Archive for December, 2012

West Virginia Christmas Right here

December 22nd, 2012

For the life of me, I can’t remember the Christmas tune the white church played in our house. It had music-box works and I enjoyed winding it up, returning it to the cotton “snow” lawn, and grokking the season.

My mother, Wanda, loved Christmas and did it up right. She’s dead, but we have retained much of her joy and rituals.  I’m very sure my sister dumped the oldest fixings and does not decorate as intricately. Here, we almost do.

treemas2012Perhaps like the proverb of dubious provenance, there are no atheists in foxholes,  pleasure in and even obsession with this holiday season may not be limited to Christians. Indeed for me, I was raised as a Christian and was a devoted one when young. I got better. Yet, I generally go to a Christmas eve service, often the old-fashioned New England one, with the fillip of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus performing, at the Arlington Street Church. There’s nothing like an apse filled with bald or gray chubby or saggy men in dinner jackets with beautiful voices singing God’s glory to scream, “He is born!”

Wanda though picked up from her father Bill, my Granddad. His often grumpy wife Mable, Baba per my sister’s dubbing as the privilege of the first grandchild (she similarly named the paternal version Bubu) was not such a Christmas aficionado.  Granddad started with the two three-story blue spruce on the front mini-lawn. He festooned them with strands of those gigantic colored bulbs we boomers knew.

Then he and I could get in Charlie Long’s pickup with him — the kind where you had to use a hammer to change in and out of 4-wheel drive by pounding the hub. We’d thump over the fields and across the shallow South Branch of the Potomac to get to his land that had evergreens. I’d pick the tree I liked, as by far the junior man-let in the group and we’d saw it down. They always let me make the last few cuts that caused the TIMBER moment.

Mable never cared for this treasure. It was work to trim, although she was not involved except for huddling, directing and scolding. It always meant she had to haul out the vacuum daily to inhale the needles. It was more trouble to undress, plus shedding seemingly half its tags on the trip out the front door before trash day. Harrumph, indeed.

miltonluminWanda was in Bill’s mode and then some. Most personally obviously, she bought presents, not only many, but exactly what people wanted or would have asked for had they been as perceptive as she. Very much unlike those who wrote checks, gave gift cards, or approximated age-appropriate gifts, Wanda looked to the soul (and lifestyle) of each recipient. She made sure you got what would delight you. Your delight was hers.

Yes, the outside of her house was lit and tarted up with red, green, yellow and white. Inside tough, it as a monument to Christmas traditions. Bookshelves (of which she had many, many and table tops were layered with chorister candles (never burnt, God forbid), creches, scenes of shepherds with angels, ice skaters, lighted model villages and on and on and on.

I loved it all.

We decorate here, replete with a substantial creche molded and painted by my late mother-in-law. My wife does the Martha Stewart deeds of garlands, lights and more. I and one or more of our sons sets out the luminarias. We get a to-the-ceiling evergreen butchered for our pleasure. We as a family and often with a daughter-in-law real or to be, rig it up with three decades of ornaments, chili lights, a porcelain angel topper, icicles and candy canes.

We do Christmas. It seems genetic now.

Tricksy Managers

December 21st, 2012

ESpen

On discovering a couple of what could kindly be termed collectors items, I ran though some of the corporate gifts I’ve gotten over decades. Yesterday’s finds were impressive looking ballpoint pens. The pen body was in the same wood as the substantial box. Both had etched ELRON SOFTWARE into them.

Its Israeli parent, Elron Electronic Industries, is still fat and thriving in various medical and defense businesses there. The mistimed decision to jointly develop software there, here and with some help in Russia was solid, but unfortunately foundered in the industry collapse of 2000-2001 and an IPO that was about three months too late.

Along the way in the good times, management gave us these tchotchkes, along with fleece pullovers, polo shirts and seemingly anything you could weave or brand with the company name or its product names. I have bright yellow INTERNET MANAGER and blue WEB INSPECTOR apparel.

Likewise, various previous companies handed out backpacks to our children on bring-your-kid-to-work day, as well as t-shirts, note pads and on and on. I still like wearing Microcom gear, because I was proud of those products. That company sold itself to Compaq, shortly before that one bought DEC and a NIC manufacturer, with the idea that all together we’d put Compaq instantly into the networking business. That best-of-breed amalgam took more smarts than Compaq’s management and marketing and their new owner HP had. The network-card, DEC networking and Microcom teams were all tossed in the street.

Truth be told, many of us at various companies were amused by such gifts. They cost the companies very little, all of which was tax deductible anyway. The company got diverse use by giving the same stuff to customers and vendors.

The cynical aspect though was what I heard directly from the shots at American Management Associations a long time before. That AMA made its consistent profits by holding seminars for execs. Some of those meetings were at the New York City HQ and others at more luxurious locales like the horse farm at Saranac Lake.

They told us in the publishing division that companies’ managements understood the tchotchke nature of these expensive trips for their underlings. Sure there was the airfare and the hotel and meals costs, some away-from-office time and incidental penalties. The pretense (dubious, I say, having attended numerous of these sessions) was that the managers given these wonderful AMA privileges was that the brass at home expected them to be even better at their jobs after attending.

In reality, AMA told the big shots that these were a great way to make the recipients feel special, and maybe increase the productive competitiveness internally. The best part was that the one or five thousand spent did not add to the salary base. That is why companies so love bonuses over raises. The rewards immediately expire and do not compound.

I don’t even get tired of kindly correcting people who ask about my ENRON jacket. After all, Elron had bad timing with its software efforts, but they weren’t a bunch of crooks.

 

Holiday Balance

December 16th, 2012

hugewreath

OM

Finally, the counterbalancing display to the Metropolitan Avenue extravaganza appeared. Likely yesterday, one of the mega-houses at the top of Fairmount Hill stuck its annual huge, honking wreath on.

This is maybe 7 feet across, replete with blinking colored lights…and God’s extension cord.

It’s at the top of Milton Avenue, two football fields away from the other big display.

We are humble ground dwellers. I’ll put out the electric luminarias in a day or two…without aid of an aerial lift or even a ladder. Neighbors have small herds of wire-frame reindeer and such. Around HP, alternately flaccid-by-day and alert-in-the-dark inflatables.

We are amateurs.

Pix note: This and the pix in the linked posts are Creative Commons. Do as you wish with them. Just credit Mike Ball once.

Two-Wheel Manifesto, Boston Version

December 6th, 2012

Time to get serious, boys and girls, rather far past time.

Today’s catalyst was the latest death of a cyclist on Boston streets. This one was Chris Weigl, a 23-year-old photographer (website up at least for now). The wreck (never call these “accidents” as though they were unavoidable fatalities) had familiar basics, as limned by the Globe report.

A tractor-trailer took a four-lane right turn on a major avenue, aiming for a tiny side street by a local university. The cyclist in a bike lane was instantly mushed to death.

As long as they are up, the comments at the Boston Herald let cycle haters drink their fill. The this-but-that versions will stay up at Universal Hub. This is no place to broach the craziness of all-cyclists-always-break-all-traffic-laws or cyclists-don’t-have-licenses-or-pay-taxes or ban-all-bikes folk. They are beyond reason as well as compassion.

Instead, Boston has started its bicycling evolution. What must be do next for safety and civility?


Simple legal stuff


Stop signs and traffic lights. We have to stop being puerile here and look to what has been successful in Idaho since the 1980s — rolling stops for bicycles.

Stops as yields. Somewhat different but a corollary is treating red lights and stop signs as yield signs.

Both of these do many of the same things. Most important is increasing safety for all concerned by taking into account the huge differences between bikes and motor vehicles.

Two emotional responses to overcome are ingrained but not immutable. Most drivers here love the dumb cliché promulgated by the likes of Mass Bike, the barely logical same-road/same-rules chant. The anti-biking types like it as a weapon to pull out and slug cyclists with for any real or perceived infraction of a traffic law or regulation.

There are two underlying pretenses here. First, all cyclists are total scofflaws and all drivers are absolutely law obedient. For the latter, I have yet to follow a driver for more than 10 miles without observing violations, such as changing lanes without signaling, failure to yield to pedestrian in crosswalks, not coming to a complete stop for a light for stop sign and before the marked line, stopping on a crosswalk, exceeding speed limits, passing through an intersection after the light changed red and on and on. If all traffic laws were evenly enforced, a tiny percentage of drivers would retain their licenses. Yet that does not prevent most of living in a fantasy world of reckless cyclists and virtuous car drivers.

The second is more childish and visceral. The sense that even if a change in law is for the safety of all, anything that gives a right to a two-wheeler that a four-wheeler does not have is morally wrong, damn it! It’s the three-year-old’s wail of “She got an ice cream and I didn’t!”

To the same-rules bozos, I have little but disdain. We can easily observe and surmise myriad differences. Cars can drive on interstates and other limited access highways. Bikes can travel bike paths and lanes. Drivers must signal before every turn or lane change, cyclists when it is safe to do so taking a hand off the bars. Cyclists can dismount and use a crosswalk. It goes on and on.

More significant are physical differences. A cyclist is hard pressed to hurt or kill anyone, but doing so is built into the one to three ton motorized vehicle. A bike can stop at speed in only a few to 25 feet, long before a driver can move a foot from gas to brake. Even then, a car  or truck total stopping distance is in hundreds of feet. Likewise, a bike has the same tiny inertia leaving a red light, so it can be into or across the intersection before a driver can give it gas.

These and many other differences beg for reasoned nuance in laws and regulations.

Yet both driver gut responses of these are so real, and both so enabled by the lunacy of same-road/same-rules that any improvement has to deal with them. Unfortunately for humankind, about half of us seem very literal minded, like rules-are-rules bureaucrats. They need extra care and attention on any topic.

I can remember when I first introduced the stop-as-yield law and testified before the MA Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing and sensing that is-this-fair attitude from the senators and reps. My proposed law, dutifully introduced by my then Rep. Willie May Allen, would indeed have granted cyclists an option motor-vehicle operators would not have. I explained how as a multimode guy — car, T, ped, bike — I was aware how nervous and thus dangerous drivers were when they were beside a cyclist at a light or red octagon, when it was time to proceed. On the other hand, when the cyclist leaves first, the driver overtakes the two-wheeler and feels in control. The driver doesn’t worry about the car’s width or where the bike is.

I could feel the progress but also those present would need to hear this more than once. I didn’t think there was a cyclist there other than I. This must be what folk used to this process have told me, that you need to introduce a bill three to five times and make your arguments each time to get it through.


Hard legal stuff


Meanwhile, the pros here, bike czars in major cities here and in Europe, concur that presence equals awareness. As we get more cyclists on the roads, drivers gradually accept that they are sharing the road not only with pedestrians, trucks, buses and trolley, but also with cyclists. Wish as they might that all the others would disappear, they come to accept that they’re all there forever, like mosquitoes. They learn to deal. When they do that, they are less likely to do thoughtless maneuvers that can bring death and dismemberment.

This process has one great accelerator, enforcement.

If you read the Herald anti-bike comments, you’ll see one-sided calls for that, as of course, drivers are always blameless in any wreck. Cyclists need bike licenses, need to pay cycling insurance, and most of all need a cop on every block to ticket them for their incessant law breaking.

Those multimodal types among us, including me, snort in their general direction. If virtually any driver were ticketed for every infraction large or small, none would take a trip to the grocery or flick without multiple tickets and perhaps a trip to jail.

Instead, I have to agree with  the rules-are-rules types here, but for everyone. Ticket and even tow the bad guys!

Pause here for the self-pitying and self-righteous keens of cops. Oh, Lawdy, no. “If we have to enforce traffic laws for drivers, that’s all we’ll do. Murderers, thieves, and dealers will rule the streets!”

That’s the most flammable of strawmen, of course.

In the real world, when cops or umpires or any enforcer does the job, it’s short term. If local police enforce the laws, words gets around quickly and drivers even cyclists would show some restraint and sense. Then cops can go back to pretending they are serious crime fighters.

Boston is infamous as a city where the police live by the no-blood/no-ticket model. They hate paperwork and are insulted by the $1 jaywalking tickets, the $20 cycling ones, and other pissant enforcement. They can go decades or whole careers without a felony arrest, foot chase or detective-level investigation, but they love to live the fantasy. Any moment, their duties will call them to major crime busts.

That melodrama can’t continue to interfere here. The local commissioners, supers and unions have to know that public safety is more than a bromide. Enforce the damn laws for a couple of months. The citizens will get the idea and straighten up.

Let both drivers and cyclists (hell, peds too) be afraid they’ll get hauled away and maybe financially ruined if they cause injury or death. Make it certain. Let them sweat for a few months. They’ll adapt and we’ll all be safer and saner.

 By the bye: I’m overdue for reintroducing my cycling bills and testifying.

HP’s Flat Santas

December 5th, 2012

Hyde Park Christmas inflatables live like vampires — moribund by day and active at night. The sundry Santas, snow guys, reindeer, polar bears, Snoopy as elf, Mickey as St. Nick are flaccid in the sun. They fill, rise, shine, and undulate in the dark.

Here are snaps of a few flat versions today. The effect can be like the morning after the orgy. The players lie on and seem to hug each other as well as remained passed out on the lawns.

Like drunks the morning after the BIG party, these characters are flat on just one side of this lawn.
Some flat Santas fall over on themselves and anything else handy.
Some flat ones have solid, but horizontal buddies.
Those more solid guys are no more stable than the inflatable holiday clichés.
Deflated animals are less distinctive than guys in red or green costumes.
Many of the lawns had multiples, typically Santas or reindeer, and here differing snowmen.
Others mixed metaphors, such as including the Grinch.
Flat Santas came in all manner of size and ornamentation.

Pix Notes: You’re welcome to anything useful. They are Creative Commons, so just cite Mike Ball once.

Boys, Girls, Cook, Chef…What’s In a Word?

December 3rd, 2012

An elegant microcosm of our fustiness appears in a Think Progress piece on a 13-year-old big sister. She’s riled because her little brother wants to use Habro’s EASY-BAKE oven, which the company markets as a girl thing. It is on the company site and catalog in “gifts for girls”, and this girl asks them to get their act together and start including boys in their ads and promotion.

I’m there with her. I’ve been a or the family cook since I was six or seven. My father was a deadbeat Army office who disappeared to Germany with his second family, ignoring all this responsibilities to his first. However, my role model and mentor was my maternal grandfather, Bill Michael, who among many talents and duties cooked and was a tailor.

Oh, he had a stereotypical “man’s” job on the B&O Railroad, but he was like a t’ai chi master, hard and soft at the same time. He saw no shame in honest labor or in food prep or in sewing. He did it all.

His wife, my grandmother Mable, was queen of her kitchen though. She did not allow her two daughters to do more than act as scullery maids. She was the cook and never let anyone forget it. My mother had to learn to cook in Japan from a book for similarly ignorant American Occupation Army wives.

On those rare occasions when Mable was visiting relatives or in the hospital with an asthma attack, Granddad cooked. He had the touch.

First of all, he grew the family veggies, in what he called “patches.” These were one or sometimes two one-acre gardens of remarkable diversity. You don’t know asparagus until you eat it five minutes after being cut, and only those with home gardens know a real tomato plucked as the ripest and most fragrant on the vine.

We loved it when Granddad cooked. We also were savvy enough never to say to her that we preferred his hand in the kitchen.

Yes, let the little boy cook.