Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Looking on the bright side of life

Who me? OK, I'm not real happy about Big Papi either, but for several reasons I'm not surprised.
Let's see what they have. While I think one can be set up with these charges, I don't believe you can have taken something--so much as a glass of juice--from a coach or trainer with asking about the ingredients: not these days, or even in 2003.

But here's the bright side. Forbes is out with its list of the most disliked people in sports, and guess what? It does not include Bill Belichick. What's up with that? Has a critical mass of fandom finally tired of beating a dead horse, or is it just that it's not football season yet?

Tomorrow is August 1. These people have plenty of time to lose their common sense.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More from the Department of the Obvious

This news item brought back more repressed memories. Apparently there's a reason for swinging our arms when we walk. What a concept!

In Navy boot camp, because I could sing, I was detailed to the Bluejacket Choir. In palmier times, this might have led to a relatively cushy tour, but Nixon didn't like choral music, so the choir was banished to the hinterlands. The only slack a choir assignment cut you was that you went to a boot battalion that included choir, drill team, band, etc., and drill instructors (DIs) who were slightly more rational than the average: that is, they rarely drew blood.

I digress. Somewhere along the line the chorale conductor, a civilian, had got hold of the idea that the choir should march in front of an audience in very close order, swinging the left arm with the left leg, right arm with the right, etc. The effect must have been much like watching a box full of marionettes. We had to perform every week for recruit graduation, marching like this.

Let me tell you that swinging the same side arm and leg is an absolute bitch. One's balance goes totally flaky. If you ended up on the outside of the formation, you were not only doing the Babes in Toyland routine, but trying to stay upright when someone in this shoulder-to-shoulder formation fucked up and sent one or two files spinning in disorder. The audience included both the conductor and your DI, and god help you if the performance was less than perfect.

Once again, I've reached a conclusion far ahead of the people paid big bucks to research the obvious. We swing our arms the way we do for an excellent reason: to stay upright.

I assume my cheque's in the mail?

Doesn't anybody do windows??

The painters are gone. They did a great job and all that, but this last push--doors and sashes-- was a little labour-intensive for the homeowners. And they don't do windows--after having made the appalling state of ours obvious by framing the crud with fresh paint and glazing.

This put window washing squarely in the pale of your theoretically unemployed/possibly retired author. For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, this is a honeydew. That is, "honey do this, and honey do that" in addition to trying to maintain a little job search momentum.

So I subjected the cats to one last day of hysteria* by yanking storm windows and piling them up for washing. When the painters left, I ran up and down ladders working on otherwise inaccessible exterior surfaces: in short doing all the things that make window washing such a delightful chore.

It's also a chore that never quite connects with really nice weather. Today it was suck-ass humid and pushing 90. Other times I've done windows, things got clean quickly because all the dirt got caught in the ice as it formed. Nice, but then you can't feel your fingers for two days after. It's really much like "Life of Brian's" description of crucifixion.

Now I have a good painting contractor. I have a guy who does gutters and downspouts, and one who keeps my cardiac snowblower running. All I want is some schmuck to do windows!! :((

* Ms Annie kept track of the proceedings with regal detachment. Mr Spike hid in a drawer. Mr Spike is a wuss.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What I did this weekend

We'll skip past the part where we spent a nice Saturday at home pulling doors and windows open and shut for the painters instead of doing the Lowell Folk Festival.

And also the part where Mr. Spike decided to go AWOL, since the doors were obviously open for his benefit. (He turned up in the barn the next morning, only a little the worse for wear.)

No, the deja vu moment was that I watched a swim meet. In California. Via streaming Web video.

The strange nature of this activity makes sense only when you recall that my daughter began age-group swimming at age seven and continued to swim through college. For those unfamiliar with the sport at the age-group level, let me say that no youth sport is quite so all-encompassing. Past a certain age (say 10), if your kid goes for both seasons, you're talking ten months a year. While a small calendar of dual meets takes only an afternoon each, most meets are three-day affairs. If they're relatively close by, you simply drive; so much that the meet seems at its end like one enormously long day. Otherwise, you choose motels based on three factors:
  1. Price. Bear in mind the parent has not only to pay club dues, motels and transport, but also maintain an inventory of 10-15 swimsuits plus goggles, caps, deck sandals and towels, all of which are either lost or about to be.
  2. The management's ability to provide an endless supply of towels.
  3. The size of the breakfast buffet. Leiningen's ants, millions of which could pick a stag clean in six minutes, had nothing on a motel full of ravenous age-group swimmers stoking up before the morning session of a meet.
There is also an extraordinary amount of drama and self-deception amongst age-group swim parents and coaches, which offers a free sideshow when one's offspring aren't in the water...and when it doesn't involve you.

As parents living some distance from the college, we were able to take a step back during the offspring's NCAA swimming. This was good, because the swimmers got a great deal out of the experience that might have been denied them had there been more parents underfoot. Also, college was a decompression experience, what with attending one or two meets a year instead of two or three a month. Still, when it all ended, there was a void that was a bit disconcerting. Be it said that I don't begrudge a minute of E's age-group experience, because doing it was her first major life decision, and how she pursued it opened a succession of other choices which became wiser and wiser as she went on.

Evidently, five years' break is enough, because E has joined a Master's swim club in CA. There's this age compression in junior swimming: you reach the "senior" ranks at 17, and Masters after college, when you're old enough to pay your own bills. It has no upper limit. After a decade of waiting for six-year-olds to finish their heats, you have to reverse your thought process and wait for the 80 and up group to finish theirs. After being annoyed by raucous parents cheering kids who can't possibly hear them, now you get to hear the kids cheering their parents: the pre-teens anyway, because the adolescents are insufferably bored or embarrassed by it all.

I can thank the streaming feed for all this insight, and for being able to watch the meet without leaving home. As with many other technologies, there's nothing like a swimming pool to find out the bugs. During the Saturday session, we got a stream that was real-time and in full motion, but very lossy. On Sunday, the geeks-in-charge enhanced the image resolution, but that reduced image transmission to about a frame a second when more than a few people logged in. Judging from the feedback, they were doomed either way.

They never quite figured out the sound, either. Mics that made the starter's announcements audible picked up interesting, sometimes salacious, detail from the audience and coaches. Few of these people realised what revealing tidbits they were sharing with the whole of cyberspace. The poolside Web views of coaches' and officials' beer guts should start a wave of weight loss programmes.

Presumably, all this will improve (except the beer guts). E seemed to enjoy herself, so this is likely to happen again. I see only one challenge. California doesn't do indoor pools because, of course, it's never cold. Uh-huh: I should think that's when they set the Master's records.

Next time, I'll open a bottle of bleach next to the computer to get the full sensory effect.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pounding head on desk

A lovely Monday chasing down job leads, with the usual questionable results.

The exercise leads to several pet peeves. One of them is the gradual extinction of the cover letter, which in borderline cases used to be the difference between consideration and the circular file. In many cases now, you can't even offer a cover letter. If you aren't a perfect 10 the HR whizzes don't want to know what might tip the scales in your favour.

Another is that veteran status is supposed to ring you up a certain amount of brownie points. I've lost count of how many employers pay pious lip service to that principle, then "forget" to include a place to provide the details when you reach the affirmative action page.

All annoying, but it was one of today's prospects that almost made me lose my lunch. This firm actually did remember to ask. Their affirmative action page said:

- Are you a veteran? (note: they forgot to ask of what and when, which in theory makes a legal difference)
- Are you a wounded warrior?

Note to the handful of employers who still remember there were wars before the Gulf War and before collective national guilt about treatment of veterans. Don't ever call me a fuckin' warrior.
I'm a screwed-up survivor of one of those wars you're busy forgetting. I was no warrior, and neither were a lot of those whose names appear on a black rock in Washington. Despite that, we signed on the dotted line naively expecting a government and country to live up to commitments it made: to us, not to a surrogate younger generation. Does it make you feel better to know that? Does it justify you in ignoring every veteran but the one who came home last week, because maybe we weren't warrior enough to live up to your illusions?

I finally connected the dots to explain what it is I find so disgusting about that expression above all others. One could see the first indications in the Gulf War, which had the first of a new generation of technology that totally separated much of the American military from its targets. The "embedded" pimps--excuse me, journalists--of 2003 added to the phenomenon: War is a video game.


War is ugly, nasty, scary, smelly. Oh yes, it's smelly. It smells of excreta when someone wets themselves or shits themselves in fear (and everybody is scared), or when their sphincter muscles relax in death. Even thousands of miles away, in military hospitals, you can smell that, or the roast pork smell that goes with third degree burns, or the butcher-shop odour of open gut wounds, or the petrol smell that lingers in uniform clothes after a vehicle or aircraft blows up. (Christ wept, who among us today even knows what a butcher shop smells like?)

There aren't warriors, and there never were. That's crap served up by old fools with a grudge to sucker young people into dying for no reason except soothing the egos of the old men.

Listen, be honest. Tell the young people that you're going to promise them a heroic afterlife and, if they live, you'll help them get an education and care for their injuries and wrecked minds. Instead of waiting ten or twenty years, let them sign up and say immediately, "just kidding!"
And, if you're an employer, trust me: we prefer it if you just offer the finger on your job applications. We understand that--older veterans have been getting it all their lives. Spare us the phony concern and the wounded warrior bullshit: the "base alloy of hypocrisy," as Lincoln put it.

I didn't really want to work there anyway.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Obligatory Gates Incident thoughts

First, this is an incident. More and more people have lost their perspective totally, especially the media. The last is important for reasons I'm coming to in a bit. This is Henry Louis Gates they arrested, not Kim Jong-Il.

After piecing together the "he said he said" stories, what we have is a situation that neither party will admit to. The police--eventually--got identification from Gates. It's his bad that he didn't provide it up front, because the police have every right to ask for it. That should have been the cue for both parties to chill a little, and I do think neither of them did. It seems that Gates really went off after that. The officer responded to the diatribe with handcuffs, instead of identifying himself and turning his back on a justifiably angry man on his own premises.

Now comes the why. In her comments to this blog post, Andrea hits the nail on the head by pointing out the power of class, rather than race, in fueling this incident. I've always remembered what a criminal justice professor pointed out once to a debating team I was on. Police in general are working class people trying to move up. You have to remember that, and all the sensitivities that go with it, in everything you say and do with them. Does race colour an officer's perception of an incident? Yes. In fact, any perceived difference on the part of a suspect may (not will) influence their response. I'm happy to hear that this officer taught racial profiling prevention, but that may not mean that he forgot his own teachings in an explosive situation.

And I can't think of a situation more explosive than this. An officer who believes himself sensitive to race matters investigates an alleged burglary that turns out to be a mistake. He finds himself being reamed for racism by a black Harvard professor in his own home. The professor is known for being very opinionated, and he doesn't appear to have let up even when the incident should have been closed. Ultimately, the officer who arrested Gates may have been motivated by class resentment that he himself doesn't recognise, and arrested Gates because he could. You can get into some nifty debates in criminal law about the elasticity of a disorderly conduct charge. Police everywhere feel empowered to use the charge against anyone who is pissing them off.

What Cambridge and Harvard ought to do is, first, yank this incident out of the public sphere. Both Gates and the police union will gnaw at it as long as they think they have an audience. Mayor Simmons should silence the police; Dr. Faust should silence Gates. Then sit both parties down. Let them vent, maybe, with the understanding that the venting will be private. Then, when they settle down to mediation, the focus ought to go beyond the obvious. Harvard should consider a bit of consciousness-raising among its faculty and students, to tone down the arrogance that can trigger out of control responses. Cambridge needs to grapple not only with race but with class hostility among its public servants. Now, during a very levelling period economically, would be an excellent time to start.

It would take a broader forum to examine the vagueness of disorderly conduct statutes. This should be less attractive to police as a tool for solving problems. This incident shows clearly that disorderly conduct arrests can create more problems than they solve.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Friday meditations

1) Today is annual physical=fasting cholesterol=black decaf coffee for breakfast day. My self-deception regarding decaf has reached the point where I almost think it has enough calories black to see me through lunch.

2) Pursuant to advice to support the image of Perky Old People everywhere, I agreed to a Levitra scrip this time. I get along with my PCP quite well, and she pointed out with a smile that some carriers cover only four doses a month. While I agree that women's contraceptives ought to get equal coverage, I have to assume that the Congressional health plan doesn't include this provision. I mean, that's rationing health care, is it not?

3) Early in the week I found a large and growing fracture in my 15-year-old bike helmet, so by today I was able to assemble time and money for a replacement. My abnormally large skull from Powys makes buying any headwear an ordeal, but especially things that don't yield. Further, I'm not a fan of the current style in bike helmets. I gather they are supposed to be more aerodynamic. The style is allegedly post-apocalyptic. To me, they look pretty much like an angry Donald Duck, especially when they're white. So I bought the one that more or less fit, whose sunshade/brim/scoop/whatever it is comes off, and was not white. That is called compromise.

Note: as soon as I find an angry Donald Duck image that isn't riddled with malware, I'll include it.

4) I am not from the seaside town I inhabit; I just sleep here. I draw the distinction because those who know this town also know that many of its residents suffer from an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. This frequently extends to both driver and pedestrian behaviour. Tonight, I discovered another virtue of my spouse's Scion. I went downtown on an errand and found the destination's parking lot totally full, except for the narrow space between two SUVs. They were of course deliberately parked to prevent anything from parking in the space between them: anything larger than a Scion, that is. It fit into the space with abundant room to spare, and I'm only sorry one of the behemoth operators hadn't shown up to see that they'd been shown up.

Then there was the guy who left his piping hot boxed pizza on top of his car while he took his kid to get ice cream. He probably suffers from the pleasant illusion that you can get away with such rash acts in hyper-privileged seaside towns. However, I once lived in a part of said town where, had you done this, the locals wouldn't have left you the crumbs, much less an embossed thank-you note. They might have even taken it as a sign that you also wanted your car stolen.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The end of contemplation

Earlier this year, my wife decided that I have become too decrepit to paint the peaks of our house. While I grant that the front one is a bit challenging (you need to lean a long ladder way out over a bay window), it's one of those chores I enjoy.

One reason is that there is a structure to observe, preparation, and execution. At the end of the day you have visible evidence of what you have done. Risks be damned: it's good for you!

With a painting contractor, you're paying other people to have your good time. Today was Day One, and I found out there's another disadvantage. When I do the job, there's just me doing the necessary preparation, one piece of the house at a time. It's pleasant outside and the inside disturbance is minimal. There are four of these guys, all very industrious, and there was often one to each side of the house. The type of noise, and the decibel level, reminded me of a brain MRI.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to do something elsewhere, lest I go from being in my rocker to off it.

Ur doin' it rong, Bangalore

I'm finding my chief annoyance in modern job searching is recruiters who offshore their resume screening calls.

Logic alone would suggest that the people involved in contractor negotiations should understand the delicacy of the process, and that these people should be exceptionally trained up in an appropriate English dialect. Clarity suffers when a firm overlooks either of these points.

I spent last evening and this morning trying to discuss a gig with "John," who must have flunked the dialect lesson, and certainly was slow on the delicacy. First, you can get away with the American name only with the American accent. Just call yourself Jalal and have done with it, 'K? Second, somewhere in the discussion a recruiter should at least allude to the nature of the gig and the sort of firm that's involved. Third, when you say you're going to email a job description, do it. If there is a problem, say, the message bounces, you can call the candidate back and straighten it out.

I am still not sure what the gig is or if he put me in for it, and in fact I've written it off. That's the third such experience I've had in the last month. If the clients of these firms actually don't want to hire anyone, they'd do better to just shut up, like most American companies. This sort of screening, however cheap, costs more than dead silence.

I do enjoy the unintended comedy, and it's encouraging to have even this much recruiter activity. Along with the offshore wonders, I've had several conversations with articulate recruiters who know how to do their job and pay attention to their language skills. I don't much care where they're calling from, as long as they can make the presentation and help me make a decision that doesn't waste my time, theirs, or their customers'.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More on First vs Third World

I'm riffing off the malevolent one's comments about the spoiled Yanquis. Now and then I have worked with people who rather resemble the uber-spoiled denizens of Rate My Space. One of them thought I was kidding when I mentioned that my present house has just over 850 square feet. She lived in Hotlanta, in a gated community, and said her bedroom was about 850 square feet.

I'm one of two people on my street who spent parts of their childhood, in the US of A, living in conditions that approached third world. We spent the warm months in a two-storey, 10 by 20 foot cottage on a very small island in a much-polluted lake. We had an outhouse; we had a manual pump in the kitchen. We used boiled lake water only for washing. Got our drinking water by making a two-plus mile round trip in the boat to a spring on the mainland that we had permission to use.

That, however, was voluntary, or at least as voluntary as living conditions sometimes were in the decade after WWII. Our friend down the street came from West Virginia. She herself describes conditions in her childhood home town as "primitive". They had the same amenities I just described, except that some of her neighbours also did without internal combustion engines. She's nearly ten years younger than we.

I once was writing part of a grant proposal for a hospital in these parts and I asked J for some background. Among other things, she said that some people had to ride mules to get to the emergency room, thanks to extreme poverty and lack of roads. J is unashamedly grateful for an opportunity and for an education that took her away from that life.

We had one recruit from those parts in my Navy boot camp company. We had to teach him how to use a flush toilet.

While it is very tempting to send the whiny brats of Rate My Space to the Dominican Republic, it isn't necessary: Appalachia will make the point just fine. So will a few other choice spots in our own country where privilege is a little thin on the ground.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More marvels of animal research

So now we have scientists telling us, after extensive studies and lawd knows how much money laid on the table, that cats control hoomanz.

Once again, ordinary mortals, in this case cat people, roll their eyes skyward and say "like you didn't know that cats control people?"

The study spent an inordinate amount of time studying the unique "feed-me" cry. The scientists did not discuss the effect of the basilisk stare, which causes people to run through their consciences, trying to figure out what aspect of the cat's comfort they have overlooked. They did not delve into the feed-me behaviour called "pry open the hoomanz's sleepy eyz and make them wake up." They did not attempt to answer the classic question of why a cat is always on the wrong side of the door. Others have studied the phenomenon by which a cat is instantly attracted to the one cat hater in a room full of strangers, but this study gave that one a pass.

Since the study has obviously barely scratched the surface, I think we can look for this crack team to be back for more. The peculiarities of feline-human relations ought to keep this lot in cat food for the rest of their lives. They just need to hide their tails when they present the next proposal.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Testing, testing, K, 'k?

I heard yesterday that a friend hasn't been coming to these premises because I hadn't been posting or answering his comments. Which was true, because I hadn't been receiving his comments.

All seems well with the settings here, so first, I'm reiterating the policy. If you comment, and it is not excessively snarky, it is literate, and if obscene at least applies creative obscenity, I'll post it. I may post comments of the other kind anyway, just to reply in kind, if I'm in that kind of mood.

Second, I know there are a few at least occasional readers out there. Kindly send me a comment, just so we can test this widget and make sure it's working. Send them over, say, the next week.

If there's something wrong, I can get snarky with blogger help.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

One of my tall ships stories

Back when Tetris was a big deal, there was another tall ships visit to Boston. I worked in Salem then. That city, which suffers from a perpetual inferiority complex, decided that it must have a tall ship visit simply because Boston had one.

Channels were pursued and strings pulled. The arrangements led to having a Polish tall ship from the fleet visit Salem. Kewl. Well, sort of. Here we pause for explanations.

In the era of sail power at sea, there was never such a thing as a "tall ship." There was never such a phrase as "tall ship" until John Masefield wrote "Sea Fever" in 1900 or so (it appeared in his first published anthology in 1902).

I must go down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song
and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face
and a grey dawn breaking.

Weekend mariners with more sentiment than sense get all wrapped up in this bit of marshmallow fluff. Too bad for Masefield: he's remembered for this while his other, better work is forgotten by everyone except professors of 20th century Brit Lit. Further, the marketing hype of the Tall Ships Association has convinced people that "tall ship" represents a specific type; a noun, not an adjective. The masses come to such events with a very specific template in mind.

Well, the Polish tall ship wasn't very tall...or very long. As a matter of fact, there were a couple of yachts docked on the Salem waterfront that were larger.

The guys working on the waterfront knew I sat on the committees that had started this effort. When they got tired of hearing, "Where's the tall ship...jeez, that's it?"from visitors, naturally they rounded on me. (That took about an hour.) I suggested they say that it shrank in the wash.

But the tale had a happy and unexpected ending. This was just after the end of the Cold War, and the vessel was so short of everything that it's a wonder the crew got it over here at all. Salem's Polish community took the crew to heart, took them to the old Polish club for a couple of roaring drunks at which broken English on one side encountered rusty Polish on the other. The locals then did their bit to make up some of the vessel's material deficiencies, especially food and alcohol as I heard it. So this piece of silly puffery ended up with a nice bit of international goodwill (kind of the original purpose of these events), a reprovisioned vessel, and several hundred thundering hangovers afloat and ashore.

Who stole the peoples' brains?

My choice would be the Great and General Court, whose latest contribution to Massachusetts' motor vehicle laws is the motto "We don' need no steenkin seatbelts!"

The debate over primary seatbelt laws takes one into an Alice's Wonderland of libertarian double-think. Here we have a device whose lifesaving qualities are demonstrated by a mountain of hard evidence. Two out of three people agree that it saves lives, but don't you dare make me! After all, two of those eight fatalities over the July 4 weekend were wearing their seatbelts, so there!

Certain unnamed Beacon Hill lobbies must be relieved in the aftermath of this bloody weekend, because all the dead were under 30, so therefore we don't need any legislation to keep geriatric leadfoots (or is that leadfeet?) off the roads, right?

Being of a certain age, I won't enjoy giving up my licence if I live so long, but if no one in my family has the spine to tell me I should stop driving, then I want a Commonwealth and a Registry who will tell me before I mistake a laundromat for a parking space, then die with someone's needless death on my conscience.

Likewise, having long since made seat belts a productive habit, I have no ethical objection whatever to laws that tell me to do what I already do. I don't murder people, but I don't object to laws against doing so, or see them as an infringement of my rights. That's partly because I do grasp and support pinko concepts like "commonwealth" and "general welfare."

Seems to me that we need a primary seatbelt law as a backup, just like homicide laws. The collateral benefit of a primary seatbelt law is that if you are too confused, too drunk or too stoned to fasten your seatbelt, it may just be possible that you're in no condition to drive, whether you are 18 or 88. We don't even need a built-in car breathalyser: Are you coordinated enough to fasten the damn buckle?

Long before I reached my creaking years, I understood that people don't become stupid just because they become old, nor do they automatically become wise by becoming old. It's just that the odds favour the survival of smarter youth into old age. Stupid young people--those who manage to survive their reproductive years despite their stupidity--become stupid old people. Or legislators, or lobbyists.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A dip in the political poop--er, pool

So, last week, you weren't a real member of the blogosphere if you didn't have something to say about whatsisname. Now, apparently we have to say something to say about the soon-to-be-former Governor of Alaska.

All right. Those who have either moral or political ambitions should be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. Bailing out of an office made relatively easy with petrodollars, when the bucks stop flowing, doesn't look like a spectacular credential for either moral righteousness or higher office.

Timing, in politics, is all. Bailing out of office immediately after Vanity Fair sucker-punches you violates this principle, leaving you rather far away from the moral high ground. There are other ambitious governors who have been treated just as harshly by the economy and the media. Whatever their other faults, they are still in office, taking the punches. Somehow, those other governors understand that the media spotlight goes with the job; they get on with it and don't whine.

Politics for grownups are a lot like politics in grade school. I remember one grade school playground line that might have been written for Sarah Palin:

"You can dish it out, but you can't take it."

Go back to Wasilla. You can't take it, and you have nothing to offer any of us.