June 20th, 2010

buzz

June Books 14) The God Engines, by John Scalzi

Well, it has happened: I have finally read a John Scalzi story that I actually liked. The God Engines is a very tight story about a future spacefaring humanity which relies on harnessing the powers of captive gods for spaceflight; there are a number of very good set-pieces as Ean Tephe, the central character, deals with shipboard crises, confronts his own ecclesiastical hierarchy, takes on a colonial mission, and finally particiaptes in a battle where the stakes are much larger than he at first realises. There are strong elements of horror and some nasty violence; and while Scalzi doesn't turn it into a polemic on religion, he does pick around the edges of religious belief and obediance in a way that I found satisfying rather than undergraduate. My favourite of the Hugo-nominated novellas so far, though I still have Nancy Kress and Charlie Stross to go.

Not Scalzi's fault at all, but I had some difficulties with reading the story. Over the years I have read dozens of e-books by converting them from PDF to Mobipocket format and reading them on my handheld (the good ol' Palm T|X in the old days, more recently the Blackberry). For the first time I can remember, the capitalisation in The God Engines was screwed up, the two main characters appearing as "ean tephe" and "croj andso" rather than "Ean Tephe" and "Croj Andso" and the first letters of sentences often appearing in lower case too. (There were other glitches too: one sentence in the Mobipocket version, split by a page break in the original, reads "They would reach for the coins with one hand and throw trash and rotten John Scalzi things at the passing god with the other, shouting as they did so.") Presumably the publisher (or possibly the writer) thought they were doing something clever with the font setup.
thoughtful

On not getting a job

I do a fair bit of recruiting - hiring interns two or three times a year, and occasional involvement in more senior hires - and a couple of thoughts came together for me this week.

First of all, if you don't get the job you applied for, it is always worth asking for feedback as to why your application was unsuccessful. You may or may not get a response, but you lose nothing by making the request, and may get some useful insights.

I get more requests from candidates who were not shortlisted, asking to know why they weren't, than I do from those who were interviewed, wondering why they weren't hired. Of course, the former category of candidates vastly outnumber the latter, but I'm surprised that so few of the latter do get back to me. I suppose that if you've been interviewed and didn't get the job you tend to have a good idea why not, and also once you've had that face to face interaction with the potential employer it is more difficult to confront them with a request to justify their decision not to hire you (certainly both of these factors have affected me in my own past unsuccessful applications). It's still worth asking though.

I must say that from the other side of the table, the most frequent reason for rejecting a candidate who has been shortlisted is simply that someone else interviewed better on the day. When I first started interviewing job applicants it was in my capacity as one of the governors of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, and under Northern Ireland's fair employment legislation we had to be pretty systematic: the interviewing panel agreed five questions to ask, rated each candidate's response to each question, added up the scores we had given them at the end and had to submit a detailed written justification if recommending anyone other than the candidate who got top marks. It gave me, I hope, good habits which I like to think I have stuck to since.

"Another candidate interviewed better on the day" isn't especially helpful feedback, I admit. Usually you can construct a further justification based on skills and experience - and the ability to talk about them in the interview - but the personality factor ("can I really bear to share the workplace with this person?") is important too, and also intangible. Occasionally one gets a severely negative vibe - "this person is clearly a psychopath, do not hire them" - in which case I pray that they won't ask for feedback. More often the problem is choosing between two or more enthusiastic and personable candidates, and the justfication can be difficult, but I think it's good for employers to be asked for that justification from time to time.

It's usually much easier to explain why candidates didn't make the shortlist. I tend to delegate that decision, but am always happy to deal with requests for feedback (and have never felt that the person screening CV's for me made the wrong call). Sometimes it is simply that the skills and experience are just not what I am looking for. (To which some enthusiastic but unskilled candidates protest, "but I am willing to learn on the job!" To which I reply, "I have another 20 candidates here who would not have to learn on the job!")

Even more often, though, it is simply that the covering letter and CV do not pass the 20 second test of engaging the interest of the person scanning a hundred job applications to boil them down to a shortlist of five or ten. These are actually much the easiest to give feedback on, and the biggest piece of advice is usually the same: emphasise the bits of your career which make this job application look like an obvious next step (and if there are no such bits of your career, maybe that should give you pause for thought).

There are other points of detail which do crop up fairly often. If your university dissertation was relevant, give some details. If you're a graduate, don't bore me with details of your high school career (unless they are actually relevant). Don't make stupid mistakes in listing your hobbies. Above all, don't lie.

Of course, I'm writing here about applications for jobs which have been advertised and go through a shortlisting and interviewing process, and I have to admit that it is more than thirteen years and three or four jobs ago since I last successfully did this from the other side. (Two of my last four job changes involved me persuading a new employer to hire me for a position that was envisaged but had not been advertised; I have also moved to a different position with the same employer, and been recruited out of the blue for a position that I had seen advertised but hadn't actually applied for.) But a lot of this also applies when you are trying to get a job through other mechanisms. In particular asking for feedback on an unsuccessful application does no harm and, particularly perhaps if it's not a standard shortlist/interview/decision process, can help to give you closure.
tardis

A dozen Big Finish plays

I've finally caught up with the current run of Big Finish audio plays, and have resolved that in future I'm going to do them individually as I listen to them, as I do with books. In the past I had been writing them up in groups, as much as anything so as not to spam readers who were less interested in Doctor Who; but I think that those who were bored by that sort have thing have already stopped reading me, so I am going to suit my own convenience in future. Twelve plays here, and I'm going to write them up in Who continuity order rather than in the order of release, the order I listened to them, or my ranking in terms of quality.

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In summary, the Jago and Litefoot plays are excellent and would be entirely accessible for listeners who know nothing of Doctor Who (though it would probably help if they listened to The Mahogany Murderers first; but it is also equally excellent and equally accessible). The Time Vampire requires detailed knowledge of Leela's story as seen on TV and then heard in The Catalyst, and is even then not very penetrable. The three Lost Stories featuring Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor are OK but not essential. Night's Black Agents is skippable but The Wreck of the Titan and Legend of the Cybermen are an excellent homage to Patrick Troughton's last season. And Solitaire is great as long as you at least know who the two main characters are.
buzz

June Books 15) Schlock Mercenary: Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, by Howard Tayler

I rated the previous volume in this series last in my Hugo voting last year, as did the voters, despite it being the only nominee that was made available to all as part of the Hugo voters package. This year all five nominees are available, though I'd already bought hard copies of the three that have been published in dead-tree format, and I am still putting Schlock Mercenary last. Longshoreman of the Apocalypse made slightly more sense than The Body Politic, but that's not saying much, and I still found it not very funny; I guess I know too much about military escorts for humanitarian aid for a story based on the humorous ways people can get killed horribly in such an enterprise to appeal to me, and also the eponymous longshoreman turns out to be an anthropomorphic robot which, though not especially cute, like to be called Lota - it's an acronym, see? - and so pushes one of my buttons.

My Hugo votes in the Best Graphic Story category:
  1. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman - will surely win by a country mile
  2. Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm, by Kaja and Phil Foglio
  3. Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State, by Paul Cornell
  4. Fables vol 12: The Dark Ages, by Bill Willingham
  5. Schlock Mercenary: Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, by Howard Tayler