Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hurling Day cancelled?

For a change, I woke up to some good news. The Republicans lost a special election in New York state, the one to fill the seat vacated by the sudden resignation of Congress critter Chris Lee following his exposure as a Craigslist-trolling sleazoid, so maybe their plans for Hurling Day have been put on hold for awhile.

Hurling Day, as the S.O. reminded me yesterday, was the occasion when elderly dinosaurs hit the age (72) when they were considered past their sell-by date and were ritually hurled into the tar pits.

The woman who won the election, the Democratic candidate, isn't exactly a flaming liberal -- not surprisingly, given what a solidly conservative district it is, she gives every sign of a natural alignment  with the corporatist Blue Dogs in Congress, except she's not quite as openly willing to toss old people over a cliff as some of them, and she was also smart enough to claim she's not as evil as the Republicans. And that's what got her elected -- the willingness to say no to Hurling Day.

I do find myself wondering just when politicians will be able to grasp reality and approach the Medicare and Medicaid problems without getting bogged down in sound bites and fantasies. Because the naked truth is there is a problem, and it's growing: the proportion of the population who are the frail elderly, the octogenarians, nonarians, and geezers heading into their second century, is expanding, not shrinking. We've got more and more people living into their 90s and, let's face it, overall they're not a particularly healthy bunch. The geezers you see climbing mountains or going surfing are the exceptions, not the rule. Far more typical are the nonagerians who are frail and suffering from a multitude of chronic conditions: arthritis, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer's. . . another sad truth is that the longer a person lives, the more likely it is he or she is going to slide over into dementia. It's all very well for politicians to bloviate about forcing people to retire later, but just how late in life can they realistically expect anyone to keep working? Even Walmart doesn't want 95-year-old greeters who are so frail from osteoporosis that a sneeze can crack a rib.

I lump Medicaid in with Medicare because it, too, has financial woes caused by an aging population. Medicaid is generally thought of as the welfare program that pays medical bills for the poor, i.e., those useless slackers on the dole. What most people don't realize is Medicaid is increasingly the program people rely on to pick up the tab for Grandma's nursing home care. Republicans have done a lot of talking about cutting the program -- I wonder how many of them have considered the backlash that's going to hit when more and more families get told to come pick up Gramps, he's being booted out of the nursing home for nonpayment? The alternative to Medicaid could be a hospital bed in an adult child's living room, which is definitely not a happy prospect for anyone.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Adventures in bureaucracy

I've finally moved, at least in cyberspace. Back in July 2009, shortly after Large Nameless Agency acquired a new Director, a re-organization was announced. As part of the effort to get rid of the cooties left by the previous administration, a great reshuffling would occur, various centers and divisions would vanish in the name of efficiency (and, not coincidentally, provide an excuse to jettison upper-level management that had been cronies of the old Director)(for awhile the standing joke at staff meetings was "What Center director got fired this week?"), and it would all be done quickly.

Those of us working at the sort of job I have (i.e., anyone below a GS-13, you know, the people who do the actual work at the agency) were told no worries, the changes will be mostly on paper, the work won't change, and you won't physically have to go anywhere. The only thing that will change, and it will happen soon, is that you'll notice your electronic address, the part of your email identity that tells recipients who you are, will reflect the new reality. Pshaw. In true bureaucratic fashion, it took many, many months for my identity to switch from MyName(LNA/CenterWithinLNA/Division/Branch) to MyName(LNA/MysteryAbbreviation/NoLongerExistentCenter). That identity, we were told, was a placeholder. We were told what the Mystery Abbreviation stood for, but no one had a clue what it did (if anything) or why our old center was still showing up if it had been eliminated. 

Well, the permanent change has finally occurred, a mere 21 months after it was first announced it would happen. I noticed not long ago that I am now MyName(LNA/NewDivision/NewCenter). Oddly enough, though, only one other person in my work group is showing that new address in emails; everyone else is still stuck in the placeholder. Bureaucracies definitely move in mysterious ways.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trips down memory lane

I started working on a new quilt recently -- it's a scrap pattern ("Summer Breeze," aka the month of June in the 2010 Better Homes and Gardens Quilting Calendar; I'm using brighter prints and a darker solid than the ones shown in the photo from the pattern book) and takes a zillion* 2-inch squares in a variety of colors. What ties it together, obviously, are the solid blue blocks (each of the big ones is actually 4 pieces). I've been going through my fabric stash, which consists of scraps left from past projects as well as yard goods and  remnants that either I or my aunt Thelma purchased. (My aunt Thelma was a great one for hitting the sales tables in fabric stores; I have her to thank for my shopping bags), and various articles of clothing that I saved because I thought the material could be recycled into something else at some point in the future. (That's where the union label came from last week, from what was left of a polka dot cotton mini dress circa 1970.)

I do not have a super huge fabric stash -- only 15 or so 32-qt. Sterlite containers, so it all fits in one closet (I know people who need rather large rooms to accommodate their yard goods stash) -- and I try not to add to it. I also tend to do "scrap patterns" for many projects in the apparently vain hope of reducing its size (the levels in the containers never seem to drop very much). So why am I still finding pieces of fabric that I know are getting close to (if they were people) being eligible for membership in AARP? The dress I could halfway understand -- there was some tiny irrational part of my brain that didn't want to cut into it because who knows, maybe a miracle would occur and I'd wake up some morning to discover I was the same size I'd been back during the Nixon administration. Every woman has a garment of some sort that she refuses to give up -- a dress, a favorite pair of jeans, a swimsuit -- because, as God is her witness, someday she's going to fit into it again. But scraps from dresses that were made for my now 41-year-old daughter when she was in kindergarten? Just how many scrap quilts does a person have to make before every last piece of usable scrap material is gone from the stash? It's a mystery. . .

[*In this case, a zillion equals 936 2-inch print squares, 100 2-1/2 inch print squares for the border, and a couple hundred pieces of unbleached muslin in various shapes and sizes.]

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pulitzer Project: The Late George Apley

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. -- Henry David Thoreau
The Late George Apley, which won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for best novel, takes satirical aim at upper-crust Boston by profiling a character who embodies Back Bay Brahmins at their most convention-bound and stuffiest. The novel is written in the form of a memoir, a remembrance of the late George Apley being assembled by a long-time friend of the deceased who also happens to be a writer. The writer's task is to put together a history of George's life using materials provided by his son: letters to and from George, beginning with brief notes he wrote to his parents as a child in the 1870s and continuing right up until just before his death in 1933. The writer's purported goal is to paint a portrait of George Apley that will show him as the wonderful person he was: kind, thoughtful, a good friend, a loving husband and father, a pillar of the community. What emerges instead is a man trapped by convention, stifled in a loveless marriage, scorned by his father as a mediocrity, and ignored and laughed at by his children. 

As the scion of a wealthy Boston family, one whose fortune was made through shipping back before the slave trade became illegal and then diversified into textile mills, poor George follows a highly predictable path: a private grammar school and then Harvard, because there have always been Apleys at Harvard. His father suggests various clubs and charities that George should become involved with, and George allows himself to be steered that way. The few times George comes close to deviating from his expected path, like when he begins seeing an Irish girl from a working class family, his parents intervene. They do the classic rich person's escape route: ship the poor sap off to Europe for a few months and hope he forgets her.

George does what he's told, returns home, marries a girl from his own social set, and goes from having his parents run his life to having his wife call the shots. He does everything he's supposed to do, including starting a collection of antique Chinese bronzes -- not because he likes them (he admits some are remarkably ugly), but because he's got to collect something that can be donated to a museum in the Apley name when George finally shuffles off this mortal coil. The bronzes don't qualify as a fun hobby analogous to a poorer person's baseball cards or souvenir spoons; they're a burden, an obligation that comes with having money.

In fact, everything poor George does he seems to do not because he wants to, but because he's expected to. He really is the embodiment of "quiet desperation." The few times he does seem about to find an escape, his wife steps in to make sure he remains stifled. (He buys an island in Maine to use as a hunting camp that will be "just the fellows," but in short order his wife and his sister push their way in and turn it into something that sounded suspiciously close to Baptist Bible camp, right down to reveille and prayers at 6 a.m. and no booze or tobacco allowed). 

Fortunately for the reader, however, Marquand has a deft touch with words so while poor George is suffering, the reader is snickering at images such as George panicking when he learns his adult daughter and a male companion stopped at a roadhouse, a speakeasy frequented by -- horrors! -- stenographers. He's convinced she'll be ruined for life, that no man will ever want to marry her -- and that is the important thing, that she marry someone from her own social set and carry on in Brahmin society the way Apleys have for generations. (The daughter has different ideas.) He worries about his son spending too much time in New York, because everyone knows New York is one step away from Sodom and Gomorrah and life there could ruin the young Apley for Boston society.

The Late George Apley is a book that some readers might have trouble with. It's almost too easy to read. It's subtle, so an unsophisticated reader could take it at face value and miss the satirical elements. It reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse's jabs at the British upper classes, but where Wodehouse might have pratfalls and broad comedy, Marquand is smoother so the jokes are not as obvious.

The format of this book struck me as an interesting choice, one that gave the writer a lot of freedom to ignore the usual narrative structure of a novel. It was similar to an epistlatory work, but not as formal as most -- and it is much, much better than the one other Pulitzer winner I've read (Gilead) that used a similar technique.
I'm not sure where I'd rank this book in the list of ones I've read so far. It was definitely better than average, but not the best. If I used a 5-star rating system, it would probably get 4 stars.

Next up on the list is The Yearling for 1939. I've already read it, so I'm skipping over it to 1940 and (sometime this summer) The Grapes of Wrath.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bring on the tinfoil hats

I used to blame Reagan for everything, but I think I'm going to switch to a new scapegoat: the Internet. I spent the weekend (as usual) being treated to tinfoil hats on parade in various settings, and it struck me again just what a wonderful job the Internet does of allowing crazy people to share and reinforce their delusions. From fantasies about oil being a continually renewing resource to a weird belief that if you don't like existing laws, you can declare yourself a sovereign citizen, ignore any and all laws you don't particularly like, and do whatever the heck you want without any bad consequences, the Internet seems to provide a wonderful venue for nurturing lunacy.

The oil fantasy is one that bubbles up occasionally, but seems to be gaining traction now that gas prices are getting higher and Americans are being forced to pay more at the pump. In essence, the fantasy is that crude oil is not a fossil fuel but is instead the product of pressures exerted deep within the earth, somewhere down around the core, and thus continually renews itself. Ergo, we can't ever run out, and energy conservation is all just a bizarre plot by socialist-communist-pinko-treehuggers to force us all to "live like Haitians."

I don't know. Based on what I can recall of general science, the semi-liquid stuff that gets created by pressures deep within the earth and forced up towards the surface doesn't bear much of a resemblance to crude oil. To me it's always looked more like the stuff that comes bubbling out of Mt. Kilauea in Hawai'i. You know, lava. Molten rock. Not exactly refinery material. But, from what callers to C-SPAN had to say, apparently whole herds of highly educated geologists are wrong because someone on the Internet has a more appealing idea.

By an odd coincidence, right after hearing the delusional loons blathering about peak oil being a myth, a plot concocted by George Soros and Al Gore to force us happy consumers into a life of self-imposed deprivation, I happened to read an article in Orion magazine about the Alaska pipeline. Turns out the amount of oil in Alaska that had been a veritable flood a couple decades ago is slowing to a trickle. Wells are running dry. Apparently the oil field at Prudhoe Bay hasn't gotten the message that it's supposed to be infinitely renewable. In fact, it appears that one reason there's so much pressure to start drilling on the North Slope where it had been off-limits before (i.e., the wildlife refuge) isn't to add to an existing oil supply, but to make sure there's enough available to go through the pipeline to keep it from rusting. Volume has been steadily dropping, and fairly soon internal corrosion could become a problem.

Then, after hearing tinfoil hat types telling the moderator on C-SPAN that oil is infinite, that evening I was treated to sovereign citizens on "60 Minutes." Just how many brain cells does a person have to lose before he or she slides over into a happy delusional state that has a person believing that if you write stuff using red crayon, it doesn't count? Or that you can make your own license plates and the police will be okay with it? Apparently, thanks again to the Internet, there's a growing community of loons that think they can negate over 200 years of legislation by doing the equivalent of clicking their heels together and thinking of home.

The stupid, it burns.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

We're all going to die

Today's the 4-year anniversary of me starting work at Large Nameless Agency. What have I learned in those four years? 

Well, if there's ever a full-blown outbreak of a killer disease, we should all kiss our collective ass goodbye. By the time LNA manages to come to a conclusion and drafts an action plan after endless rounds of meetings and squabbling over just who gets to tell teams where to go first, the zombie apocalypse will have wiped out all but a handful of hardcore survivalists hunkered down in bunkers. When an agency takes a month to figure out just where to physically assign a new employee because a couple of branch chiefs are getting territorial over who controls a vacant cubicle, it's got a bad case of bureaucratic sclerosis. We have a student intern coming for a 10-week stint this summer, and I swear it's taking longer to secure a work space for her and ensure the necessary tools are in place (e.g., a computer) than she'll spend working for us. It's bizarre.

Then again, I've seen the same thing happen many times in the past 4 years: new employees come in and no one knows where to physically place them -- after you've overheard a few phone conversations where someone is calling around begging for a cubicle, an abandoned monkey cage, a janitor's closet, a space of some sort to park the new guy in, you start to wonder if anyone at LNA ever does any advance planning. Why do they hire people if they don't know what they're going to do with those employees once they're here?

My own experience with LNA should have been a clue that what seemed like initially like an unexpected glitch was in fact standard operating procedure for this outfit: I spent almost a full month in a "temporary" cubicle while the branch chief tried to figure out where to stick me and several other new hires back in 2007. They'd hired us all, knew we were coming, and yet when we arrived, nothing was in place. From the reactions, you'd think it was all a total surprise, like it was unexpectedly raining new employees and they'd had nothing to do with posting the positions or interviewing and then selecting the candidates.  Very, very strange.  Eventually I and two colleagues were told we'd been assigned cubicle space in a building, and that everything was set up and waiting for us there.

We went to check out the new space. You know what we found? Totally empty cubicles. There weren't even chairs. When we asked about chairs, we were told to "go borrow some from a meeting room." When we asked about computers, the answer was "ITSO says they're there." Oh? Then why is the cubicle completely empty? It took another week to get the cubicles set up with computers, and probably another full week to get them working. When we asked about office supplies -- some post it notes, some pens, whatever -- we were each handed three red lead pencils, and that was it.

I don't even want to think about what a mess the human resources office made of getting my accrued leave, existing insurance plan, and other items transferred over from the Park Service. The best way to describe it is to simply say, if there was something they could manage to fuck up, they did.

All things considered, I'm more than a little surprised I'm still here. Maybe it was just a case of the combination of the Atlanta smog, heat, and humidity drained me so much the first few months that I didn't have the energy to think about leaving -- and by the time I did, I'd gotten used to the dysfunctions.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Four years ago today we left Omaha for Atlanta. I'm still missing this house.
I miss working for the Park Service, too, but maybe not quite as much as I miss the old neighborhood. I can always go back to the Park Service as a volunteer, but I know we're never going to live on Whitmore Street again.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Clarke was wrong

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke, 1961

Clarke was wrong, at least in part. If you've never seen a technology before, maybe it's magic. If you've lived with it your entire life, it's invisible. It's become as natural and immutable as the air you breathe or the ground you walk on. It's been black boxed and is ubiquitous to the point where you can't imagine living without it. You don't think at all about what's involved in making a device or what it takes to keep it running -- it's just there, always has been, always will be. You also become incapable of imagining alternatives.

I've been thinking about technology more than usual this weekend. I just finished reading a post-apocalyptic novel in which the author failed to escape the device paradigm, and a fair number of the talking heads on television kept falling back on that same paradigm coupled with technological optimism -- the idea that if we've got a problem, we can always solve it with technological innovations. Can't win the war in Afghanistan? Build more drones. Gas prices too high? We'll just start sucking oil out of shale. What we have is what we have to have, and there's no sense trying to escape that paradigm . . . or so the mindset seems to be.

It's not just novelists and pundits that are so thoroughly embedded in 21st century technology they can't see it anymore. So are survivalists and various back to the land types. I read various survivalist blogs for the fun of it -- some of them can provide a lot of laughs. It's amazing how many people are out there who fear a coming apocalypse, life in a Mad Max- or The Postman-type world, but seem to think "living off the grid" consists of buying a generator, as if there's always going to be a service station where they can go to refill the gas cans.  If they do think about building up their own private stash, I always wonder just how many realize just how quickly petroleum products, particularly gasoline, go bad?

I'm thinking about gasoline in particular this morning thanks in part to The Passage. One of its real howlers, a classic must suspend all disbelief moment, came when the protagonists were salvaging a Humvee from the base at Twenty Nine Palms to use to get to Telluride. Keep in mind those Humvees, their assorted parts, and their fuel have been sitting in a desert for almost 100 years. You know what you call 100-year-old gasoline? Varnish.

Gasoline consists of a mixture of complex hydrocarbons, some of which are highly volatile (which is why gasoline is a fuel, those vaporizing volatiles combust easily). Highly volatile means they evaporate quickly. If the unused gas in your lawn mower goes bad in a few months, what are the odds that the gas in a fuel tank anywhere is still going to be good a century from now? (There is a reason the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is a stash of crude oil; as soon as you start refining petroleum, the various products, like gasoline, start breaking down.) One of my favorite laughable moments in post-apocalyptic fiction, both written and on the screen, occurs when Our Hero/Heroine leaps into a derelict car or truck, a vehicle that's been sitting abandoned on a street or in a garage for multiple years, and fires it right up. The scene they never show occurs a few seconds later when the engine seizes from the bad gas and our Hero/Heroine gets eaten by zombies.

With a few rare exceptions, none of these fictionalized futures ever include nonmotorized transportation, e.g., bicycles. (The more serious, reality-based survivalists do think about bikes; there's been a fair amount of discussion on some blogs about the best choices for a bug-out bicycle.) If novelists and script writers do eliminate the cars, they seem to assume the alternative has hooves and eats oats.

Personally, if I were paranoid enough to think like a survivalist, I'd make sure I had a really good bicycle and the gear that went with it (panniers, for example) to use in a bug out situation. It's a lot harder to get trapped in a traffic jam if you're on two wheels weaving between the cars (or, even better, have escaped the jam by doing back roads and side streets on those two wheels). I'd also be learning to work with tools that were low-tech and had as few hard to replace parts as possible. I'd be memorizing episodes of the Woodwright's Workshop and buying all of Roy Underhill's books while practicing food preservation methods popular before canning was invented, e.g., salting, smoking, and drying meats. Instead of worrying about where to stash my hoard of ammo, I'd focus on mastering an atl atl or using a bolo because sooner or later the bullets are going to run out, and, while reloading is theoretically possible, making your own gunpowder isn't as easy as MacGyver made it look.

I'm not sure just what all I'd hoard. I know what I'd pack to survive for a month or two, but forever? Spare ax handles for sure, because they'd be a pain to have to carve;  a lot of kosher salt (good both for preserving food and slaying zombies); zillions of canning jar lids because they're something where once they're gone, they're gone; and a stash of books I always meant to read but just haven't gotten around to yet -- although I'm not sure even an apocalypse would help me read Ulysses.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book review: The Passage

The Passage: A Novel
I was a little late in getting around to reading The Passage. The book was the must-have beach read this past summer, but I'd vowed when we moved to Atlanta that I'd learn to rely on the local public library instead of subsidizing Borders. Which means getting on waiting lists for really popular books and hoping they get to me eventually, and The Passage did. The question is, was it worth the wait?

What I had heard about the book through word of mouth intrigued me. People that I know who never read vampire or science fiction raved about the book. A few reviewers did slam it as "Twilight meets The Stand," but enthusiasts outnumbered the nay-sayers.

Well, I must say the nay-sayers were wrong. It's not Twilight meets The Stand. It's The Stand meets Resident Evil with maybe a little bit of Fire Starter thrown in for good measure. Cronin does a really, really nice job of channeling Stephen King and video games. Had this novel been published by a more obviously genre publisher like TOR or DAW instead of Ballantine, the reaction would have been a tad more muted, i.e., "competent reworking of an old theme" or "formulaic post-apocalyptic potboiler." As it was, the author's previous works had not been trapped in the speculative fiction ghetto; they'd been mainstream, so this novel was treated as Serious Writing for Adults.

Pshaw. The Passage is not serious writing, at least not in the sense of mainstream novel writing. It's well-written, it's fun, it's escapist, but it's also derivative, formulaic, and contains its fair share of howlers, like the usual finding gasoline that's decades old and having it still be usable.* Cronin's work is a lot closer to Michael Crichton in spirit and execution than it is to anything by writers such as Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie. Cronin treads paths that have been traveled so many times before that they've become metaphorical expressways: the killer virus that escapes the lab, the evil military-industrial complex that wants to weaponize an idealistic scientist's work, the ever-popular "this is what happens when scientists play God" meme, the classic Good defeats Evil (and why does Evil always want to hang out in Las Vegas?). . . I'm not sure just how many authors have mined this particular vein before, but I do know you could fill a pretty goodsized convention hall with them all. It's not a bad book, it's actually quite good if you're looking for escapist reading, some mind candy with which to fritter away some time you would otherwise have spent vacuuming or watching Oprah, but it really did leave me wondering what all the fuss was about.   

Maybe the best way to describe the book would be say that Cronin is good, but he's not great. He's competent, he can string words together in a way that makes sense and flows smoothly, but he lacks the artistry of writers such as Rushdie. Maybe he'll grow into it -- or maybe he'll figure out he's created the ultimate retirement plan, a best-selling novel that's part of a trilogy (guaranteed sales for the sequels) and is also on its way to becoming a movie (supposedly being directed by the guy who directed "Cloverfield," which does not raise much hope for it being any good), so he can say goodbye to teaching snot-nosed undergraduates and kick back by a pool in Santa Barbara. 

[*I loved the sweet little old lady making paper by mixing sawdust and water. I couldn't help wondering just where the heck had she been getting sawdust from for 80 years when the settlement is described as not having had any new construction done in decades. Besides, they were still scavenging shopping malls for shoes and clothes; why didn't she just hit a Staples and stock up on notebook paper and 3-ring binders?]

Friday, May 6, 2011

Amazing events

That rarest of rare events happened at work this week:  someone got fired.

Yesterday she was there, today she's gone, and it's like she never existed:  her former cubicle stripped of anything that might have indicated it was once occupied and her presence so swiftly purged from Large Nameless Agency that her name vanished from the on-line employee directory almost as soon as the elevator doors closed behind her.

Granted, she was a contractor, not a direct employee, and contractors are much, much easier to purge than permanent federal employees, but even so. . . someone got fired. I have been observing contractors sitting on their collective ass doing as little work as humanly possible, milking contracts for many months past when a project was supposed to be done, since I started at Large Nameless Agency -- and this is the first time I've seen one shown the door. I am astounded.

I am, of course, conflicted. On the one hand, I do feel some twinges of sympathy for any poor sap who ends up terminated for cause in today's economy: jobs are close to impossible to get even when you've got stellar references and job hunt by choice, so I do find myself hoping she's got a safety net of some sort to fall back on (like a relative with an empty guest room) because she just went from having a pretty decent income to having none -- when you get fired for cause (and she apparently did; she allegedly lied to the project manager), you can't collect unemployment compensation.

On the other hand, I've been watching her take a project that could have been done in a month and stretch it out over almost two years, so mostly what I'm thinking is, "It's about damn time."

Already burnt out

This bumper sticker was in the mail yesterday, along with the usual "please send money" letter.

The general election is 18 months away. Eighteen months! If I'm sick of hearing about it already and I used to be kind of a political junkie, how thoroughly turned off is the average voter going to be?

You know what really annoys me? Everything that happens, no matter how momentous or trivial, gets passed through the media filter of "will this help or hurt [insert candidate's name here] get elected?" Whacking bin Ladn is the latest event to be parsed solely in terms of "what's the effect going to be on the general election?," but it's hardly unique. And it started, I swear, about 2 seconds after the votes were counted after the last election. Apparently no one runs for office these days with any intention of actually governing -- they all run for office so they can run for office ad infinitum. The campaigning and the spinning never stops.