Archive for August, 2010

Dose of Kloss

August 27th, 2010

weeklossNosing about for contract technical writing still, I checked some of my clips and portfolio yesterday. Part of the mini-thrills for an alter kaker journeyman journo is finding totally forgotten pieces. One such was of electronics wizard Henry Kloss.

While dead for eight years, Kloss was a charming chap as well as driven innovator. I’d had a few interactions with him before the profile I wrote for Electronic Business 26 years ago.

WABAC notes: EB was a Boston-based Cahners maggy, moved with the company from Cahners Place in the South End to Newton Corner to sale to the UK Reed folk (by the bye the world’s largest toilet paper maker at the time) to dissolution with other trade books last year. While I usually took my own pix, the one with the article was by local photog Ted Fitzgerald (cropping above).

Other profiles and obits speak to Kloss’ visionary work in sound and TV. Few note that he willing sacrificed huge wealth for pretty big wealth. He got his joy from creating the new and best, not from making mass markets in the OK.

Otherwise, I think of NYC cabs and kittens when Henry comes to mind.

In the late 1960s, I was in college and living in Cambridge on a grant. I filled in cash flow with a couple of jobs, including making speakers by hand at his new Advent Corporation. They were damned good speakers.

He actually accidentally designed the new standard of stereo speakers. He was developing projection TV technology and just wanted cash flow for that from the speakers. He ended up vastly improving on his older KLH technologies and establishing new standards for sound. Also, he had a skunk works project going for a farther out ideal, 3D TV. The word in house was that he had one, with the drawback that you needed a radiation suit to sit in the room with it for any length of time. That never got to market.

Meanwhile at Avent had a huge room filled with QA women verifying woofer, tweeter and switch components. He gave them exacting standards. Then a small row of us assembled the speakers. I connected the wires for the controlling switches on the back, then piped glue and power stapled them to the panels. They were great speakers and I think each of us bought at least one set at employee prices.

My little value added here is first that he drove to work in his old, still functioning Checker. That’s the same clunky, sturdy gem that was the standard NYC taxi of the time. His current one was his first, a 1948 model.

That said a lot about what he expected and created. He wanted the best of its type. He expected it to last a long-time if not forever. He’d do what he thought his customers should, pay for good stuff.

Also, one day his wife showed up and cajoled us workers. Her way of dealing with an unexpected and unwanted litter of kittens was to squeeze employees. She appeared with a box of them and offered them. I heard at least one QA woman say she owed her job to the Klosses and felt obligated to take one, even though she neither wanted one nor particularly liked cats.

Together, the Klosses were epitomes of New England frugal.

I can’t say I begrudge him that at all. He turned his mindset into products we were happy to make. I recall years later living in New York City being at a dinner party where the hosts went on about how much they loved their stereo speakers. Peeking behind one of the big Advents, I was pleased to see that it was one of those I had made.

Tags: , , , , ,

Cranky Fingers Reach Maine

August 26th, 2010

Yes, I am an admitted crank, coming by it naturally and by my mother’s example. A recent experience at a Copley Square store had me displaying my low-brow high dudgeon yet again. That brought results from Monroe, Maine.frogbowl

I advocate justifiable crankiness. My latest episode worthy of comment had to do with my favorite breakfast bowl.

As a swimmer, nature guy, cartoon fan and more, I have a thing for frogs and Monroe Salt Works has a splendid frog pattern among their pottery offerings. I’ve been using it for years almost every morning, typically with fruit and yogurt topped with cereal.

Over the decades, we’ve given Monroe pottery to others, as well as their amusing jewelry, toys and tchotchkes. We spent a lot of money at the store on Mass Ave in Arlington. That recently closed unit always had parking nearby and seemed to offer a better selection of everything than the one at Copley by the Westin.

It also had clerks who wanted happy customers. For example, when they were out of the frog items I wanted, whoever was on duty would immediately offer to order them for me, hold them and let me know.

The Bad Thud

At home, my office is on the lowest floor, below the kitchen. A recent evening, my suspicion and fear were correct when I heard the deep crash. My last frog bowl, the one I wash after using and place on the drain, at the farthest from the counter edge, was in seven pieces.

Monroe pottery is seriously heavy and sturdy. If dropped from above three feet, it might bounce. If it broke as in this case, it would not shatter, rather nobly separate into substantial chunks.

Lackaday…my sole remaining frog bowl and breakfast prop was fine for controlling garden pot drainage holes, but little else.

Verifying Copley’s hours, I hopped on my bike the next morning to buy a couple of the bowls, including a spare in case someone disrespected my treasure again with dish-drain misplacement.

The Grin Twins

Inside the Copley store, one browsing potential customer was leaving. One young man was leaning across the glass display counter almost nose to nose with a clerk.

She was one of two women behind the counter. Both were maybe 19 or 20. They put a lot of effort into their clothes and makeup. They were both speaking with the whispering young man. They might be filming an ad for some youth fashion company from the tableau.

What they weren’t up to was paying attention to the one customer, your crank.

The woman farthest from the lad was seated on the shelf counter three or four feet back from the glass one. She’d giggle at something the young man said, and alternately look at or text into her phone. She’d swing her legs and was having a great time.

Neither clerk showed the slightest interest in helping, so I toured the store, located the frog-pattern pottery and saw that there were no soup bowls on display. Perhaps they had some stock in the back. At worst, they could get me the bowls from another store or the Maine mothership. I headed over to the social gathering at the counter.

After waiting for two or three minutes, assuming the inane flirting traffic would stop, I stepped up right next to the glass case. Sure enough, that was adequate catalyst for the standing clerk to say goodbye to her chum and turn to me.

She asked if she could help. I said I wanted two of the frog soup bowls but did not see them with the pattern. Perhaps she was still stunned with coursing hormones, but that did not seem plain enough for her.

She corrected me by saying she knew I meant some Japanese bowl in a side display window not facing the inside of the store. She headed toward that wall, as I called out that no, I meant specifically the Monroe Salt Works frog pattern and exactly the soup bowls.

She nonetheless insisted on reaching into a hidden window display to produce things unrelated to my question. I repeated my request and led her to the frog-pattern pottery.

She said they didn’t have those and that I should get the lobster or crab pattern of that bowl instead. That was when I finally realized:

  • She was not well trained
  • She may not have come from an attentive and mannered family
  • She did not understand what pleases or disappoints customers

Part of it may have been her age. Medical and mental scholars claim that human brains aren’t fully wired and perking until the early to mid-20s. She may be short quite a few synapses and the experiences to reason fully.

Then she totally queered it. Even asked if she’d acquire two for me, rather than offer to get the bowls in the store, she dismissively said I should go to the Salt Works site and order them. As reinforcement, she condescendingly told me it was real easy, seeming to imply that even an old man like me could do it.

What was missing from her thought process and knowledge included:

  • Nothing riles customers like out-of-stocks, particularly if they come in for specific items. They’ll accept high prices or rude employees long before not getting what they came to buy
  • Nothing is as easy for a customer in the store as picking up what he wants, paying for it and leaving with it in hand
  • Being told to buy something similar isn’t just as good
  • Picking individual items from a store that advertises that each of its handmade pottery items is unique is a key to satisfaction
  • Buying online is not as easy as walking out with goods; instead it means clicking repeatedly or searching for the items, going through the lengthy shopping-cart process, often with additional registration and verifications of entries, paying the shipping premium, and waiting one to four weeks

I understand why a young woman would rather flirt with a present or potential beau rather than help a middle-aged customer. Then again, it’s Salt Works who pays her to satisfy its customers and in so doing sell its good.

So, there I found two flaky young clerks who don’t seem to understand how customers shop and retail sales should work. That has to fall back on the store manager and the training the company offers. Certainly telling a clearly disappointed customer either to settle for something similar when he specified items or to go away and do it online is sure to crank up a crank.

Stirring the Bowls

Not to spite myself and ruin my accustomed home-dining experiences, I did order two that afternoon.

In addition to angering me, that meant that two bowls at $21 each cost $10 in shipping and would probably leave Maine in two or three weeks. That would be a 23.8% premium for the shipping as well as up to a month to get the bowls. Of course, I could not choose the two bowls I most liked from several available.

After OK’ing the online order, I went to the Contact Us area of the company website. I sent a long email to the impersonal address detailed my experiences at Copley, as well as noting how helpful and savvy the clerks at the Arlington store had been. In fact, I said if they absolutely had to close that store, they should have brought the staff downtown. I wrote that I might make those two bowls my last ever Salt Works purchase after many years of buying from them online, in Arlington, in Maine and in Boston.

They must not get many loonies such as I. Tom (no specified last name), replied by email:

Thank you for your order.  I am going to push your order ahead and see that we ship this out to you today.  I am sorry to hear of your poor experience in our Boston store.  You should have your bowls tomorrow.

Sure enough, I got overnight shipping and faced my emotions. I honestly felt much, much better holding my froggy friends in hand. How easily I can be bought.

Moreover, apparently Tom let the company president, Karen Kayatta Burke, know he had dealt with an irate customer. She sent her own email:

I apologize for your recent shopping experience at our Copley store. For the past 40 years Monroe Salt Works has built a reputation for producing some of the finest salt glazed stoneware in the world. We strive to represent our Artisans wares in our stores with that reputation in mind. It is customers such as yourself that mean so much to us and based on your description your treatment was, is and will always be unacceptable to me. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I have discussed your experience with the store manager, Jennifer, her staff and associates in our other stores.

We hope you will consider Monroe Salt Works in the future for your pottery and other gift needs. We appreciate your order, considering your recent experience.

Regarding employees at the Arlington location, all were offered jobs at the Copley store with an incentive. They all chose to accept unemployment benefits rather than travel to the Copley store.

So there you have it, the conundrum of the crank. Responded to my a nice person, in this case two nice people, was I unnecessarily unpleasant in response to indifference and incompetence, or is this the squeaky-wheel cliché in action?

I confess that I am simple here. I am delighted that the outcome was that the next morning I want my yogurt mess or perhaps groats, I have my preferred pottery. Om.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Bikepath? Are You Crazy!

August 25th, 2010

THEY want my stuff. THEY want to hurt me. Keep THEM away.

NIMBYism is most obvious and somewhat understandable with the institutionalized — substance abusers, child abusers, convicted criminals, developmentally disabled. Yet many towns put a finer point on it for others.

I’ve been watching the inane hoo-ha for the past 15 years around here about (drum ratta tatta…wait for it) bicycle/walking paths. These perceived threats separate the sophisticated, civilized and sensible from emotional dunderheads.

Cross-post note: As political and non-political, this post appears at Marry in Massachusetts as well.

It was only after 9/11 and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency’s springing full-blown to dominate our thoughts and feelings that a parallel was obvious. Small towns about the country begged for security funding. To big-city dwellers, that is those at real risk of terrorist actions, such entreaties were absurd. Yet on a granular level, you see the motivation.

If you live in Wee Placidville, Idaho, you likely justify your quiet, hermit-like area with its positives. It seems safe and unchanging and folk around you look and act pretty much like you. You don’t have to accommodate diversity in almost any form. City folk may think of you as a hick, while you are sure you live in a paradise.

Why wouldn’t the terrorists eager to rip the heart out of America attack your ideal example of U.S. virtues? Of course, you need and deserve HSA funding to protect Wee Placidville!

Two-Wheeled Thugs

Closer to Boston, an all too similar dynamic has played out for decades. Think the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway from Bedford to Cambridge. Proposed in 1974, furiously debated, and dedicated in 1992, it was a demon child to some…but has proven quite the smiling angel.

The asphalt strip runs where trains used to go. The anti-bikeway folk keened portents of certain doom. Noise would be terrible and well into the night. Litter would dot and blot the meadows and woods. Punks from Boston, Somerville and who knows where else would cycle over to rob and harm the gentle folk of Lexington. Property values would plummet while the bucolic life by the path would be no more. Oh, and the bisected towns would go broke paying for additional police, fire and sanitation related to this blight.

Pretty much the opposite occurred. The path is a gem to all the communities. Citizens walk, bike, picnic and otherwise enjoy it. Houses on its length are more desirable and valuable. Literally no one rides five to eleven miles to commit any crime. (Plus, I try to visualize an inner-city teen cycling out to Lexington, breaking into an alarmed house, grabbing a plasma TV or the like and trying to chug it back to a housing project far away.)

Other Times, Places and Loonies

Regardless, the parochial fantasies did not disappear with the Minuteman’s obvious, long-term success. We heard the same craziness in Weston in 1997 and just recently a somewhat muted version in Milton. For the former, consider the Weston Rail Trail Task Force Final Report & Recommendations.

Weston’s pathetic NYMBYism held the way as they refused a trail extension there. It got wide coverage, mostly ridicule, as in the 1997 LA Times piece with the lead, “Imagine: A bicycle trail through the state’s wealthiest suburb. Do you have any idea what kind of people would be pedaling into town? Ruffians, criminals–mountain bikers!”

The Weston task force glued a veneer of reason on their emotions. They rejected the trail because they were “unable to adequately mitigate several serious impacts, thus making the trail unacceptable.” The unproven and certainly unprovable impacts would be an annual $162,000 town-services cost, having to pay tax abatements to abutters whose home values would plunge, and “decreases in ‘quality of life.'”

Forward to this year in Milton. The town borders Boston starting at the Neponset river. Although our African American governor has a home there, it is not racially and culturally very diverse. It has the nation’s highest per capital Irish-American population (38%) and overall is 85% white, 10% black, and about 2% each Asian and Latino. Its median income is roughly twice that of Boston.

There is a short, flat, benign bike/ped trail along the Neponset on the Boston side. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation wants to expand this popular trail just slightly as the parks and paths alone the river develop. Miltonians want none of that, thank you very much.

A full accounting of the opposition appeared in the Bay State Banner recently. For the proposal that the trail include a bridge so Boston and Milton residents could bike or walk over to each other’s tennis courts and such, the lingo was familiar. Despite the clean, quiet, pleasant and safe history of the existing sections, Miltonians at a hearing spoke of lowered property value, litter, and crime. While additional lighting as well as bike and foot traffic in fact create a safer environment that hikes property value, the obvious backed up by statistics can’t sway the parochial.

Not surprisingly, the Milton selectmen just voted to oppose any bridge or trail on their side of the river. Prompted apparently by a reactionary enclave in the Capen Street area, the selectmen urged the state to put a big bump in the preferred route. While their letter to the DCR said nothing of race or inner-city criminals, its scheme would coincidentally keep the trail in the black-densest areas of Boston’s Hyde Park and Mattapan neighborhoods. Hmm.

Town and neighborhood pride has good aspects. Yet as we see in the highly segmented Boston, too much of such identity has other features. You may well distrust and dislike anyone who is not like you and not from where you are. Such is racism, classism, religious intolerance and the like. Not from here too often translates into not good.

There’s a fair chance Milton’s NIMBYs will get their way. In coming decades people may forget and wonder why there’s this odd circuitous crinkle in the popular path.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Blackout? Yeah, What of It?

August 24th, 2010

wiresdownOur first blackout in the new neighborhood of a year was truly a stumble down Remembrance Road. While we are still in Boston, we heard that our Hyde Park digs have nowhere near as many electrical problems as Jamaica Plain.

From 21 years of experience in the former, I had gotten ready though. Just after 1 p.m., our power poofed. It happened to be our youngest’s birthday. While he’s a teen and has never been prone to tantrums, we do have our family rituals, including all gathering, handing over presents, candles and cake and such.

Because of the JP history:

  • I use an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for my computers. I had time to close my open applications and save my work.
  • I knew where the big candles and their holders were. If it continued into dark, we’d still be able to see each other, the food and the presents. The minimal gear was on the table while it was still light.
  • I had options for cooking. While I had planned a feast that required considerable electricity, I had options here too. The house came with an electric range, not my favorite, but OK. Our outside grill is propane and I could make nearly everything except chili rellenos. I had vegetarian dishes with protein for our oldest to cover in case I could not fry the chilies.

It turned out that a large tree had taken down power lines, a pole and a transformer. An abutting neighbor kept calling NStar to hear later and later estimates of lights-on.

Before 5 and just when I was ready to crack the fridge to remove the materials for my adjusted feast, we got juice again.

While I would like to think it is my maturity, I suspect my equanimity came from two decades of losing power seemingly with every storm. Hot and wet. Icy. Heavy snow. Big wind. Pick your storm and our part of JP lost electricity. Sometimes it was an hour, others up to two days and spoiled food.

Manufactured Empathy

So here we are in a second-tier U.S. city with a wee taste of third-world problems. Wont as we can be to extrapolating to an unearned empathy, our worst isn’t even bad.

As a UU, I understand how we liberal and progressive types love to identify with those who suffer. It is an endearing trait, an effort to maintain our humanity and humility in the face of our overwhelming plenty and comfort.

It’s also a sham.

Scan the papers and net for Pakistan, without any necessities for many millions…for Iraq and Afghanistan with power an hour or two or six at indeterminate times in extreme weather…and even not so long ago in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I briefly flashed on two members of a UU church we were attending when I shattered my leg last year. It required a pretty serious operation, including a knee-to-ankle rod in a tibia, intense, prolonged pain, morphine, and walker, crutches and cane for months. Those two told me they knew exactly what I experienced because they or someone they knew had cracked a small bone in a foot. I scanned each face for the mildest hint of irony or sadistic humor, but found neither.

We can manufacture our empathy with minimal materials.

Here yesterday, had we lost power for a couple of days, as has happened in our own Bean Town, we would have coped too. My wife would have headed down to her corporate offices before dawn to do her pre-market-opening work. We would have bought some blocks of ice and kept what we could in coolers, as we did a few times in JP. We were already prepared for an inconvenienced birthday party. We would have managed, knowing it was temporary, whether that meant minutes, hours or days.

Let us keep our perspective on our troubles. Blackout yes, but millions, no billions, would swap with us.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Scaly Moose Season

August 22nd, 2010

Sharing a coast and an ocean, being rife with the rural, and depending heavily on nature and tourism, South Carolina and Maine have some striking differences. Consider that one is nearing moose season and the other prepares to issue its permits for gator hunting.

gator1Up in these parts, Maine has a lot more wishful moose baggers than moose. It has an elaborate lottery/licensing system and a hunting guide. Unwritten in any of those or its FAQ is the danger quotient. You are much more likely to be killed or injured in a moose encounter if you drive into one on the highway than if you confront one nose to nose.

Down there though, the risks of death, dismemberment, even fatal infection are integral to the homey thrill of gator hunting.

Yet there are basic similarities, like:

  • S.C. has zones (management units 1 through 4) with a permit specific to the zone
  • S.C. sells up to 1,000 alligator permits per season (second September Saturday through second October Saturday)
  • Everyone pays $10 to be in the lottery
  • Lottery winners pay an additional $100 for the permit (an additional $200 as of this year for non-resident gator grabbers)
  • As with moose, it is not that easy. Last year’s hunters got 452 alligators.
  • As with moose, successful hunters tag and report a kill to the Department Natural Resources

S.C. has only permitted these hunts for the past couple of years. This is so popular that the Palmetto state holds two-hour informational sessions. One just happened. The other will be in Spartanburg next Saturday, 8/28 at 2 p.m. as part of the Harry Hampton Hunting & Fishing Expo. These cover the essentials from paperwork to safe gator handling.

A mildly gruesome recap of the first session appears in The State. It is replete with such info as a dead gator can still maim or kill the hunter. The hunt is likewise sobering. Harpooning is the preferred capture method. Then you and as many quirkily willing chums as you have get the beast close enough to the boat to slice key arteries or use a pistol for final dispatch.

Your immediate reward, should you successfully land it and get it ashore without injuries from the tail or claws, might be a BBQ. You can eat, but not sell, the meat.

Clearly, a moose-hide rug would be better in front of the fire than an alligator hide, although I bet they have similar worth if you sold them. Plus, down South, fur and indoor fires are not the hit they are up here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Keyboard Lord

August 20th, 2010

kingAs alpha-geek in my circles, I help chums and family choose, configure, repair and use computers and software. That may have more to do with longevity and happenstance than cleverness. I go back to when being a computer user meant telling the guy who could generate the mainframe punch cards what you needed from some data.

Then and in the following several decades, I had to know how things worked. Even if I couldn’t do all the programming myself, I had to know enough about the hardware, firmware and software to make things work. That’s kind of like the days when cars all had carburetors and spark plugs. Plain folk could fix them.

Blessings and curses now. Even Windows has so emulated Mac that we’re reduced to plugging computers and their peripherals together. If something doesn’t work automatically, if the operating system doesn’t perform blind magic, we’re lost.

Tech helplessness

In that sense, we have become the gentle Eloi, as in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Likewise, short of some fictional drama, most of the time, that magic happens. We pay for lots of memory, a fast processor, and high-end graphics. The flabby, invisible operating system and firmware find the printer, internet connection and so forth. We pretend we are cybernetic experts.

The fun comes when we get all regal on our PCs. We for our $400 or $700 or $1,200 or more are lords of our electronic servants. How dare they delay us?!

Sure enough, computers continue to increase power and decrease price. Few of us notice that the software, particularly the operating systems, have become flabby beyond belief. In this era of media and personal panic over obesity, we don’t see the gluttonous, demanding critters before us.

Depending on how far your WABAC machine can take you, you may recall much smaller, but less capable software. Back when PC were starting in the days of CP/M and DOS and then early Windows OSes, programs took some kilobytes of memory. My first word-processing program loaded in 32K.

Forward to our new version of the real world, we’ve gone to programs that took megabytes (each 1024 kilobytes) and some gigabytes (1024 megabytes). On the hard drive, those programs may take many hundreds of megabytes or even several gigabytes for their stuff. You can see examples of all those maybe useful components if you load an Adobe/Macromedia program, say Acrobat Pro or Photoshop. The hundreds of parts load and load and load.

Then we feel like kings indeed. Our servants are muscular, with many powers. They have 250 or maybe a terabyte of hard-disk memory and four or six or eight gigabytes of RAM. We command such an army on our desks or in our briefcases!

Flabby software

Yet, let’s not delude ourselves too much. Those gigs of RAM and HD are necessary for the absurdly large, complex and compensating OSes and software. They have to be compatible with older versions as well as other programs. They need to have drivers for hardware and dozens of utility functions to do all the magic behind the curtain. The Eloi don’t know how to fix anything that doesn’t work seamlessly and without error.

Like Macs from the beginning, the Windows versions from NT up are waddling fatties. They need tremendous nourishment in terms of disk and RAM. They need faster and faster processors just to function, like a tubby queen immobile without her sedan chair.

There are alternatives, such as Linux. Its various flavors are each a trim, fit OS that makes few demands on hardware. Alas, they are beyond the capability of the Eloi. We need to understand some programming and know about peripheral interfaces and a little networking to install and configure it. Pardon the pun, but fat chance for the computer kings to forgo their luxury and sense of power.

The funny part is when royalty find themselves waiting. The browser page is slow to load. The high-power PC doesn’t print the file. The spiffy MacPro can’t save the file when the royals just know there is plenty of disk space. The screen freezes and minutes or hours of work go to the unknown fate of derelict electrons. The PC seems to get a little slower every week and the royals are like their 16th century counterparts with suddenly decrepit lackeys.

That’s where this geek alter kaker (GAK; I think I can reuse that) becomes useful. I have rescued Mac users who have work in some odd limbo. I cleared Windows cache and temp files, and then defragmented hard drives, and finally removed useless programs that load automatically, filling memory.

Sometimes, I’ll answer the why questions. Yes, Macs are easier, but some versions require you to remember exactly where you stored something last or they lose it. Yes, PCs are more powerful, but Windows retain the absurd flaw of picking up a program you use, putting it into RAM, then redepositing it more or less randomly back on the hard disk, placing its components’ fragments farther and farther in myriad pieces.

Help us

I suppose it’s true that kings and queens should not have to fill their heads with such things. Yet, wasn’t it the likes of Frederick the Great of Russia who chose to understand everything in Russia from the plow to the throne?

We surely have gone too far in our dependence on computers to configure and fix themselves. That should be plain enough when we royals become subjects as we submit to tech support or the horrors of the God awful lameness of Microsoft help systems. Even royals can read what’s on the screen. What they want to know when they press F1 are the most likely fixes to the most likely problems on that screen. As I learned from my days as a tech writer, the help system user has a simple, single, reasonable thought — “Make me smart fast.”

What our modern world of cheap cybernetic power has generated is a legion of entitled pseudo-royals. We tend to feel indignant when our machines do not satisfy our whims instantly. We are entitled. We deserve instant everything in the internet age.

When I help chums clean up their systems, get rid of parasitic and unnecessary software, and explain why this and that and the other clogged the works, they are invariably contrite. They say they should have known or acted.

Then again, why should they? Both hardware and software vendors, as well as the monsters of Microsoft and Apple, pretend all is plug and play. Buy our crap and you don’t have to know anything. It all just works.

Well, Eloi, yes and no. You can get adequate performance out of the box and package. That’s true enough. Knowing why things work or don’t honestly isn’t going to hurt and is likely to come in real handy.

I’ve tried to teach my three kids what’s inside the case, literally and figuratively. The first one works in IT and in some ways has far surpassed me. The other two know more than their peers and can tweak their systems well enough.

Those are skills and lore that may be like people reading unabridged dictionaries and encyclopedia for fun. It’s freaky but makes one much more interesting and useful.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Becker Badgers Beeb Style

August 17th, 2010
Beyond winger media, the BBC style of guest badgering seems rampant. This very morning, I was surprised to hear WBUR’s Deborah Becker play silly adversary with Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral. Eh?

If you watch or listen to the Beeb TV or radio, you get the behavior that subsequently became the norm of FOX and more recently even MSNBC (think Hardball). The ill-bred plug uglies like Bill O’Reilly make their living at nasty irrationality and Chris Matthews is not far behind in exhibiting British-tabloid sensibilities.

The routine is to bring on knowledgeable guests, ideally one at a time, and hassle the devil out of them. This is asking a pointed question and then talking over the attempted answer. When the guest does state facts or positions, contradiction is in order, fast, repeated and at high volume. The talking head should act like the expert revealing hidden truth.

Yet what we should have learned from hearing and watching our parents, teachers and clergy sorts holds. Silencing someone with shouted, iterative gainsaying does not mean you are smarter or right. It means you are loud, repetitive and ill mannered.

I want the ideas and information out there. If the host’s aim is to end up feeling smug, that is a huge failure.

While it’s not daily or two hours at a stretch, we do our interviews at Left Ahead. For the past three and one half years, we’ve had someone join our podcast about every other week. We tend to have one guest at a time and explore in depth.

Even with those whose political and personal views are quite different, we aren’t in the business of gotcha. Perhaps that makes us wimps in contrast to the current style.

Nah, nah, nah

This morning’s example related to the Philip Markoff suicide was not as strident as a FOXNews segment, but close enough. You can catch the six-minute segment here.

Becker started out like a real journalist and quickly went tabloid on Cabral. She clearly came in with her conclusions and was not about to let truth or knowledge interfere.

The sheriff said several times and clearly that:

* Markoff had been on suicide watch over a year ago and exhibited no behavior to justify it since
* The sole psychiatrist for the jail, holding over 700 prisoners, had cleared Markoff
* Guards check on inmates every 30 minutes
* The jail has numerous mental health professionals in addition to the psychiatrist
* Suffolk’s suicide rate is less than half of most other jails – five in eight years
* Markoff exhibited zero signs verbally or otherwise that he wanted to do himself in

Becker’s increasingly hostile questioning showed her bias. One psychiatrist was not enough. 40% of inmates have “some sort of mental health” issues; I’d say that the general population is higher and criminals may arguably be nearly 100%. Becker somehow linked the hypothetical that Markoff might have been married for a year had his fiance not quit him after his arrest to his needing extra attention, even absent any acting out or statements. Becker clearly liked the concept of and term trigger.

To her credit, Cabral was cool in the face of iterative implications. When Becker seemed not to hear her stats and judgments, returning to Becker’s view that Markoff was somehow shortchanged of counseling and monitoring, the sheriff calmly said there might be a misunderstanding or that she (Cabral) was not sure “exactly what you’re asking.”

So it goes with the badgers. Don’t listen, come in with conclusions and stick to them, contradict when possible, talk over answers you don’t want, and above all, show that you know better than the expert.

It’s tiresome and I wish it would run its course. I don’t want my ideas pre-digested.

Cross-post: This also appears at Marry in Massachusetts.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Herbs in the ‘burbs

August 15th, 2010

I smell of some sweet and some sharp herb leaves. My hands bring to mind Shannon Curfman’s mildly suggestive lyricsI smell you on my fingertips. I can taste you on my lips.

My new perennial herb garden has been overflowing green and figuratively begging for harvest. I’ve cooked with my annual and perennial herbs all season. Today, I clipped two bunches of three of my eight herbal citizens — one trio as offerings to tonight’s dinner hosts and one to dry in the garage before being sealed for fall and winter use.

Click to get closer

My heavily scented greens may not be as showy as floral offerings, but the friends we’ll visit are foodies and I suspect will share my sensual joy here.

This harvest is, clockwise from 9, lemon balm, oregano and sage.

The drying process is easy enough, much easier than setting fruits or vegetables by. It means:

  1. Cutting a fist full of herbs at the lowest leaves
  2. Those leaves are generally discolored and have lost flavor, so picking them off provides a good stem section for the next step
  3. Tying the bunch with string (rubber bands would tend to loosen more and perhaps drop stems)
  4. If you doubt your memory or nose, labeling each bunch with a tape or tag on each string bearing the name
  5. Hanging them to dry out of weather
  6. Later, packaging in jars or plastic bags you can seal (zipper ones are most practical for access)

Short of the oregano and thyme, the dried herbs will not have as full a flavor, but pretty close if consumed in the coming months. I find fresher dried herbs plenty rich to the nose and mouth though. The emotional factor of knowing that they’re mine surely comes into play.

Tags: , , , ,

Klaxon Magi (big honk)

August 14th, 2010

brasshornleftIn cycling v. driving, the relative slow pace and far greater vulnerability without the metal and plastic shell encourage, as the New Age types might say, being in the moment. Without the armor, your brain tends to greater awareness.

In that mindset, I’ve noticed horn blowing for some time. Specifically, those drivers of little brain too often use their horns incessantly or repeatedly in lieu of other components. When a car, cyclist or pedestrian is on their road, instead of what common sense, sense, courtesy, safety and the law mandate, they may not touch the brake or even ease off on the gas pedal.

Instead, ignoring the simple rules of solid geometry, physics and even teh obvious vectors of those involved, they blow their horns. It is though the warning sound is magic and they have it as a wand. Blow the horn and the slower car will suddenly speed to the desired rate, or the bicycle and rider will poof disappear, or the pedestrian will instantly transport out of the crosswalk or street to allow unimpeded travel. It’s magic!

Except, of course, lackaday, none of the horn magic has worked, works or will ever work.

Well over 20 years ago when I began cycling regularly, I had to adjust my driving brain considerably. While I have been a big walker since childhood and well understood the strictures of the pedestrian, I had to cycle in and around Boston for quite awhile to realize far too many drivers are not in the moment.

Moreover, when I became a technical writer about the same time, I found it very useful to think like the end user of the manuals and help systems I’d create. While an advocate for that profession, I have to agree with many customers that far too many of us don’t do that. Our products suffer because they present the products and procedures one way, the developers’ way, regardless of how real people think.

Thus it is on the road. Far too many drivers, maybe even most of them, appear to zone out and are not in the moment, are not aware of the conditions and obstacles ahead or to the side, of what other people on the road can do.

Some other cyclists and I were thinking of that last week. We noted such obvious issues that are not at all obvious to inattentive drivers. For a few, a poorly constructed bike lane, like on Enneking Parkway that goes from a couple of feet (marginally OK) to inches next a drop off, or a field of fine gravel or broken glass in the shoulder. Those conditions are obvious to a driver in the moment and each could cause a cyclist to skid, crash, blow a tire, or be thrown into the travel lane.

It helps a driver to also be a cyclist to be attentive to these problems that should be obvious. Then again, drivers should not look right in front of their hood ornaments. Instead, they are far safer if they keep a field of vision that looks ahead to brake lights as well as to the side for problems for them and others.

In acknowledgment of the shortcomings of those of little brain, the many Pooh drivers, a lot more brain power goes into awareness. Being safe is more work than being annoyed at everyone else and laying on the horn at every chance.

Likely the way to change the self-centered habits of the Pooh drivers is with enforcement. I am not optimistic. There are numerous laws about how to behave when approaching and passing. Plus our municipalities forbid horn blowing as threats or scolds, reserving them as simple warnings for imminent crashes.

In cities like Boston where the constabulary favors the no-blood-no-ticket guideline, I can’t see cops ticketing dummies who blow the horn when the proper response would be to slow for a few seconds. I long ago got over thinking this was about cyclists. When I spin or drive, I see and hear the blowers do the same to slower vehicles and walkers, even those in crosswalks with the STOP FOR PEDESTRIAN signs.

These bozos behave as though they can’t believe someone, anyone dares to share their roads.

Probably the worst of them are those that come just to a cyclist’s rear wheel and lay on the horn. That of course is startling and could well cause a crash, perhaps even a fatality. We’d think they’d have at least that much sense, but we have to remember that someone who never had good manners taught at home and who ignores the requirements to pass at safe speed and distance and who can’t figure out when to use the brake is not, as that expression goes again, in the moment.

We can hope for enforcement and the optimist’s view that more cyclists on the road will make more drivers aware. Meanwhile, I keep a wide horizon when I cycle, as I do when I drive, and I slavishly use my side mirror.

Tags: , , , ,

Hidden Paradise II

August 7th, 2010

The return trip for the other half of the hidden Neponset marsh trails was easier. I biked to the location rather than walked.

Also, unlike the first trip to the part with the seriously hidden entrance to the DCR land, anyone can find this nature path. Oddly enough, on my first trip, two teams were playing on the ball field. No one there seemed to have any idea when I asked about a trail into the marsh. Just as well…

nepmarshesPic Click Trick: Click on the map for a larger view. Use your browser back button or keys to return.

To duplicate my trip today, head to the ball field on Ventura Street in Dorchester. It’s a short walk from the Butler stop on the Mattapan trolley or off the Neponset bike trail. Just head south (up the hill) from the stop and down a block.

Then in the southwest corner of the field, go through the two missing sections of fence onto the path. At first, it looks impassable and too overgrown. There be no dragons.

As flat as the other side is, this one has trails over rolling hills and through woods beside the marsh grasses. There are several side trails with overlooks of the Neponset and marshes. As straight as you can go on a meandering, hilly path, that is to write, heading southwest, you end up across from the Milton Yacht Club.

woodtrailA geologist would have a good tale or two here. This is differs dramatically from the next marsh over. This one has numerous puddingstone outcroppings and rich, non-saline enough soil to support brush and trees in profusion.

I understand now why the canoeing guides told us this was prime, but hidden, picnic and nature peeping territory. Both marshes are commonwealth owned, DCR managed property. As such, they are in effect public parks. That public in this case seems almost entirely limited to birders.

If my friendly abutter who led me to the secret entryway is accurate, there’s 100 acres give or take on each side. Let’s think of each as the 100 Acre Marsh, like Milne’s 100 Aker Wood, without sentient stuffed animals.

I did not wade into the vague trails directly into the marsh, southeast of the gravelly path. My previous guide said the birders show at high tide when the wading birds and raptors are in their glory. He said they wear hip boots.

However, there’s plenty to enjoy for us non-twitches as well. It’s a beautiful, if short walk, quiet woods, numerous places to sit and read poetry to each other, and nice scenery, including birds in the wet or not as wet periods.

Moreover, this set of trails does not seem to attract indolent youth. I didn’t see a single Bud LITE can or condom on the trails. It’s just you, me, the picnic basket and the egrets.