Caroline Glaser and Rachel Bilson: Separated at Birth?

I’ve been watching “The Voice” off and on since it started this season. I haven’t cared to get into it too deeply; I have a belief that America’s love affair with reality shows has lessened the number of quality scripted TV dramas, and so I despise them. However, I’d flipped the TV on last evening as I was doing something else and heard this wonderfully quirky singer named Caroline Glaser. When I looked at the TV I had to blink a couple of times. This extremely talented young lady bears an incredible resemblance to a woman I’ve had a huge crush on for several years. See for yourself:

Caroline Glaser

Caroline Glaser, singer/songwriter.

Rachel Bilson

Rachel Bilson, actress.

Caroline could easily be mistaken for Rachel Bilson’s sister. Both are extremely easy to look at, though Caroline brings a little guilt to the table as she’s just 18. But still…wow.

Add the fact that my best friend’s stepdaughter bears a striking resemblance to Rachel as well, and there’s a Battlestar Galactica moment in the making. “I like Number 11 a lot. Is she available in blonde?”


Addendum 10-24-2013: The title of this post has bugged me ever since I published it. It’s impossible for them to be separated at birth–Caroline was barely eighteen and Rachel was, I believe, about 30 at the time of this posting. A more accurate title might have been “Sisters?” or “Are They Related?” Oh well. The toothpaste’s long out of the tube. I still think they’re both talented, beautiful women–and would be happy to spend time with either one.


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The Sweet Smell of Old Technology


I’ve noticed a phenomenon with older technology (mainly computers) that I cannot find an answer to. It’s odd, a real head-scratcher, and doesn’t necessarily mean something’s wrong with the unit. I first noticed it a few years back when working on a friend’s computer. I’d hooked it up on my test bench and turned it on. After a minute or so I could smell a distinct odor coming from inside the unit’s case. It was slightly sweet, almost like a perfume. Since this guy was living alone at the time and I knew he wasn’t given to wearing Liz Taylor it was puzzling. I’d opened the PC’s case and looked around—nothing was amiss—and decided to give the unit a good dusting out.

After going over it with an air compressor and a clean dry paintbrush to dislodge any hangers-on, I let the case air out overnight. When I turned the power on again the odor returned. Most people might think that an electrolytic capacitor had blown up and caused the smell, but that leaves a visible mess as well as a very distinct odor which is unlike what I smelled. The PC’s problem was a corrupted software installation so I repaired and returned it. The computer functioned well for several more years before being retired.

The same friend upgraded his family’s computer a year or so and gave me his old one. Guess what? It exhibited the same smell.  Okay, I thought, it must be something in his home environment that’s getting sucked into the computer’s air vents.  Again, the computer itself worked fine but had a dead power supply. I removed the motherboard and transplanted it into another case. When the computer was turned on I could still smell the odor but more faintly.

Recently a different friend gave me a netbook so that I could attempt retrieving some files. This one had been dropped which shattered the built-in LCD display. I hooked it up to work on it, and guess what? The same smell filled my workroom. This time, however, the friend is female, has children, and multiple dogs. There’s one small fan in the netbook from what I can tell as it uses an external brick-type power supply.

I mentioned this to a friend who runs his own electronics repair shop. He’s never noticed the phenomenon with all the various electronic detritus that has crossed the doorway of his shop.

Several weeks back I acquired a Playstation 3 that had ceased to operate in the hopes of fixing it for myself. It also has the smell.  I only had it on for a short time and I can still smell it well over a week afterward. Scented electronics…surely there’s a market for that.

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Some Weeks…


…It ain’t easy being Geek.

I’ve had my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx cell phone for nearly a year and I love it. However, it shipped with an outdated version of the Android OS named “Gingerbread” when the next version, called “Ice Cream Sandwich” was already being rolled out. Verizon sent out the ICS upgrade within a couple of months; but by then the NEXT version, known as “Jelly Bean,” was being rolled out. I’d been waiting anxiously for JB for months when Verizon announced they were releasing JB a few days before Christmas last year. After a short time they stopped because the update was bricking their customer’s phones. (Oops.) Fortunately I didn’t get that upgrade. I settled back into waiting mode again and twiddled my thumbs.

Several weeks ago I heard that Verizon was rolling out JB again, this time for real. I checked for available updates on the phone and was told it was ready to download! I allowed the download (at about 40 minutes) and then attempted the upgrade. Everything looked good until I saw the picture of an Andy the Android on his back, chestplate open, with a red triangle with an exclamation point beside the hole in his chest. The phone rebooted and gave me a message that the update had failed. No reason given, just failure.

I went online and discovered that I wasn’t the only one. The main failure reason being posited was that the end user had disabled some apps on their phone. I’d rooted my phone after getting ICS and disabled a number of Verizon bloatware apps like their navigation service and music apps, so I re-enabled them and attempted the update again, still unsuccessfully. I was getting frustrated.

(Before I continue, a few words on rooting are called for. Rooting a phone gives the user access to areas of the phone’s operating system that they normally can’t get to. This allows a finer degree of control over how the phone operates. It also allows the use of utilities like “Titanium Backup” which allows me to make back copies of my phone’s data and apps. I also installed a WONDERFUL app called AdAway, which allows the blocking of streaming ads, including those within other apps. TB also allowed me to disable apps and, in some cases, completely delete them. Rooting also allowed me to transfer custom ringtones into the same directory where the phone’s ringtones are kept, which allows all ringtones to show up in the same list. I highly recommend the practice if you’re savvy enough to do it.)

Next, I decided to try a “sideload” installation, wherein you download an app (or an OS upgrade) and force an install from the phone’s SD memory card. I found the official Verizon Jelly Bean update and downloaded it, then tried connecting my phone to my PC after loading the necessary Motorola USB drivers. That was an exercise in frustration as I had to try several different sets of drivers. The phone had to be placed into USB “MTP” connection mode, and the PC didn’t find the necessary drivers among those I’d downloaded. After several hours I finally got the correct driver and Windows was happy. Then I copied the file to the phone’s SD card and powered the phone off. Then while pressing and holding the phone’s power button as well as holding down the Volume Up/Down buttons I got a special boot menu. I navigated to “Recovery” mode, and then chose the proper file on the SD card. The upgrade progressed as before, except this time I got verbose feedback on what was happening. The upgrade failed again (of course), but this time I got a long message with the phrase “assert failed: apply_patch_check” saying that the upgrade program couldn’t find an app called “Music2.apk.”  Now I was getting somewhere.

I remembered that I’d been playing around when I’d loaded Titanium Backup and used an option to completely remove a few programs. That had obviously been a bad idea. Now I had two options: I could either find the appropriate .apk files on the web (because I knew I’d get a different missing app error after this one was re-installed) or I could perform a “factory reset” and wipe the phone back to out-of-the-box condition. Because I didn’t want to do the latter, I found and installed a program called “Android Commander” on my PC. That program would allow me to look at the system file areas on my phone and copy programs into the normally-inaccessible system areas from the PC. Next I found and downloaded the missing Music2.apk file, used the file selection windows in AC to find the file on the PC side, then chose the appropriate directory on the phone side and tried to perform the copy.

Android Commander told me I needed ROOT level access. What? I was already rooted, you stupid program! Indeed, TB said I was rooted. Android Commander didn’t believe I was, and it wouldn’t allow me to copy a damn thing to the phone. An investigation led me to a FAQ on AC’s site that explained there were two types of root access. The first type gave apps on the phone itself root access to the phone’s system areas. The other type, which I needed and didn’t have, allowed access to the phone’s system areas from a connected PC. To get that type of access, the FAQ explained, I’d have to download the phone’s boot image, decompile it, change a line in a configuration file, then re-compile the boot image and upload it back to the phone. While I have some ‘mad skillz’ this is not one of them at this point in my life and I did not have the time to learn. By then I had gone into the next phase in my frustration, one that a careful geek avoids at all cost if they want to be successful.

I was pissed. I just wanted to load the damn OS upgrade, and I was tired of being denied. I decided to do the factory wipe. At least I had the foresight to load the Verizon Backup Assistant to dump my contacts to the cloud, but didn’t give a thought to my pictures or any other data on the phone. I was syncing with Google so that should be taken care of, right? I knew that my apps would automatically download back to my phone from the Play store so I believed I was set. I booted the phone again using the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, then chose Recovery mode and the option to do a factory wipe. I clicked through the warnings and let the wipe proceed. After all was done and I was back with a working phone with ICS again, I decided to attempt the sideload upgrade again. You can probably guess what happened next.

The upgrade failed. Again. With the same missing app error. When I deleted the apps from the phone using TB, they were completely wiped from even the backup image. I was right back where I started. Why the hell was this program attempting a selective “upgrade” rather than a complete OS install? Then I realized it was probably to ensure that the customer’s data was retained.

Now I knew what I needed. I’d have to find some way of installing the OS, this time as a complete load regardless of what was on the phone. It took a little while but I eventually found what I needed. A user with the handle mattlgroff on had written a program called “Matt’s Razr Utility” that would do just what I needed. Version 1.82 is for the Verizon Razr and Razr Maxx ICS version, but I wanted to go right to Jelly Bean so v1.83 was what I needed. I downloaded and installed the program, then followed the prompts and connected my phone when told to do so. The utility did its magic, and in no time I was running Jelly Bean v4.1.2. Hooray, finally. Now I could re-install my apps, contacts, and calendar.

Well, my apps and contacts at least. It seems that the phone’s OS comes with its own Calendar app which stores information on the phone itself by default. The Google Calendar app, which is downloaded from the Play store, will sync with Google. I had inadvertently been storing all my schedule information on the phone and it was totally gone. I made sure to download the Google Calendar and set it up to sync with Google, then disabled (not uninstalled!) the phone’s calendar app. It took a while to re-enter my schedule but I was finally good. Over the next few days I had to open some apps and re-accept their terms-of-service as well as reset their preferences.

I also discovered that AdAway hadn’t re-installed. After more research I found that Google very recently had removed all ad blocking apps from the Play Store, sending their developers a notice that they had violated a clause in their Developer Distribution Agreement.  Apparently they didn’t like the fact that these programs interfered with the possible revenue stream from streaming and in-app ads. That explained why I couldn’t find Adblock Plus in the store either. Fortunately I discovered a link for the F-Droid App Repository which allows the download and installation of AdAway. Adblock Plus can be downloaded directly from the company’s website and sideload-installed, so I got that program next.

After going through this hell I now have my phone loaded with the “latest” version of the Android OS, Jelly Bean. I used the quotes because, as it happens, v4.1.2 is NOT the latest version of JB. Version 4.2 has increased speed and more features—and Verizon blew an opportunity to get their users current. Well, I’m done with waiting on Verizon. When I can find one of the Razr enthusiast sites that has version 4.2 of JB I’m going to install it. I might as well get used to it; I seriously doubt that the next iteration of the Android OS (known as Key Lime Pie) will be made officially available for the Razr / Razr Maxx.

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eBay: Some Words of Wisdom

Hard-won tips and observations about what works and what doesn’t.


eBay Sign

eBay…My Frenemy.

I’ve been on eBay over twelve years—the first few were simply as a buyer. Eventually I tried my hand at selling and was good enough at it to move a lot of my old stuff. As an eBayer  I’ve seen and experienced many things that delighted me, some that disappointed me and a good quantity that irritates me to this day. As eBay has tried to evolve into something more than a Wild West, anything-goes-type of trading post it has alienated many basement- and garage-cleaners like me. This is primarily through their push to regard all their customers as professional dealers. This has forced a migration by their smaller sellers to their competition while volume-based companies have moved in–that all sell the same imported Chinese crap at less than desirable prices.

eBay’s management has enabled dishonest buyers by allowing them to leave any type of feedback they want while preventing sellers from leaving honest feedback about their bad customers. They feel that, from a seller’s standpoint, the only type of buyer there can be is a “good” one—even if they’ve stiffed you on a payment, were very late on making payment, or fraudulently claimed to get defective goods and try to screw you out of your item while getting a refund. Yes, that really has happened—browsing the eBay Seller Central forums reveals all sorts of horror stories like these. Yet eBay claims these policies level the playing field for everyone. John Donahoe, eBay’s CEO, must have belonged to the generation who taught their kids that “everyone’s a winner, and everyone gets a prize.” Most eBayers believe that he needs to go and the sooner the better.

So why do I and the other dedicated stalwarts who stick it out continue to do so? Despite the negatives, eBay is still the big player in online auctions and commands a significant amount of traffic. While other players like Amazon now allow the little guy to sell there, let’s be honest–not everything can be sold on Amazon. I can dump an old 386-class motherboard and ISA expansion cards or a broken camcorder on eBay that would gather no interest on Amazon. For people like me who have a LOT of that kind of merchandise eBay is where those types of prospective buyers reside…and so we stay.

Over the years  I’ve seen many poorly-designed auction listings.  These design faux-pas range from poorly-worded ad copy to having crappy pictures (or the wrong ones!). I’ve tried to learn from these examples and make my auction items more appealing. I’m going to share some things I’ve learned with you to try and prevent more of these atrocities, and in doing so give you some tips to help you shop and sell your own stuff.

Tips for Sellers: Product Photography

1.  Get a good digital camera and learn to use it properly.

Judging by the mediocrity or outright crappiness of many auction pictures a lot of sellers think their cell phone camera or cheap point-and-shoot is all they need. WRONG! Look at your own behavior as a shopper/buyer when you‘re evaluating items. How many things have you purchased that had blurry, darkly-lit or indistinct pictures? Probably not many, if any at all. If you’re a brave soul who took the plunge because the price was irresistible, how many of those items weren’t what you were expecting? If you’re like me you’ve probably tried at least once or twice; maybe you weren’t burned too badly. The simple fact is that good pictures go a long way in helping you sell your items.

Make sure that whatever camera you choose can take in-focus and up-close pictures. You want the ability to fill the frame with your item, and it has to be sharp. Keep in mind that pictures of very small things require a camera/lens capable of “macro” photography. The inherent problem with macro photography is that, the smaller the item, the harder it is to keep the entire item in focus. That problem deals with something called “depth of field,” meaning the amount of space in front of and in back of the point you’re focusing on. A good photography tutorial will explain this better than I in this short article. In general, increased depth of field requires more light and a smaller aperture.

2.  Light It Up!

If you take a picture of your item and its dark, throw some light on the item and try again. Place the item on a table by a window, or invest in a tabletop light tent in a kit with several lights. If you’re handy, make your own like I did. (Google using the terms: “build photo light tent.”)  For lights I took the reflectors off a couple of clip-on utility lights and married them to some gooseneck table lamps from Lowe’s. For bulbs I used 100-watt equivalent spiral CFLs with a “daylight” color temperature between 5000 and 7000 degrees Kelvin. By building your own setup you’ll invest less than $50.00 and have the basic equipment to light and showcase all your items.  The only downside of CFL lighting is that it’s not bright enough for fast shutter speeds.

Why not use the camera’s built-in flash? If you have the experience, great! I don’t recommend it because, for most people, flash photography of “products” is difficult to do well. The most-often seen result is that the item is washed out (too bright). Flash photography can be done well, but it requires external equipment and more finesse than the typical eBay seller can (or is willing to) muster.

3.  Use a Tripod

Lower light levels mean longer shutter speeds which make it difficult to handhold a camera. Putting the camera on a cheap tripod (and using a remote shutter release or the camera’s self-timer) practically guarantees sharp photos.

4.   “Hey Buddy, Am I Bidding on the Doll or the Coffee Cup?”

Isolate your item from other distracting things when taking your picture. People looking at your auction item want to see that thing alone, not how nice your living room is or that you’re drinking from a 49ers mug.  If you have a stack of stereo equipment you’re trying to unload, PLEASE separate the items and photograph each one by itself.  Being lazy by taking one picture and saying “only the CD player is in this auction—the other items are in their own auctions” is lame and says to the world that you’re an amateur.

A corollary is this: if you’re photographing an item that is reflective or shiny, look to see what’s reflected on the surface of your item. By now I’m sure everyone’s seen the picture of the teakettle with the naked photographer reflected in it. Don’t be that person.

5.   Clean Up Your Act

Before photographing your items take a few minutes to clean them up. A clean item will photograph better and will bring more money than something you picked up off a dirt floor and blew on a couple of times.

General Selling Tips

 1.   Be Brutally Honest in Your Pictures and Descriptions

I’ve been burned a few times by sellers who only showed the good side of an item in a picture and didn’t disclose that the back half was partially melted. Or that it was missing its battery cover, had a hole drilled in it for who-knows-what reason, or a major crack in its plastic case.  If you don’t have all the item’s parts, say so. If there really is a crack in the case or a seam in the pants is split, tell the prospective buyer up front AND show it in your pictures. Do you really think that the buyer will keep your wonderful P.O.S. once they discover the defect on their own? If you disclose the item’s flaws, the buyer will not only appreciate your honesty but have no excuse to come back on you for having a fraudulent auction. If you’ve listed an item’s flaws honestly, and spelled them out explicitly in word and picture, you can be reasonably assured that the buyer doesn’t care about purchasing a flawed item.

You should also functionally test your item (if that applies) to make sure it works. A phrase like “I couldn’t test it because…” has become an inside joke among buyers and is interpreted as “It doesn’t work and I’m trying to screw you.”  This also marks you as an eBay hack and someone to avoid.

2.   Do Your Research Before Listing Your Item

This requires a little work on your part but prevents you from looking like a clueless idiot. eBay has a tool called “What’s My Item Worth?” (You can search eBay help on the terms “item” and “worth” if the link doesn’t automatically appear on your main page.) With this tool you can find out what prices an item like yours have recently sold for. If most of the items came without all the accessories or their physical condition was poor, they might have been priced lower or brought less money than items that were complete with their original boxes, packing, and documentation. There are some items I’d wanted to list but changed my mind when I looked them up.  My time was better spent taking those things to a thrift store. If you have a number of similar things that are valued low, you could also lump them together in a “bulk lot” and sell them in one auction.

With that said you should be realistic with your pricing. I’ve been looking to pick up a dbx 3BX-DS dynamic range expander. The 3BX was made for years in a number of incarnations.  On the model I want, most of the auctions start out low but end up bringing several hundred dollars. Yet I see the early 3BX units being priced hundreds of dollars higher than the newer units with more features. These overpriced older units don’t have a great sell-through rate. Be realistic. I’d like to get more money for some of my stuff too but I acknowledge that I won’t always get the amount I’d like.

3.   Don’t Get Cute in Your Item Titles and Descriptions

I enjoy writing creative descriptions and have used humor to sell things. I’ve never gotten a comment back about my writing style, and I’d like to think that someone has enjoyed my prose. However, I’ve never used cutesy-pie terms such as  “minty” or “L@@K” in my item titles and descriptions. If you use either of these conventions there’s no question that you are an eBay loser. Why? When I see items with those terms in the titles I pass them by without reading the descriptions no matter how much I’d want them or how reasonably priced they are. I’m an average guy and I know that I’m not the only person with these dislikes. If I’m willing to turn away from an item I want based on this I know that others will too.

4.   Don’t Even Think of Holding a Reserve Price Auction

Most people rationalize that a low initial price will get bidders into an auction early so they go with this type of auction. If the highest bid amount never meets the reserve price (meaning the least amount the seller would take for the item) by the auction’s end time, then the seller isn’t obligated to sell it. Let me ask the sellers who employ reserve prices this question: Have you ever been on the losing end of a reserve price auction? No? How would you feel if you had the highest bid on an item you really wanted to own but didn’t win the auction because your bid didn’t meet the minimum price? Reserve price auctions alienate customers.

Make things simple for yourself and your prospective buyers. Run a regular auction but set your starting bid as the least amount of money you’d accept for the item. If it goes for that amount, great! If it goes for more it’s a bonus. Or, list your item in a fixed price auction for the amount you want. If you don’t sell the item it should tell you that your asking price is out of line.

5.   Shipping Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t Turn Shipping Into a Profit Center

This simply means that you should make your shipping costs reasonable. Use the lowest cost shipping that provides the ability to track the shipment and gets the item to your buyer quickly. If the item’s valuable select the appropriate amount of insurance and include it in your shipping costs. It won’t cost you anything since your buyer pays shipping and provides great peace of mind.

There was a widespread practice among vendors where they’d advertise an item for a low cost, say 99 cents, and then charge $30.00 for shipping.  This was to avoid eBay fees. eBay then started charging fees that included the shipping costs, taking money out of legitimate seller’s pockets. Unfortunately some of these yahoos still persist in the practice.

If you ship your item(s) free then ignore the above advice. But why would you ship free and lose money?

Pack the Item Well

I purchased an old laptop from someone who crammed it into a Priority Mail box and shipped it to me. There was no space around the item as it just fit into the box. They didn’t even bother to use a simple layer of bubble wrap for padding! Another seller sent me an Xbox 360’s outer case in a box that was slightly too small, so they wrapped it liberally with packing tape to hold it together. The best bad example was the guy who put a 60-pound subwoofer into a box using only foam peanuts for packing, then put that box into a bigger box with literally a handful of foam peanuts “separating” the two boxes. Of course the unit was trashed in shipping.

Pack your item like you are shipping it to yourself. Put it in bubble wrap. Choose a sturdy shipping box that provides enough room around your item so that you can fill the space with foam peanuts.  Tape the box well and, if the buyer should open a particular side of the box, mark that info on that side using a black marker.

State Your Handling Time and Ship Properly

eBay says you have 30 days to ship. I list in my auctions that I will ship within three days of receiving payment and I keep my word. Ship your customer’s stuff promptly to keep them happy.

Establish Accounts With Your Carriers of Choice

I set up accounts with both UPS and the Postal Service. Because of this, I get preferred rates from UPS and by purchasing and printing the labels at home I no longer stand in line to ship things. When I have personal items to ship I can also purchase labels on-line to save time.


Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips helpful in your own eBay dealings. My next eBay article will recount some of my purchasing experiences, both good and bad.

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Now Back to Our Regularly-Scheduled Program


A makeshift memorial for the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary. AP Photo

It’s happened yet again. Another nutcase decided to go straight to hell in a blaze of gunfire, taking as many with him as he could. This time it was twenty six- and seven-year-olds and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the gunman’s mother, and the gunman himself.

And it’s not December 21st yet.

Of course this is a tragedy. It was a senseless loss of life and a rude introduction to the world-at-large for the children who survived. If you aren’t touched by this turn of events you have a cold, hard heart. If you aren’t praying for the families who lost a loved one in this mess or in any of the other shootings this year, well…may God have mercy on you when you need help and comfort.

It was big news on December 14th. Every TV news outlet had wall-to-wall coverage of the event. It was all over the news the next day as well, and tonight it was still the big story two days afterward. If you wanted news on anything else in the U.S. or the rest of the world, sorry, you were out of luck. According to the news propaganda machine it is all you’re supposed to be thinking about. Oh, please.

News is something that’s both current and noteworthy. Something you need to inform you about the greater world around you. Getting information to the public as it’s released about the pertinent facts of a situation is news. News is not showing the same footage over and over while talking vacuously about unconfirmed rumors when a situation is going down. News is not shoving a microphone into the face of someone whose world has just been torn apart and asking them “How do you feel?” And news is definitely not interviewing first- and second-graders to find out what they were doing when madness was roaming the halls of their supposed sanctuary from the daily world. Most of them can barely describe what they had for breakfast in a cogent narrative without dissolving into a string of “ums” and “ahs.” In this case it was news two days ago, and in the newspaper business of old it would be lining a birdcage today.

Yet if you were to complain to the news organizations about this type of coverage you’d get this answer: “We’re simply providing the coverage that people want at a crucial time.” (I know this because I’ve complained a few times about situations like this one.) We pretend we’re civilized and refined; that we’re above gawking at accident scenes yet we always slow the car down and try to see a flash of red or a limb sticking through a broken windshield. We don’t want to experience such a horrible loss ourselves so we hang onto every word of the witnesses and survivors to know what it “feels” like. Ultimately it boils down to dollars and cents to the broadcasters—every set of eyeballs watching their coverage means more possible revenue for their advertisers.

What the people of Newtown Connecticut need more than anything else is to be left alone. They would certainly welcome support from outside their community in the proper time, but that time isn’t now. The news organizations need to get out of town and respect their privacy. It’s time for grief and healing—and let’s not be the morbidly curious world that keeps it from happening.

UPDATE: 12-20-2012

Brian Williams made a comment last night before launching into NBC Nightly News’s Sandy Hook coverage. He said that NBC had “reduced their presence” in Newtown because the residents told them they wanted privacy now. Hallelujah! I’m happy that at least one news organization gets it and will do as they are asked. Sort of. Thanks, NBC!

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Our Political Process is Broken

…and I was happier when I was apolitical.

Elephants and Donkeys, Oh My!

Balloons Filled with Imported Hot Air from Washington D.C.

Until 2004 I didn’t care about politics. I didn’t vote and I didn’t care what happened.  I believed that my vote didn’t count for anything except in the local elections (thanks,  Electoral College!). However, I came to believe that the country under Bush was worse off, and I had to take a chance to change that. I became a rabidly active voter and began to care deeply about the process. I’m rethinking that stance.  Election Day is nearly over except for sweeping up the celebratory messes. Voters have been bombarded with ads for months now—both negative and positive—to the point that most people are fed up with the process. This year I decided to get “the vote” out of the way early and submitted an absentee ballot.  Before voting I sat down with the Voter’s Guide published by the Dayton chapter of the League of Women Voters and did some research.

The first thing I was confronted with was four (!) candidates for the office of U.S. President. I knew about Obama and Romney but hadn’t heard of Gary Johnson (Libertarian candidate) or Jill Stein (Green Party). I’d seen no advertising for these people and wondered if they were national candidates or simply contenders in Ohio. This led to a web search that took me to the site. They list nearly 130 candidates for the office of U.S. President in 2012. Some of these people have “ballot status” (they’re on the ballot with the Republican and Democratic candidates) in multiple states; some are in only one state and still others are running as write-in candidates. I wasn’t aware there were so many different third parties—from the “America’s Party / American Independent Party” to the “Socialist Worker’s Party.”

You might recognize a few of these names—the “Peace and Freedom Party” have Rosanne Barr (yes, the Rosanne Barr) and Cindy Sheehan as their candidates. It really gets interesting when you look at the list of ‘Independent, Other, and Write-In Candidates without Ballot Status in Any States.’ These people depend mostly on word-of-mouth to target voters unsatisfied with all the other choices who would write their names on the ballot. Just think—you could vote for Santa Claus (his real, legal name), President Emperor Caesar, “Mad Mike” Hughes, “Sophia the Logos,” Love-22, “Mad Max” Reikse, “Average Joe” Schriner, and someone named “Da Vid.” There are a lot of normal-sounding people in this list as well but I don’t think they stand a chance. According to her website, Sophia the Logos is the sole proprietor of “Nuclear Cold-Fusion a Divine Light Energy source” that “activates and reprograms DNA.” If she’d been elected, Sophia could’ve purged the corruption in Washington’s old guard with a mass DNA reprogramming session. Think of the possibilities!

Going further into the available candidates I ran across a number of races for County Sheriff, County Engineer, County Coroner, and a lot of court judges where there was exactly one candidate. These are usually incumbents. The text under the job description read “This is not a contested race. No other candidates filed to run for the position.” Something seems fundamentally wrong with this–elections are about choices. If I thought the county coroner had done a crappy job and had ruled too many deaths were caused by blunt trauma from desk staplers, I should be able to choose another person to replace him. With only one candidate I have no choice other than to withhold my vote, which wouldn’t matter because their job is assured.  I understand that a lot of people aren’t dying to be a coroner but still…

Alternate candidates in an election create an interesting dilemma for the voter. They don’t have the advertising resources or party backing that mainstream candidates enjoy so they can’t purchase lucrative ad time. They’re usually unknown until their names show up on the ballot, meaning they can’t be researched and an informed choice made while you’re at the polls. The mechanics of our political system effectively locks out anyone other than party candidates unless they do something particularly newsworthy. So what can a dissatisfied voter do in order to express themselves in our flawed system? Let’s look at the possibilities:

1)      Don’t vote at all.  Despite my belief that my vote simply doesn’t count for the presidential race, I believe it still matters in the races for Representatives, Senators, and State and local races. Withholding my vote completely will affect a much wider swath that I’d intend to do. Not to mention voting is a privilege and not a right, so you shouldn’t waste the opportunity.

2)      Vote for the alternative candidates. The problem with this tack is that people other than the mainstream candidates have no realistic chance in hell of winning.  If you then vote for the underdogs, you might consider your vote wasted (as I would). This would also mean that, if you didn’t like either candidate, you’ve lost your chance to elect the lesser of two evils. Keep in mind that voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil.

3)      Abstain from voting for those you don’t like but vote for those you do like. People who don’t like to leave things incomplete will hate this option. If there’s no competition for an office, only one choice on the ballot and you don’t like the candidate, then don’t vote in that category. This is the best move for your conscience’s sake–at least you’re not enabling evil.

4)      Become the enemy. Get involved in local politics and work your way up the chain in one of the major parties. Run for that coveted seat of power yourself and win, and then abandon your campaign promises and constituents to enact your own agenda. Oh wait, that was the problem with many Reps and Congressmen in the 2010 election class…

Well, now that the madness has passed we can all take a stress-relieving deep breath and get back to our everyday lives. At least until the next election cycle.

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An Inexpensive Upgrade To Your Stereo System

…and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

The front of a record store.

It isn’t really the Last Record Store, but it’s probably close.

As a latchkey kid in the sixties the radio was my constant companion. It was the only source of entertainment that offered nearly infinite variety. When I grew older and got a paperboy gig I saved my money and bought my first good stereo system. I purchased my first CD player, a Magnavox’s FD-1000SL top-loader, about 1984 and I’ve been collecting CDs ever since. For years audio buffs like myself had put up with the snapping and popping of vinyl records as well as tape hiss from cassettes. The new format was quiet—no clicks, no hiss (except from the master tapes themselves). With the introduction of the “portable” CD player as well as in-dash mobile players you could take that wonderful sound quality anywhere. Audiophiles had a problem with the format, however. They complained that the sound was too “cold,” “lifeless,” and “sterile.” Further, prolonged listening made some people’s ears tired, a phenomenon called ‘listener fatigue.’ Audio nerds raved about the warm sound quality of vinyl and clung desperately to their collections even as turntables became ancient relics and vinyl records ceased production. It turns out they were on to something.

As time went on and recording engineers learned more about the CD format they realized that they had to master the material differently than if they were prepping it for a vinyl release. Mastering is the final phase in music production where an engineer makes subtle tweaks to the sound—adding a little compression or equalization, for instance—before the music is submitted for physical production and release. Vinyl records didn’t have the dynamic range of digital so some frequencies needed emphasis while others were cut, and equalization was applied in order to play nicely with the mechanical medium. If you know what good audio is supposed to sound like and you dig out CDs released in the eighties you’ll find the overall sound to be somewhat irritating. Over the first ten years or so the sonic quality of new CD releases gradually improved, but millions of those first poorly-mastered CDs were pumped out.  Sadly, many older titles on store shelves are still made from the original poorly-made masters.

There is a saving grace for audiophiles like myself who like older music offerings, known in the industry as catalog titles. As stocks of these older titles ran out, music companies realized that these items were gold. They’d recovered the original production costs years ago and incurred minimal expense in making more. Nearly every cent was profit! They also realized that the older master tapes were deteriorating and their golden eggs needed transferred to a newer high-resolution medium for safekeeping. For years now the music companies have been quietly remastering their older catalog titles and re-releasing them to an audience eager to buy the older tunes they’ve heard on the radio for years.

The “Disappearing” CD

But as sales have slowed, the music biz has been predicting the end of the CD. In the February 29, 2012 Rolling Stone an article titled “Is the CD Era Finally Over?” quoted an exec as saying new CDs would probably stop being introduced in two years, although stores like WalMart could keep them alive for as long as five years. WalMart is re-expanding their music department after shrinking it a few years ago. They’re getting a flood of reduced-price CDs to sell for $5 each, and they’ve found that people who come in to browse them are staying longer and buying more. After reading the article I visited my local Wally World and fished in their “bin-of-death” to see what turned up.

I was pleasantly shocked to find a number of classic titles I already owned in remastered versions. Some of them had bonus tracks and the sound quality of these newly remastered classics were far superior to the older copies I owned. I could even tell a difference on the factory stock CD player in my truck. As I shopped in other stores like Meijer, Kmart, and Best Buy I realized that they were also getting these $5 classics to sell. Additionally some of the stores have multiple price tiers of these older titles, usually at $7 and $9. I’ve been in sonic heaven and have bought many upgrades as well as a number of titles from artists I’d passed by over the years. I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $12 each for them back then, but at $5 each they’re a bargain. Thanks to careful shopping I’ve added titles by Rush, John Mellencamp, the Dixie Chicks, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. I’ve also seen more recent titles from newer artists like Coldplay and The Fray. In the past five months I’ve spent more on music than I’ve spent in the past five years, and I love it.

I realize this doesn’t make sense to everyone. “Why buy discs and clutter up your house when you can download anything you want from the Internet?” There are two reasons. First, I want the highest available sound quality for my music. Most digital formats aren’t lossless, meaning they throw away data in order to make smaller file sizes. (This translates into the ability to have 2000 songs on your portable player rather than 500.) If I want to rip lower quality copies to play on my phone I can do it myself and, if something happens to the copy, I can rip a brand new one. Second, I want the additional features of having the album art and booklets with my music. Album art was once considered a high (but popular) art form that has all but disappeared in the digital age. To me there’s nothing more enjoyable than playing my favorite music while looking over the album notes or following along with the lyrics.

Some Shopping Tips

If you’d like to try your hand at upgrading your sound system my way, here are five things I’ve learned through my shopping jaunts which may help you in your music purchasing:

Examine the packaging carefully.  How can you tell if a title’s been remastered? Some things are obvious, like a sticker that says “Digitally Remastered from the Original Tapes” or something similar.

— Some remasters have clear spines, viewable in the area immediately to the left of the CD booklet, and printing in that clear area may say something like “The Definitive Remasters” or “Original Masters.”

— Titles on Warner labels will say “Flashback” for older un-remastered titles but read as “Flashback Remasters” on the reworked titles.

— The back of the package may say something like “Digitally remastered at Northern Recorders, Los Angeles by Peter Piper.”

— If you see a logo that reads “HDCD” it’s a definite remaster.

— A section listing bonus tracks is also a good indicator.

I picked up a copy of Linda Ronstadt’s “Simple Dreams” that had an older black spine and no mention of remastering on the package, and took the chance because of the newer Asylum logo on the back.  A copy of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” on the same label that I’d bought had the black spine also, but carried a ‘remastered’ sticker on its front so I thought my chances were good. Unfortunately my gamble didn’t pay off as I found out from the muddy-sounding first track.

One retailer’s $5 CD is another retailer’s $9 CD. Remember, many retailers that have the $5 CDs have three strata of discount CDs with price levels at $7 and $9 also. The CDs that are priced at the higher levels will eventually trickle down to the lower levels while some are already at lower price points elsewhere. Rush’s “A Farewell to Kings” was $7 at WalMart but only $5 at Best Buy.

Don’t limit your shopping to the bargain section.  At WalMart you can find the bargain CDs in the bins of death and in a specially priced section with the CDs. However, if you look in the regular-priced CD section you can often find the bargain CDs mixed in with the regular-priced selections.

Don’t see it locally? Look online.  My hunts led me back to some artists like Harry Nilsson and the Carpenters whose works aren’t turning up in the bins. I’ve found some of the titles I want from Amazon and Deep Discount DVD, at the lower price points, but eBay and are also fruitful hunting ground.

Are you lucky enough to still have music stores nearby?  Whether they’re new-only or carry used titles too, these shops can be a bargain hunter’s dream. I scored a number of titles from Chicago at FYE in the mall, as they carry used CDs for $4.99 and up. They’ve been inspected and are guaranteed to play. We also have some used-media stores in the area (Half Price Books, 2nd and Charles, Game Swap and BuyBacks) that provide occasional surprises but you need to know what you’re looking for.

Congratulations, you did it! What now…?

So you’ve decided to perform this sonic upgrade—but what will you do with your older, non-remastered CDs?  You could visit the local media ‘recycling’ store like Half Price Books and sell them for pennies on the dollar. You could make them into an art project (remember the wild things people used to do with the AOL install CDs they were constantly sending out?). You could try dumping them in a garage sale or at Goodwill, but I have a recommendation.  Find some young people who enjoy music, perhaps your own kids. Give them a CD or two and tell them that many of today’s recording artists were inspired by the music you’re giving them.  Sure, the sound quality isn’t up to your standards but to today’s youth, who are used to lossy compression and low bitrates, your old CDs will sound like a revelation. Perhaps you’ll give an aspiring musician of tomorrow a better influence than Jay-Z, Chris Brown, or Katy Perry. And if you give those CDs to your kids, maybe you’ll be able to stomach the music coming from their computers. That’ll make for domestic bliss that’s worth all the money in the world.

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How to Write a Prize-Winning Poem

…and then lose the contest.

My poem about an oak tree.

Text and photo ©2012 Phil Combs. All rights reserved.

I’ve been a writer for most of my life. I started writing fiction when I was a kid in grade school and continued right through college. I ended up with a B.A. in English and was one of the first in the English program to get a Certificate of Professional Writing. I went into tech writing for ten years before moving into computers and technical support where I now labor. I’ve published a few tech articles in the now-defunct Amazing Computing for the Commodore Amiga as well as the maker periodical Nuts & Volts. My love of writing (and my missing the work in my field of accreditation) eventually led to the blog you’re reading today.

Part of the reason I’ve been distracted from writing over the years is my love of all things technical. All that tinkering takes time away from the keyboard. So imagine my excitement when I got word of an opportunity to indulge in two of my favorite activities—and one would make it directly possible to benefit from the other!

InfoComm is an enormous audiovisual trade show that’s held annually in the U.S., and alternately in two locations. This year its back in my favorite “OMG did you see that?” town: Las Vegas. I was going in 2010 and my employer was footing the bill, but the discovery of my clogged LAD artery had me in the operating room the day I was scheduled to leave on the trip. Last year my employer told me that my “job responsibilities have changed” and so they couldn’t justify sending me. (I am still heavily involved with technology; go figure.)  Now they simply claim abject poverty so any out of state business travel is off the table. I found out that there would be a drawing this year from the pool of early InfoComm registrants for an all-expense-paid trip to the show (less food and gratuities), so I pre-registered at no cost anyway. The deadline came and went and I lost that one so I put my InfoComm hopes away.

Then I received an email from the show announcing a poetry contest. The prize would be the same—an all-expense-paid trip to the show. This wasn’t simply a game of chance but a competition of skill. And, it was something I knew and had a genuine shot at winning! I rubbed my hands together, dug out my sharpest quill (used only for the most personal of my work) as well as a stack of parchment and prepared my contest entry.  The steps I followed here should be used for any competitive work where there is some creativity involved. College prepared me for some of this and the rest I learned along the way.

1)      Examine the contest rules carefully.  In this case I was tasked to write an “acrostic” poem. In this form the first letter of every line will spell a word. The three choices of words were “InfoComm,” “Las Vegas” and “audiovisual.” The given example seemed thrown together and didn’t have lot of meat to it (as an example should be), so I followed some links and learned far more about acrostics than I ever wanted to know. I also noted the submittal deadline and that there was a “one entry per person” limitation. On the official entry form they provided a checkbox for my agreement to “all of the Contest Official Terms and Conditions as outlined on and other related links.” Going to the main link uncovered no such rules or related links, so I made some safe assumptions from other contests I’ve entered.

  • My contest entry becomes the property of InfoComm International. This means the contest promoter can use the entry in any way they wish without further compensation to me. This is pretty standard stuff.
  • The contest promoter isn’t responsible for late, lost, illegible, stolen, or misdirected entries.

The main thing to remember is that, in most states, contests are strictly regulated to ensure fairness. Failure by an organization to thoroughly ensure that the contest is properly and fairly conducted can open them up to all manner of legal problems. You can be reasonably assured that, unless the sponsor’s management are complete morons, they’ve covered themselves and your entry will be fairly handled.

2)      Research your subject.  A visit to the show’s website revealed the show’s theme this year (“Communications Intensified”) as well as the various dimensions of the event. InfoComm prides itself on training and certification opportunities for its membership and attendees, as well as the ability to network with others in the field. It offers tours of local facilities to showcase the latest technology as well as how particular problems are solved. Its show floor is unparalleled, with hundreds of exhibitors as well as dedicated pavilions for specific areas such as audio and digital signage. They offer information for attendees for local sights and give suggestions for off-hours activities and networking. I noted these points and resolved to hit as many as I could with my work. In order to provide as much room as possible for the promotional “meat,” I chose the word ‘audiovisual’ to frame my work.

3)      Tailor your work to suit the subject / organization. This should be a no-brainer.  If the sponsor sells shoes, your work should focus on shoes; you wouldn’t extoll the virtues of going barefoot if New Balance  is holding the contest. The contest information said the work would be highlighted on the show blog as well as in the promotional materials, so I kept that in mind. That way the work can get the maximum usage by the contest giver (and exposure for you and your labor).

4)      Add some flourish and style to make it your own. Only one out of three word choices were necessary to frame the poem. I used one for the acrostic component and mentioned the other two within the poem itself. Mentioning the show’s theme within the poem also seemed to be a “can’t miss.”

5)      Follow the submission guidelines to ensure your entry is accepted. I submitted mine in an email to the provided address on Friday afternoon; the deadline was the following Monday at 5 p.m. EST. I received an immediate “out of office” robo-response so that told me my entry was received.

Given the above points I crafted what I considered to be a noble effort that met the intent and stated rules of the contest. I offer my contest submission for your consideration:

All that you need, everything you seek
Unified in one place in the space of a week.
Dazzling new tech, ideas and connections
Inspire Communications Intensified in brand-new directions.
Organized tours showcase real-world solutions
Vendors display products for your institutions.
Intensive training, seminars, and courses provides
So much for an upgrade to your bona fides.
Unique opportunities await—so won’t you go
And get an advantage over others you know?
Las Vegas is the place and INFOCOMM’s the show.

It’s obviously not fine literature but it hits the high points and, I think, makes a damn fine promotional piece for the event. It can also be reused for multiple shows by changing the third and fourth lines (for the show theme) and the destination city in the last line. I worried a lot because I’m not the world’s best poet but soon realized that I didn’t have to be. I just needed to be the best poet of all the contest participants.

It’s difficult to create anything, even something like this that many would consider as a ‘throwaway’, without some pride and the confidence that it will be a winner. I waited well over a week for the contest results and tried not to pre-plan how I’d spend my off-time (but I had ideas!). The day of the contest announcement found me on pins and needles. Time dragged by with no email announcement and no posting on the show blog. Finally in late morning there was a blog posting, and guess what?

I didn’t win. But after reading the winning submission I was nonplussed. I won’t reprint the winning poem as it is someone else’s work but you can read it here. The anointed work used romantic, picturesque language and entreated the muse Calliope for her favor to win–with passing mentions of the show’s various aspects. In percentages, nearly 50% of the winning poem had little to do with InfoComm. With that being said I won’t cast aspersions on the winner’s work–the poem itself is nicely crafted and is certainly a fine example of the art. By my understanding of this contest’s intent, however, it just doesn’t have the characteristics of what a winning entry should have been.

There isn’t a way to tackle this subject without it sounding like sour grapes. I’ll admit there are indeed sour grapes on my part, but I’ll use the definition given by the late comedian George Carlin from his book Brain Droppings. Mr. Carlin said the term meant the “rationalization of failure to attain a desired end. … It doesn’t deal with jealousy or sore losing.” In that spirit I will take some educated guesses as to why my entry bombed out by adding the following corollaries and conclusion to my points above.

1a)  Ensure the contest rules are explicitly spelled out.  In this case the given contest rules were sparse. Expanded rules were either not available (or easily discoverable) on the event’s website as promised on the entry form. Ideally these rules would have defined a number of things, including…

  •  The number of people judging the entries and their qualifications. In the photo contests sponsored by manufacturers that are advertised in publications like Popular Photography there are panels of judges from different aspects of the industry. Some of them are usually other photographers, some are publishers, and some are manufacturer’s reps. This insures a wider gamut of eyes looking at the entries and minimizes bias. This is crucial in efforts where creative works are judged since personal tastes are subjective.
  • The criteria under which the work will be judged. In this case the form was spelled out (acrostic poem) and there was an implied requirement that the poem should somehow relate to the show. There was a statement that “the more creative the better” but beyond that everything was open to interpretation.
  • A methodology for revealing the total number of entries in the pool. Game-of-chance contests base chances of winning on the number of entries received, but since it was skill-driven a method of disclosing the number of entries should have been defined. To be fair to all the participants, you need to tell them how much competition they faced.

2a)  Know something about the qualifications of those on the judging panel. This is as simple (in the photo contest example) as reading the bios of the judges. Someone who works with creative writing every day is looking for one thing; a director of corporate marketing should be looking for something completely different. Knowing this information in advance will help you properly tailor your work.

3a and 4a)  Don’t expect that your method of expressing information about the organization will be acceptable. It could be killer ad copy, a catchy jingle or a modern take on Paradise Lost, but if it doesn’t fit with the organization’s image and message you’re wasting your time. This organization deals with technology, problem-solving and trade education, so it seemed that a more fact-related approach was warranted. Who knew they were given to the Classics?

I gave considerable thought to this situation and sent an email to the Public Relations manager at InfoComm who handled the contest entries. I was polite but asked the following three questions:

a)      How big was the entry pool?
b)      How many people were on the judging panel?
c)      Of the total number on the judging panel, what was the male/female ratio?

(That last question could be considered sexist, but I’ve seen though my coursework that males and females generally look for different things in their poetry.) I realize this is a busy time for the organization since they’re prepping for the show, but as of the time of this posting my questions remain unanswered. Given the outcome of the contest and the points I’ve raised above I offer the following conclusions:

1: The contest was hastily slapped together and executed. This can be exemplified by the sparsely-given rules and the lack of expanded rules on their website and leads to the second conclusion, which is…

2: There was little to no interdepartmental communication within the organization about the contest. If there were comprehensive rules, the web team either didn’t receive them or they failed to link to them in an easily-accessible way. This could also mean that the legal department didn’t see or clear the contest, which could open them up to litigation if any of the other contestants took issue with the results. The apparent lack of communication also indicates that…

3:  There was no panel of judges, and if there was, there wasn’t a representative from Marketing. I can’t believe that anyone with a marketing mindset would vote for the winning entry. There simply wasn’t enough show-related promotional content in the chosen work. Most likely one person was the sole judge—someone with a soft spot for this type of poetry.

I don’t expect that my entry was the only one that was more on-point with the show’s intended message. This contest was inherently flawed by its design. The organization, if challenged, could simply claim its determination of the winner was fair without providing proof of their assertion and that would be the end of it. But conducting your business in that manner is detrimental to the goodwill and image of your organization. Who takes any entity at their word anymore with the debacles we’ve seen by Wall Street and our own government? Given what transpired here the only lesson to carry away is this one: You can go hunting and be loaded for bear but if you’re working blind you’ll never know whether you’ll hit your mark.

If I had a do-over I think I’d just buy some lottery tickets and try winning enough to pay for the trip. Either that or I’d spend most of my poem appealing to Euterpe and let sibling rivalry determine the contest’s outcome.

UPDATE 5/26/2012:  I received an email from Betsy Jaffe, Director of Public Relations for InfoComm International after my original posting. She directly addressed some of my concerns, and I will selectively quote from her email:

“It was a very popular contest, with more than 100 qualified entries.  The five-person judging panel had a difficult time choosing a clear winner because of the large number of excellent entries. The panel included representatives from the marketing and expositions department, and contained both male and female judges. Each poem was ranked on a scale of one through five. A sixth tie-breaking judge was identified in advance.

While I know that it must be terribly disappointing not to win this time, know that poetry is a subjective art and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.

It was our plan to run a “Best of the Rest” posts (sic) with some of our other favorite entries.  Since you seem angry, I am not sure if it is okay for us to feature your poem.  Kind regards, Betsy”

My response, also selectively quoted:

“I understand that the art of writing is subjective as I’d mentioned in my posting. It just didn’t seem to me that the chosen work hit the mark. Not having information about some of the contest particulars was frustrating. But since you’ve provided that information it helps me to feel that the contest was, indeed, more balanced than I’d believed. I wanted to express my confusion over the results, not anger for failing to win.”  I also gave my permission to run my contest entry if they chose to do so.

I stand corrected in my conclusions, but the tips I gave above are still valid. Any writer entering a contest should carefully prepare and gather as much information as possible before expending their creative effort.

And given that there were five members on this judging panel, I still think I should’ve entreated Euterpe.

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How I Spent My Spring Break

…and no, it wasn’t a trip to the beach.

I’ve been a diabetic for nearly twenty years; at least, that’s when I was first diagnosed with this damnable disease. I spent the first 12 years or so in denial. After all, I didn’t feel as if anything was wrong so why should I care about my blood glucose levels? I was given meds by the doctor, which I dutifully took while eating what I damn well pleased and didn’t keep close tabs on my health. The type and variety of meds I was prescribed increased, and insulin was eventually added to the mix. I continued my carefree denial and life was otherwise good.

That all changed on a business trip in the fall of 2003, when I awoke thousands of miles from home with most of the vision obscured in my left eye. I contacted my ophthalmologist and made an appointment for my return. The diagnosis was that the blood vessels in my retina had weakened and begun to leak blood into my eye. After several months when the vision cleared enough, laser surgeries were performed from outside the eye to seal those blood vessels. When I was finally confronted by the effects of diabetes I got religion. I started eating right, tracked my blood glucose, and tried taking better care of myself.

In the nearly nine years since then my body has suffered an ongoing series of indignities. Blood leakage in both eyes eventually led to more laser surgeries and finally two vitrectomies that saved my vision.  I had gastric bypass surgery almost four years ago in an attempt to halt the diabetes in its tracks. It failed to do so but reduced my dependence on meds and made the glucose easier to control. (I also lost 90 pounds.) Several years back I discovered that I’d had minor heart muscle damage when my LAD artery was found to be collapsed in two places and narrowed in another. After two stents and an angioplasty I’d beaten the Widowmaker.  Life was good again, but I always wondered what was lying in wait for me.

I found out in March. I returned to my cardiologist when some of my pre-stent symptoms returned. He scheduled a heart cath to see what the problem was. I checked into the hospital with no particular worries—I’d been through this before and it wasn’t a big deal, right? Afterward while I was still groggy the cardiologist talked with me about the results. Both the front and rear arteries to my heart were blocked 90 – 95% at their junctions. He said he was referring me to a heart surgeon for a bypass, and then he quickly bowed out and left me alone with my thoughts. A bypass? Wasn’t that where they cracked your chest wide open and worked directly on the heart? That was the one thing I’d heard about over the years that really made me nervous. The surgeon finally arrived and talked with me about what I’d face. He told me he’d needed the same procedure himself three years earlier. He told me that the first eight days would be rough but things would quickly get better. He then said he was back in the O.R. performing surgeries three weeks later.  His staff wanted to schedule the operation for the following week, less than five days away, but I had it scheduled for nearly two weeks out. I had a number of things to do and I needed to do them quickly. They were skeptical but agreed to my timetable.

The first thing I did was to make a will. I’d put it off for years, but after doing it I was finally at peace. I knew that things probably wouldn’t go exactly according to my wishes even with a will, but I’d done my best.  I consulted with several good friends to get things lined up that needed done, and made arrangements to board my dogs for the week or so I’d be in the hospital. And just in case the worst happened, I spent some time writing a statement I’d want read aloud at my funeral and even picked out some music for the ceremony.  Did I ever mention there are times I can be anal-retentive?

I spent time having a number of tests done before my admittal to the hospital, and checked in on Thursday for my 7 a.m. surgery the next morning, on Good Friday. You read that right—and these circumstances led to several good one liners from friends and co-workers about that one.

“Good Friday? You know what happened to Jesus!”

“Just don’t let them spread your arms out when they get you on the table.”

“Let’s hope the surgeon’s sober at 7 a.m. that morning.”

I added to the last one, “And that his Tourette’s is under control.” This is a good place to mention how important it is to keep a sense of humor when you’re faced with serious situations. Mine tends toward Black Comedy, with a good sense of the morbid thrown in, but whatever your style you should always try to find the lighter side.

Good Friday 2012, 5:20 a.m. I’d managed to sleep fairly well and was awakened for my prep. Soon I was wheeled down to the surgery waiting room where I was joined briefly by my friends Jim and Dawn. I’d already been given a sedative and I was a bit anxious—where was the surgeon? I’d talked with the anesthesiologist and a number of nurses but really wanted to see the guy with the knife. He finally came in and we talked briefly (I guess; I was already half-sedated and I don’t remember much of it). After Jim took a picture of me in the bed with both thumbs raised high, I was wheeled into surgery.

What followed was nearly two days of “blurry.” I knew that I’d have a breathing tube shoved down my throat and that concerned me. I have a horrible gag reflex and could see myself being very uncomfortable. A nurse had told me not to worry. “You’ll be hooked up to all kinds of sensors. They’ll know if something’s wrong. If you move in bed they’ll know, and they’ll be watching you closely for the first twenty-four hours.” And so I awoke after surgery, arms strapped down and unable to open my eyes, with a tube down my throat. I heard a reassuring male voice and I clacked my teeth against the tube.

“You want some ice? I’m sorry but you can’t have any just yet because of the tube.” I could move my legs, so I thrashed them a bit to set off the sensors I’d been told about. Fade out…I was probably given more morphine. I awakened later, same drill. Clacked my teeth, was told no ice, and this time I shook my head back and forth. “Ah, you want the tube out.” I nodded. “I’m sorry, but it has to stay in a bit longer.” I thrashed my legs a little, faded out. The next thing I remember was a voice saying, “I’m pulling the tube, cough while I do it.” I did and the tube was out. I was finally given ice to crunch on, and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

The day after the operation I received bad news. A chest X-ray to check on the healing process showed cloudiness where my left lung should have been. I was bleeding internally which was making breathing difficult and painful. The blood needed to be drained off. I was directed to sit on the edge of the bed with my head and arms thrown over the tray table. I was first given more morphine, and then an aspirating needle was inserted through my back into my chest cavity. The effort was unsuccessful so we went to the next step.  The doctor administered a “nerve block” as the area where they would insert the tube had lots of nerves in it. Then he cut a hole in my side and inserted a tube between two ribs into my chest cavity. I’m told that a liter and a half of blood came out, and I think a lot of it ended up on the bed. He kept telling me I’d feel a lot better when the blood was drained off, but instead of relief I got new pain from the end of the tube being inside my chest cavity. It eased after a bit but bothered me a lot depending on how I positioned myself.

The next day I was transferred to a “step down” unit, or a room in a regular part of the hospital with less than one-on-one attention. At least the room was a single, and the door could be closed to block out some of the noise. You see, outside the room was a door to an adjoining hallway, which led to a wing that was undergoing construction. There was a constant banging from that door as well as a constant flow of noise and chatter from the floor itself.

That constant flow of noise coupled with the near-constant morphine injections created what I call “morphine nightmares.” Imagine this: you have a recording device (computer, digital audio recorder, whatever) that has a capacity of five seconds. You start recording and, when the five-second limit is reached, recording stops and the audio plays back in a loop. Every few loops it records a few more seconds of fresh audio, replacing part of the audio you’ve been listening to with new sounds. Meanwhile you’re left nodding in-and-out of consciousness while listening to this symphony of noise in your head. Oh, and you feel nauseous from the morphine. I mentioned the nausea to a nurse who told me she could give me something for the nausea, but they could only give it every eight hours while they administered the morphine every six hours. So there’s a built-in period where you’ll feel sick no matter what you do. Fortunately after a few days the morphine became less necessary and finally stopped altogether. What blew me away was the realization that there are some people who pay big money to achieve this type of high illegally. I now know I’d never be a druggie. I believe I’m allergic to them. In fact, when I left the hospital I was given a prescription for Percocet and I shredded it.

For the past few weeks I’ve been recuperating at home. I had some visits both in-hospital and at home from friends and co-workers who also brought food to my home so I wouldn’t have to cook. I started a course of cardiac rehab, where you exercise under medical supervision and a heart monitor. My biggest problem has been fatigue. In the beginning I got winded fairly easily and had to fight for air. It’s slowly getting better but it will be a few weeks before I can go back to work.  It’s given me lots of quality time with the dogs and enabled me to write. In all, it’s not the kind of spring break I’d have chosen for myself but I’m thankful for the time to slow down and appreciate life. A now-retired co-worker and friend left this message on my Facebook page: “Good to know you got through the surgery good. You get a new future.” That was a heavy thought…and I’ve had some time to figure out the implications. I’ve just had another birthday and I almost didn’t make it. I’m thankful I listened to what my body was telling me–and I’d encourage every reader of this blog to spend more time listening to your bodies. Someday that time spent might save your life.


Filed under Life

The ‘Occupy’ Movement: Rebels Without a Clue?

Mildred: “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

This protestor must be a computer geek.

Protest Sign for the Modern Computer Geek. From

Johnny: “Whadda you got?”

-Exchange between two characters from the movie The Wild One, 1953, with Marlon Brando

I’m classified as a late-stage baby boomer, having been born in the late 1950’s. During the decisive and divisive decade of the 1960’s I was a snot-nosed school kid; the most important crisis of my life was when our TV died and it took weeks before Mom could afford to replace a bad tube. (No, not the tube you looked at—one of several tubes inside the box that generated heat and helped make the picture.) The country was embroiled in Vietnam. JFK, MLK and RFK were assassinated, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. Back then it was common for young people to stage protest marches, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience to make a point about something. The war, equal rights, poverty, injustice, or political misconduct—it didn’t matter. Everything seemed fair game and it was all done to a rocking soundtrack. The evening news was filled with stark images: soldiers on the front lines; water cannons deployed against civil rights marchers, and students shot by National Guardsmen at Bowling Green University in Ohio. As a kid I soaked it all in but much of it didn’t make sense. The only thing that solidly connected was the certainty that I would be drafted by my Government to fight for them when I turned 18. I didn’t want to die so I prayed every night for the abolishment of the draft, protection for our soldiers, and an end to war. It’s a shame that any kid who hasn’t reached the age of 12 had to pray every night about death and dying but it’s what I did.

Years passed, Vietnam ended, and the draft was abolished for a window of time. America sailed through the disco years and into the prosperity and growth of the eighties. Everything was okey-dokey, at least on the surface. There were societal issues that needed to be dealt with but we were caught up in a capitalistic furor. Go to college, get a great job, make lots of money to buy stuff, and grab a piece of the American dream. I remember reading a magazine article back then by someone decrying the flaccidness of our youth’s resolve to change the world. “No one has a cause to fight for anymore. All they care about is money.” The piece was probably written by an ex-hippie protestnik remembering the golden age of social activism. I remember thinking that, perhaps, that time had passed and the role of the mass protest had become unnecessary. In actuality capitalism and the acquisition of worldly goods lulled us to sleep. Meanwhile a lot of Very Bad Things were going on behind the scenes, and crimes against the citizens of this country went unchecked. Our political process, which was never very clean or honorable, had long ago yielded itself to corruption.

Suddenly we found ourselves in the new millennium and realized that things had gone to Hell. America was attacked in grand Hollywood style on September 11, 2001. We found ourselves involved in multiple wars and losing our individual rights and freedoms on a daily basis in the name of security. Rich corporations received massive tax relief for years in order to “build the job market,” and did just that—for foreign countries. They’d started shipping American jobs overseas to save themselves money in the nineties, but really ramped up their efforts during the past decade.  Many local economies were devastated as towns whose residents supported the steel mill, auto plant, or multinational shipping conglomerate saw those businesses close with no jobs to replace those that were lost. Then we discovered that the financial institutions—the ones the government had failed to properly oversee—had perpetrated several types of shell games using our money and our economy nearly went under, wiping out many families’ finances and future retirement plans.

The citizens of our fine country suddenly found themselves totally screwed by those who were supposed to represent and protect them, and helpless when they tried to express their anger. Politicians didn’t seem to listen or care about anything except their own jobs and keeping the ‘other party’ at a disadvantage. Some bright people decided they’d had enough and marched on Wall Street to denounce corporate greed, the lack of jobs, homelessness…in fact, everything that had been repressed for years came rushing out in a torrent.  That movement became “Occupy Wall Street” and gained strength over a few weeks to encompass protests across the country.  Despite the best intentions of these people to have peaceful demonstrations, local police ratcheted up the tension by employing tear gas and pepper spray, then used force to shed blood and hauled hundreds of them away to jail. The protester’s resolve was unbroken. When told they couldn’t use electronic amplification, they created ‘human P.A. systems’ by having crowds loudly repeat what a speaker said for the benefit of all. They set up mobile food kitchens, portable Internet hotspots, bathroom facilities, and extensively used social networks to organize the faithful. There’s no doubt that they’re determined and dedicated to their goal of making the voice of the people heard.

But many people are asking: “If everyone’s shouting different things, can they really make a difference?”  Part of the problem is that we’ve been silent for so long that a lot of things have turned sour. And, unfortunately, many of those things are inter-related. People can’t get needed assistance after natural disasters because funds were bled dry by numerous calamities this year, and the cost of ongoing warfare in multiple theaters of combat as well as a divided Congress hampers their replenishment.  The job market sucks because the economy nearly collapsed from the corruption of Wall Street insiders who weren’t properly overseen by the government due to its own corruption and incompetence.  Got that? How can you attack any one of those points without attacking the others? How can you fix jobs without fixing the economy, and how can you fix the economy if the government can’t be trusted to ensure that the companies manipulating the economy are honest? It’s a rabbit hole that Alice couldn’t tackle without major chemical assistance.

The other problem is that our fledgling young protesters don’t seem to know how to affect social changes of this magnitude, any more than the youth of the sixties did when they began their journey. Back then they had to flex their muscles, find their voice, and experiment to find the best way(s) to express their views. Today’s youth are no different. They’re like Neo who, after being freed from his pod in The Matrix asks Morpheus, “Why do my eyes hurt?”

His answer was simple: “You’ve never used them before.”

The Occupy movement is in the chrysalis stage—it’s well on its way to becoming a mature force to reckon with. For now it’s stretching, flexing, reaching out to test the capabilities and power within its grasp. The list of its demands seems way too broad and unfocused but they’re quickly learning to prioritize. The ways of the original sixties protestniks are well documented—both good and bad—and widely available through the web, and you can bet they’re soaking in everything they can learn.

As of this writing things have quieted. Occasional protests sporadically occur but as winter settles in the Occupiers appear to have lost their will to fight.  Appearances are deceiving. Kalle Lasn, who conceived Occupy Wall Street, was quoted in Rolling Stone’s January 5, 2012 issue as saying, “The first phase was wonderful, it was leaderless, it was demandless, it inspired millions of young people to get politically engaged. Now we’re moving into another phase. … But the really interesting stuff will start happening next spring.” For these tech- and internet-savvy protesters I’m sure it will be a busy winter as they research, plan, and organize for next year.

I’m happy that people are finally getting off their butts and making their voices heard. We’ve all witnessed the changes that began with the so-called “Arab spring” and I’m sure many are drawing inspiration from the Middle East events of the past year. However, the government has heard the voices of its citizens in the past year and, to be honest, I’m not sure they care. Congress seems fixated on fiddling while the country figuratively burns. Not even the Republican candidates for next year’s election seem to get it. Newt Gingrich’s statement during a recent debate was particularly telling:

“All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we all owe them everything. They take over a public park they didn’t pay for. To go nearby to use bathrooms they didn’t pay for. To beg for food from places they don’t want to pay for.  To obstruct those who are going to work to pay the taxes to sustain the bathrooms and to sustain the park, so they can self-righteously explain that they are the paragons of virtue to which we owe everything. Now that is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country, and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.””

Never mind that the Occupiers are meeting on public property for which they were paying their share with their tax money when they had jobs, or that the message wasn’t “You owe us jobs” but “You owe us accountability for your screw-ups and you’re obligated to responsibly manage our country and our assets.”  Gingrich’s response is similar in spirit to that of Chinese Emperor Hui of Jin, recounted in the Zizhi Tongjian. When the Emperor was told that his subjects didn’t have enough rice to eat he replied, “Why don’t they eat meat?”  The protests in the Middle East began peacefully but when the respective governments employed violence against their protesters, those protesters retaliated in kind.

The thing I fear most is the increase of violence on both sides in this country. Some may say, “This is the United States of America; that’ll never happen.” I don’t think there’s another way this can play out, especially when our Government simply refuses to get the point. If non-violence doesn’t work escalation is the logical result. Violence has become an integral part of the overseas protests, just as it did here in the sixties. People aren’t stupid and they realize that terrorist methods get an immediate response. One or two nutjobs operating completely outside the actual movement could kick the whole thing off while using the movement as a cover. Everything quickly escalates and gets ugly; bloodshed on our own soil becomes rampant; protestors and their sympathizers get branded as domestic terrorists. Then if President Obama signs the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 as he’s promised to do, the Government could “go Guantanamo” on anyone it brands as a domestic terrorist and can make them disappear without a trace.

The anger and frustration in the air seems physical, palpable; it’s as though you could grab a handful if you simply reached for it. Perhaps things will settle down over the winter, or maybe they’ll boil over as the buffoons in Washington continue playing their brinksmanship games.  All I know is this: 2012 will prove to be a most interesting year. I’m grabbing a good seat right now to enjoy the show—how about you?

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Filed under IMHO