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?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The job-hunting peeve of the week

For some hilarity, I read an unsolicited resume review from JobFox. Now, first you have to understand that I don't apply to openings on JobFox unless I expect nothing to come of it. I've read enough reviews of the site to suspect that anything that comes from a free member goes direct to the delete button. Once in a while, they hit on something that is both interesting and up-to-date. I apply on the company's Web site.

I won't bore you with the details. It was a useful reminder that the resume they had was nearly six months old. I don't have "a" resume anymore than I have "a" cover letter. I have templates that I rework according to the position, and as a result my presentation evolves over time.

However, their professional resume writer—and what else was this but a pitch to spend $400 for their resume service—punched one of my hot buttons. No matter what you have in your resume, I will bet you that if you get a "professional" resume review, the reviewer will sing you a song about how you're not showing enough specific instances of original contributions and innovations in your previous jobs. This burns me in two ways. First, it's right out of the original Bernard Haldane playbook from 50 years ago. Second, almost no one who makes a living fleecing the jobless asks whether these sacred texts still have any validity.

When Haldane wrote, the majority of career counselor clients had a job and wanted a different one. People who played by company rules kept their jobs and their stress levels for life. Even "troublemakers" (i.e., innovators) weren't fired but sidelined. Now, anyone can get whacked, and most people writing resumes do so because they have to, not because they want to.

Even though this fundamental change has taken place, job-search pundits act as though nothing has changed. In the era of lifetime employment, the job-seeker needed this powerful record to explain the desire for change and to show what he (usually he, then) could bring to the new party. Many of today's unemployed have worked for companies that went out of their way to penalise originality and innovation: the very people whose only resume was their first one 50 years ago are now out of work. Some of today's unemployed may also come from occupations in which innovation can be an outright disaster, for example finance. Do the pundits and resume writers ever ask about this? No; the sacred texts say you have to be original and innovative. This may be true in the parallel universe that they, and HR departments, inhabit, but it may not be true in the real working world.

Two of my three recent employers were very, very cool to the idea of original thinking about anything. At one, originality was a quick ticket from the production end of things to something like facilities management . The second was holed below the waterline and throwing people overboard long before I found a way to make original contributions despite their attitude. The result of course is that innovation has no place on my job record from either.

I've lined up my position for the next time I get face time with one of these experts. After first pointing out this inconvenient truth, I mean to ask if they want their clients to lie on their resumes? It bloody well sounds like it. If not, then I still have my original question: when do they plan to throw out ideas generated in a lost world, and help people respond to what is going on around them?

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Evening meditations

We should all end our day by asking what we have learned, so it is said. Today I learned two things about two of our southern states:
  • People in Alabama speak English. I had thought there was some doubt about that even in Georgia.
  • When he jogs, the Governor of Texas is packing. Y'all best mind what you say, especially if you're a critter.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another sellout

If I had any principles worth mentioning, I'd shave with a straight razor or wear a beard.

As it is, I gave up the goatee a few years ago because it was going grey about twice as fast as the rest of my head, making it look like I was channeling Col. Sanders. Now, another of those social history moments. Before the the invention of the safety razor, most "clean shaven" men actually shaved only two or three times a week. The rest were either rich enough to own a matched set of seven straight razors professionally sharpened, rich enough and leisured enough to visit a barber every day, or masochists.

Since King Gillette (his real name) perfected the safety razor, I am circling back to my point, which is that today I sold out and gave up trying to get blades for my 15-year-old razor. I bought a new razor and two umpteen-blade refills for $9.99, thus fulfilling my part in the Gillette business model.

As most people who have been through business courses can tell you, Gillette's real invention was understanding that he was not in the razor business: He was in the razor blade business. He deeply discounted, or gave away, his safety razors. They were such an improvement over the first primitive safety razors, and more so over the straight razor, that Gillette ensured himself a steady and growing market for his disposable razor blades. Although the model has been somewhat muddied by the introduction of entirely disposable razors, it still holds true. How well does it work? I've just been starved out of my attachment to an old razor. I have sold out for ten bucks. I will now spend about a buck and a half every time I change razor cartridges, for the rest of my life or until Gillette pulls the rug out from under this model.

Will it be an improvement? I wonder. When I was first shaving, which was some time after the demise of straight razors, the big deal was razor blades that kept an edge more than two or three days. That innovation was introduced by a Gillette competitor, and probably is responsible for the shaving arms race that has now outlasted the Cold War by a generation. After that first innovation, I haven't noticed any substantial improvement in shaves, nor any reduction in bloodshed, in proportion to the cost of keeping up.

And no, it is not a comfort that the author of this quintessential bit of capitalism professed himself a Utopian Socialist. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like at duck....

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Food fight!!

In case you've been preoccupied with something more substantial, say, work, we present to you the latest legislative deliberations of the Ukrainian parliament.

This has happened there before, as any half-decent Googling effort will show you. And it has happened elsewhere including, as I recall, Italy and Taiwan. It hasn't happened in the US of A since 1856.

Maybe that's our problem. Those who follow that link will note that the food fight and fisticuffs ended with the parliament actually passing legislation. How often does that happen in Congress these days, at least relative to the number of pressing bills before the two houses? Possibly we should encourage similar behaviour in our legislators? For instance, today a Republican Senator called a hold on banking reform legislation. Considering the mood of the country, that gesture has to rank high in the annals of political suicide. One assumes the Republican Senators up for re-election hope that the banks can buy enough voters to overcome this moment of lunacy. They forget that a century ago, when Senators were last so obviously owned by banks and industry, they weren't directly elected: It was much cheaper to buy Senators then.

But suppose some diligent Democrat had flung a rotten egg or custard pie at his or her distinguished colleague? Suppose the Republican had riposted with a cold cup of coffee? It's easy to imagine the possibilities here, and we should be grateful that the Ukrainian parliament has shown us the way to vent all this spleen and still pass laws.

Note: I have read a modest amount of the history of Ukraine, and I suggest that anyone who doesn't understand the rancour do the same. We have a mere 220 years of political pissing contests behind us. Ukraine has a long and sorrowful history as the pull toy of more powerful neighbours, six or seven hundred years at least. Those who feel strongly about many of the issues the Ukrainian parliament must debate have every reason to do so.

All the same, I suggest sending a dozen eggs to your Senators, Congresspeople, and state legislators. Send them parcel post so they'll be nice and ripe on arrival. Then let the games begin.

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Things to put on your resume...or not

I've often wondered about including PowerPoint on the list of computer applications that adorns my resume. This little item about the army's problems with a PowerPoint insurgency explains why.

Yes, I know. It's a keyword, and all Human Resources (HR) grunts live and breathe keywords. For many years, it has also struck me that no one in HR is capable of using any computer application. Observe the typical job description, and you'll notice that they include lists of apps presented without the least idea of what they do. Human Resources departments are notorious in IT circles for the common faux pas of requiring applicants to have five years' experience with a product that's been released for six months. That used to be funny, but the joke has grown stale.

When I see an unfamiliar product in a job description, I research it to see whether what I have is close enough to justify an application. I did this last week, and it turned out to be a piece of screen capture software.

I suppose IT hiring managers often are having a good time at the expense of HR, but can't we sit them down and explain a few things? All screen capture software I've seen (and I've seen plenty) works pretty much the same. The tweaks come in resolution, speed and things like that. People who have been around such products know what they want out of the product and, being doc people, actually read the manual.

Much the same is true of spreadsheet and database apps. The objectives are the same, the ways to get there are very similar and have been for a long time. [Commercial!] Mature workers know that, because we've seen many of these products come and go. However, someone of fewer years may not have seen any of these toys, ever. They don't have any more clue how to use them than the HR people who wrote the job description. Would it make sense to hire a few people who have seen it all before? Of course it would, but sense isn't in the HR job description.

Rant done: time for supper.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

And another thing

I don't see why quaint old towns like mine don't stick to quaint old names for streets and neighbourhoods. It must be the real estate people who keep sanitising things. They're the ones who name streets in developments something like "White Oak Drive" after they cut down all the white oaks to build the development.

In my quaint old town there is a street known to the natives and the cognoscenti as "Shittin' Hill." Not so long ago there was an excellent reason for this. The street runs straight up the steepest side of the steepest hill in town. When we first lived here, my landlord explained that first, anyone who used chamber pots dumped the contents into the gutters every morning. Second, most of the old houses had privies until 75 or 80 years ago, and the pits, well, leaked their contents down the path of least resistance. So Shittin' Hill really did shit. There's a yacht club at the bottom of this hill, whose cachet seems to have improved since the town mandated indoor plumbing.

We really should be on our guard to preserve bits of New England lore like this, lest people think life here always looked like a Yankee magazine calendar.

Friday, April 23, 2010

From the top of the pile

I have a lot of other stuff to write about, but I'm lazy and tired from doing as much climbing as my town allows. (Listen, when you're slated to go to Yosemite in four months, and as out of shape as I am, you'd better whip it good or come back in a small cardboard box.)

I see here this interwebz ad for a $69 one-way airfare to Philly. That isn't a bargain, it's a sentence, unless you know what the deal is for the return fare. And yes, I've been there for an extended period. I ate cheese steak and even drank Schmid's. (It's better than the water.) But it's still a sentence.

I'll get to the rest of the pile directly.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Been a busy few days...

There's time at last to pick up my pen (don't you love that anachronism?).

My first thought concerns the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull. Say that five times fast, and then let's hear some of those smartass remarks about Welsh.

I was in Boston last Wednesday, at a midday meeting on Boston Common. My teabag crowd estimate placed it at around the start-finish crowd for the Tufts 10k: that's busy but way short of the hyped 20,000. Those of us with business up by Park Street hardly knew the teabag rally was even happening. There were news helicopters, of course, but no more than for your average three-alarm fire.

It's unfortunate (and a missed opportunity for the Democrats) that a healthy Populist uproar has been hijacked by a combination of seriously psychotic people and corporate puppet-masters. Wednesday was a good example of the results. People headed toward the rally seemed mainly to be to be my age and up. People who didn't even have to deliberately ignore this little zit of a rally were of all ages, but predominantly younger. It is a case of manipulated older people, enabling the vilest forms of extremism, and thus alarming and offending wider and wider segments of the population. Although revolutions can be made by minorities, they have been organised minorities. A successful revolution resonates on more than a couple of issues with a centre that shares some of its concerns.

Apropos the event. I didn't realise, until watching the news coverage, one reason the rally made so little stir a quarter mile away: it didn't make much noise. One reason it didn't, I saw, was that its keynote speaker has a remarkably poor voice for someone of her experience. I don't mean the fake folksy dialect. I mean she simply cannot project. That's an unfortunate shortcoming for a wannabe rabble-rouser. Almost as unfortunate as her biggest conundrum. How do you pretend to run for president of a country that many of your followers (including your spouse) want to dismantle?

Later: what a pity, the packing porkies rally in Virginia turned out a couple of dozen would-be rebels who mostly shouted for one another's benefit. And what happened to a planned packing rally in DC? The police wouldn't let them! This rebellion is a few bricks short of a load. The DC revolutionists went unarmed and so blended in, no doubt, with the average April tourist crowd in Washington.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a re-enactor of the Lexington-Concord fight died of cardiac arrest. I'd say that individual was more focused and principled than any of the packers or teabags.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The last refuge of a scoundrel

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," said Samuel Johnson. He can be forgiven this, because it was as low as he could go in early April, 1775. The concept of "states' rights" had not yet been invented and turned loose upon an unsuspecting world.

In a time when this dessicated corpse has been exhumed by people frantically trying to regain control of the public dialogue, it's well to remember that "states' rights" was acknowledged, even by some supporters of the Confederacy, to be a polite code word for "states' rights to protect the institution of slavery." I have just come from two contrary items. One was journalistic commentary that a judge's Internet privacy problems in Ohio may finally overturn the illusion of Internet privacy, so far as it provides a cloak for sedition and racism at least. The other was reading some pathetic defenses of secession and states' rights in a comment thread, provided by people who apparently learnt to spell "secession" last week, and who sat in the back row of high school history class throwing spitballs. Imagine if all Internet commenters had to sign their names to their remarks: One can only hope.

States' rights is a toxic doctrine that ruins all who touch it. It contributed substantially to the downfall of the Confederacy so beloved of these fools. In the winter of 1864-1865, with Georgia cut in half by a trail of ruin, South Carolina being dismantled by a Federal army out for revenge, and Lee's troops before Richmond starving on their feet and freezing in rags, the governors of surviving Confederate states would not release abundant stores of food and uniforms to the national army, because they were reserved for use by (at this point) nonexistent state forces.

In despair, Jefferson Davis commented that "if the Confederacy fails, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a Theory."

It is all one could ask to have desperate reactionaries hang their flag from a doctrine proven in blood to guarantee disorder, dissolution and failure for its friends. The problem is that so many of the people beating this drum today would have to fail again before they understood it.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

Stinking Sands

Further on the comments to yesterday's post, now that Blogger has coughed up the original comment.

Once upon a time, when I was taking a computer programming course, our instructor, Dr. GM, loved to distract his students with Buddhist wisdom (he was one) and with local lore (he was also local).

The stinking sands to which M-A refers to are, I think, the ones cited in this link. The article is a little thinly researched. If the reporter had dug a little further, she would have discovered Dr. GM's pertinent bit of local knowledge, and learnt that cutting a tidal passage through the Nahant Causeway isn't "far-fetched," but the only rational solution. That's because the construction of the causeway caused the problem in the first place.

These beaches face a bay with a rare nautical phenomenon known as rotary current. Well-behaved ocean currents start at point A and go to point B. Rotary currents go around, along with anything that they happen to pick up. New England residents should think of rotary currents as traffic rotaries without enough exits.

Into the early 20th century, locals and summer people got to the two islands that form the town of Nahant one of two ways: by boat, or over the then very low tidal sandbank that linked Nahant to the mainland. Tides ran freely over the middle of the bank, but this was not a problem for horse-drawn conveyances. The buggies sat well above the water and the salt water was good for the horses' legs.

Then came the 20th century and internal combustion engines. It didn't take long for intrepid, affluent motorists to discover that immersing their machines in salt water was a really, really, dumb idea. Money talked as usual and the sand bank began to sport a raised gravel roadbed, which over the course of the next 30 or so years morphed into today's masonry-walled, briskly-traveled causeway. Thus the rotary current lost its principal exit.

According to Dr. GM, wherever in the world this sort of thing has happened, it creates the perfect habitat for, not the algae, but some venturesome microorganisms that live on the algae.

And they die on the algae. When people say the beaches smell like something crawled onto them and died, evidently that's exactly what has happened. Gazillions of microorganisms, having lived out their happy little spans whirling around the bay, die and are washed up on the beach along with their algae homes. The various towns can shovel out all the algae they want; they can shovel it out until hell freezes over and they still won't have solved the problem of this micro-organic suburb humans have made. The little beasties will still be there, and they'll be there in uncountable numbers until the rotary gets back its entrance-exit, which sloshes just enough critter-free water in and out to contain the population.

Again, think of any major rotary in Massachusetts. Suppose someone shut off the ramps when the rotary was full of tourists. The tourists would never leave, never be guided to safety by friendly natives using horns and hand gestures. They too would be washed up on the edges and die.

Why hasn't this solution been attempted? Well, there it is: it's far-fetched.

Faced with half a century of obstinate public sector refusal to try a fairly simple solution to this problem, the only question left is why the rest of us haven't turned Buddhist as the only way to cope with our frustration, and with the state's smelliest sands.

(Disclaimer: Dr. GM is only responsible for the abstract, not for my unscientific explanation. I'm not a microbiologist, even on TV.)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The uses of social history

Every spring for the last 39 years, I have fluctuated wildly from hope to despair in this seaside town sticking out into the ocean. Hope is represented by the seductively mild temperatures that prevail from about 8 a.m. until noon, when the temperature often gets well up into the 60s. Despair takes over when the sea breeze sets in, soon after noon in the spring, and plunges the temperatures down to the lower 50s or worse.

From my spouse's perspective, this was once a blessing. Each spring, in a triumph of hope over experience, my late mother would trek down from central New Hampshire for a few days under the illusion that it was going to be warm here. Between the sea breeze and the ice that prevailed between the two women, it was never warm.

We wonders, yes we does, why the 19th century Yankees pitched upon these rocky outcroppings, uninviting ten months of the year, as places to build summer retreats. The chief answer, evidently, is equus urbanicus.

In the 19th century, when there were neither electric trolleys, motorcars, nor air conditioned houses, the daily scrapings of horse manure from Boston streets alone measured in the many tons. Do a little math to figure what New York was like. If you're city raised, you may not appreciate the olfactory effect that happens when one raises even a ton or two of animal manure to 90 degrees F. for a few hours, every day, for a couple of months. Cities, then, were literally full of shit. Worse, abuse of draught animals was widespread (that's why the SPCA got started, duh!) and it wasn't uncommon for horses to die in harness. Their socially unconscious owners would simply unhitch the carcass, shove it to the gutter (or not), and leave it to decay and to carrion feeders. Oh, add to that the odour of the Great Unwashed when they really were unwashed. No, cities were not places the gently raised preferred to spend their summers.

Against that backdrop, freezing ocean water, sea breezes that are pure cheats in every month but July and August, and "beaches" comprised of tennis ball sized rocks probably seemed like a garden of earthly delights.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Monstrous movies

I saw the first Clash of the Titans in 1981. The occasion was something of a gag, because one of my co-workers worshipped Olivier and could not imagine that he would appear in anything one would call that much of a turkey.

So much for that premise. We went, we roared with laughter at the unintentional humour, and our Olivier worshiper crawled under her seat and whimpered for much of the film.

Don't count me as one of the uncritical fans of Ray Harryhausen's special effects, at least where this film is concerned. Keep the dates in mind. By 1981 the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back had both appeared and made their game-changing contributions to special effects. Harryhausen's stop-action effects were 20 years out of date. One might have forgiven this if they had not been wedded to a wooden script, or if the cast had not tried to play this in such earnest. The slightest hint of wink-nudge would have lightened the whole thing, and I don't think the original merits even its modest camp following.

Possibly the most preposterous creature in Harryhausen's bestiary is his rendition of the "kraken." One's first question is "why?" The kraken comes to us from Scandinavian folklore, not Greek mythology. Greek mythology has more than enough monsters of its own, human and otherwise. Only lack of imagination could have brought a northern sea monster out of the mists, down to the Aegean, and dressed it in what looks like the Thing's leftover costume for Harryhausen's 1981 effort. Going by the trailers, it seems that the current kraken, if an unoriginal concept, is at least an original monster. There are already a few very simple people on the interweb who are ready to believe that because a man in a rubber suit appeared in a 1981 bomb, the kraken really is a creature from Greek mythology. Again, life imitates art, even when it's bad art.

Thanks, but I'll stick to How to Train Your Dragon. It doesn't labour under the pretense of having anything to do with ancient mythology, Greek or otherwise. It's just a fun ride for grownup kids.

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