Thursday, December 27, 2012

The most famous of all the Henges

It was two days after I was invited to speak in London last June before it occurred to me that England is where Stonehenge lives. I have wanted to visit the stone circle since I saw pictures of it as a child, accompanied by fantastic stories of druids, human sacrifice, and stones levitated by magic. Of course, I know now that most all of that is crap made up by some posh Edwardian twit, but I still wanted to go.

Stonehenge on the Salsbury Plain. It's hard to see in this view, but this is
the only thing other than grass and sheep for about as far as one can see.

The great thing about being me is that I only have to mention that I want to see Stonehenge, and the Queen of Internet Research swings into action, unearthing the pertinent facts, culling through the options, and presenting me with a few simple choices. In this case they were, "You want to walk among the stones, right?", and "Sunrise or sunset tour?"* The answers were of course, "Of course", and "Sunset. No wait, sunrise."

The reason people can't walk freely among the stones anymore is that twits feel the need to carve their initials in them, like those on the left. Plus, there is some protective lichen that is killed by people touching it. Apparently graffiti is not a new phenomenon. Craftspeople (it is thought) shaping the stones originally carved marks in the shape of tools, like those  on the right. 

The only way to walk among the stones is on a bus tour, which turns out not to be too bad, because the old guide actually seemed to know his Stonehenge, and the jokes were decent by bus tour standards.

Our guide, Indiana Jones' older cousin.  Wizard's staff not shown.

After a two and a half hour drive from London, we ate breakfast at the George Inn in Lacock (apparently pronounced LAY-cock, unless that was just private joke between our guide and himself). The pub was licensed in 1362. I think the bathrooms were put in the next year.

I think every village in Britain has a 700 hundred year old stone church in it somewhere. 

Then it was off to the grand ditch itself. It was cold and just beginning to rain when we arrived in the middle of nowhere, which is apparently where the Neolithic Englanders liked to put these things. We spent about twenty minutes wandering among the stones. Somewhat like the space shuttle experience, a modern person needs to engage their mind a bit to be as amazed as they should be; amazed I was.

As I wandered among the stones, I heard a strange, high-pitched sort of ringing coming from the far side of a trilithon on the southern side of the enclosure.  I stepped between the standing stones and felt a queer sort of jolt -- as if my body were being stretched to great length and then compressed again. The next thing I knew it was the end of December, and the Mayan apocalypse had passed.

It's the one on the right. You would think they would at least have a sign or something.

It doesn't seem like I missed much while I was gone. Except for all of my internet friends. Hopefully we can all catch up in the coming months.

Happy Holidays!

* As we quickly realized -- unlike a couple of the people on the bus, a tour that starts or ends three hours form Stonehenge at a reasonable hour is going to see neither sunrise nor sunset in June. It's really more of a morning or afternoon choice.

Monday, July 2, 2012

London on 3 pounds a day

Three pounds a day is how much weight we gained.  There's no telling how much money we spent, but it was a lot. The good thing about dollars being worth less than pounds is that everything seems reasonably priced, as long as you don't think about it.

This is the sort of thing you don't see much in the States. I'm not sure where these old guys were headed, but I really wanted to follow them.

Anyway, we went to Britain because I was invited to speak at a symposium on Computers in Music Performance. Biscuit finds my work with laptop orchestras only slightly less amusing than my work in digital humanities, but she became quite suddenly interested when she found out I was going to London.

I will spare you the details of the symposium.  I've prepared a graphic to illustrate the character of the event (see Figure 1). There was a concert pianist who uses math to create shapes (mostly spirals) from recordings of performances, a guy who uses electromagnets to pluck piano strings or hammer vibraphone bars, and it went on more or less like that for two days. We had a great time discussing a lot of the finer points of music, computers, and performing one with the other. Papers were discussed. Plans were made. Breaks were taken with sandwiches and tea. I loved it. Most people would probably rather have a root canal.

Figure 1. Researchers love figures, and Venn diagrams.

Since it seemed silly to endure 22 hours of plane flights to spend two days in London, we decided to make a vacation of it. Biscuit spent the symposium days napping and wondering how so many people could fit into the British Museum. She also discovered a bar in the basement of our hotel, which seemed to help pass the time. We had a lovely dinner with our host and his family at the loudest restaurant I've ever been in after the symposium ended on Friday. I've always been mystified by my ability to befriend remarkably good people, a group that does not include me.

The next day we changed hotels, moving from the quiet college district to a big tourist hotel at the foot of the Westminster Bridge. It felt a lot like staying at Disney World. It was especially crowded on Saturday afternoon, so we made a forced march back to the old neighborhood in search of a pub we had wanted to visit. We didn't find it, but we did find The Boot, which was definitely the least touristy of anyplace we visited. There were about three people in the place, and they looked like they had been there since it opened. I suspect you would find at least two of them still there at closing. But the beer was well-kept* and the food was English, and we were much fortified for the tube ride back to our hotel.

I don't know if being mentioned in a Charles Dickens story is something I would be all that proud about.

Saturday night we rode the Eye. Biscuit came through once again, getting the Champagne Experience tickets for the sunset ride. It was also the only day that rainy and windy turned to partly cloudy, so we had a pretty good view of London. I had not been looking forward to it, as I'm not a huge fan of rickety tall things, but it didn't really feel at all like riding a ferris wheel or a cable car. In fact, it was hard to tell you were moving at all. Two glasses of champagne took care of any lingering anxiety.

The Eye from our hotel room window, and Houses of Parliament from the Eye, toward the end of the ride. It's around 10:00 pm and still light outside, which is not at all what this southern boy is used to.

In addition to all the sights, which were wonderful, too numerous to mention, and most of which you already know all about, we saw about a million Sikhs in Trafalgar Square, rallying for independence. Then they all streamed out and got on buses for ... I'm not really sure where they were going.

You don't get the impact of "hundreds of thousands demonstrated" on TV. Not only was there a sea of orange in Trafalgar Square when we rode through, there was a continuous stream of orange down every street for a couple of hours as people left the square.

Sunday was our last sightseeing day in London, and we were pretty tired, so we bought 24 hour tickets for the double-decker tourist bus and rode around town most of the day. It accidentally became literary themed pub day, as we hit the William Shakespeare and the Sherlock Holmes. The Shakespeare felt a little like it was next to the train station -- which is was -- but the Holmes was surprisingly homey for a downtown London pub. I was starting to get the hang of this pub thing, and the money. I was able to pay at the Sherlock Holmes without putting on my glasses.

I'm unclear on whether the real William Shakespeare ever drank here, but I think the toilets are the same. It's also the place that I first got to say, "Full English, please." Image from here.

People in London don't seem to be 100% clear on the fictional nature of Sherlock Holmes. The pub is several miles from Baker Street, where Holmes "lived," but the Sunday roast was outstanding.

* I still don't really know what this means, but they make a point of mentioning their well-kept beers in all of their advertising.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Planes, trains, and ... well, just planes and trains

One morning toward the end of our British vacation, Biscuit asked which had been my favorite day.

I said, "Yesterday. And that would have been my answer any day you asked." In other words, each day had been my favorite as it occurred, and none had completely outshone all the others. For me, this is one of the factors that comprise an ideal holiday, and it endured from the first day right up until the last leg of our return trip.

We started our journey home from St. Ives in Cornwall.* After a lovely Italian dinner, we walked up to our B&B to retrieve our luggage, and met our cab coming up the hill. This was working out swimmingly. Until we realized that we were locked out of the house, and that our host was nowhere to be found.

Crappy phone picture of the town of St. Ives, from what we thought was the beginning of the coastal trail.

No worries. After only about forty frantic attempts, I figured out how to dial an international call from my cell, located our apologetic innkeeper, and within minutes we were back on track. The cab driver was back to get us right away, and we were off to the St. Ives train depot. An easy fifteen minute ride on the spur line had us in St. Erth, and an hour later we were boarding the night train to London.

Photos of Cornerways B&B, St Ives
One might think this an unfortunate picture of the landlord, but it's one of the least barking expressions I've seen on him. He was a lovely chap, and reminded me a bit of Gene Wilder, with a bit of Marty Feldman thrown in. This photo of Cornerways B&B is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

I love the night train! If I could ride it from my house to Europe, I totally would. A cozy sleeper compartment and the motion and sounds of the train provided one of the most restful nights of the trip. While I was roused a few times when the train stopped or started, I always slipped right back into a warm and fuzzy sleep. A wakeup knock from the breakfast-bearing porter lets one know when it's time to rise, dress, and make ready to alight. (Some time on the night train leads one to speak thusly.)

The walk from the night train terminus to the Heathrow Express is less than 100 feet, and another fifteen minute train ride plus one inter-terminal shuttle gets us to Terminal 4 to check in for our 9:30 am flight home. A nine hour plane ride is definitely an acquired taste, but as long as there are free movies, occasional drinks service, and the seats are not too horrible, it's endurable. This flight was endurable. We left about ten minutes late, but made up that and more, so we touched down at the World's Busiest Airport a full quarter hour ahead of schedule.

Crappy phone picture of the St. Erth train depot. This track is for the spur to St. Ives. The grownup tracks are behind us here.

We had a two hour layover scheduled in Atlanta, and with the extra time we cleared customs and security with over an hour to spare. The first time we checked the monitors as we headed to Terminal D, we noticed that our flight had been delayed from 4:05 to 4:15. No biggie. We heard there had been weather here and there.

By the time we settled in at Gate 39, 4:15 had slipped to 5:30, and it was now Gate 27. Oops, Gate 25 at 6:30. Anyone for Gate 31 at 8:30? After five gate changes (culminating back at D39), an alleged departure time of 9:30, and about a dozen gate agents,** they finally told us at 8:30 that our flight was cancelled, and that no one was going anywhere but to a hotel that night.

At this point, it had been around 30 hours since Biscuit and I had strolled up the hill to catch our cab, and almost two weeks since we had slept in our own bed. This was not how we wanted to end our trip. So we politely but firmly worked our way through two gate agents, one customer service rep and one redcoat to get added to the already overbooked Last Plane Out. It ended up costing the airline a few hundred extra Delta Dollars, but we were fortunate that enough people volunteered to stay an extra night in the A-T-L that we could snag the last two seats on the regional commuter jet.

Da plane! Especially crappy phone picture of the plane that carried us across the Atlantic. The thing I like about the 767-400 is that there are only two seats in the outside rows. And if you're willing to part with some money, you can not only avoid sitting in the middle, you can actually sit next to your traveling companion.

Mine was literally the last seat on the plane -- the non-reclining aisle seat in the back next to the loo. The poor unfortunate crammed into the window seat next to me was an actual professional American football player -- the Atlanta Falcons center headed home to spend the weekend with his family. We looked like two gorillas in a Barbie Dream Car, but neither of us even cared. We kicked up all the armrests, folded ourselves up like paper cranes, and tried not to breathe for the hour and a half trip home. We touched down about 10:30 local time, meaning we spent more time getting home from Atlanta than it took to get there from London.

Oh, I guess I did drive home from the airport, so there was one automobile. It was a given that our bags wouldn't arrive until late the next night, but after wearing the same couple of outfits for two weeks, we really didn't miss them. All we really wanted were the cookies and jam that were stuffed in Biscuit's suitcase. It's good to be home, but it sure was nice to be there.

* I know I'm skipping over a wee bit of the trip. Hopefully I will make it back to the good stuff later.

** I realized toward the end that the gate agents were playing musical chairs, with no one wanting to be the person who had to tell us we weren't going to fly. They would stroll in, check the monitors, make a face, and then either get our gate changed or wander off themselves, to be replaced a few minutes later by the next poor schlub. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Road Stories: Fly like an Eagle

I love stupid jokes. One of my favorites is from a story told by Ron "Tater Salad" White, recounting a memorable flight on a small plane. At one point, after losing an engine, the nervous flyer beside him asks how far they can get on one engine. White replies, "All the way to the scene of the crash."

The month before I started at SHOWCO, Lynyrd Skynyrd took their last plane ride. Among the passengers on the Convair CV-300 that never made it to Baton Rouge that night were two of my future colleagues. DK more or less walked away with abrasions and some chest injuries. He remembered the crash site quite well, from coming to his senses strapped in his seat with one leg pinned back by a shorn tree stump, through the eternity waiting for someone to find them in the woods, with friends dead or dying nearby. He was back to work in a few months, and while he required a couple of stiff drinks to get on a plane, he would get on a plane. I flew with him several times, and he was steady, if a little hyper-attentive.

JO was less fortunate, though his injuries were only moderately worse than DK's.* He remembered nothing before the hospital, and it was a good long time before I saw him at work. Even then he moved like a ghost, and it was apparent to anyone paying attention that his worst scars were not physical. He didn't fly, and didn't particularly like riding in a car. Or much of anything that required interaction. Whatever wounds he carried took longer to heal than our association lasted.

The Convair CV 240. REO's was not nearly as nice as this one.
Image from here.

REO Speedwagon had a plane, a Convair CV 240** nicknamed the Flying Tuna. Our crew had a bus, and didn't fly on it as a rule, but occasionally they would bring someone along for a creative discussion, an impromptu morning party, or an extended ass-chewing. On one long overnighter, when we knew that the buses would be very late getting to the next gig, one of the sound guys and I flew with them so that we could get the trucks unloaded before the rest of the crew arrived. As you may know, REO was not my favorite tour, so you can imagine how I felt about being locked in a flying deathtrap with them.

Fortunately for me I was exhausted, and slept from the time the motors started until the plane bounced onto the runway at Where the Hell are we Today Municipal Airport. This was not particularly easy since the heat was out in the cabin, and it was like 4 degrees in there, but roadies are world class sleepers and I had no trouble at all. In fact, I slept on road cases backstage during concerts on more than one occasion.

But I digress. The point is that I slept through the flight, and had to hear this story from my colleague the sound guy.*** About halfway through the flight he noticed fluid trailing back along the wing from the engine on his side. Since we had already made countless tasteless jokes about the similarity of this plane to Lynyrd Skynyrd's, he was understandably concerned, and summoned the woman who served as the hostess on the flight.

After he informed her of the growing stain on the wing, she didn't even bend over to look out the window. She just asked him how wide it was.


"How wide is the trail?"

"I don't know, about four inches?"

"Oh, don't worry about that. We don't even have to get nervous until it gets to be this wide," she said, as she held up her hands about a foot apart. True story.

Most people assume that we would prefer to fly than ride the bus, but flying was miserable, even on real airliner with multiple jet engines and a professional crew. A bus or a crew van was like a rolling hotel, and you could claim your own tiny space and not have to pack up every day. More importantly, everyone but the driver was asleep by the time the vehicle rolled out of the parking lot, and could stay asleep until we rolled into the next one. Sometimes there was a Denny's stop for breakfast, but only if the drive was not too long. And waking up for that was optional.

If you were flying, you had to take a rent car back to the hotel, sleep, pack up, drive to the airport in time to catch the sunrise flight, turn in the rent cars, drink two Bloody Mary's on the plane, wait for luggage, get more rent cars, go to the next hotel and fight with the manager because it wasn't time to check in yet, and then get to the gig in time to miss breakfast. The time for "sleep" usually ended up being an hour or two.

As unpleasant as flying is becoming these days, maybe buses will make a comeback. If they do, count me in.

* Both had pretty significant facial lacerations. A plane crash will apparently create a large amount of jagged debris moving at good speed. Or maybe it's more accurate to say it throws a lot of debris in the path of the oncoming victims, who are moving at good speed.

** The CV 300 was  a CV 240 with newer engines. So yes, REO's plane was identical to Skynrd's plane, except slightly crappier.

*** Lighting people and sound guys have always had a friendly rivalry about who's most important to a show. But we sincerely hated them for the fact that the got more sleep than us, and generally had less equipment to hump. And unless sound check ran really long, they got to dinner first. This is part of the reason we insisted on calling them "sound guys" instead of "audio engineers," which they preferred.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Acceleration phase

Some things are just too big to be indoors. Take the 363 foot (that's 30 stories or so, if you're counting) Saturn V rocket, which weighed in at over six and a half million pounds when ready to shoot people to the fucking moon.* Because it weighed like 10 percent as much as the Titanic, and got mileage of around 5 inches per gallon, the rocket was designed to barely lift its own initial weight. As the weight of the fuel diminished, the acceleration would increase.

Each of the engine nozzles is about six feet across. 
Looking at this picture still makes me sleepy.

This made a Saturn V launch quite a dramatic thing to watch. The big engines would light, the tower would fall away, the big locky things at the bottom would unlock, and the rocket would ... mostly just sit there. It only moved a few feet in the first several seconds.

Super slow-mo video of Apollo 11. If you haven't seen this, it's worth the four minutes.

This latest career has started much the same for me. The first year or so I read a lot, wrote some papers that mostly didn't get published, cleaned the lab, and surfed the Web. My phone never rang, I received very little e-mail, and only occasionally did anyone seem to be looking for me.

The next couple of years picked up a bit. I wrote a few papers that mostly did get published, got invited to a few meetings, and found myself with nothing to do much less often. I was starting to get busy, but mostly my job fit comfortably within forty hours or so per week. I had plenty of time to indulge hobbies and work around the house.

Now I find myself struggling to make time to write papers, it seems like someone is always looking for me, and I'm starting to spend significant time managing e-mail. My to-do list is getting longer every day, and I spend more nights and weekends working. I would like to think I'm approaching Max Q,** but  I suspect there is more to come.

I'm definitely not complaining. I love the work I'm doing, and the acceleration means that things are moving forward. I'm far from being a Person of Significance, but I am feeling less like an impostor every day. As long as I don't suffer some catastrophic failure, I think this thing might just take off.

* What happened to us? We used to send people to the moon. I was sure my flying car and robot servants were just around the corner. Now we can't even keep our schools and bridges from falling down.

** The point during a rocket's flight when aerodynamic stress is maximized. The "go for throttle up" that was the last thing we heard on the final Challenger flight was an indication that this point had been passed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cycling, anyone?

This weekend I had seven college athletes staying at my house for the South Central Collegiate Cycling Conference Cutlery Carbonite Combinatoric Road Championships*. 2012. One of Biscuit's nephews is a cyclist at Tornado Alley University, and our invitation for him to stay led inexorably to us hosting the entire team. It was exhausting, and a fair amount of fun.

Every time I am around a group like this, I re-realize that there are countless families and individuals whose lives revolve around these kinds of activities. It's how they spend every weekend, and when there are not events, there is training. And all the time there is obsessing over wheels and frames, cranks and chain rings, and the myriad other items that separate the haves from the always wanted to haves. There is jargon, and jockeying for position, and specialized friends that see each other all the time, but wouldn't recognize each other away from the events.

Our family got pretty heavily involved in the local softball league when my sister was growing up. We weren't part of the league royalty, but my father's company sponsored a team for a few years, and he coached for quite a few years, so we were "established." Over the years I had stints coaching and working concessions. I even worked as a groundskeeper for a few months. I still reacquaint with people occasionally who I met at the field, and it always takes forever for either of us to remember how and where we came to know each other in the first place.

This weekend also reminded me of a few things I had forgotten about kids -- not being responsible for any young people full time -- and a few traits I did remember were heartily reinforced.

Start of the Men's C Criterium. I don't know what any of those things mean. I mean, 
I know what men are, so I guess it's just the other two that are somewhat confusing.

They eat a lot, though I was surprised that they seem not to eat constantly (like I did). And this group were quite polite. They never asked for anything, and pretended they didn't want it until I actually produced the food, but once a bag of chips or a loaf of bread was opened, it was gone.

More than two kids together can't make a decision to save their lives. They will stand around in the driveway for an hour trying to decide who is riding in which car. The only thing they know for sure is that they aren't listening to the one or two people who think they know what's best for the group.

I would like to say they never sleep, but it's more that they never go to bed. And then they never want to wake up. Since bike racing tends to start early, and far away, this can be stressful, especially on the serious kids who like to be at things on time. (Apparently 2/7 of the population, according to one informal study.)

It was quite the whirlwind weekend. They arrived Friday afternoon about happy hour, ran three events in three far-flung locations in thirty-six hours, and were gone before noon on Sunday. It definitely seemed like they were here longer. I took three naps, and made enough breakfast to feed Biscuit and I for a month. I think we had three strips of bacon left at the end. But it was good to see the nephew, who is all grown up and will probably be married before we know it. And it was good to be reminded that most college kids are more or less like we were. Except maybe for their politics, and their inexplicable lack of loathing for their parents. I guess nobody's perfect.

* Some of the 'C' words may have been added. But I remember there were a lot.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What, me worry?

Image from here

This month marks four years since I officially started my latest career change to higher education. A couple of weeks ago, I was catching up with the colleague, friend and mentor who provided my first half-time appointment, immediately after our last jointly supervised Ph.D. student successfully defended his dissertation. I was expressing my gratitude to her for not laughing directly in my face back then, when I told her my goals and expectations for this new career. There is no need to go into detail now, but it's safe to say that I may have been a little optimistic in my early assessments.

She remarked that it was quite courageous what I did, leaving a successful career to start over in an entry level job I really knew nothing about.* Two thoughts immediately jumped to mind, one of which I expressed. I admitted that I had always had the tendency to pursue dreams, from leaving school to chase a job as a roadie, to spending a month exploring the country on Amtrak, to giving up an earlier sales career to return to college in my thirties. One night, when Biscuit and I were catching up with an old friend I had not seen since high school, she and her husband noted, "You are some of those people who do things, aren't you?"

The second thing that occurred to me was that I had not really been courageous, because I wasn't really afraid. Don't get me wrong, I'm afraid of plenty of things. Heights, spiders, people who think the best response to fear is firearms, the list goes on. But taking a risk to experience something new is just not something that has ever frightened me much. And a big part of the reason is ignorance, blended with denial.

Everything is harder than we think it's going to be, and every attempt at something new is almost guaranteed to fail, at least at first. If we focus on those aspects, it's easy to shy away. But struggling reminds me I am alive, and we all know failure makes us stronger. Cliché I know, but at least for me, these are some of the things that make life enjoyable. So I'm lucky that I seem to be incapable of remembering from one time to the next how difficult it is going to be, and how insecure I will feel. One of the reasons I became a roadie was to confront my fear of heights, and I had more than one occasion to regret the decision.

The whole episode got me thinking about the link between fear and ignorance, or "innocence" as it's known when it's wearing white. People are afraid of what they don't know, but the opposite is also true. I never knew I would be afraid of spiders until I saw one. And the Lion likely never would have gone with Dorothy had he known there were flying monkeys ahead.

And if I had known I wouldn't have an ending for this post, I might never have started it.

*She says things like that all the time.  She's awesome that way.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Believing in Chemistry

A couple of lifetimes ago, when I was in my twenties, I got the chance to see my future ex-wife lose a first class argument with her younger brother. I mean, I had seen them argue many times before. The whole family loved conflict. My father-in-law once yelled at everyone in the house because the mail wasn't lying in its normal place. A day at the in-laws was like an episode of the Itchy and Scratchy show.

Most of the conflagrations were flareups. They got big quickly and died away in minutes. Only occasionally did a firestorm start. Things would get personal, buttons would be pushed, old wounds would be re-opened, and whatever originally started the argument would be quickly lost in the blaze. The bitter taste from those fights would last days, and on occasion much longer.

The ex loved to argue, of course. And she was world class. In the dozen years we were together, I don't think I ever heard her say, "You were right." If it looked like the logic of an argument was not going her way, she would turn to emotional cruelty, her home turf. She didn't necessarily have to win an argument, but she would be damned if she was going to lose.

My ex brother-in-law's life has largely been a string of tragedies wired together by bad decisions, driven by poor judgment and poorer impulse control. He was beaten up by the police at least once, presumably for responding to a traffic stop with something along the lines of, "What the fuck do you want?" But he knew he was fighting out of his weight class with his big sister, and he usually walked a bit carefully around her.

The ex on "the best day of her life," about two hours after our wedding. 
That's my best man in the background, wondering what I've gotten myself into.

So it was worth remembering the one time that he left her speechless.  I don't remember how the argument started, what it was about, or how long it lasted. I only remember it getting more intense than usual. Outside voices were being used, the ex was pacing (never a good sign), and her brother was cornered in a chair. In response to whatever he said, she got right in his face and said, "You can't argue with that. It's simple chemistry!"

With no hesitation, he shot back, "I don't believe in chemistry!"

She sputtered a bit, and tried to rally, but her momentum was completely broken. How do you argue with something like that? In her heart she knew the day was lost.

I never suspected at the time that my brother-in-law was the harbinger of a growing trend. Denying the validity of science seems to be quite fashionable these days. The overall history of our planet's geology and life forms, and the link between greenhouse gases and climate, are practically as certain as the fact that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen.* And of course, the core of this science provably predates the political agendas that supposedly drive it.

But none of that matters, does it? It must be quite liberating, really. Once we no longer require the slightest evidence or logic to support our beliefs, then we can always be on the winning side. I just wish someone would start a gravity-deniers movement.

* Or that the day and night are essentially equal in length on the day of an equinox. One of our worst arguments went nuclear when I offered to get the flashlight and tennis balls to demonstrate this one.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Image from here

It started on Sunday, when I half-watched a story on television about the Wrigley company. After 36 hours or so, the only thing that pushed the Big Red® song out of my head was getting rick rolled by the other Chris. Since then, between quietly reviewing all of the things I'm never going to do, I've been wondering about these deep, annoying ruts we make in our brains.  Where do they come from? Why are they so persistent? How come I can't remember why I have an airline ticket from December, but I can instantly recall a song I haven't heard since I was in elementary school? That I don't even like. And while we're on the subject, why is it that I can barely tell  you what book I'm currently reading, much less what is happening in the story, but all of that context will magically come back to me within a few seconds of opening the cover (or firing up the Kindle) and beginning to read?

We love to believe that we are completely in control of our minds (or should be), but I suspect the reality is practically the opposite. The other evening, Biscuit and I were discussing the varying sizes of of takeout containers provided by one of our go-to restaurants, and the relative ease or difficulty with which these can be encased in more airtight containers for leftover storage.* She remarked (quite innocently, apparently), "Yours was pretty small this time, and slid in quite easily."

"That's what she said!" was out of my mouth before she finished speaking, and I probably would not have been able to resist saying it had we been at a Nobel prize award banquet.** Sadly, she was in the kitchen with the dishwasher running, and I had to repeat myself until the moment had passed.

I have theories about all this, of course, but I would rather hear what someone else thinks. Anyone? Anyone?  Beuller? See what I did there?

Oh, crap! The Big Red® thing is back.  ♪So, kiss a little longer...♫

* It's a constant party at our house.

** I suspect this is from that "lack of breeding" that the upper classes are always going on about. I think I had a fundamental misunderstanding about what this phrase meant when I was younger, and worked very hard toward a completely different goal.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I played one year of Division III college football in the Midwestern Brainiac Conference, consisting of private colleges with high academic standards from Louisiana to Michigan. One of our perennial favorite games was against Principia, a college for Christian Scientists in Illinois. We always traveled there because the food was delicious. Christian Scientists were considered some of the more "out there" evangelical Christians in those days*, most notably because of their rejection of conventional medicine, and reliance on spiritual healing. Before the trip, one of my teammates told me, "It's the weirdest thing. If one of them gets hurt, everyone just sort of moves away from him, and people on the sidelines kneel down and start praying."

Years later, I chanced to meet someone who played football there, though at a different time, and we reminisced at bit. He explained that people of his faith are generally quite pragmatic about medicine, and most will not attempt to pray away a compound fracture. They wear glasses and have their teeth cleaned, though most do not get vaccinations. It's not what I would call mainstream, but like I said, it's pragmatic.

I often think of that conversation when I hear politicians -- or anyone else, really -- trivialize medical issues, or demonize those who think differently, in the name of faith. I know about having beliefs, and I am completely okay with making life-altering decisions based on them, but don't pretend that this crap is simple. I don't understand those who think they know God's heart any more than I get how some of my physicist friends believe that we are on the brink of knowing everything meaningful there is to know about the Universe.

I cannot imagine a more difficult situation than being told by a doctor that a delivery has gone horribly wrong, and that either one's partner or her baby will have to be sacrificed. And I understand that if we are at the Catholic hospital near my house, that decision will be made for me**.  What I can't understand is demagogues who can call people murderers who have been in this situation, like it's the same as walking into your estranged wife's office and gunning down everyone there.

My college football career ended the day before Thanksgiving that year, standing in the quad among the swirling flurries that would become the season's first snowfall. That's when I learned that my friend and teammate Daryl had died from an embolism after routine knee surgery at one of the world's best sports medicine centers. Somehow, it just wasn't fun anymore. It was one of a double handful of times during my life that I have been reminded that nothing is as simple as it seems.

* My, how things have changed. Christian Scientists don't even stick out of the crowd anymore.

** Perhaps it is not a coincidence that our heavily Catholic city has private secular hospital that specializes in women's health, and delivers most of the babies in town, at least for those with health insurance.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

This blog is now all about things that make you stupid. Apparently.

Last post we talked about a flurry of studies that confirm what anyone who works in an office already knows -- that meetings make people stupid. Actually, I think some people believe everyone in the meeting is stupid except them, but they've probably been in too many meetings.*

Then last week I ran across this little gem. Apparently, being interrupted by a cellphone ringing will also interfere with mental processes, and its worse if the ringtone is a song you know. They use BeyoncĂ©’s "Single Ladies" as an example, but in that case the biggest distraction for me would probably be the pain from trying to scratch my eardrums with a pencil.

Again, this is no surprise, but it does say something about what drives our society, and possibly about what's important to employers. There was a time when making a personal phone call, or interrupting an important meeting with trivia, could get one fired. Or at least on the boss' shit list. But the last business luncheon I attended featured a former colleague talking for 20 minutes on the best ways to use Twitter at the office. People not only expect cellphones to ring in meetings, they seem to expect people to answer them.

This all reminds me of a quote from a Japanese industrialist I heard a couple of decades ago. He said, "In Japan, we make things. In America, you used to make things. Now you just push money around." Except now it's information we are pushing around. One person somewhere has an original thought and 80 million people try to disseminate it as fast as they can. I suppose there is value there, but it seems hollow somehow, and at least for me, unsatisfying.

I'm sure the hive mind will prove to be more productive than the individual in the long run. And people won't feel the same sense of disquiet about the constantly connected world that I do, any more than I could share my grandfather's distrust of airplanes. But I am built for quiet contemplation, and it's not the world for me.

* I wonder if it's some sort of natural selection that has created the current "anti-meeting" culture in higher education. There are a thousand committees, but they rarely meet. And when they do, the only people who attend are those who absolutely required.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Reach for the shy

It looks like 2012 might be the year when the shy, introverted, and maybe even the meek get their fifteen minutes of fame. Which would be no surprise, since it's the last year ever. Not that the quieter types want the attention, but it's good to be appreciated as long as no one is speaking directly to you.

Time's cover story last week on "The Power of Shyness" builds on the growing success of Susan Cain's, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking to make the case that America's obsession with "go-getters" is costing us more than we think. Or don't think, as the case may be. Which really seems to be the root of the problem. The extroverts are all running around telling anyone who will listen how useful they are, while the introverted and shy are sitting at home with wine and chocolate watching movies and doing online genealogy research.*

People who know about such things -- most notably the shy or introverted -- will be quick to tell you that these two terms are not synonyms. Introverts are people who prefer less social stimulation, while shy people experience anxiety at the prospect of new or unfamiliar interactions. If you prefer a small party at someone's home to a rave or concert, you're probably more introverted. If your heart pounds at the thought of meeting the people at either kind of party, you're shy. Not surprisingly, these are not what the math people (speaking of shy and introverted) would call independent variables.

Of course, it's not that simple talking about real people. I love a loud and crowded bar as much as anyone, and I will probably make a random comment or two to the person whose ass I'm kicking at pool.**  But more days than not I would prefer to talk to between zero and five people, and then not for long. While I have grown relatively comfortable speaking to small or medium sized groups, I still get really anxious and talk too fast and never say exactly what I had planned and oh time's up already thanks for coming. I have to give a 40 minute talk in a week, and I'm already starting to sweat.

Everyone knows my favorite vacations involve me, Biscuit and some nature. The big resort is definitely not my idea of relaxation. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty damned introverted. I like going to the movies, but I intentionally pick the times when the theater will be the emptiest. And very few things make me happier than being alone in the car on an empty highway, as long as the car is moving.

Anyway, the point of all of this was supposed to be that introverts tend to be reflective thinkers. It turns out that it's hard to do much deep thinking in a room full of people. Two recent studies, one at Indiana University and another performed by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute make a compelling case that meetings make us stupider.  It seems whatever else comes from collaborative work, it isn't brainpower.

As Cain says in the second point of her Manifesto, "our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our 'heed-takers' more than ever." If any of this resonates with you, I would encourage you to get out there and do something about it. Or at least, go to a quiet room and think about it really hard.

* Just to pull an example out of the air.
**I don't talk shit when I'm losing, because that's just stupid.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In which I am reminded again how old I am

The hard drive on my work laptop is suffering a slow and painful (for me) death, so I visited our most competent and helpful IT guy a few days ago for advice and resources.* After a long discussion of replacement drives, backup strategies and potential disasters, we somehow ended up talking about online services.

The two twenty-somethings in the room were quite surprised to find out that there was a life online before everyone had access to the internet. They knew that there had been a thing called "dialup" but were unaware that AOL was essentially a huge online bulletin board. Then I had to explain about online bulletin boards. Neither had ever heard of CompuServe or Prodigy. One started googling immediately, and probably spent the rest of the day researching the ancient days of the early 1990's.

It was an entire day later that I remembered that millions of people in this country, mostly in rural areas, still don't have access to broadband. Millions of others don't have the money, the motivation, or the perceived need. I assume their lives are lived much differently from mine, since I spend a great deal of time sitting in my living room logged into another machine somewhere, streaming video, or looking up random things I see on television. It's what the punditry likes to call the "digital divide," and those on the other side are increasingly excluded from society. Many businesses, publications, and other activities are now primarily or completely online.

But I digress. Yesterday was about fresh backups and modest but low-risk repairs that I was pretty sure were not going to work. Today I bite the bullet, erase the drive, confirm that it is bad, and replace it. Back up your data kids. Remember, there are two kinds of hard drives -- those that have failed and those that will.

* We have a help desk, but their helpfulness is somewhat ... irregular. I haven't read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I assume one of them is "find an IT person that will help you."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Oval Office Space

From what I see on the TV, it seems many Republicans are having a hard time deciding who should run against the President this year. People have all sorts of methods for picking candidates. For instance, my mother seems to vote for the man she could most easily imagine being married to (Mitt Romney, last I heard). Others seem to choose the candidates that are most understandable, hottest, show strong leadership, or are principled and moral (good luck with that one). Since whatever method people use seems to be falling short for so many this time, I would like to recommend an approach that has worked for me.

In recent years I have tried to remember that electing someone for office is no more or less than hiring a person to do a job. So I like to imagine the candidates as co-workers, and compare them to people I know, or with whom I've had some experience. I am often surprised at how much this clarifies things.

Mitt Romney is probably easiest. The quintessential CEO, he is the clear choice if you think the purpose of government is to maximize financial return for people who own American dollars.* If, on the other hand, you believe the government should maximize the value citizens receive for tax dollars, or care about any of the non-financial aspects of life, you may want to keep looking. Romney also seems to fight the perception that he would sell the whole place for a bigger bonus and a private jet.

Rick Perry, who we may not have to kick around much longer, is obviously Head of Sales. He won the Salesperson of the Month award every month until they finally retired it. He drives an El Dorado with a Rolls Royce grille and longhorns on the hood, and he has slept with every woman in the office.

Newt Gingrich runs the Research Department. He will tell anyone who will listen that business majors are all idiots. He is the guy that puts the note on the refrigerator about eating other people's lunches. He is also the number one customer of the Honor Snacks, and only paid once when he noticed someone watching.

Ron Paul is the last remaining member of old school upper management. He was CFO for thirty-five years, but was recently given the title of Ombudsmen and relocated to the Florida office. He is convinced that globalization and rapid growth through acquisition is going to bite the company square in the ass. He is correct, but this doesn't change the fact that this is how business is done today. He collects Hummel figurines.

Rick Santorum? Look for the guy in your office wearing a sweater vest. It looks like Bachman is gone, so try it yourself with Huntsman.  It's fun and informative, and may even help you make up your mind.

*This is an application of the principle of "maximizing shareholder value," which holds that the primary purpose of a corporation is to enrich the people who own it. Popularized in the 1980's when Romney was one of the people buying and breaking up companies, the approach has become a foundational concept of corporate management. Note that customers, partners, employees, and society at large are not really part of the formula, except indirectly.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Movie Sunday: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Image from here

I have to admit that I am a big fan of Morgan Spurlock. Unlike most documentary filmmakers (will admit), he makes films about himself. Sort of like a thinking person's Jackass, his movies seem to start with Spurlock musing, "I wonder what would happen if I..."

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is Spurlock's answer to the question of what it would be like to make a movie about product placement -- or "brand integration" -- that was totally funded by product placement. The film tracks our hero as he learns about the advertisers' place in the movie business today, and how different filmmakers deal with it. There are numerous scenes with potential sponsors or industry consultants, and cameos by well known directors. I learned much more about modern entertainment than I wished to know, though probably less than I should.

If you think this sounds like watching the sausage being made, you are correct. But I think this is the genius of Morgan Spurlock. Through humor, honesty, and a seeming total lack of pretense, he is able to show us the seamy side of anything and somehow neutralize the revulsion. He almost killed himself eating McDonalds food, but watching him almost made me want to try it.* In this film, Spurlock takes us along as he tries to sell his soul while maintaining his integrity, and he really doesn't try to hide his struggle with maintaining the balance. He also serves up plenty of reminders of exactly how much we should trust someone who is being paid to recommend things.

It's not exactly Transformers 3, but I found it quite entertaining. If you like a good documentary, and you are at all curious about how much of what you see on your screen is there because someone is being paid to put it there, you should definitely see this film. We liked it so much we put Pom Wonderful bellinis on our Christmas morning menu.

* If you haven't seen SuperSize Me, you should probably watch it before (or instead of) this one. Besides being a more important film, it is probably a better introduction to Morgan Spurlock's unique brand of filmmaking.