Category Archives: blather

Can’t spell ‘transition’ without ‘transit’

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After a few years of hardly any work-related travel (with
occasional bursts of driving activity down the Taconic), I’m suddenly a
bag-dragging road warrior. Except I hate the road and my cars are both above
the magic 100,000 mile mark (my first ever to make it that far with severe
electrical or psychological crises), so in fact I’ve become more of a rail
warrior. All of a sudden, I’m once again all about the public transit.

The new job, as close as it is, is still a longer commute
than my home office was. It requires me to shave every day, too, which is much
more of a sacrifice than the short commute to downtown. However, having left
the State system for a number of years, a parking spot downtown is not in the
cards. Pending layoffs won’t do it – people would have to die in droves before
I could move up the parking queue, and I’m out of town so much that I probably
wouldn’t pay for parking if I could get it. So that puts me back on the bus.

I got around by city bus for years in Syracuse, and kept that
up when I moved to Albany. Even across the river, our house is two blocks from
a bus stop. But the first time I had to stand around downtown Albany with a
vomiting baby, waiting for a rare mid-day bus to carry me back to Rensselaer
County, that was pretty much the end of public transit for my commute Between
that and a job that knew no regular hours, the bus just didn’t work.

Now it does. And so does the train to Wilmington. And the
Wilmington Trolley. And the train to Philadelphia. And the subway, and the Norristown
High Speed Line. And hotel shuttles. And good old-fashioned walking. Yes, I’m
beholden to the vagaries of Amtrak and the likelihood of hot track action, but
the delays are a lot less frequent than they are driving the Thruway or I-95.

And when you’re not driving, you really get to see things. People, buildings, architectural details, the splendor of the Hudson river, the
surprising persistence of the Meadowlands, the awful ass-end of industrial New
Jersey and Delaware. Everything from unspeakable beauty to razor wire and

I want to add the bike to my commuting habits, but the need
to drag my laptop and clothes and lunch and everything else is proving to be a
drag on my initiative, as desperately as I need the miles. All this traveling
is cutting seriously into wheel time, and something must be done, but I need
big depanniers and the will to haul them up the hills at a modest pace that won’t
leave me arriving at work bathed in sweat. (My last job had both a secure bike
lockup AND showers. I was spoiled.)

So about the only way I’m not getting around these days, at
least for work purposes, is by car. I’m pretty pleased with that. (Of course,
as I write that, the train is coming to a slow crawl that will give me plenty
of time to ponder the mightiness of the Hudson and how long it would take me to
paddle up it from here to home.)

The latest trend in spam

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I don’t know why, but comments spam on my site has gone from viagra/cialis malware misdirection and the usual assortment of gibberish to incredibly longwinded pastes of senseless articles about Windows 7. I don’t get why volume is considered a good thing here — it’s mostly longer than any comments system would allow, and who’s going to even be able to scroll through it to get to the suspicious link? I could handle the spam, and don’t mind cleaning up 20-30 comments a day for the one or two legitimate comments I get a month (most of my feedback comes through Facebook, not here). But now it has become so cumbersome, the individual messages have become so long that scrolling through them is taking up serious time. So for a while, I’m going to shut off comments. If you’re my friend on Facebook, try me there, or if you want to say something, locate my email address on the site. But for a while, anyway, we’re going comment-free.

Cutting the cord

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Title card for NBC, promoting their broadcast ...

Image via Wikipedia

Cable TV was just one of those things that snuck up on me and became entangled in my life, kind of like ivy. While I’ve always loved television, it wasn’t until the early ’90s that we even had a color TV, and someone had to die for us to get that (a bequest of sorts, not a violent Sony-jacking, I assure you). We had cable off and on in the ’80s and then not again until we had kids, when we convinced ourselves that a little basic cable would be a good thing. People say they don’t use TV as a babysitter? They don’t know what they’re missing out on.

Then we got the high-speed internet, and upgrading beyond what they called “broadcast basic” was pretty cheap, so we did. Then we got into bicycle racing, which was showing only on the digital channels, which meant an upgrade to digital cable. Then we realized we were spending an unnecessary fortune on telephone service when it would be essentially free if we added it to our cable package, so we did. And suddenly, we’re entwined.

But that was fine. There was science on the Science Channel, History on the History Channel, movies on the various movie channels. Plenty to see. And then reality tv started taking over the earth, and mission creep became the byword of the day. The Independent Film Channel started producing TV shows and not showing so many movies. The History Channel started showing reality shows about junk shops. And there were f’ing Kardashians everywhere. I found myself spending more time finding something to watch than actually watching it. The DVR was one of the greatest inventions in the history of communications, but still . . . I was paying a lot for very little content I wanted to watch.

Through all those years, we’d had very very good service from Time Warner. Then this winter something weird happened, and we stopped getting a whole bunch of channels. Randomly. They’d go, then they’d come back. We changed boxes. We had three service calls that made no difference whatsoever. We were told our problem was going up to some magical higher problem-solving level (and that we wouldn’t be billed while we didn’t have service). Nothing happened, and we got accustomed to not having the cable available. I experimented with Netflix and Hulu Plus, and found pretty much everything I could want to find there, and the rest is available from the iTunes store.

Then we figured out that there were pretty much only 302 people who called us on our home phone: my mother, her father, and 300 telemarketers who ignore the “do not call” registry. So we were paying in the neighborhood of $50 a month for phone service we barely used — three out of the four of us had cellphones, and for $5 a month more, we could make that an even four out of four.

How did we get Time-Warner to finally fix our service? We decided if it wasn’t resolved by date certain, we were cancelling. When we said that to the service department, it made no difference. When we called the billing department to cancel the service, suddenly we had action. And suddenly the problem that had vexed everyone was fixed with just one more visit. But by then, we were off the junk, and really didn’t want to go back on. So we called again to arrange cancellation, and they offered to take $90 off our $150 monthly bill. Very generous? Well, maybe so. But it just pissed us off more than we had been paying way more than was necessary for years, if they were willing to give us such a dramatic reduction just because we threatened to cut the cord. So rather than mollifying us, it maddened us, and that was it: no more cable.

Not to say it was super-obvious. We were without Netflix or Hulu on the TV for the weeks that the Playstation Network was out of service, which was maddening. In the end, we decided to keep our home phone number we’d had for more than 20 years and transfer it to one of our cell phones, so we didn’t end up resolving the telemarketing problem and it took a couple of weeks of gyrations to make that transfer work.

We’re still trying to work out how to interface with the computer’s library, deciding if we’re going to go with AppleTV (which would require us to buy a new TV) or some other solution. But we’ll be able to afford a shiny new TV in a very short time with what we save on the cable and phone bill every month.

G’bye, cable! Time to disentwine.

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I’ve got an idea forming in my head

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One man band dressed as a jester. CDV by Knox ...

Image via Wikipedia

And that feels good. My several years’ sojourn of being a lone gun / jack of all trades / one man band / just a few teeth above a carnie is at an end. Life as a consultant had its moments, but it all relied on what I already knew, information that I could dole out in little chunks of billable hours. Now that I’m an organization man again, I can focus on knowing something and knowing it well. But first I’ve got to learn it, and there’s a LOT to learn. Learning curve? It’s the learning Mur de Huy. (Especially appropriate, if you know the Fleche Wallone, because while it’s not the steepest climb in the world, riders have to climb it three times in the spring classic.) But climb it I will, and it’s really nice to be learning again.

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Things I’ve learned

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CJ with cropping tool

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

I started working odd jobs when I was about 13, had my first real job at 17, worked all the way through college (which, by the way, was a stupid idea), and, other than one summer after graduate school when I only had temp work, never had a moment’s break between jobs since 1977. I always said I needed a break, I just didn’t know the economy would deliver me such a resounding break. After a startup I joined lost its financing, and with employment opportunities in my area extraordinarily slim, I got my break. There’s been consulting work, but there’s also been a lot of free time, time to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to do. Now, after a break of a few years, I’m going back to regular fulltime work, and glad to be doing it, but I’ve definitely learned some things about myself.

One is that I really don’t need to work. The son of a truck driver, from a working class family, I had the work ethic drilled into me. But you know what? Going to a job every day is not necessarily rewarding in and of itself, and there is plenty to do when you’re not going to an office or jobsite. I got to write, to do some research projects, to improve some skills. I got to spend serious time with my daughters every day when they got home from school. I was god’s gift to the high school bake sale. And I got to do a lot of driving to appointments and helping with a family move.

Another thing I learned is that I’m going to be about the athlete that I am. (Though I think I knew that anyway). I’m not going to get out every day, and I’m not going to get out in every kind of weather. Despite the fact that I could get out just about any time I wanted, and that I have never regretted a bike ride, I still only got out when things lined up, when the weather felt right (which doesn’t always mean sunny and warm), when my body felt right, and when I didn’t feel pressure to get back by a certain time. I learned that sometimes spokes break and leave you stranded. I learned that sometimes tires explode; that can be exciting.

I finally learned to cook decently. My knives are very, very sharp. A fair amount of vinyl was digitized, but I also figured out I’m not getting rid of the vinyl. I learned that there is no end to the amount of little projects around that house that I always wanted to get to that I still never quite finished — no end of pictures to scan, tools to repair, spaces to organize. It turns out they’re really not a priority.

I already knew that I had some amazing friends, and I’ll never be able to thank them enough for their support through these past few years.

And now, back to work.

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I need a reset button

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This morning’s recipe for disaster:

  • Just-cleared sink drain completely clogged again
  • Need to fill gas tank
  • Find out I’ve forgotten my wallet
  • Realize I have a flat tire
  • Tire gauge is not in the car
  • Spare tire gauge really doesn’t work with these wheels
  • Street I need to be on is closed.

Park & Shop

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park and shop board segment.jpgJust by chance, a post on another blog caught my eye a few weeks back and brought back memories long since forgotten of a simple board game that, when I was a child, seemed magical and inspiring.

It was a Milton Bradley game called Park & Shop. There were a couple of different versions, and the one I had came out sometime in the 1960s. The board was a decidedly un-modern (now) city, in which every shopping need could be met in a few nicely arranged city blocks. In a way, it was the simplest of games: You got a tiddlywink, a plastic car, and a plastic man. Put your tiddlywink on one of the homes on the board – that was now your home. Pull a card, which would tell you where you needed to go to shop: furs, shoe repair, drug store. Roll the dice and move your car along the street spaces, trying to reach your destination. Along the way, you might get a parking ticket, which would give you another destination: “Pick up a sack of chicken feed while you have the car. Drive to hay, grain and feed.”

Once you got to your destination, you would put your plastic man in the store and roll the dice for what you had to pay. I don’t remember how many destinations you had to get to, or how you won in the end, and it never really mattered. The fun of the play was that it was amazingly like real life at the time, like a fun little trip around the city with Mom. I played this game for, oh, a million hours when I was a kid. Sometimes with my mom, sometimes with my aunt, sometimes even with other kids.

And it was a city that had everything, but cities did back then. There was a hay, grain and feed and a lumber yard, an auto dealer, a coal yard. There was a bowling alley, a newspaper and, that most downtown of downtown stores, the nut shop. There was a linoleum and wallpaper shop, a smoke shop, a 5&10, and a fish market. This city had everything, all just blocks from your home. There were, of course, multiples of some things, like diners and gas stations, which could affect how far you had to travel to meet your next objective. And for every store on the board, I could picture a real store in my mind. I knew the hardware store, the luggage store, the poultry shop. I knew the smell of the smoke shop from the street, the bare bulbs strung along the auto dealer’s lot, the sound of the drug store lunch counter. Playing the game was just like a trip downtown.

park and shop board segment3.jpgCoolest of all, to my child’s mind, were the stores with two entrances. Unthinkable in the big box era, it was much more common then for a store to have a back entrance which often opened onto a side street or alley. (Our A&P had four or five registers at the front door, and two more by the back door – though the back registers didn’t have grinders for the 8 O’Clock Coffee.) Inexplicably, there always seemed to be something special, perhaps familiar, about using the back entrance – it seemed to say, “We come here all the time.” And this board captured that, with a stores that could be entered from different streets. And, if it helped you in the game, you could go out the other entrance, skipping several spaces.  To me, this seemed unspeakably real.
Props to Anne Chudobiak for this post that jogged my memory and expressed a similar love of the game, and to Board Game Geek for filling in the blanks.

What set this all off? These enchanting paintings of board game boxes by Tim Liddy. Click on “Present Work” to set off all kinds of memories.

Certainly doesn’t

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Certainly Cures Cancer 1895.png

Oh, how we used to laugh at the generations that came before us, falling for these ridiculous patent medicines and cure-alls. How could they have been so simple? Who would believe that going to Dr. Vines for his Vegetable Concoction would be the way to treat cancer?

Well, our forebears should be laughing at us, because we have vastly increased scientific knowledge, incredible medicines, and a couple of centuries of know-better, and yet now is the Golden Age of Charlatanism. Thousands of people are choosing to endanger their children and society because a blond bimbo believes that vaccines cause autism. People who know absolutely nothing of how many people used to die from food poisoning are characterizing government as jackbooted thuggery because it wants to ensure that milk is pasteurized. People are at once convinced that pesticides cause every cancer under the sun and that DDT should be brought back to deal with bedbugs.

When I was growing up in the Space Age, science and knowledge were revered. We believed in advancing knowledge using the scientific method, and improving our world as a result. Now, through a bizarre combination of “question authority” (reinterpreted as “always doubt authority”), religion-based blinders and a popular and political culture that is proud of idiocy, we are turning progress on its head, rejecting solutions our somewhat more sane forebears would have killed for, and believing that the desire and belief of the individual now completely overrides the needs of society. I really can’t figure out how we got from there to here, how we have embraced both an absolute lack of personal responsibility, where someone else must be at fault for everything that happens to us, and an absolute right to having each personal opinion indulged. But I do know that here — a place where people think that it’s their own personal choice to have or not have diphtheria or mumps or measles, and if we have a few deadly outbreaks, what’s the big deal? — is not a place I want to be.

Laugh if you will at the folks of days gone by who might have tried Dr. Vines’s C.C.C elixir — but they didn’t have any better options. We do. Let’s stop choosing to be stupid.

Still having school nightmares

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I am half a century old. It is time to stop having school anxiety nightmares. Last night’s was a doozy – forced to go back to school, I was faced with a two-hour essay exam. In my backpack were dozens of pads, each one completely filled with writing, and I had nothing to write my essay on. The teacher had no more paper. I started freaking out. I left to wander the halls, hoping to pop my head into a room and get some paper from a teacher, out of a printer, anything. No one could help, no printers could be found. One offered me 3×5 cards, which were all individually wrapped in plastic. The front office secretary assumed I was there for detention and curtly told me to come back at 3:45. She wouldn’t listen to my question, just kept repeating the time to be there. In the hall in front of the office were displays with dozens of student projects, all handwritten reports in pads and notebooks. I started rifling through them, hoping to find some blank pages to remove. Not a one. Every pad was filled. Now I had wasted half an hour out of the 2 hour exam and didn’t see how I could possibly finish the exam. Eventually I found what seemed like the social services office, where there was some kind of student-parent drama going on but a very helpful counselor offered me some of their paper. Now I had to worry about whether I could find my way back to the classroom in this unfamiliar school.

So I was glad when I woke up to the beginnings of the blizzard. Told Hannah my dream, and she was surprised that I still had school anxiety dreams (seems like it never stops), and helpfully suggested I look for printers. “I tried that! There were no printers to be found!”