks ago I tried to chew through three chapters of Statistics in one weekend. I had two chapters legitimately assigned to me and I was trying to make my way through the third since I had to attend a conference the next weekend. It didn't go well and I spent the all the time between then and last night that wasn't already spoken for (which wasn't much) freaking out about Statistics.

Why were they making me try to understand all this math? I understand that as a business school student I should know something about statistics, but I didn't see how this Greek alphabet soup* they were throwing at me was going to help me understand anything useful.

Now I'm not dumb and I'm no longer a flaky undergrad who spends the afternoon reading Dykes to Watch Out For instead of doing her homework. However, if I find the subject matter I'm supposed to be reading impenetrable I have a really hard time staying focused. In addition I was feeling like I needed to do all the problems NOW! last week end or dire consequences would ensue.

But the biggest problem I was having is that I *can't* learn math by reading about it. I learn math by doing it. In order to do it, I have to understand it well enough to give it a shot and if my only tool for understanding "how to do it" is a textbook I'm going to have a few problems. I'd been aware of this before, but it didn't really become a fuse-melter until I tried to do 3 chapters of work in two days (and oh by the way the exam's next Monday.)

Last Sunday I was sitting in Gulu Gulu in Salem (a cafe where some of us go to get work done--having a study buddy keeps you honest even if your study buddy is doing something completely different than what you're doing) and I expressed my frustration to my study buddy.

"Take some time off."
"I can't-I'm out at a conference half the week already."
"Call that woman who tutors statistics."
"Unless she's free this very minute I'm SOL."

So I panicked, when I had time to think about Statistics at all. How was I going to get through this week's chapter *and* relearn the first 5 chapters before Monday the 7th? But then I finally got to talk to someone who knew something about statistics-in this case my dad. I had been reticent to ask Dad for help, even though he's taught statistics. For starters I'm 35 years old. I've kinda gotten out of the habit of asking my parents for help on my homework. The last time I asked him for help on Statistics I was in 9th grade. I'd ask him a question and he would answer it, but he'd give me the answer that one of his graduate-level psychology students could use and I was doing Fisher Price statistics. So he was less than helpful. However when he called to help me with Statistics this time things worked out much better than they had when I was a freshman in high school.

"Hi Dad, I hate Statistics."
"Well then they're teaching it wrong. Gimme a question to answer-gimme a hard one."
So I gave him the question I had spent 8 hours over the course of several days trying to understand. It was question number one on how to use Z scores on a normal distribution."
"Um, that's not a hard one, Cantabridgienne. That's as basic as it gets. If you're having trouble understanding that.."
"Yeah, I know I gots a learning disability I'm really, really bad at math."
"Well but if you can't get that concept.."
"Oh i get it *now*." If you spend 8 hours trying to learn how to do something, by the time you've figured it out you understand it well and are not likely to forget how to do it.
"Gimme another hard one."
"Okay what's a binomial distribution?" This was a concept that I had failed to grasp because it involved as many Pis as a bake sale.
"Oh that's where you have a coin and you want to know what the probability of getting 4 heads is if you toss it four times."
"Oh that? I know how to do that." (The probability of getting heads is always 1/2. To know what the probability of getting four heads you just take (1/2)^4. I bet even my poet friends know that.)
"Okay gimme another hard one."
"What about Poisson distributions."
silence for a few seconds. "Why are they teaching you *that*?"

Talking with Dad helped. For one thing, getting to discuss these concepts with someone who knew something about Statistics proved to me that I wasn't as hopeless as I'd thought I was (no matter how frustrated I'd been over the past week.) It also validated, to me anyways, that my inability to understand the material presented might have something to do with the textbook instead of it all being down to me being a bit dyscalculative. And it reaffirmed that having a tutor-someone with whom I could discuss these things and ask for help-would go a long way to alleviating my distress.

It was too late to engage one before this exam, but I have started the tutor engagement process.

In fact, after one conversation with Dad in which he clarified one concept to me and (inadvertently) showed me that I *did* in fact understand another concept I had no problem studying for the exam I took today. The problem sets that had taken me all day to go through the first time around took me maybe an hour, or an hour and a half apiece to finish on the second try (even the ones that had made me yowl like car-adverse cat on the way to the vet.) Once I gained some confidence and stopped being in learned-failure mode it all wasn't that bad. For starters, now that I was no longer panicking (I need to understand this right now because I have no time the rest of the week to work on this problem set) I noticed that while the textbook did present all sorts of nasty formulas involving e square roots I never had to do any actual math more complicated than A*B+C!/X*Y. Anything more complicated than that and Excel would do all the heavy lifting for me. While this is not a perfect solution (knowing how to use EXPONDIST doesn't mean you understand exponential distributions) it made me less panic-prone.

This experience reminded me of a few things I aught to know about myself by now.
1) Math is one of those things I learn by doing--reading about it doesn't help. There are other things I learn by doing that I can learn with a textbook (how to do cool things in Excel or Access) math isn't one of them. I need human help.
2) If at first I don't succeed I panic. This has been a constant theme in my graduate school career.

In general,if I can say such a thing I'm actually pretty comfortable operating in panic mode. I provide tech support to a small company. A good deal of that involves being crisis mode. I thought I was just going to run a couple of reports today, but no suddenly I need to upgrade the software on five different computers and when I'm done with that I need to call Comcast and yell at them about their failure at upgrading our service and when I'm done with that I need to talk to the Compliance Officer/The Bookkeeper/The IT vendor. So I'm used to panicking. It's normal for me.

However I'm experiencing problems because of my propensity to panic. Last December I was sure that I'd flailed Accounting. I got a B. Here I was sure that I was going to have to drop Statistics and re-take it (with proactive appointments scheduled with a tutor) and I got a B/B+ on the exam I took today.

I think some of this is a case of(to quote American Gods) "The kind of behavior that works in a specialized environment, such as prison, can fail to work and in fact become harmful when used outside such an environment?"(Shadow, American Gods Neil Gaiman 2001)

I don't mind panicking a bit if it gets me to study. What I *do* mind is having my perception of reality be entirely out of whack with actual reality. I like to think that I have a good grip on reality. But if my outlook on reality is that of Marvin the Depressed Android all the time I'm going to have problems progressing in my business life and my personal life.

Furthermore I have come to the conclusion that my tendency to panic is not entirely a result of my work environment. I just happen to work in a place (tech support in a small business) where the ability to work well while panicking is a good skill to have.

So to sum up. I am not failing Statistics. I am working on engaging a tutor and I really do need to do something about my propensity to panic. Other people might find it weird.

*Mmmm. Greek Alphabet Soup--garnished with feta and baby spinach.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

I Like Rules

I like rules and regulations. I like regulations that keep corporations honest and keep them from screwing over the little guy. But that’s not the only reason to like rules. I don’t like rules just because I’m an INTJ or because I was exposed to Catholicism at a young age—I like them because they’re healthy—not just for puppy dogs and children but also for the financial services industry. And yes, I work for a fee-only investment advisor but I don’t think this is simply the result of me having a few too many glasses of the kool-aid.

There have been studies done that prove that the financial services industry is actually healthier when it is regulated. (Because this is a blog post and not a paper I’m going to be lazy, but I bet you could find one with the Google and 5 minutes.) I believe this and I like to think that I believe it because it’s true and it makes sense to me and not just because I wish it were true. I feel that rules and regulations offer a framework on which people can build in the way a trellis offers a supporting framework for ivy.

I spent today at a conference in Cambridge. I don’t go to many conferences for a number of reasons (they don’t have many for IT professionals in my industry for starters). So this was a bit of a treat for me. My professional niche— technology for the independent investment adviser—is both small and dorky. This conference was on technology and practice management, so it was a pleasant opportunity for me to be myself, professionally.

The real “aha” moment for me was during an afternoon session on social media. I did not plan on attending this session. I have until now intentionally avoided “social media for business” for several reasons. For starters, it’s marketing, which I avoid like the plague. For another reason, the regulations in financial services about marketing are draconian (no testimonials-so no one can recommend you on Linked In, no giving advice in your advertisements, no saying that you’re a “successful” practice) so the general impression I’ve gotten on social media for financial advisers is “Don’t.”

But at the same time, all the industry press I’ve been reading has been pro-social media. Why would all these financial industry journalists keep telling us to go forth and “fan” ourselves on facebook if they all knew there were compliance reasons why we couldn’t do so? Furthermore, if the inter-webs are really changing to the point where everything is happening on facebook, we (the investment advisory world) can’t just keep saying we don’t do that because it’s against our religion. At the very least I decided today that *I* would not be the one telling my employers no, we can’t do this thing for compliance reasons.

I had intended to attend a different afternoon session, but the idea of sitting through yet another discussion of software integration (“Folks, just so you know what an API is…”) and planning your technology decisions strategically made me want to curl up and take a nap*. So I found my boss and told him that I was going to the social media session.

I knew I had made the right decision when I saw that one of the panelists was a compliance attorney—this was not just a couple of internet fan-boys and fan-girls telling you how you need to be all Web 2.0 ‘n stuff. The panelists talked about how while there weren’t regulations in place for investment advisers yet, there was a regulation for a related industry that spelled out what the rules were likely to be. There were software offerings that would allow investment advisers to participate in social media, while adhering to industry compliance regulations.**

Hearing these things caused me to have a thought-gasm. Suddenly I could see *exactly* what I could do to help build a social media program for my employers (or for any registered investment adviser.) Once I knew that someone had given some thought to what the rules were likely to be it took me about 5 seconds to come up with a social-media marketing plan for my employers. And this is why I like rules.

Is my instant plan perfect? No—but it is a prototype that can be developed. Will they adopt my plan? Will I even get to be the person that advises them on the use of social media? Probably not. But that doesn’t chance how nice it was to have a framework that allowed me to see and understand.

*. It’s not that I don’t find the subject matter interesting; it’s just that I could give the presentation at this point in time. I know why your CRM (or “sea-arm” as one guy kept calling it) should be integrated with your Portfolio Management System, your Document Management System as well as your Financial Planning Software. I know why you should use an Account Aggregation System and Rebalancing Software. I also know the extent to which the integration that all these vendors are going on about does or does not work. (Yes, there’s integration—unfortunately it only imports fields we don’t use.) Furthermore, I also know that me knowing these things (and explaining them—sometimes while jumping up and down and waving my arms) has not lead to them being fully adopted by my employers.

**The biggies I mentioned above-no testimonials, no investment advice, but the “books and records” portion of the regulation requires that you save all your advertising—so if you have a twitter feed you must archive every tweet.