Monday, September 29, 2008

Goodreads review: Queen and Country Vol 8

So, I'm trying out Goodreads after realizing Librarything wasn't doing anything interesting for me. So far, it's been good - I've added several books to my 'to-read' lists based on seeing friends' reviews of them, and I always think its interesting to hear what friends think of the books they read. If you're on there, look for me. I also got a lot of books for my birthday and am technically in the process of reading at least 5 books, so I'm thinking I'll sometimes post my reviews here. This one is for Vol 8 of Queen and Country, a comic/graphic novel about the Special Section of MI6. I recommend watching The Sandbaggers first, which is dated (filmed 1979-ish) and has the low production values of the time, but is some of the best spy-drama I've ever seen; every bit as good as any of the Le Carre adaptations.

Queen & Country, Vol.8: Operation: Red Panda Queen & Country, Vol.8: Operation: Red Panda by Greg Rucka

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow. This one was near-perfect. I realized, after reading it all in one sitting, that I finally felt as though Queen and Country had surpassed The Sandbaggers, its own inspiration. Well done Greg Rucka.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fantastic Contraption

Jeff Wills shared a link in google reader to Fantastic Contraption, which is a totally addictive game that actually makes me glad I don't have internet at work right now - this would be a monster distraction.

Here's my favorite solution I've done so far:

Mission to Mars

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On parenting and support networks; a theory

So, I have this thing I keep thinking about, because I had a little inkling about it once upon a time and then I kept seeing situations that reminded me of it. Over time it's matured into a theory, but there are probably aspects of it that I'm not considering. Maybe you'll point them out to me in the comments. The gist of the theory is this:

Presently, our society is set up in such a way that most [American] families are living with one set of parents (or just one parent) in a household raising their kid(s) essentially by themselves. Contrast this with at least millenia (all of recorded history, and conceivably much further back) where households were usually multi-family or multi-generational, and where raising children was of necessity a more communal affair. It is only in the last couple of centuries that any sizeable proportion of households anywhere ended up in a situation where a mother (or a mother and father, or a father) ends up being the only adult spending time with their little kids for most of the day, most days. And frankly, I don't think we're built for it.

In particular, I've watched my sisters and other women I know and care about struggle with the challenge of having multiple preschoolers or infants at the house during the day with them. They find it difficult to make time for themselves, or to have their own friends or social contacts. The price of our privacy and personal domain is that a caretaker left with the children faces isolation and sometimes depression. Even so, it is a price many are still willing to pay (or risk paying). Society expects that if you have the means to do so, you will live in a dwelling with just your family during childrearing years except in unusual circumstances.

In the past, many families wealthy enough to have their very own households would also have been wealthy enough to have servants or other help to see to the raising of children or the affairs of running a house. Most farms (again, my supposition; feel free to dispute) have been multi-family or multi-generational, and until the advent of the automobile towns and cities were places where everyone walked everywhere, meaning you encountered the people you lived next to and a household member who 'went to work' didn't go all that far. Contrast that with a society where people commute to work alone in their cars, while young children stay at home with just one parent, or (like our kids) go to a care facility where they may get the chance to socialize with other children and to a certain extent adults, but not in a home and not with a member of their family or household.

For the next six weeks, Michelle and I will have a third child in our own two-adult household. A friend of ours who is a single mother has to return to the States for some military training until November, and may not bring her 5 year old daughter (Isabel - expect pics soon). So since she goes to the same school as our daughter and the same before-and-after care, we decided to volunteer as possible guardians for the time being (other options involved her being out of school and travelling to the states to stay with family). Tonight is the first night she's spending in our house. As a realist, I know there will be hard moments for her, for our kids learning to share with her, for her mom while she's away, and for Michelle and I. But of course I also know that it will often be a lot of fun, and she's a sweet kid that we are looking forward to spending more time with. Other friends have stepped up too, offering to help transport her to or from school if her bus pass situation doesn't pan out like we hope it will, or having her over for a few nights. It all makes me think about this same thing; the necessity for community in childrearing. Nobody ought to try it all alone - we're just not wired that way. You need family, or a village, or a supportive church or playgroup, or good friends, or something to make it work and let you keep your sanity and expand the kids' horizons.

I am by no means advocating a return to multi-family or multi-generational housing. I very much like having the privacy and space that living in a single family home provides. But when I see a woman struggling to raise children by herself for hours out of every day, and see the strain that produces for even the most sane and well-balanced people, I think about this idea and wonder how different it would have been only a few hundred years ago. Not that the women of the 1500s or whenever had lots of, y'know, freedom to go have book clubs or opportunities to advance themselves or whatever, but they at least had other women to talk to and probably didn't have too much trouble finding someone to watch the little ones for an hour or two while they ran a few errands at the market. Or, going back millenia to when humans settled exclusively in family/tribal groups, you have to imagine that prettymuch everyone in the village takes responsibility for raising the little ones in one way or another. I think we're still programmed that way (and so are the kids).

Sorry to go all "It takes a village..." on you. Let's hear your thoughts on the matter.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Feeling Connected

A while back, I shared an item which was in turn about an article from the NYT Magazine about how facebook, twitter, and other social web stuff leads to "ambient awareness", a kind of internet-powered ESP about your friends. Excerpt:

In essence, Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis. But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered. ...

...Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and recheck the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like “I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus”; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich — and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.


As I interviewed some of the most aggressively social people online — people who follow hundreds or even thousands of others — it became clear that the picture was a little more complex than this question would suggest. Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that.

But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties” — loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist. I have noticed this effect myself. In the last few months, dozens of old work colleagues I knew from 10 years ago in Toronto have friended me on Facebook, such that I’m now suddenly reading their stray comments and updates and falling into oblique, funny conversations with them. My overall Dunbar number is thus 301: Facebook (254) + Twitter (47), double what it would be without technology. Yet only 20 are family or people I’d consider close friends. The rest are weak ties — maintained via technology.

This rapid growth of weak ties can be a very good thing. Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems. For example, if you’re looking for a job and ask your friends, they won’t be much help; they’re too similar to you, and thus probably won’t have any leads that you don’t already have yourself.

I'm in the middle of experiencing this phenomenon lately, primarily through the explosion of people I used to know being connected on Facebook. Almost all the people who were active in my High School drama dept. are suddenly there, updating and adding photos of us all when we were younger, or just commenting about their lives. I had completely lost touch with most of them, and now, suddenly, I have these newly re-established 'weak ties' that lead to funny conversations about photos, or trying to guess who wrote a given comment from a yearbook, or just this sense of ambient awareness.

In practice, the Facebook News Feed catches lots of interesting status updates, but I prefer to get all the status updates in Google Reader, both because it doesn't skip any, and because that's where I do all the rest of my catching up on blogs, flickr updates, news, trends, friends' shared items, etc. Plus, since I don't usually have internet access during the day, I need to cram in as much efficiency into my online time as I can.

Here's an example of this ambient awareness from today: my friend John and I were driving this morning to pick up a big mahogany dresser I bought at auction yesterday, and John says "I wonder when Ty (another mutual friend of ours) is getting back [from vacation]". I knew from Ty's last status update that he'd be driving to SW France today, so I told John and then it hit me that normally there's no way I'd be that up to date on a casual friend's whereabouts on vacation, you know? I presently have 165 'friends' on facebook and I probably have picked up on things about each of them, even my own sisters and wife, that I wouldn't have otherwise. For a 'facts curator' personality type like me, that sort of information flow can be fairly addictive.

And then there's the weak ties thing - like the other day I mentioned in my Facebook status that I'd be visiting America around Halloween. People that I haven't seen in years started talking to me about it, and I'm planning on getting a bunch of people together for a meal while I'm there to see each other and catch up. We'll probably take pictures and post them on Facebook and tag ourselves in them so the rest of our weak ties can see who was there and what was going on and what they missed out on. They'll comment, there will be witty banter where there would have been only lost connections.

Just something I'm thinking about; enjoying.