13 March 2015

Watercolor was the first technique to free the
artist from the studio because it could easily
be taken outdoors. It required no tubes, easels,
canvases, or similar implements, only a box of
paints and paper. Even today, watercolor is a
tool that frees us from the studio, our laptops,
and countless charging cables.
  -- Felix Scheinberger

I recently read "Urban Watercolor Sketching: A Guide to Drawing, Painting and Storytelling in Color."

This 156-page book by German artist Felix Scheinberger is a a "permission slip" for those who want to draw and paint the world they see without needing to go to Art School or spend years in tedious training exercises. Besides being filled with Sheinberger's lovely, whimsical watercolor illustrations, he provides gentle guidance to the reader for how to create certain effects with the medium of choice.

Scheinberger encourages the reader to see the whole world as a studio, and to eschew the perfectionism that typically limits the progress many beginners will make. Thankfully, the paperback format is lightweight enough to be able to tuck the book into a bag and keep it close for reference, and the reproduction of Scheinberger's sketches is superb -- readers get a good feel for how he achieves certain techniques with his brushes, pens and pencils. Thanks to this book, I now average three sketches in my travels every day, and several people have told me in admiring terms that many of them are "frameworthy."

Scheinberger does a great job of opening new avenues of expression for budding (and experienced) artists of all ages.

Excuse me. My fingers are itchy and my sketchbook awaits.


27 January 2014

"Nothing ever goes away until it has
 taught us what we need to know."
   - Pema Chodron

My beautiful, healthy, loving seven-year-old silver tabby cat, Shiva, died a minute or two before midnight on Saturday night. 

He died while putting my husband to bed, an activity he enjoyed and did for both of us no matter what the hour. I wasn't in the bed, or the room, when Death came for Shiva. From the next room over, sitting at my husband's computer, I could hear the usual sounds of their nightly ritual. I heard a cough, as if Shiva was hacking up a hairball. And then I heard wailing and crying. 

One minute, everything was perfectly normal; the next, nothing was normal. I don't know what caused the coughing, and I don't know how a healthy young cat could drop like a stone, dying in seconds. We tried to revive him, but without success. 

We haven't slept since. Our lives have been disrupted in a way we'd not anticipated. The house is now too quiet, the rooms all too small to hold our grief. Our surviving cat, Mimi, close to Shiva's age, has been alternating between demanding attention from us, and hunting everywhere for his buddy. None of us feels right, and we can't really talk about it yet.

I am reminded of Sara Henderson Hays's poem. It will have to do for now, though, because I haven't the words to express my sorrow. I think Pema Chodron was wrong--I had much, much more to learn from my silk-furred little friend.

Poem to a Dead Kitten
Put the rubber mouse away,
Pick the spools up from the floor,
What was velvet shod, and gay,
Will not want them, any more.

What was warm, is strangely cold.
Whence dissolved the little breath?
How could this small body hold
So immense a thing as Death?

Sara Henderson Hay

04 October 2013

This is my first week as an American citizen. 
It's amazing. Now I can vote in the 
general election -- and for American Idol.
  -Craig Ferguson 

This thing of casting votes for "the lesser of two evils" has always struck me as both disingenuous and futile. 

Seriously, what's wrong with us that we are not asking people who have a real willingness to serve (other than just themselves) to run for elective offices? As far as I can see, once Citizens United passed, all hope for elections based on truth just vanished. It's all about who can tell the biggest lies, make the most outrageous and pandering promises, or create the most frightening or jingoistic advertisements and speeches who will win -- and all of those things are facilitated by cash.

To hear some people talk about voting, you'd think they were calling in for American Idol or America's Got Talent. If voting could be done from the comfort of the couch using a cell phone, a lot more people would surely cast ballots ("Great look, but the delivery was pitchy," or "Nobody can out-sing her," or "that was a great performance, and he's gotten so much better"). Where are the discussions about education, health, human welfare in the Great Society? When did we as a nation stop caring about our neighbors, and decide we should just hand over all our controls and wealth to corporations and billionaires?

We need to pay better attention to the money trails as they appear, and we need to ask ourselves seriously if we're up to the challenges of living in a Constitutional republic where representational democracy is the rule of the land. The wake-up call is before us right now.

What will we do with this opportunity?

I'd like to think we're not so short-sighted as to forget what's happened, or so blinded by ideology we cannot set aside labels and look directly at what's going on and hold those who are tearing the nation apart accountable and liable for what they are doing to us. They're hurting the weak, the hungry, the poor, the sick, the elderly.

And they're glad that they're doing it.

Remember this the next time you head to the polls to vote. Vote for people of principle and dedication, rather than these narcissistic, dangerous fanatics. And please, please, please, use your vote to express rational self-interest for yourself and our country.

Excuse me. It's time to change our regularly scheduled programs.

11 January 2013

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,
shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon
probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and
particularly describing the place to be searched, and the
persons or things to be seized.
     - U.S. Constitution, 4th Amendment

Last night ended badly.

I've had what can likely best be described as an up-close and personal experience with the emerging totalitarian state in this nation. As I have been diligent and careful in recent years about letting myself be in situations and locations where I am likely to encounter police and military intervention, the sudden appearance of a swarm of armed men and dogs in my vicinity was shocking.

I'd gone to visit friends in New Jersey for a few days. They live in a prosperous, peaceful suburban community not far from the coast, the kind of place that makes you appreciate Mom, the flag and apple pie. I'd taken the bus from Boston to Newark, the NJ Transit from Newark to a nearby town. I like riding the buses and trains -- I have plenty of leg room, the seats are comfortable, the drivers and conductors are pleasant, and the prices are far less than what you'd pay for air travel.

I've been boycotting air travel for more than two years since the TSA took over the airports. I do not believe that privately owned airports and airplanes are "rights-free" zones. I refuse to willingly extend any of my resources, including the air I breathe, to support or subsidize what I consider gross infringements of my personal liberties and rights as a citizen. When you factor in the additional time required by the TSA rigamarole and security theater into the trip, there's really no difference between ground and air travel. It's a no-brainer.

At every step of the way, I was treated with courtesy. I produced my ticket at the gate, the bus driver checked it, and welcomed me aboard. On the train, the conductor smiled and whistled as he collected tickets. The passengers who rode with me were similarly welcomed.

Four days later, I again boarded the train and headed north. Same simple steps, same welcoming from both conductors and drivers. On the bus, most passengers dozed, listened to personal music players or quietly chatted. It all felt perfectly normal, right up to the moment we pulled into the bus station in Boston.

The driver opened the door and as we stood to collect our belongings and put on coats, a young man in a hoodie and jeans, his hair slicked back and closely cropped, jumped aboard. He shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs Administration. This bus has been randomly selected for a training exercise with our drug-sniffing dogs. You will remain aboard the bus until we unload the baggage compartment and our dogs will inspect the bags to see if they detect any traces of drugs or narcotics. We appreciate your cooperation." From the middle of the bus, standing in the aisle, I strained to see the agent. He was holding a big wallet with a gold badge in his left hand, waving it a little as he spoke. His announcement ended, he exited the bus.

We all stared out the windows and watched for what seemed quite a long time as similarly dressed men, many of them looking like drug dealers themselves, unloaded luggage from the storage compartment and then led the dogs around the bags surrounding the bus. Nobody inside the bus spoke. 

Not even me. 

Eventually, the young man with the slicked-back hair jumped onto the bus again and announced, "You will now exit the bus slowly and singly, and this will conclude our exercise. The Bureau thanks you for your cooperation in keeping the city of Boston free from drugs." He unlatched the plexiglas door that had prevented our exit, and dismounted. One by one, we slowly dismounted, collected our bags, and walked into the terminal. By the time I got off the bus, the agents and dogs were gone, nowhere to be seen. 

And no way to ask any questions.

I noted that the hapless bus driver stood to the side of the bus, his head down, not looking at the passengers as we disembarked. He did not wish us a good night, or a pleasant stay in our arrival destination. It was 11:15 pm, and we had been detained by more than half an hour.

As I made my way through the bus station to the street below, with each step my outrage increased. Under whose authority and with what warrant of probable cause did those agents have the right to detain us or search our belongings? A warrantless search, then -- what if they'd actually discovered drugs or narcotics? Without probable cause, would they have had the right to confiscate them, or arrest the person who possessed them?

When the TSA settled itself and its security theatrics in the airports, people who objected to their presence were told, "If you don't like it, don't fly." Their argument was that flying was not a right, and when you bought a ticket, you entered an agreement with the airline that you had to do what they told you to do. I believed then, and still do, that when rights are inalienable, that means they can't be separated from you -- by the very definition of the word inalienable. Your rights are your rights, and they are part and parcel of you. You can't sign them away, give them away and they can't be taken from you as a matter of simple course.

Yet the thirty-five or so people on the bus were subjected to an infringement by government-sanctioned agents of our Constitutional rights in the middle of the night, for the purposes of an "exercise," without warrant, without probable cause, without warning.

Welcome to the police state that we always thought "can't happen here." I've got news for you -- it can, and it has.

Excuse me. I've got a bunch of letters and complaints to file with my duly elected representatives and the people in charge of the private property on which this government assault on my 4th amendment rights occurred. If I don't speak out against this, nothing will ever change.


26 December 2012

The charm of history and its enigmatic
lesson consist in the fact that, from
age to age, nothing changes and yet
everything is completely different. 
   —Aldous Huxley

I just read a report in the Motley Fool's website about the Netflix outage over the holidays. According to the report, the streaming video service had a catastrophic failure on Christmas Eve. At fault was Amazon's Web Services unit, which Netflix uses as the storage and delivery vehicle for its videos. The outage lasted more than seven hours and affected Netflix streaming video customers in North and South America.

Somebody should ask all the people who hoped to enjoy an evening of holiday movies with family and friends how much they enjoyed the change in their plans. Ask them while you're at it how they feel about centralized controls over their viewing options.

Thirty years ago, I worked for a software company that created a 4th generation relational database management system (RDBMS). Anyone who works with databases will tell you that they suck up resources like nobody's business. Once the data is loaded into the database, the sheer volume of information requires extraordinary amounts of storage. Back then, in the days before personal computers, the cost of storage was expensive, usually prohibitively so. The data center at our little company occupied 8,000 square feet of prime real estate. We filled the space with Prime, Data General, IBM, Honeywell, Harris and DEC mini-mainframes, system printers, switches, routers, miles of cables and wires, and banks of gigantic tape decks. The amount of heat such a collection generated was considerable, so there were matching Liebert cooling units stationed at either end of the center. The monthly utility bills were always thousands of dollars.

But somewhere along the line, a genius in IBM's accounting office concocted a great plan for reducing the cost of computing for their customers. Instead of sending equipment and support out to customer sites, why not have the customers subscribe to an offering that would give them equal access to the equipment and services they needed, without actually having to lease or own them? Think of the savings if customers didn't have to support a full data center -- no more expensive computer administrators required, no more expensive machines that needed arctic cooling and unending supplies of electricity, no more paying for idle time and unused CPU cycles -- truly, a CFO's wet dream. They called it "time-sharing."

IBM put together gigantic data centers and marketed them to small and medium-sized businesses all over the country. My company signed up; we had three big IBM minis in our data center. Our CEO was anxious to jump on board as fast as he could, anxious to begin realizing the promised savings. If the experience was as good as what they promised, he'd do the same for the other computers in our data center and shut our operation down.

Six months later, we all felt he'd jumped aboard the Titanic, just before it met up with the iceberg.

Transitioning the data from our data center to IBM's was a Sisyphean chore. After two full months of churning, in desperation, we made the decision to shut down the IBM computers in our data center and physically ship them to IBM, where their administrators could migrate the data from our machines to theirs.

Once the data was transferred, IBM sent trainers to our company to familiarize us with our new service. After a week, three senior programmers resigned, declaring they'd rather be unemployed than tethered to IBM's rigid, hide-bound practices. One thing I know for sure is that creative people hate being constrained, and at that time, IBM was all about operating procedures, rules, and limitations.

Then came the actual implementation. In order to use the IBM service, we discovered we weren't going to be able to access the services from our own offices. We had to travel to Needham, where IBM had created a "service center" in partnership with a local company only too glad to collect rent from them for the privilege of letting IBM's customers sit in assigned tiny cubicles for pre-specified times of day. We had to be verified as legitimate users, authenticated as having the right to access our own data, and monitored completely to ensure that we were performing actual company-sponsored work, rather than simply stealing IBM's vast computing resources.

The indignities didn't end there, however. We had to pay extra for hardcopy of what we were working on, but we couldn't have printouts unless they were pre-approved by both our company's management and IBM's data management administrators. Because our CEO was really focused on savings, he'd arranged for us to have "non-prime" hours. This meant we could have access to our data services between midnight and seven a.m.

I assure you, technical writers, release coordinators and support technicians do not appreciate being called to duty on the graveyard shift. We lost a bunch of them. Needless to say, our IBM-based customers weren't thrilled to learn that they couldn't get answers to questions or issues in anything approximating a timely fashion. We lost some of them, too.

Before the grand experiment ended, we'd said goodbye to several valuable long-time employees and a few disgruntled customers who headed off to our competitor (at that time, another little RDBMS company called Oracle). Our relationship with IBM was in snarling tatters, a situation made worse when we had to threaten them with legal action if they didn't transfer our data back onto our leased/owned machines and ship everything back to us.

We ended up right where we started, but poorer and a lot wiser. Our CEO admitted it was the worst tactical error he'd made in his then-lengthy career. He predicted that a time would come when people would recognize the limitations of centralized computing and demand full control over their data and resources. He said that nobody in his right mind would want mission-critical applications and data on remote servers where security and availability could not be guaranteed.

He predicted, rightly, the advent of personal computing.

But here we are, all these years later, and "time-sharing" has transformed into "the cloud." It's all tarted up with new terminology, but essentially it's the same as it ever was.

And now all the Netflix customers have gotten to experience the downside and the emptiness of the "uptime" promises first-hand. Welcome to the wonderland of cloud computing, folks.

Excuse me. I'm late for the only "time-share" I like, which is a seat in the theater where I'll watch a great film and not worry about whether it'll stop in the middle.

25 December 2012

One person's craziness is
another person's reality.
   - Tim Burton

Twenty years ago, a good friend of mine moved to Texas. She'd been hired by Compaq, then an independent, growing hardware manufacturer, to manage their booming training and technical support organization. She was a New Englander, through and through, and when she made the decision to accept Compaq's generous offer, I expressed my misgivings.

The people there are different from us, I said. I told her stories about my own experiences with them -- how blunt and crude some of them could be with outsiders, how unwelcoming to "northerners" as a whole, and how difficult it was to connect with them, just based on what happens if you open your mouth and a Texas twang doesn't come gushing forth. She'd made up her mind, she said; she intended to take the job, make the move to the Lone Star state and adapt to the new way of life. She assured me she could make a go of it, and she'd do whatever it took.

Several months after her move, I asked her how she felt about her decision.

"It's terrific," she said. "Everyone's been really nice, and I even go with them after work to target shooting practice." This, from a woman who hated guns, war and violence. I laughed, then asked when she'd joined the dark side.

"No, really, RB -- I go to the range every Friday after work with the women in my department. It's fun, and then after, we go out for pizza and beer."

"Did you buy a weapon?"

"No, I borrow a pistol from one of the girls -- she's got a few, so she lets me use one of hers. I just have to buy the ammo."

I felt giddy, in that way you can when the world rocks in its orbit. "And you think that shooting this pistol is a good time?" 

"Oh, yeah. I wear my goggles and earplugs, and I button up my shirt, all the way to my neck and at the wrists..."

"Wait. You button your shirt? What does that have to do with anything?"

"They have this law now. A couple years ago, some woman was at a mom-and-pop shooting range with an automatic weapon, and you know how they keep shooting as long as you've got the trigger pulled?" I didn't know, and encouraged her to continue the story. "Well, this woman was quite buxom, and the top two buttons of her shirt were open. She squeezed off a round and the shell flipped out backward and landed down the front of her shirt and into her bra."

"Oh, no." God forgive me, I started laughing.

She went on. "Well, you know, the shells are really hot, and this one was burning her pretty good. The problem was, she was still holding the gun, and she squeezed the trigger. She was jumping around trying to get the hot shell out of her bra, and she was firing all over the place."

"Was anyone hurt?"

"Oh, yeah. She killed the owner, and she wounded a bunch of people who were there. That's why they passed the law."

"What law?"

"That you have to button your shirt up to the neck and down to the wrists."

"Be careful, will you?"

After our conversation, I thought about what she'd told me. A non-pathological response to carnage on the order of what she'd described would be to shut down the shooting ranges and forbid ownership of the weapons that could fire even if you didn't plan on it. But Texas, being full of Texans, had a different response, which forever clarifies (for me, at least) the mindset of the people who live there. Instead of rational gun control that could prevent a massacre, they passed a law requiring women to button their shirts.

Excuse me. I need to buy some button futures for the coming apocalypse.

20 December 2012

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
   - from The Hollow Men, by T.S. Eliot

My sister called me this morning. She was brimming with good humor, laughing over a news item she'd recently read that she wanted to share with me. When she finished her story and I offered appreciative laughter over the punchline, she added, "Oh, and I wanted to talk with you one last time before the world ends."

She and I have had several conversations over the past couple of years about the "Mayan Calendar" prophecy -- you know, the one where the ancient Mayans supposedly knew when the last moment of earth was going to arrive, and in their infinite wisdom decided to not waste the carver's time in recording anything beyond that fateful date -- but she's never given me any indication before today that she might have been seriously believing the world was about to wink out of existence. Incredulous, I asked, "You believe this?"

"No," she answered. "I think it's ridiculous. People have lost their minds. You won't see me building a survival pod under my house. Forget about the 25% of us who are supposed to be insane -- I think the number's closer to 80%."

We talked a bit about the various doomsday preppers and the wingnuts who are running around panicked today, and surmised how stupid they're going to feel when they wake up the day after tomorrow and realize they were mistaken. I told her I would be very interested to see if there is a spike in consumer lending, based on the wrong-headed notion that the loans wouldn't need repayment. And I asked her if she planned to celebrate the holiday tonight, or were they going to wait until after the end of the world.

She said, "Oh, we'll just wait until after the world ends. Much less hassle, that way." She added, "Besides, he's still on the river. Will be, until Sunday." The "he" she mentioned is my brother-in-law.

Great. So the world's ending, and she won't even get a decent kiss goodbye.

After the call, I sat thinking. I've got a miserable cold, replete with cough, fever and bone-breaking muscle aches. My husband has one, too. We've taken up residence in separate bedrooms so as to not pass the colds back and forth, or keep one another awake with the all-night coughing and hacking. Neither of us feels like eating or cooking. We look like hell and sound like it, too. 

I'd like to think that if the world's about to end, I'd be able to muster up a better front for facing it, and that we'd at least go hand-in-hand together, as we have traveled most of our lives. So tonight, no matter what else, I'm sleeping in our bed, spooned up against the beating heart of the man I have loved these many years.

The conversation also raised a question. If this really was the world's last day, what should I be doing, and who do I need to see? I came to the conclusion that I'm doing the right thing by writing now; that those who I hold in my heart know they are there; that in not losing my hope that I will awaken the day after tomorrow, I am remaining fully human.

Excuse me. I have to tidy my house before the apocalypse hits it.