Thursday, May 16, 2013

New Jobs and Horrible Bosses

I’m back!

I’ve been very quiet here because I’ve taken a monumental leap in my life.  I’ve decided to leave the only employer I’ve had since college and go work for a much larger manufacturing company.  I’ll be doing pretty much the same thing I’ve done for the past thirteen years, but the pay is much better, the opportunities are plentiful, and the working environment is much more to my liking—jeans every day, oh yeah!

Not that I didn’t like my old job.  It’s just that when you sit in an extremely quiet office all day, the silence broken only when someone calls or stops in for help, and this is a regular occurrence for thirteen years, you tend to go a little crazy.  Plus I had reached a ceiling, knowing I could really go no further both in my position and in the company in general.  And I hadn’t received much feedback, positive or negative, in several years.  Add to that an uncomfortable tension that has developed over the years due to a conflict between a favored coworker and myself (a whole other story for another time), and it became apparent to me that I needed to move on.  Fortunately a better opportunity presented itself, and I didn’t hesitate.

Obviously you never know how one might interpret the words you make public, and so I’ve been refraining from posting.  I will continue to be very neutral and moderate with my text, although I’m sure anyone who regularly reads my blog knows my political, socio-economic, and religious views already.  Still, I’d rather not paint my house neon green, if you know what I mean.

I did want to share one amusing story, however.  In college I worked in the computer department of a mail processing plant.  I was replacing a guy who was leaving to take a better opportunity, and they hired me prior to summer.  I worked full-time all summer and then was tasked with hiring and training someone else to help out when I went back to school, knowing I would only work part-time at that point.

So I hired a person who eventually became a close friend, and together we ran the computer department for two and a half more years.  This was a family owned and operated business, and most of the family members worked there—husband and wife co-owners, the wife’s sister working as the office manager, another sister working as the shop manager, and yet another sister working as the accountant.  None of them, in my opinion, worked very hard, but I was young and brash at the time, and so perhaps my viewpoint was a bit skewed.  Nonetheless, my coworker and I were literally tasked to do it all.  Not only did we have to set up mailings in the computer, but I configured and replaced computers and peripherals and set up the little network, pulled confidential files from their enormous file storage building (often required to climb rickety ladders and carts 8’ high with no mention or concern for my safety), answered all the calls, entered financial information into Quickbooks, operated bursters (huge machines that trimmed and separated forms), sorted mail, etc.  It was beyond crazy all of the tasks demanded of us.

One fine Saturday morning, my coworker and I were tasked with going in to complete a job that needed to be printed and mailed first thing Monday morning.  We arrived early—7:30 AM—and noticed that the owner’s husband’s truck was parked suspiciously behind the one building.  In other words, if someone had driven into the lot, he/she would not have seen it there unless he/she exited the vehicle and walked down the sidewalk to the office door.  My coworker and I went into the break room and punched in, and the entire place was dark save for the office area that led to the computer room—which should have been dark as well.  We proceeded through the door, opened the computer room door, and saw the owner moving quickly toward us in the dim light of a desk lamp.  He angrily asked what we were doing there, and when we informed him that the business manager told us we HAD to come in that day, he went to her office, shut the door, and we could see on the phones that he was feverishly making calls.  We could hear him shouting to whomever it was that he'd called, and then he simply left without speaking to us.

We thought it was all a bit strange, of course, but then things became--for lack of a better word--disgusting.  We had always known that one of the owner’s pastimes was viewing questionable content on the web.  This was back when dial-up was the only way to connect, and people didn’t really have any clue about temporary internet folders and clearing their browser history.  And this guy was just sick with some of the stuff he looked up.  I won’t get into specifics, but many of his searches involved the words “teen” and “animals.”  Yeah.  Disgusting.

So on this day we settle in after the owner leaves, and the first thing we notice is that the main production computer was on.  My coworker had used it last the day before, and he knew he had turned it off prior to leaving, so we figured that the owner must have been doing “research.”   So my coworker turns on the monitor, and the home page on Internet Explorer 4.0 appeared.  He nearly closed it, but then he paused, looked to me for reassurance, and then moused over the back button.  I nodded, he took a deep breath, clicked it, and sure enough was greeted with extremely graphic and objectionable material.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Oh no.  A few minutes later, after we finished laughing, I heard my coworker say, “What the heck is this?”  I looked over, and he was kicking something on the ground.  He bent down, then sat up with this disgusted look on his face that was priceless.  In one hand was the owner’s wallet.  In the other hand was the owner’s belt.  In other words, yeah, his belt had been taken off and his pants had been on the floor where, most likely in a scramble when he heard the door opening, his wallet had fallen out of his pocket.

My coworker was horrified.  He asked if he should just put them back.  I screamed, “Yes!”  He then got up, went out to the bathroom, came back and sprayed Lysol over EVERYTHING.  And I laughed so hard I nearly peed my pants.

And then the absolute worst happened.  The owner’s truck pulled up outside, and he came into the office area and straight into the computer room.  He still had a ticked-off look on his face, but he then sheepishly asked if we’d seen his wallet.  Can you imagine how awkward that was?  My coworker looked like he was going to say no, but he knew the owner would just come over and look anyway, so he bent down and retrieved the man’s wallet and belt, stood up, and handed them to him.

The owner looked a bit surprised to see his belt.  Like really surprised.  Like, “OK, you caught me” surprised.  He took his belt and wallet silently and simply left.  And we didn’t see him for the next two weeks.  He was in the building, but he avoided us like the plague.  And it was so painfully obvious that his wife and the business manager even asked if something had happened between us.  We just shrugged our shoulders.  Really, what were we going to say to this man’s WIFE??

Luckily I didn’t stay at that job much longer.  And my coworker was fired a couple months after I left because they accused him of screwing up a huge job.  I was called to testify at his unemployment hearing, which of course was a blast (not), and at one point the business manager stood up and screamed at me that I was a liar.  Like she literally stood up, pointed her finger across the table at me, and screamed!  It was so awful that the referee instructed her to leave the room.  The whole situation was so messed up—they had fabricated dozens of write-ups on my coworker, and these were minor things that I’d done numerous times over the years without getting into any trouble.  When it came to this massive job that my coworker had apparently screwed up, I discovered that it was actually the other computer guy they’d hired to replace me who was guilty of the transgression.  Needless to say, my coworker received unemployment, and the referee spent ten minutes chiding the owner and his crew for the "evidence" he'd presented.

And then, unbelievably, I received a call from the owner a week later begging me to come in and train the new people.  After having just lost me to new employment and firing my coworker, they had nobody who knew how to do the job.  You can’t make this stuff up!  Of course I declined.  No way was I going back there.

So I’ve had some bad bosses in my career.  I’ve only actually worked at five different places—a lumber yard the summer after high school, a college work-study job doing computer work, a grocery store in college, that mail processing plant, and the job I’m leaving now.  I won’t rank my bosses, but I can honestly say that the boss at the job I’m leaving was by far the best, and of course the owner of the mail processing plant was the worst.

Everyone has horrible bosses throughout their careers.  In the movie of the same name, I’d say all three bosses portrayed by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston combined were the equivalent of the owner of that mail processing plant.  And it wouldn’t surprise anyone to know that I haven’t spoken to him in thirteen years and probably/hopefully never will again.

But I’ll miss my boss at the job I’m leaving.  He’s a great guy.  I’ll miss a lot of people there, actually.  My coworkers, clients, vendors.  When you work somewhere for 13 years, you create lasting bonds with people.  Lots of people.  And when they announced that I was leaving, my inbox was overwhelmed with well wishes.  How touching is that?

In the past I’ve talked about how people always think the grass is always greener.  I haven’t accepted my new position for that reason.  It’s less about the color of the grass and more about the perspective with which I’m viewing it.  Or really viewing the world.  Will the grass be greener at my new workplace?  Possibly, probably, hopefully.  But is it a new place with a different dynamic with different people in a different industry.  Yes.  Sometimes you just need change to grow.  And that’s what I’m looking for now.

Sorry to write a book.  It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to write, so that’s what you get.  I’m hoping this is the start of me posting again regularly.  If not, I think you’ll understand why.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Where Have I Been??

Sometimes you need to keep your lips sealed, for what you might say could be misconstrued a hundred different ways.  Opinions, sometimes, are best left between you and your spouse or roommate or whomever your closest confidant is.  And thus, my blog has been silent for some time.

I apologize.

I know I could be posting some non-opinionated articles or tidbits of writing, and that’s most certainly on my agenda.  With this great weather though, who wants to sit indoors and write?  I know, I know.  Blasphemy!  Cast me from the ranks of writers and authors.  Send me home packing.  But you know, I have a dozen “around-the-house” projects I’d like to get done this year, some of which involve planters and flower beds, and so writing and blogging of any fashion has taken a back burner.

That poor back burner—often little used and analogous to something of least importance.  From now on, I will only cook on the back burner so that it feels special.

And I promise I will post some non-opinionated writing drivel soon.

Keep it real, folks!

Monday, March 25, 2013

KMFDM, Mr. Smalls, Millvale/Pittsburgh, March 22, 2013

Ok, so in my last post I discussed KMFDM briefly while stressing the importance of teaching children to be creative.  I had mentioned how I wouldn’t go on and on about KMFDM, but after experiencing that show Friday night, I can’t resist.

To begin, the show was in Millvale at Mr. Smalls, by all appearances an old, converted church.  We had stayed at the Hyatt on the North Shore of Pittsburgh between Heinz Field and PNC Park, and the drive to Millvale literally took ten minutes.  The show “started” at 7 PM, but I didn’t really care much to see the opening acts, so we left a little after 7.  I figured it would take a half hour to get there, a half hour to park, etc.  I thought wrong.  We were in the doors at 7:38 PM, and the first act hadn’t even started yet, much to my chagrin.

I did not care for Mr. Smalls.  First off, they did not allow readmission.  In other words, if you left, you were done.  I can understand this policy to some extent, except the place was small and crowded, and there was absolutely no place to go to sit or get some fresh air.  Not cool, Mr. Smalls.  I've NEVER been to a show that didn't have at least limited seating in a bar area or whatever.  Second, they had the vast floor divided roughly in the middle by a plywood barrier to allow for drinking in the back.  You had to be 21 to get back there, although they carded everyone at the door and gave out wristbands, so that was nice not having to show your ID each time you passed the guard at the entrance to the barrier.  I assume the no readmission policy was due in part to alcohol sales, but the plywood barrier was annoying, and there were so many people in the drinking section that you literally couldn’t get to the bar for a beer.  So strike number two.

Strike number three came when I had to pee.  The bathroom had four urinals, each separated by low plywood dividers (what’s with the plywood, Mr. Smalls??), but then to the right there was simply a CURTAIN separating the urinals from the only toilet in the men’s bathroom.  I happened to pick a time to urinate when someone was having some severe digestive distress of some sort, which was VERY unpleasant.  Even a swinging door would have been nice.  What, you can’t afford a DOOR to a bathroom stall?!?  I’m so glad my wife didn’t have to use their facilities—I can only imagine how bad the women’s bathroom would be there.

We paid $9 for two beers, $6 for two Jagerbombs, and $6.50 for a soft pretzel with cheese and a hot dog.  Not bad for the food or liquor, but really?  $9 for 2 beers?  I just don’t get venues and how much they charge for concessions.  They didn’t even search our persons (felt the bottom of my wife’s purse, that’s it) when we went in, and while I’m not a very big drinker anyway, I could see myself sneaking a beer or two in to avoid paying $9 for any future shows.

The first act was Reinforced from Pittsburgh.  It was basically a nerdy-looking black guy (like the character of Theo in Die Hard) playing keyboards and a white guy from a late-80’s metal band screaming lyrics.  One song was written about the lead singer’s battle with cancer, which was inspiring, but yet the lyrics were so literal that it was almost comical.  They actually went “The day I got the call, I lost it all, I had a disease inside of me.  I had a malignancy.  Malignancy.  Malignancy."  They weren't awful, but they definitely need another level--and some better songwriting.

The next band up, we thought, was Legion Within.  When they started playing though, I knew they were not.  Two guys playing tribal drums and keyboards with a ferocious intensity and an industrial sound, they revealed themselves to be Chant out of Austin, TX.  I have to say they were a huge surprise in terms of how well they sounded, and I really enjoyed them.  Check them out if you are into industrial music or percussions in general—cool stuff.

The third band was Legion Within.  They were on the playbill, and when they came out, I immediately wanted them to be over.  Their music isn’t all that bad, but the lead signer’s voice is nasally and whiny, and he looks like a rat when he sings.  KMFDM does a lot of collaborating with other bands, and I really REALLY hope they don’t collaborate with that guy.  And the rest of the audience felt the same way, I think, because I noticed several inappropriate gestures and even a few boos echoing throughout the crowd toward the end of their set.

Because of the extra band, KMFDM did not take the stage until almost 10 PM.  Had I known they weren’t going to come on until then, I would have left our hotel at probably 9:30.  My legs and back were hurting from standing so long (again, no place to sit and no readmission so we couldn’t even go out to the car to relax).  By the time they took the stage though, the place was insanely packed.  I was getting a little concerned because our relatively open space around us filled up quickly, and I knew we were on the wrong side of the plywood partition—the side where the mosh pit would open up, pushing everyone even further back.

KMFDM came out with absolute ferocity.  I tried to remember all the songs they played and created a playlist on my phone.  They started with DIY, which was the ringtone on my phone for YEARS.  In no particular order they performed Kunst, Ave Maria, Pussy Riot, Animal Out (favorite song on the new album), Krank, Rebels in Kontrol, Lynchmob, Amnesia, Free Your Hate, Hau Ruck, WWIII, and Son of a Gun.  They also might have performed Attak/Reload, but I can’t quite remember exactly.  They took two intermissions, and when they returned from the first one (after everyone chanted “KMFDM sucks!” for several minutes), they played Sucks, Anarchy with the lead singer of Legion Within filling in for Tim Skold’s vocals, and I<3 Not off the new album.  I must be a huge KMFDM fan (obviously, considering I’m blogging about the entire show), but I<3 Not was actually sung to the music of Don’t Blow Your Top, which was just so entirely mind/top-blowing that I’m still thinking about it three days later.

They then had their second “intermission” so to speak, and when they returned, they performed Megalomaniac.  My wife was hoping to hear that one, and she got her wish.  When that song ended and the next one began, for a brief moment I think I actually feared for my life.  The last song of the night was, you guessed it,  A Drug Against War.

I’ve never seen a pit so aggressive in my entire life, and while for most of the show the pit was a good twenty feet in front of us, during A Drug Against War it opened up to the point where we were only six feet away.  The guy in front of me literally had his back up against my chest, and my back was up against this stupid plywood divider.  There were a few “techno-Vikings” in the pit as well—guys 6’6” and 350+lbs just slamming into one another, and so it was definitely scary.  Luckily it only lasted one song and then they were done, because claustrophobia was beginning to kick in!

At some point prior to KMFDM taking the stage, we had these two guys come up and stand near us.  One was taller, and he stood right in front of me but had the decency to ask if he was in my way.  He was, but it’s not like he could have really gone anywhere else, so I just shook my head.  His friend was shorter—and disturbingly agitated.  I noticed them arguing at one point about some guy back in the bar area, and he seemed OK then.  A bit angry, but OK.  However, he must have taken Ecstasy or some other drug at some point, because as soon as KMFDM came on, he started dancing and throwing his fists out like he was punching the air.  Think Elaine from Seinfeld only with punches.  He got into an argument with a skinny kid at one point, and I thought he was going to start a physical altercation, and the skinny kid’s girlfriend even got involved and was acting like he was going to punch her.  The tall guy he was with broke it up, but then that guy seemed annoyed and left this little aggressive guy by himself—standing directly beside me, dancing, punching the air.  During one of KMFDM’s faster songs, a couple of young girls in front of us started moshing a bit, and he shoved them away numerous times, each shove harder than the next.  At one point I thought we’d have to call security over to drag this guy out, but he showed me all sorts of respect (which had my wife laughing).  Every time he’d bump into me, he’d say, “Oh, sorry, man.  I’m sorry.  I'm so sorry, man.”  Of course, I had probably six inches and a hundred-twenty pounds on him, and his anger seemed to be only directed at skinny goth kids and women.  A few songs into the KMFDM set, his weird girlfriend/wife came over and started dancing with him, and several times she brushed up against me in a way that began to make me feel a little uncomfortable.  I just ignored her for a while, but then I actually turned to the side, away from her, and she thankfully got the message.  When people are dancing and singing and pumping their fists to loud, fast, aggressive music like that, you are going to be jostling against one another whether you like it or not.  But man, that’s one area where being a big guy can come in handy.  Nobody messes with the big guy at shows.

Being an industrial band, KMFDM’s performance sounded so much like the album songs that the music was just unreal.  During Pussy Riot¸Sascha did not sing some of the lyrics, but other than that they did not fail to impress.  I’ve always said that the best performance I’ve ever seen was KMFDM in 1997, but the 2013 act may have tied that one.

As we were leaving, there was a guy with a flashlight on the stage shining down on all of us as we exited the ONLY door open for us to leave.  I watched him shine it on each and every person, and when I got close I asked him what he was looking for.  He smiled and said, “Just alcohol,” which made sense afterwards, but maybe they needed a different exit for people in the bar and people on the dance floor?  Again, I wasn’t impressed with Mr. Smalls AT ALL, and I won’t be too inclined to go back unless it’s a band I REALLY like.

As we walked down the stairs out front, I saw Steve White, KMFDM’s guitarist, stroll by right in front of us.  They had their tour bus parked right out front, and as he stopped to unlock the door of the bus, I walked past him and said, “Great show, man.  You guys were awesome!”  He turned and looked at me, nodded, and said, “Thanks, man!”  So freakin’ cool.  I talked to Steve White!!  If only it had been Lucia or Kapt’n K himself…

So that was my KMFDM experience.  Great times, for sure.  If they come to PA again, I think I’ll try to catch them maybe in Philly rather than in Pittsburgh, unless of course they go someplace other than Mr. Smalls.  But in all I’d say their performance was beyond incredible.

Were you there?  If so, what did you think?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Teacher Our Young to Be Creative

Back in my high school days, I liked my music loud and aggressive.  My favorite bands shifted over the years from heavy metal icons Motley Crue to perennial rockers AC/DC and then to industrial juggernauts Nine Inch Nails and KFMDM.

While my music tastes have broadened considerably since that time—I listen to the local pop radio station about as much as I listen to my MP3 collection, which even includes some Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and even Katie Perry believe it or not—I still can’t pass up the opportunity to see my favorite bands when they tour in the area.

In just a few minutes my lovely wife and I (along with the kids and grandparents who will be babysitting) will be off to Pittsburgh.  We (just my wife and I) are going to see KMFDM.  I haven’t been this excited to see a show in a long time.  I saw them once before back in 1997, and of the few dozen concerts I’ve been to in my life, I will always credit that 1997 show as being the best.  Heck, I even saw Nine Inch Nails with the Jim Rose Circus freak show act and an unknown Marilyn Manson at the time, but even that one didn’t compare to KMFDM.

I’m not going to hoot and haw over them, because I doubt hardly anyone has heard of them.  Their most popular songs have been “A Drug Against War” and “Juke Joint Jezebel” in the 90s.  They received a bit of unfortunate notoriety after the Columbine massacre because one of the shooters was a huge fan and posted a few of their songs on his website.  And their music does generally portray a message of standing up to the authority.  KFMDM itself is an initialization of “Kein Mehrheit Fur Die Mitleid”, which loosely translates to “no pity for the majority.”  So yeah, it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea.  Loud, in your face, industrial music with heavy guitar riffs, screeching male and female vocals, horns and brass instruments.  Great stuff in my opinion.

I’ve always been a huge fan of music, although I’ve never really pursued it as a skill.  I own a couple of guitars and can play a few chords, and long ago I was invited and entertained the idea of trying out for several bands.  People always got a kick out of my deep voice, and I could play rhythm guitar well enough for a garage or bar band.  But I never did because I was always too busy or had some other excuse (perhaps I was a bit too introverted at the time).

But I was always big on art and, of course, writing.  I took an art class every year from K to 10, and the only reason I stopped in my junior year was that the art classes offered at my high school interfered with honors and AP courses.  I recall in 7th grade, though, having our first, real, not-making-silly-crafts-out-of-shoeboxes art class, and on the very first day our teacher asked us to draw her.  Simple enough.  Just draw her on a sheet of plain 8.5” x 11” white paper with a number 2 pencil.  When we were finished, she looked over the drawings, nodding every so often, and then handed them back to us.  Only three of us in a class of twenty-five drew her as they saw her rather than curly squiggles for hair and child-like noses and smiles and whatnot.  I was surprised by this, because while I drew like that when I was younger, somewhere along the line I realized that drawing circles and squiggles, shapes and patterns, was so limiting to reality.  And I mean, just think about it—we see circles everywhere, like my webcam lens or my cup or my fan, and yet all of these things were manufactured by man.  How many circles do we see in nature that are naturally occurring?  Not very many, unless you are looking at the atomic level.  When you look at a person’s hair, is it really just a bunch of squiggly curly q’s?  No, nobody’s hair REALLY looks like that.  Are eyes really shaped like ellipses?  No.  Are faces ever oval?  No.

In 9th grade and then even more so in college, I took creative writing classes.  I always did well in those classes, and I’d attribute that to my inquisitive mind.  I’m never satisfied with most stories I read or movies I watch, because I’m always so quick to find plot holes or silly bits of writing.  For example, I saw a trailer for Stephenie Meyer’s new movie, The Host, and I was so irritated by the monologue.  The girl says, “This is the beginning of a love story.  It might not seem like a big deal, except for one thing: this is the future, and humanity is all but extinct.”

I’ve not read Stephenie Meyer’s books, and I’ve only been able to stomach through one or two of the Twilight movies.  She is successful, and I have to give her credit there, but that monologue just pains me.  Why?  Because nobody would EVER refer to themselves as being in the future.  Think about it.  I’m not going to call my mom and say, “Hey Mom, this is the future, right?  It’s not like it was back when you were a teenager—back in the present.”  You never actually EXIST in the future unless you have time-travelled there, and then when you are there, it is still your PRESENT.  I get the fact that she’s trying to tell us that the setting is in the future, that’s fine, but by saying, “THIS is the future,” it just sounds silly to me.  How about, “This is the beginning of a love story.  It might not seem like a big deal, except for one thing: it happens/takes place/occurs IN THE FUTURE, where humanity is all but extinct.”

I digress.

Music, art, literature.  All of these things are so precious and valuable.  Yeah, very few people will become rich and famous by making music or selling their art or writing books, and that’s partly the reason why they tend to be neglected in some institutions of learning.  None of those courses are as important as math or science.  Reading, yeah, but writing?  Not so much.

Yet even a doctor with all of his knowledge of the human anatomy needs creative skills to diagnose patients.  If it’s not this ailment, then it could be this one, and if it’s not this one, then it could be that one.  Computer programmers need creative skills to envision new algorithms and solutions for automating processes.  Even investors need to be creative when it comes to identifying trends and studying markets.  Without creativity, we’d accomplish nothing.

If you have a little one, I’d strongly encourage you to have him/her draw or write or learn an instrument.  Allow that little mind to not just learn a new skill but also the ability to imagine and envision.  I once had a crazy old teacher named Mrs. Harvey who had her ladder of abstraction, and while everyone scoffed at her teaching style—which was probably more fitting for gifted elementary school kids and not teenagers—she was very right about one thing: kids need to learn how to think for themselves—and think in the abstract.

Because we really don’t want or need a world full of followers, unable to think or do anything outside of what they are told.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Because Said I Should!

Oh no!  Where have I been?

Yes, it’s been something like two weeks since my last post.  I apologize.  Sometimes life gets in the way of your best intentions.  I wish I could say something monumental happened to me that has kept me from posting, but alas I cannot.  Instead, I’ve taken up yet another hobby—improving upon myself in a way that I haven’t done for a while.

I’m learning a new language!  Actually, I’m learning several.  One is Vietnamese, which is what my wife’s family speaks.  I’ve tried learning it a handful of times before, but now I actually have some mp3s to listen to while I drive.  My wife understands it well but doesn’t really speak it, so that hinders my learning, as it’s always best to be surrounded by a language to really learn it.  Still, I often like to know what my in-laws are talking about, and instead of recognizing a handful of words like I have for years, maybe in a few months I’ll be able to recognize several dozen.  So that’s one thing I’ve been up to.

The other languages I’m learning are programming languages.  Not since my days in college have I spent actual time learning something like this.  In high school and college I learned Turbo Pascal and C++, and somewhere along the line I learned how to design a webpage in HTML and CSS, but it’s been so long that my skills were beyond rusty.  And Javascript didn’t exist back then, or at least if it did, it wasn’t in my curriculum.  But beyond just brushing up on HTML and CSS and learning Javascript, I plan on learning PHP, jQuery, and perhaps even Python, Ruby, and a bunch of others.

How am I doing this?  Through for now.  And the best part is that is free.  You just sign up and start learning.  Piece of cake.

Why am I doing this?  Because Bill Gates and said I should.  No seriously, as an IT Manager, I’ve always felt programming was one of my weaker skills, and yet I come across instances on a daily basis where I wish I could tweak something without contacting a vendor or create my own content.  And technology is so prevalent in our world that it’s really silly not to at least understand how computers do what they do.  Ultimately I might mesh my writing and programming skills together in some fashion for a new website or business—we’ll see.  But I have to start somewhere.  And it’s always a smart idea to pad your resume with skills pertinent to your field.

But even beyond that, I see it as something refreshing and fun to do.  I always read or hear about people being bored.  I’m never bored.  In fact, I never seem to have enough time to accomplish everything I want.  And even when I’m doing nothing, I find myself playing dumb games on my phone like Words with Friends or Candy Crush Saga (literally 3 HOURS one night this week).

Technology is a pretty handy tool, but it’s such a huge field that it’s impossible to know everything.  And it’s constantly changing.  So I suggest if you are ever bored, delve into the world of technology.  Learn a programming language like me, or get yourself a smart phone or a tablet.  Surf the web—you can spend hours upon hours on sites like or  Make yourself some new friends on Twitter and chat away.  Shop (enough said).  Or research stuff like zombie ants or nanotechnology or bog bodies.

I’m not advocating keeping your nose glued to a mobile device or PC monitor all day, because getting outside and playing or going for a walk or jog is much more vital to your health.  But the next time you are sitting around your house bored, depressed, or lonely, just sit down at your computer or download some apps on your phone and do something with yourself—even if it is just playing Candy Crush Saga for 3 hours.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Perceived Anonymity and Invincibility on the Internet

What would we do without the Internet?  All of those wonderful games we play on our phones?  Emailing and texting and Skyping?  The ability to Google anything and everything?  I remember when I was a teenager and wanted to know something, I’d either ask my dad (who seemingly knew EVERYTHING) or I’d go dig in the back of my closet for twenty-year-old encyclopedias that still listed North and South Vietnam as two separate countries.  It’s amazing I was able to write coherent and relevant term papers in high school!

Now people can literally spend all day trolling the Internet—especially social media and news sites.  I think humans, as a function of their existence, thrive on vicarious drama, and there’s no better place to find drama than Facebook.

I have one friend on Facebook who is constantly posting quarrels he’s having with his girlfriend.  He doesn’t even tag her in the posts.  He just says things like, “Oh, I see how it is.  Wait until the tides turn, you *#$%*#.”  He'll even comment on his post with another crass remark, almost as if he's talking to himself like a lunatic.  No joke!  People have commented under his posts saying he should keep his pre-marital strife out of the public realm, but that does not deter him.

Today I was reading a post by the local radio DJ about a teenager with severe scoliosis.  Sadly I couldn’t write this blog entry sooner, but her family was collecting donations at Sam’s Club in Altoona from like 10 AM to 6 PM.  It was a great post to share on the part of the DJ, something honorable and thoughtful, and the family was hoping that the publicity would raise $7000 for her treatment.  And then I read the comments…

The post didn’t actually mention the girl’s name, and so someone asked for it, saying she’d like to know who she’s donating money to before she drives over.  People started bashing her, saying the name of the girl or family shouldn’t matter, and she started bashing back, saying she donates all the time and attends church benefits and blah blah blah.  I think I read maybe ten posts of this lady arguing with two or three others, calling each other names and whatnot.  Absolutely ridiculous.

This was a great post to benefit this poor girl.  And people were fighting about it.  What is wrong with people?

Well, I might be able to provide a partial answer to that.  The Internet has given us all a sense of perceived anonymity and invincibility.  We think that we can type away our thoughts and feelings, no matter how crass or immoral, and that nobody can stop us.  Some might have a devil-may-care attitude about life in general.  Others might be under the impression that they don’t have many actual friends that they routinely congress with, and so even if they have hundreds or thousands of followers or friends on their social media sites, none of them are paying any attention to what they post.  Wrong.

My case in point, another social media friend of mine, a person who has always seemed to struggle with his self-esteem, shared an extremely vulgar picture, and in the comments an aunt or other type of authority figure stated that she should wash his mouth out with soap.  His response: “I’m 27 years-old now.  I can say what I want.”

I wasn’t at all surprised to see his vulgar post, because it was par for the course with him, but I was surprised by his comment.  I really believe that people seem to think they can say what they want on the Internet with no repercussions.  And that’s a bit scary to me that some of us have devolved to that point.

Any human resource manager or boss looking to hire someone and worth his/her salary is going to delve through social media sites before making an offer.  It’s the same idea as researching a product on the Internet before purchasing it.  You want to know what you’re getting before you commit.  And so yeah, I guess people can say whatever they want, but I certainly hope they won’t ever have the need to hunt for a job in the future.  And forget about running for a public office!

What really troubles me is that people would not say these types of things in actual public.  Like this lady asking for the name of this poor girl, if she just happened to be shopping at Sam’s Club and saw her asking for donations, she’d probably drop a few cents in the jar and be on her way.  She’s not going to walk up to the disabled girl and ask her name or interrogate her.  And she’s not going to get in a public argument with someone else over something so trivial.  People shy away from arguments in public, because it creates a scene, and natural human behavior forces most people to avoid scenes.

But not on the Internet, yet it is still a public setting.  It’s actually possibly even more public than a physical location, because rather than having maybe twenty people gape at your pointless and insensitive argument, you now have hundreds if not thousands—especially when you do it in the comments under the post of a local celebrity.  Are some people just too dense to understand that?

The Internet can be a very scary thing at times, and I’m not talking about malware or hackers or NSFW content popping up on the screen while trying to show your boss an important document.  I’m talking about the fact that people have this perceived anonymity and invincibility when using it.  I’m sorry people, but that’s just not the case.  Unless you are using some fake name to comment (which is an entirely different issue possibly requiring some psychological therapy in most cases), you aren’t anonymous.  And when you say things that make you look like a donkey butt, don’t be surprised when you run into a cousin or high school friend or fellow churchgoer and the person gives you the cold shoulder.  Because you are not invincible either.

I’ve said my peace.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marissa Mayer's Attack on Telecommuting

Telecommuting took a big hit this week when Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, banned the perk, telling her employees that they had to work in the office or find employment elsewhere.  Yikes!  Naturally, people are all up in arms over this.

Her rationale seems sound.  To quote her:
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.  That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.  Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

It’s hard to argue that fact.  People who work from home are physically disconnected from the rest of the workforce.  Sure, with the right technology, someone can pick up a phone and dial someone else’s extension, send an email, etc.  But people never want to bother each other, and I’ll bet that most people feel that calling someone working from home is akin to calling them “at home,” meaning calling them during a time in which they would prefer to not be disturbed.

And really, telecommuting can be abused far too easily under lax supervision.  As an IT professional, I have seen with my very eyes people’s productivity levels drop.  Someone working from home typically has to remotely connect to the office’s network, and those connections appear on dashboards and reports that any network administrator readily views.  So when there is no network activity from a telecommuter for over a half hour or forty-five minutes, what exactly is that person doing?  That’s where a supervisor has to be diligent, and unfortunately that doesn’t happen enough—or perhaps even at all.

Most people would love to have a job where they could telecommute, even if it were only a couple of days a week.  Both of my siblings telecommute a few days per week with their respective jobs—and both are VERY HARD WORKERS.  My wife has on-call hours where she telecommutes a few times a month.  Technology is a wonderful thing in that regard.  You have people working from home, using their own electricity and water and toilet paper and whatnot.  Morale is improved.  Your employees can work in their pajamas or birthday suit if they so desired.  It really is a great perk from an employee perspective.

But I can’t wholly disagree with Marissa Mayer’s decision.  Yahoo is a company that is struggling, and sometimes you have to take away some of the perks as a kick in the pants to your employees—kind of like a guy my dad once knew who, working as the VP of Facilities and Maintenance, literally kicked his underling in the pants (shin) with a steel-toed boot.  That guy was promptly fired, thankfully, but sometimes employees need a metaphoric kick like that.  If you want your employees to work harder, motivate them—either by giving rewards for good behavior or punishing them for bad.

As I said, I can’t wholly disagree with Marissa Mayer, but I am troubled by her decision a little.  In my mind, if your employees aren’t being productive enough, that’s not an employee problem.  That’s a management problem.  Good employees will work hard, collaborate, and communicate whether they are working from home or not.  Not-so-good employees will find ways to abuse perks like telecommuting.  Management should be able to tell the difference between the two and be able to weed out the bad ones--or at the very least apply performance standards that would allow the best employees to have the best perks.

Blanket rules like banning telecommuting can sometimes do more harm than good.  Yes, you are being firm in what you want to see happen with the company, and yes you are delivering a message.  But sometimes your good employees will interpret that message the wrong way.  And chances are, many good employees at Yahoo have been looking or have found employment elsewhere already.  The telecommuting ban may be the straw that breaks the camel's back for them.

Allowing employees to telecommute while maintaining adequate if not outstanding levels of productivity is a matter of great supervision and great technology.  If a company is lacking in one or the other, problems will abound.  From my perspective, Yahoo is a one-dimensional company that is lacking in creativity.  When you look at Microsoft and Google and how they seem to have their hands in everything from operating systems, browsers, search engines, phones and devices, cloud services, etc., it’s no wonder those companies are flourishing.  I use Yahoo mail for a mostly junk email account.  That’s it.  And if they aren’t creating the best technology, it makes me really wonder if they are using it.

Sorry Marissa, but your problem isn’t with your workers telecommuting.  Your problem is that your company is as blasé and yesterday as Netscape and AOL.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Therapy Thursday - Can't Make This Stuff Up!

So every Thursday morning the local radio station, Hot 92 and Hot 100, holds a Therapy Thursday.  They ask people to write in with dilemmas they may be having and prompt the listening audience to chime in either by calling or posting on Facebook.

I’m always flabbergasted (love that word) by the people requesting therapy.  They always seem to be childish, inane, or else their message is lacking some integral component of the entire situation.  Most of the issues deal with relationships, which can be expected considering the amount of drama churned up by romantic conflict between sexes.

But this morning’s Therapy Thursday issue was a doozy.  I’ve posted a copy of the Facebook post below:

I have to admit that I laughed HARD when I read this.  And then I read it twice, just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.  Oh my.  Where do I begin??

OK, first of all, this guy is so contradictory in his statement that I’ll bet he spends twenty minutes just deciding on a flavor of toothpaste in the grocery store.  “Confused?”  Yeah, you said it.  So your fiancée is intelligent, has a beautiful personality, beautiful eyes, and a phenomenal body?  Even one or two out of the four should be enough for most men, but not for this guy.  He complains about her slouchy, foot-dragging walk, feral manners, oily skin, and not-so-bad breath.  I’m sorry, but that does not describe an attractive person.  It almost sounds like he’s describing an animal!  So what’s the deal, buddy?  Are you engaged to your pet hamster?

Second, I love his descriptive details.  This guy wins first place for how insulting a person can be (BTW, first place prize is a kick to the groin from your fiancée).  I mean, he obviously has given her flaws a lot of thought to have those adjectives in mind while writing this up.  You really think that about the woman you’ve been with for FIVE YEARS?  Repulsed?  Never really attracted to her?  Did you go blind about five years ago and now suddenly had your vision restored?  I’m repulsed by raw sewage.  I don’t think I’ve ever been repulsed by a person’s mannerisms and features.  Horrified, maybe, but repulsed?  And this is the woman you sleep in the same bed with??

And so what, you think she loves every little thing about you?  The excessive hair on your back?  Your unibrow or nasty facial hair?  Your loud snoring or the way your armpits smell like a Subway restaurant after a long day’s work?

Note, ahem, I did not just describe myself…

What makes you so freakin’ special that you can point out her flaws, saying that’s why you aren’t attracted to her, and yet she has to put up with yours?  You think you don’t have any negative qualities that she overlooks?  Are you that much of a narcissist?

Third, and this is the best, he talks about cheating on her rather than breaking off the engagement and ending the relationship.  So not only is he not attracted to her, but he doesn’t respect her enough to call it quits.  And he even compares her to old bologna.  OLD BOLOGNA?!?  Wow.  Wow.

My point isn’t to beat up on this moron, although I’m enjoying it.  My point is that narcissism seems to be rampant in our society.  People are so self-centered and focused on themselves that, just like this guy, they’ll hurt even those closest to them because they are bored, disillusioned, lazy, or pick-a-reason without any thought whatsoever as to how the other person feels.  And not only that, but they'll post their attitude for the whole world to see!  This me-me-me attitude that I observe so often HAS TO STOP if the people of our nation ever want it to continue being a civilized super-power.

Maybe I’m just too old-school.  I purposely don’t rock the boat.  I don’t tailgate or drive slow as a tortoise, am overly conscious of where my cart is in the super-market so as not to block the aisle, keep my lips shut when I know my words may be hurtful, etc.  I remain low-key, mostly out of sight, allowing others to showboat around the room while I stand back, watch, listen, and evaluate.  It’s not that I’m shy or introverted or anything—it’s that I’m respectful of others in that regard.  And in all the observing and evaluating I’ve done in my life, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to treat others.

But, man, when I read garbage like this, I feel like a dying breed.

I hope this dude’s fiancée reads this and realizes her hubby-to-be was the author.  Because this dude needs to learn the hard way—still favoring that kick to the groin lesson, but simply dumping him would suffice.  And I hope this guy’s therapy request is a lesson for the rest of us.  There is more to life than what’s going on in our own little heads.  You may not like some particular thing about your significant other/friend/coworker/whatever, but those are people who are a part of your life, and it’s best to just ignore it.

Unless of course that person smells like a Subway restaurant CONSTANTLY…maybe in that case you should have a little talk with him/her.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Promoting Yourself on Twitter

As an “Indie” author, I can say that getting your name out there can be frustrating—especially if you are intent on getting recognized.  I’ve always somewhat shied away from the limelight, only because I don’t want that type of complication in my life.  Yes, I’d love to sell more books (who wouldn’t?), but that’s not why I write.  I write because I love telling stories.  If I suddenly became a world-famous author, I wouldn’t complain, but that’s not my ultimate goal.

Yes, I’ve submitted dozens of query letters to agents.  It’s amusing to me how some will be courteous enough to send you a rejection letter while others won’t even acknowledge you sent them your work.  I know that if I ever became a literary agent, I would at least respect the people who took the time to send submissions to me.  But the literary world is also changing, and ebooks are all the rage now.  You don’t need an agent to publish your book today with tools like Amazon KDP and Smashwords.  Promoting your book, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether.

Obviously I’m not an expert on promoting books.  Otherwise I’d be popping up on best seller’s lists.  But I have humbly amassed a moderately-sized Twitter following just by being a writer and following other writers.  It hasn’t been too terribly difficult to do, either.  For a while when I started I would add followers and then delete those who didn’t follow back.  And I would interact with those people who followed me by conversing and retweeting.  I did this for several months—long enough to get past the pesky 2000 following threshold, and now I have well over 6000 followers.  I don’t really follow people first now either.  Every day I’ll get ten to fifteen followers, and I’ll choose the real people (not bots and spammers), interact with them, and follow them back.  And it seems to work well.

Why is this important?  Well, when I would tweet a promotion for one of my books or a blog post prior to amassing the followers I have now, I would receive maybe 10 hits.  Now when I do it, I get between 50 and 100.  Bumping up your number of Twitter followers has its advantages, and so for anyone just starting out, I’d suggest you invest some time in Twitter.

After all, all of these SEO and book marketing people do the same thing.  They follow people in droves, then unfollow those who haven’t followed back, then try to get money from you to promote your work to all the followers they’ve amassed.  Why pay money to those people when you can just do that yourself?

One mistake I see people make all the time is that they’ll hit that 2000 following limit, then go in and indiscriminately unfollow a bunch of people so that they are only following a few hundred.  This is absolutely one of the worst Twitter moves you can do if you want to amass a ton of followers.  First of all, for those who do follow you, it’s annoying.  I took the time and effort (really just a second and a click--why am I complaining?) to follow you, so when you stop following me, that means to me that you aren’t interested in what I have to say.  I waste no time whatsoever unfollowing those who aren’t following me back.  A few times a week I’ll use one utility or another (Who Unfollowed Me, Twitter Karma when it works) to list the people that aren’t following me back, and I’ll unfollow those people.  I’m always amazed, too, at how many people show up in this list.  Smart Twitter users who actively manage their followings aren’t going to fall for it.  And the second issue with indiscriminately mass unfollowing is that if you attempt to follow more people after you’ve already unfollowed most of your followers, chances are you’ll just be following the same people again—people who are already following you in the first place.  I’ve seen at least a dozen instances of someone following me, me following back, that person then unfollowing me, me unfollowing back, and then that person following again.  Had I not unfollowed them like a smart Tweeter, they would all be wasting their time following me back a second time.  Sure, you may be able to get past that 2000 following limit by doing this, but as people start to unfollow you back, your numbers are going to dive.  Not the way to do it, folks.  Twitter isn't all about you.

If you are following 2000 people and only have 1000 followers, you need to unfollow a lot of folks.  There was a time when I would follow celebs, but that became tedious and boring.  Celebrities just don’t interest me—they are just people like you and me—people with big paychecks and cameras shoved into their faces, but who often have nothing more to offer than a hundred other people you may follow.  And celebs aren’t going to follow you back.  They aren’t going to converse with you.  Why bother?  Subscribe to their Facebook pages or an RSS celeb feed instead, because chances are if some celeb tweeted something interesting or shocking, you’ll read all about it there.

Keep your following/followers numbers roughly the same, and you’ll have no problem bypassing that 2000 following limit.  Oh, and take advantage of the bots and fake people who follow you.  Many people will report those accounts as spam, but I don’t.  I just don’t follow those accounts back—allowing them to pad my number of followers until they are eventually deleted.  I think Twitter allows you to follow only 10% more people than are following you after you reach 2000, so as long as you have over 1800 followers, you can keep on following.  Just make sure you always unfollow those who aren’t following you back.

It takes time.  I’ve been working at it for several years now.  Every day it grows a little bigger, and every day the hits to my blog and book sites go up a bit more.  Just keep at it.  Keep following back, unfollowing those who aren’t following you back, and tweeting, retweeting, and conversing with others.  The more you do, the more success you’ll see.

Oh, and don’t forget to keep writing!  For a while there I think I spent more time each evening on Twitter than I did actually writing.  Managing your Twitter followers should only take ten or fifteen minutes per day at the most.

Hope that helps!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hitting That Writing Dream Zone

It was a dark and stormy night when the detective found the body of Mrs. Smith.  As he searched her apartment, he found a trace of blood near the bathroom sink where the killer had apparently tried to clean himself.  CSI collected the blood sample, and it turned out to be the woman’s estranged husband, who was jealous of her relationship with a new man.  The end.

What’s wrong with this story?  Yeah, it’s rather boring.  We’ve heard it a million times.  National best seller?  Hollywood Blockbuster?  I think not.

And yet the reason we’ve heard that story so many times is that it’s one of the more likely scenarios in a murder case.  Typically they happen at night.  Typically the murderer will leave evidence.  Typically it will involve a past or current lover.  Watch Investigation Discovery a few times a day and I’m certain you’ll come across a real-life story just like this.

In attempts to spice up their work, some writers will take a simple story like this, interject fancy language or controversial subject matter or something of the sort.  Others, like me, will add in plot twists to try to keep the story fresh and the reader guessing.  Some may include drama, suspense, humor, or some other kind of literary tool.

It was a dark and stormy night when the detective, an alien from the planet Bortros, found the body of the Queen of England.  As he searched the royal grounds with his extrasensory perception, he discovered a trace of the killer’s blood in the royal chambers.  Scotland Yard criminalists matched the blood to a royal guardsman, but as it turns out, the man was actually an alien from the planet Ecliptos.  Bortrosians and Ecliptosians had long been at war, and knowing the Bortrosian detective was the best lawman and fighter Bortros had, the entire investigation of the murder of the Queen on Earth had simply been an Ecliptosian distraction developed to gain a better advantage in their war on Bortros.

Ummm, yeah, OK.  Same relative story—a murder mystery—but what in the heck is going on here?  Warring alien planets, a prominent figure, and a very strange twist make this story unbelievable and just weird.  Sure, some sci fi geek out there might like it in an unabbreviated form, but it’s not going to draw in a huge reading audience.

Creativity isn’t bestowed upon everyone.  Some people couldn’t fabricate an entertaining and believable story if their lives depended on it.  Sure they could write out sixty-thousand words, but it would probably be dull, drab, uneventful or else have the entire thing be so unbelievably odd or complex or full of plot holes that the novel becomes intellectually offsetting.

My case in point, I was reading an Indie author’s work the other day, and it started out well with a cowboy in a saloon in the Old West.  The man was being harassed by other patrons, and the writer foreshadowed his  character's bad-assery very well by making the cowboy restrain himself--similar to the character of Phillip Jennings in the pilot of that new show The Americans on FX.  Regarding The Americans, Mr. Jennings has a run in with a huge bald-headed man while shopping at the mall with his daughter.  The bald man blatantly hits on Mr. Jennings' tween daughter, mocks him about it, and Mr. Jennings just walks away--only to show up at the guy's house at the very end, in disguise, and give him a whooping.  Yes, you should watch that show--it's a good one!  Anyway, this Indie author's cowboy character apparently only had one intended target, so he tolerated the harassment until his target appeared.  And then suddenly, without warning, he slaughtered the target and all of the patrons.  Good beginning, sure, but then the next few pages just threw me.  This cowboy was actually some sort of time-travelling, alien, undead-hunting super cop.  And no, I’m not kidding.  Needless to say, I got through maybe thirty pages and just had to stop before space-faring elves or steampunk vampires appeared.

A narrow, ideal, dream zone exists between writing some boring crap that nobody wants to read and writing something that is over-the-top and painful to endure.  Finding that zone can be a challenge.  Add to that bad grammar, misspellings, overused clichés and verbiage (like “it was a dark and stormy night”), and even if you find that dream zone, you still won’t have droves of people eager to read your work.

I’d bet that every writer misses that zone more often than he/she hits it.  So what’s a person to do?  Well, if you want to be a writer, you have to write.  Plain and simple.  Pound out at least a thousand words per day and strive for five-thousand.  The math is elementary—if you can manage five-thousand words per day, in less than two weeks you’ll have yourself a full-length novel.  Will it hit that zone and be a success?  Probably not.  But having others critique your work will help you fix the problems in your writing, and practice makes perfect.  Just keep at it!

And don’t hesitate to really dig in and even get help in determining your writing weaknesses.  Some people are so wonderfully creative, yet they lack direction or purpose with their writing.  Others need to brush up on their grammar and spelling.  Some need to work on their vocabulary skills.  No writer—even the most famous ones—is perfect in the craft.  That’s why writers utilize proofreaders and editors to assist them.

You’ll know whether you have talent, I think, from the constructive criticism you receive.  Acquire the aid of friends and family at first, although be prepared to receive skewed criticism.  I’ve found that if people close to you tell you that they read your book in a single day or that they couldn’t wait to find out what happened with this character or that, you’ll know it was entertaining to them.  If your mom or wife merely says it was “good” or that he/she enjoyed it, and yet that person never mention it to you again, you’ll know it probably wasn’t one of your best.  A decent story will stick with someone and have that person talking about it for months or years.  Heck, I can still remember some of the more meaningful books and stories I read even twenty years ago.

And because a writer misses that dream zone more often than not, the only way you’re going to hit it is if you keep writing.  Success in anything very rarely comes overnight.  I’m always a bit tickled by the people who spend years writing a book and then expect it to be a huge success.  Unless you have some major connections with a successful author, agent, or publisher, your work that you spent years on probably is going to spend more time on a flash drive in your desk drawer than it will on the NYT Best Seller's List.

So keep writing.  Write at least a thousand words a day—roughly the length of this post.  If you can do that, you may just be successful.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Please Ignore My Ranting

Just to forewarn you, this post is nothing more than a compilation of complaints.  If you don’t like listening or reading about someone whining over trivial matters, move on to the next tweet or Facebook post or whatever in your list.

Since my second son was born nearly three weeks ago, I’ve been driving straight to work rather than the circuitous route I previously took to drop my first-born off at school and my wife off at her job.  Yes, my wife drives, but we enjoyed spending our mornings together by carpooling, and it naturally saves on gas.  Anyway, she’s been at home with baby since mid-January, and I’ve been driving a different route straight to work.  And I don’t know if I hadn’t paid as much attention before, but these past few weeks have proven to me that people drive like idiots.  Yeah, I said it.  Idiots.

This past week alone I’ve had four people tailgate me relentlessly, watched three people blatantly run red lights, saw well over ten people run stop signs in my neighborhood, and nearly saw an accident that could have been fatal (car turned left into, of all places, a methadone clinic right in front of a huge box truck).

What’s the rush, people?  Traffic signals and speed limits are optional because you couldn't wake up five minutes earlier?

A couple of months ago, some local guy was killed while checking his mail because a driver was speeding to get to work.  I’ve almost been THAT GUY way too many times.  My house sits at the beginning of a long stretch of flat, straight road, and despite posted 25 mph signs, people will fly down it at speeds in excess of 40 or even 50 mph.  My mailbox sits along the side of the road right before a bend to the left, and often when another car is coming in the opposite direction, people will drive off the road to avoid the other car.  That is, off the road directly where I stand to check my mail.

Seriously, what’s the rush, people?  Getting to your destination is more important than the life of another human being?

For all my readers out there, please slow down.  If you hit someone who is walking or checking his/her mail, like me, that’s on you.  There’s no defense for driving too fast and striking a pedestrian.  And if you know someone that speeds, please encourage that person to slow down as well.

I’m not done with this little rant just yet.  Switching topics completely, I have a tremendous amount of respect for my wife.  In the three weeks since our baby was born, she’s been up three to four times a night feeding and changing him.  This baby is the loudest baby I’ve ever been around, grunting and passing gas and screaming when he gets hungry.  Last night I heard her say, “Please, Ben, I’ve only had an hour of sleep so far,” and I turned and looked at the clock and saw it was 3:30 AM.  I know some fathers get up during the wee hours of night to tend to newborns, but I’ll admit that I’ve never been great at doing that.  Luckily my wife has been able to take time off with the baby, and I know that when she goes back to work I’ll have to start picking up some of the slack (or else we’ll be going to bed at 8 every night).  But my wife is one heck of a great mommy.

Some women aren’t cut out for motherhood.  Some would choose to focus on their career or are frightened by the thought of raising a little one.  And I have no problem with women who personally decide not to have kids.  It’s their choice, and I have a tremendous respect for people, both men and women, who make choices and stick to them.  Parenthood isn’t for everyone.

But sometimes I am moderately annoyed over the reasoning some women use for not having kids.  One of the biggest excuses I’ve heard is that they do not want to ruin their bodies.  I’m sure we all know a woman who has said this.

Now I don’t personally know this particular unnamed lady pictured below (minus her head—I don’t want sued!), but in a conversation a year or so ago, she stated adamantly that she would not be having kids because she didn’t "need a kid ruining" her body.

Seriously?  Seriously.

I’m a bigger guy myself, and I’m not poking fun at her size, but really, lady?  You think birthing a child will ruin your body, but the excess food you consume and your lack of exercise won’t?  She’s not even that big, apparently, and perhaps this picture isn’t all that flattering, but to say a child will ruin your body when you’re obviously carrying around quite a few extra pounds seems asinine to me.  And besides, let me just set the record straight by saying that watching my wife care for my sons is one of the SEXIEST things I’ve ever seen in my life.  Yes, she may have a few stretch marks and a few pounds to lose to get back to her pre-pregnancy weight, but if you are a woman who is concerned about changes to your body due to child birth, don’t be.

BTW, that lady above could quite possibly have some other issues unrelated to children.  I know I shouldn’t judge her, but she seems to have a narcissistic personality.  For example, her husband is a very effeminate man—so much so that many people have reportedly mistaken him for being gay.  I mean absolutely no disrespect by that, just to be clear.  But continuing on with my point, she also didn’t take her husband’s last name, even in hyphenated form.  Again, no disrespect there either.  But add it all up, including her comments regarding childbirth ruining her body, and it really tells you something about her, doesn’t it?  I mean, by all observations, it would seem that she’s simply a strong-willed, slightly masculine, career-oriented woman, and that’s totally cool.  But if that’s the case, lady, don’t tell mothers-to-be that you don’t want kids because “kids will ruin your body.”  Just say you don’t want kids because that’s the choice you’ve made.  End of discussion.

I’ve also heard women say that they can barely take care of themselves, let alone kids.  This one isn’t quite so annoying, as I’ve seen a lot of women out there who should definitely NOT be mothers, but shouldn’t that be a bit of a wakeup call for them?  If they can “BARELY take care of themselves,” shouldn’t they take some steps to get their personal lives in better order?  I don’t think I’ve ever been at a point in my adult life where I could “barely take care of myself.”  Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t be having kids, but maybe you should be getting busy doing other things like creating a better life for yourself.  Just a thought.

And finally, switching subjects completely again, I don’t understand why restaurants have to use so much sodium in their meals.  I’m sure I could Google it, and my inquiring mind probably will as soon as I’m done typing this, but if you eat out anywhere in a typical day, you are likely to get two times your recommended amount of sodium.  High sodium has been proven to contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and a number of other nasty, life threatening diseases.

I’ve been tweaking my diet the past few weeks, really trying to make a conscious effort to go from a bigger man to a, well, slightly-bigger-than-average-sized man.  I’ve been more active, trying to walk in place as often as I can and squeezing in twenty minutes or so of exercise every night.  I’ve cut out sugary sodas and have cut back tremendously on sweets.  I’ve been trying to keep my calories below 2000, and I’ve been fairly successful at that.  But, wow, my sodium levels haven’t budged.

We grab take-out probably three or four times per week for convenience.  We have always done this, and when my wife goes back to work, that trend will only continue.  We don’t get home until nearly six most nights, and by that time it takes entirely too long to make a complicated dinner.  I’ve been much more conscious of what I’m ordering on the menus of restaurants, but since I started tracking sodium, I’ve been at a total loss.  It's next to impossible to get a low-sodium meal from a restaurant.

Take, for example, Panera and their seemingly healthy food choices.  Last night I ordered a chopped Thai chicken salad, a cup of broccoli cheddar soup, and a French baguette.   Sounds like a healthy meal, right?  And really, it should have been.  In total it was 950 calories comprised of 101g of carbs, 39g of fat, and 54g of protein.  It even had 13g of fiber.  Great stuff…until I looked at the sodium content.  In all, the meal was 3080mg of sodium, the equivalent of one and a half tablespoons.  Yuck.

Aside from the above-mentioned health issues, sodium makes you retain water.  If you eat foods that, in total, contain the daily recommended allowance of sodium (typically 2500mg), you’ll be fine.  If you eat much more than that, the next time you hop on the scale you’ll find that you probably haven’t lost any weight—and quite possibly gained some.  That’s because your body is filled with water.

I looked up all of the ingredients to make the Panera meal I mentioned above, and the total sodium content I came up with was much, much less—closer to around 1200mg.  So why are they adding sodium to an otherwise healthy meal?  I’m sure it has something to do with preservatives or taste or whatnot, and I’ll be Googling it like I said, but it really makes me think that the healthy way to eat is to eat at home where you can measure out your own fresh ingredients and know EXACTLY what you are putting into the food you consume.

That’s all I have to rant about for now, I guess.  I feel better now.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A World Without Money

Here’s a scenario for you: your daily life revolves completely around bettering yourself and those close to you.  You have no need for work, because money is non-existent.  The value we place on material possessions is completely absent from society, thereby making the idea of working for a paycheck obsolete.  You may still go to a “job”, but you do so in order to improve yourself in areas like education, experience, physical fitness, camaraderie, or any number of reasons other than fattening your now non-existent wallet.

I’m joking, right?

It’s hard to imagine a society where money doesn’t exist.  Really, if making more moolah wasn’t important, who would wait our tables and flip our burgers?  Who would stock the shelves of grocery stores?  Money is the deciding factor in everything.  People work to make money to buy things.

Fans of Star Trek will know that the futuristic societies portrayed in those stories have evolved past the use of money.  Their drive and ambition is, instead, to further themselves and achieve more.  The idea is altruistic and refreshing, yet for us it seems millennia away.

Not so fast.  Fans of Star Trek will also recognize the term “replicator”, which is a machine that can create food and supplies out of atoms and molecules.  A person walks up to the replicator, asks for a hot cup of coffee or a slice of pepperoni pizza, and voila it appears before them ready to eat.  Again, this is the stuff of science fiction…but really, it’s not.  It's modern science and engineering.

I’ve been hearing more and more about 3D printers making their way into the public eye.  These printers can manufacture three dimensional plastic objects out of specifications supplied by the user.  In other words, if I wanted a pen to write with, I could program the printer to create a plastic casing for a pen, and it would “print” that casing.  I’d still have to acquire the ink and ballpoint features, but the bulk of my object has been created for me.

Just last week I read an article about people building the casings of assault rifles using 3D printers.  On the popular television show The Big Bang Theory, Howard and Raj create action figures of themselves using a 3D printer.  These things do exist, and they are becoming more and more prevalent.

I’ll admit that building simple plastic pieces and models is a far cry from generating a steaming cup of tea from molecules, but some engineers have gotten a lot closer than those 3D printing machines available commercially.  Below is an interesting article from a few months ago summarizing the author’s friend and his attempts to construct a replicator in his lab.

Interesting stuff.  Brings to mind the ideas I conjured up in my first novel, ProjectUtopia.

But where am I going with all of this?  Well, imagine being able to dispense food in seconds or even minutes from a machine in your home.  You would never need to go to the grocery store.  You could ask for ingredients like flour or turmeric or whatever to make your own dish, or you could just program the dish itself into the replicator.  Why ever go to a restaurant?  For the intimate, dining out experience?  Well, restaurants would have replicators as well.  You just punch in your order, it materializes on the table, and when you leave it recycles the remaining bits of food and even the dinnerware and utensils back into molecules and atoms that would be used for the next customer.

So if you are no longer paying for your food, what would you do with your money?  Buy new clothes?  Why not just replicate them as well?  Buy an 80 inch TV?  Replicate that.  Buy a car or a house?  No, just replicate them.

Suddenly the things we prize, those material possessions we all covet, are all suddenly worthless.  Your neighbor has a bigger house or a green lawn?  Replicate a new addition or new grass seed or whatever.  You want a fancy watch?  Replicate it.

We’d still need electricity and heat and utilities, right?  Well, if a replicator can create food and clothing and electronics, it surely could create photons, and it most certainly could generate energy.

So what would we do with ourselves if we had all of these things available to us at the push of a button?  I’m sure some of us would become incredibly lazy, but I also think a bit of Darwinism would set in.  Most people couldn't just sit around doing nothing forever.  Humans like to compete with one another, it’s ingrained in our DNA, and so you’d see a lot more sports and creativity in the world.  In other words, most of us would strive toward improving our minds and our bodies.

Yes, there'd still be work to do, but eventually work would become more like a hobby.  Doctors would still be necessary, but the idea of paying them with money would be silly because they could just replicate everything they'd ever need.  So why would anyone even go to medical school, you might ask?  For the challenge.  To better oneself.  To help others.

And I'm sure there would still be some mundane jobs like plowing snow or cleaning public places, but people would do those things for camaraderie.  And nobody likes messes.  Yes, you'd probably have people who would shun the new system and intentionally cause problems, but if everyone is striving to be smarter or stronger or whatever the case may be, I think you'd see a lot less crime.

I know, I know, this all seems like the far-fetched ramblings of a sci-fi geek.  And I’d agree with you, except that replicators are practically available now.  Primitive, yes, but look at the ENIAC when it was first built in the 40’s.  It took up an entire building and was a fraction of a tiny percentage as powerful as the cell phone in your pocket right now.  So just imagine where our replicators will be in 70 years?

A world without money?  It won't happen overnight, but the possibilities of it happening a few generations from now aren't quite as absurd as you might think.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Get Yourself a Cow-Catcher

Anyone who writes knows that it’s entirely too easy to find yourself off-track.  I’m not just talking about digressions within a story-line but even putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  Distractions of all sorts surround us, and more often than not our best intentions have not been met because we’ve become sidetracked.

When a sketch artist sits down to draw, he or she will have his paper, pencils and charcoal and shading tools and erasers, proper lighting, etc.  No sketch artist who loves his work will walk over to his drawing, sketch in five or six lines, and then get up to go do something else.  Or even sketch in a few lines and then just sit there thinking about a grocery list or a project at work.  He’ll devote at least thirty minutes of uninterrupted sketching to complete at least a portion of his work.

Writers, or at least the ones I know, tend to be different.  While the overall product of writers and sketchers is similar, i.e. something has been created from nothing, writers must rely on their thoughts and ideas and memories to create.  Most sketchers will have at least a model of some sort to work from, either a photograph or an object like a bowl of fruit.  And therein lies the problem with writers.  Taking what you see and drawing a complex copy of it requires some skill, but what you see will usually never deviate much or at all during the course of a sketch.  Our thoughts, however, are never in a fixed, static state, and thus our writing and direction and focus can constantly change.

I mean no disrespect to people who sketch or paint, by the way.  I love to sketch myself, and yet I’ve always found the art elusive.  A wrong angle here or a line that’s become too long there can totally throw off the finished product, and thus drawing requires a ton of patience and a keen eye that few of us possess.

Yet my point with writing is that our models are constantly shifting.  Add in life, that is,  the time we spend doing things like work, spending time with family, running errands, etc., and our best ideas can often be lost or forgotten.  And thus some of our most compelling thoughts are never written down.

I keep telling myself, “Ryan, you need to get yourself a cow-catcher.”  What I mean by that is that I need to be able to push things aside to pursue my passion and dreams.  I first need to move out all the daily crap I deal with and allot myself the time to sit and write, rather than jotting down a few paragraphs every so often when I have a minute here or there.

And I’m not alone.  Anyone can find a free half hour in a week to set aside for accomplishing something.  I was informed of an incident a while back at a company where a boss, during the final quarter of a year when schedules were hectic, stated that year that nobody had time until the first quarter to do an important hour-long training (that had been annually conducted in the fourth quarter for numerous years prior).  That was 62 business days to work with, or 465 hours, and nobody had one hour (0.2% of the total time) to spare.  Really?  Really??  Seems a bit ludicrous to me, especially when daily people could be seen standing in the halls and chatting about personal stuff or sending emails to friends or even surfing the web for a few minutes.

Anyone who uses the excuse that he/she doesn’t have a half hour or an hour to spare in a week is kidding him/herself.  If you are telling yourself that you don’t have an hour, it sounds like you need to take a step back from your life and make some assessments about how you manage your time.  If you are a workaholic, does that project that is due three months from now really require twelve hours a day from you—in other words, you can’t even spare an hour?  If not, you’re probably overworked or need far better time management skills (and possibly even psychiatric help).  If you watch TV, can’t you pick your least favorite of your favorite shows and stop watching it—or else record the season on your DVR and watch it in the summer when reruns abound? (And if you are that glued to your TV, you may need psychiatric help as well!)  If you are a stay-at-home mom, can’t you run a load of laundry and start dinner at the same time, or maybe even get your kids to help you with mixing or stirring or setting the table?  We ALL can find an hour a week, and probably a whole lot more if we really try.

So once you find the time to write (or exercise or learn to play a musical instrument or whatever it is you are passionate about), the next step is to push aside all of the chaos swirling around in your head and focus.  One of the best ways I know to do this is to deep breathe or meditate.  Inhale 5 seconds through your nose, hold for two seconds, then exhale 5 seconds out your mouth.  Count the seconds, focus only on your breathing, and do this for five or ten minutes.  At the end of that brief time, you’ll find yourself relaxed and hopefully focused enough to begin work.  I’ve been trying to do this any time I’m about to start on something that requires a lot of thought, and I’m always surprised at how well it works.  Picture a math professor’s whiteboard filled with all the formulas from the previous lecture, and imagine if he tried to cram in new equations for your class.  You wouldn’t want that, would you?  No, you’d want a clean slate.  It’s the same principle.

And then, when your mind is free, just write.  Sounds easy enough, but I always get caught up in re-reading my last chapter and editing.  Then when I get to the bottom and should start writing new material, I want to take a break because I’m mentally fatigued from all the editing I just did.  Or else I only have twenty minutes left of the time I’ve allotted myself, and so I make the excuse that I can’t write anything meaningful in twenty minutes.  “Get yourself a cow-catcher, Ryan.”  Push that perfectionist out of the way, forget about re-reading and editing, familiarize yourself with where you left off, and then JUST WRITE.  When I manage to do that, it’s usually at that point that the words start to flow, and before long I’ll have completed a whole chapter.

But there are other obstacles that may be in my way.  I’m fortunate enough through my IT work to have developed some quick fingers.  I’ve seen and heard and read of other writers who struggle with typing.  If you can’t type, and you like to write, ditch the keyboard and pick up a pen.  Someone who types 25 words per minute will ultimately lose their ideas and thoughts because they are spending too long trying to get them out.  And if writing won’t work, get some speech recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictate your thoughts.  It’s akin to someone who loves to exercise but has bad knees or bunions.  You can still exercise, but running may not be the best way to do it.  You can work to improve on physical or mental or emotional limitations, but don’t let them become roadblocks to your accomplishments.

We all have obstacles that prevent us from achieving greatness, like cows standing on the railroad tracks.  So get yourself a cow-catcher, push those obstacles clear of your path, and accomplish something that makes you proud!