Archive for February, 2010

Frankly Silly

February 23rd, 2010

Bullet frankThis is surely a sign of my aging — well or badly, I’m too involved to differentiate. I find the wiener panic quite silly.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has its stethoscope tubes all knotted. While stopping short (just short) of calling for a ban on hot dogs, it does demand labels, statistics collection and product redesign.

From its policy statement:

…the Food and Drug Administration should have the authority to address choking-related risks of all food products, including meat products that fall under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture. The existing National Electronic Injury Surveillance System–All Injury Program of the CPSC should be modified to conduct more-detailed surveillance of choking on food among children. Food manufacturers should design new foods and redesign existing foods to avoid shapes, sizes, textures, and other characteristics that increase choking risk to children, to the extent possible. Pediatricians, dentists, and other infant and child health care providers should provide choking-prevention counseling to parents as an integral part of anticipatory guidance activities.

In what no doubt puts me in the alter kaker class, I hoot and holler, “Chew your food!”

It may be a bit much to expect all but the most exceptional children to eat mindfully. Look around at adults at your table or in restaurants to see those never taught and shown this crucial and gracious way.

I thought of that a few days ago in a movie theater while waiting for time to get a seat. Numerous people, men and women, from 20s into 70s, stood jamming palms full of popcorn at their mouths. They missed quite a few, leaving the rubble for others to clean. They also didn’t seem to enjoy or even be aware of what they were eating. They were delivering salt and fat to their tasted buds though. It was feral, as though woodland creatures had been dressed in windbreakers and parkas.

It can be the same with little kids and wieners.  A few will choke on food and a small subset of those will die. So, as Lenin famously wrote and frequently asked, “Что делать?” (What is to be done?)

Looking at what kills people, we have to put hot dogs, marshmallows and hard candies way, way down. The Center for Disease Control estimated that 66 to 77 kids died in 2001 from choking.  A dead child is always rending, but in perspective, it’s cars, pools and guns that kill kids, orders of magnitude above franks and more easily preventable.

Auto accidents have long been the leading cause, in the thousands. Yet, the well publicized dangers don’t keep their parents from speeding or make sure the kids are strapped into seats and seat belts.

So, the AAP would have us redesign the frankfurter and the marshmallow. Oh, yeah and somehow train parents to deal with choking.

Here, my alter kaker persona flares. Could parents consider:

  • Never giving a young kid food as big as either esophagus or trachea
  • Modeling and teaching chewing food

If your kids like marshmallows, give them the miniature ones, eh? As with most things children learn, tell them dozens or hundreds of times…until they clearly have gotten it.

I also have to wonder about the politics over at the AAP. Did some doctor member feel so moved about a patient’s unnecessary death that this translated into a crusade? Did some group figure this may be a minuscule problem, but one they would do something about? Did the staff just figure this would be a nice PR gambit, even if it had little need and will produce less effect?

I’ve raised three boys to man-size if not full maturity. I long ago became unsympathetic to parents who won’t bother to teach their versions to stay out of the street and cross it safely, never swim without a lifeguard and on and on. At the least, they need to teach them to chew their food.

…and while they’re at it, teach them to chew with their mouths closed!

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Spangled Self-Righteousness

February 20th, 2010

The Olympics seem typified by extremely hard-driving athletes and arrogant schmucks, sometimes in the same person. Two giggle inducers in the current contests are figure skater Evgeni Plushenko and snowboarder Shaun for-Christ-sakes-stop-calling-me-Flying-Tomato White.

The amusing nexus of this pair is their proclamation of their superiority to their events’ competitors…by virtue of an advanced skill. Both hold they are they manliest of humanoids in their pursuits. By inference, anyone who shows up without matching their specialty trick is unworthy of praise or prize.

score displays

The Russian skater is more risible this Olympics because he’s  off to the boudoir in its old meaning of pouting room. Coming out of retirement for these games and able to pull the athlete’s/chess player’s gambit of how long it’s been since he competed, he instead did the very un-Olympic I’ve-been-robbed when he came in second in men’s free skate to Evan Lysacek.

The Russian says that the American is undeserving because he didn’t do a quad jump to match Plushenko’s. His prime minister, Vladimir Putin, amplified the whining and looked even sillier than usual in doing so.

The no-longer-the-FT White simply taunts  other snowboarding men. He holds that what he used to call the Double McTwist and now wants to rename it the Tomahawk move is necessary to win the halfpipe. So there.

Even before the skate final, Pluskenko openly teased Lysacek about the quad, even knowing the American had given himself a fracture with it not long ago. The quad is physically demanding, currently only performed by a few men and no women, and moderately dangerous to bones. Similarly, White’s move is dangerous and trying to master it may lead to broken necks, death and so forth.

Yet the bluster from these two slight-bodied champions is so similar. The fact is that bluster aside, outside their venues, they’d be girly men to many. They work very hard to be athletic winners but both are really in frilly, silly sports to many. Thumping your spangled or floral clothes to make the point about your manhood is more silliness.

The argument for Plushenko appears best in a column by another skating champ, Elvis Stojko.  He agrees about the lack of a quad jump and pretends that the Russian’s routine was nearly flawless.

Tip of the Toupee: To chum podcaster Ryan Adams for pointing me to the real injustice in this event.  As explained in Kevin Marshall’s blog, openly gay skater Johnny Weir deserves a hell of a lot better than he gets from judges.

The fact that Plushenko, Putin and Stojko gloss over is that the Russian didn’t play the game. Skating scoring has changed. Lysacek paid attention, skated to the new rules, and edged the other guy…without a quad in his routine.

We can’t even say that Lysacek gamed the system. He produced what generated the necessary points. He ended up with more points. He won. In contrast, Plushenko played the salesman and tried to dazzle ‘em with bullshit. He figured the hardest trick would give him the gold, ignoring the reality of the scoring system. Honk. Thanks for playing.

There’s no question that snowboarders and figure skaters are real athletes or that they can do things I could not begin to even try. However, the Olympics are not public-park sports. Daring the other guy is a ploy that shouldn’t make any difference in results in Vancouver. One trickster won and one lost the top prize. The one who lost thought he was above the rules.

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First Lady Schticks

February 13th, 2010

Fat baby faceBefore I clumsily chip at First Lady Michelle Obama’s new crusade, I must say that it beats Lady Bird Johnson’s by at least the width of Texas.

Barack Obama’s wife has turned to Let’s Move: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids. Lyndon Johnson’s uxorial unit went for a Highway Beautification Program.  Both projects far exceed the proverbial rich spouse operating an antique shop or art gallery.

Lady Bird was shallower in some ways and deeper in others. Michelle has boldly claimed the “national goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.” Lady Bird reflected both the tenor of her time and the culture of her native Texas.

Specifically, she said, “You know, driving for pleasure is the No. 1 American recreation. We are a nation of people who use automobiles. And so, to make the highways more beautiful would certainly add a lot to our pleasure in living. ” At the same time, she understood the primacy of appearances and worked to raise money, increase awareness and lead efforts to fix up blighted areas of the nation’s capital. She accurately noted that residents would more like take pride in areas that she’d call beautiful.

svelte MichelleMichelle too only kind of gets the issue. This very wealthy, high privileged and not coincidentally trim lawyer/homemaker/Presidential mate looks around and researches to understand the realities of a fat America. In particular, she feels for obese children — the five foot tall 400 pounders — all too common.

I recall my own such sense of that maybe nine years ago when we were on a historical sites trip with our two youngest and spent an overnight in York, Pennsylvania. The closest restaurant to our motel was an Old Country Buffet (part of a chain). There, we saw a higher concentration of steatopygous and hyperfat folk than anywhere we had been in the South or elsewhere.

It was an all-you-can-eat joint. We had no idea what that could mean. I recalled in college going to a fried-chicken place in South Carolina where we students would go and eat two or three plates of food, to regret it for the next two days. The OCB was a different world, parallel in many ways to normal reality and vastly disparate in others. In college, we were pathetic, unskilled amateurs.

At least half the customers could not even pretend to fit on their sturdy (of course, OCB furnished big, old oak chairs with no restricting arms) seats. They were up and down several times each, adults and kids alike. They were masterful in pyramiding their plates and huge ice cream bowls. I walked in feeling a bit chubby and out of shape, but I was positively reed-like in this room.

The buffet’s FAQ gives, if you pardon, a taste of the customer expectations. For one Q&A:

Q. I am on a restricted diet that only allows me to eat very small portions. Can you offer a discount?

A. This question arises occasionally, including from guests that have recently had surgery. It is important to understand that our pricing is based on a reasonably sized “meal,” not a specific “quantity of food” or an “unlimited” amount. Individual guests have widely differing perspectives on what they feel is an appropriate meal size. We serve more than 150 million guests per year and each one has unique menu expectations and health requirements. For simplicity sake, we adopted a uniform pricing approach when the company was formed over 29 years ago and this has become a hallmark of our business.

That speaks to several factors in the fattening of us. One that many in Michelle’s circles may forget or not know is that Americans want their share, their fair share. Another is that the assumption is that we are the sole arbiters of how much is enough.

Not So Simple

Moreover, our eating patterns relate also to economic stratum, family and ethnicity among other factors. At its worst, some people live in what Michelle joins others in calling food deserts, that is places without accessible groceries and other markets that stock affordable healthy fruits, grains and vegetables.

So while the nutrition basics are widely taught in schools, on TV and after-school programs,  many parents scraping by with the parent(s) working long hours at low pay have neither the money nor the time to get and prepare healthy food. That has never been a problem in Michelle’s house.

So, what’s a well-intentioned First Lady to do? Well, her Let’s Move shopping cart has both good stuff and junk food-ism in it.  For example:

Empower Consumers. A silly gesture of having the FDA encourage or require easy-to-grok nutrition labels on the front of packages. Nearly all customers will ignore those as they do the box-side labels. Like either the parent or child will stop eating or drinking when the listed serving size is consumed.

Provide Parents with a Rx for Healthier Living.  The American Academy of Pediatrics will educate nurses and doctors, who in turn will educate patients.This is good and bad in one. First and positively, health-care pros have been notoriously ignorant about nutrition; it’s well past time they came up to speed. Unfortunately, this also will rely on the lazy-doctor/nurse metric of BMI, body mass index. Rather than observe and palpate children, they would use this highly flawed mass measuring system for individuals. Athletic, muscular children will be stigmatized as overweight or obese and scrawny, underdeveloped ones with no muscle tone and often large amounts of excess fat around organs will come off as healthy. There are easy ways of quickly measuring the meaningful body fat with inexpensive, hand-held devices that would be an order of magnitude better than the glorified height/weight chart that is BMI.

Major New Public Information Campaign.  A marginally efficient but harmless PR and announcement servies from NBC, Disney and such won’t hurt.

Serving Healthier Foods in Schools.  This one gets to the asphalt. For many kids, the only healthy one or two meals they could get five days a week would be in school. Our state and federal governments have too long encouraged and subsidized dreadfully bad foods in school — fatty, sugary and full of refined carbs. We have paid farmers and processors to churn out that junk and then the schools put it in front of the kids and get astonished when they chub up and pig out. Coupled with this is the beginning of an pledge to get the major school-meal contractors to provide good nutrition, although they get five years when they could do it in a couple of months.

Eliminate Food Deserts. The feds are committing $400 million a year to getting decent groceries where they do not exist. Again,  this would work best if the parents had the money to buy fresh fruits and vegetables instead of the much more affordable starches and sugars. Michelle shows her dilettantish bent here by including an Increase in Farmers Markets, as though the families who most need produce could afford what she easily buys.

Increasing Physical Activity.  Yes, this is crucial and her program says it in multiple almost identical ways. Unfortunately, she has not striven for the progressive solutions that address the underlying problems. I say that we grew up with and benefited from daily PE. Most schools don’t and would have to expand their days 30 to 60 minutes to do so. They should, they must, if we are to have healthy kids. This is doable and belongs in any such proposals.

Real Solutions

I think Michelle deserves an A for intention, but only a C or C- for execution. She is just one more voice crying about this very real problem. She is slick and persuasive, as is her husband. Their voices will carry some additional power and can’t hurt.

Unfortunately, she’s stayed too close to the surface on this one. She should also identify and address underlying problems. There aren’t that many and the only intractable one is getting poor and almost-poor parents into decent paying jobs. Education is not as big a solution as providing people with options. There’s not doubt in my mind that if parents can roll their grocery carts down the aisles, and have enough cash to buy anything, they’d come home with a lot healthier food and have kids that show the benefit.

The two first ladies so long distant in tenure share a theme in their crusades. Appearances account for much and more or less equal the the more meaningful interior. That is at once superficial and substantive.

Lady Bird’s billboard-free interstate highways really didn’t do much beyond give drivers a marginally more pleasant trip. Yet, her insistence that beautifying D.C. had the effect of repairing ratty buildings and helping instill or renew pride in the residents, in turn lowering crime rates and such.

Michelle’s latest effort could easily be similar. She too is taking an airy approach to a complex problem. The brutal fact is that the best hope for healthy kids would be for their parents or equivalents to have decent paying jobs. That would lead to a better mix of healthy (relatively expensive) food, more leisure and hence more activity.

She can’t ensure such income improvement and her Let’s Move doesn’t pretend to try. It certainly can’t hurt and is likely to help some kids. Even coupled with existing messages in schools and larger society, it’s not going to be a revolution though…any more than Lady Bird’s highway program meant the end of litter and ugly roadside views.

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As the Crank Turns: Wine Edition

February 12th, 2010

Regular readers here know I came to my crankiness and harrumphing by nurture. Yet, I think I could ease off a bit — if only the world didn’t delivery so many catalysts.

A recurring one rebates on cases of wine. When I get stiffed, I just can’t let it go.

The most recent exchange was over a zin, Gnarly Head, that we like here and buy even when it isn’t rebate season. It was the usual problem and after having been burned more than once, I am on the ready with safeguards.

That’s quite a bit of drama for a small setback. Then again, I was raised by a crank to be a crank. I figured on this one that even if I had ended up losing out on $28 of the $30 due me, the annualized amortization would  be about 8¢ a day. That wasn’t the point.

To the non-drinkers and spendthrifts, it works like this:

  • Once or twice a year (generally Thanksgiving/Christmas and around mid-year) some moderate-priced U.S. or Aussie vineyards offer rebates.
  • These tend to be a couple dollars off on a bottle or $20, $25 or $30 off on a case of 12.
  • A few are obnoxious, requiring the bottle bar-code labels with the inherent soaking and scraping. Most take a clear receipt with the date, price and product.
  • Squeeze your information onto an itsy-bitsy form on slick paper and mail it to a fulfillment house.
  • Wait a month or two and get your rebate…or part of it.

The trouble comes when the house sends a check for one bottle when the rebate should be for the case. While some may find it silly to chase small amounts of money, cranks don’t.

The facts include that I don’t deal in guilt. I don’t take it and don’t give it. I’m a resolution kind of guy.

In contrast, I think of how successful Scientology has been in taking a neurological theory, engrams, for a long, well-paying ride. That would be when something bad happens, you are gun-shy and alter your behavior, often to your detriment. I see the effect of this as right now on the 12-month anniversary of falling on black ice and breaking two leg bones. I am cautious about patches of slickness. Then again, I don’t hide inside nor do I shake in terrorized anticipation of a recurrence.

I don’t need galvanometers, auditing or paying tens of thousands of dollars to get a grip.

gnarlys.jpgSo it is in a much lesser way with tricksy rebates. I have learned to scan my receipt and form into a PDF doc, just in case. I firmly believe that the fulfillment houses are not crooks trying to cheat us plonk tipplers. They don’t benefit by shortchanging strangers. More likely, they handle thousands of squint-producing forms a day. Some they toss into the wrong bin for rebate level. Meh.

I can cite two recent cases, both with successful conclusions. I’d much rather feel as though I had won a tiny battle than been wronged by a bad old vineyard.

In the middle of last year, a Ravenswood deal went awry. I got back $5 on the three-bottle rebate instead of $30 on the case. I didn’t send my complaint to the fulfillment house’s P.O. box, rather I used the customer-service page on the winery’s site.

The head of customer service called me a few days later. She had gone through Lord knows how many forms, found mine, apologized and had a $25 check winging to me. She was very pleasant.

Likewise, but with a twist, I got $2 back on Gnarly instead of $30. When an on-site message to them got no response, I went to parent winery Delicato Wines‘ site, clicked around quite a bit to find the big shots and wrote a USPS-delivered letter to CEO Chris Indelicato. I included a printout of the receipt, rebate form and sad little $2 check (one of the pair cropped above; click for a slightly larger view of them).

We ended up with a nice little email exchange as well, including:

Thank you for the letter you sent regarding your Gnarly Head coupon.  I am a coupon guy myself and nothing makes me madder than when I don’t get my money on a deal.  Although we have a coupon company that has dropped the ball ultimately it is our responsibility to get you paid.  The Gnarly brand manager will contact the coupon company this morning and you should receive your money shortly.

Always time to do things twice but never time to do things right the first time.  Thanks for drinking our wine – we appreciate every single customer we have the quality will only get better going forward.

Cheers

I got my $28. To the point, both companies seem to understand customer service. Not only am I happy to keep buying Gnarly Head, but I’ll surely be trying more of the vinyard’s products. Nice is generally free and pays back.

For me, the pittance for the stationary and the 44¢ for the stamp are a lot better than getting to feel wronged.

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What Google Saw

February 11th, 2010

Google’s newish Buzz utility/add-on/social network thingummy is hot stuff. It might lead me into that opium den of smart phones.

Up front, I admit that none of those technologies is an area where I am open-minded or even neutral. On Google, I have a big hug and hope; Gmail alone is unquestionably the best of the free email services. Smart phones, on the other palm, remain the small, unripe fruits on the vine; iPhone and similar users waste their brain cycles with a myriad trivial gewgaws…so far.

Google though has the earned reputation as the Johnny Come Lately in the best way. They aren’t first with anything, but they come in when they have decided value to add. In this case, there’s a lot, as set out in detail in a Slate post today by Chris Thompson.

Mangled Buzz logo

We cliché mongers must all be sorely tempted to link the Buzz logo and ideas with a bee. I chose a chain saw instead. This is decidedly an attack — this time on Facebook instead of Microsoft.

I saw Buzz on my Gmail page for the first time yesterday and immediately played with it. That’s significant from several aspects. First, it’s that simple to email users and as a tech writer who reads manuals for diversion and  professional exegesis, I was impressed with how seamlessly Google built on the widespread email and social-networking tasks…to the point no instructions are necessary.

Moreover, I can see how a little flexing of the Buzz muscles could make a smart phone meaningful. I have no desire to add silly applets to placate a short-attention span. Hell, I never even liked Mine Sweeper or Solitaire in Windows.

Back to another palm, the integrated messaging, pix and video to the narrow world of your Gmail buddies has power. It cuts through the strangling web of Facebook updates. The best appears to be coming as my Buzz links ripen. Google  has heuristics built in, so that it will learn what I care about, push down the junk and bubble up the likely good stuff.

Take that, you promiscuous, indiscriminate Facebook!

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No Snow Heroics

February 10th, 2010

So, now it snows. Getting off the commuter rail a few minutes before 5 this afternoon, I felt and saw some promising snow and wind.

Bummer.

Knowing we were to have blizzard conditions by broad meteorologist consensus from about 1 p.m. through 6 and continuing through midnight, my most steadfast drinking buddy and I were set to be fools or heroes today. Instead, we had a good chat and a couple of long ales, but left unwounded and not at all brave.

This so far has been the H1N1 of blizzards.

John’s wife asked incredulously why he would even consider going for our usual 2:30 meeting time, allegedly the start of the worst part. We were promised (threatened with?) 10 or more inches at 1 to 2 inches per hour from 2 or 3 p.m. on. The evening commute would be impassable and impossible.

So we were ready to be old-man brave, Abe Simpson brave, by meeting from opposite ends of Boston Beer Works on Canal Street. We had the pretense of perhaps tasting the annual tapping of the Hercules Strong Ale. I had even foraged in my t-shirt collection for a 16-year-old purple rag with Herc on it, back when BBW had worthy shirts.

Alas and lackaday, they are not yet ready to distribute their best ale of the year and we didn’t even get to play beer explorers. Our consolation is that two other regulars did not show and did not even respond to the invitation (dare?).

I can’t seem to single-task, so I also got a fix on the local Fairmount Line of the commuter rail.  There’s a history there as in the link, but the MBTA makes it pretty hard to get much from the most local transit transit.

In the very bottom of the Hyde Park neighborhood, we should have fast, easy, inexpensive access to public transit. Instead, I tend to ride my bike because getting downtown would require:

  • a walk of a mile to the bus, then a ride to the subway (an hour plus and $3.20 at cheapest)
  • a short walk to a bus, transfer to another bus, and ride on a subway (about 90 minutes and $3.20 at cheapest)
  • one of the very few commuter rail trains — effectively inbound in morning and outbound in evening commute hours and next to nothing most of the day — then a long walk or another subway ride in town ($4.25 cheapest and effectively $5.95)

It’s really MBTA amateur hour, but at least the sked should be better when they finish a few more train stations in the next year or so. Nonetheless, I have been meaning to use this train more because it’s about a half-mile away and I love trains.

That part was better than I expected. There was one mid-day train, at 1:06. It got me at South Station an hour before ale hour, but I figured I could walk and buy a Valentine’s card at Urban Outfitters and some worthy kitchen-towel hooks at Crate & Barrel, both at Quincy Market. Double hah there. UO is more into sleazy student girl clothes than ever and devoid of cards and C&B is OOB at the Market — they’d have me visit them on Boylston Street.

OK, boys and girls. Newbury Comics had a good hologram card of candy hearts and Salem Street Hardware served up a choice of hooks. But where was the snow?

The time line was like:

  • 9:45 a.m. leave Y and see the air full of flakes the size of dimes
  • 10:30 a.m. no snow
  • 11:40 a.m. big old flakes again
  • 12:34 p.m. change to heavy, small flakes. Walking to the train station reminded me of coming home in high school in New Jersey after swimming practice, in the dark with hair freezing and driving sleet biting into my cheeks
  • 1:08 p.m. the train was only two minutes late. The snow had eased off and seemed less gelid. I was one of two loading at Fairmount. The other fellow was an Ironweed sort, in dirty Patriots baseball-style cap and a ragged and torn fake leather bomber jacket. As Tracy Chapman sings, “…a day away from a bum on the street.”
  • On the scheduled 24-minute ride, which took 20, putting us into the station two minutes ahead of sked, I gawked. I did get the sense of the activists who forced the new stations pending on this line that it zipped past neighborhoods like a Hot Wheels track above and not stopping. Most of the Mattapan and Dorchester areas were triple deckers and single-families jumbled with small warehouses and factories. Remarkable were the amazing rubble of recreation in storage on the back decks and yards next to the track — plastic pools, lawn chairs and other instruments of summer play with no roofed storage.
  • 1:29 p.m. I left South Station feeling cheated of storm and adventure. Yes, there was a driving wind pushing the icy rain off vertical, but no blizzard.
  • 2:16 p.m. John was already on a stool lamenting the lack of Herc. I asked the brewmaster, who said it was done at Fenway this year. The best he could say was within a week or two, he’d have a cask. Plus this time half of it was aged in Scotch barrels for extra smokiness. I flashed my purple shirt at him and the tap puller, who appreciated the concept but could offer no Strong Ale.
  • We watched the windows but saw little snow and several periods where people passed without umbrellas or any covering up at all.
  • 4:15 p.m. on the walk to South Station for the 4:30, I did begin to see steadier snow, but blizzard…?
  • 4:31 p.m. The ride back was remarkable only for its ordinariness. This could be an American version of a salaryman’s commute, except there were few passengers so early. I was on a double-deck train, but we had only about a dozen on top and 15 on the lower level. The train crept from the station. It was odd to think that the 24 minutes allowed was much faster than the subway or bus combinations; it felt like we could have run along side the train as fast.
  • A couple of us had a simultaneous bad thrill when the announcer called after Morton Street that the next stop was Readville — one past our station in the same neighborhood. I asked the conductor, who affirmed we’d stop at Fairmount and we did.
  •  5:56 p.m. only two minutes late and some reality of snow when we left in the dark. A woman leaving at Fairmount had the definitive smell of a urinal cake — unctuous and unidentifiable fruitiness that she surely thought was pleasant and associated with some boffo label.

On theblizz.jpg walk up the absurdly steep Fairmount Hill, I felt the icy slipping. That had its own connotations, being only 367 days since I fell on ice and snapped two leg bones. Coming home, I was mildly heartened to see steady, hard snow. Perhaps I had not moved three shovels and the ice pellets from the garage in vain earlier.

John and I had figured to be arctic sorts, laughing into the wind and sheets of snow. Alas, it was only a good winter day for a couple of ales. We may yet have another occasion this winter to display our yeasty courage. Today was not that time.

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Crackling Anniversary

February 8th, 2010

Today marks a year since my tib/fib fractures of my left leg and one day short of the surgery to pound 14.25 inches of titanium rod into the tibia thorough the knee. (My misadventure and recovery are more than covered in posts available in this blog’s Health category.)

A sipped a couple of bourbons on the rocks for the occasion. In light of my relatively successful rehab, this is a celebration of sorts.

Yet, this has been a lost year in many ways. I was already pretty depleted after 19 years as a tech writer/editor/manager. The economy and the region’s high-tech industries already were in their own rehab units, with fewer jobs and most employers trying to buy or rent cheap. My last company was one of many sold and dissolved. Then there was that financial meltdown thing. The few employers who had guts and felt personal responsibility to keep their section of the economy perking then seemed to lose all courage and conviction — understandable perhaps, but hard on us contract tech communicators.

I’ve had phone and in-person interviews for contract and permanent jobs, but no offers, just as close as second choice from a long list. That was with a hiatus of several months when I was in hospital, using a walker, on opiates, on crutches, with a cane, and doing other things. Other things included:

  • Remembering that I had switched as necessary from newspapers to trade magazines, from one industry to another, to computerized everything, to high-tech reporting and reviews, to telecommunications, to  hardware and software manuals and on and on.
  • Thinking about what I would like to write.
  • Blogging, podcasting, roughing out food and other articles and books, and church volunteer work.
  • Realizing that I turn out computer manuals superior to the vast majority (I know, not too hard, but I do know how to think like a user and like a network admin — very useful and unusual skills).
  • Realizing that I could do more manuals and help system well and quickly, but that the thrill was gone.
  • Allowing myself some meditation time.
  • Accepting that another set of talent in the cooking and broader food categories are more interesting.
  • Admitting that trying to switch to food writing would mean establishing myself from scratch…yet again…with all the emotional overhead there.

In my year, we had many other stresses, like a son in a distant college and a move from my long-term Boston neighborhood to another (JP to HP). Fortunately, my wife’s job was stable and sustains us.

So there I was yesterday at the Boston Media Makers meeting putting out a group query about how to promote myself as a food writer. I got one biz card and I’ll put a query to the group. I’ll ask video blog/group founder Steve Garfield about the video blogging he does for his food-writer wife friend Nina.

I already blog here and there and podcast over here (coming up on three years of weekly poddies).  I remain intrinsically shy, but I don’t feel I have any shame left and no longer mind blushing. I think even I can self-promote.

I have the article concepts and roughs. I have a couple of books in various forms of preparation. Moreover the best part of a move like this would be the unqualified comment. As a tech writer, I always felt I had to say something to the effect I wrote computer manuals and help systems, knowing it wasn’t exactly writing writing.

There’s nothing like a lost year, is there?

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Fingertip Art

February 5th, 2010

In silly self-absorption, I confess I’m still a bit player. However, in line with my index-finger heart of three years ago, I have been admiring the cityscape about to work its way off my body.

There’s an elegant symmetry to getting around to decorating the matching finger — left hand this time. It’s spontaneous art. While temporary like a vending machine tattoo, this one is there for months, not hours or days.

I’m probably not different from others in not really noticing or appreciating the body changes that should be remarkable for their beauty or other artistic value.  In fairness to humans, most mildly remarkable physical changes occur over long periods. It’s similar to waking up on a vacation or business trip to find that our toenails seem to have grown a quarter inch or more overnight or the hair on our temples have grayed during the day.

nail bruiseThis particular body exhibit was not some incremental surprise. Instead, I whacked the nail with a hammer and knew it would become illustrated. The unexpected aspect was that from the combination of pain and quick discoloration I expected the whole nail to blacken and slough off by now.

This injury does have an urban  silhouette, a skyline with a couple of tall buildings. It reminded me of the upstairs bath in our JP house. I designed and helped tile walls and tub enclosure with gray for the background sky, black for the skyscrapers and white tiles for the lit windows all around the room. It hadn’t entered my mind that the same effect was available with the face of a hammer head.

I suppose there must be a medical term for such a clumsy injury, like subungual contusion. Really though, it symbolizes both my impatience and my ynesting instinct.

In a sort of scent-marking ritual, I have been doing this and that in the new-to-us-as-of-August house.  The previous owners of over 20 years apparently didn’t do squat to the house, but the paid to have a lot done — new windows, bike storage, fully wired and lit garage and on and on. I admit that when I find little things to fix or customize, I am thrilled and driven.

So it was between Christmas and New Years. We were soon headed off to London to visit ye olde brother-in-law’s family and I had a group of doors to batch process. Previously, I found that the door to the basement did not close easily and scraped the finish off the kitchen floor; that just took removing it, planing the bottom in the right places and remounting it. For the recent project, it was two doors that would not stay latched and one that would not latch at all.

The house was built in 1900 and inside still has the mortise locks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These iron and brass treasures are available from collectors and rehab hardware shops, rebuilt from old houses. The manufacturer (Sargent) is still stamping ‘em out but in much larger, more secure versions. The ones here are simple enough to open and play with, so long as they don’t have broken springs or worn parts. Like most people, we don’t use the skeleton keys, so the locks don’t get much wearing motion beyond the handles turning the bolt.

Two of these were easy and a bit of a surprise.The bolt was on backwards to the faceplate. That is, the vertical side of the bolt that should catch in the slot in the jam didn’t. Instead, the curved side went into the slot and the door would open with the slightest touch, wind or passing foot weight.

The locks are not totally symmetrical in that the bolt is not in the middle of the box. That means you can’t just remove the lock and turn it upside down to reverse the direction of the bolt into the strike plate.  However, removing and opening the lock let you disconnect the main spring, reverse the bolt and reassemble the mechanism. When the lock went back in and its screws were tightened, its bolt went into the right slot in the right way.

Those were easy enough. However, looking at the antique hardware — all seemingly original — I had to assume that these two bedroom doors had never closed unless someone used the skeleton keys for the deadbolt. Trusting? Lazy? Unobservant?  Occam’s razor suggests simply that no one was ever inspired over 109 years to remove and reverse these two locks’ works.

The third lock proved my nemesis though. The door to what we call the gnome closet is deep but very low under an eave. We knew that the previous owner’s only child loved the long room and considered it her play house; apparently there was no need to close it.

It did not shut because the lock itself protruded from the door and caught on the strike plate.  While the house seems well built in nearly all aspects, the same carpenter or locksmith must have worked on this door as well. The mortise for the lock was simply not deep enough.

Well, give a man a tool and he is cocky. I have a set of chisels, which I hardly ever use. Ta da.

I successfully removed the lock and worked in the hole, being careful not to damage the door or dig too deeply and cause the old mechanism to wiggle and loosen. Of course, I was pleased with myself as I worked. I had left my mark on the house, although I did not anticipate leaving one on me.

To get the lock precisely into the enlarged mortise well, I used a hammer, likely a man’s favorite tool after a chainsaw. The lock itself is very narrow and I was impatient enough to finish that I missed on my last, hardest swing.

Hence, I decorated my finger.

The pain was substantial, with the additional emotional load of my knowing I’d be sitting in a plane for 7 hours shortly and then explaining the nasty nail. Fortunately, my brother-in-law had likewise maimed himself a few times and was kind. Moreover,  his father, my late father-in-law, was famous in the family for nearly removing a thumb woodworking on a Shopsmith.

I have certainly hurt myself far worse and under more embarrassing circumstances (like those involving anger or alcohol). The bonus on this one was the free art. I thought of my finger when I saw the newspaper/sidewalk/snow art recently. I would hope that any future minor events like this come with attractive illustration.

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Flat Snow Art

February 3rd, 2010

Our newspaper guy left art on the sidewalk this morning. I think snow angels for flat, wet art and didn’t know there was hidden beauty in the mundane daily task.

snowpaper.jpg A lot of years have turned over since I took either physics or the calculus.This morning saw some wonderful effects of momentum, vectors and such, worthy of a few calculations and a graph.

The gist is that his powerful toss from the moving minivan skimmed the half-inch sidewalk covering about 30 feet to where the papers stopped. Like a pond-skipping stone, they then left eight double curves at the lawn edge, like energy frozen in its traces. It was unintentional art.

We should note that he delivers before 5 a.m. Also, there’s a bit of heft and low friction in the package. Even though the Globe is pretty slim most days, when combined with the FT in the same plastic bag, there’s real momentum built in — particularly on a slick surface.
papersnow.jpg

I do appreciate my own gift of an art exhibit, no matter how ephemeral. My footprints to the side have already sullied the canvas, plus it’ll be above freezing today and sunny. Regardless, a cheap thrill in the morning is a boon.

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Papers Paywalls

February 1st, 2010

Windsor walls

Online payments are the big battle for beleaguered billionaires and their slightly poorer near peers. The Rupert Murdoch types cannot abide the idea that somewhere someone is getting something they touched for free.

No doubt that the basis of capitalism is that people or corporations own goods or services they make available for a price. Anything short of profit is called charity or foolishness (often the same to some capitalists). Yet publishers in this world only want conditions to be immutable so long as their profits are as higher or higher than they have been.

Lackaday,  that very naughty net has made them look up from their counting tables.

Kind of Disclaimer

I’m prejudiced here. I have always loved newspapers and want them to flourish.

Growing up, we had two to four dailies delivered, depending on the pickings where we lived. I was a newspaper delivery boy. I went to j-school, climbed the ladder as writer, columnist and editor of the student paper (high school and college) and then worked dailies and weeklies in the South. As an adult, I’ve always gotten daily papers, as well as numerous news, literary and specialty magazines. I’m a print guy first, one who has simply added computers and net technologies on top.

I love the feel and smell of good books and magazines.

Survival of the Most With It

All that written, I have no doubt nearly all U.S. newspaper publishers and top editors are atavistic.  They have also moved in recent decades with all the speed of a sloth and the judgment of an oat tree.

I’ve touched on this a few times, like here and part two here at Marry in Massachusetts. We got a different view in a Left Ahead! podcast with Martin Langeveld. He was a newspaper publisher and has quasi-retired into among other thing a principal at CircLabs, which aims to help publishers figure out this pay-to-view thing.  (Another slight disclaimer is in order; he and his wife were classmates of mine in high school. I disagree with some of his positions, but I know and like them both.)glacier

For this part of the discussion, the big point is that newspaper types saw the internet and its effects coming and coming and coming. It was much less like a train and more like a glacier. Unless you got out of the way or rode that glacier, it was going to take everything in its path. You had lots of time, but you had to decide what to do.

They have remained fairly paralyzed with inaction, indecision and more than a little delusion. Like watching that glacier, they saw new advertising options appear. They heard ad customers say Criag’s List was cheaper and more effective for classifieds and that online advertising offered highly targeted demographics with verifiable click through counts to ideal customers. They even heard to their humiliation that their favorite disdained group, bloggers, were getting snippets of ad revenue that should rightfully be theirs.

One type of response was to try to ride that glacier. Nearly all papers are online in one form or another. While screaming haughtily that they owned the news, damn it!, they responded to their declining ad money in exactly the wrong way — cutting expenses from the bottom, notably reporters.

Duh, as the yellowish Mr. Simpson says. Think, our product is better and worth reading and advertising in, even though we are giving you less of it, less local and foreign news, nothing unique, and nothing you can’t find in dozens of other places.

After slashing their differentiating advantage, reportage, they had yet other dumb tricks to perform. One we have seen even in our stodgy Boston Globe, is blogging.  While on the one had ridiculing and demeaning blogs, even refusing to link to those whose ideas and leads they steal, the glib Globe has its own set.

From the beginning of this reaction, we see how out of it newspaper editors and publishers can be. The model is to take decent reporters and columnists and heap blogging duties on them. At the same time there are fewer writers, the remaining ones are supposed to do that on top of their jobs. Rather than giving the writers a chance to pick up a new skill, this looks from the outside at least, like the old “you’re lucky to have a job at all and will do as we tell you” routine.

The blogs show the coercion. Their posts are uniformly boring, show little effort and take no advantage of the medium.

Money, You Say

There’s a credible argument that most existing newspapers need to and should die. Their functions actually would be better performed by new media that understand reasonable financial models, the technology to deliver great stuff in the right formats with the right content, and some courage. The latter would be to do what’s necessary to provide salable product, without being immobilized by a primitive capitalist’s terror that someone might get something of yours without paying for it.

Yet, almost to a one, print publishers seem to have tiny brain pans, more driven by emotion than intellect. You can see that in how lamely they try to extract money from readers and advertisers to make up for their losses in the past decade or so (don’t lose sight of that glacier!).

Consider the scheme too many tried to maintain their many decades old system of high cash flow and higher rates of return. Those are the realities that changed due to the net and most publishers refuse to accept that. Instead:

  • Some came online after many other papers and immediately put up a solid paywall. Almost all content was in headline or incomplete form, requiring a subscription or per-article fee to view.
  • Others, like the Boston Herald here,  showed its delusions like raggedly underwear. It tried to charge to read its columnists online. Let’s not even get into the value of a given piece by any of their writers, but suffice it to say, that failed quickly and totally.
  • Still others look at mixed models, offering full access to subscribers and small payments for beyond a monthly limit (the metered model). The FT reports that The Guardian has considered six paywall models.

For complete paywalls,  your content has to be damned superior and useful to make a go. The number one fantasy of net-come-lately publishers is that if they pay to produce content, everyone else should be delighted to buy every morsel from them. News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch is the troll under the bridge here, threatening, popping up, then withdrawing. He rants everywhere that news is not cheap and that anyone putting anything from his publications online anywhere without his permission and payment to him is simply stealing.Page 3/free mix

He even wants to charge for online access to the sleaziest of his pubs, The Sun. Yes, the Page 3 bare breasted babe rag is that valuable, Murdoch would have it.

Amusingly enough, one of his properties, the Wall Street Journal seems to have learned enough from the Financial Times to make some cash online though.  In its announcement two months ago that it would copy these two somehow, someway, the New York Times seemed unsure whether it would be micro-payments or some other model. Its bosses do want some kind of paywall though.

A short-term answer may well lie in the partial success of the WSJ and FT experiments. They were not foolish enough to block and drive away casual surfers with solid firewalls and total blocking of content. Instead they provide an example that even the dullest publisher can profit by emulating. They charge for real value.

You don’t have to be in the financial press to consider what they do. Yet, it is obvious for them because it can translate into reader benefit. Some of their articles and columns have specialized and even unique information and analysis. Those who pay for a print or online subscription have a little (or arguably sometimes large) advantage. They are happy to pay.

So, while publishers watch the glacier some more and figure out in what direction to move, publishers can ask themselves what value they can add to attract paying customers (and loyal subscribers). The answer most certainly should not involve firing their writers. Honestly, what were they thinking?

Likewise, many local dailies and weeklies used to be best at hyperlocal content or sports or photography. They have done their best in efforts to cut costs that they eliminated the staff who could maintain those selling points.  Moreover, to use a local example, when Bostonians want hyperlocal content, they are more likely to click on UniversalHub, an aggregator of local blogs and other news, plus some original reporting. Such concentrations of news are what the net can excel at and newspapers have largely ceded.

They need to produce content so useful or so entertaining or so whatever they can be best at that people will pay for it. That may seem obvious, but publishers so far have largely tried to replace old advertising and subscription revenue with increased charges for diminished content. I like to compare that to switching your high-end chocolate chip cookie ingredients to milk instead of bittersweet chips, mystery fat instead of butter and while you’re at it, making them smaller. Oh, and raise the price. Think. Think. Think. Why would fewer people be buying your cookies?

Those who continue to fantasize that they can charge everyone for any crap they publish might think of The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger. As part of a recent talk, he included, “It would be crazy if we were to all jump behind a pay wall and imagine that would solve things.” He is looking at many financial models, including some version of limited paywalls, but he does not seem to delude himself.

(Tip of the toupee to the FT’s John Gapper for the source of that quote.)

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