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?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yoga in the News

Swami Ramdev Ji's recent appearance on a small Scottish island has Scotland—at least—agog. Note that the owners of the island said they are "trying to promote a healthy lifestyle."

I think they have an uphill battle. Scotland is of course the home of Scotch, which is good; but also haggis and deep-fried Mars bars, which are not so much.

The nation has struggled for decades with health problems including poor dental health (making the fried Mars bar iconic), alcohol abuse and excessive smoking. None of that is very comical, considering Scotland's numbers in many health measurements are among the poorest in Europe.

Then there is the climate. Careful observers will note the sullen grey sky in the article's photos. In Scotland, that is called sunshine. It's a little difficult to say where a swami with 80 million followers should start in a first world country that seems to be trying for third world status. As far as I know, changing the climate would be a little bit beyond him. However, it's reasonable to suggest that many of Scotland's health problems are a response to miserable weather.

Therefore, Swami Ramdev might start with something on the lines of "let a swan be your umbrella on a rainy day." It can't hurt to lighten up a few hundred thousands of a country with a notoriously dour attitude.

But I want to see him toss the caber.

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...and Statistics

You know what precedes that, right?

The statistic I began to wonder about is the premise of the "hidden job market." That's the one that says that 80 percent of jobs are unadvertised and that you get most jobs through contacts and networking.

I submit that my career has been representative of the real life of much of my generation. I'm not talking about the mythological baby boomer whose job experience supposedly matches that of my parent's generation, with lifetime employment yada yada. I know people who have had lifetime employment (I'm married to one), but that's become the exception, not the rule, and it's beyond me why the punditry trots out that old horse in every economic downturn.

Nope, nossir, I've had 12 so-called permanent jobs, including contracting gigs that lasted as long as or longer than some of the "permanent" jobs. Including short-term contracting and steady freelance work, but excluding one-off story sales, there are 20 bits of data to throw into this pool: 20 short or long-term jobs acquired either from advertised positions or from networking/contacts. The average duration of these jobs, by the way, is 35 months, which is just about the number presented for average job length before the job pundits began to make fools of themselves last fall.

(Drum roll) May I have the envelope please? Networking/contacts wins by the slender margin of 10 to 8, with two ties: jobs or gigs I applied for conventionally, and for which I was a serious candidate on my own merits, but which I eventually got with an assist from contacts. This suggests a resource that's somewhat short of the 80 percent proportion.

I'm not saying the hidden job market is complete bunk. I'm saying that there's something in my division of labour, which has been more often like two parts conventional, three parts networking than two parts conventional, eight parts networking. None of this is new to me, either (the first time I had a job coach was 27 years ago) and while the means change, the objectives don't: get the job, one you can do and preferably one you'll like doing.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A cautionary tale

Last Thursday I had my second automotive appointment in a month. The first concentrated on the neglected brakes ($$$fricken fracken$$$) but left this funny swish-swoosh sound unimpeded.

Then (belatedly) I began to get analytical, and observed that the funny noises were present only when the blower was running. During vacation, the floor-level vents began leaking onto the driver and passenger, which was a pretty good hint something was wrong. The service folk made dire predictions when I made the appointment, but lo! Instead of an $800 repair job, I had an $88 bill for removing an impacted mass of vegetable matter from the blower intake.

And where does this come from, you ask? From the trees. Your cabin blower sucks air inside through that funky set of vents that lives just below your windshield wipers, and that you can see only when you open the hood. It collects leaves, dead flowers, and all the vegetable crap that mother nature drops on cars. The prolonged sucking of the blower intake (as in the six weeks we spent without sunshine from late May to mid-July) turns those leaves et al. into a fine matter that gets sucked in along with the air, until the blower's internal filter stops it. Eventually there is enough of this crud built up to stop the movement of moisture. Condensation follows, then swish -swoosh sounds (I love auto tech talk, don't you?), then foot baths for the front seat passengers. In the worst case, enough water builds up to destroy the blower motor. I was lucky. The crud dam kept the excess water out of the blower.

The bad news: auto ventilation systems hold onto nasty odours for a long time. Although I got a miss on serious problems, my ventilation now blows air that smells exactly like compost. I'm working through the list of popular interweb fixes, and counting my blessings: some people have found this problem to be caused by small animals that crawled in there and died.

So pilgrims, clear nature's vegetables off your air intakes regularly, and (I guess) employ a cat to live under your car to keep the rats and mice out of the AC and the hoses.


I was getting to this

Just after I'd finished yesterday's rant du jour on the inadequacies of career counseling and the current advice about networking oneself on social networking sites, I flipped to the Thursday, Sept. 24 opus of Non Sequitur.

This suggests a very different reason for not getting too exercised about the content of your Facebook or Twitter profile...with its usual understated style.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Thanks, Doc

My personal introduction to Dr. William T. Haley, Jr., who died last weekend, was through trauma. My landlord had a woodworking shop below our apartment, and I had the run of it. Whilst working on a project I managed to put a chisel through my left hand. I hadn't had medical training yet, so I didn't realise there were benefits to leaving the damn thing where it was. I pulled it out; the hand bled.

I was 27, therefore indestructible, therefore had no PCP, but I knew "Doc" Haley's office was a couple of blocks away, so I managed to drive there. This was an old-fashioned, one-physician practice. I walked in and a polite receiving nurse asked what they could do for me. Around this time I'd lost enough blood to be light-headed and I just let go my direct pressure on the hand by way of reply.

I found myself at the head of the line and in an examining room. Doc came in, as calm and polite as anyone could be, just as if I hadn't just sprayed blood all over his waiting room. He examined the wound, did a little debridement, then closed me up with three stitches a side: no anesthesia. As he worked, he commented that a shot at this stage would hurt more than the stitches, since I was in a little shock. He was right. I waited a while for my wife to come get me, and the nurse did the paperwork while I was waiting...after the procedure.

I had the pleasure and privilege of working with Doc many times over the years that followed, chiefly in boating education matters. He was always that calm and matter-of-fact, and had an amazing store of information and experience at his fingertips.

While it was common knowledge in town that Doc had been an Army doctor in World War Two, it was only this spring that we began to realise that his service had been a little out of the ordinary. The tip-off was when he received the Legion d'Honneur. That's rare enough for an American but improbably rare for a physician non-combatant.

This is what Doc Haley did, paraphrased from his Marblehead Reporter obituary:

While serving with an armoured cavalry unit during the Normandy campaign in 1944, Haley was involved in a firefight with a similar German unit. The fight became protracted, with wounded from both sides lying between the combatants. Armed only with his medical bag, Red Cross badge and a makeshift white flag, Doc calmly stood up and walked across the no-man's land as firing slowly died down in astonishment. He spoke German: asking for the German commander, Doc requested a cease-fire to treat the wounded. Despite his surprise, the commander agreed, on condition that Haley treat the wounded of both sides, to which Doc agreed. Eventually both units withdrew.

This act, which is dumbfounding even if you knew Doc, but which was perfectly in character, won him the Distinguished Service Cross. We didn't know that either, and when all this came out he didn't think any of it was especially heroic. He was later one of the liberators of Buchenwald, which may have affected his perspective.

Those who have followed these scribbles over the years know that I value valour, despise the contemporary cheapening of the word "hero", and believe the contributions of military and naval medical personnel are inexcusably neglected by a pop culture more interested in dead soldiers than the people who try to save them. All of these come together in my sense of loss. But even more, the town and planet have lost one of the most courteous, humane and decent individuals I have ever known. Doc, we're going to miss you.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Now I know why my eyes hurt

It's because I roll them so much in response to the advice of employment experts.

The latest item, which has come at me twice in networking meetings, is a rather sinister expansion of an obvious observation about social networking sites. The obvious observation is aimed, naturally, at twentysomethings, since of course no old people would ever use social networking sites*: "keep your toga party pictures private**." The favourite cute saying is to put nothing on the Internet that you wouldn't want to see on page one of the New York Times the next day.

The sinister expansion is the suggestion that you avoid saying or posting any words or images that could possibly, by any stretch of the imagination, offend anyone in any HR department anywhere in the solar system. When last I looked, the word for this was censorship and I'll have no part of it, thank you very much. What put me over the top, I think, was the fear one person in the group had about putting family cookout pictures on the family Facebook profile.

I remarked earlier that I have no anxiety about seeing anything I write on page one of the New York Times, provided I get the byline and the cheque. I have made just about all of my living putting my name on my words, or making other people's signed words look their best, for 25 years. My education and my experience have given me both a theoretical and a practical appreciation of the limits of free speech, libel, and copyright law. This is a background that few employment pundits enjoy. Perhaps—no, certainly—most people looking for work don't have these advantages. However, some do, and people who seek to tell me how to find work ought to have the flexibility to recognise that. The credibility of career advice columnists is low enough without them trying to shove everyone into the same tent of timidity.

Kindly remember that the key term on most social networking sites is social. LinkedIn reverses the equation, giving priority to networking of the professional variety. Facebook keeps me in touch with my relations, while LinkedIn keeps me in touch with my professional relationships (or would if I gave it due diligence). Perhaps the distinction is unclear to some people. I guess they are the same ones who think that one cover letter suits all possible occasions. Who am I to disabuse competing job seekers? However, I have some right to expect better of anyone who presumes to offer me expert advice.

The reductio ad absurdum of this panicked reasoning is to imagine what Twitter would look like if every tweet had to be vetted by an attorney. To paraphrase Bobby Day:

All the little lawyers on Federal Street
Love to hear their clients go tweet tweet tweet.

New times always require new thinking, but the people making money from advice to the unemployed seem unable to grasp that. The play 1776 archly portrays the timidity of a Continental Congress overwhelmed by its undertaking until, in frustration, John Adams shouts:

It's a revolution, dammit! We're going to have to offend somebody!

As writers, we probably will.

*Note to the age-biased: you may want to check your prejudices against the demographics. Older users are Facebook's fastest-growing segment, and we'll be taking over Twitter next, mwahahaha!

**Note to the job advice pundits: "toga party" is so 1963.

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Where do they all come from?

Massachusetts residents reading this are no doubt aware that no one under the age of 70 has committed vehicular homicide in the Commonwealth in 2009; or so one would think if one's judgment were entirely formed by broadcast journalism. Nevertheless, there have been an unfortunate number of such acts involving older drivers in recent months.

On Monday, I think I found the training ground.

One of our larger and justly celebrated suburban hospitals hosts meetings of a certain professional organisation (to which I belong) from time to time. This requires one to park in the hospital garage and pay up just like ordinary visitors. Some of the recent meetings have been at midday, which is a good deal for this hospital and nearby facilities: everyone gets to attend on their lunch hour, get their CEUs, and not have to stay late.

The first time the local group did the midday meeting, parking was no big deal, but this past Monday the facility must have been running a Medicare Buy one, Get one on procedures. The garage was packed to the upper level; the median age of the drivers was well above my own. The mixture of anxiety coming with hospital visits, reduced lighting, resultant reduced vision (my own included) and 300 drivers with Massachusetts licences haring off in all directions was enough to freeze the blood. It was like Senior Citizens Day at the demolition derby track, and there I was with a participants' ticket.

Let's make it a once-monthly event, and clear the garage of everyone except the people who truly want to act out their geriatric road rage. It would keep serious casualties to a minimum (it's hard to work up to full throttle in that place) and of course, there's a hospital right at hand. We could even send in some legislators and broadcast journalists, provided they too take part in the scrum.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yes, I'm back

Vacation is done, let us all rejoice. The lake the outlaw committee selected as this year's base is noted for two things: rampant elitism and high winds in the fall.

The elitism was certainly in evidence, if you looked closely enough. The denizens of this body of water long ago decided that the solution to the McMansionisation of America is not zoning and common sense, but camouflage. Buildings must be set back from the water. Builders may remove only enough trees from a lot to actually build the house. The building must be treated in natural tones that blend with the landscape. If you do all that, you can still build your 8000 sq ft vacation retreat with 12 bedrooms, fourteen staircases, 36 fireplaces and an elevator.

The difference between this lake and Lake Winnipesaukee seems to be hypocrisy.

About the wind: yep, we had two and a half days of brisk west to northwest winds of the sort that make kayaking "interesting." The other two and a half days were glassy calm, enabling long trips (one about 14 miles) to places which had somehow escaped the 8000 sq ft natural-tone McMansions. We spent part of one of the windy days exploring the river that leads out of the lake, much of which is of no interest to the mansion owners and/or drivers of power boats as large as the lake allows. Yes, they restrict that, too, with the result that most nouveau riche power boats are as large as the law allows.

The river was lovely, still, and quiet on a weekday.

So the trick of getting the best out of this lake was to pay attention to the parts and places that were either off limits to the nouveaux, or of no interest to them because they had to work a little to get to them.

  • How does one manage to put in 60 miles or so in a kayak and still gain weight?
  • When you kayak, in theory you work with your core. When your core goes haywire (as in putting your back out and acquiring sciatica) you have to use your arms. When your arms are a bit sketchy, as mine are, you'll hurt your arms too. Lesson: fix the seat first.

Aren't vacations fun?


Saturday, September 12, 2009

One more: Guard What?

OK...let me see if I have this right. The Coast Guard holds a routine drill. CNN, obsessed with the idea that terrorists are as obsessed with anniversaries as the broadcast media, is listening in on police scanner frequencies and overhears the drill.

Without once checking, or even considering, the possibility that the data might support some other conclusion, CNN goes on the air with breathless commentary about terrorists in the Potomac. And somehow, this is the Coast Guard's fault.

CNN, there is in fact a moral low ground lower than that occupied by Fox, and you've found it.
This farce rates an F in any journalism course I ever had, and you know it. Now cowboy up and admit it.

The obvious conclusion is that nobody is supposed to be ready to protect anything if it interferes with America's driveling sentimentality and its enablers. I'd ding the Coast Guard for saying anything on any frequency not indescribably Top Secret, and I'd cut off umpteen dozen perqs for any media outlet that acted as blindly as CNN has in this matter: not for security breaches, but for sheer stupidity followed by middle-school arrogant denial.

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Friday, September 11, 2009


Not to be confused with the piratical "arr!"

In 1972, a full 37 years ago, the band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recorded the hymn "Amazing Grace," whose English (god save the mark) roots had been forgotten for a century. To most people, it was an American hymn.

To their astonishment, the Guards band had a full-fledged hit on their hands. To the grief of many people, we have had a cliche on our hands ever since. No American funeral, especially of the tear-jerking public variety, is complete without bagpipers choking back their bile and playing "Amazing Grace."

Good god, I am so fucking sick of it.

Why, might one ask, has a hymn whose tangled ancestry never included Scottish bagpipes until these recent times become a tedious staple of funerary events? Simple: because it was a hit. Because few Americans--even those of remoter Scottish ancestry-- had ever heard bagpipes before this hit. As Tolkien said of his American "cultus," they had never encountered art before and became quite drunk on it.

A requirement of my Welsh ancestry is supposed to be scorn for bagpipes. In my culture, real music is that of the voice or the harp. I think that's a bit of denial. The bagpipes came to Britain from the Middle East courtesy of the Romans. When they left, the bagpipes stayed, perhaps because the supernatural harmony that just one instrument can produce resonates with the Celtic mind.

No matter where I am, the sound of bagpipes automatically snaps my head around to the music. To me, the disgusting thing about this American obsession with "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes is its sheer narrowness. The bagpipe repertory includes a grand array of moving compositions; some dating to the 18th century or before, some much more recent. If you want laments, there is a full subcategory for this. There is the entire library of pibroch, piobareachd, variations of primary themes, capable of almost infinite variety. There is even Scottish rock music built from bagpipe themes and even—I am not making this up—experiments with electric bagpipes.

And all the pitiful Americans can come up with is "Amazing Grace." What drivel.

A bagpiper lived not too far from me a few years ago. Some warm evenings, one would hear a free-form lamentation pibroch played out from a quarter mile off: if such music doesn't make your hair stand on end, you're not alive. Once you've heard that, the funerary "Amazing Grace" falls into place as an absurd burlesque of a profound native art form.

On this, Scots all, my hat's off to you. Oh yes, and the whisky. The haggis, not so much.

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Warning: Geek-think

Google Verizon support for Linux and you'll discover that, on the record, there isn't any. That's right, Verizon does not support Linux for some dumb-ass undisclosed reason. I'm sure that you people can supply the most likely reason why.

The link above is merely one of the latest of many, many pages of threads on this topic: rants on the idiocy of the policy and a host of cracks, hacks and whatnot to get around the problem.

I present my own simple-minded solution. This won't help you if all you run is Linux or if you don't have a home network set up. However if you do have a home network, and the server machine is on an operating system that Verizon does deign to support, you can add a Linux machine by just naming and adding it to the existing supported network. Presto chango, there you are! Verizon doesn't seem to care as long as the initial machine is one it likes.

I tried this as a final shot before resorting to some of the more elaborate cracks available on the Internet. It resembles monkeys writing Hamlet, but so do a lot of things I try.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

This and that

I am not seeking the US Senate seat made vacant by Ted Kennedy's death. It seems useful to make that clear, since those of us not running seem to be distinct minority.

Here's one more addition to the list of low income workers whose passive aggression on the job can make your life momentarily miserable: shopping cart wranglers. You've seen them: the bottom-rung labourers at supermarkets, box stores or whatever, who get to go out and fetch back the shopping carts most of us are too lazy or too dumb to at least bring to the cart corrals. You'd think that half an hour of paid time on a bright summer day would restore their spirits. Alas, no. They get to direct their anger at their sinuous herd of carts, and finish up by jamming them together to firmly that the next shopper will need a crowbar to get the carts to part. I speak from experience. The four fingers I jammed trying to pull two shopping carts apart a couple days back are finally raising no objections to being planted on a keyboard. Let us all learn from this, return our carts to the corrals, and aid the wranglers' anger management.

Once upon a time, the Maytag people really were tops in dependability. Ours is about to go to its reward, after 23 years of service; service, mind, without a single repair. In washers, they truly don't make them like they used to. Speaking of passive aggression, I don't know what we did to this machine to inspire it to begin dribbling oil on clothes at the start of the Labour Day weekend.

The logistics of delivery, plumber-assisted shifting of gas dryers, and removal have taken up a good part of the past four days. Are you watching, George Carlin? If you are, I bet you're damn surprised that you are, but not surprised at this proof that the stuff owns us.

PS: a can of Coca-Cola really does remove a lot of grease and oil stains.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Once in a while, one has to remind oneself that crankiness is a perquisite of people over 50. This is contrary to all of the oh-so careful and politically correct advice from "experts" who just noticed there is an internet and that there are social networking sites. I wouldn't mind the absurdity of their advice, except that such folk prey upon my compeers who somehow have never been out of work before. I've decided mockery is their due.

"Don't post anything that you wouldn't want to see on page one of the New York Times," I heard one say last week. I'd be pleased if this did...on standard terms, of course.

Ten minutes ago, I received a job req for a biologist's position. Now that I have stopped hurting myself with laughter, I have to reflect that this is what happens when you loose a tech writer who understands keywording upon a recruiter who does not. Holy hotkeys, Batman!

The last time I approached biology with enthusiasm was tenth grade, and that was due to a teacher who had huge...tracts of land, a fact which was guaranteed to get her the unbroken attention of every fairly straight, testosterone-soaked 15-year-old male. She had enough of my attention to provide me with quite decent grades. Later, my college freshman biology course disabused me of the notion that I had retained anything else of consequence from high school biology. The subject and I have been unfriends ever since.

Yet this is a fair example of how "experts" render their judgments of someone's employability. Keywords, stereotyping, reckless generalisation, and market perceptions that are usually at least a generation out of date: that is the toolkit of the average employment authority. No wonder so many people are out of work.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Jerry, they hardly knew ya

My North Shore town is not exactly a mob hangout. Hence my surprise at opening the local weekly and seeing a mawkish obituary notice for that sweet, innocent son of Boston's North End, Gennaro Angiulo. (I chose Zimbio for the link because a] it performs best and b] it isn't stuffed with hypocritical sentimentality about the end of an era. The Boston Herald and Fox News have been falling over each other with that sort of coverage since he died last weekend.)

End of an era? Damn right, and damn good. I'd bet some serious money that two out of three North End residents today had no clue who this man was, and what he represented, until the local media spelled it out for them. For such gentry, Angiulo's mob associations form a sort of racy and safely remote back story to their daily lives.

Thirty years ago today I was working in the North End. Geographically it was the same place, but that's about it. The organisation I worked for didn't have to pay protection. It was, for a variety of reasons, tacitly considered exempt from the usual methods of doing business; usual methods that permeated everyone and everything.

When anyone from the neighbourhood violated that truce, things were a little different.

By this date in 1979 I knew how things worked. If someone broke the peace, whether with graffiti, bravado, or outright threats, I knew how to insert my comments into the pipeline without any particular attention being called to the process. The breaker of the peace was forthwith reminded of his obligations. Typically, a "reminder" was all that was necessary. We had learned not to inquire too closely about the resolution of these problems. We suggested there was a problem, and the problem went away. Not surprisingly, we had very few problems with the locals.

The hand of organised crime dirtied everything it touched. It didn't seem possible then that the mob could be broken. It has been, but other groups have picked up the pieces, moved them to other neighbourhoods, and solve problems even more directly than the gentlemen of the North End solved them.

I shed no tears either for the deceased or what he stood for. I'll leave that to Fox News and the Herald.