Archive for March, 2012

Big Old Ears

March 29th, 2012

When I saw the images of Pope Benedict and Fidel Castro glad-handing, I noticed the ears. The 84 and 85-year-old guys exhibit big, old ears, a.k.a. hypertrophy. The image here is cropped and pushed together so you can see what I did.

So, I clicked around that net place to get some figures on how our head projections grow, how quickly, how big on average and such. In high school, private reading and in college, I had heard from various biology and medicine folk that cartilage continues to grow slowly, even as we get shorter with age.

I was surprised to read that folk wisdom at least questions that. Numerous pages claim with no evidence that just isn’t so.

There are few scientific studies that do the real thing. They compare by age and gender, left and right, and so forth. Actual numbers from experiments, like here and here, confirm that I’d long heard. Old folks’ ears and noses look bigger, because they are.

I don’t find this unpleasant. In fact, there’s an elegance and almost sculptural glory in a large ear — so long as it does not spew hair out of the canal. I think immediately of a dear family friend we called Justice, which was has last name as well as an apt epithet, had fine ears and a nobly wrinkled face. Likewise in my childhoo, the old guys sitting on the nail kegs near the pot-bellied stove in the Farm Bureau in Romney, West Virginia, tended both to sun-and-wind weathered skin and impressive noses and ears.

I read also today that some rich oldsters have plastic surgery to lift sagging nose, shorten elongating earlobes, and remove cartilage from their ears. That’s vanity that affronts natural beauty from normal development.

Wrist-Wrenching Phones

March 27th, 2012

Calling Sonny and Tubbs!

Nearly 30 years ago, the Miami Vice pretty boys were skimming in  cigarette boats and confronting drug lords. Along the way, they were très chic…in clothes, slang, and technology of the time. That included Sonny living on a boat with his guard alligator Elivs and hot communication, a remote phone.

I claim fair use for the cropped and contrast-improved image of Don Johnson as Sonny with his big honking phone. It worked off a land-line base and an antenna the size of a shishkabob skewer.

Now when we see pix of him holding this sizable household appliance, covering half his skull, we are amused. Yet, our technology is galloping back there.

Look around offices, on the street, in churches and on restaurant tables. Current versions of big honking phones abound. Common smart phones come with 5-inch screens and are leading larger. That doesn’t include trim and the rest of the body. They are swelling and swelling.

Of course the limits are different. Back in the MV days, components were much larger and transmission needed some serious amplification to work at all. Nowadays, consumer vanity in advanced features leads many to in turn drive cell makers. The bigger screens let fat fingers type (sort of) and hold the absurd number of lame and seldom used app icons.

Phones are getting bigger and bigger. Many no longer fit in shirt or suit pockets. The trend points to bigger yet.

I’m fond of saying that my phone works for me and not the other way around. I have to stifle snorts and giggles when I see the common conditioned responses of cell slaves. The phone beeps and they react — yes, master — regardless of driving, walking or conversing with tangible humans.

Here, we’re also not beholden to the pseudo-land line that comes with the cable bundle. If we are home at dinner or with guests in the room or even if we don’t feel like answering, we let a call go to voice. Our phones work for us.

I’m casually thinking of my next phone upgrade. It’s likely to be a smart for maybe more accurately smartass phone with more capability than my current one. You can be damned sure that it won’t be as big a my open hand.


March 22nd, 2012

For only one more example that, for crying out loud in a bucket, we as a species are not multitaskers, consider the young woman who walked off a pier into cold Michigan water while texting. Sure it happens widely and rarely makes the news, except on the level of ridicule by acquaintances and relatives.

I’ve ridden this horse for years, like here and here.  For over a decade, I’ve seen adults and kids in malls walk into objects and people…because their brains are too single-stream to use a phone and travel simultaneously.

I lay special blame at the feet and graves of the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As marketing ploys, they blithely told consumers and managers alike that humans multitask well. This dovetails perfectly with the managers’ belief that lazy employees should be doing three or more complex tasks simultaneously (and well) instead of sucking away company money for goofing off.

Unfortunately for that fantasy, having several computer programs running and one or more phone calls connected and maybe even a meeting or oral conversation at one time is plain stupid. To belabor the computer context, we simply don’t have the RAM, processor speed, or disk to deal with many threads concurrently. A tiny fraction of us have brains capable of multitasking and the odds are high that you are not in that group. Give it a rest.

We believe we do only because software companies and bosses say that is so. This delusion has become so pervasive I’m a multitasker has joined I’m a people person in the list of top meaningless self-descriptions.

The fault, dear humanoid, is not in the handheld device or app, but in ourselves. Do one thing at a time well and avoid rear ending a vehicle or falling on your face.

Ubiquitous Obsolescence and Ephemera

March 21st, 2012

A lot of years ago when I was the editor of a grocery magazine, I wrote a feature about throwaway products. By today’s standards, it would surely fall into a rant.

The point was that our readers made a lot of money on items like disposable razors. These non-foods or HABA (health and beauty aids) as supermarket and convenience store folk call them are where the margins are. Overall, a grocery may average a profit margin of under 5%. Contrast that to, say, software companies that may have margins of 45% to 95%. Profits on toiletries are among the highest in the stores.

So when use-and-toss products like razors, condoms and such sell, store owners do little capitalist dances.

My concentration at the time, convenience stores, even measure inventory turn differently. They think in terms of square inches and not square feet. Turns per inch per month determine what they stock, which is why you likely won’t find your favorite brand of this or that unless it’s among the most popular.

This is also one of the reasons they put certain small, high-margin movers on the counter by the cash register. For those, they get paid twice. As impulse purchases at POS (point of sale), these items give great returns. Moreover, manufacturers want that space and turn level as well. For that, they pay an RDA (retail display allowance), which to many not in the biz would seem like a bribe to have the best position.

By the bye, when I was covering grocery, the best seller and highest turn per inch per month in convenience stores was rolling papers. When you gotta have ’em…

As so many posts here, this circles back to bicycles.

In my article decades ago, I waxed richly on my grandfather’s straight razor, as well as his long marriage. He was not into disposable anything if he could help it. Years later, I had a huge shock in the early days of PCs when my $1,300 24-pin dot-matrix printer malfunctioned. A Toshiba repair shop guy said sure he could fix it, but he noted that it was the chip welded into the motherboard. That would cost $900 to $1,000 to replace. A newer, much quieter, more capable and reliable model sold for about $500. It was the old almost-working-paperweight cliché. With regret at being wasteful and trapped, I handed it to a tech training school to fix or cannibalize for parts.

So this week, I found myself locked into the more fragile, higher tech replacement routine, this time for bike pedals and cleats.

I’ve used Shimano SPD cleats and pedals for eight or nine years on my road bike. The cleats were small, ugly, steel and damned tough.

A week and a half ago, one of my pedals came apart, irreparably, on a ride. The spindle and pedal separated. I managed to keep squeezing my shoe toward the crank to keep putting the pedal in play for the 10 miles home. Going up the steep hills was, shall I write, exciting.

Those pedals are so 20th Century. Shimano, among the others, has moved on. The bike shop didn’t have the old style, but I was able to order the newer version from the cycling cyclops Nashbar/Performance/Bikes Direct. (Pic note: I claim fair use from a cropped image from the box to show non-cyclists what a pedal looks like today.)

Modernity brings:

  • Easier clip into the pedal
  • Quick kick out as needed
  • Slightly lighter pedals and cleats
  • More comfortable, less noisy walking on the cleats (I tend to bring light mocs and swap out for beer bars)
  • Plastic pedal body covers
  • Plastic cleats

The instructions make it plain that I’ll be replacing the cleats and covers. It may only be once a year or two for the cleats, but like any good disposable product, new, improved, better means also costlier.

I bought spare cleats when I got a new pair of road-bike shoes that did not come with SPD ones. Those cost me $11. The list on the SL style models is around $30. A discount is about to $25, plus shipping or full price at a bike shop.  At every two years, replacement amortizes at about 4¢ a day, ride or not. In contrast, the much longer lasting old metal style might be in the range of 0.3¢ a day.

Those are still small beer in the world where people routinely buy a coffee for $2 or $3. On top of that, I estimate that I’ve put between 50,000 and 60,000 miles on that bike and that original set of Ultegra pedals. I don’t think anyone should say Shimano made a poor-quality product. I sure got my money out of the pedal that finally broke.

There is no metal equivalent of the new cleats. Were there to be one, it would surely damage the pedals with use — much more expensive replace than plastic cleats.

Here I am, again an alter kaker in a new world. Life in fact insists on going on, bringing me with it.

Antique Bike, Antique Muscles

March 18th, 2012

Is there an equivalent cliché along the line of  a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine, one for a week without cycling?

I grieved the past seven days with an inoperable road bike. I’ve been waiting for crucial parts to arrive. Today, I lugged out the old, very heavy mountain bike from over 20 years ago, just to get back in the saddle. Wow, it was a lot of work.

I think of my mother complaining when she drove the family car that I had taken off her hands and had out of state for several years in college. When I returned for a visit, she drove it instead of her company-issued new sedan. She returned puzzled and a little angry, asking, “What did you do to the steering?” She said it was so hard that she could barely turn, much less park.

We quickly figured out that it wasn’t the steering, rather it was the contrast with the new one, with power steering. The old one was light and to me easy to handle, but it had manual. Likewise, when I see a manual typewriter set up, I use it if I can, just to recall the feeling of having to use some muscle (particularly with the little fingers) to press keys that move levers.

Today, I was on a bike that weighs over twice my usual, well over 40 pounds. It has a steel frame, no suspension, and very inefficient gears. The Sierra was Schwinn’s first try at a mountain bike. It did what it did well, mostly being tough enough to rumble down hills strewn with boulders, to crash without bending, and to have a crank with low enough gears to hump up steep roads and paths.

After taking a hilly road route that I hum along with my road bike, I find my quads burning. That’s definitely good and should serve to remind me that tech and related advances can be enemies of fitness.

Intellectually, I knew that the road bike has by far the most efficient gears and is lighter than any other bike I’ve owned. However, experiencing that knowledge for over 20 miles is far, far more meaningful. My body as well as mind knows that a much heavier bike with clunky gears is one devil of a lot more work.

The good aspect of that is that many of us cyclists claim to want to bike in part for the exercise. A set of wheels that is too easy deludes us into thinking the same 20 or 30 or 50 miles traveled is real work, with real benefits.

I promise to make trips around the Boston area, including the huge humping hills around this part on the old Schwinn at least once a week. It can only be good for me physically and remind me, as manual typewriters do, of how easy we often make things for ourselves.

32 Volume Collector’s Item

March 14th, 2012

“Look it up,” may have been the most common reply to me growing up. When I was very young, my knowledgeable mother would provide answers to my ceaseless questions. In early elementary school though, she used that phrase…and that’s what I did.

She was not being selfish with her smarts nor unreasonable in that demand. She had multiple reference books, which she used often. Those included atlases half my height, a massive, 2-volume unabridged dictionary, three full sets of encyclopedia (American, Compton’s and Britannica, with update volumes), the annual almanac/book of facts (in hardcover because she and I really worked that one), and on and on.

Today I saw that Britannica is going the expedient way and announcing its final print edition. It sells through DVDs and online access in several versions. The library format is passé.

For many years, I have been amused by and come to expect incredulous queries from cosseted Ivy Leaguers who remark on my general and specific knowledge. I worked with one at Inc. Magazine a long time ago who showed that at its worst. Several times, he’d come out with the likes of, “Ball, you went to a shitty school. How come you know so much?”

The answer in many ways goes back to my mother’s look-it-up chant. The other parts include that I did look it up, that I had a better brain than my coworker, that I enjoyed school and thus paid attention in class, that I took good courses, and that I read for pleasure. Neither his Harvard nor Columbia degree made up for his insufficiencies in those many areas.

Now though there’s a different chant — “Google it.”

Sure enough, there is much more information, both fact and opinion available on the net. Is that the same? Likewise, willstudents go to the school or public library for detailed information?

Speaking to teens, 20-somethings and many older folk, I doubt it. Finding something to cut and paste, something that provides the sketch is better than being totally ignorant. Yet, so many people seem stunted by this kind of learning.

When I had either of two adult encyclopedia (having outgrown Compton’s) open, I read far beyond the catalytic topic. I’d find more just begging me to learn about it. Then, again, I’d browse the unabridged dictionary recreationally….

I’m a huge internet-for-reference user. We also have the types of tools I grew up with, including both Britannica hard cover and DVD versions and the OED.

My sons were not as eager to look it up as I was or am. I do admit that I’m a bit odd that way. They still have benefited mightily from the references we have. They’re even wont to get out our field guides to fungi or birds for identification issue. I’m pretty sure most non-paper researchers don’t bother.

That, after all was the point in my upbringing. If you are curious and you know the answer is in one of the numerous family bookcases, you may very well look it up.

Missing Boston’s Dark Age-let

March 14th, 2012

We felt a perverse breeze of ease last night headed home. A tony, or at least expensive, Boston neighborhood — the Back Bay — was blacked out from transformer fires.

Bordering on schadenfreude, the feeling related to the two decades we lived in a subneighborhood, the Woodbourne area at the bottom of Jamaica Plain. There the ugly, stupidly at risk power lines and transformers above the street frequently shorted, blew up otherwise, or knew the wrath of falling trees. We had several blackouts annually, from a few hours to several days. Here an almost always electrically privileged swath of real estate was humbled.

We had just seen, heard, felt the emotionally, intellectually, politically powerful Ameriville performance downtown. (By the bye, for locals or immediate visitors, it’s through Sunday, 3/18, and a breathtaking 90 minutes that musical theater barely describes.) While we like to be public-transit folk, time and early morning rising dictated parking at the Boston Common garage near the theater next to Downtown Crossing.

The garage had power and we didn’t consider that as we paid upstairs in the new automated (electronic) system and exited using our ticket, now a receipt. I wonder now whether the massive underground car park has generators or what provisions they have for humanoids to appear like fairies to let drivers escape.

A block left on main drag Beacon was like the opening of a sci-fi flick. There were no traffic lights, no street lights, no house lights, no business lights. The cops were not yet at intersections, so it was first-come to each intersection, a social convention that in Boston neglects the Golden Rule. (Oh, and the subways were closed.)

Maybe two miles along Storrow Drive with only headlights produced that odd felt sense of a desolate highway in the rural South. Then at Fenway, left was black and gray, except for blue police cruiser lights. Right was the shabby, overbuilt commercial strip of motel, gas stations, bars and the trappings of not-quite-downtown.

It seems 13,000 Bostonians are without power down there this morning and may be so for a day. With all the businesses and wealthy residents, at least they’ll know they get five-star repair service.

Chariots of brrr

March 10th, 2012

I may have cycled beside a future Olympian or wide receiver today.  A little kid did his damnedest to outrun my road bike.

Cold it was, known as seasonal in Boston. At a nominal 31F, the flurries, high humidity, steady wind and cycling speed made it feel like the low teens or eenies.

Coming to Dorchester’s Tenean Beach on the shared bike/ped path, I slowed passing the mom and taking care of the maybe four-year-old running a meandering route ahead. A kid a couple of years older, maybe a brother, was further ahead yet with his soccer ball.

The younger boy looked at me at took off. He kept throwing his head first forward, then toward me, all the while racing, racing. As I passed her, she said, “He races everything.”

I slowed partially to make sure I didn’t hit him, but more for him as I realized he was in fact racing, to let him feel he was winning. The older boy fell on his ball in fun, blocking most of the pavement, so I slowed more. When I could I passed between the boys, but I was careful not to accelerate too fast and ruin the illusion.

The younger one said, “Boy, he’s fast.” He apparently had no sense he’d really have to be booking to outrun a road bike, even one with an old man up.

I loved his spirit, his competitiveness, and his determination.

More IT-Gone-Wacky Tales from FAST LANE

March 8th, 2012

Apparently there’s no pleasing me. A couple of years ago, I noted the incompetence of IT for the transponder program here in MA. Not only could they not suck money in real time or close to it to keep the $20 deposit flush for long trips, but if you called in to support, you have to give up your password over the phone to talk with a rep.

That’s right, your only security for an account that had access to your bank or credit card funds had to be spoken in the most insecure possible way, just to ask a question of support. Some support.

Well, that was true again and still last month. We replaced a vehicle and the stick ‘um stripes for the Velcro retainer did not hold on the new windshield. It seems they are designed this way and the FAQ on the MA DOT site says call in to get new strips.

Of course, I couldn’t even ask for that or explain at all why I was calling without spitting out my “secure” password. Not only that, but there is a separate PIN the agency assigns transponder users that you have to reveal. To see that, you need to log in with your account number and password, highlight the field at top and read that to the rep. Only then can you say you need to 2-inch strips to hold the box in place.

Honest to Ada Lovelace, computers were never designed to remove all mental processing capability from humans. We do that to ourselves and each other.

After eight minutes to inane bureaucracy, my silly rep was satisfied I was the person I represented myself to be and that I deserved the two strips. They arrived about four days later in a #10 envelope. Control freak I am, I thought and told the woman in support that this function should be automated and a menu choice from your account. Of course, that would be less for support to support.

Today’s episode was getting my monthly email of the FAST LANE statement. That includes a link to the DOT site. It has brought up the log-in screen and retrieved my account number and password from a cookie. Good enough.

Not today though. Instead, I got a screen worthy of the Bastard Operator from Hell. Not only could I not do as I had for years, but the stored data was gone. I had to track down my seven-digit account number (which serves as user name), and then bow to the new FAST LANE password schema.

So the old four-character (a.k.a. mnemonic) PW was not good enough. There was no advising about the level. I had to do what the screen said or forever be locked out of my account info. Instead, it meant contriving a new PW that was eight or more characters, and included “at least one of each”:

  • Upper-case letters
  • Lower-case letters
  • Numbers
  • Special characters (the punctuation and symbols on the keyboard)

Something you can remember? Forget it!

A tricky non-word or meaningful-to-you number with a funky symbol somewhere? Forget it!

The new PW had to meet five BOFH rules. So there.

Plus, there’s a note at the bottom of the PW hazing screen that you still need to have access to the DOT-assigned PIN as well to get any help from alleged support.

These IT satraps do have real power in their tiny provinces, power they abuse. The only question is are they ignorant of how much trouble they’ll cause in aggregate by their bureaucratic inconvenience or are they being malicious, as in “Let’s make ’em dance.”?

On Ripping Off Relics

March 4th, 2012

I confess, but only as a figure of speech, that relics and reliquaries seem ghoulish to me, a non-Roman Catholic. As matter of faith, I likely shouldn’t find them so. I was a devote little Christian, one who believed in transubstantiation during communion, which I took many times.

Along with hormonal floods, puberty brought dousing of knowledge and analytic thought. I got better.

Today the news from Dublin includes the discovery that somebody made off with the heart of Saint Lorcan Ua Tuathail, later known as Laurence (or Lawrence) O’Toole. That’s a big deal, as he is the patron saint of Dublin.

The relic had been in a wooden box in a square iron cage in the cathedral. It was no impulse pilfer either, the thief/thieves sawed through the bars and  forced the cage free to get the treasure. The church dean said, “It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father.”

Yet we also have to wonder, as parts of saints have been bought/sold/swapped/stolen for centuries. Some allegedly are duplicated in multiple locations. Other religious artifacts, such as pieces of “the True Cross” whereon Jesus died, appear in so many churches that wags have said there are enough around to build Noah’s ark.

To  believers, even beyond Ireland, such tangible links to holy folk are sacred in their own right. Many supposedly have innate powers — healing the sick if prayed to and beside, and other such miracles. Nearly six years ago, many gathered in Boston to peek at the visiting heart of a saint lent by a French church and briefly displayed here. I joined them.

To us less faithful, we are wont to insult folk by speaking of worshiping a finger bone in a filigree tube (available at the Cloisters in NYC, for one) and such. Catholics are quick to point out that there’s a huge difference between praying through a saint to God and worshiping a body part.

For the best treatment to the relic world concentrated on the whole bodies, I recommend Magnificent Corpses: Searching Through Europe for St. Peter’s Head, St. Claire’s Heart, St. Stephen’s Hand, and Other Saintly Relics by Anneli Rufus. She was fascinated by relics, particularly whole bodies of the incorruptibles — corpses on display allegedly never decomposing, thus proving their holiness. She visited numerous shrines to observe both the saints’ remains and the visitors.

St. Lorcan lived in the 12th Century. There are trails and tales of his body parts too, including buried, disinterred and stolen bones. Even before his relics were shared and disappeared, he was on a fast track to sainthood. Many claimed miracles by praying to him in the months and years following his death (natural causes and not martyrdom) both at his tomb and through his intercession.

He apparently led a saintly life of humility and abstinence, replete with hair shirt, prolonged fasting, forgoing meat and stimulants and such that other prelates enjoyed. Now whether a figurative pure heart translated into a literal holy one, I suppose, is that matter of faith. Regardless, ripping off a religion’s palpable symbol is a terrible act.