Monday, May 22, 2006

rossum's universal robots

People do things that surprise me all the time. I think I may be guilty of chronically underestimating those around me. Like when my brother got into his first choice college early decision when I was sure that I was the smartest one in the family (early delusional symptoms). Or when a friend from high school became a successful children's book writer. Or when all my friends started getting their Ph.D.'s before me... no wait that's another issue. But my friend Kathleen has really outdone all my expectations.

I'm leaving for London today ostensibly to help her with her "robot project" but I don't think she needs my help any more. In one of those rare flukes where someone not only does something they say they're going to do, but they do it quite impressively well, this robot project, which started out rather humbly as just a performance of the play "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)" by Karel Capek, the earliest robot piece probably ever written, was transformed into a full blown, Microsoft sponsored event with films and discussions led by famous professors, all made possible by the sheer will and tenacity and vision of one Kathleen Richardson, Ph.D. student extraordinaire. Though I'd like to think that my believing in her had something to do with it.

She's gotten some press through Cambridge University and the BBC. For anyone interested in Kathleen's work as an anthropologist studying robots and their relation to the people and society that have created them go to her website here.

And for those who read my last post and think that I'm actually on the lam, I will not confirm or deny. But I certainly can confirm that I will be punting down the Cambridge River and reciting ee.cumings under the pale moonlight. So if/until I return... beedeebeedee.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

don't pass go, go directly to jail

I feel dirty.

Somehow I didn’t file my taxes this year.

I used to have an accountant named Don Chang. He worked in Koreatown out of a little strip mall. Quite on a whim, I’d saunter in unannounced every April clutching the five pieces of paper that constituted my tax portfolio and sit in his waiting room being chatted up by his secretary who reminded me of my mom. He’d eventually call me in, calm in the eye of a storm, ensconced in a tornado of papers, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, all of it belonging to people who clearly had very complicated financial lives. And despite the fact that I usually walked in quite at the last minute at the busiest time of the year, he would ask me how I was doing, talk about his kids, ask me about my studies, and generally just be the nicest guy in the world as if we were sitting on a porch in Tenessee sipping lemonade just to pass the day. Quite the charmer. That’s probably why I could never bring myself to complain about the fact that he would ream me with a $70 bill after he spent about three minutes actually filling out my tax forms. The best part, outside of the luxury of pushing a wad of paper in his direction as my sole tax filing act, was that he would bundle my copies into a lovely envelope with company letterhead that made everything so very official feeling. It was also a comfort to know that in the case of any error, he would be investigated before I would. In fact, I almost had to take no responsibility whatsoever. That is $70 of pure freedom.

I should never have stopped going to Don Chang. His name “Don” by the way is synonymous with “money” in Korean. Very auspicious.

At some point, I had the brilliant idea that I would save the money and file my taxes myself. It was a deluded attempt at being a responsible adult. But, hell, everyone else was doing it. And it was starting to get embarrassing having an accountant. After all, I was in grad school, I was poor and Asian, which in some twisted way translates into having to file your own taxes.

Well, the whole point of this is that I didn’t do such a good job on my own. After efiling my taxes this year, in an over optimistic gesture, I went back online to check and see if my tax return had come in yet. In one of those heart stopping moments that only can happen in things computer-related—like when you accidentally delete a document, get the blue screen of death, or unintentionally reformat your hard drive—that I realized that while I had diligently finished the whole efile process, I had never actually… filed… my… return.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure that those Turbotax programs are designed to be idiot-proof. Which only points to one sad fact. Don’t say it, don’t say it.

So, do you think there's a warrant out for my arrest? Will I still get my return? I plead innocence. Incompetence. Insanity. Oh, how I hope that Don will take me back next year despite my errant ways. I really miss him.

Tell my mom I love her.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

they slay me

I have a bunch of favorite writers who you could say number among the famous people, like (in no particular order) David Sedaris, Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Dave Eggers... just to name a few. The things that is especially important about this list is that they are alive and still producing so that there's a feeling of suspense that I'll never know what they'll come up with next. Suspense is very important in sustaining people's attention.

But the other kind of writer that probably impresses me more are those rare writers who really know how to turn out a good email. What distinguishes a pretty good email from a truly fanstastic email is generally whether it can solicit a solid snort out of me, or even better if I get spit on the screen. Spitting being my unofficial academy awards for email genius. If I take a loose count right now, I can say that there has been only... hold on... seven people in my entire lifetime who have been able to make me spit on my computer screen. I'm not going to list them here lest the people who didn't make the cut get offended.

But prominent on this list has to be my brother. I don't know what it is about the way he writes, maybe it is our genetic compatibility that makes his writing so appealing to me.

This is a digital artistic rendering of my brother, the one who is currently in Cambridge, England being inducted as partner into his firm, and one with whom I clearly share no common genes. Outside of the obvious fact that we don't resemble each other at all, myself being the far better looking one, he is also much better at everything than I am--smarter, funnier, better writer, earns more money (though not hard mind you), lower golfing handicap.

Friday, May 05, 2006

thinking out loud

At a practice practice jobtalk that I gave early this week, where I bedazzled my audience with a slideshow to the extent of which has never been seen on this side of the Pacific, I was taught a very important lesson about giving presentations.

Apparently, or so my friends tell me, if you're trying to be convincing, especially to people who you eventually want to hire you, it's not a very good idea to say in the middle of a speech anything along the following lines: "While I know that history should usually be grounded in empirical fact... I have to admit that this particular chapter is based on pure conjecture."

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Having not posted for what has been nearly a month, to the chagrin of the two people who read this blahg, I can't figure out how best to start the ball rolling again, so I'll just launch right into it by saying that I sat in someone else's urine today.

Like all people, I'd like to say that this has never happened to me before. But that would be a lie. It would be closer to the truth if I said that I used to sit in urine all the time growing up, never quite having mastered the art of putting the toilet seat down in the middle of the night. Combine that with my brother's rather questionable aim and you have one soggy ass.

What just might be worse than sitting in someone else's urine is the realization that you totally forgot you sat in someone else's urine until you got into bed just a moment ago. Any potential for blissful sleep ruined by that routine mental review of the day that takes place just before you nod off. In a fleeting moment it all came back to me, the suspiciously warm seat, the creeping tingling sensation in my damp pants, the faint smell of ammonia and then... the crippling knowledge that I haven't showered since this happened.

Which is why I sit here typing.

What better way to get over my personal mortification than to share it with anyone who will listen? It's always worked for me before. Now, the big dilemma is whether I bother to get in the shower after I've finished this ritual cleansing here. Is there really any point? Can't it wait until tomorrow?

Let me just tell it like it is. There is a 99% chance that I will jump right back into bed after this. I think that this is a good thing. It means that I have my priorities in order. Sleep is clearly more important than good hygiene. Although sleep ranks lower than the Food Network but higher than my dissertation on my scale of importance.

For anyone who was wondering, it was a sordid month for me this past month but I am well on my way to returning to top form. In addition to getting over some hurdles in the past week or two, I have a most exciting trip to London coming up in a couple of weeks that involves robots, thespians, great big pints of beer and if the gods are kind, no more urine stories.