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 30, 2010

Which of these geeks is not like the other?

We awake to yet another foot in the Facebook mouth. There hasn't been time for the full throated denials from Facebook; only the pro forma ones. It will get better.

For those who have been spending time in another dimension, Mark Zuckerberg is Facebook's co-inventor and CEO, and Facebook is one of the galaxy's most successful social networking sites. Zuckerberg is 26, another of those brilliant college dropouts who are the despair of parents trying to get their children a college education. He knows everything--he'll tell you so himself--and especially he knows everything about what his customers want. If those customers suggest that they want something else, such as stronger privacy controls, then Zuckerberg will explain to them how wrong they are, with that air of barely-contained impatience characteristic of young geeks.

The trouble is that this hubristic mindset has more to do with geekdom and early success than it does with age. A. Neil Pappalardo is the founder and CEO of arguably one of the most successful medical software companies in the world, and was also co-developer of the MUMPS computer language. Pappalardo is about 68, one of those brilliant MIT graduates who sets a good example for anxious parents. So much for the differences. Like Zuckerberg, Pappalardo also knows everything. Having run his company for over 40 years, he no longer has to tell anyone that he knows everything: he has an army of employees ready to spread the word. However, like Zuckerberg, he has customers who occasionally say that they want something different from his company's products, and Pappalardo's legions have to tell them that they're wrong and Neil is right.

Those acquainted with both find it easy to think they're listening to the young Neil Pappalardo when they hear Mark Zuckerberg, and that they're seeing Zuckerberg in 40 years when they see Neil. The idea of an increasingly patriarchal Facebook, managed solely according to the whims of its CEO, is enough to freeze the blood.

When you're 26, your company is barely six years old, and most of your customers are individuals, you can get away with telling them what they want...for a while. Pappalardo's example suggests that in some cases you can get away with it for a long time. While the world inside IT changes very slowly, in terms of attitude and culture, the world of the users changes much more rapidly. I recently heard a persuasive presentation that the "next big thing" in IT is going to be products that are intelligible to users and that respond to customer needs.

Whether you're 26 or 68, that's an idea worth considering.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 26, 2010

No idea is bad enough to die

In the sticks of my childhood, we had to use our imaginations at times to find diversion. Once the state highway bypass down the road at the capitol was integrated into the Interstate Highway system and extended through our back woodlots, we had a regular source of entertainment dropped into our laps. The start of every major holiday produced a steady stream of flatlanders coming north for their amusement. The end of every major holiday produced a steady stream of flatlanders heading south for our amusement.

You see, near the centre of the capitol was a highway feature which, in our innocence, we called a "traffic circle." Highway engineers blanched with horror at this term and hastened to say, "no, it's a rotary." Either way, it was a colossal choke point. A couple of miles up the road, we innocent country children would gather on the overpass with spitballs, peashooters and ripe vocabulary, and mock the fuming flatlanders, lined up past the horizon, as they edged toward the traff...err...rotary at two miles per hour.

Eventually, even the most stalwart engineering defenders of rotaries seemed to throw in their hand. Most disappeared. Here on the North Shore, we maintain a few as museum pieces and as places to annoy commuters and drive tourists mad. We also have the so-called Bell Circle in Revere. After a generation as a traffic nightmare, this was "improved" with changes which pretty much took geometry out of the equation, and which made the normal rush-hour delay twice as long from twice as many directions.

This would simply be reminiscence save for one unsettling detail. These things are back, backed by a prodigious public relations effort. (I used to be in that business: I know hype when I smell it.) The hype assures us that it's OK: They're roundabouts. And oh my stars and garters, don't dare call them traffic circles or rotaries. They're new and different, just like rotaries were new and different when they replaced traffic circles. We have this, for example, and this, from Minnesota, which prissily dismisses criticism of roundabouts as opposition to change. A few minutes of googling will find you many others. If you should follow those links and detect a similarity between them, the New Hampshire DOT's defense of roundabouts below, and the representations of Roundabouts USA, it might be coincidence. Then again, it might be what public relations does best: sparing journalists, customers, and the public the trouble of thinking.

Now of course, it's all different, because we've borrowed a British expression and that makes an old idea all right: sort of like watching your mayhem on Masterpiece Mystery instead of Law and Order: SVU.

The PR blitz has been much more successful in some places than in others. My unscientific survey suggests that less metropolitan places are more vulnerable to these pitches than places like Boston, where we never stopped having to fight our way through the goddam things every day. We are disinclined to acquiesce to their requests: means no.

I had my first inkling that these monstrosities were back this spring, just west of Peterborough, NH. They've built a strip mall on the only piece of flat ground between Peterborough's principal traffic light and the Dublin, NH town line. This was apparently because the previous strip mall adjacent to the light wasn't good enough. So fine: this new mall has been there for a couple of years, but now it has a roundabout.

Roundabouts USA, whose name suggests they're willing to jump up and take resp--um, credit for this revival, will tell you how important it is to use roundabouts to control traffic flow. This is very important in Peterborough—at what we'll call exhibit A—in the middle of an area with a population density under 50 per square mile. The only time it gets anything approximating traffic flow is probably on Friday night. Second, we're told it moderates traffic. Uh-huh. From the east, exhibit A is approached by a state highway with a half mile of six percent uphill grade from that light I mentioned. Any semi-trailer unlucky enough to get caught at the light down that hill is moving about three mph when it reaches exhibit A. From the north, it's approached only by the driveway from the strip mall. From the west, it's approached by the state highway coming down two or three miles of six percent grade. Exhibit A is so effective at slowing traffic from this direction that there are now rumble strips every 100 feet or so for the half mile or so preceding it, to let those of us who still freewheel down hills like this know that there's an obstruction at the bottom. There is no entry from the south.

Roundabouts USA and its customers also assure us that roundabouts are scientifically designed to moderate traffic flow. (I suppose the rotaries were designed by crop circle cultists?) The scientific designers of exhibit A were clearly biased in favour of small vehicles: like motor scooters. Exhibit A's diameter doesn't allow a typical highway semi to get around it without cutting over the middle: I've seen this for myself. My wife's Scion can just about make the turn. I'd like to be there on a Friday night and watch the local stream of SUVs, pickups and vintage rides work around this thing.

I was prepared to think that exhibit A was an aberration: a weak moment on the part of the Peterborough selectfolk, but no, they've sold the state. Keene, NH has , at present count, two new "roundabouts" in addition to its good old-fashioned traffic circle at the centre of the city. Only one of them even remotely resembles the ideal of the modern, scientific roundabout.

They do slow traffic though: very dramatically, says my sister-in-law the OR nurse, who plays a part in picking up the pieces after the traffic is slowed by serious to fatal accidents. Never mind: if the evolutionary record is anything to go by, in a few years it should be impossible to make any speed at all approaching these roundabouts.

There were well-established interests advocating these trafficy roundy things when they first appeared, more than 100 years ago. Those of us who derived part of our childish amusement from them were happy they were disappearing by the time we became drivers. But that was only rotaries.

As it happens, I'm all for change, when the term involves forward motion and new ideas, not recycled oats. When last I looked, doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result was the definition of insanity. Besides, when I need a lecture on forward thinking from Minnesota, I'll call Garrison Keillor.

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 23, 2010

What in hell's happened to newsrooms?

For once I'm not going to bitch about the disappearance of journalism in favour of burlesque. A friend's father died a few days ago. Knowing within a town or two where they lived, the day he died and that said towns had a newspaper each, it wasn't a big deal to check out the online editions, use some deduction, and find the obit my friend had written for her father.

The mind wanders, in this case back to the time when you knew you were in a newsroom, even taken there blindfold and with your ears stuffed. It was the smell of news that couldn't be concealed. No paper I knew had that smell like the Item.

The Lynn Daily Evening Item remains a pretty damn good small city paper, and its online edition reflects the standards. You knew there were standards, in the time that I hung around newsrooms pitching stories, by how they dealt with the smell of news.

There are three parts to the smell of news:
  • Printer's ink: back when locals printed their own papers, the smell of the ink dominated everything else, unless one went to some lengths to hide it.
  • Tobacco, fresh and stale. All reporters smoked; all editors smoked, and in those days real editors smoked cigars. If you didn't like it, you were welcome to find another job.
  • There was usually more than a whiff of alcohol, generally bourbon. Since a real newsroom hadn't had a deep cleaning since about 1910, it was hard to say whether the smell dated from before Prohibition, or whether the staff was taking a shot with their bacon and eggs.
The paper in the next town up had an air conditioned newsroom, which they also kept clean. This may have given a professional impression, but it also had a slightly wussy suggestion about it, as if the staff weren't quite sure if they were reporters or--here it comes--media.

The Item had a real by-god newsroom, with the smell of news, and when the presses were running you could hear them and feel them in the newsroom. Even though this was already into the computer age, it took no stretch of the imagination to hear the clatter of manual typewriters.

It may be unfair to suggest that such an atmosphere made better news, but its persistence in that daily seems to have kept up a standard that most of today's media never knew existed. What's impressive that the online edition generally maintains the same values--even though pixels don't smell, as far as I know.

Here's to the rearguard of local daily and weekly papers: you still have something to teach "the media."

Labels: , ,

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Now where was I?

Ah yes, the exams from hell. Done on Tuesday; everything shipped on Tuesday, only to get the out-of-office message that the hiring manager is on vacation. Why was it I hurried?

Meanwhile, yet another bolt from the employment blue arrived. Such things have happened off and on through this bleak period, but what I notice is that the targeting is getting better. Is that me, or them? It may be a toss-up. What does help is that the more Federal "guidance"* there is, the more valuable a writer who speaks health-care seems to be.

Yet another insight is helpful for others who, like me, are easily paralyzed by the idea of getting in touch with people with whom we once worked. Go ahead and do it. The worst that can happen is that you'll be right and they won't want to talk to you. More often, though, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the warm reception and the unsolicited good ideas.

* Guidance is federal and health insurer-speak for "do this, or when we re-open Alcatraz, you'll be the first guest." It's my nomination for euphemism of the century.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Learning on two fronts

First we visit the ever-popular job search front, where we have a sign that things may indeed be getting better. In the past week I was, first, approached by a potential employer about a job I would never have thought of for myself. This used to happen in the good ol' dot-com boom days, when all one had to do was hang out a cyber shingle, then find the world at the door. The interesting thing about the interviews that result from such things is that the dynamic gets reversed. Instead of you persuading them about your abilities, they are persuading you what a good fit you'd be. No, I did not fall off the turnip truck. When I get in this situation, due diligence follows.

Next, another echo from the good ol' days. I applied for one of those jobs that usually rings the "overqualified" chime with employers. Hope having abandoned me, I expected nothing but the usual black hole treatment. Au contraire: HR called first to set up a phone screen. When I called back, they said that on second thought they were sending this up to the hiring manager. She in turn responded with almost 20 pages of exams, of a sort that I haven't seen since I studied for my certificate. I opened that email Saturday morning and didn't start until Monday (see below). At the moment the score is tied, and I hope to get this paperwork done tomorrow.

The reason I didn't start until Monday comes from the second front, home improvement. I bet you didn't know that a porcelain toilet tank can spontaneously crack when the weather is very hot and the water in the tank is very cool. Odd, yes; rare, yes, but it can happen and did happen last Thursday night at Chez Oncle. The only witnesses to the actual failure were the two very astounded cats, whose puzzled noises (and the sound of rushing water) brought the humans.

There is much more water in those tanks than you would think.

Early the next morning we called our plumber, who called back in under an hour. (This is what happens when you give all your business to one plumbing contractor.) After a bit of hemming and hawing about style, space, etc., we had a new crapper soon after midday.

It has one slightly creepy feature which will endear it to wives wherever plumbing is indoors: after a slight push, the seat closes itself. Slowly, I might add, so one has time to get clear and watch this thing from across the room.

Back to all that water. The deluge moved a nice-to-do project—re-tiling the bathroom floor—up to an immediate priority. Buying the tile took care of Friday afternoon. Regular readers may recall that this is the only john in the house, that it is on the ground floor, and that it was once a cute Victorian side porch. This was the bright idea of the strange character who lived here in the first half of the 20th century. I am the third generation of oddballs to live here.

It's not the strangest bathroom location hereabouts, though. I've been in two antique houses that have even smaller necessaries stuck under the stairs. However, once the appliances are in, that cute side porch makes a very small bathroom. The size means a small tile budget. However, it also means working a section at a time so that the facility can remain in use at stated intervals. Small also means an uncommonly large amount of twisting and turning, as well as cutting and fitting, which means the job takes about twice as long as would your ordinary 5 x 8 bathroom.

That job is not entirely done. When I ran out of Sunday, three old tiles remained unconquered. Now that my priority is taking my third go at coding exams. When that's done, it's back to the tiles. Interesting how what, in other circumstances, would be a trial turns into a respite.

Any suggestions for inter-costal sprains?

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Revenge of the word nerds

Cliches grow by mindless repetition. My nomination for this year's (perhaps this decade's) most mindless and most repetitive new cliche is iconic. Now that I've brought it up, your feeble defence mechanisms will avail you nothing. You will, as I do, hear and see this foolish word repeated endlessly. I include see as a concession that it sometimes shows up in print media, although it is a specialty of the electronic media.

I delved into the etymology and, sure enough, it refers back to icons: those images especially found in eastern christianity. They were noted for--even prized for--their mindless repetition of themes that were centuries old. They are the distinctive product of an art form that valued only repetition and had no use for originality.

Today's media usage seems to suggest that the iconic is representative, or even special. But I fear the original definition is far more accurate. That which is iconic has all the characteristics of an icon: stilted, unimaginative, repetitive, representational, and in no sense innovative or original. I dislike cliche but I love unintentional irony.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Mixed feelings on the river

Our quest to find some interesting paddling close to my sister-in-law in NH is a success. The Connecticut River may hold some sort of prize for the most impounded river in the East, so one's happy waters come at an ecological price. Granted, Bellows Falls have been there for several millennia, probably since the ice sheet left. However, the falls have been improved in the interests of humanity, most recently hydroelectric interests. The result of the improvement is a sheet of fairly placid water that extends to the Wilder Dam, just north of Hanover, NH.

That would be an appealing bit of kayaking if one did not have to share the river with a good many power boats. Armed with local knowledge, they had laid claim to the best landing spots on the river, and amused themselves by flying upriver and down ad infinitum, towing their offspring on inflatables at high speed.

Never mind, our chief interest was Gollum-like poking and prodding into the wetlands on either side. In the longest of these, we found ourselves accompanied by relays from a colony of kingfishers. My wife had never seen--or observed--kingfishers before, so it was a new experience for her. There were swallows in plenty, but also a small hawk. It was either a pigeon hawk or Cooper's hawk: at any rate, a hawk that makes its living off small birds. Kayakers coming downstream had alerted us to a bald eagle, but we didn't see it until we too had turned around.

The main event in this marsh was eliciting a tail slap from an angry beaver. I'd heard about this defensive measure since I was a kid, but had never heard it. Yes, it's loud: I was engrossed in the kingfishers and apparently invaded this beaver's personal space. The next moment came the "thwap!" I thought at first that some local kids had managed to find their way into the marsh and were amusing themselves throwing rocks at the tourists, but my wife and her sister, behind, saw it all unfold.

Beavers and powerboats notwithstanding, I'd like to try this bit of river again. Reason says that some at least of these dams have to go some time in the future. Being very much a flat water kayaker, I hope to get the most of the present situation while it lasts, without standing in the way of giving the river back to its inhabitants.

Labels: ,

Friday, July 02, 2010

Fish and scum

Brucie's back. Now we have the Coast Guard weighing in on this week's shark frenzy with a shark advisory. Here's a little bullshit advisory from the Uncle man. It's summer; there's salt water; there will be sharks, and some of them will be big. Just a note that in my experience, most of the big sharks you actually see on our coasts are basking sharks. They are "filter feeders" and about as dangerous as cows. I think the Coast Guard should tell its lawyers to take a Prozac and stop coming up with this crap.

I'm reading Charles P. Pierce's Idiot America. More on that when I finish it, but I was slapped in the face with one of his premises of idiocy tonight, when the PBS News Hour presented a "debate" on extending jobless benefits. One side was represented by an authentic dinosaur from—wait for it—that famous source of objective academics, the Heritage Foundation. In the course of a few minutes he managed not only to slander every unemployed worker in America (we'll all find jobs when benefits end because we're having such a great time living on them) but also their families (who are also living high off the hog on $300-$400 a week and so have no incentive to work). There was inevitably a rebuttal: this is PBS after all, not Fox...yet. But the damage was done. Putting this clown on the air as if he actually knew jack about the present recession just enables the rest of the wingnuts in the Senate in their endless refusal to come to grips with reality.

This happens to be one of Pierce's points. In idiot America, every question has two sides, and both of them must be right, or they wouldn't get on the air.

I'm all for putting Congress on the same health plan as everyone else. In addition, when Congresspeople get voted out of office, they should go on unemployment instead of getting a lifetime pension or a fat lobbying job, so they can live it up on their benefits instead of looking for a job. While we're at it, let's close down the Heritage Foundation and see if the creatures who survive now in its artificial atmosphere can contend with the real world. Hmm, maybe this has happened, and that's why the Coast Guard finds it necessary to warn us against prehistoric predators.

Coda: How is it that Canada manages to combine humanitarian social programmes with a generally ethical and conservative financial policy in public and private sector? Are they smarter than we are, or is it something in the beer? I'm drinking Moosehead this week to find out (also because it was on sale).

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Canada Day reflection

Eight years back, the family unit arrived in Niagara Falls, Ont. on Canada Day. This was a confounded nuisance in one particular way: both the LCBO and The Beer Store (the only places one can buy alcoholic beverages in Ontario) were closed. Niagara Falls, of course, seized the opportunity to run the holiday all week.

Our hotel was on an undistinguished suburban four-lane called Lundy's Lane. Apart from thinking the name quaint, the only Americans who do a double-take are historians.

In the War of 1812, this strip of asphalt and tourist hotels was the site of a particularly nasty little battle, fought during the American invasion of Canada (the one with guns), which was based on the assumption that the Canadians were pushovers. The British and Canadians had other ideas about the invasion, inflicting an horrific 41% casualties on the Americans whilst taking 29% themselves. At the end, the defenders had possession of the field, and the Americans turned back.

Nothing shows the differences between the two nations as much as the understated approach to this site. What remains of the battlefield is an early 19th century cemetery (apparently extant at the time) and a plaque or two, period. In the US, one would expect a National Park with open spaces, rangers, tours and a general glorification of the whole bloody mess. One could argue that the hotels and expansion of a country road into a suburban street might be overdoing the cavalier approach, but it can't be mistaken for military glorification.

Today, July is the season when Americans invade Canada with fishing rods, canoes, and kayaks, whilst Canadians invade New England beaches with poutine. May it ever be so, and may we never take friendship for granted.

Happy Canada Day; bonne fete du Canada.