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.


18 December 2012

The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, 
millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, 
carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, 
in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can 
be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.  
     – Gary Wills, from “Our Moloch”

I think that gun control matters. The issue has become vastly complex and vexing because of individual interpretations of what constitutes “civil liberty” and a personal reading of the 2nd Amendment.

The 2nd Amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That’s all. No qualifiers, no conditions, no explanations other than what is offered in the single sentence.

I would point out that the first four words, “A well regulated Militia,” are the most overlooked words in the Amendment, and the last four words, “shall not be infringed,” are the most cited. The argument is that in order to meet the necessary level of security in a free State, there must be a well regulated Militia, and for it to properly function, the people must be allowed to keep and bear Arms. The conclusion is that in order to sustain the necessary security for the free State, the government may not infringe upon this right of the people to keep and bear Arms.

I keep going back to the first four words. Where is the “well regulated Militia” referenced in the amendment? At the time the Amendment was passed (1791), the USA did not have a standing military, the way we now do — if invaders showed up on our shores, the only way to protect ourselves was for every able-bodied, trained person to take up Arms and join the fight to defend our freedom. The colonists thought of themselves as primarily peace-loving, and made the conscious choice to not fund a standing army in times of peace. Now, however, we can scarcely imagine not having a standing army, navy, air force, and marines, along with whatever special forces and weapon-bearing alphabet-soup agencies we can underwrite.

I submit that we ought to be looking at the intent, and legislating accordingly. If the people are to keep and bear Arms as a “well regulated Militia,” then by all means, let’s invest in the regulating and training that goes with it, and get rid of the standing forces. We don’t need them if we can call on all citizens to take up their Arms and go into battle. On the other hand, if we think we need those standing armies, then why do the citizens need to keep and bear arms, if they aren’t a “well regulated Militia?”

I don't think we can have it both ways. Do you?

Excuse me. I have to write notes of condolence to the families of the 26 people who were mowed down in the Sandy Hook, Connecticut elementary school.


17 December 2012

Our Moloch

The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, 
millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, 
carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, 
in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can 
be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence. 
     – Gary Wills, from “Our Moloch”

My husband, who has a history of heart problems, called my cell phone last month and left a message while I was having coffee with an old friend. "I don't know when you're planning to be home, but when you come up the street, don't be worried. There may be police cars and fire trucks in front of the house, but it's okay. They're not here because of me, they're here to help Jane (names are all changed)." Jane, my neighbor down the street, is a good friend.

I drove home faster than usual, my stomach in a knot. When I arrived, the street was normal, the driveway empty. I rushed inside, and found my husband sitting in the kitchen. I asked what happened.

He told me that Jane had arrived an hour earlier, breathless and shaking, having run from her house all the way up the hill to ours, hoping she'd be safer with us than at home.

Two months earlier, her 28-year-old son Joey moved back into her home until he could find a place of his own. Joey has a history of mental illness, a diagnosis of adolescent-onset paranoid schizophrenia. Joey does not hold jobs for very long, and hates his medication as it stifles his "creative edge." Jane wasn't happy about Joey's return home, but she didn't want him wandering the streets homeless.

On the day in question, she'd been talking with Joey about his apparent lack of a plan to find work and she questioned him about whether or not he was taking his meds.

His fury was instantaneous. He destroyed the kitchen cabinets and drawers and threw all the contents around the room, all the while screaming that he "could kill her."

She backed away through the dining room, toward the front door, Joey following and gesticulating wildly.

Jane managed to get outside. Joey, taller, faster, younger and stronger, caught her by the back of her shirt, ripping it at the shoulder. He held fast and tried to drag her back into the house. Jane dropped to the pavement and went limp before he could haul her back inside. He'd screamed, "I'll kill you with this cup!" and hurled a heavy ceramic mug he'd been holding at her head as she lay on the ground. It narrowly missed her and shattered. He ran back into the house, presumably to get another, more effective weapon.

As soon as he was out of sight, she'd jumped up and ran, terrified, to my house, where my husband was home to help. He'd brought her inside, calmed her and called the police.

Armed, wary, the police team made its way down the block. One officer returned to report that they'd found Joey sitting on the family room sofa, watching television, perfectly calm. The officer said that everything in the kitchen was "orderly," and the only sign of a disturbance was a single kitchen cabinet with its door missing. The police called the hospital and had an ambulance take Joey away. The officer asked Jane to sign a complaint, which she did without hesitation. Jerry, her husband, arrived shortly after this to go with her to the hospital.

Joey spent a week in a psychiatric care facility, went back on his meds, and was released after the psychologists determined he wasn't a threat. Jane and Jerry paid for a housekeeping hotel room until they could find an apartment they could afford for Joey. I gave Jane a key to my house; we now have a "safe phrase" between us so that if she ever says it, I'll know to get immediate help. The restraining order is still in place. It makes Jane and Jerry feel safer.

Joey could be living next door to me, to you, to any of us. On a good day and in the current state of affairs, Joey wouldn't have any trouble buying a gun. Maybe even an assault-style weapon.

There are eight elementary schools in our town. Do the math.

I came home at the end of all this drama. I am thankful I missed it, and I'm thankful that my neighbors didn't have any guns in their house, or the story might have ended in a very different way.

Excuse me. I have to write a letter to my Congressman, asking her to support a ban on the sale of assault-caliber weapons to private citizens. I urge you to do the same.


21 August 2012

"Legitimate rape victims rarely get pregnant."
    - Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri)

The quote above comes to you courtesy of a man who is arguably as dumb as a stump. Or a box of rocks. Take your pick. Stupidity at the level he exhibited on Saturday during his televised interview on KTVI in St. Louis is rarely seen in the civilized world. But then, Todd Akin isn't the kind of guy to let science, history, or even human decency slow him down, is he?

Ladies, what is it going to take to convince you that casting votes for Republican incumbents and office seekers is not in your, or my, best interests?

During the first half of 2012, there was Republican-sponsored legislation introduced in twenty-two bills across thirteen states looking to mandate transvaginal ultrasounds as a requirement before permitting an abortion to occur. In Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Montana, Republicans used Oklahoma's law regarding the "ultrasound-forced view of the image-verbal description of the fetus" requirements as their model for legislation. In Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Texas and Virginia decided that the ultrasound was mandatory, but the viewing of the fetus or listening to the description of it was optional. Texas managed to get this approved by one house. Arizona tinkered with the legislation, and the governor signed the bill into action. In Arkansas and Connecticut, Republicans feel that only the ultrasound is necessary.

It's 916 pieces of legislation, ladies. Think about that. In a time when our country is at war on several foreign fronts, our economy is in the toilet, the middle class is shrinking to nothing, and education is no longer affordable or even adequate, our Republican legislators found the time to draft, sponsor, lobby and vote for 916 separate pieces of legislation that absolutely represent a declaration of war against women.

You have the right to make decisions about your own body. You have the right to maintain your privacy and dignity when it comes to your medical records and history. The decisions about whether or not you choose to carry a pregnancy to term belong ultimately to you. You also have the right to be treated like a human being. You are not a pet, or a prize pig. You are not a breeding ground for the next generation of Republicans.

Put an end to the misogyny that has infected our government. Our grandmothers fought for our rights. We have to be vigilant, informed, and recognize that this war against women has high stakes -- we must fight for our grand-daughters, and end this once and for all.

Rep. Todd Akin fired a shot across the bow that luckily didn't hit us (his aim is as bad as his science, apparently). You have the chance to fire back -- in the voting booth on election day. He's just one man, yet he's got a lot of company in his party. Senator Paul Ryan willingly co-sponsored the odious "personhood" bill; don't be fooled by the nice smile or blandishments about what's good for the country. What's good for the country has to be good for women, too, or it's a lie.

Excuse me. I'm going to just sit here and wait until I see the whites of their eyes.


14 August 2012

And now, for something
completely different..."
   - Monty Python's Flying Circus

Okay, so let’s set the record straight right now -– I am not now, nor have ever been, a fan of snakes. As one of Eve’s daughters, I naturally recoil when confronted by a slithering reminder of mankind’s fall from grace. My reaction to such encounters is invariably horror, followed by a hasty retreat that puts as much distance between me and the slithering reptile as is humanly possible.

Today, I read that a Burmese python was discovered in the Florida Everglades that makes my reaction seem fully warranted, if not actually understated. They’ve found a record-breaking snake, at 17 feet, 7 inches (5.3 meters) long, 165 pounds and nearly a foot in girth. As if that’s not sobering enough, this mammoth python is a female, carrying 87 eggs. The pythons are considered an invasive species, and now scientists are worrying that the snakes will be a danger to humans as well as other species in their vicinity.

I’d have to agree, since even reading about this beast has raised my heart rate considerably. I can only imagine what an actual encounter might do to me. The news article indicated that researchers found feathers and bones inside the snake (oh, good, it’s an ex-snake) which they’ll process to determine what its feeding habits were. I imagine that a python hauling around 87 eggs could work up quite an appetite. Birds, turtles, raccoons, opposums, fish, skunks, squirrels, dogs, cats and now humans must share their space with a large, ravenous, deadly predator. 

It’s not a thought that comforts me.

I also learned that these snakes were imported to this continent via exotic pet sellers nearly thirty years ago. I can just imagine the internal conversation the first seller had with himself:

“Whoa. Look at that thing. It must be ten feet long.”
“What if it gets loose? Is it dangerous?”
“Aww, how fast can a snake move? It’s not like it’s poisonous.”
“Somebody’s going to want to own it. I wonder how much I can get for it.”

And just like that, voila! The decision was made to bring Burmese pythons into the United States. Now, thirty years after the fact, the pythons that did get loose, either accidentally or deliberately, are thriving (many are longer than 10 feet) and reproducing at a seriously alarming rate (dozens of eggs per hatching). Brace yourself. This is what we’re up against:

Burmese Python

Excuse me. I’m off to find St. Patrick, now that we really need him.

03 August 2012

“One of the great mistakes is to judge 
policies and programs by their intentions 
rather than their results.” 
    ― Milton Friedman

Want to know what upsets me?

In the last month, Republicans spent something on the order of twenty-five million dollars on negative campaign ads. I don’t have the numbers on what the Democrats (or anyone else) spent, but I’d bet it is comparable.

Twenty-five million dollars. When we’re so accustomed to hearing our politicians discuss billions, it doesn’t sound like much, does it? However, here’s what twenty-five million dollars can buy (each item represents the full twenty-five million):

  • 52 weeks’ worth of food for 4,800 families of six;
  • 4 years of state college education for 658 students;
  • 150 houses that cost $165,000 (fully paid, no mortgage)
  • 505 30% down payments on $165,000 houses (fixed rate mortgage)
  • nearly 14,000 monthly bus passes for a whole year
  • more than 83,000 bicycles
  • about 12,500 motor scooters
  • $100 worth of shoes for 250,000 people
  • 294,000 polio vaccinations
  • 272,000 tDAP vaccinations
  • 500,000 textbooks (at $50 each)
You can do the match and double up the numbers, assuming the Democrats spent a comparable amount in the same period.

Instead of getting food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care, however, we got treated to 30-second and 1-minute compilations of lies, innuendo, hearsay, and misdirection – and all of it promising that the sponsoring party is going to do right by us.

It really makes me sick, not just angry. It also tires me mightily, knowing that a very large number of people will go to the polls this November and vote from fear, paranoia, jealousy, bigotry, classism, and gender inequity. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to find something better to do with my vote this year, even if it means I have to cast it for somebody that NOBODY thinks has a chance of securing office. I’m going to pay attention to who spends money on negative advertising, who is saying one thing and doing another, and who consistently votes against my best interests. 

If I see them do it even once, it’s too much.

Excuse me. I want to review the last term’s output, and assign some blame to the offending incumbents and seekers. It’s richly deserved.


07 June 2012

If we listened to our intellect, 
we'd never have a love affair. We'd 
never have a friendship. We'd never 
go into business, because we'd be 
cynical. Well, that's nonsense. You've 
got to jump off cliffs all the time and 
build your wings on the way down.
   - Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury
August 22, 1920 – June 6, 2012

(includes story collections, novels, verse, plays)
1947 – Dark Carnival
1950 – The Martian Chronicles
1951 – The Illustrated Man
1953 – The Golden Apples of the Sun, Fahrenheit 451
1955 – Switch on the Night, The October Country
1957 – Dandelion Wine
1959 – A Medicine for Melancholy (UK title, The Day it Rained Forever)
1962 – Something Wicked This Way Comes; “R” is for Rocket
1963 – The Anthem Sprinters and Other Antics
1964 – The Machineries of Joy
1965 – The Vintage Bradbury
1966 – Twice 22; “S” is for Space
1969 – I Sing the Body Electric!
1972 – The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and Other Plays; The Halloween Tree
1973 – When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed
1975 – Pillar of Fire and Other Plays
1976 – Long After Midnight
1977 – Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns
1978 – The Mummies of Guanajuato
1979 – This Attic Where the Meadow Greens
1980 – The Last Circus & The Electrocution; The Stories of Ray Bradbury
1981 – The Ghosts of Forever; The Haunted Computer and the Android Pope
1982 – The Complete Poems of Ray Bradbury; The Love Affair
1983 – Dinosaur Tales
1984 – A Memory of Murder; Death is a Lonely Business
1987 – Death Has Lost its Charm for Me; Ray Bradbury; Fever Dream
1988 – The Toynbee Convector
1989 – The Climate of Palettes; Zen in the Art of Writing
1990 – A Graveyard for Lunatics
1991 – Ray Bradbury on Stage; Yestermorrow
1992 – Green Shadows, White Whale
1996 – Quicker than the Eye
1997 – Driving Blind; With Cat for Comforter; Dogs Think That Every Day is Christmas
1998 – Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines
2001 – A Chapbook for Burnt-Out Priests, Rabbis and Ministers; From the Dust Returned
2002 – One More for the Road
2003 – Bradbury Stories
2004 – Let’s All Kill Constance; The Cat’s Pajamas
2005 – Bradbury Speaks
2006 – The Homecoming; Farewell Summer
2007 – Now and Forever

When Bradbury turned 80 years old in 2000, he said, "The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me. The feeling I have every day is very much the same as it was when I was twelve. In any event, here I am, eighty years old, feeling no different, full of a great sense of joy, and glad for the long life that has been allowed me. I have good plans for the next ten or twenty years, and I hope you'll come along."

I went along, Ray, and I have to say, it was a glorious, thrilling ride from beginning to end. You taught me a lot about life, and a lot about writing.

Excuse me. I’m going to have a glass of dandelion wine in Ray’s memory.

05 June 2012

“None so blind as those that will not see."
   - Matthew Henry, Presbyterian minister and writer

The war against women in the United States can’t continue without a few casualties. 

Among them, Jay Townsend, former spokesperson for Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-NY), who just this past week unleashed a nationwide firestorm of criticism when he wrote a Facebook comment that suggested an act of terrorism be perpetrated on female Democratic senators. A lot has been written about Mr. Townsend’s comment since he penned it, with thousands of people weighing in on what actions might be necessary as a result. On the Huffington Post, though, commenter “mtomasic” did a good job of laying out the timeline in response to the story:
1. Saturday, June 26 - "hurl some acid at those female democratic Senators who won’t abide the mandates they want to impose on the private sector."
2. Friday, June 1 - "Townsend issued the apology two days after Hayworth's campaign put out a statement calling the uproar over the comments a 'manufactured controversy.'
3. Sunday, June 3 - "I posted a stupid, thoughtless, and insensitive comment on a facebook page. It was stupid because my words were easily misconstrued; thoughtless because my choice of words obscured a point I was trying to make, and insensitive because some have interpreted the comment as advocating a violent act."
4. Monday, June 4 - "A statement from Hayworth's campaign was posted online. "Jay Townsend has offered, and I have accepted, his resignation from his position with my campaign," it read. "Now let’s return to talking about issues that really matter to families: job creation, spending restraint and economic development."
In summary, "hurl acid at female, Democratic Senators" is a manufactured controversy, that was stupid, thoughtless and insensitive, but didn't cost him his job, nor was it serious until ten days later - now let's return to the issues - stupid, thoughtless, insensitive female, Democratic Senators.

There are a few things that bother me about this whole “manufactured controversy.” 

First, since when does an opthalmologist (Hayworth’s actual profession when she’s not busy being a Tea Party tool), stand for talk about an act that usually blinds its victims? You’d think that with her education and training in the field, she’d have been outraged even by the mere suggestion of “hurling acid” at anyone, knowing what the outcome could be, wouldn’t you?

Second, why wasn’t Jay Townsend immediately arrested by federal officers after the offending comment came to light? According to Cornell’s Law School, statute 18 USC 115 prohibits anyone from threatening an elected official with physical harm over a political disagreement. The statute reads: “Whoever— … (B) threatens to assault, kidnap, or murder, a United States official, a United States judge, a Federal law enforcement officer, or an official whose killing would be a crime under such section, with intent to impede, intimidate, or interfere with such official, judge, or law enforcement officer while engaged in the performance of official duties, or with intent to retaliate against such official, judge, or law enforcement officer on account of the performance of official duties, shall be punished…” Can it get any clearer? Last I knew, female Democratic senators were United States officials.

Third, who actually believes that Townsend’s apology is genuine? When apologies get made, they typically don’t make excuses. The purpose of an apology is to exhibit contrition and remorse -- as in, say, “I’m sorry for what I did, and I beg your forgiveness.” Instead, Townsend serves up a tasty mash of, “I was stupid (because you’re not smart enough to understand what I wrote); "I was thoughtless" (because I’m not smart enough to stay focused on what I was trying to say instead of grand-standing); "I was insensitive" (because some of you are too literal-minded).”

Worse, he never actually manages to cough up an apology to the female Democratic senators, in whose faces said putative acid would be hurled.

And fourth, does it bother anyone besides me that Hayworth didn’t fire Townsend’s sorry behind the minute she read those offending, hateful words of his? In fact, Townsend remained on the payroll for ten, TEN, days after this came to light. In the end, Hayworth didn’t fire him, either – he resigned, and she accepted his resignation.

Hayworth has now asked her constituents and critics to set the matter aside, and “get back to the business” of paying attention to what’s important. Forgive me, but at this point, I don’t thing there is anything more important than clearing the halls of Congress of every person who exhibits traits of misogyny or endorses hate crimes.

It's up to us, the mothers, daughters, sisters and friends of the women in this nation, to spread the word – and vote them out. These people are not the “lesser” evil, believe me.

Excuse me. I have to take a hard look with clear, unburned eyes at all the people who are likely to show up on November’s ballot. I hope you will, too.


04 June 2012

No person in the world ever lost 
anything by being nice to me.
    - Lillie Langtry

What has happened to good manners? Yesterday, I responded with a private email to an online advertisement that offered a free item. I expressed my desire to take ownership, and asked for the address of where I might pick it up. I began with, "I read your post. May I please...," made my request, and ended with, "Thank you."

The free item in question was nice, so I've no doubt other people inquired after it, too. This morning, I checked my email for a reply. Nothing. I went to the website, and sure enough, the posting was deleted by the owner. Although I missed the item, what I miss even more is the courtesy of a simple "It's been claimed" in response to my inquiry.

I'm not sure when we stopped feeling it necessary to follow the most basic rules of social conduct. Make eye contact and acknowledge people you pass on the street. Don't interrupt or ignore people when they are talking to you. Offer your seat to a person who is not as robust or healthy as you are. Hold doors open for people who have their arms full. Say "please" and "thank you." Address elders as "Sir" and "Ma'am." Reply in kind to notes and letters that others send to you. Respect others, and maintain personal decorum. Extend courtesy and kindness at every opportunity. Obey the Golden Rule.

I remember the lessons. I remember that on each occasion when I failed to measure up, people who cared about me gave me reminders about where I'd fallen short -- some more stern than others -- and cautions that poor manners and disregard of others wouldn't get me very far in life. Peace in a community is based always in a willingness to conform to the norms of the society, especially when the norms reflect harmony and graciousness.

It's as if we've decided that we don't need to be nice to one another. We don't need to be polite. We don't need to be friendly or welcoming. We have the right to do just as we please, irrespective of anyone else's expectations or needs. When people reach out to us, we dismiss them, out of hand.

Excuse me. I need to send out a pile of personal thank you notes to people whose courtesy toward me has been greatly appreciated.


11 April 2012

Diversity has been written into the DNA of 
American life; any institution that lacks a 
rainbow array has come to seem diminished, if 
not diseased.
   - Joe Klein

Last Sunday, I finally got a look at a recent photograph of Trayvon Martin, the young man who was killed as the result of his encounter with George Zimmerman, a "neighborhood watch" volunteer. The facts surrounding Martin's death and what provoked it are in the hands of the court system now, and I don't want to speculate on the case.

I want to stay focused on the face in the photograph, and my reaction to it.

I see intelligence in Martin's eyes, and the curious mismatch of a nose that is somehow at odds with the boyishness of the rest of his face -- as if he still had some growing into it to do. His is the face at the launching point of manhood. His mouth is upturned at its corners, the hint of a sly little grin as he peers into the lens, a laugh being teased out of him despite his desire to appear serious. 

He looks like every seventeen year old youth I've ever met in my life, and I have met quite a few. Young men in every color, size, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, degree of smarts, athleticism, or anything else you might imagine. What he doesn't look like to me is a person to fear, even though he's wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He looks like a nice kid, trying to be cool, trying to fit in with his friends.

In December, I had a reason to travel to the midwest. I made the trip by rail, an experience I haven't had in a long time. On my trip home to Massachusetts, I had a five-hour layover in Chicago's Union Station. The trains are gaining ground that the airlines have lost, and the place was packed. I checked my bags through to Boston, then went to the waiting area, where I found a seat. I carry Sudoku books with me when I have to wait places -- for me, there is something calming, almost meditative, in the act of finding the correct spaces for the nine sets of nine numbers. I opened my book, took up my pen, and settled into my task.

I'd been at it for a while, going through several pages, when the person sitting to my right spoke to me. "How do you play that game? How do you know where to put the numbers?"

I looked up. The stranger was a whip-thin youth in jeans, sneakers and, yes, a hoodie. He was staring at my half-finished puzzle. He half-smiled as he told me he'd seen people solve Sudoku puzzles before, and always wondered how they were doing it. He seemed genuinely interested, so I asked, "Would you like to do one with me? If you have time, I can explain as we go."

He gave me a broad smile, and with only the briefest of introductions, we set to work at solving simple puzzles. Time flew, he learned a new game, and we had fun together. When we parted, I reached in my bag and fished out another Sudoku book I packed-- half-finished, because I always leave the easy ones for last. I offered it to him, saying, "Here, take this. You can practice on the train."

He thanked me, then joined the queue to board his train. As he exited the waiting area, he turned back, smiled and waved goodbye. My heart lifted a little. I was still smiling as the handsome boy vanished from view. A woman always appreciates being appreciated.

In the time we'd shared, I hadn't paid any attention to our surroundings. Now, however, I realized I was a person of interest to several people in the waiting area. People were staring frankly, many with an expression of mild amusement. I met a gaze or two, nodded, then returned to my puzzles until my train's departure was called. When I reached home, I told my beloved about my chance encounter, and how much fun I'd had teaching the teen. I filed this away in my memory banks, and didn't think about it until I saw the photo of Trayvon Martin.

I went back over my afternoon in Chicago -- a more than middle-aged, well-dressed white woman with snowy hair and a tall black youth in a hoodie, hunched together over our common task, talking, laughing, having a good time, even though we'd just met -- truly, strangers on a train. The time was pleasant because we found a way to share the experience and ourselves. I don't know where my young friend was headed that day, but I hope it wasn't to a darkened street where bigotry, racism or fear could lay him in his grave for the price of an iced tea and a box of candy.

Excuse me. I have to go buy some more easy puzzle books to keep on hand. I never know who I'll meet on the road.


19 January 2012

"That the value of a telecommunications 
network is proportional to the square of 
the number of connected users of the system (n2)."
   - Metcalfe's Law

A Facebook entity known as "Revolution News Network" posted this extremely thought-provoking article, which I personally believe every US citizen ought to be reading and commiting to memory. I also believe every US citizen ought to take to heart the very real possibility that until we demand accountability from our government and our representatives, down to the penny, we can't expect anything to change.
There is a very simple, and we think overlooked, reason why the abominations of SOPA and PIPA have appeared like cancerous growths in the House and Senate, and it has more to do than just censoring the internet. It goes deeper than that. It hits a nerve. The very idea of a bottom-up, people driven internet clashes violently with the ideological and political worldview that surveillance should only exist in one direction: From the top down. 

You see we've overlooked what it really means in terms of discomfort and career risk to those who normally bask and benefit from the art of statecraft. You see, the ordinary, unwashed masses - that would be you and me - are in possession of one of the most powerful forces the earth has ever seen. 

And you have learned to use it in a way that is indeed alarming. 

Ordinary people, with little or no political knowledge or even education, are using it to keep their elected employees under surveillance 24 hours a day seven days a week - like real hiring managers should. 
You see, you're all figuring out that your computer desk at home is now headquarters - it's now the head office - and your acting like the boss, and these employees don't like it one bit. 

You're calling them out for having a business on the side. For taking long lunches with your competitors. For using the company car and copy machine for their personal use without telling you. For improper conduct that would violate any employee ethics manual. For noticing that they exempt themselves from it, but not you, the boss. 
In other words you are finally (as the founders intended, and would be ecstatic to see) holding your elected Federal and State employees accountable beyond their wildest imagination. 
You're watching "the help" like any good supervisor, manager or owner would and THEY DON'T LIKE IT. 

Why? You're tirelessly performing hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual performance reviews. You are writing them letters of praise or reprimand. You are sending them the equivalent of performance improvement plans ("improve or remove" coaching letters). You are expressing your anger or disappointment for lying to you during presentations (i.e., debates on the floor of the House or Senate, during interviews with the press, or during campaign speeches) since you're able to compare a report they delivered a year ago, or a month ago to one they gave today. And even post a clip of them lying that they cannot deny or hide from. You're catching them lying on or padding their expense reports or catching them investing or accepting rewards or favors where it's a conflict of interest to you personally as the real CEO of this country. 

You have harnessed a resource at your fingertips - Google alone processes 24 petabytes of data alone per day - that you can use to micromanage them, in a way that they prefer to use instead to micro-manage you. 

In other words, you are doing things that they prefer to DO TO YOU INSTEAD, AND TO YOU ONLY, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND. 

SOPA and PIPA have been introduced (along with other abominable legislation of late) to keep you and the Constitution of the United States from activating at a level that they will never be able to suppress unless they act now. A tipping point in what they believe is the wrong direction is at hand. A tipping point that could restore the Republic to its original Constitutional form and end a 100 year reign of the kleptocracy. 

You and your use of the internet have inadvertently leveraged an 18th century Constitution, a Bill of Rights, the Privileges and Immunities clause, and powers reserved to the States or the people themselves, and raised them all to an unprecedented, almost astronomical power. 

You have accidentally taken the rights and powers in these old parchment documents all to a level several orders of magnitude above the most basic objections against the divine rights of kings and despots that were so eloquently expressed, even in the Declaration of Independence, to a dizzying height never thought possible by the Founders. 

You have arranged yourselves in direct competition to them, into virtual Senates, virtual Houses of Representatives, virtual Judiciaries, and virtual Inspectors General's, all in a manner that redefines what consent of the governed will mean from now on. You can all now deliberate every decision, every move, every dollar, every law, beyond the mere vehicle of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. 

You have arranged yourselves into a neural net, or brain of the actual Republic, as originally intended. but never foreseen. 

And it is from that height, that the internet has allowed the US Constitution and you as the owner to, almost without being fully aware of it, to decimate the worldview -the philosophy of empire - that to this day would prefer that the nuisance of the cult of liberty vanish from the face of the earth along with its insufferable US Constitution once and for all. You have it on the run. 

And there you have the real reason for SOPA, PIPA, and the NDAA provisions and other laws that the House and the Senate have had the temerity to introduce while simultaneously flouting these words written by giants that will forever tower over them and cast long shadows over their dealings... 

"Congress shall make no law....." 


It's not about SOPA and PIPA, it's about holding onto what our nation values as precious.

Excuse me. I'm about to exercise my rights as a free citizen.