Archive for October, 2011

We Don’t Have the Same: Cycling Edition

October 31st, 2011

bikepieces“It’s not fair!” (Add foot stomping.)

Just the latest sensible, cycling-related bill to go to the MA legislature is certain to piss the puerile in the public and body. It highlights the fundamental and extremely strong hostility that delays any transportation laws related to two wheels.

This one is a simple amplification of existing law. Rep. William Brownsberger (D-Belmont) proposes codifying crosswalk regulations to make it plain that mowing down a cyclist in one should carry the same penalties as failing to yield to a pedestrian in one. That would be H408, An Act providing for the safety of bicyclists traveling on bicycle paths.

As has happened to me numerous times, far too many motorists see a cyclist on a bike path heading to a crosswalk that continues the path and lose it. They drive at the cyclist, blow their horns, fail to stop back of the crosswalk or stop in it to prepare for their turn (another moving violation), and curse at the cyclist screaming they and their car/SUV/truck have right of way. They don’t, they shouldn’t, they need to be aware of it, and the law should make it plain that threatening a cyclist with maiming or death like that comes with a $200 fine, a moving violation, and an insurance surcharge.

The bill is presently in Joint Committee on the Judiciary hands. It may never come out and may require repeated introduction. Having been through the hearing process, testifying on a bike-related bill, I’ve seen and heard expressions of that underlying issue.

Too many motorists, including those in the General Court jealously guard what they think are inalienable rights to road fairness…as they define it. Unless they also bike, they are almost certain to go all childish if they think anyone, particularly pedestrians or cyclists is getting some privilege denied to them.

That attitude reminds me of my lads when they were in nursery school. Early on, a key academic and social lesson is fairness. The little kids get so excited when they can recognize and exclaim when, “We have the same!”

Unfortunately, MassBike put all its marbles in the bag marked Same Roads. Same Rules. On the face of it, equating cyclists and drivers should greatly benefit bikers.

The central idea is that cyclists obey lights, signs and regulations, and that drivers treat bicycles as the law defines them, other vehicles on the road. Of course, in practice far too many drivers want and demand the first but not the second.

To see the ensuing hate fest and understand the raw emotion that leads so many drivers to buzz, scream at or otherwise threaten cyclists, visit any online site that has a cycling-related article or post. The vitriol and absurd generalization goes far beyond irrationality and into mania. Despite buckets of statistics proving otherwise, a shocking number of drivers hold that cyclists (and their weaker demon siblings pedestrians) are the causes of injury, collisions and deaths on our roads. It is, they hold, the 25-pound, non-motorized bike that is the danger, not the ton and one half metal shell.

Real differences

I’ll have to do a few more posts on this, particularly pointing out flaws in the same-roads/rules shtick. There are many times and conditions calling for different rules. In fact, the future needs to incorporate different laws and rules in many cases, as bike-oriented countries and cities in Asia and Europe do. They are not as unobservant as we seem to be.

For a teaser, most non-cycling drivers don’t notice or think that bicycles fall over at a stop unless the cyclist puts a foot down or does some skillful tracks moves. Yet, bikes have very little inertia to overcome as they leave a stop. Cyclists can’t safely ride on shoulders or even narrow bike lanes when those are full of sand or gravel or glass shards.

Each of those factors has implications that literal minded, it’s-unfair drivers may find troubling, things that don’t fit in we-have-the-same molds. A bike leaving a stop for example, can freak out drivers. They should be able to move in coordination with a cyclist on the right, but often veer either way and seem to panic. We need instead to head to either having a bike box at the front of the intersection behind the stop sign or to let cyclists leave ahead of the drivers, maybe on a red after stopping. That lets the driver overtake the cyclist and feel in control — safe for everybody.

Likewise, for the shoulder/path rubble. Drivers are often angry if cyclists are in “their” road. When cyclists cannot ride to the right of the main travel lane safely, they may and should take as much of a travel lane as they need. A duty of drivers is to watch the road ahead for unsafe conditions. It doesn’t take a lot of sense and smarts to see the glass or sand to the right of the fog line.

There are many situations and physical differences that put the lie to the same-road/rules platitudes. Unfortunately, that program gets invoked whenever a sensible bill or enforcement call arises.

Facts are, for safety of everyone, we have to make it plain where there are differences. Many nations have done this, but we are still in the beginning of it. Short- and mid-term the burden will fall to a few savvy, safety-minded legislators and to the various cyclists and their groups. We can’t count on drivers to become observant suddenly, but we can inform them repeatedly of the physical realities and distinctions.

“We have the same!,” works when you’re four. As you age, you need to know more and be more discerning.

Quick-Question Horror

October 27th, 2011

“I have a quick question,” is invariably a delusion and lie. It is a spasm of speech that should warn all listening.


Quick-question (QQ) askers generally 1) proceed to lay out a long, complex, convoluted argument for a position along with a query that if written would be rife with commas and semicolons, 2) stop the current discussion with a vast, tangentially related problem, or 3) both. They don’t ask QQs and their questions don’t call for short answers.

From my high-tech days, both as a team member and as a manager, I was wary of QQ engineers. Hardware, software, and  firmware developers seemed to love that phrase. For some of us running meetings, it was a call to action, quick action.

There are a couple of QQ types, each requiring specific intervention:

  • Smart Alec — This one is often a man in his 20s, who has a tiny idea he thinks is brilliant and game-changing. He fills the meeting air with his thinking process and his shreds of evidence to show how he has seen what all you lesser mortals missed.
  • Myers-Briggs S Type — These well-intentioned people are very literal. They need to have all the evidence in front of them to make even the smallest decision and they can continue until every detail is in the form they understand and would use.

The best meeting leaders short-circuit the smart alecs. Generally, their QQ is off topic and a distraction from what is keeping everyone else in the room and away from real work. Take ’em offline. Deal with them apart from the meeting yourself or ID the subject-matter expert who can either explain why they’re making a huge deal out of nothing, why they are wrong, or how their concern can become part of the project at hand. Without an audience, smart alecs usually turn reasonable and quiet fast.

S types on the other hand can’t help themselves. That’s the way they think. They need to see and ideally touch the documents related to the pending meeting.

A Myers-Briggs consultant taught me how to handle then. That has to take place before the meeting. Give them any related documents before the meeting, let them read and handle them, and be prepared for what really are some QQs before the group gets together. S types need to come to terms with minutiae. They can do it before the meeting or stop the works during it.

A fun way to observe this is one where you aren’t involved, either as a captive of the QQ sorts or trying to manage them in your own meeting. Listen to call-in shows. Thoughty ones like On Point are good bets.  They tend to deal with complex topics, they have polite hosts not prone to hanging up on people, and they don’t try to elicit emotional rants from callers.

Every show, you’ll hear the QQ line. Listen to how the host handles the self-identified expert with great insight or the caller who tries to lay out intricate thought processes instead of getting to the point, any point. Tom Ashbrook for one has gotten good at knowing when someone is beginning to blow long and hard, by grabbing the obvious question nub, saying something like, “We take your point,” and bringing in the guest(s) to say something meaningful (and terse).

There’s a lesson there for all who lead or attend meetings.

common sense

That’s a really good question

I Write of Olaf

October 21st, 2011

odocog1The size of Lincoln’s head on a one-cent coin, the demon cog caused trouble. I just had to go for a long, vigorous walk to relieve my electro-mechanical agita. Now my aged Volvo’s odometer works though.

I don’t hold any personal grudge against this wee hard-plastic toothed wheel. It is just as the cliché goes a cog. It also represents a small design flaw for what allegedly is a sturdy, well-built car, a 1996 850 sedan.

When the odo stopped working, I looked in a manual and snooped online. Sure enough, the 850 series is infamous for having this problem around 100,000 miles. Olaf, as we call the platinum silver car, had over 135k when it stopped visibly recording mileage. Allegedly the ECU (engine control unit) computer continued to track distance, but I couldn’t see any advance nor use the trip function.

The design flaw is worse than just putting a brittle and weak part as a single point of failure for a commonly used feature. Volvo engineering ensured that repairing it would tax mechanics as well as we cheap frugal owners. I asked a Volvo dealer about it and he said it happens to all 850s and they could fix it for about $250.

Harrumph, as I am known to say.

The tiny part is unique to the internals of the odometer. There are no substitute. It sells for $15. The rest of the cost is labor.

Why, might you ask, would they charge you two hours of mechanic’s time for something so simple? You’ll hear that it’s not simple. I saw the instructions and ordered the demon wheel, determined to do this myself, no matter how terrified I would be of screwing up the instrument panel and odo, requiring then much more mechanic’s time to undo it all and do it right.

One of the online tutorials for the process is here. There are more detailed ones, but this covers the gist and shows why it’s a big deal for something so simple as replacing a defective cog wheel with a good one. At its basics:

  • Have or acquire a variety of Torx wrenches or bits. (Three key screws holding the odo in place take an almost impossible to find T8; five auto stores including two foreign specialists didn’t have any.)
  • Disconnect battery (to avoid Check Engine error and a trip to a mechanic to turn that off when you finish).
  • Pry out four AC vents.
  • Open one door-side vent with screw, partially remove that, pry and pull forward this vent.
  • Remove seven screws in vent openings and under instrument overhang.
  • Make as much space as possible by moving driver seat back and steering wheel and column down and back. You’ll need ever inch.
  • Carefully wiggle and pry cover over instrument panel, and to its left and right. Force it as high as you can without breaking it.
  • Wriggle and force up the and out the two electrical connectors to the back of the instrument panel.
  • Open the two clips holding the panel to the body.
  • Place a protective towel on the area in front of the panel. (To keep from scratching or scratching the panel lens in the battle to follow.)
  • Grunt, sweat, swear, pry and use all available hands and likely your forehead to make enough space to sneak the instrument panel out of the too narrow area holding it in. (Volvo forums on this often have colorful descriptions of the near impossibility of this operation.)
  • Congratulate yourself and remove the panel to a bench or table for the repair.
  • Remove maybe 10 (depending on whether you have the German or Japanese panel) screws.
  • Flip the panel, carefully pry the two major sections apart, careful not to crack anything or strip the panel covering or hurt the gauge dials. Then set the front part aside so its many component leads are safe.
  • Take the half with the odo, flip it over, and remove the three screws holding the odo unit in place through its circuit board. This requires that mythical T8. I ended up using a tiny, but sturdy flat-blade screw driver, holding it with a sturdy cloth napkin and breaking into a sweat removing and later tightening the damnably snug screws.
  • Slowly pull out the odo motor and display. This is fragile and its leads require considerable care.
  • Remove the two screws holding the odo motor.
  • Pry off the plastic fitting and gear to open the compartment with the likely broken wheel.
  • Pluck out the bad gear, remove the broken tooth or teeth, put a spot of petrolatum as a lube on the larger wheel, and put your $15 tiny treasure in its place.
  • From there, it’s reversing everything, making sure at each step that the leads and components fit precisely and do not bend or break any parts.

In retrospect, I can see why they charge software-engineer wages to do the job. Plus, certainly if they goof it up anywhere among the many opportunities, that’s their problem and expense to fix.

Volvo blundered in its design on this component as well as in its serviceability. Yet, many years later, I pay the price either in anxiety and effort or in cash.

I’m not at all sure I’ll ever need these skills or this knowledge subset…nor a large set of Torx bits (down to T10, but lacking T8). But, hey, those were on sale and I’m a cheap frugal guy.

While I was doing the panel extraction, I revisited an old awareness though. My knuckles were rubbing, the dash cover was doing its best to crush me and prevent the removal, and I flashed on that tiny wheel I’d replace. Our bodies are a lot like that.

There are so many small components in our innards, brains, torso organs and more, that can malfunction. In a car or human, any of a long list of key parts can fail. Our body repairs or bypasses them often. Sometimes, we get sick and need surgery, medicine or prostheses. In less common cases, we or the car just stop working.

I can’t really fix my body often. So, I was pleased to do my bit for Olaf.

Pushing Our Buttons

October 18th, 2011

Ah, them technologies. They are so tricksy.

Of course, I saw the viral vid of the 1-year-old tot frustrated by a Marie Claire maggy that didn’t swipe or flip like an iPad app.

By the bye, Marie Claire does have an iPad app. Would be the fun in trying to ridicule a pre-speaker gawking at sexy models in fancy clothes on screen?

Just a couple days ago, the FT’s Lucy Kellaway included lessons learned from the Blackberry blackout. One was the those in real power positions were the least concerned, while their minions stabbed and stared at unresponsive keypads and screenlets. Among her possible explanations for this inverse power/anxiety relationship were

  • (T)he more important you are the more you can afford to ignore other people’s emails. If there is something that you really have to know about, someone will track you down and let you know.
  • More likely though, if you are the sort of person endlessly looking at stupid messages on a small screen, you aren’t the sort of person to get to the top anyway.

There’s confluence. Both taut tot and meeting minions have been successfully programmed.

Among the many online reactions to the little one trying to swipe magazine pages, two typical comments appear. One is that this child fits perfectly in a digital world where old technologies are irrelevant. The other is how lame the parents are who don’t teach the kid the range of the available, like reading to her.

That as well as Kellaway’s observations both illustrate a nefarious affect of human brains. Truth be told, we are animals who are easily trained. We can fight against and even have a measure of power over that pathetic trait, but it’s hard.

Observe just how we deal with phones, old or new style. One rings, buzzes or gets musical and we respond. In the car, on the street, in a restaurant or at home, we think we are communicating, in fact that we must do so. Everywhere around you, glance to see how simultaneously absurd and amusing this is. People walking abreast, each talking to someone else. A parent chatting or texting while pushing a stroller, oblivious to both their miniature person and their environment. Someone ignores the person across the table or even in the bed to text or talk. A mall shopper walks into someone else or a post while describing what’s going to be for lunch.

As impossible as it seems to us, we can only control that training if we first look at the context and content. As difficult as it may be for our conditioned egos, if we examine a day or even an hour of phone, email and text messages, we’d have to admit they are junk, stupid junk. We are spending the only lives we get responding as instantly as possible to nothing in particular.

Here, even with two youths in the house, we have beaten that particular problem. For example, we have dinner together. If the land-line-like cable phone or a cell rings during the family meal, it rings to completion. Except years ago when I knew my distant mother was very ill, I would never interrupt the important for the surely trivial. The mantra is that IT CAN WAIT.

Yet, I know I have been programmed in many other ways. There’s that insidious mouse for a big one.

rotaryI was a computer user when that mean using an intermediary. There was data, usually stored on paper tape. You’d go to a programmer, almost invariable a middle-aged man. He’d type commands to produce a deck of punch cards or revised tape, which you fed into a computer for calculations or other results. I developed and ran the nationwide directory of construction equipment, manufacturers and dealers like that.

When I got my first personal computer in 1980, it required programming just to use the dedicated keypad for either word processing or numerical functions. There was no mouse, no GUI, and no World Wide Web — the internet as we know it. In the next decade plus, accessing data, graphics, and other humans on the net meant typing precise commands onto a dotted white on some dull color.

That was not better than colors, high-pixel-count images, and graphical interfaces. It was often faster though. Those much less capable PCs booted for use in a couple of seconds, a trait only tablets and the most advanced ones are just beginning to do now. A command-line interface was and remains vastly faster than mousing or even fingering around a page or displaying a keyboard that does not allow touch typing.

So, the mouse has gotten me and I know it. Pre-GUI, I used the kick-ass word processor XyWrite. Even with pull-down menus and such later, I worked for many years as a technical writer with FrameMaker as my text and layout platform. Both hummed with commands and keyboard shortcuts. There’s no way a sad little mouse user could begin to locate, open and climb down to the right spot in a menu before the shortcut person was four operations ahead.

Therein lies that intersection and the paths to the future. Those with flexible tools and those who understand how to get the power out of them have great advantages. Those who let themselves take the easiest path of being programmed by their technologies are like H.G.Wells’ gentle Eloi, They are subject to the realities of their devices and helpless in the larger world.

Honest to God, saying, “I wasn’t even born then,” is the hallmark of the ignorant and ineffectual. We needn’t all know how to drive a team of oxen, but our world is full of technologies from many ages. Not knowing how to read the still common analog clocks is neither cute nor a mark of a futurist. Nor is not being able to read and write cursive.

Delusion that only the most advanced technologies are necessary in this whiz-bang modern world is itself programming, programming for failure. The minds of even the most programmed of us can understand how things work and can draw on the devices of the last century and even before. There’s room enough in our brains for more than pop things and culture.

Those with broad general knowledge and diverse skills have great advantages. We drastically shortchange our abilities if we hold something and say, “This is all I need to know.”

Plays Close, Kind of Close, Kind of Far

October 17th, 2011

We like theater. Three recent variations made us clearly aware of the range. We enjoyed them all, which may make us theater sluts or in kindest terms omni-viewers.

Consider, by proximity:

I confess here and now that despite terrible accents in one and niggles with all, we had a fine time at each. That surely puts us in the easily amused category. Far worse can be said of many people. Transient happiness lies in real-time enjoyment.

The fundamental difference among the experiences speaks to the range of stage available in cities and smaller places with colleges and artsy types. Here’s a pitch to find out what high-school, college, community and professional theater is within a walk or drive. Much like school sports can be exciting (and affordable), local plays often put you next to the action. Praise the intimate.

I got this Jones in my decade living in Manhattan. Then as now, there was more theater, Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway as well as public and academic, than anyone could possible attend. It was from free to a few dollars to pro-basketball-game-seat cost. Some was wheezing repertory, staged for those who truly need the familiar. Some strained so hard at cleverness, vulgarity or innovation that they were unwatchable. The vast majority please this promiscuous play guy.

So it was here on a spectrum of those three, with professionalism climbing with increased distance and neighborhood density.

Nearly everyone has seen versions of Tennessee Williams’ Cat, likely on stage as well as screen. This was at a long-time, often struggling community theater in Logan Square, which itself has a history of stagecraft back to when this area was part of Dedham. A new managing director seems to bring a greater vitality and higher ambitions, but it still fits the mold.

Most of its repertoire is predictable and some old. That, frankly, suits most theater goers. They don’t want plays that will strain them culturally or intellectually, thank you very much. Like repeatedly visiting the same restaurant and wanting the green bean side to taste exactly how they remembered it, they don’t see theater for adventure, but more for familiarity.

Yet, Cat here was good. Big Daddy and Big Mama actors had lots of credits and the younger major roles like Brick and Maggie were acted by folk who’d been through BU’s drama school. No talentless child of a producer stunk up the stage.

With the Southern heritage in this house, we were distracted by the bad accents. Yankees often don’t get Deep South anymore than Midwesterners can do Revere or Southie sounds. In Cat, though, we found Nora Hassan as Big Mama to most credible here. Regardless, it was good theater. We also sat at a table a few feet from the center of the stage — like a command performance.

Praise the intimate

To Central Square, it is our plug-in replacement for NewRep and very, very different. Back when the Newton Repertory was in a church in the Highlands, we loved the adventuresome choices and staging. An early delight was Moby Dick: An American Opera of a decade ago. It was ambitious and challenging to the actors and audience, memorable theater. We tried to transfer our allegiance with our subscription when this one moved to Watertown. Alas, they are glossy suburban pap now, hiding anything innovative in a wee room downstairs.

We get our main theater fix now on Mass Ave near Brookline Street. They do avant garde, mix in an MIT-pleasing tech one, and have highly experienced Equity actors. Even the Hound was highly updated and played effectively for comedic value.

Here too, there are no bad seats in this small theater. It’s the size of many Off-Off-Broadway ones in NYC. It’s like a Spinners game where you’re practically on the field. Because they mix ’em up and do stretch, it’s as satisfying as NewRep used to be.

Then down to Broadway, that’s expensive (list maybe $150 instead of around $25 per seat) and it’s big in every sense — production, actors, even theater size. Of course, you can find hackneyed drama and particularly musicals in the three levels of New York theater. However, there are always dozens of innovative productions. Unlike the trial or retread runs cities like Boston get in their wee theater districts, NYC is like London in variety and newness. It’s big business there.

We got into previews of The Mountaintop. It was about 90 minutes of Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett non-stop. The young playwright, Katori Hall, created a fantasy of MLK’s last night alive, replete with a foul-mouthed maid who turned out to be a messenger angel. It more than stretched credulity. We went with the conceit and throughly enjoyed it.

By the bye, the 10/24 New Yorker will have a  John Lahr review. He loved the ending oratorical and visual extravaganza that I found the worst part. He called the angel premise “preposterous,” seeming not to understand the nature of fantasy. In this weekend’s NYT, already online, Ben Brantley wanted more end-tying-up. He concluded,  “I certainly bought Mr. Jackson’s Dr. King as an ordinary man for much of the play, and I felt a spark of Dr. King-like divinity in his rousing climactic oratory. What I didn’t feel was how one side made the other possible. That would require a fuller, more intricately developed play than Ms. Hall has begun to provide here.”

We must be easier to please. We appreciated Hall’s inventiveness. We applauded that play and the other two — each for what and where it was.

This is to urge you if you have forgotten the joys of theater, get with the program.

John Lahr in the 10/24/11 New Yorker preposterous. Well, it is a fantasy
Ben Brantley in the 10/13 NYT
Both sides of this dichotomy are presented, at least symbolically. I certainly bought Mr. Jackson’s Dr. King as an ordinary man for much of the play, and I felt a spark of Dr. King-like divinity in his rousing climactic oratory. What I didn’t feel was how one side made the other possible. That would require a fuller, more intricately developed play than Ms. Hall has begun to provide here.

Fat Eddie Koch

October 15th, 2011

kochI have known Ed Koch casually and intermittently for a shockingly long time. He remains, at 87, a grand icon for us former New Yorkers. He’s still at it and got my attention recently because he and his sister wrote a diet book for little kids.

Eh? Diet book for 4 to 8 year olds?

You betcha and he both remembers what it was like to be in kindergarten and elementary school, as well as be a fat kid.

I attach a bit grainy pic I took of him in (ta da) 1979. He’s been bald for a long time and trim enough for many decades. He’s even thinner now, as commonly happens by the time people close in on 90.

The pic is a scan of a print article I did on then Mayor Koch’s program to professionalize the management of the City. He brought in private execs (forced volunteerism) to analyze and optimize programs. It worked well, saving lots of money and delivering services better as a result.

He came to mind today when I noticed that he was a guest on a BlogTalkRadio show on Fitsmi for Moms. I’ll embed the player for the show below. It’s only a half hour and is great stuff, but his phone connection is not the best and you may have to crank your speakers a bit. Highlights from the show are in text here. Click the player below to hear the show.

BTR disclaimer: The podcast I co-host is on BTR. I’m prejudiced for the service.

The book, Eddie Shapes Up, is with Pat Koch Thaler and has a forward from a certain Bill Clinton. In it, he’s non-guilt-spewing and delightfully frank as always. He talks about how his family, friends and others worked with him to change his eating and exercise habits to make him a new boy. No more chubby or stout clothes. No more girls refusing to dance with him. No more being the kid no one picked for a team.

In the interview, you can hear why I’m so fond of him. He starts by correcting the host, Linda Frankenbach. “I was fat,” he said plainly as she struggled for euphemisms. People called him “Fat Eddie.”

He speaks and writes with compassion and experience, shared with his sister then and now. He is about how tough and how possible it is for kids and their families to do the right things.

For another anecdote from way back, the first time I met the, fairly slim, Ed Koch was in the rain early one morning. I think it was 1972 or 1973. I lived in the West Village, as did he. About to get out of the rain and into the IRT at 14th Street, I got accosted by this guy standing under an apartment marquee. He said, “Good morning. I’m your congressman, Ed Koch.” Headed to work, I was still amused and stopped. No state rep had ever sought me out for anything.

He asked if there was anything about state government that bothered me and I wanted changed. Oddly enough, I don’t remember what they were, but of course, I had several answers. Then the miracle happened. As I spoke, he pulled out a little pad and a pen. He wrote down what I said and repeated it for clarification. My congressman not only asked what I thought, but he gave a damn. He cared enough to record it. You can be sure he subsequently had my vote for the House and each time he ran for mayor.

Ed Koch has long been one of the good guys.

Love Through the Ears

October 15th, 2011

Unlike many bar stool warmers, even into a second drink or beyond, I don’t have a lot of brilliant advice.  There is one love-related tidbit from my early 20s that still seems relevant.

Last week, speaking with a female neighbor outside, that arose again. She was lamenting that she couldn’t click long-term with a great guy. She just breached 40 and knows there are fewer gems free in the muck of the mine. She discussed a recent effort to connect to a match from e-Harmony, allegedly compatible interests, bright enough, and nice looking. She said she sent him off to think again with the candid appraisal that his ego and vanity were too well developed.

Hence that personal historical moment.

In my early 20s, I was a single Manhattanite working at a huge trade-magazine publisher across 42nd Street from the Daily News building. We were in what passed for bar and party central in NYC. After the married commuted largely by rail to NJ or CT, we were left to patrols of the heart.

For many of my co-workers, those patrols were frustrating and sad. They’d chat objects of desire up and still return home solo.

Quite a few guys asked me, usually one on one, what was up. They’d note that I always had several women I, as we of Southern backgrounds are wont to say, kept company with. The implication was that I wasn’t rich or 7 feet tall or any of those clichés of evening  love. How was it that I connected and they didn’t, and moreover, how was it that I kept my women instead  of having a one to three-night relationship?

That one was easy…at least for me. My flash was wisdom was simply that I listened to a woman.

Invariably the guy would interrupt to state strongly that he too listened to women and that couldn’t be it. Yet, I’d seen him in attempted action and knew he didn’t. As with my neighbor, women found that he talked about himself and heard only responses that related to himself talking about himself. There’s a huge difference between acknowledging affirmative conversational reactions and listening.

I could ask the guy what he knew about this woman or that. He might know where she went to college or high school, but little else. Pow! He hadn’t asked. He hadn’t left openings for her to swap revelations. He did not value what she had experienced, what she felt, what was important to her, what pleased her, what made her angry. He didn’t know squat about her.

I suppose if I had been savvy or driven by greed instead of the joy of earning a living writing and photographing, I would have started a matchmaking business. I knew something they didn’t.

Too Much Virgin Mary

October 11th, 2011

micpietaBoy, did I get sick of the Pieta.

Michelangelo’s marble gasp maker (here in a Creative Commons pic) became a yawn maker in 1964 and 1965. Everyone, her brother, three kids and friends had to see it at the New York World’s Fair. It was what we now call a meme and was a quiet but relentless must-see object for millions of Americans.

Sometimes, I thought they were all staying with us. Relatives we hardly could place and numerous chums from the many states we’d lived as a family suddenly remembered us in our new location 20 some miles west of NYC. We were a pied à terre for many, many feet.

“Oh, yes, we definitely want to see the Pieta when we go to the World’s Fair,” they say. They’d all say.

So, there I was, a teen and tour guide. My mother either worked or maybe hid from some of these trips, but my sister a bit and I a lot found ourselves trucking to Flushing, Queens again and again and one more time.

It’s a nice piece of work. I think I originally found it strikingly beautiful, but after dozens of viewings, I found it a commercialized irritant.

To Roman Catholics, this was more than a famous work of art. There were the Holy Mother and the recently dead Savior by one of the world’s greatest sculptors in one of the world’s greatest cities in one of those rare world’s fairs. Moreover, transporting this was a huge deal, logistically, economically and even diplomatically. In fact, the Vatican had a reproduction commissioned to ship to prove that the original could make it flawlessly. That remains in a seminary in New York State a half century later — suddenly disposable. Moreover for the Catholics, the Pieta was herald and harbinger for Pope Paul VI, who wrapped up the statue’s visit with one of his own, plus, of course, mass. The science-fiction-movie scape of the fairgrounds remains, replete with skeletal gigantic globe and a plaza marking where the Pope’s slippers stood and he prayed.

As a non-Catholic, I was less than blessed. What I knew is that the summers and holidays would be scheduled tightly with religious and art tourists.

In fairness, many were Southerners and gracious and generous. They’d treat me to transit and food. Yet, each was intent on riding the holy conveyor belt by the image of the dead Savior.

And a conveyor belt it was. The fair organizers were nothing if not efficient. They projected quite accurately that the curious and devout alike were each was a potential constipator of the great viewing tract. There could be no prolonged gawking or praying time. There certainly was no rosary saying.

The Pieta got overhead lighting and appeared ghastly white, far more morbid than the image above as it appears in the Vatican. the background, the whole room, was dark blue. I assume that represented the heavens, with the white lights kind of standing in for stars. There actually was a people-moving conveyor. You’d wait on line, then step lively onto the moving walk, and be literally and maybe figuratively transported past mother and son.

That got pretty old. By the time I was into my second dozen viewing, I would have liked to be able to double or triple the conveyor speed. You want holy statuary? Here. Pow! Thank you and good-bye.

Instead, I regret not buying a shrunken head.

The first few times I was there, I saw clearly fake shrunken heads, in the international pavilion. I think they were from Ecuador and the Jivaro there. I had rubber rats and skulls and such and admired the detail of these models, but they were pricey for me at the time, I think  $50. I didn’t spend all my money on one.

As it turns out, they were real. The Times and Herald reported that the pavilion tendering them was informed to their surprise that such human parts were illegal to import and sell in this country. And I could have had a truly disgusting artifact, had I been sharp and quick enough.

Many of my tourists left with Pieta nicknacks, but none had any interest in shrunken heads.

Saving and Sorting Lives

October 10th, 2011

sA Microsoft researcher in England has thought more about our life traces than the rest of us have. In The future of looking back, he interweaves the pluses and problems of personal artifacts from his grandfather’s photographs to current digital and online tools we use to the newest stuff around his Microsoft Research in Cambridge UK.

The book is as much philosophic as technical. For his work and avocations, Banks understands collecting, analyzing, storing and retrieving artifacts of human lives. The result of all that could have been a huge, turgid work, but is not.

In 141 pages, plus supporting references, he presents the qualities and uses of our photos, data, video, audio, journals and more. He uses simple declarative sentences, which makes even the complex concepts easy to follow. Coupled with his clever design questions at the end of chapters, the reader ends up thinking about how to make the fullest, safest uses of inherited and current material. We shall be better librarians of our lives after reading this.

He’s straight-ahead in dividing the book into three sections — Stuff and sentimentality, A digital life, and New sentimental things. Those would be the nature of the objects we use to remember, the hows and whys of reminiscence, and new and pending tools for doing so. I’m fairly observant, but he bring in details, down to the weight and texture of photographs. He catalogs our now-digitalizable range of artifacts. I considered my many objects like they were suddenly laid out before me.

That would be enough, but his design questions are truly thought provoking. For just one example, he asks, “How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?” These chapter enders did slow me down, in a good way. I am thinking of my own set of several generations of objects with these in mind.

How might we design ways that allow parents to clear out or
archive their child’s digital things when they leave home?

I only have one complaint. He seems to assume that more is always better, and to let the future users draw on technologies to sort and prioritize. I think instead that as we complain of information overload, storing many millions of artifacts would work only for someone with a team of biographers to reconstruct the life and times. I vote for selectivity and subsets in what we store.

Richard Banks
Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK
The future of looking back
Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA, 2011
184 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7356-5806-6
$24.99 paper, also available in Kindle editions, O’Reilly or Amazon
Review Shtick: This starts a series of book review on technology and other topics that interest me.

War Campfire Music Visits HP

October 9th, 2011

They’re Yankees, but we can forgive them.

We saw, heard and met the 2nd South Carolina String Band at the Hyde Park library yesterday. They are eight Civil-War reenactors who have taken to playing period music on period instruments wearing period-style clothes. They’re good enough to be in demand on the circuit and have five CDs out.

I have not really done them justice in the clip at the bottom. This is a recording on a mini-digital recorder, 20 feet away of Jine the Cavalry. I left the intro to its origins.

The uxorial unit wanted to go down the hill for this. Weekly, she plays acoustic music from way back with a motley group either in a Dorchester restaurant or in nice weather at Jamaica Pond. Plus, she’s from South Carolina.

After the hour concert, she talked with the bones player and I with a banjo player. We’d tried several types of rib bones to get the right tool, after seeing some YouTube lessons. Turns out, we should have been gathering shin bones.

Regardless, I asked how wide and deep the South Carolina connections were. Non-existent is the answer.

Turns out, there are lots of Union reenactors in these parts (and for musically unrelated reasons drinkers). These guys in various configurations decided to play Rebs in Yankeeland. They also found themselves at the campfires during the enactments, as fairly lone in sobriety. They then started playing music of the era and have subsequently added period instruments as they could. The flute is from the time, as is one of the fretless banjoes. Other instruments are reproductions of the real thing.

For locales though, most are from Massachusetts, as in Lynn and Weston. The farthest South is the Arlington, Virginia area. Southerners are wont to note that Northern Virginia is of questionable relationship to the South.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

The motion blurred shin bones of Tom DiGiuseppe here. He also played a cow jaw and other dead animal parts, like a skin covered tambourine. scsbbrones1
scsbflute2 Joe Whitney uses an authentic fife of the period.
On the period banjo, without frets, was Joe Ewers. scsbbanjo2
scsbvocal1 I’m also certain that it was Fred Ewers on guitar, vocals and sometimes the fiddle.
They try to reproduce what the troops would have heard by tunes and instruments. Fiddles were big at the time and in the band. Here Mike Paul joined the Ewers lads. scsbfiddles1
scsbpenny1 They were all together and the closest to a solo was Greg Hernandez leading Amazing Grace on the penny whistle.
Attention to detail as with all enactors includes the crudely made shoes and clothing. I did find out that some of the band made their own, augmenting those with suttler-purchased duds. One fellow does have his tailored though. scsbflute1